You never understood/ that it ain’t no good/you shouldn’t let other people/ get your kicks for you

 

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Early morning near the playground at Calderstones, 18 October

Yesterday, among other things, I started reading The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold. I could have started by giving you some facts about  Matthew Arnold –  his dates, or bits of history that might set a context for the poem or the man or his situation – MA was a depressive, MA lived at a time when faith in God was disintegrating, MA was unhappy at Oxford (I’ve just made that last one up).

 

None of that, true or untrue,  would have made the reality of the poem stronger and  actually, it would have taken away from the poem. One of the rules of Shared Reading is – Do Not Do Background. That’s substituting facts for direct  experience:  letting other people get your kicks for you

Of course rules need breaking sometimes, and I leave that to your judgement, but  97 times out of 100: no background, please!

Why? I can see there’s an argument for saying  that biography, social context, facts about the type of mead people drank, or when glass windows were invented, Mums, Dads and siblings and the political system all feed in to whatever a writer can write… but most of it is irrelevant to the direct experience of the poem.

But the direct experience is what we sometimes want to avoid because direct is  hard, like writing or doing your fifty lengths in the pool or teaching your kids discipline. I speak from personal experience. But after more than forty years of hard reading I am willing to risk the difficulty.  I have a long backlog of practice that tells me the direct experience is worth having.

But I can clearly remember the feeling at school and as a university and post-grad student, of wanting to avoid true engagement with the poem.  Of wanting to get round it or find a short-cut. I remember a feeling of dread and avoidance which was to do with facing the unknown, facing the task of creation, with only my own resources to get me through. That feeling of dread was to do with the work of it, having to make the huge effort of imagination and summon the  will which is needed to bring the inert poem flat on the page back to life. Taking responsibility for that  for act of re-creation.

The temptation to let someone else do that creative work for me was  very strong because my confidence was under-developed. F.R. Leavis  understands T.S. Eliot, I’d think,  let him  do the work and I’ll just say what he says. But this was me standing at the edge of the swimming bath hopping from one foot to another, afraid to jump in.  The experience of reading a poem can’t be done for you, and no amount of knowing the water temperature or when the pool was constructed or why it was in fashion to  have  marbled tiles will make any difference: you’ve always got to get into the water if you want to swim. Talking about what ‘Victorians’ knew isn’t helpful. The poem is its own thing, existing in its own force-field, free of time, if it is still a working poem. More to say on this another day.

Here’s it is, let’s read it all through then I’ll go back to where we had got up to yesterday
The Buried Life
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!                                                     5
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,                                                        10
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?                                                      15
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                                                                        20
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?                                   25
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                                                                                        30
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                                              35
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;                                                    40
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,                                       45
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;                                                  50
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,                                     55
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—                                    60
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                                                  65
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;                                                                                 70
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                                              75
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,                                                                            80
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.                                                        85
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.                                 90
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.                                            95
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Yesterday we’d got  to stanza two and had read  up to line 15. We’d seen Matthew Arnold  looking to his beloved;

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?                                                      15
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                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

Yesterday, I’d got caught up with the words ‘even’ and ‘indeed’, and that had led me on to  think about the poem’s rhythm. Now I’m looking also at the rhymes, which are plentiful but not always patterned. In this second stanza we start with rhyming couplets (two lines which rhyme, one coming straight after the other: weak/speak, reveal/feel, conceal’d/reveal’d).

Me: Rhyming couplets – what are they like?

(I don’t want to make a definitive statement here, I want you to feel  the reality – get in the water and splash about the tell me what it feels like!).

You:  They are strong.

Me:  Yes I agree – Alas! is even love too weak/ To unlock the heart, and let it speak? – Can you say more? Why do they seem strong?

You: They kind of finish – they are rounded off. It’s as if  the thought is completed.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

Someone Else:  Yes, completed  in one way, but  it’s a question and there isn’t an answer! So in another way, it’s not complete.

Me:  Ok, so we’ve got a rhyming couplet where the rhymes are powerful and seem to  bring a conclusion, yet we’ve also got a question…

Someone Else: Well two questions, actually

You: Both with rhyming couplets! Conclusion  not concluded!

Someone else: Left hanging – and that’s the completeness of his thought  though isn’t it – he thinks ‘even  love can’t do it’, but they it’s like he adds, ‘can it?’

You: so the finish of the rhyme is undercut by the question mark?

Me:  You’re doing that yourself now!

You: But no rhyme! this time!

Me: Shall we go on? Look at this…

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                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

You:  Hey up, Jane we’re out of time

Me: Oh blast! More tomorrow. Going for a swim now.

Essex Girl meets Punk Reader: starting to read a new-to-me poem by Denise Levertov

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Old English Garden at Calderstones getting into Autumn, 18 September

This morning I’m starting to read a poem new to me, which I’ve found in the very lovely (New Directions) Collected Poems of Denise Levertov.

I begin with a nervous feeling, it looks a big poem, and as if it might be important. That nervous feeling makes me afraid and angry, old feelings left from early days at University. Does everything we’ve ever felt lie in us waiting to be re-ignited?

All those lifetime-old  worries – poetry is something clever experts know about – come back like weird auto-response twitches, and I tell myself: you’ve been a good reader for years, decades, a life time, shut up you and your silly worried voices. My young punk self aggressive in her assertion brought to life by feeling of dustiness of ‘experts’: I can do it without your *%^&*”* notes!

If a poem needs a critical apparatus it’s no poem. A poem stands alone, is a product of a human soul and mind. A reader meets it. They  begin to read each other. Don’t be afraid, I soothe my young angry uneducated self,  believe in that lively interchange.

I read the poem through a couple of times:

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

Hhhhmm. A long read, and a lovely read though largely still incomprehensible to me this morning. I see the map she is reading. I do not know Essex and need a map of my own to compare hers against, but this is also genetics, isn’t it,and the history of a family moving around the world?

These are the thoughts that are roughly in my  mind as I open the poem and begin to look.

When I start again, I am uncertain because I don’t know what the ‘something’ is:

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:

Had she forgotten Essex, that she was Essex-born?  Had that memory  faded in the more cosmopolitan light of Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon and the United States?  have those places  her ‘fathers and mothers’ came from become more significant in her life story than the actualities of her  real life story??

I’m over my nerves already!

Reading a new poem – and particularly perhaps a poem with some kind of reputation or aura (and for me, with this poem that was just to do with its density on the page plus my immediate inability to get into it) – you have to put your insecurity aside and face it as an equal. You have to say:  I don’t understand. O.k., you have to say to yourself,  ask a question then.  There may be many questions and few answers. But asking gets you talking.  And the next thing neither you nor the poem is standing there like a monolith.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a map of Essex and longer time for writing.

”A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

After long night at Anfield, still slowly reading that Shakespeare Sonnet

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Moments before the game started, when all seemed well

LFC V Sevilla  was a long night on Wednesday, in the seocond half time slowed almost to a stop. This meant I didn’t go to bed til nearly midnight, and not going to bed til nearly midnight meant I didn’t wake up early yesterday. My writing time was eaten up by care-charmer sleep and though I did still have a little time before work, I wanted to go swimming. So it seems a  long time since I started reading Sonnet 44 by William Shakespeare.  Thus time expands and contracts, though the minute hand moves at the same speed.

Reading back over Wednesday’s post I see I’ve only really written about two lines, which is odd because in my memory I’d done quite a lot.  All this makes me think about time and depth.

The Gutenburg Elegies (1994) is  an early piece of thinking  about  the damage digital technology would wreak on the act of book reading, which Birketts posits as one of  the cornerstones of humanism. I think I’ve got my copy in work, so can’t quote from it directly but  one of the things Sven Birketts thinks about in the collection of essays is deep reading – the reading that took place when people only had one book – typically, The Bible. Birketts imagines a woman in a rural village reading that  book every week  for her entire life.  Not a wide reader, but a deep one. I remember Jeanette Winterson writing in Why Be Happy that her mother would read the Bible to  her every night and  when she got to the end they’d start again at the beginning. I’m not saying that was a good thing, but it was a deep thing and that  immersion, saturation,  in a rich and complex language helped create a language-rich inner life and make Jeanette a writer.

I wonder if less might be more? Does it matter if a whole Shared Reading session is taken up by the depth of a few lines?  I don’t think so. The important thing is find the places of depth and to learn to feel at ease there. Well, so I excuse my own slowness. So back to the poem:

SONNET LXIV (44)

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

I was saying that  it’s helpful to read the whole thing, get a sense of it, see where the punch is (‘That Time will come and take my love away.’) and then to look at the poem in terms of units of meaning – here  in clusters of two or four lines.

Other things to look at as you read and just note – line endings – what are they doing? punctuation – what is it telling us about  the geometry of the poem? Rhymes – see them? and if you had a red marker pen to pick out the key words,  killer words/thoughts – where would you mark?

All that kind of  noticing  goes on semi-unconsciously as I read the poem through and the depth of  my reading experience  partly depends on noticing as many of those  pieces. A good reading would mean that as much of the poem is brought into consciousness as possible.

Here I  pick up  at lines 3&4:

When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;

As in the opening couplet, Shakespeare is  thinking of  ferocious destruction. Why ferocious? ‘Down-razed’, ‘mortal rage’. Brass is a  strong metal  and it is subject to  mortal rage.. mortal meaning human or mortal meaning deathly –  it isn’t that we can smash brass up, but rather that brass is subject, like everything else, to destruction by time.

The next four lines hang together in terms of meaning though they retain the same structural pattern set out in lines 1-4: two pairs of couplets. But before I look at  that structure, I want to just get the rough meaning:

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;

This is the third ‘when’ of the sonnet –  I feel Shakespeare is finding examples of this destruction or change everywhere – he’s giving three examples but he might give three hundred. Much of the language is about fighting, this isn’t the universe melting into itself and becoming one.  Defaced, cost, outworn, down-razed, slave, rage, and now ‘hungry’, ‘advantage’ and ‘win’. We’re in a fight. Ocean and land cost each other – one can’t win unless the other loses. Whenever the is ‘store’  there is also ‘loss’,  wherever ‘loss’ , there is also ‘store’.  The semi-colon at the end of the line hints that another thought is growing out of the thought we have just experienced.

And here it is, marked by a full stop – we’ve reached the end of the bout.

When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.

A fourth ‘when’  – so that I am feeling, this seems a universal truth. It is everywhere, this ‘interchange of state’, one thing won only at the cost of another. But thinking back to the instances of destruction in the opening four lines,  it may not always be interchange. State itself may be  ‘confounded to decay’. ‘State’ is a brilliant word here, almost as if it  means ‘matter’,  but bigger than that, perhaps. Would ‘what is’  be an adequatetranslation? Not just stuff, but also being? Everything subject to Time’s undoing.

And ‘ruin’ – my god, that’s strong. Looking upon the universal tendency to ‘ruin’ (which physicists might later call entropy?) Shakespeare is taught to ‘ruminate’. There is a  stunning sound relation between ‘ruin’ and ‘ruminate’, to do with the long  sound ‘ru’- as if ruminate contains or holds ruin. You see it over and over. You can’t help but think. Oddly, after all that destruction, a calm descends.

Suddenly everything goes simple. There’s no violent language now. Just clear knowledge:

That Time will come and take my love away.

I’m going to read the last two lines tomorrow – so as not to rush them.

 

 

Overnight Thoughts, Knitting Up Those Raveled Sleeves and Doing My Expenses, Late.

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‘Sleep,’ says Macbeth, who hasn’t had any,  ‘knits up the raveled sleeve of care.’

I love overnight thoughts and the fact that my brain keeps trying even when I go to sleep. It’s as if everything does not depend on consciousness, a great relief when you haven’t got or can’t summon enough of that vital commodity to deal with all the things you’ve got to sort out.

This morning I woke up with some lines of George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ playing in my mind. I’ve written about that poem before  (search George Herbert and you’ll find it) but here it is again today.  Great poems come back and prove useful over and over.

It’s a religious poem and must come with my usual caveat: I’m not a Christian and have to translate what George Herbert is able to think as a Christian into something that makes sense to me. I borrow his language and try to understand my own situation through it.

Let’s read it quickly through:

Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.
         Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.
         A man that looks on glass,
         On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
         And then the heav’n espy.
         All may of Thee partake:
         Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
         Will not grow bright and clean.
         A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.
         This is the famous stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.

Why did I wake with the following lines quietly but insistently  reciting themselves  in my mind?

Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.

I had been dreaming, or perhaps better to say, unconsciously thinking, about some work problems and my brain was offering me ‘The Elixir’ as a solution.  It was saying  ‘You already know this! Think on!’

I say ‘problems’ but these weren’t the gut-wrenching problems of leadership common to every charity (and non-charity?) CEO. For me those problems,  real problems, the worst, the 2.47 a.m. and I’m wide awake problems, always involve people and their individual sensibilities.  Other kinds of worries sometimes wake me up but  it is the people problems that make me sweat. I think this  is connected to what William Stafford is talking about in his poem ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ (which you’ll find here) when he speaks of  ‘the horrible errors of childhood’

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

When I’m reading ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ with other people , this stanza is always a tricky one. You need a lot of trust to be willing to go into ‘the horrible errors of childhood/storming out to play through the broken dyke.’

Stafford is talking about people trying to make a new pattern in the world, people following each other or  sticking together, trying to get somewhere together. Everything depends on trust.  And this stanza about the ‘horrible errors of childhood’ is a stanza about moments when our trusting fails.

‘Betrayal’, which is a big thing, starts small,  a private, even secret thought, ‘ in the mind’. No one would even know what you were thinking.  But that small betrayal results in a physical action in the world: ‘a shrug’, which doesn’t at first seem much.

You think something bad about someone (which is how I take the word ‘betrayal’ – but we might argue about that) and you stop bothering. You let it go. Some things can’t be fixed. That shrug doesn’t seem much, and might even be sensible.

But it is the shrug that  ‘lets the fragile sequence break’ and suddenly all hell is let loose.

We become as children, in dangerous adult bodies/lives. To have the emotional needs of unhappy children, but to have them in adult lives, with adult powers of language and memory and behaviour and power, is a terrible thing. We become a raging flood, breaking the dam, the dyke, out of control.

Working on problems like that, the work of the priest or psychotherapist, is hard in a workplace where we don’t have time to slowly unravel  reasons and face them in our own time. We have to decide to do something today, now.

Poetry can help at work. You don’t need hours, you need a couple of lines. You need a different feeling round a table. You may only need one thought.

None of that was my problem last night, however. I didn’t wake up sweating. I slept through and woke with ‘The Elixir’ in my mind.

The problems of  last night are creative problems about trying to make Calderstones a place where the horrible errors of childhood are not storming around too much and where all our tasks, from picking up litter to serving soup, from reading the poems to reading the people, from filing our accounts with the Charities Commission to submitting expenses forms on time are all done as if they all mattered.

 A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.

The floor-sweeping, housekeeping, of filing my expenses on time saves the finance team trouble and that is as much a part of the vision of Calderstones as  good communication or fine literature or delicious soup.  Shrug  those small things off at your peril. Next thing, we’re all lost. ‘The Elixir’ came into my mind to tell me so.

Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.

 

 

Today I’m reading ‘Chickens’ and Robert Herrick, still thinking about what’s good and what’s great …

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Chickens and Other Ammals

There’s a little board book called  ‘Chickens’  (Priddy Books 2008) which many of my readers probably don’t know, but for my granddaughter, Agnes,  aged 18 months,  it is undoubtedly a great book. Chickens, to her, form part of the biological genus ‘ammals’, a genus in which she takes great interest, as she has mastered  many of their names and sounds. She’s keen to read, and reread, and reread ‘Chickens’.

For all its diminutive size and  strictly delineated subject matter, ‘Chickens’ seems to me a quality book, since it allows for thinking about different kinds of chickens and makes some wonderfully true distinctions, asking its readers to look hard at the reality it recreates in its pages and to notice some important variations. Some chickens are ‘white’, others are ‘roosters’, and yet others are ‘chicks.’  You can do a lot of  thinking with Priddy’s ‘Chickens’, including a practical introduction to morphology, though Agnes wouldn’t call it that. She’d just call it ‘chickens’. Yet the book is teaching her about morphology – the study of different forms – even though she may never fully understand that big word. ‘White hens’ is one type of thing, ‘Rooster’ is another. This is a book that helps the mind create distinctions and patterns, create ways of understanding the world, meanings. That’s what the human mind can do. That’s partly what we are for, the making of meaning.

But not all eighteen month old children are into ‘ammals’ and so this book might not be a good book for  everyone  (thought I bet most would get interested for a while if you read it to them with enough intensity…). There are probably similar books, called ‘Vehicles’ or ‘Buildings’, aimed at toddlers with different  obsessions. Hope so. These are good books, but by their very nature, somewhat restrictively specialist. Still, they point me to part of the distinction I wish to make. It’s about complexity.

Human experiences are rarely simple, and at the tough end, our most difficult problems are frustratingly knotty and hard to iron out. To understand life – oh, to understand all us human ammals – we need complex language and practice in differentiating one thing (he hates me!) from another (he’s insecure!). We need to be able to make careful distinctions and to match our current experience against prior models of experience we have stored up from real life or from stories. If this – understanding humanity – is the subject matter, then I am looking for a complexity in my reading matter.

I was introducing  the concept Shared Reading to a woman working in an Arts Centre a few years ago, when she said to me, ‘But we want to work with unemployed working class men.  Great literature isn’t going to appeal to them. I was thinking of starting with fishing magazines.’

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Carping Weekly but will every ‘unemployed working  class’ man be interested in it? At that level, the level of the obsession, the hobby, reading subject matter is individual. Some will want Autotrader, others The  Hindu Times and still others Grazia. All fine. All good reads, if you are interested in reading them.

But what I’m looking for, when I look for good  or great or quality literature is something people will be able to connect to, whether their thing is chickens or heroin, motorbikes or the need for love.  Because four people with those personal obsessions  could be sitting round a table together in a Shared Reading group, each as different from the other as white hens are from roosters, and I’m looking for something that is complex enough to speak to everyone.

As white hen and roosters are to chickens, so lives  of heroin or motorbikes or  the need for love are to humans. Imagine Priddy’s little board book of ‘Humans’. That’s Shakespeare, isn’t it?  Or Poetry?

Is that why poetry turns out to be, often, the most loved and useful reading matter in a Reader Leader’s library?

Here’s one, by Robert Herrick,  for such a group,  but oh dear, I am almost out of time. What have I been doing this morning?

The Coming of Good Luck

SO good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night :
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are by the sunbeams tickled by degrees.

Lovely title – I’m immediately thinking, what does good luck feel like in a life, and how long was the bad luck run going on?  Love the way the poem starts with ‘so’, as if we had been the middle of something. There was a long time before that word ‘so’ came, but now that good luck has come, we turn from it. We just feel the luck, like light. We bask in it.

It seems more than personal, this good luck time, because it lights on his roof, as if it touches the whole household. Light here must mean ‘alight’ – descend. It came down, it settled on his roof.

Late, must go…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paradise Lost 3: What Caused That First Fall?

angnes on a wall
It’s natural to walk that line, isn’t it?

Continuing my weekly Sunday morning reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name.

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 what I was interested in was 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’.

Paradise Lost is a poem written in a language that is foreign to me as a non-Christian, though  Christianity is a language of which I have a partial understanding. The poem’s subject matter, in the largest sense, is brokenness and the repair of  brokenness, and this is a  field of experience about which I  do know something. So, for me, reading Paradise Lost is like struggling to understand something personally important to me, spoken by someone I can’t properly understand.

Of course there is some help in the form of footnotes and so on.  Often, I find they don’t help very much, but I’m using the online edition offered by Dartmouth College which has good notes you might want to  turn to sometimes.

For beginners, one of the things to realise early on is that there are powerful rhythms, like tides, in the poem , and they help  me catch the meaning.  Often we’ll be reading sentences, and before that clauses, andd ofteimes individual words, but the large unit is what I call the paragraph  (though may be it is a stanza?)

What I’d do here is  read the whole paragraph through, to get a rough sense of what’s happening, then break it down into sentences, then build it back up again. So, let’s read it through and as you read, aim to breathe at the next bit of punctuation. last week we’d got as far as the second paragraph.

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! [ 75 ]
There the companions of his fall, o’rewhelm’d
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam’d [ 80 ]
Beelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav’ncall’d Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.

Now I’m going to go slowly into the first sentence:

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

It’s important to remember that Milton is talking to the ‘spirit’ he wants to inspire him. So when he says, ‘Say first, for Heave’n hides nothing from thy view’, the pronoun, ‘thy’ refers to the Holy Spirit. This spirit, one of the  three parts of the Christian God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is all-seeing, knows everything and is real, and really available to John Milton. I don’t have any sense that Milton doubts that this spirit will help him: Milton is the mouthpiece, his verse a vehicle for something which wants to  be spoken.

I slow it down a little more and look more  closely at the task with which Milton is calling for help. It’s not the spirit writing the poem, is it? It’s  Milton – he has asked this first question, he has chosen the order. The spirit knows and sees everything, but does ‘everything’ have an order? Milton sets the question – picks a starting place –  and the spirit answers. It is humans who need chronology, narrative, a beginning:

                                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]

The world is broken, humans are broken, yet in Milton’s universe we are creations of a perfect God. How can there be mess and  breakage in a universe created by a perfect God?  Go back down the human generations, each set of human beings messed up by the ones that came before and eventually we get to our ‘Grand Parents’, Adam and Eve.  There they were, more close to God than any subsequent generation, ‘Favour’d of Heav’n so highly’ , and yet they  fell off. How come? Let’s start there, Milton thinks.

Well, they were ‘favoured of heaven’, but they were also constrained;

                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

Apart from that one restraint, they were Lords of the World.  You can put the emphasis there, Lords of the World. Or you can  put it on the prior clause, ‘ and transgress his Will
For one restraint’.

As a human, I recognise this inability to accept restrain imposed by an external force.

Would you accept it ? To be a lord of the world? You think you might,  or you know you wouldn’t, depending on how rebellious or acquiescent you are, and perhaps also depending on what might be gained.  But whatever each of us reading might individually think, we  probably do recognise as deeply human the inability to accept restraint.

I’m thinking of my grandchildren – each at some each catching your eye while they do the thing you’ve told them not to do. ‘Shall I do this?’ the toddler glance asks, as they do it. And if I do it, as I am, what will you do? Is it a real restraint or can I break it? Is this the edge of the world or just you, making up a law?

But Milton seems to think that this desire to question the boundary is in itself a fall and  in a sense is a form of breakage:

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?

I looked up the verb ‘seduce’ in the etymological dictionary.

1520s, “to persuade a vassal, etc., to desert his allegiance or service,” from Latin seducere “lead away, lead astray,” from se- “aside, away” (see secret (n.)) + ducere “to lead,” from PIE root *deuk- “to lead.” Sexual sense, now the prevailing one, is attested from 1550s and apparently was not in Latin. Originally “entice (a woman) to a surrender of chastity.” Related: Seducedseducing.

Replaced Middle English seduisen (late 15c.), from Middle French séduire “seduce,” from Old French suduire “to corrupt, seduce,” from Latin subducere“draw away, withdraw, remove” (see subduce).

If God was a whole, the entirety of creation a Godly whole, how could our Grand Parents have fallen?  Some other element must have entered which could cause this state of partition, drawing Adam and Eve aside and away from the natural and right order of things.  That element, for Milton, is  ‘the infernal serpent’. And we will come to him next week.

The big question I am left with this week is: is bad part of God as well as good? If the whole thing, everything , is the creation, the being, the actual manifestation of God… then surely whatever  causes the leading astray, the corruption, is part of God too? We’ll come to this when we look at the  ways in which Satan turned from God.

But:  if bad is part of what always is,  is what always is ‘God’.

More next week.

 

One for Sally Porter: ‘Wives In The Sere’, a poem by Thomas Hardy

herbgarden to be.JPG
Where Nasturtiums Rule, back garden 21 August

I was looking through the Helen Gardiner OBEV  for something to read this morning and came upon this short lyric by Thomas Hardy which I’ve not read before. I was  lingering around TH because I’d noticed a tweet from Sally Porter, English teacher extraordinaire of this parish, in which she was searching twitter for Thomas Hardy memes.

I don’t  think I  really understand what a meme is, but I got Sally’s drift. No memes, she says, mention his novels or poetry… and somewhere in back of my mind, I thought, I’ll mention him.

I suppose it is because I am approaching my 34th wedding anniversary  that I was struck – almost offended I might say – by the title of this poem. ‘Sere’ is a word I only know from Macbeth – ‘My way of life/ Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf’ – and I think it means dried up. Let’s check. Yep, dry or withered. Wives in the Sere. Oh dear, not a good start to Monday. But let’s read it. Let’s read it in the spirit of meeting someone on the road and wanting to know – who are you?

Wives in the Sere

I

Never a careworn wife but shows,
If a joy suffuse her,
Something beautiful to those
Patient to peruse her,
Some one charm the world unknows
Precious to a muser,
Haply what, ere years were foes,
Moved her mate to choose her.

II

But, be it a hint of rose
That an instant hues her,
Or some early light or pose
Wherewith thought renews her –
Seen by him at full, ere woes
Practised to abuse her –
Sparely comes it, swiftly goes,
Time again subdues her.

Some lovely things in this, despite my initial grim feminist annoyance at TH  looking at me in this way. Yes, it felt that personal.

But… thinking of the poem as a fellow-creature I might meet on the road… I know Tom Hardy of old and can forgive him much. After all, he did also write ‘I Look Into My Glass’:

I LOOK into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

But back to ‘Wives in the Sere’. let’s read the first stanza:

Never a careworn wife but shows,
If a joy suffuse her,
Something beautiful to those
Patient to peruse her,
Some one charm the world unknows
Precious to a muser,
Haply what, ere years were foes,
Moved her mate to choose her.

It is cares that do us in, not just the passing of time. I’ve been reading a book about play (search Just Started) and have in the back if my mind the  famous quote (from variously wrongly attributed sources) ‘children are young because they play, and not vice versa; and he might have added, men grow old because they stop playing, and not conversely, for play is, at bottom, growth,’ (Wikipedia tells me these words  actually come from G. Stanley HallAdolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education (1904). Could playfulness be the long-sought anti-ageing serum? But back to the poem.

The poem starts  with the doom-laden bell clanging word  ‘Never’ and yet by the end of the line something else is happening. By the end of the line we get to ‘but shows’. You see the pattern but something can break it. As cares attach to us, so they wear us down. And this is a norm. ‘Never a careworn wife’  points at a class of human beings. There are many of us.  Against ‘careworn’ Thomas Hardy sets ‘joy’ and between them, that small balancing act, tipping point, ‘if’. And by the end of the verse we are back in youth, at the moment when someone fell in love with her – moved to choose her.

But I want to look at the rhymes! I don’t know what it is called when a rhyme spreads over several words, but it is a characteristic of  Hardy’s verse-making:

suffuse her/peruse her/a muser/choose her

You’ve got to be patient, looking at her, to catch this swift rollback of years.  Good that ‘shows’ rhymes with ‘unknows’, isn’t it? Something is shown that the world cannot (or cannot any longer?) see. The world  knew it once, and now it unknows, because the woman is careworn, sere.  But it is still there.

I’m still fighting the idea that ‘years are foes’. I’ve been fighting this thought in this part of Thomas Hardy since I first met it in ‘I look into my glass’ in  thirty-five years ago. Of course, these days, I do look into my glass and I do view (what a horribly true word) my wasting skin. But I fight it! Not so much with anti-ageing cream, though I do  slap that on from time to time, but mentally, I fight it. I do not want to embrace myself as wasted, sere, no, nor feel the years as ‘foes’.  So that’s why I balk at the second verse, where Hardy rubs my nose in it:

But, be it a hint of rose
That an instant hues her,
Or some early light or pose
Wherewith thought renews her –
Seen by him at full, ere woes
Practised to abuse her –
Sparely comes it, swiftly goes,
Time again subdues her.

I know, I know! ‘sparely it comes, swiftly it goes’ that whatever we had that was lovely once and yes, ‘time again subdues her’. Hhm. It is a way of seeing but I want to object. I want something else.  Though when I read this I think of my Nan, Annie Smith, and my grandad Syd, and I wonder if these words work in my memory of them together? I think they do.

But on Saturday when my son arrived and I was in the garden happily lopping off the sere and yellow leaves of old geraniums, he said ‘Mum! you’ve turned yourself into one of those old gardening ladies!’ He meant my  garden boots and unkempt hair ( no time, it might rain soon) and those very unattractive – but no one will be looking at me –  long  khaki shorts, which I’d slightly rolled up, and that handy  but horrible sleeveless deep-pocketed jacket.  Hhm, there I was,  not so much  at that moment care-worn as careless, though perhaps weather-beaten.

And yes –  I had  turned myself into that old gardening lady.  And to my own surprise I later  went to the shops that get-up.  I didn’t care! I  needed some horticultural grit for my gardening game! But you know what, I thought my 21-year-old self would have recognised me. She didn’t care, either.

So what is lost – if it is not simply what Shakespeare called rosy lips and cheeks? What does time wipe out? Well,  yes, it shows in looks, Tom, but as you know,  the damage takes place much deeper. As you say in ‘I look into my glass’

‘…Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;’

and that’s the painful mix. I’m sixty-one and twenty-one at the same time. It’s the grieving that does us in. Let’s not grieve for looks!

Is there anyone writing  poetry about this kind of thing?

Perhaps some Sharon Olds will help?