Paradise Lost 11: Can You Ever Change Your Mind?

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Indoor Plants lighting November

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to Book 1, Line 241, and had seen the fallen Satan talk himself into trying again and rising from the lake of fire where he had fallen after his nine days fall from heaven,. He’s found a footing on land now (though still all fire) and looks about him:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Here’s a key moment in the poem. Since we have first seen him, Satan is in a state of  flux, one moment despairing, another, rallying himself to  fight on, sometimes seeming almost broken, moments later, resurgent. I think it is worth wondering what this feels like in human terms. The amount of energy consumed by changing mental gear in this way must be immense.

I’m thinking now about my own mind. I don’t feel I have a lot of control over it, and remember the  the ‘white bear’ experiment first proposed by  Fydor Dostoevsky. It’s very hard to stop your mind doing things it wants to do.  But can you will it to do some things you want it to do – can you think of a blue flower, thus pushing the white bear aside? An interesting experiment  on the rebound effect has shown that  while suppression by distraction of other means may work for a while, the under-thought will return later and perhaps stronger.

That seems to ring true for Satan, moving all the time between despair and grief for what is lost, and angry self-assertion about what he gains by that loss. So, looking about, he sees  loss:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

‘This mournful gloom’ is now the medium in which the fallen angels must have their being and there is no doubt that Satan suffers as he looks about him and realises this.  He accepts it (‘be it so’) and seems in acccepting to accept that God is all-powerful.

since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right:

But I wonder if the  underlying thought ( I should be all powerful – not Him!) if asserting itself even as  Satan seems to accept thereality he finds himself in.  His resistance is in the word ‘ now’  (‘since he/ who is now Sovran’)  which suggests that God has not always been, and perhaps will not always be,  Sovran. That is just  ‘now’, at this moment. There is in Satan’s mind a potential other time, which he believes in more strongly than the evidence of ‘now’,, when he will  be, might be, Sovran.  And this  nascent thought is picked up and amplified in the next lines:

fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

Only ‘force’ has made God Supream, Satan  boasts to himself, in terms of ‘reason’, they were, are ‘equals.’

Is this true?  Satan thinks it is and seems to feel utterly secure in that thought.  Yet there is a sadness to his thinking that seems to  undercut his rational thought. The tone of  his thought is melancholy:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor:

I have to stop now as going  out today to Gladstone’s Library

—————————————–

Sunday, 5th November

10.15am – 11.15am: Sam Guglani – Medicine, Science and the Arts

What are the human and moral challenges of contemporary medicine? Why are the arts an urgent and necessary means of knowledge towards better medicine – and ultimately, better society? Join poet, novelist and consultant oncologist Sam Guglani for an hour’s reflection, including the Medicine Unboxed project and readings from his work.

Sam Guglani is a poet, novelist and consultant oncologist who specialises in the management of lung and brain tumours. He has a background in medical ethics and chairs the Gloucestershire Hospitals Trust law and ethics group. Director of Medicine Unboxed since he founded it in 2009, Sam uses the arts and creative industries to illuminate challenges in medicine. He is a published poet and writes for The Lancet, and his debut novel Histories is released in 2017.

 

 

 

A sentence worth stopping for… how I read prose in my Shared Reading group

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I’m reading Celia, a novel by E.H. Young, 1880-1946. She’s a woman, a provincial person and her novels are quietly domestic, largely about women’s lives. I read Young’s Miss Mole a while ago, recommended by my beautiful recommender, Angie Macmillan (editor, A Little Aloud) and it has stayed quietly in my mind, asking me to re-read it, maybe during the Christmas break. You’ll find half a dozen of E.H. Young’s novels in the old Virago Modern Classics series  – worth seeking out in second-hand shops.

At the beginning of the book, Celia and her cleaner, Miss Riggs, are  working on a clean-out in one of the bedrooms and talking about the (recent, to them) First World War, where a generation of men, including Miss Riggs’ fiance, were wiped out. Miss Riggs is thinking about the fate of men who came back from the war. They’ve come back from the biggest thing that’ll ever happen to them ( risking their lives at war) and now they’ve got ordinary daily life;

‘The baby cries and the man gets vexed, and may be, the money’s short. There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain! And that’s where I think I’m lucky. You never know what life’ll do to you. Death’s kinder, often. Very comical he was, too. He wouldn’t laugh himself, but he’d make me, right enough, and that’s the kind that makes you laugh most, isn’t it? Often times I laugh now, when I think of the things he’d say. But what if he’d come back and by this time there wasn’t a smile between us?’

I have been thinking about the difference between reading prose and reading poetry, or Shakespeare, in a  Shared Reading group. Poetry and Shakespeare may be harder, but in  a strange way that may make them easier to read and discuss because there is so much to notice; nothing is normal,  everything is up for question. Whereas when we’re reading a novel, a short story, often the  narrative itself takes over and the headlong rush to see what happens can be irresistible.  But we still need to slow it down so we can think about what we’re reading and share our responses.

But how do you know where to stop?

As I’m reading, I’d be reading with a pencil and I’d mark bits where I felt something as I read. You’ve got to look out for your felt responses. At first they can be hard to spot – like Matthew Arnold’s ‘Buried Life’ (see previous posts) those feeling responses can be buried out of sight.

Sometimes people think this finding somewhere to stop and talk is about noticing  good writing and perhaps because of school leftover habits, they  think this means descriptions of stuff, nature etc. (‘The writer successfully conveys a picture of the fruit and veg in the shop window’). No.

I’m talking about feelings.

Where do you feel moved? What touches you? Where do you care about what is written?

In preparing a Shared Reading group with prose, you’ve got to read slowly enough to feel your own feelings in the first place.

In this novel I was really struck by this page. Miss Riggs seems to have kept her happiness by losing the actual man – can that really be so? I was trying to work out if she was fooling herself. But when I stopped to re-read, the bit that really got me was this sentence:

There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by.

This may not be a universal truth, but it rang a big bell with me about the shape of life and the  power of the little things that seem so insignificant.

I felt something, and I suppose you’d call it recognition.

Some biggish things have happened in my life – can’t go into them here, but say, the death of my mother, which profoundly affected me for ten, fifteen years, midlife. Other things, bigger than that. But whatever the impact of those big things, it remains true that the little things add up. Say adult life begins at 21, and we assume an adult life  is about ffity years, then fifty years of day to day do become very big, very dominant, and possibly, the biggest thing. Small matters.

I loved the fact that  Ms Young picks up this ‘things mount up’ thought and turns it in the next sentence but one into ‘a mountain’.

There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain!

It’s a mountain alright, but one we often can’t even see.

I thought this was a good bit because it made me feel – almost like an ouch! – at first, and then it allowed me to think. I thought this is good writing,  good because it makes connections and makes me both nod acknowledgement and think about some  bits of real experience. It’s real.

In my Shared Reading group I’d want to stop here, and  get some conversation going about what the big things seem to be –  getting married or not, the day your first child is born, gaining or losing a job –  and then share our thoughts on the reality of the long stretch of  life, also a big thing, but much harder, perhaps because it is so big, to see.

 

The Buried Life: A Bolt Shot Back

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Small, intensely scented Viburnum flowers, spicing the garden air

I’ve been reading Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Buried Life’ here for the past while. Find the whole poem here.

I’m in this long central section – I read it aloud to get myself into the water this morning:

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

As I read I  think – I’ve missed some lines – did I notice, last week, ‘unspeakable desire’? Did I notice ‘tracking our true, original course’? And above all, did I notice, key lines for the whole poem,

A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us
I don’t think so! I was rushing to get to the many thousand lines, to these lines,
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—

which seem to me the wellspring of the poem. The disjunction between the nameless feelings, the sense of ‘something’ under our day-to-day selves, ‘something’ almost impossible to get at, get into words, know in consciousness, and our  top selves, the brainy bit that goes around thinking rationally and processing direct experience, that’s where this poem finds itself, reaching after knowing, failing, reaching again.

 

Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

And even a poet is reduced to not being able to get at this area of being – I see Matthew Arnold uses the word ‘skill’ to try to  pinpoint what you’d need to do it, but later the word ‘eloquent’ is a throwaway – eloquence, poetry won’t necessarily do it.

This is useful as a reminder to me – I don’t always feel what Matthew Arnold describes feeling but I do recognise the disjunct. I don’t mind so much not being able to put that buried life into words, though I think I did mind when I was younger, was always writing, getting stuff down  in notebooks as if knowing or trying to know what I felt was of key importance. Now I am just glad to feel it. And I do feel it.

Yesterday for the first time  in a few weekends I spent some time in the garden, mowing the lawn, taking some cuttings, looking hopelessly at the ivy problem. As I got the lawn mower out of the shed (stupid, irritating, difficult process, needs a rethink)  and put it down on the grass I had a  shot of intense pleasure, the sunlight, the grass, the scent, the quiet of the garden all pleased me. My being in the garden pleased me, and I thought of what someone had said to me earlier in the week about football being good for his mental health. I thought ‘gardening is good for my mental health’ and it is because I get this delight, this joy.  Though ‘delight’, ‘joy’ won’t quite do.

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Myrtle berries, tremendous harvest

There was the Myrtle bush, completely drenched in its  jet ovoid berries.  What can I do with them? I looked up  Uses of Myrtle and found that they are used in bridal bouquets in England, and for roasting meat in Sicily. They gave me a massive jolt of pleasure, the cornucopia of them, and I took cuttings for the Secret Garden at Calderstones, where, one day, weddings will be held.

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In summer, Myrtle has tiny, frothy, white scented flowers, ideal for a bridal bouquet, in Autumn these amazing black-jewel berries, which you can dry and they become like peppercorns (let’s see what happens). The leaves are evergreen.

I didn’t talk, or write, I just felt it. And that was good. And that is more or less what happens to Matthew Arnold, through love,  in the poem;

Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

Love is the most direct way to that connection but it isn’t only romantic love that does it. Love of any sort will probably do it.  You’ll know it by its effect, not its cause;

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

This is an effect I have often seen and experienced in Shared Reading. It’s a wonderful experience to sit alongside someone who is formulating words to express what they feel when they get to this place. I saw it recently in the films produced by the CRILS team as part of the AHRC Cultural Value project.  A man in a drug rehab, an old woman in a Care Home – both moved, unlocked, reach for words which speak of the heart which lies plain,

And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

There’s a beautiful  completion to these words, as if things don’t get any better for humans than this.  It feels almost a state of rest? And when I look again at the final lines, it is a sort of rest;

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

So, for a moment, we have ‘got free’. It won’t last, it is a ‘lull in the hot race’ but the coolness and the calm are a delight which create a sort of channel for a kind of knowledge: ‘he thinks he knows’, nothing certain here, but a different kind of knowing, perhaps. An intimation.

The biggest moment in this poem – so often frustrated and stuck – is the bolt being shot back. The image is a powerful one – there is almost a violence in it, as there so often is in real bolts, in real life.  They are rarely well-oiled and easy to shift! I love that Matthew Arnold makes the experience universal – look at the pronouns;

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

Situations where that bolt shoots back are vital to us – we need that to happen and we don’t have enough experiences of it.  That is part of the mental ill-health epidemic we’re beginning to suffer.

I’m going to finish my daily reading practice by rereading the whole poem.

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

 

Paradise Lost 10: part sci-fi, part theology and real life in between

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Autumn Chrysanthemum welcome on the front step, 29 October

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – and read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

I’m starting today at line 192,  just after Satan has encouraged Beelezebub (and himself) to  believe fighting on  is the best way forward.

Let’s read the next paragraph aloud to warm up :

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large [ 195 ]
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast [ 200 ]
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning lake, nor ever thence [ 210 ]
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. [ 220 ]
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

This falls into 3 sections, and is worth separating out. First line 192-208,  I think the first section since the opening where  Milton puts in a lot of references to things/places/classical figures we might not know about.  What I do with these is  read over them as if it didn’t matter what they are or whether I know about them, trying to get the rough sense of  the verse.

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large [ 195 ]
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast [ 200 ]
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:

What’s happening here? I’d be asking my group, give me a rough translation? It’s about how bog he is, someone may say, he’s comparing him to a whale.

It’s very visual, filmic, isn’t it? There he is – eyes sparkling, but the rest of him, ‘Prone on the Flood, extended long and large’. Those references, Titanian, Briareos, Typhon and Leviathan are all about giants or gigantic creatures.  The Dartmouth edition is really helpful, because you can easily look things up or ignore them, as you choose.

Milton moves happily from Greek mythology to contemporary seafarer chat when he speaks of Leviathan, the whale:

Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:

Is it true – have sailors ever thought a whale to be an island and  moored up on his sccaly side? Having seen some great whales off the coast of Maine a few years back I very much doubt it – they move fast. But the size is the point isn’t it? And while I am struggling to get the size of a  real life whale back into my mind ( I think the whales I saw off Bar Harbour were humpback whales –  they are big, especially when you are in a small boat, but nowhere near as big as Blue Whales, which are the largest animals on the planet).

All that is a simile, (note the ‘As’ line 197, and the linking ‘So’, line 209) to help us imagine Satan’s enormous size. Milton wants us to see it, like a play  or like pictures (or for us a film) which is interesting given that most of  what he is trying to put into our heads is  thought, isn’t it?  or if not thought, inner experience? He is trying to make real inner states, which don’t easily map to language and pictures. In another dimension, I suppose, this ‘story’ could be told as ‘theology’ and in other parts of his writing life, Milton does that. But here – he is  trying to ‘justifie the wayes of God to men’  and he goes for mighty, dramatic, unfolding narrative illustration as the way to do it.

Let’s read the second part of this paragraph:

So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning lake, nor ever thence [ 210 ]
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. [ 220 ]

This huge creature, ‘chained on the burning lake’ is allowed to heave up his head, to rise, by the ‘will/And high permission of all-ruling Heaven’. This is one of those moments  when I falter in my reading. God allows evil – can that be right? Yes ,according to this poem – it is given. It is all part of the whole  thing.  and the whole thing is complicated  -containing as it must – but why? – evil? I’m going to put this part in my list of  worries on my Paradise Lost page  on the top line of this blog. God allows evil in that

…with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness,

This is one of those parts where God seems small, and I don’t want to think that because I know for Milton that can never have been the case. So rather than standing over Milton and thinking I know better, I need to get myself to work at understanding what it means for him. Why enrage your enemies? Why make the evil-doer feel bad? Or does God care about, or create, that rage? Or is it something that is part of Satan and therefore Satan’s own responsibility? For man,  God offers

                                                   to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn

but for Satan there is only ‘Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance ‘.  Does God need a scapegoat?

Or am I thinking amiss?

Let me think of a human who is/was when alive, evil.

If that person never repents of what thy have done  can they ever be anything but evil or in thrall to confusion, wrath and  vengeance – say of the legal system, or the judgement of history or of their own mind. For humans in this poem, there is always a chance of  redemption. For Satan, not. Why? Because he doesn’t want it. Say there was a bad human who didn’t want redemption – wanted to only think  ‘what I did was good. I enjoyed it, and it pleased me’. Would we have to say of that person they were irredeemable?

Can I understand Satan as a principle of the irredeemable?  Certainly, that spirit seems a presence  in the human universe. We’ve seen it.  There is a responsibility at the heart of things then, to accept evil as evil. In Satan that is never (or rarely? there is a moment) accepted – he’s always blustering on about how he only just lost the battle and might have won..so his sense of what is might nearly have been proved right. If I imagine Satan not as a loser/victim but as murderer/tyrant/corrupter then the fact of his not being able to see what he has done as wrong becomes an explanation of why he  is forever damned. He is damned for being himself and for choosing to be that self. Is it a choice? Or did God make him like this? We’ll com to some of this later.

Milton is making me justify the ways of God to myself here!

On, to the next third of the paragraph:

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

Now, having briefly gone inward ,to think about the psychological damage the external action is causing, Milton takes us  back out again, to see Satan, in his enormity: his will seems to break, to disappear, the chains that held him there.

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.

The very flames of Hell are driven back by his movement, which clears a space. This is reminiscent of the parting of the sea in Exodus  and is an indication of Satan’s massive power. His will gives him the use of  his wings:

Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;

But the fires of Hell are everywhere, and on dry land the fire burns as a solid. and to make this real, Milton reinds of  real earthly fire – volcanoes:

And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak:

Milton is creating  a movement between inner worlds of the spirit, one’s psyche or psychology (where I have to keep asking myself ‘do you recognise this? ) and the  powerful pictures which  make connections to reality or to myth (where Milton reminds us, you know about Mount Etna? you know about Whales? It’s like that!). I’m reminded of a bit later on (Book 5)  when Raphael is visiting Adam and is about  to tell of the war in Heaven, and says he will use simile, metaphor, analogy  to make the connection between Adam’s understanding and the heavenly reality:

       what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By lik’ning spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best, though what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

I’ll come to this when we get to Book 5 (several years hence at my current speed) but for now just want to say that I do believe this is the method Milton himself is using throughout the whole poem – telling us things via dramatic story – that  are actually to be experienced in other dimensions, dimensions the contemporary Western world no lnger has much language for. Milton’s way seems part sci-fi, part theology.

The second thought, here,

what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

Is also an intersting one.We may have to use simile, metaphor, analogy but  what if in some way those things hold  further apart those dimensions than they actually are? What if  all these levels of being are relfections of the same thing?

But let me go back to the poem: has Satan gained anything by moving from the sea of fire to the land of fire?

Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

Well, the change of scene seems to have given them a sense that they can move, that they have autonomy,  that they have strength. Is this false, given that both places are full of fire? Ye the rebel angels  take the move as sign of their own powers, ‘thir own recover’d strength’.

Which makes me think, they are not going to stop here. More next week.

 

 

The Buried Life: Holding the Line

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Acer near The Reader Cafe, Calderstones Park, 25 October

I’ve been reading Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Buried Life’ here for a the past while. Find the whole poem here.

I’m at this point:
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

Is this about being or about saying? Is it about knowing or about language? Or is it both? First two lines – clear: we’ve felt something, we’ve been moved, and we look inside,  a common experience, ‘many a man in his own breast then delves’, but we can’t pinpoint it, we can’t get to it; ‘But deep enough, alas! none ever mines’.

Had that feeling? Yes. Let’s go on then.

And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.

What are these ‘many thousand lines’? I think of the army – of the line – the front line, advancing. And I think of lines of enquiry. Does it mean ‘places where we have to be?’ Many thousand – so we’re doing it all the time. For me those lines are to do with showing up, with being ourselves in practical life. Such experiences are testing, and we’ve done well, ‘we have shown, on each, spirit and power’.  I’m feeling happy as I read these lines, they carry me, and make me feel ‘spirit and power’ is possible, is available, and I might  have it. I certainly want those things as I hold my line. Then I come to the but.

But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.

There are acres of ordinary life, times on the lines when we’re doing well and feel pretty good about it , showing ‘spirit and power’, but Matthew Arnold shifts gear or turns to face another dimension, looking away from this ordinary run of life to something, somewhere else. Even while we are doing  fine in  the outward-facing department we have not ‘been on our  own line’ (notice this one is singular, whereas the outward facing ones are plural – what difference does that make?) and we’ve hardly been on it for ‘one little hour’.

I don’t think it takes away the ‘spirit and power’, think they are still there, they are just somewhere else. However much work you do  in the outward facing dimension,  and however well you do it, the inward  dimension is there and  we’re not on it.

Let’s read the section again:

And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

The connection between being and speaking is vital for Matthew Arnold – the uttering of all the nameless feelings that  ‘course through our breast’ seems vital to his sense of deepest self. There’s a gap between the reality of  what is felt and the  ability of language to express it. That’s a tough gap for someone to face in poetry, the art of language. Can’t we ever get at our deepest selves ?

For someone with God in their life, this problem might be alleviated by prayer. For mystics and meditators, there is the one-with-everything state, described by Doris Lessing in Martha Quest, and found in religious writing everywhere, from every time and in various faiths. Look again at Doris Lessing’s description:

There was certainly a definite point at which the thing began. It was not; then it was suddenly inescapable, and nothing could have frightened it away. There was a slow integration, during which she, and the little animals, and the moving grasses, and the sunwarmed trees, and the slopes of the silvery mealies, and the great dome of blue light overhead, and the stones of the earth under her feet, became one, shuddering together in a dissolution of dancing atoms. She felt the rivers under the ground forcing themselves painfully along her veins, swelling them out in an unbearable pressure; her flesh was the earth, and suffered growth like a ferment; and her eyes stared, fixed like the eye of the sun. . . During that space of time (which was timeless) she understood quite finally her smallness, the unimportance of humanity. In her ears was an inchoate grinding, the great wheels of movement, and it was inhuman, like the blundering rocking movement of  a bullock cart; and no part of that sound was Martha’s voice. Yet she was part of it, reluctantly allowed to participate, though on terms – but what terms? For that moment while time and space (but these are words, and if she understood anything it was that words, here, were like the sound of baby crying in a whirlwind) kneaded her flesh, she knew futility; that is, what was futile was her own idea of herself and her place in the chaos of matter. What was demanded of her was that she should accept something quite different; it was as if something new was demanding conception, with her flesh as host; as if it were a necessity, which she must bring herself to accept, that she should allow herself to dissolve and be formed by that necessity. But it did not last; the force desisted, and left her standing on the road, already trying to reach out after ‘the moment’ so that she might retain its message from the wasting and creating chaos of darkness. Already the thing was sliding backwards, becoming a whole in her mind, instead of a process; the memory was changing, so that it was with nostalgia that she longed ‘to try again’.

There had been a challenge that she had refused. But the wave of nostalgia made her angry. She knew it to be a falsity; for it was a longing for something that had never existed, an ‘ecstasy’ in short. There had been no ecstasy, only a difficult knowledge. It was as if a beetle had sung. There should be a new word for illumination.

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing

I notice the failure of language here:

During that space of time (which was timeless) she understood quite finally her smallness, the unimportance of humanity. In her ears was an inchoate grinding, the great wheels of movement, and it was inhuman, like the blundering rocking movement of  a bullock cart; and no part of that sound was Martha’s voice. Yet she was part of it, reluctantly allowed to participate, though on terms – but what terms? For that moment while time and space (but these are words, and if she understood anything it was that words, here, were like the sound of baby crying in a whirlwind) kneaded her flesh, she knew futility; that is, what was futile was her own idea of herself and her place in the chaos of matter.

I’m not sure that Matthew Arnold and Doris Lessing are describing the same experience but there are elements which seem to match. It’s as if Doris has gone much further – she has allowed the daytime self to dissolve, whereas it feels at the moment as Matthew Arnold is standing on the brink, saying, I need my language!

There’s an interesting thought here, that I’m not in the  right time and space and mind-set to have – about what language is for humans.  In  David Bohm’s book Wholeness and the Implicate Order he speaks of language as a key part of the breaking up of  the flow of experience. Naming things breaks them up into units. This is helpful and then not helpful.

Bohm writes;

Indeed to some extent, it has always been both necessary and proper for man, in his thinking, to divide things up, and to separate them, so as to reduce  his problems to manageable proportions; for evidently, if in our practical technical work we tried to deal with the whole of reality at once, we would be swamped. So, in certain ways, the creation of special subjects of study and the division of labour was an important step forward. Even earlier, man’s first realization that he was not identical with nature was a crucial step, because it made possible a kind of autonomy in his thinking, which allowed him to go beyond the immediately given limits of nature, first in his imagination and ultimately in his practical work.

These are the many thousands of lines we’ve been on – doing our practical and technical work – and this mainly where we are, but Matthew Arnold knows there is another way of seeing and feeling it all, and the two do not sit easily together.  Bohm was a leading theoretical physicist and was profoundly influenced by  Einstein’s work, but he was also a mystic who made contact with the Dalai Lama. Quantum physics provides a theoretical framework which accounts for much of the long-established human tradition of mysticism. Matthew Arnold lived in a Newtonian Universe of lines we were on or not on: Bohm was lucky to know that the same point may be a wave or a particle…

But I should go back to the poem:

And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

Those feelings we can’t get at or name are there, are present, though unexpressed and  thus giving rise to the frustration Matthew Arnold feels:

And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

That’s it for today, time’s up. All this makes me think I want to reread The Cloud of Unknowing. And I want more time to think about it.

 

The Buried Life – putting the spade down for a day

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Vine and sunshine, Old English Garden, Calderstones 25 Oct

Been reading ‘The Buried Life’  very slowly here for some days now – see previous posts  – but I’m short of time  this morning as  I went back to sleep while reading after a very early (even for me)  waking. A mountain of work awaits. But I don’t want to rush this next bit as it is my favourite part of the poem.  So think I’ll just have to read these next 12 lines to myself and then come back to them with a longer writing time tomorrow.

And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
Meanwhile, here are some more of yesterday’s lovely park-walking-meeting photos:
beeches
purple berries.JPG
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