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Posts Tagged ‘King Lear’

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011. This is the second and last.

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

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My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011.
At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson tomorrow! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(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!

At the end of the previous post I noted that Holmes, in his biography, points forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.

At the same time as all this, a subtler thread begins to run more saliently through the pattern of his thoughts concerning violent revolution (page 350). He saw that revolution ‘could overreach itself’ and easily replicate the model of the French Revolution, where anarchy gave way to military dictatorship. This was the seedbed for his maturing perspective that asked the question (page 382-83) ‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?’ He was coming to realise that fundamental changes in society could only result from ‘the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.’ Women as well, I would now add of course.

It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.

In terms of Shelley’s poetry Holmes next focuses at length on Prometheus Unbound. His comments suggest that I need to look more carefully at this poem also. Most particularly one comment (page 491) struck a chord:

There is a sense in which the whole action is metaphysical rather than physical, and in which the setting of the drama is not so much the universe at large but the dome of a single human skull.

Through this medium he examines psychological, political or modern scientific meanings (page 492). I am still feeling that Shelley has regressed to the stylistically overwrought. I will have a closer look at some point, but at present I feel more attracted to Holmes’s analysis of the poem’s significance than to the language of the poem itself as he quotes it. For instance, Holmes claims (page 504) that Shelley is arguing for love as a force which ‘forms the unity of mind which Shelley believed could alone produce the great scientist, the artist, the doctor, the architect and the law-giver. The divided nature is healed.’ Even Holmes finds the third act a disappointing failure.

We can also skate over The Cenci, his next long poetical expedition, another drama that fails to deliver. He aimed (page 516) to make the events of the play be ‘as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.’ Holmes’s verdict (page 525) is that ‘the coarse melodrama of Shelley’s stage writing is painfully evident, and from a literary point of view The Cenci remains almost entirely a pastiche of Shakespearean and Jacobean drama.’

The Mask of Anarchy, on the other hand, pulled me in immediately. Reading this now serves to remind us both of the madness our own country has had to travel through to reach this point of relative sanity, and also of how close we always have been to terror of some kind. That we now stare uncomprehendingly at the Middle East, as though we could never commit such atrocities, shows a dangerous blindness to our own history and our own potential.

Guernica

The trigger for The Mask of Anarchy was what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre which occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. A demonstration was organised to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to this outrage. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):

His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.

He quotes the main opening lines. They are so powerful it is worth sharing them all here, I feel.

I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he look’d yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them humanhearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon[1], an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell;

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by, them.

Clothed with the Bible as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth[2] next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

My edition of Shelley

It is revealing of even the more recent situations under which this poem has been printed or published that my own pre-1961 copy (see picture above), and the version I consulted on the web, have the following censored rendering of one stanza, a chilling echo of the conditions under which the poem was originally composed:

Clothed with the * * as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like * * * next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

I could only fill in the gaps without further research because Holmes, Wroe and my Blackwell edition had done so.

The poem introduces the sinister figure of Anarchy.

Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

Holmes unpacks the exact implications of this figure in the narrative of the poem (page 534):

Shelley meant that Anarchy, a savage god outside any human law, is already the idol of the government’s train; he could easily become the leader of the people too.

Hope is what holds him in check. As a result Anarchy is thwarted.

Perhaps the most important insight of all is introduced after that. The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. She exhorts them (page 536):

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.

Apart from caution concerning the obvious dangers of publishing so radical a work at such a sensitive time, another reason Leigh Hunt decided against publication appeared to be (page 540) that ‘Shelley’s belief in passive resistance was incompatible at that time with massive democratic demonstrations.’ Shelley’s decision to exile himself in Italy did not help, and this was not only work of his that went unpublished at this time.

What impresses me so much about this poem, which I have come now to regard as one of his greatest, is not just how much it anticipates the protest songs I grew to love in my early twenties, but also how Shelley’s horror at what happens does not cause him to descend into dissonance and obscurity. It also sheds powerful light on what Shelley meant by the idea of the ‘phantom’ in the sonnet I quoted earlier in this sequence.

800px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_margin

Goya’s ‘El tres de Mayo’ (for source of image see link)

What troubles me a lot about the art of our times is that the horrors we have witnessed have led art too often to capitulate to the chaos and produce a form of music, poetry, painting, drama, film and so on that is ugly and ultimately meaningless.

Take for example, Vaughn Williams, a composer whose early works I love. To do justice to the horrors of the Second World War, he introduced what I experience as an all-encompassing dissonance into his later symphonies that ultimately repels me from the experience of listening to them. He provides no perspective on the darkness.

Even King Lear, for all the madness and cruelty it contains, has moments of deep compassion and great elegiac beauty; also a sense of the order that needs to be reinstated frames the action.

It seems to me that the greatest art weighs the dark side of the human predicament against the light that is also inherent in our nature. When a work of art succumbs completely to the darkness it betrays its purpose: it is not then enough to say that something positive is implicit in using a medium to convey this darkness symbolically, that this creativity in itself preserves the balance. When any kind of structure and harmony has been completely replaced by discord and disorder, we have simply made a literal representation of one aspect of reality and implied that this is all there is. This may be fine for a number of short lyrics in a collection of lyrics, where the despair and chaos of some lyrics is counterpointed by other more positive poems. Longer or larger works of art such as novels, plays, symphonies and such need to contain elements of both dark and light.

Shelley manages to avoid the trap I describe 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. Great art – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being.

This makes me feel that Ludwig Tuman’s resistance to some kind of glib reductionism, such as either the artist must be perfect for the art to be great or all great artists are broken souls, is absolutely justified.

In the final post of this sequence I hope to explore briefly some of Shelley’s late poetry and try to draw some tentative conclusions before looking at possible models in the final post.

[1] John Scott, Baron Eldon, Lord Chancellor. He had on 27 March 1817 deprived Shelley of access to his two children by Harriet Westbrook, so this was a personal score he was settling rather than one directly related to Peterloo.

[2] Henry Addington, created Viscount Sidmouth in 1805, and Home Secretary in 1819. He applauded the Peterloo Massacre in the House of Commons.

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A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

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

At the end of the previous post I noted that Holmes, in his biography, points forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.

At the same time as all this, a subtler thread begins to run more saliently through the pattern of his thoughts concerning violent revolution (page 350). He saw that revolution ‘could overreach itself’ and easily replicate the model of the French Revolution, where anarchy gave way to military dictatorship. This was the seedbed for his maturing perspective that asked the question (page 382-83) ‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?’ He was coming to realise that fundamental changes in society could only result from ‘the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.’ Women as well, I would now add of course.

It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.

In terms of Shelley’s poetry Holmes next focuses at length on Prometheus Unbound. His comments suggest that I need to look more carefully at this poem also. Most particularly one comment (page 491) struck a chord:

There is a sense in which the whole action is metaphysical rather than physical, and in which the setting of the drama is not so much the universe at large but the dome of a single human skull.

Through this medium he examines psychological, political or modern scientific meanings (page 492). I am still feeling that Shelley has regressed to the stylistically overwrought. I will have a closer look at some point, but at present I feel more attracted to Holmes’s analysis of the poem’s significance than to the language of the poem itself as he quotes it. For instance, Holmes claims (page 504) that Shelley is arguing for love as a force which ‘forms the unity of mind which Shelley believed could alone produce the great scientist, the artist, the doctor, the architect and the law-giver. The divided nature is healed.’ Even Holmes finds the third act a disappointing failure.

We can also skate over The Cenci, his next long poetical expedition, another drama that fails to deliver. He aimed (page 516) to make the events of the play be ‘as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.’ Holmes’s verdict (page 525) is that ‘the coarse melodrama of Shelley’s stage writing is painfully evident, and from a literary point of view The Cenci remains almost entirely a pastiche of Shakespearean and Jacobean drama.’

The Mask of Anarchy, on the other hand, pulled me in immediately. Reading this now serves to remind us both of the madness our own country has had to travel through to reach this point of relative sanity, and also of how close we always have been to terror of some kind. That we now stare uncomprehendingly at the Middle East, as though we could never commit such atrocities, shows a dangerous blindness to our own history and our own potential.

Guernica

The trigger for The Mask of Anarchy was what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre which occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. A demonstration was organised to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to this outrage. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):

His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.

He quotes the main opening lines. They are so powerful it is worth sharing them all here, I feel.

I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he look’d yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them humanhearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon[1], an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell;

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by, them.

Clothed with the Bible as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth[2] next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

My edition of Shelley

It is revealing of even the more recent situations under which this poem has been printed or published that my own pre-1961 copy (see picture above), and the version I consulted on the web, have the following censored rendering of one stanza, a chilling echo of the conditions under which the poem was originally composed:

Clothed with the * * as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like * * * next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

I could only fill in the gaps without further research because Holmes, Wroe and my Blackwell edition had done so.

The poem introduces the sinister figure of Anarchy.

Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

Holmes unpacks the exact implications of this figure in the narrative of the poem (page 534):

Shelley meant that Anarchy, a savage god outside any human law, is already the idol of the government’s train; he could easily become the leader of the people too.

Hope is what holds him in check. As a result Anarchy is thwarted.

Perhaps the most important insight of all is introduced after that. The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. She exhorts them (page 536):

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.

Apart from caution concerning the obvious dangers of publishing so radical a work at such a sensitive time, another reason Leigh Hunt decided against publication appeared to be (page 540) that ‘Shelley’s belief in passive resistance was incompatible at that time with massive democratic demonstrations.’ Shelley’s decision to exile himself in Italy did not help, and this was not only work of his that went unpublished at this time.

What impresses me so much about this poem, which I have come now to regard as one of his greatest, is not just how much it anticipates the protest songs I grew to love in my early twenties, but also how Shelley’s horror at what happens does not cause him to descend into dissonance and obscurity. It also sheds powerful light on what Shelley meant by the idea of the ‘phantom’ in the sonnet I quoted earlier in this sequence.

800px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_margin

Goya’s ‘El tres de Mayo’ (for source of image see link)

What troubles me a lot about the art of our times is that the horrors we have witnessed have led art too often to capitulate to the chaos and produce a form of music, poetry, painting, drama, film and so on that is ugly and ultimately meaningless.

Take for example, Vaughn Williams, a composer whose early works I love. To do justice to the horrors of the Second World War, he introduced what I experience as an all-encompassing dissonance into his later symphonies that ultimately repels me from the experience of listening to them. He provides no perspective on the darkness.

Even King Lear, for all the madness and cruelty it contains, has moments of deep compassion and great elegiac beauty; also a sense of the order that needs to be reinstated frames the action.

It seems to me that the greatest art weighs the dark side of the human predicament against the light that is also inherent in our nature. When a work of art succumbs completely to the darkness it betrays its purpose: it is not then enough to say that something positive is implicit in using a medium to convey this darkness symbolically, that this creativity in itself preserves the balance. When any kind of structure and harmony has been completely replaced by discord and disorder, we have simply made a literal representation of one aspect of reality and implied that this is all there is. This may be fine for a number of short lyrics in a collection of lyrics, where the despair and chaos of some lyrics is counterpointed by other more positive poems. Longer or larger works of art such as novels, plays, symphonies and such need to contain elements of both dark and light.

Shelley manages to avoid the trap I describe 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. Great art – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being.

This makes me feel that Ludwig Tuman’s resistance to some kind of glib reductionism, such as either the artist must be perfect for the art to be great or all great artists are broken souls, is absolutely justified.

In the final post of this sequence I hope to explore briefly some of Shelley’s late poetry and try to draw some tentative conclusions before looking at possible models in the final post.

[1] John Scott, Baron Eldon, Lord Chancellor. He had on 27 March 1817 deprived Shelley of access to his two children by Harriet Westbrook, so this was a personal score he was settling rather than one directly related to Peterloo.

[2] Henry Addington, created Viscount Sidmouth in 1805, and Home Secretary in 1819. He applauded the Peterloo Massacre in the House of Commons.

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As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry to see what else I’d written. This pair of posts from 2011 paves the way for my consideration of brick wall poetry next week. This is the second and last.

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

So, someday perhaps I am going to consider, if I can, one or two poets where, for me, the puzzles all too often destroy the poems. But don’t hold you breath.

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My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry to see what else I’d written. This pair of posts from 2011 paves the way for my consideration of brick wall poetry next week.
At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson tomorrow! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The Blinding of Gloucester

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

So, someday perhaps I am going to consider, if I can, one or two poets where, for me, the puzzles all too often destroy the poems. But don’t hold you breath.

Read Full Post »

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