See the possibilities? Thomas Traherne’s ‘Shadows in the Water’

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Japanese anenomes, white hydraganea and couchgrass, 6 August

I’ve been reading Thomas Traherne’s poem ‘Shadows in the Water’ for a few days: search ‘Traherne’ and you’ll find the posts. Here’s the poem – always worth re-reading aloud to get into the flow;

I’m adding numbers to the stanzas, for easy of reference.

Shadows in the water

1

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

 

2

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

3

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

4

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

5

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

6

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

7

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

8

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

9

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

10

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

and had got to  this point in stanza 4:

Strange….

…We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

As I reread this morning I was arrested by the opening of stanza 3 which I’d passed over rather quickly the first time round;

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go

It was ‘drowned’ that struck me – partly because yesterday I’d been thinking of the oddness of this world being vulnerable to a thirsty ox, and thinking of  in almost sci fi way about ways to move between worlds or modes. That thoughts developed after I’d read ‘drowned’ yesterday and I didn’t go back to  this word – but now with the odd thought firmly established in my mind, as I reread, ‘drowned’  is a clue.

A clue to what? To the strange point of  view Traherne is inhabiting – where he can see two worlds, he’s in a virtual doorway. Looked at from one point of view (this world) the people  he can see are drowning. Looked at from  inside the puddle-world they are not drowning they are ‘freely moving to and fro’.

If I was reading this in a group I’d want to open up a conversation about what we all know about different worlds, different possible worlds, and whether we ever sense them.  I’d be looking for an example.  Time and chance  offer the easiest examples, perhaps. You meet an old boyfriend after twenty years in some unexpected situation, there he is, selling you a new car, working as an ambulance driver, the police detective who comes about your burglary, at a school reunion/  Possible lives – what if we had stayed together? – open up. You look at them briefly. Most likely the possible closes down.

Another example? You were injured in an accident when you went on a VSO project, you lost a hand. Wouldn’t the moment of choosing to go on that adventure keep replaying? Possible lives where you chose something else?  How close are those worlds?

Of course, these examples  are linked by choices, and Traherne’s are not – his are wild and unpredictable  glitches in the universe.  Have you ever  experienced anything like that? Sometimes landscape seems to open up other ways of seeing – for me, very big landscapes – the Lake District, the Bay of Kotor, the Pembroke Coast seem to offer intimations of  the world in a different mode – rather like  in the Coventry Patmore poem last week.

But Traherne’s vision is odder than that. That’s what  I love about Traherne. It’s all very strange for him.

So in stanza 3 Traherne sees that double vision, and in stanza 4 he comments the strangeness of his own (our own) position, ‘strange’ he says ;

We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold

The experience seems increasingly about vision – I am just noticing all the words that are about seeing, a list which begins early on with the word ‘seeming’; which contains ‘seeing’ ; it’s Traherne’s eyes which are initially tricked by the experience (stanza 2) in stanza 3, ‘saw’, stanza 4 ‘see’, stanza 5 ‘saw’ ‘seen’, stanza 6 ‘view’, stanza 8 ‘see’ ‘see’ and ‘seemed’, stanza 9 ‘look’ ‘eyes’, stanza 10 ‘image’ ‘view’.

Here is something we can see but not enter, not touch, not talk or otherwise communicate with and yet the seeing is strong;

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

‘Antipodes’ is a great word to have here ; it means ‘having the feet opposite’ and signifies usually  in English, Australia and New Zealand – the opposite sides of the earth.  These were places people once couldn’t imagine. In flat earth days it would have been impossible that there could be another side to the planet.  butthat thinking about possibility grew outmoded – we found ‘the antipodes’ and learned  more about our planet.

What is the child who plays in this puddle learning ? (Thinking of Emerson asking what does the wave teach the fisherman).  The child is learning that things can look very different – that there are other worlds, other beings…that we can’t communicate with them in the usual ways – because

though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between

How important is this ‘film’, this thin but apparently impermeable barrier? And is it a metaphor for something else? I’m not sure yet, so I read on into stanza 6;

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

This joining at the feet, this mirroring, seems very important now.  This is the place of the film and yet it is also the place of view – not a doorway, as I thought earlier, but a window which opens a view –  yes, a view of a phantom, yet ’tis a world indeed’. The repetition of the joining point, the keeping coming back to it ‘where people’s feet against ours go’.

Now I come to  stanza 7 which I’ve found  most hard to understand when I’ve been reading through;

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

Does Traherne look up at this point? He has been (remembering) looking down at the world in the puddle, but suddenly now he’s talking about ‘the air’, ‘heavens’. The puddle world wasn’t so much a metaphor as a clue to possibility: there may be such worlds in other  places and look up! there’s all that space up there. Given what we have just seen in the puddle, is it possible that there are worlds, lands;

Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;

And beyond the land, may there be creatures, my yet unknown friends, (walking foot to foot with us?)

Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

Host is often a word for angels – the heavenly host – and if they are there – we may not know what they are doing, we will not understand their ‘great and glorious ends’, just as there is no communication between the people in the reversed world of the puddle. Now we come to stanza 8 where Traherne makes his leap of thought explicit:

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

 

But that’s it for today – will read  this stanza tomorrow. But look at the skies today, look up.

Shadows in the Water

 

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Fennel shivering in front garden, August 4

This morning I have used up some of my hour looking for what to read next. I’ve been reading more Coventry Patmore and then drifted over towards Wordsworth, but neither seemed to be what I wanted to  think and write about this morning.  I plan to write about some more Denise Levertov poems, but must get organised to get  permissions sorted first. I glanced through  All The Days of My Life, thinking, is there anything in there that I haven’t already read? And here, there was this poem by Thomas Traherne, whose work I love, that I don’t think I’ve ever read. It’ll take more than  one post  to read it.

I’ve glanced at the poem, I’ve scanned it. I’ve realised ‘I don’t know it.’ Now I’m going to read it slowly and try to get the lie of the land – not understanding or even trying to understand most of it, but  getting the feel of its shape and outlines, areas of  difficulty, the words or clauses or lines that seem most important.  If not writing on-screen, I’d be doing this reading with a pencil –  marking bits even when I didn’t really know why I was marking them. I’m going to use a different colour to mark  those points here – but read it yourself at The Poetry Foundation, with none of my marks, first.

Shadows in the water

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

By stanza 8, I was lost, couldn’t work out what was being said. I marked it all, and thought I’ll stop reading here, mind overload. Start again more slowly.

Did I get a  glance at the shape of the poem, a rough outline?  Yes – something about the sense of  other worlds, other modes of being perhaps,  which Traherne gained from seeing reflections in a puddle. That this leads him to think something about … hmm, but  I’ve lost it. Need to start again and get it bit by bit.  Odd feeling, because much of the poem is very simple but then you have the suddenly down a rabbit-hole feeling.

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

I felt at first, I’ll understand this better when I know more about the rest of the poem. But I’ve read through the rest of the poem and am still not very clear, so going to start making a stab at understanding it, knowing that I’ll have to come back later with more understanding… But now I read the opener… I see that may be what he is talking about – that learning process I’ve just described.

As I read this stanza again, I’m thinking of two things: (i) how babies learn and (ii) how I learn.  ‘Inexperienced infancy’ might apply to a child learning something for the first time but it also applies to me  now – with regards to  this poem, I am in ‘inexperienced infancy’, it’s all new to me. I might make a mistake – and as Owl said to Winnie the Pooh, ‘no blame can be attached’, it is a ‘sweet mistake because it comes from ‘inexperience’.

It’s a mistake but it was ‘intending true’, so the intention behind was good – was in itself true – though what you did with it wasn’t quite right. Thomas Traherne  explains this with that series of clauses – look at the punctuation – colon, semi colon, semi colon – as if one thought leads on to another and comes from or winds up inside another.

I look again at the line ‘a seeming somewhat more than view’ – not sure whether it is coming out of the line that preceded it;

Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;

or leading to the line that follows;

A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind

Now I’ve split them out like that I can it is both, it’s a transitional line – you make a mistake out of ignorance because you had a slightly false/unclear idea of  something rather than a clear view. That  ignorant, unmeant, misapprehension, ‘doth instruct the mind’. It’s not your fault! It is a fault of not knowing.

At the beginning of learning to understand something, the something – let’s say someone else’s state of mind – it is cloudy: you often can’t see it clearly because you have don’t have the mental sight lines, coordinates to  get the perspective.

Ok – that’s all about me, me thinking about how I make mistakes and the effect of not knowing… but when I look again at the stanza, and an hour into my reading of this poem, I can see that Traherne is talking about how kids misunderstand things and sometimes that  creates something beautiful. A silly example:

My mum told me that when she was a child they called the cupboard under the stairs  ‘The Glory Hole’ or The Glory for short. At the end of the Lord’s Prayer, Anglicans say or said in her day, ‘For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory…’ Mum, in her child ignorance made the ‘sweet mistake’ as Traherne would call it, of  assuming that meant that God somehow owned ‘The Glory’ under their stairs, that it was a  His place. Lovely mistake, does no harm, is sweet. Based on a ‘seeming’ rather than on clear sight.

Thomas Traherne is now going to tell us such a story of his own. But that’s for tomorrow.

 

Taking comfort from the experience of the Victorian Patriarch

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Front garden and a hard rain, 3 August

Yesterday I’d started reading ‘The Toys’, which I’ll reread here, now:

The Toys

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

I’d read to the end of the first sentence yesterday  so I am going to pick up here:

Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

It’s interesting that the word ‘grief’ comes in straight after the line about the mother being dead. I’d had the feeling that the father was feeling grief too, grief at hitting the child, at being unkind, harsh, not kissing him goodnight. So this line ‘Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep’ feels to me  as much about the father as the child. The father is feeling remorse and wants now to comfort the child.  How closely he looks at the child, seeing his eye lashes are wet. This isn’t just putting your head round the door and thinking , oh, he’s gone off!  The distressed father, crying himself now, kisses the child. He was moved before he entered the room  but he is moved even more now. The wet eyelashes, the bruised looking lids, play a big part in agitating the father’s feelings, but it is the comforts to which the child has turned which really get him:

For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

Lovely things, loved by the child and all of them standing in for his father’s kiss. You love these things, the father is thinking, you havedrawn them close when I should have been close.

As someone who has sometimes  lost her tempter with children, and others,  and as someone who was once a child sometimes sent angrily to bed, crying myself to sleep, who has felt these feelings of sadness and remorse, I find this poem very moving, very real. but now we reach ‘God’ and I have to do my usual exercise of reading what Coventry Patmore has written and trying to understand, get inside it. and at the same time doing some sort of  spiritual translation for myself so that  ‘God’ can  mean something to me.

So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Coventry Patmore prays to God ‘that night’ as, I imagine he does every night.  for non-God readers, what might this translate into? A period of meditative reflection?  You are thinking over  the events of the day and evaluating how you did ?  Patmore’s God is God The Father, and I suddenly feel, as if for the first time, what a burden that might have been for Victorian patriarchs – not just backup and authority but an impossible role model.

If the child broke the father’s law seven times and got a whack for doing so, how many times has the father broken God’s law? Which includes forgive people not seven times but seventy times seven. Patmore the father will be  thinking of his own failure – ‘how weakly understood/Thy great commanded good’ just as his little son did not understand the meaning or reality of Patmore’s law. and what comforts does Patmore the child of God the father seek – things like  ‘a box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,/A piece of glass abraded by the beach/And six or seven shells,’…. stuff, things, worldly comforts? when all the time there is a possible comfort in god – not always a wrathful Old Testament patriarch, but one who can kiss your head and say  “I will be sorry for their childishness.” This isn’t a biblical quotation so far as I can see, though I do wonder if it is an echo  or memory of Psalm 38.

When you don’t have God, you are left with your own feelings and what’s happened. That can be extremely lonely, and it is hard to control the remorse, you are (I am) left to suffer guilt.  Believing in God who would forgive and understand your weakness, failures, would be a great comfort.  This poem contains that comfort, and offers, as it were through the story of the poem, indirectly, a model of such a feeling, which, reading, I too can feel. I can feelingly imagine a comforter, even as I am feeling with Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Oh Comforter, where is thy comforting?’

Imaging that possibility – for Patmore, if not for myself –  introduces that possibility into my range of thought. Putting the shape – even through a fiction –  into my mind helps create it. So it is the poem helps me feel better.

 

 

Not a Victorian Dad Thing: ‘The Toys’ by Coventry Patmore

greengage
Greengage (and fairy lights) enjoying a stiff August breeze, August 2 

Yesterday I finished reading Coventry Patmore’s ‘Magna est Veritas’, and realised that I’d been unconsciously thinking of ‘The Toys’ while reading. So here is that poem:

The Toys

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Here’s a poem that confounds conventional stereotypes about Victorian fathers.

The first sentence  tells us what’s happened:

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

I’d want to go  very slowly through these opening lines  and get my group to think about the order of  the various bits of information here. First, we are set down right in front of the child, ‘my little Son’, where the adjective ‘little’ seems almost an endearment as well as a descriptor.

Then we see him in a wider, more extended context:

…who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,

This child, is normally well-behaved, ‘thoughtful’ and easy to parent,  he ‘moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise.’ Does the father treat him as an adult? and could that be part of the problem – was he expecting too much? No childishness?

I realise as I am reading that this feels like overhearing a confession or a counselling session. The father is remembering and thinking about this painful incident, but he’s not just telling the story of the incident. He is telling us his feelings about what happened. There’s much love, tenderness, in the first two lines as he  recounts how much he loves the child and how good the child is normally. Which makes the next part so much the more painful:

Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

The father has a law – rules, we might call them, or, these days,  boundaries. But there is huge authority in that word law, and it does make me think (I know we are not there yet but I know it is coming, having read the poem through a couple of times) God The Father.

The child has tried his father’s patience and seven times. That’s quite a lot of times that your child has stepped over the boundary.  I imagine some small child-crime – pushing the sibling off the slide – once, three times – I’m getting pretty angry. Seven times?  Getting very cross indeed…But  is that ‘seven’ an echo of something? It must be a reference to the Bible:

(Romans 12:14-21)

21Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

We no longer think it right to strike children, but in Patmore’s day that would have been not simply socially acceptable  but considered the right way to enforce disciple – it was in my childhood and  in my own children’s childhoods. But as bad as the  blow, possibly worse, is the emotional pain of rejection –  it’s the father who did the rejecting –  in the name of parental authority – but he suffers it now :

I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

We get to a key pain here for the father – the word ‘unkiss’d ‘ seems to raise the memory, ghostly presence, of the mother. That mother, ‘who was patient’, would  not have done this or let it happen, and is dead. ‘Being dead’  – that’s an odd way to put it. It feels raw.

Thre’s a kind of paraphrase I want to make:  ‘his motherbeing dead, I  hit the child and sent him away unkindly, unkissed. She’d never have let that happen.’

We are likely  to think of the poem at first as showing us a classic stern Victorian father stereotype but what we’re getting here is actually a different kind of classic: difficulty of the single parent, having to be both father and mother, having to set a boundary, stick to it and pull back when a line is crossed.  It’s hard that the little clause, ‘who was patient’, is  set in  the middle of that line about death, that patience is unavailable. The father has not been patient; certainly not to seventy times seven.

It’s so recognisable – every parent must have had this experience or something like it at some point.

But I want to think for a moment about that ‘recognisable’. ‘Relevance’ is another of those troubling matters which are not easy to resolve with a rule of thumb or principle. Does what you take to a  group of people who are  – or are about to become – a Shared Reading group have to be ‘relevant’ ?  Do you only take ‘The Toys’ to a group of parents?  For a group of men who like fishing, do you only take a fishing magazine? And for those who follow the Kardashians or Love Island what should you be taking?

But most groups aren’t made up of  single issue members: fathers or fishing fans or Kardashian followers, people with a fear of horses, single parents or  those who only live in odd-numbered houses. All those people might well attend the same group. So catering for a specific interest group, or what one assumes is a specific interest  or single issue group (people who live round here, people with no qualifications, people engaged with mental health services)  is rarely the best way to go.  ‘People who live round here’ are all different individuals  and  yet also share some underlying human experience which is not necessarily ‘living round here’. The ‘underlying human’ is more powerful, in my experience, than the ‘connected by our living round here’. Good poems will work well with most people.

There are exceptions. I wouldn’t in the first instance think of reading ‘The Toys’ with a parent in prison for  abusing a child. As a man at Reader event once said to me, poems are like poems, they can go off, they can  hurt people. But that is not to say that I wouldn’t think of reading the poem later, when we had been reading together long enough, when we trusted one another, if it seemed as if it might help. Read in The Reader magazine about my colleague Megg, reading Charles Bukowski’s poem, ‘Bluebird’ in Send prison -sorry can’t remember which issue.

And of course, you do not know, you never know, the individual private experience of members of your group, who might have been abused by parents  or others, or have been perpetrators or sufferers of domestic violence.

Most people know quite a lot about most human experiences, wherever they live, whatever their educational experience, whether or not they work, live with a chronic illness or are in recovery from addiction. Poems will touch a spot in someone in your group. That  isn’t a  thing to be too afraid of –  though be a bit afraid, because it helps keep your mind on the likely responses – that is what poems do. That is what they are for, to find, activate  and connect the underlying human experience.

Almost everyone can relate to ‘The Toys’ because it is about feeling guilty after a bad mistake. That’s a human thing, not just  a Victorian dad thing.

Finish reading ‘The Toys’ tomorrow

 

 

 

Truth is great and what else matters? What to read in a Shared Reading group

oleander.JPG
Oleander shivering on the back step, 1 August

Yesterday I was reading this poem from Coventry Patmore’s :

Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

And had  got as far as the last four lines. Yesterday I’d finished:

Now I reach the line that troubled me at the beginning: ‘when all its work is done, the lie shall rot’.  the pronoun, ‘its’, refers to  the world, or the world’s course,  to the great unfolding of time and history and the planet. Then, when that work is done, ‘the lie shall rot’. Seems like one bog, obvious lie. Just one of it  – ‘the lie’.

Could it be the lie about human value –  every life matters?  Could it be the lie about  the material work of humanity in the world – we’re doing all this, getting money, bringing our children up,  working – but  that’s not what it’s all about? I don’t know why I say ‘children’, because the word Coventry Patmore uses is ‘work’.

Starting again here, now, today I go back to that thought about children/work.

I realised overnight that I was thinking about children here because the only other poem of Coventry Patmore I’ve read is The Toys  – a poem about making a mistake as a parent and suffering for your temper after the child has gone to sleep. Perhaps that sense of his fatherhood was unconsciously in my mind when I was  wondering about what kind of thing he had walked away from.

It’s a strange feeling isn’t it, contemplating the world without ‘me’ in it? Which is, I think, what he has been doing and partly where the poem comes from. Patmore goes on to imagine the world’s ‘work’ – I ask myself as I read, what is that?  The course of human business? Mammon? If so, that leads me back to ‘the lie shall rot.’ Is that the one big lie we’re all involved in:  that what we  do matters? I don’t think that is quite right, but not sure it is completely wrong, either. I’m leaving it there while I go on to the next two lines:

The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

There’s a division between  human concerns and  bigger-than-human truth.  The truth (like the lie, a single, particular thing) ‘shall prevail’.  My understanding of grammar is poor, so I looked ‘shall’ up, not so much for its definition  – I think  it is a future form of the verb ‘be’  – as to understand  what it does as a part of speech.

‘Shall’ is a way of creating the future tense and is distinguished from  – the more commonly used – ‘will’. The key differentiator is that ‘shall’ does not indicate and desire or command, whereas  ‘will’ does. ‘Shall’ is going to happen whether you want it to or not. Which well  fits with the overall meaning here.

I’m now noticing, for the first time, the word ‘rot’ here.

It’s an organic, matter-based word.  It’s what happens to bodies after death. ‘The lie’, then, may be to do with the human world, partly geophysical – it will all go, in the end , won’t it? – but also partly everything we have created or invented or made – the world of philosophy,  the world of banking, the world of  public reputation. It will all rot…so our busy commitment to it, is that the lie?

I’m wondering now if  this poem about two kinds of belief about what the world is? They have clashed together somehow in the poet and forced this –  angry, disappointed, resolved ? – poem out. One is a materialist and human-centred view, apparently, but not actually,  purposeful(the huge town set in opposition to the natural movement of the tide, ‘purposeful, glad’). The other is something else.  It is not defined. It doesn’t get a mention, other than as ‘The truth is great’.

I wonder, on rereading the last line, ‘when none cares whether it prevail or not’, whether this was in fact the origin impulse for the poem’s creation. Did someone, did Patmore, care about whether truth prevailed in a specific instance?  Did he suffer  the fact that someone else did not care?

I imagine a story behind the poem… this is a way in which  I would  extend discussion in a Shared Reading group, to help  get the group more deeply into the  poem rather than rest on the surface.

What’s the story?  Someone did not care about the truth. Someone’s not caring about the truth affected Coventry Patmore’s ability to do his job – could have been him, himself, cold have been someone else. He walks out to get away from it.  Up the cliffs, perspective, smallness of human. Well, truth exists aside from everything human, he feels, as he looks at the  landscape, the ocean, the aeons.  Our pettiness won’t, matter, doesn’t matter now.

I’d read this poem again now, in my group, to give us all a chance to  listen to it and read it, with whatever thoughts we’ve assembled amongst us, in our heads.

I don’t end up feeling it is an abnegating poem. It feels more like a rest and a breath – and a re-assertion: truth is great.  I’ve just noticed, as I run out of time, that the word great appears twice – first at line 2, ‘great repose’. But time’s up.

Maybe tomorrow,  reread The Toys.

 

 

 

 

Walk away and look back: some perspective from Coventry Patmore

Huge Cliffs overlooking

Perast.JPG
Perspective in Kotor Bay, July 2017

This morning marks my return to work after a three-week break.  Odd to have the back-to-school feeling at the end of July instead of the beginning of September!

I loved those September mornings during my  unhappy and unsatisfactory years at secondary school: sunny mornings with the  scents of  early autumn and the possibility of  starting again. And even now, in January and after a break like this, I love the feeling of a new start.

I woke before my alarm and came to my desk to read, wondering if I should set myself some reading task this year, rather than wandering all over the place as usual. So, a brief stock-take:

I’m reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog, usually at least once a week. Will continue – know it well, love rereading.

I’m reading some Denise Levertov, maybe a poem or so each month. Great to be meeting an author  whose work is relatively unknown to me. Will continue.

Have been reading in a dip in and out way in the Oxford Book of English Verse and will continue to do that.

Am recording everything I start reading (‘Just Started’) and writing ‘Just Finished’ about things I want to recommend.

But I want something else?

I’m aware of the need for more contemporary poetry here but  the need to clear copyright means I need to be organised in advance. Not sure I can manage that.

I wonder about the possibility of starting a long poem – The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, The Prelude. That would be good  for me as  a regular effort and  I miss those  works when not teaching them on the Reading in Practice MA

Also wondering about my own Anthology of things I love or poems that have built me… that could be a tag.

This morning I wanted to read an old poem I had not read before and leafed through some Emily Bronte, Tennyson and Browning and Clough mainly noting old  friends before coming to this poem by Coventry Patmore which I’m sure lots of people know, but which I think is new to me. It struck a note lingering since my time away and some of the feelings and thoughts arising out of reading Emerson’s Essays. The Latin title (truth is great) is a  glance at a quotation from the Apocrypha – the uncanonised books of the Bible – the truth is great and shall prevail.

I was thinking of Emerson writing about what a fisherman learns from the action of the sea. that seems the same kind of action that is taking place in Coventry Patmore as he writes.

 

Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

I’m immediately bothered on my first reading by ‘the lie shall rot’. I don’t know which lie Patmore is talking about. But that’s not a good place to get into the poem! I tell myself to read it again. I read it again.

A second slow reading brings home to me the  clear sense of two halves of the poem –  the before ‘I sit me down’ and the after.  It’s as if the poem takes place at a point of balance, a fulcrum. At this point, ‘I sit me down’ , Coventry Patmore can see both before and after.

There seems to be a lot about perspective, relative size, point of view. First, the Latin title makes me  think – Latin, the classics, ancient thinking, old-time. Then  when I found it was a biblical or apocryphal quotation that time span seemed to open up even more. So, literally, big is truth, sets the scale of this very small poem. It’s like some kind of telescopic viewer! We  start big and shrink down:

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

On this spot, ‘here’,  we experience or  remember, or watch from a great  distance a huge scene, which seems to be set in a massive geographical perspective.  The bay looks little, is little. I imagine Scarborough, walking up out-of-town on the cliff paths to a point where you can look back and see the shape of the bay as part of the coast’s huger geography. Yes, it is ‘little’. but as someone who has just walked from the  huge town and in view of the ocean, I see ‘tumultuous life and great repose’, all at once, both of those apparently opposed  things. The view from here, of the  little bay offers me a chance to see it all at once.

I thought at first that the ‘tumultuous life and great repose’ was about the town, but realise now on a fourth reading that it is  the entire bay and everything in it, the town yes, but also the landscape and the seascape. it is everything we are going to see in the next few lines:

Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town

The ocean and the movement of the ocean, the height of the cliffs, the distance from/to the town and the hugeness of the town itself are all visible at once, from ‘here’.

I note the ocean is ‘ purposeless, glad ‘ – that these two words are jammed together inside the line.

I note there’s a sudden rhythmic relief in the next line ‘I sit me down.’I read it all again. I wonder if there’s a separate Biblical echo in ‘I sit me down’? (By the rivers of Babylon).

Feels like a long look round, a long gaze takes place – and if we were Emerson, we’d be thinking, yes, this is how nature teaches. And then we come to the thought:

For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

I wonder about the  piece of life that has been happening before the poem emerged, and which in some sense caused the poem to be born. Why is he out gazing at this huge view? what has he walked away from? What’s the mood?

In the line ‘for want of me the world’s course will not fail’ I might feel a straight forward estimation of reality: it’s just true, each of us is very small and hardly matter in the least to the big sweep.

But I am also thinking, is this an abnegation of responsibility? Could he be imagining a world without him in it, is he suicidal? is he merely frustrated? Has his work gone badly?

When I reread the lines, the ‘;me’ seems very small, very intimate. It’s a very private inner feeling. Is it like thinking  ‘I can’t fix all this?’ But the ‘want of me’  – he’s thinking of not being there. Will it make any difference if he is dead? No, he thinks, it won’t.

Funny thing to balance here between sanity and reality –  you can’t save the world! and abnegation of responsibility – if I go it won’t matter.

Now I reach the line that troubled me at the beginning: ‘when all its work is done, the lie shall rot’.  the pronoun, ‘its’, refers to  the world, or the world’s course,  to the great unfolding of time and history and the planet. Then, when that work is done, ‘the lie shall rot’. Seems like one bog, obvious lie. Just one of it  – ‘the lie’.

Could it be the lie about human value –  every life matters?  Could it be the lie about  the material work of humanity in the world – we’re doing all this, getting money, bringing our children up,  working – but  that’s not what it’s all about? I don’t know why I say ‘children’, because the word Coventry Patmore uses is ‘work’.

Yikes time is way up – I’m late! Will finish tomorrow.

 

 

Beyond The Utmost Bound

bee on hebe
A bee enjoying a Hebe, front garden, 2 July

Day Four of my  slow reading of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ – an idea for a Shared Reading group, which will take a full session, and won’t be suitable for every group. But for a bunch of people who may be in a give up/don’t give up situation, or for those of us facing the growing closeness of age… really worth reading. Search ‘Ulysses’ to find previous posts. Go here to find the whole poem and don’t forget to read it all aloud before you start trying to get into it!

Yesterday I was writing in the back garden to keep the birds away from the cherries, and I am back there today, late to my writing for a number of reasons, one of which is the  big online sleep experiment.  Scientists are trying to  see how much sleep or lack of sleep affects brain function. My goodness, some of those puzzles are scary!  I realised while I was doing them that even the word ‘test’, as in ‘Take the Test!’  makes me feel anxious. All those years of failure at school leave their mark.  But I enjoyed participating and am hoping that the study will encourage me to get my sleep  hours up to at least  seven a night.

However, to ‘Ulysses’. I was in this section:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

I think I was about up to ‘but every hour is saved/from that eternal silence’, which is sometimes how I feel on days when I wake up early and have the dawn hours to myself to read and write. Ulysses doesn’t just want the time, he wants time for a purpose, to him time gained is time as a ‘bringer of new things’. He makes his own argument for movement, for change, against  staying put, and  as he slightly thinks about his stay-at-home life we’re back to the frustrated vocabulary of the opening – ‘vile’, ‘store’, ‘hoard’.

What does he mean by ‘for some three suns’?  It’s a period of time and I guess years – though why that would be a sun I do not know.  But I don’t think it is months. This is the kind of thing someone in the group might want to look up on their phone but I’d ask them to hold off until we’ve tried to work it out a bit – we want the sense that we can either understand it or not be  bothered by not understanding it. It’s not the time period but the feeling of ‘hoard’ that is important here, the feeling of going ‘grey’ when you still have

                         spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This ‘utmost bound of human thought’ seems connected to the arch we read about yesterday:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

This is that sense of what Wordsworth calls ‘something ever more about to be’, the uncatchable,  the ineffable, the  reaching after which is the engine of human endeavour. There is always more, and a person like Ulysses will always want to pursue it.  And so he does, turning now to his son, and handing on the duties of  rulership:

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

You can feel him reaching for his coat and heading for the door as he speaks. Telemachus is suited to one kind of job – and that job is not nothing, either –  building a civilisation:

by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

This is good work, but not  the kind  of work Ulysses  could fancy.  And Telemachus seems damned by his father’s faint praise: he is described as  discerning, prudent, blameless, decent and ‘centred in the sphere /of common duties’.

I would want to stop here, in my Shared Reading group, to talk about ways in which the good can seem mundane, or even boring. The wildness of a Ulysses, or any great hero who goes beyond the bounds of human experience, human thought, is enormously attractive, but as a species we need our Telemachuses as much as our great adventurers, don’t we? Is it simply because the great adventurers are rarer spirits that we  prize them more?  (If we were making a film of this poem, who would you cast to play Ulysses? Clint Eastwood, Russell Crowe?  and Telemachus? Some quiet, well-behaved bod I can’t even  remember the name of… This is a game  I often play in groups, because most people have ideas about actors, and know they stand for something when you are trying to cast them, it gives us a clue into the character we are reading about).

And the faint praise continues: Telemachus can keep everything ticking over, even ‘pay/Meet adoration to my household gods’.

I would want to ask what might be lost by not paying  ‘meet adoration’ to your own household gods –  loss of domestic security, the quiet comforts of home, or of being well-ordered at home.  How much does that matter?

But the poem presses on and Ulysses manages a  generous wave as he leaves the palace:  ‘He works his work, I mine.’ And he is about to get to his work now… but we’ll leave the last movement til tomorrow, as I must stop now for today.