‘Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know…’

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Albertine going over, Clematis coming out, 20 June
England, in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

After writing here only  a couple of weeks ago that I  never want to read Shelley, I found myself stopping at this poem this morning.  I don’t think I’ve read it since I was an undergraduate and can’t remember reading it at all, yet it is one of those poems that has passed into my consciousness – I seem to know it. Yet the anger arrested me, perhaps because I already have it in me. Not many poems are angry. Or rather, I do not read many angry poems. Yesterday I read a lot of poems by Denise Levertov that were angry about the Vietnam war. Most war poems are angry. For me, poems about social injustice do not seem to work, they become trite, you get propaganda or party lines.  But today Shelley’s spitting anger seems  the right feeling.

Like many people I cannot get the Grenfell Tower tragedy out of my head.  I recommend listening  to Sir Michael Marmot on  yesterday’s Radio 4 Start The Week. Marmot talks about  life expectancy in Kensington: the difference between the wealthy south of  the borough and the impoverished north is 14 years for men. The average income for the borough is  £125,000 but for  half of the  population it is below £35,000. All kinds of problems, social, physical, and mental follow these stats. Marmot says, just because we have the NHS offering treatment doesn’t mean that is the right way to go about things. In the case of a fire, we’d say, not we have to treat the results of fire, but we have to prevent fires. The same is true for heart attacks and mental illness.

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tvj71#play    (from about 12 minutes in)

Yes, I want a new world. I believe that new world starts with education, not simply for the poor children of Kensington, but also for the apparently well-educated people who make the decisions about the £5000 saving on the flammable tower coverings. The Marmot Review  (2010) called for us to act in 6 domains simultaneously in order to  help close the inequalities gap. Those domains are

1. giving every child the best start in life

2. enabling all children, young people and adults to maximize their capabilities through education and lifelong learning and have control over their lives

3. creating fair employment and good work for all

4. ensuring a healthy standard of living for all

5. creating and developing sustainable places and communities

6. strengthening the role and impact of ill-health prevention.

What does the poem say? It says everything’s broken, the instituitions (state, people, army , church,  parliament)  it’s all disgusting, corrupt, dead. It says I’m sick of it all.  It says, something may happen to change that, some glorious phantom may burst forth… but, at this point I stop reading.  I don’t believe in that phantom. (And perhaps neither does Shelley, otherwise, why call it a phantom?)

So, back to work. I’m working on the second  (and the fifth, and the sixth) of Marmot’s recommendations and must get back to it.

 

 

 

Silas Marner Day 18 : Acting on the Better Will

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Lilies golden light 19 June

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter IX, and first notice how carefully I need to read this account of Squire Cass. It would be easy to read what you think is there rather than what George Eliot really wants us to see. The Squire is

a tall, stout man of sixty, with a face in which the knit brow and rather hard glance seemed contradicted by the slack and feeble mouth. His person showed marks of habitual neglect, his dress was slovenly; and yet there was something in the presence of the old Squire distinguishable from that of the ordinary farmers in the parish, who were perhaps every whit as refined as he, but, having slouched their way through life with a consciousness of being in the vicinity of their “betters”, wanted that self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage which belonged to a man who thought of superiors as remote existences with whom he had personally little more to do than with America or the stars. The Squire had been used to parish homage all his life, used to the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best; and as he never associated with any gentry higher than himself, his opinion was not disturbed by comparison.

My first glance reading seemed to say – ‘there was something about him’ despite his slovenly dress etc. But when I reread I saw that really there was nothing about him except ‘self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage’. I stopped for a while to think about this. The ordinary farmers were just as ‘good’ as Cass – ‘every whit as refined as he’, which is a joke because he is not  very refined at all, and neither are the other farmers… it’s just that Cass comes with a self-belief grown by  generations of  entitlement –  ‘the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best’. And it’s a hierarchy that stops at himself, too, because Cass never meets anyone above him … so he is always top dog in his own world. That’s what’s coming in the room with him, despite his slovenly clothes and ‘slack and feeble mouth’.

On I read…Squire Cass gets annoyed about the loss of the horse, loss of the money, and berates himself for being ‘too good a  father.’

Godfrey was silent. He was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments, but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness, and had had a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will.

I wonder where the thought ‘he was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments’ comes from? Not from Godfrey Cass himself,  from George Eliot then, from the narrator of this story. The George Eliot voice is also inside Godfrey, knowing his thoughts, as well as judging him from a more external point of view. So the sentence continues  ‘but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness’. Not only that, he had ‘a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will’. This is really interesting to me because I am interested in learning how people change. The language here, of not knowing, but somehow sensing or feeling or knowing vaguely, points to a  kind of unknown knowledge that might be in a person – a clue to being happier?  Because the morality here – ‘errant weakness/better will’ – is not morality for its own sake. Godfrey Cass is not a happy man. Being good might be good for him.

Godfrey left the room, hardly knowing whether he were more relieved by the sense that the interview was ended without having made any change in his position, or more uneasy that he had entangled himself still further in prevarication and deceit. What had passed about his proposing to Nancy had raised a new alarm, lest by some after-dinner words of his father’s to Mr. Lammeter he should be thrown into the embarrassment of being obliged absolutely to decline her when she seemed to be within his reach. He fled to his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences– perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence. And in this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called specially old-fashioned. Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in. Let even a polished man of these days get into a position he is ashamed to avow, and his mind will be bent on all the possible issues that may deliver him from the calculable results of that position. Let him live outside his income, or shirk the resolute honest work that brings wages, and he will presently find himself dreaming of a possible benefactor, a possible simpleton who may be cajoled into using his interest, a possible state of mind in some possible person not yet forthcoming. Let him neglect the responsibilities of his office, and he will inevitably anchor himself on the chance that the thing left undone may turn out not to be of the supposed importance. Let him betray his friend’s confidence, and he will adore that same cunning complexity called Chance, which gives him the hope that his friend will never know. Let him forsake a decent craft that he may pursue the gentilities of a profession to which nature never called him, and his religion will infallibly be the worship of blessed Chance, which he will believe in as the mighty creator of success. The evil principle deprecated in that religion is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.

Interesting that chance is so set up against law – any law? ‘Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’ is the difference about sticking true to some belief, not so much what the belief is? But the ultimate law for George Eliot here, is the law of consequences in human action,’the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.’

In the religion of chance there is no such law – one hopes for a lucky break. But in the religion of consequences, you know that if you do x, then y will follow.  The sense of the  consequence following – pursuing  – Godfrey is getting a bit frightening. Is his sense of self-worth strong enough to make him take action?

Thinking of the way Godfrey has been brought up by Squire Cass, partly bullied, partly over-indulged. Thinking of the potential good that there might be in Godfrey and which he himself senses.  After all, many men would not have married the alcoholic woman he (presumably) got pregnant. He married her out of ‘compunction’.  That compunction may be a form of  weakness and an attempt to halt the process whereby ‘the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’. Compunction is an  interesting word –  being sharply pricked  – being hurt by remorse… I wonder what  a person like Godfrey, with some sense of  ‘could do better’ – can do to change? and is that going to be possible?  What would need to be in place? Is the pain of compunction what is needed,  or the discipline he somehow vaguely longs for but cannot self-supply?  How is he going to shore up his ‘better will’?

Often we need outside help, new habits, a voice over the shoulder helping us create those new habits…I’m wondering about Miss Nancy Lammeter, could she be the discipline Godfrey needs? … But then, Godfrey is already  married!

 

Lilies

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Madonna lilies have made it into flower, despite the winds and weather, 16 June

Thinking about poems as puzzles/unexploded bombs and the pleasure I used to have, in the early days of my reading life, of simply cracking what seemed to me the code, which yesterday I called ‘getting it’. The process starts from ‘don’t get it!’ which – at school, college and university – always used to feel angry, as if I was being deliberately excluded from the meaning. Then is goes on to working through the poem line by line, bit by bit, until some kind of understanding is arrived it. Then ‘I get it!’ One of the first poems I remember having this experience with was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none’.

It was in an ‘A’ level literature class at Liverpool Community College, with Ken Moss, Head of English, a great teacher. I don’t recall if this was the first poem he brought us for Practical Criticism but it may have been the first one that really got me.

What is that feeling of being outside the text? I remember it not only from poems and  other works of literature I found hard as a student, but also from childhood when trying to read something  beyond me – Our Mutual Friend, say, at the age of  eight or nine, which I just couldn’t understand, though I could read. It was too hard. Perhaps,  although I could read the words, I couldn’t think the thoughts?

Sometimes when we look at poem we aren’t reading it, we’re scanning. The scan happens and your brain computes: I can’t take all this in. A resistance is set up, you stop trying. The poem moves away. There’s a distance. For me there is then a period of re-gathering, I have to read the poem aloud, and I have to go very slowly, not ‘deconstructing’, but reconstructing! I build a little unit of meaning  and then build the next. When I look back now to Sonnet 94, it feels far-off and meaningless at first. I have to reignite my sense of it by slow reading, andI’m looking for tonal clues as I read the first time – what’s it about?

Sonnet 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

There’s an odd mix of  tone –  whoever is referred to as ‘they’ – do I trust them? At first it seems as though I should because they will do no harm, but later I see they are ‘as stone,/
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow’ – that doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to do with. So why do they ‘inherit heaven’s graces?’ and – actually- what does that mean? These people are ‘the lords and owners of their faces’. Are we talking about control here?

I’m aware all the time I’m tussling with the opening lines that there is the strong couplet at the end and I am heading towards it –

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Lilies, as you can see from today’s photograph, are really very lovely looking things. And they smell gorgeous, until they ‘fester’ when the odour becomes rank. Are we talking about people who look good but may not be? I read again:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;

Some kinds of people (‘they’) have power and don’t use it. I’m thinking that’s a good thing but I wonder if it makes any difference what I think about it – Shakespeare’s describing something, a kind of person. Perhaps one person? (Various things are known about the Sonnets, and all that can easily be discovered, but for me principally, a key fact is that this one of a longer run of poems and they have  connections between them – it doesn’t quite stand alone. You might want to bring the Sonnets that go before and after along too…)

You have to ask, what state is the writer in?

Say I said, in modern English it means something like – some people have power but wont use it, look good but are covered over, hiding their real feelings, people who make me feel powerful feelings but feel nothing themselves, those people, yep! they are the lucky ones, they  having blessings showered on them… Shakespeare seems in a bad way, liking or loving or attracted to someone who doesn’t reciprocate, and yet for Shakespeare  that’s not just felt as rejection, but as a kind of weird – slightly bitter? – honouring. Cyncical, bitter?

The second part seems angry or even in someway threatening. Perhaps stomping about ranting, perhaps worrying in a corner. Is something wrong with this person who uses his/her face as a mask?  The summer’s flower doesn’t seem to know what it is doing – to itself it ‘only live and die’ – whereas to everything round it – the summer – it is ‘sweet’. Do people like this know what they are doing to other people? The gorgeous who don’t acknoledge the effect their gorgousness has on others…And if they don’t know what they are, and what they might do, might they do something bad?

We get to ‘deeds’ in the end.  Looks, outward appearances, and in the end, what is done.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Now I notice that the verb ‘do’ is in the first line: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none,’… in fact the word ‘do’ appears four times in the first two lines!

But I am out of time, must dash… what a weird poem. Makes me want to read the Sonnets again.

White Hair and Weights: Reading George Herbert’s The Forerunners

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My weights, and the odds and ends department of the Davis library plus a picture of Stuart Pearce

Today I woke up with the day’s work (leading a Sparks series day of reading at the Cunard Building, Liverpool) and last weeks reading of ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’…in my mind, I decided to read a poem by George Herbert, just to get myself warmed up for the day.

‘I haven’t thought like this since I was at school,’ said a man in the Shared Reading  group I ran last week, in Blackfriars Centre, Southwark, a demonstration group for people undertaking the Ashoka Changemaker journey, where some members of our London groups and some London Reader Leaders had come together to help me demonstrate the model to a group of people who would have no idea what Shared Reading could be. The speaker was a businessperson, and probably (I’m making an assumption) very well-educated.

Two things flitted through my mind as he spoke (i) he thinks this is like studying English Lit. at school and (ii) how could you go through an education and working life without ever thinking like this again?

For me the two questions are related. Of course, for most people English Lit. is a pointless academic discipline that you forget about once you drop it at GCSE.  Something like .5% of the population study English at University. Why would anyone think in  this kind of way? So far, so fair enough.

I woke up  this morning remembering how at school and university I used to have the idea that ‘the poet’ was a bit of  a trickster. (We never seemed to think of them as a person with a name, and if we used a name it was  always the surname, Herbert, not George Herbert. Does this matter? It needn’t, necessarily, but in context, I think it  did.) ‘The poet’ had somehow constructed the poem like a crossword puzzle or a mechanical magic box that could be opened only once you had the knack – as if ‘ the poet’ had essentially put together, for no reason anyone would discern, at arm’s length, some sort of  bomb-puzzle he didn’t want to you to ‘get’.  It was hard,  ‘not getting it’, but, on the other hand, once you did ‘get’ it, you were in the powerful  position of judging whether or  ‘the poet’ was ‘effective’.

What a weird set-up!

Poems are – mostly – real. People write them out of some sort of necessity, and they want you to read them because you have a matching necessity.  Poems – mostly-  have great information in then and about 98.8% of the population are missing out on this food for thought. This isn’t, as some people believe a matter of lifestyle choice.  People don’t reject the reading of great literature because they’ve made a decision. They mostly reject it because they were badly scorched at school and don’t want to go back there – just like me, shivering miserably on the edge of the hockey pitch feeling humiliated – I’ve not made a decision to avoid playing sports, I’m traumatised! And I can be helped.  We need to teach them very differently. See my post about getting into exercise aged 60, My Leaning.

But to today’s poem – I’ll spend most of the day reading George Herbert and Jeanette Winterson. When I ran this session in London a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t get round ‘The Forerunners’. Everyone who, like me, is gathering white hairs, will know the reality that caused George to put pen to paper.

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
    Must dullness turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.
Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,
Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodgèd there:
I pass not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God be out of fear.
    He will be pleasèd with that ditty:
And if I please him, I write fine and witty.
Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.
But will ye leave me thus? When ye before
Of stews and brothels only knew the doors,
Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,
    Brought you to church well dressed and clad:
My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.
Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?
Hath some fond lover ’ticed thee to thy bane?
And wilt thou leave the church and love a sty?
         Fie, thou wilt soil thy broidered coat,
And hurt thyself, and him that sings the note.
Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,
With canvas, not with arras, clothe their shame:
Let folly speak in her own native tongue.
True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame
    But borrowed thence to light us thither.
Beauty and beauteous words should go together.
Yet if you go, I pass not; take your way:
For Thou art still my God is all that ye
Perhaps with more embellishment can say.
Go, birds of spring: let winter have his fee;
    Let a bleak paleness chalk the door,
So all within be livelier than before.

This is hard to ‘get’ (as I used to complain in college days). This is like a dead-lift with too much weight.  Don’t look possible. Might be dangerous. Ow my poor ligaments! How do you get to  the place where you can do a hundred weighted squats? Practice!  Little gains.  Let’s just read the first verse.

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
    Must dullness turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.

You look in the mirror and there, for the first time, you really believe they are,  ‘the harbingers’, the forerunners. What are harbingers?  The ones who go on ahead to get stuff ready. But George Herbert – like me – quickly looks from the white hairs to the future: argh, all the great and terrible ‘d’s’…decrepitude, dementia, type 2 diabetes, death. Yes, all that flits through your mind as you look in the morning mirror. Great the word he perhaps coins here, ‘dispark’ is about the fear of losing your essential self. I look the word up – it means to throw open a private park and make it public, but I’m reading this as ‘take away the spark’, because the of  ‘sparkling’ in the next line. Will he turn into mere physical matter, just body, clay: ‘ must dullness turn me to a clod?’ Even then, trustingly, George believes, he will still have God and God will not change.

I recognise the white hairs, the worry about decrepitude, but I don’t have ‘God’. What can I understand – for myself –  by ‘Thou art still my God’ ? Is there anything that will remain, anything I can trust?

I’m short on time today and can’t think about this any more.  But want to make a plea that  we should all make time for thinking about our lives and that poetry and other great writing is a good way to do it. It is not an elitist occupation.

Weights are a great form of exercise for the over 60s – muscle mass, my dears. You wouldn’t say that was elitist, you’d call it public health. Do I want to be Hulk Hogan? Nope. But I want to be able to walk, to bend down, to sit on the grass with my grandchildren. And we all want to keep our spark.

 

Absolutely Ordinary…Extraordinary 

Dawn in Highbury

Writing on my phone this morning so a very short post.

Twice in the last week I’ve read ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’,  the extraordinary poem by Les Murray I’ve been reading for twenty-odd years. If I made a list of my own lifetime top ten poems – and I think I will – this would certainly be on it. It’s too difficult for me to provide a link while writing on this phone – will add it in later. But google it, I am sure it will be easy to find.

First reading was in a large group in Southwark – thirty or so people, some of us from Shared Reading groups, group members and volunteer Reader Leaders, others from Ashoka, the Social Entrepreneur support organization, others possible friends or supporters of Ashoka…second reading, yesterday in a Reader staff Thinkday in Bristol ten of us, all women, sitting around a table in a community library. Two had flown in from Northern Ireland – budget constraints have meant we’ve had no face to face contact for nearly a year. It was a delight to see everyone.

Remarkable how the same poem span off in very different directions because of the people reading it. In the second group we talked a lot about men, men in the armed services, men who couldn’t cry. And in the  first group – half men – we hardly discussed masculinity at all. Two very different conversations connected through specific lines of poetry.

And yet at a certain point, in both groups, someone began to talk about the recent terror attacks. I was struck both times by the sense readers had that we were all crying and all held back from each other, too, somehow unable to approach one another in our grief. In the first group a woman who had been a nurse spoke of the necessity of touch, of connection, and remembered her training days – all hospital corners and no sitting on the bed. Someone described seeing a man at Borough Market, standing, weeping, ‘I wanted to go up to him…’

These parts of both conversations reminded me how what is uppermost in our minds comes with us when we read – especially when we read poetry, which gives us so much psychic/linguistic leeway. The poet writes and the reader reads, both live, creative acts: we read as ourselves, what is with us, whether said aloud or not, is present. 

Both sessions were far too short to really get to grips with the poem – made me think a study day with three or four poems would be a lovely, slow, cumulative thing. 

Silas Marner day 17: Fathers and Sons

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‘All experience is an arch wherethrough…’ Front garden, evening, June 12

I’m late this morning – I’m writing on the train to Bristol, where I’m going to visit The Reader’s South West colleagues. This little Midland train is a commuter train, full of people heading into work at Birmingham. We’re in George Eliot country.

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter VIII, where Godfrey Cass has been skirting around the idea of telling his father all his troubles, his will holding fast to the idea of a confession…more or less. But Godfrey is scared of his father, and I’m interested in the sentences George Eliot gives us to sketch in their relationship – perhaps a clue as to the way our Godfrey grew up (and to brother Dunstan, too). No free-standing adult wants to blame their parents for who or what they are, and yet, every child owes much to its parenting.

The old Squire was an implacable man: he made resolutions in violent anger, and he was not to be moved from them after his anger had subsided– as fiery volcanic matters cool and harden into rock.

I want to look up t he word ‘implacable’  here. I know it means something like ‘ not to be moved.’ (looked it up here – much more to do with lack of peaceableness). You can’t easily make peace with him. That strength which he has – his violent anger, his rock-hard resolution – is not at all the strength of peace or secure self. Is this a model for boys to grow up with?

Like many violent and implacable men, he allowed evils to grow under favour of his own heedlessness, till they pressed upon him with exasperating force, and then he turned round with fierce severity and became unrelentingly hard. This was his system with his tenants: he allowed them to get into arrears, neglect their fences, reduce their stock, sell their straw, and otherwise go the wrong way,–and then, when he became short of money in consequence of this indulgence, he took the hardest measures and would listen to no appeal.

George Eliot is describing a class of humans, like a biologist identifying traits in a type of fish: these are the recognisable, classifiable, behaviours of a certain type of man. ‘He allowed evils to grow under favour of his own heedlessness,’ shows us a relationship between perhaps deliberate – certainly agreeable, chosen – lack of care and attention, which seems rather mild and perhaps no more than morally lazy, but results in ‘evils.’ I can’t help but see this applying to his sons, Godfrey and Dunstan, who have grown – perhaps not  evil, but in Godfrey’s case  not good, and in Dunstan’s case bad – under their father’s care: was he heedless? Godfrey certainly knows his father’s character, though that does not make him sympathetic to his father’s flaws;

Godfrey knew all this, and felt it with the greater force because he had constantly suffered annoyance from witnessing his father’s sudden fits of unrelentingness, for which his own habitual irresolution deprived him of all sympathy. (He was not critical of the faulty indulgence which preceded these fits; that seemed to him natural enough.)

The father’s ‘unrelentingness’ is contrasted with Godfrey’s ‘irresolution’. These are opposites which seems to drive each other further apart. You might think they might mutually correcting – that someone who was irresolute might learn from who had something like the opposite – but isn’t ‘unrelenting’ going too far in the other direction to help? On the other hand, ‘he was not critical of the faulty indulgence which preceded these fits; that seemed to him natural enough’ – Godfrey only sees part of his father’s behaviour, and it suits him to do so, because the ‘faulty indulgence’  must sometimes throw some good in Godfrey’s own direction – and as he is irresolute so me must be temporarily glad of that indulgence, despite knowing that the angry unrelentingness will come.

Thinking about the kind of discussion that might happen at this point, I’d want to ask  questions about how we make these choices to put up with (a) because we sometimes get (b). What wanting (b) very badly might do to our ability to judge the morality of  (a). Good to think of some examples of this from our own real lives.

But then, press on with Godfrey.

Still there was just the chance, Godfrey thought, that his father’s pride might see this marriage in a light that would induce him to hush it up, rather than turn his son out and make the family the talk of the country for ten miles round.

Godfrey has to reckon up his father’s likely behaviour – will his anger come, or will he be more worried about family shame? So his thoughts go round;

This was the view of the case that Godfrey managed to keep before him pretty closely till midnight, and he went to sleep thinking that he had done with inward debating. But when he awoke in the still morning darkness he found it impossible to reawaken his evening thoughts; it was as if they had been tired out and were not to be roused to further work.

I laughed i recognition at this. You spend all evening going over it. you manage to get to sleep thinking it is settled, then you wake to a kind of deadness – that’s not it, you’re thinking and last night’s resolutions seem to have disappeared. I liked the sleeping metaphor – Godfrey can’t reawaken his thoughts – ‘as if they had been tired out’.  I wonder if this edging towards the making of language about personal morality and choice. I ask myself   -is that what it feels like when my will goes absent? not dead – just sleeping, but not to be roused? a kind of exhaustion, or a kind of laziness?

Instead of arguments for confession, he could now feel the presence of nothing but its evil consequences: the old dread of disgrace came back–the old shrinking from the thought of raising a hopeless barrier between himself and Nancy– the old disposition to rely on chances which might be favourable to him, and save him from betrayal. Why, after all, should he cut off the hope of them by his own act? He had seen the matter in a wrong light yesterday.

Resolution – thought, rationality, determination – choice – ? – is asleep ,  and what Godfrey is aware of is a kind of gut feeling: ‘he could now feel the presence of nothing but its evil consequences: the old dread of disgrace came back.’ This is a feeling of fear.  The grown up child of the father with the implacable anger is afraid. The implacability seems written into the nature of the universe. Mostly, it comes between Godfrey and the possibility of love – Nancy. As the universe is implacable, you can only rely on luck, whim, chance: there’s no arguing your case, no sense that you could affect the course of things. thus ‘ the old disposition to rely on chances which might be favourable to him, and save him.’

He had been in a rage with Dunstan, and had thought of nothing but a thorough break-up of their mutual understanding; but what it would be really wisest for him to do, was to try and soften his father’s anger against Dunsey, and keep things as nearly as possible in their old condition. If Dunsey did not come back for a few days (and Godfrey did not know but that the rascal had enough money in his pocket to enable him to keep away still longer), everything might blow over.

Let’s work round the  old man, the child thinks.  Poor Godfrey. It doesn’t bode well.

Silas Marner Day 16: Forensic Detail

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Artemisia bearing the storms,  11 June

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter VIII, where the village of Raveloe, both inside and outside The Rainbow,  is coming to terms with Silas Marner’s robbery.  If we were reading in a Shared Reading group, I’m sure, while I’d be pushing on, pushing on…we’d want to have a laugh about the ear-rings and the tendency to blame a stranger, especially if he looked as though he had ‘a swarthy foreignness of complexion which boded little honesty’.

But we read on to meet with Godfrey Cass, out  chasing his brother Dunstan, and the money he might have made from the sale of wildfire. In this conversation between Cass and fellow horse-enthusiast, Bryce, who  tells Godfrey about the death of the horse during the hunt, I was struck by the little insertion of  a hugely important feeling:

“And so you _did_ give him leave to sell the horse, eh?” said Bryce.
“Yes; I wanted to part with the horse – he was always a little too hard in the mouth for me,” said Godfrey; his pride making him wince under the idea that Bryce guessed the sale to be a matter of necessity. “I was going to see after him–I thought some mischief had happened. I’ll go back now,” he added, turning the horse’s head, and wishing he could get rid of Bryce; for he felt that the long-dreaded crisis in his life was close upon him. “You’re coming on to Raveloe, aren’t you?”

Chatting, holding your end up, keeping a game-face on and all the time feeling ‘that the long-dreaded crisis in his life was close upon him.’ George Eliot carries on with the chat until Bryce turns off on his own road.  That’s a place to stop and consider why a human would squash that terrible feeling into such a small space. And what can happen next?  He’s got to face it.

Godfrey rode along slowly, representing to himself the scene of confession to his father from which he felt that there was now no longer any escape. The revelation about the money must be made the very next morning; and if he withheld the rest, Dunstan would be sure to come back shortly, and, finding that he must bear the brunt of his father’s anger, would tell the whole story out of spite, even though he had nothing to gain by it. There was one step, perhaps, by which he might still win Dunstan’s silence and put off the evil day: he might tell his father that he had himself spent the money paid to him by Fowler; and as he had never been guilty of such an offence before, the affair would blow over after a little storming. But Godfrey could not bend himself to this. He felt that in letting Dunstan have the money, he had already been guilty of a breach of trust hardly less culpable than that of spending the money directly for his own behoof; and yet there was a distinction between the two acts which made him feel that the one was so much more blackening than the other as to be intolerable to him.

“I don’t pretend to be a good fellow,” he said to himself; “but I’m not a scoundrel–at least, I’ll stop short somewhere. I’ll bear the consequences of what I _have_ done sooner than make believe I’ve done what I never would have done. I’d never have spent the money for my own pleasure–I was tortured into it.”

We have got to remember that Godfrey  has been blackmailed by his brother. Yes, as he does, here. Not good but not a scoundrel, he tells himself, and with some self-pity, ‘I was tortured into it.’

Blackmail is a particularly difficult moral knot, isn’t it? In my shared Reading group I’d want to stop here for some time, thinking hard about this bit.

Maybe spelling it out:

  1. Godfrey is secretly married to an addict – an act of ‘compunction’, which he bitterly regrets  -what was behind that, I wonder? If you are ‘not a scoundrel’ but end oup having to marry someone you don’t love… what you been up to?
  2. Dunstan has been blackmailing him about this
  3. Godfrey took rent from one of his father’s tennants and gave it to Dunstan – not good, but not a scoundrel ? – Is this man misjudging himself? is he more  of a scoundrel than he thinks?
  4. Father  now going after the tennant because no rent has come through
  5. Godfrey agrees to sell horse to raise cash
  6. Dunstan kills horse in accident
  7. Dunstan steals Silas Marner’s money and disappears – no one knows he did it
  8. Godfrey has no horse, no money and no idea where his brother is…and still mainly concerned to get off with as little trouble as possible… because he’s not a scoundrel…

What would you do?

Godfrey decides to confess everything. This is what matters most in today’s reading, and I’d  be steering my group to this point – we’ve got to get to this point, today!

Through the remainder of this day Godfrey, with only occasional fluctuations, kept his will bent in the direction of a complete avowal to his father, and he withheld the story of Wildfire’s loss till the next morning, that it might serve him as an introduction to heavier matter. The old Squire was accustomed to his son’s frequent absence from home, and thought neither Dunstan’s nor Wildfire’s non-appearance a matter calling for remark. Godfrey said to himself again and again, that if he let slip this one opportunity of confession, he might never have another; the revelation might be made even in a more odious way than by Dunstan’s malignity: _she_ might come as she had threatened to do. And then he tried to make the scene easier to himself by rehearsal: he made up his mind how he would pass from the admission of his weakness in letting Dunstan have the money to the fact that Dunstan had a hold on him which he had been unable to shake off, and how he would work up his father to expect something very bad before he told him the fact.

I’d want to spread this out, to look in forensic detail at Godfrey Cass’s thinking. So I’d take it one sentence at a time:

Through the remainder of this day Godfrey, with only occasional fluctuations, kept his will bent in the direction of a complete avowal to his father, and he withheld the story of Wildfire’s loss till the next morning, that it might serve him as an introduction to heavier matter.

First, I’d want to imagine those ‘occasional fluctuations’ of the will. What a long day it must have been for Godfrey, waiting to confess.  What is will, I’d want to ask my group members to consider? How do you exert it, or does it control you? Who can resist the prompting for a biscuit/fag/drink/desire to do what you want? Is it will that helps us do this? And how much is will actually habit?

Thinking also of the self-control that is needed not to mention the loss of Wildfire. Godfrey is managing the situation and to a large extent his own feelings in order to produce the outcome he wants – as little trouble from his  father as possible.

Next, I’d want to look at this:

Godfrey said to himself again and again, that if he let slip this one opportunity of confession, he might never have another; the revelation might be made even in a more odious way than by Dunstan’s malignity: she might come as she had threatened to do.

This repetition  – again and again – is clearly connected to the bending of Godfrey’s  will. And the thing of which he is most frightened – that ‘she might come as she had threatened to do.’, is the thing he uses to hold his will to the point. He is scared.

And then he tried to make the scene easier to himself by rehearsal: he made up his mind how he would pass from the admission of his weakness in letting Dunstan have the money to the fact that Dunstan had a hold on him which he had been unable to shake off, and how he would work up his father to expect something very bad before he told him the fact.

Rehearsing is a very  good idea. But the planning of how to  manage his father – ‘he would work up his father to expect something very bad before he told him the fact’ – is manipulative. He’s thinking ahead in order to try to control his father’s emotional response. We have to ask ourselves what kind of man is Squire Cass that he has brought these sons into being? And behind that  there is a question about the validity of class as way of deciding what people are. George Eliot doesn’t believe that class means much. That there is a social hierarchy is a fact, there are higher and lower folks in the village, but  what people really are doesn’t seem closely connected to that hierarchy. But those are thoughts for another day.