The Buried Life: A Bolt Shot Back

Viburnum1
Small, intensely scented Viburnum flowers, spicing the garden air

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

myrtle 1.JPG
Myrtle berries, tremendous harvest

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

myrtle 2.JPG
In summer, Myrtle has tiny, frothy, white scented flowers, ideal for a bridal bouquet, in Autumn these amazing black-jewel berries, which you can dry and they become like peppercorns (let’s see what happens). The leaves are evergreen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Buried Life: Holding the Line

acer2.jpg
Acer near The Reader Cafe, Calderstones Park, 25 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s read the section again:

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

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

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

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

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

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing

I notice the failure of language here:

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

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

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

Bohm writes;

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

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

But I should go back to the poem:

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

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

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

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

 

The Buried Life

Lake-at-island-Mljet-in-Croatia_XL-870x400
Another  failed attempt to picture the type of blue I’m talking about

Yesterday’s Daily Reading Practice  was one of those background days, days when you clean your desk and  set out a new notebook, a day of prep. Not much happened in the way of actual reading and writing. I’m working on reading ‘the Buried Life’ by Matthew Arnold, and you will find a text of the poem here. I’m pasting it below for ease of reference but I  see that the stanza breaks don’t always show up. You can see them (they are important resting places and  markers of new thought)  over on The Poetry Foundation version.

I’d got as far as ‘driving on with it eternally’ when I felt myself going sideways to  look at some other texts which were helping me think about the central experience describe by – or alluded to – in ‘The Buried Life’. Those other reading experiences (Bohm’s ‘wholeness’ as a form of health, and Doris Lessing’s Zimbabwean veldt experience of  cosmic wholeness in her novel, Martha Quest – see yesterday’s post) were  useful because they helped me think about, remember, re-experience, the thing Matthew Arnold is talking about – an experience hard to put into words,  which he calls  ‘a nameless something’. I didn’t want to go on with my reading of the poem until I’d re-established in my own mind my own sense of what he was talking about.

Here’s ‘The Buried Life’, read it all through to get going:

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

I’m going to start again today at  the line beginning ‘But often, in the world’s most crowded streets…’

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

I don’t personally feel this  feeling ‘in the world’s most crowded streets’ or in ‘the din of strife’: I feel it after that or before it, or away from it. So I read the lines, and believe that Matthew Arnold felt it in those busy, humanly demanding places, but I don’t find a match very easily. Sometimes, ‘in the world’s most crowded streets’ I feel exhilaration, sometimes (I’m sorry to admit) disgust, but rarely a desire for knowledge of the ‘buried life’. I’m too distracted, dislocated.

Even so, I recognise the desire, which mostly I experience in quieter situations. The peculiar blue colour of the sea lakes on the island of Mljet (which I’ve visited twice and would go to again any number of times – drawn entirely by the blue of the water) gave me this feeling, a sort of  frustration of not being able to get at whatever it powerfully was, moving me, making me alert to ‘a something’  each time I saw the colour calling to me through the trees.  It was as if the blue might make me cry, filled me with nameless feelings –  I’m sure there will be psycho-synaesthetic explanations for this, but I felt, we’re on holiday, and having a lovely time, and it is warm and we are walking through the forest  and yet ‘Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!’

When Matthew Arnold feels it here, in this line about the crowded streets, his desire is to get to it, to know it in language, although it is an ‘unspeakable desire’ and cannot be put into language.

It’s interesting to note that David Bohm, when thinking about wholeness attributes much of  human fragmentation on language. If we can name it we can separate it out.  We can call it ‘ sea lake’ or ‘blue’ or ‘desk’ or ‘sorrow’ or ‘little animal’ or ‘grasses’ but if we  didn’t have language, we’d just have to experience it all, everything, as one.  In Martha Quest’s moment of illumination the lines between named separate things blur:

There was a slow integration, during which she, and the little animals, and the moving grasses, and the sunwarmed trees, and the slopes of the silvery mealies, and the great dome of blue light overhead, and the stones of the earth under her feet, became one, shuddering together in a dissolution of dancing atoms.

I’m thinking, though I haven’t got the book at hand, of the moment in A.S. Byatt’s Still Life where a new born baby  sees a bunch of irises: Byatt describes what the baby sees in pretty much the same way.

For Matthew Arnold this unspeakable desire becomes

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

Normally, our fire and restless force is spent creating things, things like ‘the worlds most crowded streets’ but now for a moment Matthew Arnold contemplates  turning his human power towards understanding  ‘our true, original course’. Course is a good word here , connecting to watercourse, the channel that a flowing body of water flows through, so our thoughts go back the idea of this true under-lie as like a hidden stream. That underground stream is us, and is what we flow through, and the way in which we go – ‘whence our lives come and where they go.’

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

The Buried Life: what is that moment?

mljet blue.JPG
A sketchy intimation of the very moving blue of the sea lake,  Mljet, Croatia

I’m continuing my reading of ‘The Buried Life’ which you’ll find here. This text  from the Poetry Foundation shows all the stanza line breaks, which are for some readers missing from the versions I’m posting. If you are joining newly today, try reading the whole thing, with plenty of pauses, following the run of sentences rather than the line-endings:

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

I read the poem again just now to get it in my mind, but in fact it has been in my mind since yesterday, as yesterday thought (about the moment this poem tries to hold, and when or how I have experienced it) has been playing at the back of my mind nonstop…

This is for me a thought about wholeness or unity, which came to mind more clearly last night when I started reading David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order,  which I’d been led to by  reading Synchronicity by  Joseph Jaworski.

 

Bohm.JPG
David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order

Reading the opening chapter of Bohm’s book, which is about fragmentation and wholeness, I was struck by the relation he sets up between health and wholeness.

It is instructive to consider that the word ‘health’ in English is based on an Anglo-Saxon word ‘hale’ meaning ‘whole’: that is, to be healthy is to be whole, which is I think, roughly the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘shalem’. Likewise ,the English ‘holy’ is based on the same root as ‘whole’. All of this indicates man has sensed always that wholeness or integrity is an absolute necessity to make life worth living.

There’s a relation here between Bohm’s sense of wholeness and the longing to create the conditions for wholeness which lie behind The Peckham Experiment, and  thus, to a certain extent, behind The Reader’s  community at Calderstones. As an outsider, I’d also say  I sense this  behind the Bromley By Bow Centre. (See the latest edition of The Reader  magazine for an interview with Bromley’s CEO Rob Trimble).

But  what I  most thought about  when I read that paragraph in Bohm was a passage in Doris Lessing’s early novel, Martha Quest, in which  the  heroine, Martha, undergoes a profound  and frightening experience where the universe  becomes one whole unfragmented whole.  The book is set in Rhodesia (which later became Zimbabwe). On page 61 in my old paperback, sixteen year old Martha is walking home from the Station across the veldt alone when an  experience she has had before (and dismissed as part of her ‘religious phase’ ) begins to happen to her again:

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

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

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing

This is an extreme version perhaps of the intimation which  provokes Matthew Arnold’s poem, carried in the hint of the ‘nameless something’.

I’ve had  experience of that  ‘a something’  many times. If I was able to call it ‘God’ I  would, but there is something about my conception of God that doesn’t let me do this…(perhaps it is because as a child I was brought up as a Catholic,  believing that various higher powers, some of  whom were out to trip me up, others to look out for me, had access to my innermost thoughts.  ( I know most adult Catholics don’t believe anything like this, but I’m talking about the inner life of a six year old  in a provincial parish in 1961). I know that is not what religious people think ( George Herbert  is my exemplar) but it remains, that childish caricature somewhere in my mind: I cannot feel a guiding consciousness and trying to think about what a guiding consciousness might be leads me back to the Old Man. When I read George Herbert it’s not like this, and at those times I feel I might be  getting close.

       And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
         I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. Oh, my only light,
                      It cannot be
                      That I am he
         On whom thy tempests fell all night

Read The Flower here. And in the end I am not George Herbert, so I have a longing, and a space where  no thing  fills that longing, and I  manage it by reading Wordsworth, George Eliot, George Herbert, Milton and others who seem to inhabit that space. Reading ‘The Buried Life’, I feel Matthew Arnold also has such a gap.   For me sometimes some natural experiences seem to fill it. Particularly the colour of the sea lakes on the Croatian island of Mljet (see picture above, though it is not good enough to convey the warm intensity of that blue).

I have  hardly read a word of ‘The Buried Life’ today, but all this has been part of my  reading, I hope. Glad to have typed out the Lessing quote, anyway.

The Buried Life: Toys, War and the Colour Blue

Granada.jpg
                                Plumbago living the good life in Granada, Spain,  7 October,                                      a world away from this dark morning at my desk 

I’m continuing my reading of ‘The Buried Life’ which you’ll find here. This text  from the Poetry Foundation shows all the stanza line breaks, which are for some readers missing from the versions I’m posting. It’s good to have the stanza breaks – they help show the chunks of thought and the startings again which characterise this poem, which is one of those where the poet tries to work out in thought  and language something he has felt in feeling.

If you are joining newly today, try reading the whole thing, with plenty of pauses, following the run of sentences rather than the line-endings:

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

Last time I’d got to

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!

and had stopped at the point where I’d been thinking about the imprisonment of the heart, the lips being chained, which seems one kind of forced restraint, and what happens in the last line of this stanza where the inability to get free seems more biological – the restraint, the seal, is ‘deep ordain’d’ , as if it  were itself part of us – something in us can’t or won’t allow us to get to it.

Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

I don’t know what Matthew Arnold means by ‘fate’ here. Perhaps another person would have said ‘God’, another ‘genetics’ or ‘psychology’.

When you  find that happening in a poem, it’s worth making temporary reading in pencil. that’s to say, an easily-changed-if-necessary-reading.  Penciling in a meaning here I’d simply say it is some force which has a powerful effect on human life. Fate, God, Genetics, Biology or any of the above.

I’m going to  try a translation into my own thought and language, something I’d often do in a Shared Reading group – asking readers to try to translate that last long sentence ( it does seem long, doesn’t it?)  into modern ordinary language in order to  make it real. Here it is again:

Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

‘Something’ in us knows how easily distracted  humans can be by the superficial, by games, by  politics, by power play, by war, by  habit or custom or by any shiny thing…so distracted that we lose our own real identity.  I’m just looking back to ‘every strife’ there – which is not so easily translatable. Let’s read again:

Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—

What are we? Moving, plastic, adopting creatures who pour themselves into  ant energetic call, any disagreement – I mean, what does he mean by a ‘strife’  and how does he get there from ‘distraction’? one minute we are playing with toys, next at war. First we are  ‘possessed’ by distractions, next we ‘pour’ ourselves into any row that comes along – two kinds of distraction both of which seem to lead to  us losing our original selves, and ‘well-nigh  change his own identity’. Our plasticising, our creativity and lending ourselves might even work on our own selves. Having seen this, Fate acts to  preserve something that can’t be touched:

That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,

Humans seem like a baby that might play with small soft toy or  just as happily with fire.  Fate wants to preserve  our ‘genuine self’ from our own stupid meddling and force us to be serious in one place, despite ourselves:

and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law

Would we  go against our deepest selves?  Haven’t you seen that  often? it is one of the downsides of human freedom and creativity. But whatever ‘Fate’ is, this power that Matthew Arnold has identified, can work against our playful messing about.  There is still, untouched, ‘our beings law’ – something in us that runs under all that froth.  ‘Even in his own despite’. Fate’s set up was to leave this core alone, out of sight, untouched and untouchable, yet some how strongly present, moving us.  Whatever  we do on the surface, Fate has bidden

… through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

While we are distracted by all kinds of shiny things from toys to war, there remains ‘the unregarded river of our life’

What is this? Is there anything any of us can find in our own experience to help us understand what Matthew Arnold is talking about?

Of course there is the difficulty that even as we try to see it, it is no longer unregarded – we’ve started to look.  But perhaps looking is not the way – maybe it is more to do with feeling, after all, look how the poem started:

I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
But there’s a something in this breast…

It is, however nameless, there, despite the fact that we can’t see it and  we ‘seem to be’ ‘Eddying at large in blind uncertainty’.

Wonderful image of the bit of flotsam caught in the stream and twirling pointlessly – that’s us at play, at war. And yet… and yet – let’s read again:

That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

‘Driving on with it eternally’ is almost completely the opposite of ‘eddying at large in blind uncertainty’ – and the two actions are happening at once. On the surface, messing about, below the surface something serious and purposeful.

And this serious and purposeful part of the self is  somehow deliberately kept apart, kept away from us, so we can’t meddle with it. Would we now call it, in some cases,  ‘the unconscious’?

Are you aware of it, this stream, this permanence?

As I write I’m struggling to locate it, and I’m thinking about moments in life when it has seemed present. Both of my children as newborns. Some time looking at mountains. The colour of the sea lakes on the island of Mljet in Croatia. Shares of the colour blue. Some memories of church as a child. And oftentimes this has happened to me when reading – especially when reading Wordsworth. Is that what I’m talking about? I’m not sure.

More tomorrow.

The Buried Life and Four Great Books

cotoneaster.JPG
Cotoneaster Doing Its Best in Calderstones Park, 10 October

Humans beings are meaning-making creatures: making meaning is how we  do our being. We’re here, born into the world, apparently needing to survive even beyond or aside from our biological purpose of perpetuating the species and we’re happiest when we are completely absorbed by compelling activity.  I think that whatever else Shared Reading does (and there are many useful offshoots) what it does primarily, what in essence it is, is the making of  meaning. Those meanings aren’t always shared, often times they are profoundly individual and are simply witnessed by others. That sharing through witnessing is profound. I’m thinking of a moment in a Drug and Alcohol Addiction Centre when we were reading The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. I’ve  written about this great novel before, here.

This is a book I would always aim to read in a Shared Reading group, but especially  in a group where people have had or are having a hard time. It’s a children’s novel but it is funny and sophisticated, a painful novel of a hard  journey that ends  happily with a homecoming and a  self-assembled family. The Story: a father-mouse-and-child-mouse clockwork toy gets broken and  thrown out on the street: they have to get fixed, escape an enemy, find a road, find a family and fight for their territory, make a home and eventually, become self-winding.

We’d  just read the  part where, for a second time, the father and child get smashed apart. Haven’t got the book here, so can’t quote it but it is a terrible moment when the father cries out, ‘We’re broken!’  and the novel tells us that the  saying of the word ‘broken’ is as terrible as the experience of it.

As we read, a bunch of us, raggedy and battle-scarred adults sitting around a table in an institutional room with our cups of  tea, taking in those hard words, one man responded with a broken, involuntary cry,  saying something like, ‘I know how that feels, I’m broken: I have bowel-cancer. Saying that is harder than having the disease.’

Everyone was moved by the man’s cry, and  after a few moments another member of the group, a guy with a terrible stammer  leaned to towards  him to say, in a moment of profound solidarity, ‘We’re all f…f…f…f…f****ing broken, Jim.’   As he spoke he made a wildly expansive gesture with his arm and knocked three or four cups of tea over all of us.

Why am I remembering this? It was one of the great moments of  meaning and witness I’ve experienced in my Shared Reading life.

I  was thinking  yesterday as I continued to think about the films I had seen on Thursday, that  my relation to Shared Reading starts from  the belief that things are broken, and a work of literature that gives a great account of  that is The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. (I think I am going to start adding an ongoing reading of the play into my weekly  reading pattern.) That the pattern of my belief, as set out in books, could be  everything starts from the broken and the stuck (Winter’s Tale), discovers moments of life-making but transitory meaning (as In Wordsworth, ‘Intimations’ or The Prelude) turns to the workaday world of George Eliot (Middlemarch: there has to be vocation, habit, to hold you in place). This is a template of sorts.

The poem I am reading at the moment, ‘The Buried Life’, by Matthew Arnold, homes in on one area of the template, the moment when ‘something’ pokes through the  ordinary and takes you fleetingly into some other order of feeling.

I’m having trouble making the stanza breaks show, for some reason, when I paste the poem here, so do look it up here, where it appears  in the way it should!

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.
On previous days I’d got to this point in Stanza 2,
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!

Interesting that Matthew Arnold sees the inability to be direct as a problem of others, ‘the mass of men’, ‘they’ for  in a moment he will make himself part of that mass. But  at first it seems as if it is ‘them’. Even more interesting  is his sense that  the mass of men, most people are or see themselves as ‘alien to the rest/Of men, and alien to themselves.’  That addition, ‘alien to themselves’ is the complicated bit. How does he know?

 

Do I know? How do I know?

Because I love this bit of the poem, and I believe it. I suppose I know because , though I don’t like to admit it, I recognise at some level, that it is true in me. Alien to  myself.  Read it! Read it again!

It’s as if we revealed even to ourselves what we really felt and thought it would be frightening, alarming. And yet ‘The same heart beats in every human breast!’ – do I believe that, too? Yes.  I’m both in disguie, hiding, to others and oftentimes to my self and I also recognise I’m doing that and so is everyone else. We feel as others feel.

That brings the close of the stanza. There’s normal life – hidden, disguied –  and that should be different to our life in love (open, together, connecting) , but it seems it is not:

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

Is there something that one individual cannot share with another, however close? Look at all the joining pronouns : we, my love, our hearts, our voices, we. Yet they can’t get seem to get over it.

New stanza.  If you look at the  Poetry Foundation version of the poem and see the stanza breaks, it’s worth some thought about them. Why do they come where they come? It feels as if Matthew Arnold  has to keep starting again – get’s to a dead-end, can’t take his thought any further, stops. Starts again.

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!

This stanza seems to offer a small possibility that  communication might be possible, for the closest lovers, ‘even for a moment’.  Previously the problem was couched in terms of ‘spell’ and dumbness, but now the language points us to  some sort of locking up,  ‘free’, ‘unchained’ and ‘seals’ point  me towards a sense of something present but un-get-at-able! And whatever it is – it ‘hath been deep ordained’. That’s interesting isn’t it, because ordained seems a religious word, so I am slightly thinking,  is it a god-given fact?  But ‘deep’; makes it feel biological, as if it is in the very depths of our being , in our DNA , in our cells, in our heart of hearts.

Yet there is possible movement here – it might happen that we could ‘get free/our heart’, even if it is only ‘for a moment.’

Yes, that is the moment that sometimes happens to  readers in Shared Reading groups. It doesn’t happen all the time, it doesn’t happen to everyone. But when it does happen, everyone who witnesses it knows they have been close to something profound. And we are all affected by that.

Time is up.

‘A Lost Pulse of Feeling’ : What is it and Why Does It Matter?

front step.JPG
The Front Step with Hydrangea and Milk, 20 October

Yesterday I had the extraordinary experience of watching the rushes of a series of AHRC-funded films being made  by CRILS about Shared Reading.  The team have been filming groups and talking to Reader Leaders about how they do  what they do when they are running groups.  The plan is to use the films for helping The Reader  to teach new volunteer Reader Leaders, as well as to have some new footage on our website so that everyone can see  Shared Reading in action,  adding to our existing stock, which you can find here

Some of my favourites:

Why Reading Matters – an old one but still relevant, part of a BBC series, this shows a n open community group in Birkenhead

Get Into Reading – an early film from colleagues in the South West, showing Shared Reading for people with depression and/or dementia and  in an inpatient Mental Health setting, and featuring GP Dr Mary Embleton

NHS Mersey Care and The Reader – this is an extract from a longer documentary made by The Danish Broadcasting Corporation as they  followed NHS Mersey Care’s Reader in Residence, Selina McNay, as she ran Shared Reading groups in community and in-patient settings. This is a truly wonderful film, and the second half  in particular gives an intense impression of the emotional power of Shared Reading.

Shared Reading in Libraries – some beautiful testimonies from members of groups and thoughts from library colleagues on why they spend time building such groups and how Shared Reading helps libraries deliver social inclusion

Phoenix Futures and The Reader in which colleagues and service users from  partner organisation, addiction rehabilitation charity Phoenix Futures talk about  what they  get from Shared Reading

Reading for Resilience: How Shared Reading can support people living with dementia – a Press Association film, made by Tom Brada, about a Shared Reading group  in a London Care Home

Shared Reading – Transforming communities, one story at a time – a film from partners in New South Wales, Australia, in which we see how easily the idea translates to another country.

All of the above are terrific, but the AHRC/CRILS films are going to add something new to our library. We’ve made them as teaching films, so they  show a  lot of detail on how we make the magic of Shared Reading happen. I was struck by what a demanding experience it is, whether you are a reader in  rehab or a Care Home or in an open community group. It was extraordinarily moving to see people working so hard to get thoughts – often thoughts that were happening right there, being formed, forged –  into words. It seemed such a courageous and vital  thing for humans do.  I spent much of the afternoon quietly moved to tears, glad that we had the lights out.

I watched a woman in a Wigan Care Home do valorous  battle with language and her own inexperience in formulating expressing such thoughts, and she was working as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen working to get a complicated feeling, her response to the poem ‘Walking Away’ by C.S.Lewis, into words. (There’s a copy here on this very interesting web page).

I thought as I watched, of the poem I’m currently reading here, ‘The Buried Life’ by Matthew Arnold.

I’m sorry that the stanza breaks don’t always seem to come out when I paste and copy. If the poem is appearing for you as a monolithic block, please read it here, where all is as it should be.

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!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.
I’d got to  this point in Stanza 2,
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 I’ll go on with that tomorrow, because with that woman of Wigan still in my mind this morning I want to jump forward to this bit, starting at line 77:

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.

This ‘lost pulse of feeling’ what is it? And why do I feel it matters so much, when after all, it is by its very nature transient. One of the most  striking moments on my life at The Reader came in a Drug and Alcohol centre when a man who was street alcoholic and drug user, and was clearly going to continue to be a man living on the street, spoke movingly about the poem which was getting him to muse (muse, like a poet) about how he came to be in the state he was in.

‘I stood on the shore of Lake Windermere,’ he said very quietly, ‘And threw my passport and ISA in and said, ‘He’s gone now’.’

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,

That this was a big moment for him, and  for all of us sitting around that table, that was undeniable. But what was the moment? What actually happened?  And what is the  value of what happened?

I am out of time, spent too much of it looking at the films this morning…