Posts Tagged ‘John Keats’

Dore STC Holmes p144

Picture scanned from ‘Coleridge: Early Visions’ Richard Holmes (page 144)

The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God. But sincerity, justice, humility, severance, and love for the believers of God will purify the mirror and make it radiant with reflected rays from the Sun of Truth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Coleridge (1834) Rime of the Ancient Mariner (lines 115-118)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

Events over the last four years have taught me a lot. It would be tedious in the extreme to bore you with all the details. The events were of the kind exemplified in the first post of the sequence about the Three ‘I’s.

What I want to talk about just now is the way that a poem, which I had translated and which raised interesting questions for a friend, led to a breakthrough into a different angle of understanding, enriched admittedly both by my recent practice of mindfulness, my intense encounter with van Gogh in Amsterdam, and my long-standing struggle with the processes of reflection and disidentification in general.

Three Brains

To understand fully what I’m going to be saying I need to take a brief detour at this point into the three-brain model, which I’ve already dealt with on this blog. I looked at the work of Charles Tart, especially his book Waking Up. He is influenced heavily in this by Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

I have now tweaked that model somewhat in the light of my own experience, trying to integrate some previously unmentioned aspects and also to make more explicit ways to begin using it in practice while keeping it as simple as possible. I have not repeated some of the detailed suggestions in the Three ‘I’s sequence such as how to work with dreams, as these are accessible still on this blog.

Emotions and feelings of various kinds are triggered by the content of experience at every level.

A Three-Brain Model BasicThose at the instinctual, limbic system or ‘gut’ level tend to be linked to survival and are frequently negative involving fear (flight) and anger (fight). The other ‘f’ words, such as ‘food,’ usually trigger pleasure and other more positive responses. We tend to react strongly and quickly to all such triggers: there isn’t much thought, if any at all involved. It’s very much a flash point situation which can make catching ourselves in time before we react a bit of a problem. It takes practice.

At the intellectual, left-brain or ‘head’ level, the nature of feelings will depend upon the content and difficulty of whatever preoccupies our thinking processes. When we have a complex problem we end up having to work things out more slowly and what comes out after a longer period is a calculated decision rather than a gut reaction. I’ve been over much of this ground in recording my responses to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow so I won’t rehash it all in detail here.

At the right-brain level of intuition, which can be termed the ‘heart,’ where holistic and creative processes tend to take place, emotions are overall usually more positive. Love and compassion are more frequently experienced at this level. It takes time for these processes to produce a sense of what to do next and more time still for us to explain what that is to our thinking mind. I have called the outcome here a ‘resolution’ because that word contains both the idea of resolving a problem and achieving a firm resolve about tackling it.

I will come back in the last post of this sequence to an examination of how to apply this model to any given situation.

Stranded Mariners

The poem in question was my rendering in English of Machado’s A Crazy Song, in particular the line I chose to render as ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed.’

A Crazy Song

My friend’s comment was unexpected:

. . . I was struck by your line ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed’.  Several images and connections arise:  The ship is like our conscious or personal self, . . . . If the ship is becalmed there is no wind in its sails, and the sea itself is barely moving.  So the reason for the ship’s lack of movement has its origin outside the conscious self, . . . . .  The ship is a symbol for the personal Will (in psychosynthesis) and its crew is the multiplicity of our subpersonalities, hundreds of different selves which work in unison to make sail across the ocean. But in the becalmed ship the crew are all waiting, they can do nothing. . . . . . Perhaps [there are issues] need[ing] resolution in order to find some wind for your sails?

My immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea of present relevance. I had seen the translation I made as drawing on past experiences to mediate the transference of the emotional meaning of the poem for me from Spanish into English. I resonated so strongly to the original poem, I felt, because I’d been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

However, because I have learned that when this friend asks a question or raises an issue there is usually something substantial behind it, I went back to the original text. In doing so I came realise that ‘transference’ is an interesting word to have used in this context.

I went back to check out what I’d added to or subtracted from the original, which reads at that point:

Y no es verdad, dolor, yo te conozco,
tú eres nostalgia de la vida buena
y soledad de corazón sombrío,
de barco sin naufragio y sin estrella.

[Literal Translation: ‘But that’s not it – pain, I know you better: you are the longing for the happy days, the loneliness that fills the sombre heart, that haunts the ship unfoundering (ie ‘unwrecked’) and unstarred.’]

Clearly rotting and becalmed are my associations to what Machado wrote.

Whereas at first I had thought that I was simply rendering the spirit of the Spanish into an English equivalent, I’d clearly gone beyond it. So, in support of the ‘been there, done that’ theory, I argued to myself that perhaps I was referring back to some earlier state of mind and using the Spanish as a bridge to help me recreate it.

For example, at the time I was learning Spanish both at school, and later when a Spanish Assistante came to work at the college I was teaching at, I was still locked in my dissociation from or denial of the emotional turmoil of my childhood, up to and including my father’s death when I was 24. Not until my rather risky experiences with Reichian and Janovian breathing therapies (see link) at the hands of amateurs did I open Pandora’s box and discover what I really felt and really wanted to do – till then it had all been about addictive pastimes to help me keep shut down.

In one blog post I described it as follows:

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

I’m not sure why so many of my important experiences have such an aquatic flavour. Actually, I think I know why: anyone interested could check out an earlier post, which hints at the connection.

Anyway, after those moments, psychology/psychotherapy became the wind in my sails. I had reasons for wishing to become properly qualified in this area, having witnessed, as I saw it, the potential damage amateurs could do to the vulnerable (but that’s another story). I wanted to make a positive difference, something I couldn’t do outside the system against which I had rebelled. So I came back in, got a job, worked in mental health and found my vocation.

Finding the Bahá’í Faith put more wind in my sails. I thought the ‘painted ship upon a painted ocean’ experience that the Ancient Mariner describes was behind me. The imagery didn’t apply anymore to the present, did it?

Then, I began to wonder whether such a state might still be active somewhere underneath consciousness. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time I had failed fully to understand my own poem, let alone my translation of someone else’s. It’s some consolation to think that if you can completely understand a poem you’ve written, it probably isn’t much good.

Anyway, because she questioned what I might have meant and whether it applied to me and to what extent, a key association came to mind, the probable original source of those kinds of images for this kind of purpose. Surprise, surprise, it was Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Coleridge’s life has always fascinated me. He was 26 when he published this, younger than Keats when he died at 28 and younger than van Gogh when he started painting at 27 – extremely young to have composed, over what seems to have been a brief period of five months before first publication, such a powerful and dark poem. At least one biographer regards it as uncannily prophetic of his later life and all its suffering. He kept tinkering with the poem over a period of many years. It clearly was of profound significance to him.

In the next post I’ll be looking closely at the implication of this association for governing our reactions to experience. The poem would seem to have left a deeper mark on me than I had ever realised.

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Deaths of the Poets

Deaths of the Poets

England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger to my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?

(From R S Thomas’s The Old Language in Collected Poems: 1945-1990 – page 25)

I am on the train coming back from Birmingham. No one seems particularly disturbed to find someone close by reading about death and poetry.

The girl sitting next to me is probably too preoccupied too notice as she switches between her phone, her book (I wish she’d hold it at a different angle – it’s frustrating: I can’t even read the chapter heading let alone see the cover – it looks thick and interesting) and her tablet. She soon gives up on the book and ends up spending the rest of the time till she gets off the train looking at pictures of buildings on her tablet – must’ve had a tranquilising effect.

My book on deaths of the poets has been an up-and-down experience. I have sometimes skipped through several pages at Woody Allen speed (You remember the quip? “I did a speed reading course. I’ve just read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.’), only to break hard to ruminate long over other passages.

My attention is already hooked well and truly by the chapter on war poets and I’ll probably come back to that at some point in the future, but I am absolutely fixated when I get to House Calls, the one dealing with poets who have jobs.

Back at my desk, I’ve really chewed the cud of that one in an effort to extract every implication that resonates with me. I’m not sure why it pulled me in so strongly, except possibly my own past struggle to balance the prose of paid work with the unsalaried poetry of imaginative flight. I’ve blogged about this in detail in the Dancing Flames post where I wrote, ‘I had been coming to the end of my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called mentally ill. I then had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.’

Riding Two Horses?

The chapter soon gets going with a key question. Farley and Roberts ask (page 205):

If poetry is a vocation in itself, and an all consuming, life threatening one at that, then what can life be like for poets who have vocational day jobs?

Following the prevailing pattern of the book, they visit key places in a poet’s life and they learn for instance (page 206):

How Williams himself contained both vocations within the same house: a study in the attic for the night work of poetry and a consulting room in the annex for the day work of medicine.

His life seemed an unremitting alternation between scribbling and prescribing. They wonder whether this tension fed his poetry (page 210):

In Rutherford everyone knew him. He was a pillar of respectability…. But in Manhattan he was the great modernist poet, a doctor among the Bohemians. Was it in the pull, the polarity of these two lives, these two selves, that he found the energy to write?

Why are they so concerned with the idea of vocation though? Perhaps because of the possible connection they are exploring in this book between poetry and self-destruction – a link whose inevitability is tested potentially to breaking point by the lives of the poets in this chapter. They are questioning the pain and poetry relationship (page 207):

Great poems don’t land in your lap, or so the legend says. Great poems are hewn from great suffering and risk and pain. It must be a vocation.

Finding the Right Words

This is in itself a theme that would be guaranteed to hold my interest. The chapter also raises a problem I’ve explored elsewhere at some length: the challenge of pared-back poetry (page 208):

Thomas’s uncompromising, pared-back poems show the clear influence of early American modernists, and Thomas admired the later, more ambitious Williams poems in particular. . . . . Thomas sought to break and reshape an English fitted to the landscape and spirit of Wales.

In Williams’s poetry it takes a shape that became associated with his work (page 217):

[Williams’s] lifelong struggle to define a new kind of authentic American poetic nature, an authentic American poetic, is still being weighed and calibrated in seminar rooms and lecture theatres. His notion of the ‘variable foot’[1], which marks out the music of a truly American poetic line, is – depending on your point of view – a canon-defining perception of genius or an impenetrable piece of sophistry.

I’m afraid that for me it still feels like the latter. And there were major problems for him at the time with maintaining the credibility of his pioneering approach, as the Poetry Archive describes:

What Williams did not foresee, however, was the “atom bomb” on modern poetry—T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams had no quarrel with Eliot’s genius—he said Eliot was writing poems as good as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”—but, simply, “we were breaking the rules, whereas he was conforming to the excellencies of classroom English.” As he explained in his Autobiography, “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself —rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.” Not only did Williams feel threatened by Eliot’s success, but also by the attention The Waste Land received. As Karl Shapiro pointed out, “he was left high and dry: Pound, who was virtually the co-author of Eliot’s poems, and Marianne Moore were now polarized to Eliot. Williams felt this and would feel it for another twenty years. His own poetry would have to progress against the growing orthodoxy of Eliot criticism.”

What’s Poetry For?

I was far more engaged with their discussion of Thomas, a poet I have admired in spite of his modernist style. Part of the reason may lie in what they reveal of his critique of the modern world, which suggests that I am responding to the passion that lies behind the style. They quote from an interview with Thomas (page 223):

Asked about the state of contemporary poetry as we approach the end of the twentieth century, he is a bleak in his evaluation: ‘What troubles me is the superficiality, shallowness. As you know, you’ve only got to sit in the Underground in London and see this panorama of humanity passing and to glimpse behind the masks of the faces before you the joy and the glory and suffering and disappointment and frustration. Here you’ve got major themes for poetry, and they’re not being . . . . . Not all the stops are being drawn out. Contemporary poets are guilty, I think, of playing around the fringes of the human psyche.

We are back in the London of Blake here:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

He feels that this failure is costing poetry its place in the modern culture. The crucial question for Thomas is this (page 224):

‘. . . . is poetry in the twenty-first century going to maintain its position as one of the great arts, or is it going to drift further and further into what it’s already in danger of being, a minority art?

This passionate concern, Farley and Roberts feel, is rooted in his work, which confronted him with the harsh reality of humanity’s situation (page 225):

Like WCW and his patients, R. S. Thomas’s life of service to his poor and hard-working parishioners convinced him of the threats he found were gathering – in the mid-twentieth century – to our essential humanity

The trigger was similar for both poets (ibid):

The turmoil came in part from the particular encounter with humanity afforded by their secondary vocations, and in part from the language itself, which sent WCW back and back to the page in search of an authentic American poetry, and condemned Thomas to produce work of great beauty and acclaim in the language of his political enemies.

The words of Williams state his position simply but powerfully (page 226):

He wanted his readers to meet the people he met as a doctor, and challenged himself to see if he could do justice to them. ‘My words are inspired by my fellow human beings,’ he told his young trainee.


The Poetry Archive vividly captures this dynamic:

Beginning with his internship in the decrepit “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City and throughout his forty years of private practice in Rutherford, Williams heard the “inarticulate poems” of his patients. As a doctor, his “medical badge,” as he called it, permitted him “to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos…, to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother.” From these moments, poetry developed: “it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.” Some of his poems were born on prescription blanks, others typed in a few spare minutes between patient visits.

I respect and admire the values he expressed through his work: I feel that his poetry in the pared down passages all too often fails to do them justice. The Poetry Archive gave me reason to look again at some of his work[2] but I still cannot change my feeling that he ends up writing what I have called elsewhere ‘left-brain’ poetry, something that leaves me cold.

I think that Williams was himself very aware of the problem. Take this passage from his modernist epic Paterson as an example (Penguin Poets Edition: pages 113-114 – excuse the number of dots in the first line – it was the only way to get the words in the right place!):

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  So that

to write, nine tenths of the problem
is to live. They see

to it, not by intellection but
by sub-intellection (to want to be

blind as a pretext for
saying, We’re so proud of you!

A wonderful gift! How do
you find the time for it in

your busy life? It must be a great
thing to have such a pastime.

But you were always a strange
boy. How’s your mother?)

. . . . Your father was such a nice man.
I remember him well   .

Or, Geeze, Doc, I guess it’s all right
but what the hell does it mean?

There are many powerful and reasonably accessible passages in this book-long poem, but there are also many pages that lose sufficient coherence to permit my understanding at least. To be fair, Browning’s The Ring & the Book, which I feel is his masterpiece, is often almost as obscure, so I may be operating some kind of double standard here. The short passage above gives perhaps a taste of this oscillation between the completely clear and the virtually opaque. I’ll probably continue to grapple with my reaction: perhaps it’s as Williams himself said (Paterson: page 100): ‘The poem moves them or/it does not move them.’

An important consideration here is that Williams seems to accept the inevitability of leaving most readers behind if he is to write as he feels he must. The blurb inside the cover of my edition of Paterson quotes him: ‘In 1920 he wrote, “I’ll right whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please…”’ I’m glad he clarified that.

img_3398Writing on Behalf of his People

Thomas is different, I think. There is an intriguing link to the Mass that Farley and Roberts flag up (page 226):

In the old rite of the Mass, the priest would stand at the head of his congregation with his back to them, leading his people in the incantations and prayers, representing them. Once the rules changed and the priest turned around to face the congregation, Thomas felt that something crucial had been lost. As did David Jones. Fortunately, his poetic vocation still permitted RST to take on that role, to turn and face the emptiness on behalf of his people, to cast words into the void of God for them.

I’ll use an example of the power with which Thomas is able to capture accessibly the bleak reality of his subject without lapsing into traditional modes of expression (Collected Poems 1945-1990 Phoenix Edition – page 464). I’ve picked a poem that illustrates how strong Thomas’s love for and commitment to the Welsh language was: he deeply regretted that his strength in it was not sufficient to carry his poetry.


They were irreplaceable and unforgettable,
inhabitants of the parish and speakers
of the Welsh tongue. I looked on and
there was one less and one less and one less.

They were not of the soil, but contributed
to it in dying, a manure not
to be referred to as such, but from which
poetry is grown and legends and green tales.

Their immortality was what they hoped for
by being kind. Their smiles were such as,
exercised so often, became perennial
as flowers, blossoming where they had been cut down.

I ministered uneasily among them until
what had been gaps in the straggling hedgerow
of the nation widened to reveal the emptiness
that was inside, where echoes haunted and thin ghosts.

A rare place, but one identifiable
with other places where on as deep a sea
men have clung to the last spars of their language
and gone down with it, unremembered but uncomplaining.

As the Wikipedia article on Thomas puts it:

Fearing that poetry was becoming a dying art, inaccessible to those who most needed it, “he attempted to make spiritually minded poems relevant within, and relevant to, a science-minded, post-industrial world”, to represent that world both in form and in content even as he rejected its machinations.

(Their quote is from Daniel Westover’s R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography – University of Wales Press, 2011.) 

My sense is that he succeeded.

Last Words

Whatever the rights and wrongs of my preconceptions about the value of their poetry, an important implication of both their lives is the possibility that their work protected them from the harmful myth so many post-Romantic poets have succumbed to (page 226-27):

Both poets struggling to hold their lives in balance – outward facing lives as pastor and doctor, and their inward-facing lives as poets. . . . . . Perhaps, in both cases, their sense of duty to the people they served help them to avoid the meltdown of poetic self destruction.

All in all, though the experience varied in quality, this book as a whole was a richly rewarding experience that deepened my understanding of the complex relationship between poetry, the poet and the life. I’m glad I read it.


[1] From Wikipedia: ‘Williams referred to the prosody of triadic-line poetry as a “variable foot”, a metrical device to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse.[4] Each of the three staggered lines of the stanza should be thought of as one foot, the whole stanza becoming a trimeter line.[5] Williams’ collections Journey to Love (1955) and The Desert Music (1954) [6] contained examples of this form. This is an extract from “The Sparrow” by Williams:

Practical to the end,
……………….it is the poem
………………………………of his existence

(The dots are the only way to get the words in the right place! I’ve copied the arrangement from my Paladin Edition of his work Volume II – page 294: it differs slightly from that found on the Wikipedia page.)

[2] From Poetry Archive: “Elsewhere Williams’ social conscience is to the fore, in the act of imaginative empathy of ‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’ and the more overtly political vision of ‘The Yachts’ and ‘To Elsie’. The former is radical in a different way from the experimental minimalism of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ as it presents an image of capitalist oppression: Williams captures the exhilaration of the yachts’ triumphant progress, but he also sees the ruthlessness of privilege which they represent. ‘To Elsie’, its twenty two stanzas poured out in a single sentence, constructs a powerful critique of a modern world in which the lower classes are degraded by lust and exploited by the better off. The final poem, ‘The Dance’, celebrates movement and Williams’ great love of art. Here he does use a traditional metre, the dactyl (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed) which gives the poem a powerful forward momentum. The whirling energy of the peasants is also intensified through the enjambment of each line which doesn’t allow a pause for breath. It feels especially important to be able to listen to this great celebrant of American speech, his light clear voice relishing the different kinds of music created by each poem.”


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Given my preoccupation with trauma and creativity, amongst other cheerful issues, it will come as no surprise to hear that I am almost certain to buy this book on death and poets. As far as I can tell from the Guardian review its combination of wit and wisdom will be hard for me to resist. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Not the lives of poets, which Dr Johnson wrote about, but their deaths – whether early or late, in bed or in battle, accidental or self-inflicted. It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick postmortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”.

If their previous collaboration, Edgelands, in 2011, was a pilgrimage to neglected corners of the English landscape, this one sends them further afield, to wherever it was (Boston, Vienna or Hull) that a poet’s last hours were spent. The hope is that by being there they can learn something – about the life and work, and how the manner of a poet’s death can affect, for better or worse, an understanding of his or her poems.

Henry Wallis’s portrait of the death of Chatterton – splayed body, abandoned drafts, arsenic phial – glamorised the image of the poet as sacrificial victim. Chatterton was just 17. The consumptive Keats (“that drop of blood is my death-warrant”) lasted only eight years longer. As other early casualties followed (Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Verlaine), the legend of the poète maudit took hold. Dylan Thomas, dying at 39 in New York after claiming to have drunk “18 straight whiskies”, gave it new vigour. According to his widow Caitlin, his “ridiculous” investment in the idea of the doomed poet was a self-betrayal – what he really liked was warm slippers, pickled onions and checking the cricket scores.

In the 1960s, the myth took an even darker turn, with the idea that personal disaster is necessary for great writing, and that – as John Berryman put it – poets who experience every worst possible ordeal short of suicide are “extremely lucky”’. For most, including Berryman himself, the luck soon ran out: he, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton all killed themselves. (Randall Jarrell, who walked out in front of a car on a dark road, almost certainly did too.) The poet and critic Al Alvarez articulated the “extremist” thesis in his study The Savage God and was later teased for it by James Fenton (“He tells you, in the sombrest notes, / If poets want to get their oats / The first step is to slit their throats”). In reality, factors unrelated to poetry were often involved: drugs, alcohol, marital breakdown and depression, and in the cases of Plath and Berryman the precedent of a self-destructive father. But the myth lost none of its allure: Edgelife or Ledgelife meant pushing oneself to the limit and beyond in the service of art. Suicidal painters added to the thrill, as did rock stars then and since.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is no longer possible to maintain the belief that the approach to social and economic development to which the materialistic conception of life has given rise is capable of meeting humanity’s needs. Optimistic forecasts about the changes it would generate have vanished into the ever-widening abyss that separates the living standards of a small and relatively diminishing minority of the world’s inhabitants from the poverty experienced by the vast majority of the globe’s population.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

In the last post I shared a somewhat simplified summary of the moral and practical challenges that confront us at this point in humanity’s material ascent from isolated cave to interconnected commerce.

I am now seeking to convey more fully Rifkin’s position in his book The Empathic Civilization on the long-standing interaction he perceives between empathy and entropy in this scenario.

Right at the start he raises the question about whether we have, as the Bahá’í Faith would argue as well, a dual potential (page 18):

Is it possible that human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-interested and materialistic, but are of a very different nature – an empathic one – and that all the other drives that we have considered to be primary – aggression, violence, selfish behaviour, inquisitiveness – are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct?

If the answer is ‘Yes,’ as he believes then other things follow (page 24):

A heightened empathic sentiment… allows an increasingly individualised population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, extended, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterises what we call civilisation. . . . . When we say to civilise, we mean to empathise.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

He argues (page 91) that Darwin himself came to recognise the inherent importance of ‘cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity’ in the survival of the fittest which, in terms of groups and societies, depends upon our forming ‘cooperative bonds’ with others. He adduces experimental evidence (pages 131-134) to support the idea that empathy is not self-serving in terms of looking good in the eyes of others, gaining brownie points to elicit future favours or even reducing discomfort at the sight of another’s suffering: ‘the primary motivation is pure altruism – that is, caring for the other rather than alleviating their own empathic distress.’

He extrapolates further to discern a possible connection between empathy and democracy (page 161). He acknowledges that effective empathy (page 173) needs to be balanced with a degree of detachment so that we do not end up in the quicksand unable to help either others or ourselves. Interestingly from a Bahá’í point of view, he places great emphasis (page 184) on dialogue, a process which may look essentially the same as consultation within the Bahá’í community, though lacking a spiritual foundation.

At the same time as he is developing this theme he begins to introduce evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

He brings the Roman Empire into the frame later in support of his theory (pages 249-50) though as a psychologist I have always quite liked the lead-piping explanation for their eventually demise: I’m sure you know the gist – lead poisoning, cognitive deficits, military defeats – it’s quite neat really. He is unequivocal though about the way what actually happened confirms his view:

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Shame about the lead hypothesis, but I have to agree that his version makes a lot more sense.

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

He continues to explore the nature of empathy, seeing it as rooted in ‘embodied experience’ (page 273) and fostered by the increasingly empathy inducing artistic creations of myth, epic and, more recently, the novel, which have become accessible to greater and greater numbers of people as time’s gone on (pages 310-12). He brings into the mix the idea, popular with the Romantics and which I have already explored in terms of the work of John Keats, of ‘imaginative identification’ (page 341). He quotes John Ruskin who observed that ‘people would instantly care for others as well for themselves if only they could imagine others as well as themselves.’

He links the development of this capacity to the existence of ‘complex urban environments’ (page 343). He describes the Romantics as extending this fellow feeling beyond human beings alone to include the world of nature and all living beings (page 344).

It is to the mid-nineteenth century that Rifkin dates the use of electricity as a metaphor for describing ‘nature, human nature and the workings of civilisation’ (page 368), something which develops the idea of empathy even further. Electricity was perceived as ‘neither material nor immaterial’ (page 369) and therefore, he extrapolates (page 370):

A new sense of a porous nature helped create a new sense of social fluidity. Bodies were no longer constrained by their corporeality. If the world is both material and immaterial at same time, then the idea of clear-cut boundaries between people is more a social contrivance than a scientific reality.

The developments of first the telegraph, and then the telephone enabled ‘direct, instantaneous communication between millions of people’ (page 375). Interestingly, he adds (page 376): ‘The word “phony” emerged at the time to describe the experience of not believing the voice at the other end of the phone.’

It is in the 1890s that Rifkin perceives another pitfall than entropy emerging that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

The detailed idea of levels of consciousness that underpin these points is something I shall be returning to in more detail in the later posts on that subject. On Friday I will be digging a bit deeper into the entropy issue and its links with commerce.

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In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with last Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post, like the last one, constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.

N.B. now we’re back on track after the two posts out of sequence! To read 5a now see link.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

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[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake. I realised too late that I had jumped over two posts to leap to 5a – so here they come, better late than never!

In the last posthttps://phulme.wordpress.com/2016/11/12/reality-art-the-artist-4c5-shelleys-poetry-and-politics-2/ I focused mainly on the Mask of Anarchy, and concluded that Shelley manages to avoid the trap of painting only in black, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man.

Ode to the West Wind

At about the same time as he completed this superb protest poem, another of his great poems was incubating, according to Holmes in his biography (page 546):

Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.

His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In this poem, I feel, Shelley has managed to curb his tendency to over-wrought diction, which mars so much of his poetry, without selling out the intensity of his feeling and the exaltation of his vision. Also, he has been more successful, as a result, in pitching his imagery at a deeply resonant level. For example, at first sight the idea of ‘dead thoughts’ seems inherently despairing and negative, until you see the comparison with dead leaves, whose death is precisely what is necessary to fertilise new growth. There is a sense of Shelley’s willingness to sacrifice himself in this process, but he does not rub our noses in it in the self-aggrandising way we see so often elsewhere in his poetry. It may be no coincidence that this poem follows on from the risk he took in trying to get The Mask of Anarchy published. (I will be returning to a closer analysis of both these poems in a later post.)

It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that I find his use of the word ‘hearth’ particularly rich in implications. It contains the words ‘art,’ ‘heart’ and ‘earth’ within it, as I have explained elsewhere. As this was a poem I read often in my late teens, I now find myself wondering whether the core image in the dream I had in my 40s of the hearth, which was so important to my understanding of spiritual processes, was first planted by Shelley.

1 Earth Heart alone

For source of image see link

Elusive Inspiration

I will skate over another long poem – Peter Bell the Third – even though it does have some powerful passages. It is too uneven, and therefore ultimately unsuccessful, to be included here, where I am focusing exclusively on his more powerful poems for what they might reveal about the creative process at its best.

Holmes’s commentary on this period is relevant (page 556):

The astonishing speed and range of his creative output, which had now run in an unbroken curve from 6 September when he first received news of Peterloo, until 5 November, embracing such widely different genres of poetry and prose, and simultaneously throwing off a comet’s tail of ballad fragments and songs, suggest a state of exultant energy and vision, a consciousness of formidable active power that is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms.

He amplifies on this (page 569):

Like the great creative efforts of 1812 and 1817 – which were, equally, responses to political and social crisis in society – the effort of 1819 pushed forward the range of Shelley’s literary powers. It established in his mind more mature conceptions both of the actions and sufferings of other men, and of his own. In artistic terms the greatest gains were in economy and intensity of style.

Ann Wroe makes the astute observation that (page 92) ‘he could not will or control the poetic power, and when it lapsed he was merely a man again.’ What I would very much wish to be able to define, are the factors that connect him to this power so that his work resonates at a higher level than his more workaday verse. This would help me understand better the difference between poetry and verse: they can sometimes, to a cursory glance, appear the same, but repeated exposure reveals the former to penetrate reality far more deeply than the latter.

It was Erich Fromm who alerted me to the distinction between two kinds of stimuli. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, having discussed simple stimuli, which is the common usage of the term stimulus and means a trigger to reaction, he explains that there is another kind of stimulus (page 269):

. . . . one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, and landscape, music, or a loved person. None of these stimuli produce a simple response; they invite you, as it were, to respond by actively and sympathetically relating yourself to them; by becoming actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’… by becoming more awake and more aware.

He unpacks some of the implications of this distinction (pages 269-70):

Stimuli of the first, simple kind, if repeated beyond a certain threshold, are no longer registered and lose their stimulating effect. . . . Activating stimuli have a different effect. They do not remain the same; because of the productive response to them they are always new, always changing: the stimulated person… brings the stimuli to life and changes them by always discovering new aspects in them.

When ‘poetic power’ is present we have activating stimuli which can change our awareness and which repay revisiting: when it is absent there is unlikely to be any such effect. In the final group of posts I will be exploring this issue in greater depth, though it will mean digressing into a discussion of the novel’s capacity to promote empathy as well as exploring the difficulties of distinguishing between a poem that is merely a simple stimulus and therefore probably only verse, and a poem that is an activating one, and therefore poetry in the best sense of that word.

I bet you’re looking forward to that discussion.

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

A Defence of Poetry

After the end of this period comes A Defence of Poetry, which Holmes (page 642) regards as something of an anthology of his earlier prose writing. A well known antecedent is Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. The Wikipedia article acknowledges his influence on Shelley and beyond, and summarises his message:

In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function.

One of the most recent descendants is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry, where he speaks of (page xvii) how poetry can bring ‘human existence into fuller life.’

This may not seem consistent with a strong desire to change the world in some particular way (page 2):

[Poetry] offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. . . . . They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view.

He sets an important criterion for the reality that poetry seeks to capture (page 7-8):

Poetry . . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and of which it is generated. . . . . As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function.

Shelley stands at a point of time approximately halfway between these publications. Similar to Sidney, he continues to see (page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.

Shelley draws a distinction which anticipates Iain McGilchrist, in a way (page 645):

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has for want of the poetic faculty proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world.

Approaching his End

Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):

It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.

His total lack of interest at this same time in the situation of his own children by Harriet points in the same unfeeling direction.

Writing to Claire at the time of the composition of Adonais, he explained (page 656) that:

. . . .  in writing poetry he found the only real form of mental relief which lifted him above ‘the stormy mist of sensations.’

I won’t be dwelling on this poem here, not only because of its flawed empathy, but also because, while I do not I agree with Holmes’s dismissive description of it as mannered and pompous (page 657), its unevenness raises too many doubts in my mind about its overall quality. I need more time before I can come to a measured assessment.

Concerning what poetry was for him, he said something revealing at this time, which I have also quoted in an earlier post (page 659):

‘The poet and the man are two different natures,’ he explained . . . ‘though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other.’

The best poetry of this period comes under the heading of Pisan Poems though I am not sure at this point what exactly triggered them and therefore am unclear how they might help clarify my current theme.

This is where my rather rapid overview of his poetic output comes to an end and I now face the daunting task in the next set of posts of integrating what I have learnt into my working model of the creative process so I can test it out on other writers. I’ll probably stick to writers because I understand the written arts better than the others, though I don’t necessarily value them more.

Because I messed up the sequence in republishing, the next post in the sequence is 5a: to read that if you wish, see link before moving on to 5b.

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[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 102)

As I am about to bring Shelley back into the frame with my next new post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago part way through. I will be checking each post carefully before I republish as I want to try and flag up places where my new understanding of the role of trauma shaping personality might help me see where any trauma in Shelley’s history might have had an impact on his art. The first three re-published posts will be run consecutively. Others will follow after Monday’s new post.

As I explained in Monday’s post, at this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process, and not just in terms of the protest songs I discussed in the last post.

For reasons that may become slightly clearer as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors. Before we close in on the man himself, I felt I needed to say a bit more about my journey towards this particular choice. There were after all other poets I knew better and liked far more.

Tintern Abbey (for source of image see link)

“Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures” by Samuel Colman (for source of image see link)

The Limitations of Protest Alone

Admittedly even my infatuation, in the poems I quoted last time, with Byron’s pointed cynicism or Shelley’s dark condemnation did not entirely replace the powerful tug of what I have always felt are Wordsworth’s greatest lyrics, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. They touched on a sense of the transcendent, which is of course not incompatible with protest against injustice, but takes things to an altogether different level. Again my mind was ringing to the melody of many remembered lines (From the Ode:lines 59-67).

The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Or (From Lines written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey: lines 96-103):

                                      And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Something of the same current can be detected at times in the poet I have chosen to explore, but it feels more strained and less convincing, which may account for the extreme darkness of some of his poetry.

More consistently I resonated also to Keats’s greatest poems as an earlier post on this blog testifies, as does another post register my current debt to Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, something that also goes back many years – through May 1982 as a diary entry of mine testifies – to my years at secondary school.

The diary entry in part reads:

At 17 I stopped up the wellsprings of my deepest feelings when I turned my back on all religions. I am now parching with a spiritual thirst – my main priority is to find out what I need to slake it.

I then quoted the same passage of spiritual insight from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as I have used in the blog post I linked to above.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

I then continue:

Tonight after I have prepared my meal I shall return to this journal to reflect upon what I need to do now. I have wasted half my life on vanities. I do not want to throw away the rest. . . . . Buddhism and meditation, in this last year mainly, have done so much to free my mind from its old debilitating patterns. I would be very foolish not to continue with my meditation and at least a minimum of Buddhist reading. Do I need to do more?

Seven months later I declared as a Bahá’í, but that is another story.

Not surprising, then, that I find Coleridge far more appealing, in spite of his evident frailties. He seems more rounded as a person than all the other Romantics, more complexly spiritual than Wordsworth (though undoubtedly a touch too abstractly philosophical at times) and far less egocentric than Byron. Keats I loved but his tragically short life left him somehow incomplete.

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

A Charismatic Teacher

Two post-romantics, Tennyson & Browning, were also important to me, the one mainly for his brilliant collection of lyrical meditations on loss known as In Memoriam, and the latter mostly for his brilliant handling of the dramatic monologue – but more of them another time perhaps.

My strong connection with those two poets I owe to a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.

He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—

It may be no coincidence, in the light of my present concerns, that this poem explores the relationship between music and spirituality. Most of that aspect passed right over my adolescent head, though it may have registered subconsciously. Mind you, now that music can be recorded Browning might have had to steer Abt Vogler along a slightly different track.

I can remember though the impact of his enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.

In the sixth form he taught us how to approach Tennyson’s outpourings of grief before most of us had the faintest idea of the agony loss can cause.

Without exposure to such art our sensibility is incalculably impoverished and our ability to contribute to bettering our world will be seriously impaired. Maybe that was partly what Pink Floyd were protesting about in their bleak song Another Brick in the Wall, as the powerful video below brings to life.

Coming onto Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

So, why am I not starting with one or other of those poets?

I’d better start by admitting that my head doesn’t really understand my choice of Shelley at this point. I’m simply following my intuition here. Let’s hope my head catches up completely before the end of this sequence of posts, as I’ll need its help to make some sense of it all. What follows is my best attempt to understand the direction I have chosen to take.

Well, it was my interest in Coleridge that triggered me to read Richard Holmes’s excellent twovolume biography. That in turn meant that when I saw his biography of Shelley on the shelves of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye last year I immediately snapped it up, even though Shelley has always been my least favourite poet of the Romantic period.

I’m still not quite sure why I decided to pull it off the shelf and begin to read it at last. After all, it was what I experienced as Shelley’s combination of ethereal intensity and chaotic sensibility that repelled me from his longer poems in the first instance, and nothing had happened since to change my mind. The decision to learn about his life possibly came from another level.

Initially, my recent reading of this biography did little to dispel my negative perception.

However, as my reading of this 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced by examples of his capacity for kindness, even generosity at times, by the increasing breadth of his understanding, and by the increasing depth and accessibility of even some of his longer poetry. I became intrigued and wanted to try and understand the dynamics of that better, while also wondering whether this might all shed some more light on the factors that influence our levels of altruism, as well as on our responses to and understanding of violence and terror.

Suddenly his life began to seem exactly what I needed to reflect on now. It looked like Shelley might be a fruitful biographical test case to get me started on my quest to understand what puzzles me so intensely.

I need to mention at this point that I am also reading a book by Ann Wroe called Being Shelley: the poet’s search for himself. As she describes it, the book (page ix) ‘is an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature. It is a book about Shelley the poet, rather than Shelley the man.’ She quotes Shelley as stating in a letter written in 1821 (ibid.): ‘The poet & the man . . . . are two different natures; though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other . . .’

Intriguingly Alan Bennet exploits this idea in his script for The Lady in the Van, though in his case the writer and the man communicate incessantly over what is happening. The film is worth watching, therefore, not only for Maggie Smith’s performance, but for the insights it gives into the creative process, though the trailer gives you no clue about that, sadly.

Wroe’s book clearly contains information relevant to my current task.

However, I have decided to focus most on Holmes’s more prosaic biography and other similar sources, only pulling in comments from Wroe’s book when I feel they add something of significance or illustrate a point more powerfully.

In this sequence of posts I will share a helicopter review of his life first. After that will come a discussion of some general ideas before I attempt to deal with his poetic development in detail, including some clues I have found in his biography about the source and nature of his creativity.

Only after that will I come to some tentative general conclusions intended to guide my subsequent investigations into the lives of other creative artists of various kinds, contrasted I hope with the Florence Nightingales and Indira Ghandis, to test whether there is a distinction to be made concerning the relationship between intense activity and personal life in the field of the arts as against in other domains, in the light of the conditions prevailing at the time.

I also eventually want to examine, further than I will be able to do here, the nature of poetry’s power. This of course requires making a distinction, that to some extent might be arbitrary, between poetry and verse.  Even my own limited experience of writing poetry suggests that there is such a distinction to be made. There are times when what I write is merely workmanlike. It is fundamentally pedestrian. It’s just verse. It has no spark. I have tried not to fall into the temptation of posting any of that on my blog.

Other poems seem to be alive in a way that I find it hard to describe. They often appear with whole lines or even passages more or less complete. They also have unexpected ideas, sometimes I even do not fully understand what I am writing (see link for one example). Whenever I have read a poet’s complete works I have found the same unevenness: one poem is sublime, the next one dull. Bob Dylan, in response to his being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, has admitted that he has to write 100 worthless songs for every good one. Also:

Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’

(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)

Dullness can even predominate in the published work. In the dedication to Don Juan, Byron made his famous comment on a poem of Wordsworth’s, that suggests that even the greatest can produce copious quantities of sub-standard work:

And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
       (I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
       Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
       And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

I also have to admit that this, in the end, comes down to a matter of taste when we discuss any particular poem, and taste is something learnt rather than innate. I found this out very early. Almost at the same time as one teacher was helping us gain access to Abt Vogler, another teacher was testing us in a different way. He came into the classroom with two poems and handed them round. He asked us to read them both and then decide which was the better of the two. Almost the whole class picked the same one. Only then did he explain that we had preferred a poem he’d written in his teens over one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

That complicates it all even more.

Anyhow, this whole enterprise may be hopelessly ambitious. It is very much a pilot study. It may be that the anarchic chaos of Shelley’s life will spread to my treatment of his art. This may not be a bad thing if I manage to rescue some reliable data from the maelstrom. They may be worth a great deal when I come to look at more orderly examples later, if I ever do. We’ll see how far I get before I run out of steam or ideas.

An irony I can’t resist mentioning at this point is that his personal life displayed the anarchy in a less violent form that he so detested in the political arena.

There will be more on Shelley tomorrow.

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