Posts Tagged ‘Ludwig Tuman’

Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

. . . . . 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)

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with an earlier post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It has also given me some much needed thinking time before my next new sequence of posts comes out! This is the last of the sequence and looks at some general issues.

Where do I stand in all this?

I felt it necessary to bear most of the ideas I’ve discussed in the previous posts in mind, but at this point to focus on how best to define what I felt would be most useful to capture in terms of my future exploration of this topic. I also want to find a way of making sure to include what can best be termed the spiritual factors involved in creativity.

I have already looked at this in part in an earlier post.

The first key issue to note is that the reduction of genius to creativity is in danger of missing the point (page 425):

[T]he study of the real thing – “genius” – has largely degenerated in modern times into the study of diluted cognates such as “creativity” or even “talent” which happen to be relatively accessible to the more “objective” means of investigation currently favoured by most investigators.

A brief quote from a recent book should serve to illustrate what they are saying. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, in their treatment of the issue in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, define creativity as they see it (page 4):

In human behaviour, creativity refers broadly to generating new ideas, whereas innovation refers to changing the way in which things are done. Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behavior or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others.

It is immediately apparent that this is a long way short of what Myers is speaking about when he refers to genius (page 426):

In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.

I accept that it is likely to be impossible to define in words the exact nature of the creative process when conceptualised in this way and at this level. However, I did feel initially that the best metaphoric model to capture it, from among all the somewhat tired analogies on offer, was likely to be an organic rather than mechanical one. I could see why the idea of volcanic eruption or fire was so appealing. I felt at first that it misses a crucial dimension: creation is a living rather than purely material process.

Does that mean I accept some kind of Freudian reduction of creativity to a purely sexual sublimation process? No it doesn’t. Jung’s break with Freud was over the excessive value the latter placed on sexuality as the ultimate explanation of everything about human behaviour. Jung felt passionately that this discounted the spiritual dimension.

So, no surprise then to those who have read some earlier posts. I’m for a model that is rooted in a non-reductive model of consciousness. Clearly though I had to find some way of bringing this down to earth so I could define the important variables and seek them in the experience of the artists we read about or in our own experience of creativity, whatever that may be.

I didn’t use the word earth by accident. So no prizes for guessing where I started from.

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

Any model I provisionally devised needed to account for the power of external triggers, conscious sensibility and subliminal processes to contribute to creativity. I perhaps also needed to distinguish, if at all possible, between influences that push the creative process (‘subliminal uprush’ might be one such) and those that pull on it (such as the sense of purpose in the artist).

Because it helped me think clearly I started with a pseudo-equation (Did I hear someone groan?), sketching out one possible model.

Seeds + Soil + Cultivation + (Sun+Rain) + Seasons = Harvest

a. Seeds are such things as activating stimuli from reading and experience: these are more likely to push than pull the process.

b. The Soil is the subconscious, which in an artist is particularly rich and accessible. The soil quality is probably the result of:

  • Genetic predisposition and congenital influences (push?);
  • Early experience (push);
  • Skill acquisition; and
  • Spiritual orientation (pull?).

c. Cultivation is anything, such as weeding or fertilizer, connected with the process of planting and later material influences of a human kind that nurture the growth of the artefact. These may come from the artist or from outside: this includes the facilitation of creativity by interactions with friends – good examples are how his association with Byron helped produce Julian & Maddalo and his wife Mary’s trigger to write Frankenstein. I have also made mention of David Gilmour. These are more likely to be push factors.

d. Sun and Rain are the cosmic processes not in human control. Their influence can be strengthened by consciously trying to connect with them, for example through nature, meditation or prayer. Probably these are pull factors.

e. The seasons, probably push factors, are to do with the timing of developmental triggers related to the creative process and not in our conscious control.

f. The harvest is the work of art. Harvesting is its production and publication and involves a degree of conscious organisation and selection to ensure the result is as good as it is possible to make it.

An excellent harvest (f) will not be possible without all the preceding stages/components. Without the careful and diligent exercise of conscious control under cultivation (c) and harvest (f) the art will earn Myer’s stricture concerning Blake – that the subliminal uprush has not sufficiently been subject to conscious control. With excessive and constricting conscious control, or in the absence/depletion of seeds (a), soil (b) or climate (d), the work will not resonate at the highest levels of great art.

The Dissolute Artist Problem

The operation of none of these factors depends upon the artist being in anyway anarchic in his personal life, although not following convention in any way that hampers the creative flow is an advantage. It can be tricky to distinguish between meaningless and unimportant conventions and core moral values. Transgressing the former will not damage and might even foster the quality of the art: transgressing the latter will probably damage the art, or at least stifle its full potential.

Ludwig Tuman, in his thoughtful book The Mirror of the Divine, shares insights that are helpful on this issue, though he is addressing a slightly different aspect of the problem. He argues (page 114-15):

The tension between artist and society is… resolved by recognising his right of self expression, and by recognising, too, that the freedom of the individual must be tempered with a sense of spiritual responsibility towards the community. In conclusion, the Bahá’í teachings would seem to condone neither of the two extremes found in the history of art: neither the extreme of suppressing the artist, for to do so transgresses against his rights as an individual: nor the other extreme of allowing him absolute license, for the rights of those who are affected by his work must also be taken into account.

Two Key Issues

There are at least two other key issues to be resolved.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

1. How does one write with such a high intent without falling prey to Shelley’s strained and overwrought diction? (This is closely related to the issue of didacticism and dissonance, which I have dealt with already, so I won’t rehearse all that again here.) George Herbert manages not to sell his ideals short, where many others fail. Humility may be a key factor here.

It is possible that my misgivings about Shelley’s diction are misplaced. I say that in the light of Bahíyyih Nakhjavání’s article Artist, Seeker and Seer, which addresses almost the same issue. She writes:

Great art, therefore, is the expression of the soul’s glimpse of certitude in the double-lensed burning glass of an aesthetic structure commensurate with the patterns it perceives. To be great it must also seize us with an entirety that leaves no word untouched by wonder, no line untouched by light.

Maybe I’m just a pathologically understating Englishman cringing irrationally at the faintest hint of exaggeration! I leave that for you to decide. In the meanwhile, I will hold onto my doubts about Shelley’s high-flying style.

I perhaps need to clarify that this issue is not the same as the problem that some modern readers might have with what they could experience as an ‘archaic’ or ‘old-fashioned’ style. The latter problem is worth struggling to overcome as Shelley is in that case simply writing according to the conventions of his time and very effectively so at his best.

2. It might also be argued that empathy and art could clash if too much concern for family, friends and others distracts the artist from his work. However, if we take seriously the evidence Ricard adduces in his brilliant book Altruism, then it could be that compassion energises as well as bringing wisdom, suggesting that altruism, a disposition to consider the needs of others rather than a simple feeling state, and art would be deeply compatible to the great benefit of the art, and probably of the artist and of society as well. Presumably also the wider the compass of compassion and the stronger the disposition towards altruism, the greater the art will be.

Questions concerning the Model

In terms of a model of inspiration, various other questions arise. Should we be talking about triggers as the promoters of ‘subliminal uprush,’ or would the idea of pricking the membrane between consciousness and the subliminal be a better way of conceptualising it. This would make my soil model ineffective as an explainer. The subliminal could also be building up a kind of pressure that creates the possibility of its breaking through without a trigger – more like Byron’s laval image.

One Size will not Fit All

All of which inevitably leads me to feel that probably any one model of creativity is going to be too simplistic to cover all bases. I am reminded that Bahá’u’lláh, in conveying to us the nature and processes of the human heart, used at least three different images at different times: earth, fire and mirrors. I’ve explored these at length in an earlier sequence of posts.

The earth metaphor is relatively consistent in the Bahá’í Writings. The heart has or is soil in which spiritual qualities are to be planted, such as the hyacinth of wisdom or the rose of love. We need to weed it, seed it and tend it.

The mirror image is similarly consistent. Our heart, if polished and clean, will faithfully reflect what is placed before it, and it is advisable that we are turning it towards life enhancing aspects of experience, as well as keeping it clean.

Fire is slightly more complex in that it can be either the means of cleansing the heart, for example in the prayer which reads:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

Or of lighting its candle as in:

O BEFRIENDED STRANGER! The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.

This makes me fairly sure that the soil metaphor, which was influenced both by Bahá’u’lláh and by Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, has some value.

However, at times, as Byron and Shelley themselves testify, inspiration looks more like a volcano or a fire. So I think I have to find a way of factoring at least those two into the mix.

I realised then that I needed to see if Shelley’s writing contained the idea of a mirror anywhere in this kind of context before I simply began pulling that in as well.


Shelley and the Mirror

It was no surprise to find, in Shelley’s The Defence of Poetry, many references to the idea of a mirror linked to poetry.

After explaining (Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: page 946) that ‘poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’ Shelley goes onto add that, for him, ‘language . . . . is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being’ than other more plastic or acoustic forms of art.

Presumably, to reconcile this with Iain McGilchrist’s view of right-brain holistic experience as being inherently inexplicable, Shelley simply means that poetry succeeds best in communicating with verbal consciousness because it has translated ineffable inner experience into musico-metaphorical terms that get as close as possible to transmuting those experiences into a form that left-brain language doesn’t have to decode before trying to understand them.

The key point that Shelley goes on to make is probably more crucial. He distinguishes rightly between ‘conception’ (an interesting word as it can mean an idea or a moment when the birth process is initiated) and ‘expression.’ He sees them both as means of ‘communication’ for the ‘light’ to use, but the conception is a ‘mirror which reflects’ that light, whereas expression is a ‘cloud which enfeebles it.’ He seems to be privileging language over other means as a communicator, in a way which I’m not sure I yet understand[1].

Shelley goes onto describe (page 947) ‘[a] poem [as] the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.’ He sees prosaic accounts as ‘epitomes’ or summaries stripped of their essential core and therefore subject to the corrosion of time. Poetry, however, ‘forever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains.’ His conclusion is that:

A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

There are two other less relevant references to mirrors in The Defence before Shelley reaches his triumphant conclusion (page 956):

Poets are the hierophants [expounders] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

This clearly suggests that even the poet does not know the full import of what he says. He is simply a channel for meanings beyond his reach.

I think that just about clinches it. I have to draw on all three metaphors.


For source of image see link

Overarching Assumptions

There is the possibility for two overarching assumptions to any model I then create.

(1) If there is no transcendent realm, then we might only need to adapt McGilchrist’s concept of right-brain holistic, metaphorical, nonlinear kinds of processing, which create experiences irreducible to language. These processes frequently occur beneath awareness and produce new insights, sometimes quite complex, that surprise. We still would need to prepare the ground, protect the flame or shine the mirror to foster such experiences, enable us to see the truth at some level of our being, and permit it to enter fully into consciousness. None of this would require moral rectitude or spiritual development as an essential or even important component.

(2) If there is a transcendent realm, then all of the above would apply but also, moral rectitude/spiritual development would be an essential prerequisite for the highest levels of achievement.

At this point I have no intention of pretending that my tripartite model is correct. I merely want it to be useful as a lens through which to examine other creative lives and the art they have produced.

My assumption for now is going to be that, while it is theoretically possible for the transcendent realm, which I believe is there, to seed the soil of an artist’s subconscious, be reflected in the mirror of his consciousness or shine from the lamp of his mind to illuminate the present, I am going to be very cautious before concluding that any significant work of art I examine will provide evidence of any such thing.

I am going to be more confident of supposing that the greatest works of art are partly the product of subliminal processes of some kind, and I want to understand more clearly what they might be.

I also would like to believe that great art will teach us something of value to improve our daily lives, perhaps by connecting us with nature, enabling us to understand other human beings better, or showing us how to bring more beauty into the world. I will be looking for evidence of that, most probably in the art form I understand best – poetry.

Exactly how and when the metaphors of earth, fire and mirrors should be applied is going to be an empirical one, I feel, and I shouldn’t leap at this point to claim I have an integrated model.

Art and the Artist – a final thought

As a final thought, this whole process has led me to believe that as Shelley matured as a man, through personal suffering, key friendships and exposure to testing events in the politico-social sphere, he also matured as a poet. I feel that there is therefore a relationship between the development of the person and the development of the art which is not reducible to a question simply of skill acquisition.

The blind spots of the human being limit the reach of the art. However, because the impaired vision of the artist can be more penetrating than mine, even a flawed artist can open my eyes to truths unavailable otherwise to me. It saddens me to realise how much more such an artist would have achieved with more focus on his or her own spiritual and moral development. Defying pointless convention is one thing: debasing yourself is quite another. We all need to get better at telling the difference.

Let’s see where my next exploration leads me, whenever that will be!


[1] He wrote: ‘For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments, and conditions of art have relations among each other, which limit and interpose between conception and expression. The former is as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication.

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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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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.


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.


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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What is music? It is a combination of harmonious sounds. What is poetry? It is a symmetrical collection of words. Therefore, they are pleasing through harmony and rhythm. Poetry is much more effective and complete than prose. It stirs more deeply, for it is of a finer composition. . . . . . they affect the heart and spirit.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í Writings on Music – pages 8-9)

. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divinepages 29-30)

'The False Mirror' by René Magritte

‘The False Mirror’ by René Magritte

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.

What makes a poem?

This last set of posts in this sequence will really be just the beginning of another project.

For this project to work first of all I’ll need to have some sense of what makes a good poem for me, one worth not only understanding in its own right but also for learning more, in light of the poet’s life, about the creative process at the highest level.

Once I feel reasonably clear that I can reliably choose the best poems to focus on from my point of view, then I need to check out previous thinking for what I might need to know in devising my own pragmatic and at this stage tentative model.

Once I’ve done that perhaps I can constructively look at a handful of Shelley’s poems for what they can tell me, before I finally attempt to articulate my own model.

Assuming this is the best available approach I have divided my exploratory explanation into four sections:

  1. telling a good poem from a bad one, with some idea of what might be the purpose of lyric poetry in particular – that’s what this post will be about;
  2. looking at earlier models of creativity – that’s for next time;
  3. looking at three of Shelley’s poems – that’s for next week and will be in two parts; and
  4. a provisional model of creativity – the last post!

Telling a Good Lyric from a Bad One

Before we go any further I need to share a recent realisation. Readers of this blog may remember my rants against ‘brick-wall’ poetry. As I was researching in books from my shelves to help me with this section, I came across two poems.

The first was by William Stafford – not a poet I’d heard of before. His poetry was the focus of a chapter in Where Art & Faith Converge. It was written by Michael Fitzgerald, the editor of the book and a poet I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. The poem in question reads:

At the Bomb Testing Site

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

Fitzgerald stresses how Stafford’s simplicity, combined with depth and resonance, has made him both popular as well as respected by most, though not all critics. I’ll quote a typical response of the ones I’ve read so far. It’s by Steven M. Molthan and can be found at this link:

In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” Stafford has us contemplate a small lizard that “waited for history, its elbows tense,” This tenseness is something humans ought to feel as well since the existence of nuclear weapons and their life-ending potential is ever present. In the poem, Stafford ascribes to the lizard an almost prophetic quality—it seems to see something is going to happen. “It was looking at something farther off/ than people could see, an important scene…at the flute end of consequences.” The poem brings home the fact that life is something precious and to be made safe. Under an empty sky, there are no guarantees—the poem implies that our choices will preserve our natural existence, or bring its end. “There was just a continent without much on it/ under a sky that never cared less./ Ready for a change, the elbows waited./ The hands gripped hard on the desert.” Keeping a grip on our planet as the panting, tense lizard does is important for the continuance of all life, human and reptilian.

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

I’ll discuss the second poem in a moment. Why am I bringing this one into the mix?

Well, I feel it raises serious questions about the possible over-simplification of my rant about puzzle poetry, and these questions are going to be relevant here when I come to discuss why I choose certain poems of Shelley’s and not others in my examination of the creative process.

As I explained before, I feel it is legitimate to distinguish between poems and verse. How should I do that though? How does this poem and the next one I am going to discuss help me decide?

The core point is simple. I cannot dismiss the Stafford poem as an irritating puzzle. It’s pretty clear what it’s getting at (though I did, for some reason that is still unclear to me, react against the phrase ‘flute end of consequences.’) Even though the theme is clear, and one I should like because I agree with what it’s saying, I don’t like the poem. I was even tempted, and still am, to feel it is not really a poem.

Why should this be so? I made myself question this because I respect Fitzgerald both as critic and poet, and if he likes a poem when I don’t something needs explaining.

In meditation, an explanation came to mind. I don’t like the absence of music in this poem. It’s a left-brain poem, in that sense, for me. It seems flat and prosaic. It triggers my prejudice against the minimalist in modern art of all forms, but which I find most irritating in poetry, my favourite art form after song. Even the imagery does not resonate for me. The poem has a purely intellectual impact and only tells me what I already know. It does not create an experience from which I learn something new: there is no ‘solving for the unknown’ to use Robert Hayden‘s take on Auden’s idea of the algebra of a poem (cf From the Auroral Darkeness: the Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden – page 17).

In an article in the Washington Post Charles quotes Mark Edmundson who nails it for me:

In “Poetry Slam, or, The Decline of American Verse,” Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, upbraids our bards for being “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.” That’s just for starters.

“Their poetry is not heard but overheard,” he laments, “and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.”

And he names the names. After studying Paul Muldoon for years, Edmundson complains that he still has “barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.” Jorie Graham is “portentous.” Anne Carson may be Canadian, but that’s no defense; her verse “is so obscure, mannered, and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.” John Ashbery “says little” in his “perpetual hedging.”

“One can’t generalize about it all,” Edmundson warns, before generalizing about it all in a nuclear assault that leaves no poet standing.

Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky — they’re all brought into Edmundson’s office for a dressing down. Their poems “are good in their ways,” he concedes. “They simply aren’t good enough. They don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.”

I can now recognise that Stafford’s lyric will appeal to many readers in our machine-minded age. It may even really be a poem to whose beauty and power I am blind. But I don’t think I am ever going to like such poems, nor are they therefore going to change my sensibility or raise my consciousness as I re-read and reflect upon them.

This clarifies for me that it is not simply the puzzle of a poem that repels me. Both left-brain and right-brain poems can be puzzling. I just don’t like left-brain poems, puzzling or not.

Left-brain readers may wish to bail out at this point.

In addition, for me, left brain poems tend to take puzzling to a cryptic extreme, as I have already discussed at length on this blog (see earlier links). Right-brain poems can puzzle me, but the music keeps me engaged, and the mystery gradually dissolves because the problem posed by the poem can be solved by the experience the poem creates rather than by the crossword exercise of the intellect.

In the end, left-brain poems may not be poems at all, and in many cases, may not even be verse.

Sandra Lynn Hutchison

Sandra Lynn Hutchison (for source of image see link)

A Test Case

What helped me come to this conclusion was reading a poem by Sandra Lynn Hutchison in this same book (page 198) called The Art of Nesting. To convey a sense of what it is like I’ll quote the opening stanza:

Commit yourself to transience, yet stay conversant with the world
of things. Choose a leaf – aspern, birch, willow – small enough to weave
into the fabric until winter is over and the idea hatches, vibrant with
trilling life. It will appear mysteriously as the fuzzy dawn of feathers.

The poem’s focus is again not human but in this case a bird not a lizard. It’s unusual perspective upon the cycle of life and its empathic engagement with the bird’s point of view is, for me, made more powerful by the music of the lines. Because it is giving advice to the bird, readers also cannot help but feel the advice is directed at them as well in some way. The connection with nature it creates, for me at least avoids sentimentality, except for the word ‘sweet’ in line14, and is just as crucial to develop as the awareness Stafford seeks to evoke.

(I also think the word ‘indigent’ in line 12 could be a publisher’s error: I’m fairly sure it should be indolent. It reads: ‘Look, some clippings lie below/on the lawn where someone, too indigent to do the work, left them.’ Not the poet’s fault, that one, I suspect.)

For me, Hutchison’s is a right-brain poem, of the kind I will tend to choose when I am seeking to understand creativity. Whether the processes and triggers of these two kinds of poetry are the same I will probably never know. Perhaps the factors I will be eliciting will generalise to both. Given my scepticism about whether left-brain poems are poems at all, I doubt it.

A Final Legup 

I have been further helped along my path of understanding by Mark Edmundson’s thinking.

Gordon Kerr drew my attention to his existence by flagging up Edmundson’s recent book via his FB page about the arts. I investigated further on the web as the book was not immediately available.

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out what he wants in a lyric poem:

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must be versed in irony; she must have control of tone. But there is more — a second requirement. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous.

He laments the limitations of most current lyric poetry: ‘What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. . . . [Poems now] don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.’

And as for what the poet we have been examining would hope for, well that’s almost completely out of bounds: ‘Poets now would quail before the injunction to justify God’s ways to man, or even man’s to God. No one would attempt an Essay on Humanity. No one would publicly say what Shelley did: that the reason he wrote his books was to change the world.’

He fulminates powerfully against what he regards as the current habit of ‘hedging,’ which he feels is the ruination of a poem:

Sylvia Plath may or may not overtop the bounds of taste and transgress the limits of metaphor when she compares her genteel professor father to a Nazi brute. (“Every woman adores a Fascist.”) But she challenges all women to reimagine the relations between fathers and daughters. The poet-prophet, says Northrop Frye, may do many things, but he never hedges. From the point of view of the reader who hopes occasionally for prophecy, Ashbery’s work is a perpetual hedging.

If I now throw into the mix Shelley’s recommendation for the purpose of great poetry, I may well have all the criteria I need to guide my choice of great lyrics (Shelley – from the Preface to The Cenci):

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

Basically then I will be looking for consciousness-raising alongside Edmundson’s poetic triad: ‘the power of expression’ (for me that includes music appropriate to the meaning), ‘the power to find a theme,’ and ‘ambition’ in his sense of those words.

My edition of ShelleyDoes Shelley Qualify?

Shelley unarguably emphasised music in his poetry. Ann Wroe proves this by quoting from his notebooks (page 245-46):

In the ordinary way of composition – if there was, with Shelley, any ordinary way – his ear was for rhythm first. He found the metre, then the rhymes, leaving gaps, as was necessary, when words would not come. . . . . . Testing a metre, he would often mark it as small lines on the page, |||||||, set out imperiously at the start like the tick of a metronome. He . . . . made them into a hum:

Ham, Humb um haumb haum, aum

na na, na na na na / na

or again (playing with the rhythm of ‘Ah time, oh night, oh day’ and dreaming of Emelia, who was writing in the notebook with him),

Ni na ni na, na ni

Ni na ni na, ni na

Oh life o death, o time

There was no doubt he often chose deeply important themes and he certainly did not lack ambition and was very concerned to change the way people thought. He would seem a very good candidate therefore to test whether this combination of characteristics can create great lyric poetry. Assuming it does, I can then perhaps begin to unravel what contextual conditions are most conducive to eliciting such poetry and what definable processes are involved.

Some Caveats

I perhaps need to spell out that consciousness raising is not the same as preaching. Didactic verse is not poetry, in my opinion. And this cuts both ways. A religious poet should not moralise, for if she does the poem dies. Similarly, even if a poet sees life as apparently meaningless chaos, that does not mean that he is justified in calling polemics, which mimic that vision, poems. That’s a form of indirect didacticism just as unwelcome as a religious moralising.

Life is light and dark, order and apparent chaos. Art should capture the blend not select only one end of the spectrum for representation. To capitulate to human destructiveness, for example in response to war, by replicating only the discord and dissonance, as I feel Vaughn Williams did in his symphonies written in reaction to World War II, abdicates the role of art in counterbalancing the darkness with the possibility of light.

Last of all I perhaps need to explain why I am ignoring Shelley’s dramatic poetry and will, in any subsequent posts on these issues, neglect epic and dramatic poetry. I am playing to my relative strengths. I write lyrics, albeit minor ones in comparison. But at least I know something of what it feels like from the inside. Epic and dramatic poetry is completely beyond my powers, however much I may admire it. I therefore think my judgement is more likely to be correct in my examination of lyrics. So, that’s why I’ll be focusing on lyric poetry.

So what do other people feel creativity is? More on that next Monday.

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Mont Blanc (for source of image see link)

How is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

As I have 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! 

At the end of the previous post it was clear that Shelley had still a lot to learn both as an artist and as a man.

A Breakthrough

What can we learn about how his poetic faculty developed? I’ll skate over his early efforts, such as Queen Mab and focus on the points at which there appeared to be breakthrough in his work. For example, Holmes expresses the feeling in his thorough biography (page 288):

In the effort to face his certain aspects of himself, his attempts and failures to set up constant and happy relations with those around him, he made a breakthrough into a new kind of reflective writing.

Holmes is referring here to ‘Oh, there are spirits of the air.’ Though the published dedication is to Coleridge, Holmes feels Shelley is talking to himself. This would not be the only example of Shelley’s choosing to distance himself from the directly personal content of his writing and disguise its relevance to him from the eyes of others by such a subterfuge.

While I find the style of the poem strained and overwrought, there are clearly moments of intense insight almost successfully captured. For instance, Shelley exclaims:

Still dost thou hope that greeting hands,
Voice, looks, or lips, may answer thy demands?
. . . . Did thine own mind afford no scope
Of love, or moving thoughts to thee?

As this biography progressed and the quality of the poetry improved, there seemed a clear pattern: grappling with his personal challenges fuelled the insights that sparked the better poems. This was further facilitated by certain external triggers that were not necessarily stressful. We will see this, for example, when Shelley engages with Byron at length for the first time.

Holmes also sees another dynamic at work. When Shelley was involved in self-mocking social interactions (page 292), the ‘combination of public joking and private poetic meditation can be seen to recur as a pre-creative condition.’

At the same time Shelley appeared to be developing, somewhat ahead of his time (page 295), ‘the notion of an objective psychology’ and used dream analysis as a tool, though he continued to find it difficult ‘to analyse himself, to follow the stream to its source.’

Shelley described the state of mind, which for him connected self-understanding and creativity (page 298):

Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being.

In the second long poem of his life, Alastor, he attempted to create a picture (page 300) ‘of a developing psychological state.’ He uses scenes and landscapes to convey mental states. But we are still a long way from the poetic achievements of his relative maturity, the ones I want to focus on the most.

His experiences in the Alps contributed to his writing poetry that further developed his thinking. His poem Mont Blanc (page 341) explores ‘three levels of human consciousness,’ namely ‘human imagination, material phenomena and . . . hypothetical divinity.’ For Shelley ‘the natural world held no other intelligent divinity except the mind of man.’

My edition of Shelley

My copy of Shelley’s Poetry, bought in 1961

Shelley & Byron

It was in Venice in 1819, as a result of Shelley’s deepening relationship with Lord Byron, that Holmes feels we begin to see appearing the first of Shelley’s masterpieces (page 449): Julian and Maddalo.

I must admit, at this point, that I had never even heard of this poem. Looking at my first copy of Shelley, bought more than fifty years ago, Julian and Maddalo is one of three long non-satirical poems not marked as read. My exploration of Shelley had stalled at the earlier Revolt of Islam, after feeling moved by Ode to the West Wind, impressed by two of his sonnets – Ozymandias and England in 1819 – and finally frustrated by the strained rhetoric of Adonais. I went back to Byron for a while, before settling my affections on Wordsworth, to some extent, and on Coleridge more whole-heartedly.

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

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

Holmes explains the characters and impetus of the poem (page 450):

Maddalo [Byron] is a philosophic pessimist and cynic, who pretends to believe that most men are mere sheep and that all men are at the mercy of chance and circumstance and their own passions. Julian [Shelley] chooses to argue as a progressive and an optimist, believing that men’s circumstances can be changed, that society is capable of continuous improvement, and that individuals can in the end command their own faculties and fates.

He quotes the poem to illustrate his point:

Of all that earth has been or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint or suffering may achieve,
We descanted, and I (for ever still
Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
Argu’d against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.

He stops short of the next three brilliant lines:

The sense that he was greater than his kind
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.

The directness of the language, I agree with Holmes, is such a refreshing change from most of his earlier work, as is the accessibility of his insight into character. I am amazed and disappointed that I never knew this poem till now. It is a radical advance. Later he would find that time spent with Byron undermined his poetic productivity, but happily not yet.

Holmes then points towards a central even pivotal episode in the poem (page 455): their encounter with the ‘Maniac.’ He doesn’t quote this passage (lines 358-368) but I find this about the best short section to give an impression of how he is conveying what he is saying:

Believe that I am ever still the same
In creed as in resolve; and what may tame
My heart must leave the understanding free,
Or all would sink in this keen agony;
Nor dream that I will join the vulgar cry;
Or with my silence sanction tyranny;
Or seek a moment’s shelter from my pain
In any madness which the world calls gain,
Ambition or revenge or thoughts as stern
As those which make me what I am; or turn
To avarice or misanthropy or lust.

The combination of power and simplicity is characteristic. In spite of the abstractions, the emotional force and personal meaning is not lost. It is possible that the Maniac’s monologue is excessively long and therefore somewhat out of balance, and that the close of the poem, which refuses to define the exact nature of his end, may be more an indication that Shelley had no more idea than the rest of us about what was going to happen, rather than the sign of a suitably mysterious finale.

Holmes’s analysis of what is going on here is interesting (ibid):

The Maniac is like a dream that visits Julian and Maddalo simultaneously, and some of what he says refers indirectly to their own conscious or waking experience. Rather than a real character of person, he is part of a person, the part which lies below the threshold of consciousness. It is symbolic that he is both found and left asleep by his visitors.

It is important to note here that Ann Wroe, in Being Shelley, very much sees the Maniac as a projection of Shelley alone (page 33):

In Julian and Maddalo… Shelley played two characters made odd, or mad, by their dreams. He was both the serious, idealistic Julian… and a Maniac in the madhouse, demented by lost love, who still sang by moments his beautiful and unbidden songs.

This interpretation is reinforced by Maddalo’s saying that the Maniac spoke as Julian did.

Whichever perspective is true, and I am going with Wroe on this one, given my fascination with the idea of ‘subliminal uprush’ it is intriguing indeed to toy with the possibility that Shelley has explored this explicitly in this poem. I need to read and re-read the poem far more often than I have done to-date before I can comment more on that.

The fascination of the poem does not stop there. It contains ideas concerning the triggers to write poetry (page 456):

Maddalo recalls the power of [the Maniac’s] language, . . . . .
And I remember one remark which then
Maddalo made. He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Julian’s reaction is also significant, though he is described as being unable to follow through with his idea of healing the Maniac’s state of mind:

. . . . I imagined that if day by day
I watched him, and but seldom went away,
And studied all the beatings of his heart
With zeal, as men study some stubborn art
For their own good, and could by patience find
An entrance to the caverns of his mind,
I might reclaim him from this dark estate.

Colney Hatch

Colney Hatch Asylum (later Friern Mental Hospital). For source see link.

Progress So Far

The compassionate impulse those lines capture and the understanding of the patient presence that would be required suggests that Shelley’s understanding of the human mind has increased considerably as a result of his painful life experiences at this point. And, what’s equally important, he has learnt how to capture such insights with power and clarity.

I am supposing that life’s tests have taught him the insights, and determined practice of his art has given him the skills.

Whether the inspiration for any particular poem is subliminal, at least in part, is not yet clear. What Holmes clarifies later is that Shelley saw the ‘passion for penetrating into the mysteries of our being,’ as a religious impulse (page 515).

Holmes’s comments are again most helpful here (page 456): ‘The underground cavern or labyrinth was to recur again and again in Shelley’s Italian writing, as an image of the spiritual quest for the truth about oneself.’ He regards Julian and Maddalo (page 457) as ‘perhaps the most subtle . . . . and the most suggestive [of Shelley’s major poems] in terms of psychological analysis.’ It set the standard for him of ‘realistic’ writing. It also revealed a capacity for self-criticism with its emphasis on ‘the values of psychological understanding, self knowledge and personal experience.’

I feel that even with these advances Shelley’s poetry is still falling short of the standard he seems to have set himself in the Preface to The Cenci I quoted in an earlier post:

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

Holmes points to 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.

In the next post I mainly explore one of Shelley’s political poems.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

As I have brought Shelley back into the frame with yesterday’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! There are examples of trauma in his life at the point I take it up, that I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning. This phase in the sequence also looks at some general principles that may be relevant to creativity in general as well as Shelley in particular.

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a 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 2012, 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.) 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.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!


Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

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 FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be 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.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[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.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

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

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

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

For insights shed on this from the trauma literature see my earlier see the three immediately preceding posts accessible from the links at the start of this post..

The really difficult bit starts with the next post tomorrow – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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Piazza del Duomo, Pisa (for source of image see link)

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa (for source of image see link)

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

(Mirror of the Divine: Art in the Bahá’í World Community by Ludwig Tuman – page 99)

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, as I did the last one, 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 Herman quote is the only example in this post. These first three re-published posts ran consecutively. The others will follow after Monday’s new post.

In the last post I quoted Hazlitt’s view from Holmes’s biography that Shelley was (page 362) a ‘philosophic fanatic.’ He described him as a ‘man in knowledge, [but] a child of feeling.’

Side Issue of Altruism

In the light of Hazlitt’s comment, it is perhaps worth mentioning here where all this maps onto my desire to understand more fully the influences that either strengthen or undermine altruism. Previous posts have examined how intense idealism creates a kind of empathic tunnel vision.

Shelley’s life poses an interesting question. In terms of his personal relationships the compass of his compassion was usually very narrow in its setting, and he often displayed a repellent inability to understand the suffering he caused. However, in terms of society it was set much wider – but there was a catch. Although nominally he strongly felt our common humanity should govern our relationships with one another, his powerful emotional identification with the oppressed, which possibly had its roots in his childhood mistreatment at the hands of authority in the public school system and the lack of protection from bullying by peers that went with it, meant that anyone he defined as an oppressor would be on the receiving end of his seething animosity and subject to remorseless duplicity.

One possible key to Shelley’s paradoxical stance of callousness to those in his immediate circle and compassion for the oppressed in general may have its roots in the trauma of his school days. Judith Herman, in her excellent treatment of this issue, Trauma & Recovery, describes something similar (page 56):

The contradictory nature of [one man’s] relationships is common to traumatised people. Because of the difficulty in modulating intense anger, survivors oscillate between uncontrolled expressions of rage and intolerance of aggression in any form. Thus, on the one hand, this man felt compassionate and protective towards others and could not stand the thought of anyone being harmed, while on the other hand, he was explosively angry and irritable towards his family. His own inconsistency was one of the sources of his torment.

When he fled into voluntary exile it is hard to determine the moral value of his flight. He feared imprisonment both because of his debts and because of his principles.

This indicates to me that unpicking the dynamics of altruism is not going to be easy. A facile attempt to distinguish between ‘cognitive’ and ‘affective’ altruism as a way of explaining political caring, on the one hand, co-existing in the same human being with personal callousness on the other, won’t get me very far.

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

His Later Life

Enough of that for now.

After the death of their son, affectionately called Willmouse, Mary’s grief was great indeed. Shelley held himself back (page 520):

He decided that it was best to leave her to live out her own feelings and despair by herself. He continued his reading and writing through the summer… It was a harsh but characteristic commitment to his own craft.

It is in the period after the composition of Julian & Maddallo, a poem we will be looking at in a later post and which was unpublished at the time, that the vexed problem of the paternity of the child of their Swiss companion, Elise, further intensifies Shelley’s problems at this period of his life (pages 465-475). Holmes, after a detailed examination of the evidence concludes that the child was Shelley’s.

It is also possible that Claire miscarried at the same time as Elena was born, and that Shelley could also have been the father of that child, conceived at a later date. The evidence of both these possibilities is inconclusive, but the situation in his entourage was extremely fraught, not least because Clara, his infant daughter by Mary, died at this time. The circumstances that triggered her death were exacerbated by Shelley’s preoccupation with Elena’s birth and a mysterious illness of Claire’s.

Between 1818 and 1820 Shelley’s life had been extremely nomadic, involving ‘eight residences in rather less than twenty-four months’ (Holmes – page 575). He asks, ‘was Shelley running away from something, or was he running after something?’ Not an easy question to answer. Ann Wroe, in her book Being Shelley, shares one of his friend Hogg’s insights, along with a quote from Shelley himself (pages 170-71; the quote is from The Solitary in The Esdaile Notebook edited by K N Cameron):

As Hogg saw it, Shelley never fled towards, but escaped from, whatever it was that moved him. Shelley put it better: ‘He pants to reach what yet he seems to fly.’   

It was in this period that his masterpiece of protest poetry was composed. 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. There will be more of this when I come to consider his poetry in detail.

Others have achieved this in later times in song.

When he settled in Pisa in 1820 this restless pattern was cut across but not finally appeased, Holmes felt.

An important prose work in the Pisa period was his continuation of A Philosophical Review of Reform. It touched both on the role of poetry, a theme he returned to later as a separate issue, and on the nature of political process. He speaks (page 585) of the writer tuning in to ‘the spirit of the age’ and we first hear his concept of poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Concerning ‘the exploitation of labour through capital investment,’ Shelley influenced John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Engels (page 586). He saw the necessity for writers to raise the consciousness of not only the educated classes. He was also considering the issue of universal suffrage. He began to see the value of a ‘graduated response’ where small advances should not be rejected because a greater one was not currently practicable (page 590). If parliament drags its feet, he saw the value of ‘intellectual attack and a programme of public meetings and civil disobedience.’ He began to see passive resistance as a possible means of shifting the attitude of the soldiers who were acting as agents of the state in curbing protest (page 591). Holmes feels (page 592) that this document was a bold attempt ‘to define the relationship between imaginative literature and social and political change.’ It was not published for another 100 years. (This is not the record as a recent Guardian article indicates: see link).

Elena, his illegitimate daughter by Elise, died on 9 June 1820 though Shelley did not learn of it until early July (page 596), after his work on A Philosophical Review of Reform was completed.

Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli (for source of image see link)

Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli (for source of image see link)

Though Shelley was still producing poetry at this point, such as The Witch of Atlas and Swellfoot, the Tyrant, Holmes comments (page 612) on what he calls ‘a steady withdrawal of creative pressure and urgency,’ though his work as a translator continued to flourish.

One of the best descriptions of Shelley’s physical appearance and the impression he made late in life comes from Byron’s mistress at the time, Contessa Teresa Guiccioli. Fiona MacCarthy comments on and quotes her in her biography of Byron (pages 401-02):

She judged him as by no means so conventionally handsome as her own lover was. His smile was bad, his teeth misshapen and irregular, his skin covered with freckles, his unkempt hair already threaded through with premature silver. ‘He was very tall, but stooped so much that he seemed to be of ordinary height; and although his whole frame was very slight, his bones and knuckles were prominent and even knobbly.’ But Shelley still had a kind of beauty, ‘an expression that could almost be described as godly and austere.’

Thomas Medwin, on meeting him again after an interval of seven years, described him as ‘emaciated, and somewhat bent; owing to near-sightedness, and his being forced to lean over his books, with his eyes almost touching them; his hair, still profuse, and curling naturally, was partially interspersed with grey . . .’

Shelley’s health continued to be problematic, with painful attacks of what Medwin called ‘Nephritis’ (probably gallstones) which (page 618) caused Shelley to ‘roll on the floor in agony.’ Claire’s absence in Florence also saddened him. He missed her friendship and company.

He composed the Tower of Famine at this time and began an over-idealised relationship with Contessa Emilia Viviani (page 625), whose virtual incarceration in a convent while her parents sorted out a suitable marriage partner triggered most of Shelley’s romance electrodes, not least the combination of beauty and imprisonment.

At this time (page 626) he was also dabbling with mesmerism to ease his ‘nephritic spasms.’ It led him to speculate that, in mesmerism, ‘a separation from the mind and body took place – one being most active and the other an inert mass of matter.’ In Adonais, he was even tempted to explore the possibility of the immortality of the soul in the context of Something that looks remarkably close to an idea of God.

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.

Even so, any implications about the immortality of the soul would not, according to the critical consensus, have warranted a revision of his disbelief in God. My doubts about the possible simplifying myth of Shelley’s atheism are on the rise. It is as though emotionally he believed absolutely in the reality of transcendent forces to which he felt connected; intellectually he couldn’t allow himself to accept that this had anything to do with a god such as his contemporaries believed in. I find myself wondering whether in his poetry we will more consistently find belief, and in his prose more frequently a scathing scepticism: that’s something I might have to test out later.

Ann Wroe’s conclusion lends support to this possibility (page 353):

And early I had learned to scorn
The chains of clay that bound a soul
Panting to seize the wings of morn,
And where its vital fires were born
To soar . . . .

Those lines, from 1812, were Shelley’s constant conviction as a poet. As a man, he was unsure . . . . .

She also reminds us of Shelley’s own explanation of his atheism (page 280):

When he redacted The Necessity of Atheism for his notes to Queen Mab in 1813, he added a new gloss to the words ‘There is no God:’ ‘This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.’

Shelley, at this time and within a brief fortnight, wrote the 600 lines of Epipsychidion, (the title is Greek for ‘concerning or about a little soul’ from epi, ‘around’, and psychidion, ‘little soul,’ which Holmes (page 631) describes as an ‘extraordinary piece of autobiography’ and (page 632) ‘a retrospective review of his own emotional development since adolescence.’ In it he finds symbols (pages 635-636) to capture Shelley’s sense of Emily’s and Mary’s meaning in his life: Mary is the Moon, Emily the Sun while he is the Earth. He found a place for Claire also as a Comet!

Shelley’s own prose comment is illuminating (page 639), Epipsychidion:

. . . . is an idealised history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood avoid it, consists in seeking an immortal image and likeness of what is perhaps eternal.

Next comes the composition of A Defence of Poetry. A brief consideration of this must wait till we come to the post on his poetry.

Edward John Trelawny (for source of image see link)

Edward John Trelawny (for source of image see link)

Three things mark this closing period of Shelley’s life. In terms of his relationships the death of Claire’s daughter, Allegra, of typhus fever in April 1822 is among the most important. In terms of the unexpected manner of his dying, he celebrated the arrival of his newly built sailing boat in May.

As for his poetry, he began composing The Triumph of Life. I may come back to that when I discuss his poetry.

In June he was bizarrely requesting his friend, Trelawny (page 725), for a lethal dose of ‘Prussic Acid or essential oil of bitter almonds[1].’

There is confusion in the end about the exact circumstances of Shelley’s death on his boat off the coast of Viareggio. MacCarthy agrees with Holmes that there was a squall. However, whereas Holmes paints a picture of Shelley’s almost suicidal recklessness as being the main cause of the vessel’s sinking, she feels there is the possibility that (page 428) ‘they were rammed and sunk by a marauding vessel.’

It is perhaps fitting that his death was as ambivalent as his life.

In the next post I will be looking at the relationship between art and the artist in general terms. This will then lead to a set of posts reviewing Shelley’s poetry before I get round to trying to develop a tentative model of the creative process I can use to help me examine other artists’ lives – even so I’m possibly being slightly over-ambitious there, I think.


[1] Bitter almonds contain glycoside amygdalin. When eaten, glycoside amygdalin will turn into prussic acid, a.k.a. hydrogen cyanide.

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