Posts Tagged ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’

Bearing in mind the key sentence from Dana Greene, I plan now to look for how effectively ‘a spiritual dimension is conveyed’ through the vehicle of her poetry. It’s important to emphasise, given how the word ‘spiritual’ has been deracinated and emptied of specific meaning in the West, as Carrette and King describe in their book Selling Spirituality, that Jennings uses the term in a strong and definite sense which is rooted in her Roman Catholic faith.

The First Sequence of Poems

Immediately, as I warned last time, there is a problem if I just take one poem out of its context. The poem at the top of this post is powerful, with its echoes of Tennyson’s anticipation of Darwin (In Memoriam – Canto 56) where humanity:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

Not that Tennyson, whom she read at school, seemed to resonate with her. However, the poem certainly is not a confident affirmation of a ‘spiritual dimension.’ It also suggests a degree of recoil from what can be other positive human experiences. In the world of this poem, moonlight is connected with predation, blood flowing and teeth gripping. The poem describes men as ‘in bed with love and fear,’ and in a context where ‘human creatures’ being ‘lip to lip’ follows directly on from the owl being dragged ‘upon its prey,’ and even kissing seems potentially dangerous. In fact, later in the poem, we are described as feeling ‘the blood throb to death’ after kissing ‘in trust’ and before conceiving a child. At the close of the poem, pain seems inescapable and love inseparable from fear.

A dark world in which light only seems to help the killers.

The thought began to dawn on me, as I read more, that, whatever Elizabeth Jennings might have wanted to achieve, glimpses of a spiritual dimension were going to be hard won, and perhaps only tantalising glimpses out of the corner of her eye, rather than unequivocal affirmations of her consciously chosen faith.

It seems a good idea to look at the poem that followed on from Song for a Birth or a Death, rather than cherry picking another from a different period of time.

Family Affairs, the next poem, remains in a fairly dark place. It appears to affirm that ‘Indifference lays a cold hand on the heart;/We need the violence to keep us warm.’ Not much progress here towards a sense of the transcendent, then.

A Game of Chess follows. The atmosphere is calmer: ‘Now peacefully/We sit above the intellectual game.’ She even begins to wonder if ‘feelings cool/Beneath the order of an abstract school?’ But I turn the page and find the answer: ‘Never entirely, since the whole thing brings/Me back to childhood when I was distressed.’

However, although this may seem disappointing, since the spiritual dimension remains elusive, at least up till now, it becomes clearer why I value her poetry so much. It is completely honest. It respects and conveys her experience simply and directly, but with enough ambiguity at the edges to allow me to feel I am sharing in her quest for meaning, rather than colluding in some didactic attempt to convey her clear conclusions. The last line of A Game of Chess reads: ‘My king is caught now in a world of trust.’ I’m still not quite sure what that means.

From there we move to the gem of a poem I found in my notebook and which triggered me to go back to her poetry and to find out more about her life.

The poem is poignant and honest. There is grief, I feel, though she explicitly denies it, mixed with the sense of guilt, some perhaps her grandmother’s, hinted at in lines like:

The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished.

In this poem, I feel, she is not preaching at us to be compassionate: she is demonstrating her own strong capacity for compassion. She is setting us a moving example.

Then we come to a poem where you would expect to find what she claims she was seeking to convey: In Praise of Creation.

We are closer now to William Blake in her use of animals. We have a sky ‘full of birds,’ and find ‘the tiger trapped in the cage of his skin.’ Even so we have not escaped the link between birth and death of the first poem: ‘the tigress’ shadow casts//A darkness over’ the tiger, causing his blood to beat ‘beyond reason.’ The closest we can get to the spirit is to find at the end ‘Man with his mind ajar.’

I find that brilliant though, and not frustrating, or at least not more frustrating than real life. It is not frustrating to read because it reflects back a sense of my felt experience, I hear that captured in words in a way that clarifies, pins down, what I sometimes find too hard to catch before it fades away.

The last poem I will consider in this sequence is World I Have Not Made. Here she speaks of themes that resonate through a great deal of her work: ‘trying to love without reciprocity,’ coming ‘to terms with obvious suffering,’ and ‘how even great faith leaves room for abysses.’ In a sense that poem summarises the drift of her work as a whole, missing out only an explicit attempt to define what her poetry is for, though it demonstrates it clearly enough. She fights persistently to deal with love and loss, pain and trauma, faith and doubt, searching for meaning in this kind of ambiguous darkeness.

The Second Sequence of Poems

Which makes my next shift to another sequence written twenty years later intriguing for what it reveals of progress made in probing more deeply into the same ground, as well as extending her range further. Having moved forwards from a first poem in the 1961 sequence, I’ll be moving forwards to the last poem in the 1985 collection.

The end of the poem about her grandmother spoke of ‘the new dust falling through the air.’ The first poem I will look at now, Frail Bone, after pointing out that we are an ‘easily wounded . . . small being,’ refers to us as sand falling ‘through the hour glass of the planet,/Blown through the universe,/And yet that dust delivers/Defiant speech to the last,/Anomalous oratory.’ A paradox of our existence is dramatically flagged up for our attention: we are star-dust that speaks. For someone to find that anomalous is the beginning of a sense that we are not just matter.

The next poem Dust (nothing to do with Lyra by the way) makes this even more explicit: ‘We are people of dust/But dust with a living mind.’ In fact, as the next verse states ‘Dust with a spirit.’ This is directly addressing the spiritual nature of humanity.

For some, this might seem too direct. Poetry should create an experience, some might say, but not tell us what that experience means: this is theology, not poetry. As someone who is also guilty of writing poetry that touches on this issue, though perhaps in a more questioning way (see for example the end of Enlightenment), I am leaning towards feeling that the powerful directness of this phrase belongs in poetry not prose. I am not so sure about what follows, for example ‘grace/Goes to the end of the earth.’ This illustrates what I mentioned earlier, that even in the same short lyric the quality of her poetry fluctuates.

I think she picks herself up again when she writes:

We are dust from our birth
But in that dust is wrought

A place for visions.

The enjambement and stanza break flag up that there is a leap to be made here from dust to vision.  The word ‘wrought’ also makes clear how effortful that is. ‘Visions’ is, of course, a word that cuts both ways – does it refer to imagination or mysticism or both?

The closing lines of that lyric read:

Dust discovers our own
Proud, torn destinies,
Yes, we are dust to the bone.

The insistent and repeated thudding of the letter d adds to the power of the lines, not just with its sound but also with its possibly unwelcome reminder of death.

Which is where she explicitly moves to in the next poem, Water Music.

                                                    Sea music is
What quiets my spirit. I would like my death
To come as rivers turn, as sea commands.
Let my last journey be to sounds of water.

The hissing and buzzing of the repeated s creates a different effect, though, calmer, quieter, more accepting. The word spirit appears for the first time in my selections. Its exact meaning is unclear, which wouldn’t surprise Carrette and King (page 3): ‘There is no essence or definitive meaning to terms like spirituality.’ For Elizabeth Jennings, though, it almost certainly means something close to soul, possibly experienced through the heart. That she sees death as a journey confirms that her vision is essentially transcendent.

And this brings us to the final poem in her 1985 edition of Collected Poems: Precursors.

The mood of the poem is autumnal, echoes of Keats here perhaps, or Shelley, with their odes to autumn. Keats mattered to her (Greene – page 19): ‘She found [his] writing so immediate and fresh that she could not believe he was dead.’ Memories are triggered: ‘I watched as a child the slow/Leaves turning and taking the sun, and the autumn bonfires,/The whips of wind blowing a landscape away.’ Here we encounter a combination of features that tend to characterise her best poetry: longer lines which give more space for exploration and evocation, sensory details that evoke a mood but do not tell us what we should feel, and any relatively abstract words used carry genuine weight, such as landscape here.

Also references to the elusiveness of powerful subliminal experiences creep in: ‘Always it was the half-seen, the just-heard which enthralled.’ The long line here allows space for this idea to flow to its conclusion.

Perhaps the most crucial theme in the poem relates to her mortality, the ineffability of subtle experience and her work:

                                                 This is the world
Once ahead of me, now behind me, and yet
I am waiting still to record some of the themes
Of the music I heard before I understood it . . .

The line shift of ‘Once ahead of me’ reinforces its meaning, as does our wait for the ending of the three long lines and beyond. The verse enacts its meaning, one of the key powers of poetry and poetic prose.

And then she shares another sense of what poetry might possibly do: ‘So I have come/To believe that poetry is restoration/Or else an accompaniment to what is lost/But half-remembered.’ I can relate to this through my own poems about my father’s death and its aftermath. A poem, once written, serves as a vivid reminder of an experience that fades, and also, like a piece of music associated with a half-forgotten memory, it brings the past more clearly to mind.

Elizabeth Jennings also gives us an idea of what it’s like to sense a poem about to break through the surface of consciousness, and how enormous the task of transcribing it can feel: ‘a tune begins/To sing in my mind. It has no words as yet/And a life and a half would probably be too short/To set the music down with appropriate words . . .’

And the last word of the poem is death.


I need to look albeit briefly at the extent to which each of the two sequences of poems I have examined are in any way coherent, by which I mean, ‘Do the poems in the sequence enrich one another?’

There is definitely progression in the first sequence, moving forwards from the first bleak poem, but it’s a bit disjointed. In Praise of Creation definitely refers back to the tooth and claw world of Song for a Birth or a Death while also opening the door to possible transcendence. However, while Family Affairs follows on, A Game of Chess seems to mark a complete break and when we move into the world of My Grandmother we’ve left the blood-drenched jungle far behind. I think it’s good that the animal darkness of the first poem is balanced by more humane elements, and I like the way the last poem I quote opens out to other themes, but I had no sense that this group of poems as a whole belonged together.

The second sequence is more satisfactory. The connecting link of dust and death pulls the first few poems together. Though the mood shifts with Water Music, the connection with death is not lost. At first sight we might think that Precursors has broken the mould again, but I don’t think so. Her darker poems of dust explicitly deal with our expressive gifts, and in Precursors she explores in plain sight how she, implicitly as dust, struggles to find ways of giving expression to half-understood intimations. So, the sequence has coherence as well as balance, and in my view indicates that she has moved a long way towards mastering, not only the single lyric, but the sequence as well, all of which vindicates for me the high regard some critics held her in, in spite of her prolixity.


So, do I love her poems more for what they say rather than for the poetic skill with which they say it? I think that’s best for you to decide. My own opinion is that, in spite of her weaknesses at times, she does find the words to capture the elusive nature of experiences at the edge of consciousness, as well as grappling sensitively with the tests and trials that afflict us all.

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‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me . . .’

(Richard II Act 5, Scene 5, line 49)

I bring a huge plastic bucket full of sand into the kitchen. I try to get rid of it in the sink. I pour most of the contents of the bucket onto the draining board, the crockery rack and taps. It spreads all over the sink area. I try to scoop it up with spoons to flush it away in the sink. This doesn’t seem to work.

I begin to hear familiar voices in dispute as usual.

‘There you are, you see. Even his dreams are telling him he is wasting his time. He should be out there on the streets doing something that would make a real difference,’ complains the activist, Emma Pancake, never one to miss a chance to score a point. ‘He’s forever on his laptop or scribbling in his notebook, while the world goes to hell in a pool of plastic.’

A more measured if somewhat sad tone breaks in.

‘I agree he is wasting his time on admin and prose when he should be creating poetry. It would at least be making sculptures out of the sands of time if he just focused on carving out a few lyrics.’

Bill Wordless, still stuck in the quicksand of his writers’ block is as eager as always to see the possibility of a breakthrough in any chance event.

I try pushing the sand down some kind of protruding drainpipe with a plastic tube inside it. That doesn’t work. I try to shut out the voices and focus on the task in hand, but that doesn’t work too well either.

Chris Humfreeze, master meditator, gently intervenes with his usual obsession, in defence of which he was happy to lose the few friends he might still have. ‘You’re both wrong. If you don’t master your interior by disciplined meditation you’ll never achieve anything.’

The word ‘never’ grates on me – a typical baseless overstatement.

I see a cat and a dog in front of the window near the sink trying to eat lumps of damp sand but in the end spreading more of it around than goes down their throats. With every moment my job gets harder.

‘Rubbish!’ flashes another tactless intervention. My parliament of selves is really beginning to earn its name. ‘You don’t master the mind by meditation alone. You have to understand the science that underlies consciousness.’

Fred Mires really begins to get into his psychological stride. ‘He skims those books on meditation and dreams, but fails to master the neurological details. That’s how he is squandering his time.’

The elder statesmen of my inscape are at loggerheads as usual. I haven’t heard anything from the younger generation inside as yet. I decide to find a plastic bag to put all the sand back in so I can take it outside. I search a cupboard but there are no bags. I can’t even find the bucket I brought it inside with either.

Then that sweet voice breaks the silence. Indie Pindance has her say, the girl we all worked together to rescue from the trauma cupboard she had been locked in at the time of my hospitalizations as a child.

‘It’s not just that. He gives up on everything too soon. He jumps from one thing to another so fast, with his butterfly brain, he could never make a difference. He’s infirm of purpose.’

I wince at the contemptuous words of Lady Macbeth leveled in my direction. Not that I have any daggers to dispose of as far as I know.

It’s then, when another voice breaks through, that I realize where the roots of her passionate intervention lie.

‘ Yes, mum,’ Peat Humus has always called her that, ever since he could talk, long after we exhumed him from his burial chamber in my heart, where he had been placed even before I was born, in response to my mother’s grief and its impact on her womb.

‘Exactly,’ he continues, ‘If he really believed what he writes he’d be out there supporting Greta Thunberg and her youth movement by joining other adults in the Extinction Rebellion. What does he do instead? Write, write and write again.’

How can she not speak out for him, whom she loves so much, when his feelings are so strong on such an important issue? She steps up to the plate again.

‘Yes, he should be out there on the street, raising consciousness, surely. I’m with you, Emmie, on this at least.’

Emma grins from ear to ear. At last someone agrees with her.

‘Poetry is the best way to raise consciousness. That’s why Shelley called us the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Bill doesn’t give up easily in his defence of poetry.

Just then the owner of the house comes into the kitchen.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ she asks. The shock jerks me out of that dream and I have no choice now other than listen to the choir of my divergent selves expand on their dissonant chorus.

For some mysterious reason, I find myself standing with them in a classroom I haven’t been near in the last 50 years or more. It’s the grammar school where I had my first job after college, teaching English Language and Literature, and this is the very classroom I taught my first lesson to the lower sixth. I walked into the room to find it empty. For a moment I had been puzzled until I heard all the noise from the classroom next door and realized the whole class had moved in there to confuse me. I never quite got control of that class for the rest of the year. With the first years it was easier.

The same rows of wooden desks on iron legs were spread before me. There was one huge difference. The whole of the back wall was covered with Munch’s picture of the sun and the sidewall with his evening street scene of skeletal pedestrians in top hats.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

It took some effort to focus on the conversation again.

Fred, somewhat predictably given his psychological hat, comes at it from a somewhat different angle, standing at the front of the classroom, near the tall windows overlooking the bicycle sheds.

‘You’re wrong there, Bill. Educating the young should be his focus.’

It’s about time I chipped in.

‘At the risk of repeating myself, don’t any of you remember what we so nearly agreed last time we clashed?’

I’m not sure what the expression is on all their faces as they come into focus now my sand dream has finished fading. It could be embarrassment or confusion. I can’t be sure.

Hearticulture. Does that ring any bells?’

There was a faint murmur of recognition.

‘Didn’t we come close to agreeing that working to grow hearts, our own and other people’s, would draw on all our skills and interests, and meet all our concerns? Do you remember how I said at the end “All my life, I suspect, I’ve been unconsciously striving to achieve a creative fusion of all our different strands of activity, and now it seems we have achieved it. I think it will work because, for me and hopefully for all of you as well, the heart is at the core of us all and is a bridge between matter and spirit, earth and heaven.” And I asked if we could all pull together with this.’

Finally, they all seem to click with it. It’s as if this had all happened in a dream for them, which they forgot on waking. Just as with a dream, when the memory is triggered, fragments of it come back.

Emma is the first to speak, sitting in the front row with Peat and Indie.

‘Well, I for one thought it was a load of twaddle. It sounded as though all you were going to do was read a lot and talk to people. How is just talking to people going to change anything?’

‘I think I’m on the same page as Emmie still on this,’ Indie confirms, with Peat, her adopted son, nodding as he sits in-between them.

‘The problem is,’ Chris begins thinking aloud from the desk at the back, just in front of the sun. ‘Pete is the one who has to do something. None of us inside his head can act directly on the world. And he’s only going to do what he feels he can best do in the circumstances. I just can’t see him getting up every day and dashing to the nearest city with a ton of leaflets and a megaphone. He’s got to play to his gifts, and we are going to have to compromise some of our desires and support him.’

‘But we don’t have time for anything less. We have to demonstrate, lobby and protest until things change,’ Indie insisted.

‘I think I can see where Chris is coming from,’ murmured Fred, thoughtfully, moving to sit in the teacher’s place, facing the class. ‘Pete’s in his 70s. Sustained direct action is beyond him. Even his days of teaching the young are behind him now in terms of a regular classroom approach, sustained day after day, week in week out. He can run a short series of workshops, give talks, that sort of thing. But in terms of action that he can sustain over long periods of time, writing and blogging stand the best chance.’

This is doing a little to ease a long-standing sense of guilt I’ve harboured, feeling I am just not doing enough direct action of the consciousness-raising kind. Maybe I should stop punishing myself. It was sapping energy I could devote to study and writing. My divided state of mind distracted me from focusing for long on what I was reading or writing. ‘You are wasting time,’ a voice in my head would say. ‘You should do something more useful.’

I looked around wondering whose voice that was. One of the younger ones surely. The white-haired men in my head seem more sympathetic to this sedentary silver scribbler.

‘It’s good to hear Fred say that,’ I said, sending him a smile of gratitude, ‘but, much as I would like to, can I believe it?’

‘Not really,’ Emma butts in. ‘There are loads of people your age who go out on the streets to protest as often as they can. You never do.’

That word ‘never’ again.

Memories come back of decades ago, when I was out on the streets, shouting for the troops to come out of Ireland. But that reminded me too of why I grew disillusioned with that kind of action. Not only was it divisive, but, as I learned more about the politics of it all, the more lies and/or violence I found lurking not far under the surface. I definitely would not have wanted to demonstrate if I’d known what I do now.

I feel I have to respond to Emma.

‘I know that demonstrating against global warming is . . .’

‘Heating. It’s heating,’ Emma spits out in fury.

‘Sorry,’ I try to make amends. She’s hardly mollified.

‘. . . global heating is a worthy cause, but what worries me is whether the demonstrations will get more violent as frustration increases, rather as happens in other campaigns for other causes, now as it did in the past. That will just make the situation worse. There’s quite enough bitterness and division in our society already without adding to it. Not every movement has a credible Ghandi or Martin Luther King at its head working effectively against using violence.’

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

The words of ‘Hope, the maiden most serene,’ in Shelley’s poem about the Peterloo Massacre, float at the back of my mind, but not clearly enough for me to quote them out loud.

“Let the fixed bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood,
Looking keen as one for food.

“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

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

I plead with them again.

‘I have to find another way of operating and I really need to have you all working wholeheartedly with me. Our hearts must all be as one on this, or we will be paralysed.’

There was a long silence.

‘Just how exactly are we ever going to reconcile our differences of view?’ Indie challenges me. ‘Three of us in here passionately believe that direct and unremitting action, protesting on the street and campaigning outside centres of power, are the only effective ways forward. And have you noticed two of us are women and one is a child? It’s because we care more about children than any of you men can ever possibly do, that we are so determined to protect their future from the damage you men have done. You men just want to sit back and pontificate.’

I could see we were a very long way from a consensus.

I make the same plea again. ‘I don’t know how we are going to achieve that, but we must, or the rest of our days will pass in fruitless wrangling.’

There is an even longer more unbearable silence.


For the first and last post in the original Parliament of Selves sequence see links.

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Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.


Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)


In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan



Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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Yesterday I republished a post from the early days of this blog which states that I could not remember the details of the car break down dream. All these years later, as this post from February indicates, I found my original notes on the dream. It seems only fair to put the two posts together in this way. 

I was breviting through a drawer in my desk the other day, looking for an old diary to check something out, when I glimpsed at the bottom of a pile of notebooks a clump of papers with these words scribbled on the front: Dancing Flames Dream 21/04/80. I was amazed. I had no recollection of writing it. I never remembered seeing it before even though I go into this drawer quite often.

Yet it was something so important.

Why though?

Well, not least because I have always remembered the core of the dream and its main implications. These concerned how my life was getting out of balance at the time with too much emphasis on left-brain grunt work and too little on the arts, and poetry in particular. I’ve been frustrated in the past because I couldn’t recall the full details of the dream and the work I did on it. I just knew that the dream had told me that I needed to make space for poetry in my life or else.

I even blogged about it in 2009.

I explained there that I had been coming to the end of my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill.’ I then had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.

I couldn’t recall all the details when I wrote the post, but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I described how I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Above the engine there was golden funnel. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car above the engine?

William Butler YeatsHorn of Plenty

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a political fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here, which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding, which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life.

The dream might also have implied that I was driving myself too hard.


Detail from the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church. For source of image see link.

Dancing Flames 

Why it was so good to find these lost notes was for the more exact insights they gave into the meaning of poetry for me. They also added one crucial detail to the content of the dream that enriched my understanding further. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

This had given me another key association, as my rediscovered notes explored.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

(W. B. Yeats Sailing to Byzantium – 4th stanza)

Some Valuable Insights

I don’t plan to be so boring as to regurgitate the whole undigested 13 pages of scribble about the dream, as much of it is of purely autobiographical interest. However, there are interesting flashes of insight into what I understood about poetry at the time which seem to be still relevant to my recent exploration of the nature and purpose of the poem towards the end of the Shelley sequence.

I’ll blend these insights into an expression of my current understanding.

At the start of my reflections in 1980, after spotting the Byzantium association and triggered by the connection with a car, I played with the idea of poetry as one of the possible ‘vehicles’ through which to use the fuel of my spirit for some useful purpose. Psychology alone had begun to feel inadequate for this purpose.

I speculated whether a failure to channel the passions life creates in us into some viable form risks sparking off a fire of the spirit in an explosive way. I admitted, though, that the flames in the car ‘looked beautiful dancing as they did.’

The flames came to seem like the burning of the petrol of the spirit, which is only dangerous if improperly channelled. I saw that human relationships were important to me, as they are to almost everyone, but I also saw that they are not the appropriate channel for all the ‘fury and the mire of human veins.’

I tested out the metaphor further a few lines later. The spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of our work and our relationships to become inauthentic[1] and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. If art, at this interface between mind and life, is successful, it distils the essential truth of the artist’s particular experiences and enables it to be transmitted to other minds. I didn’t close in, as I would now, on the possibility that art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

I mentioned in my Shelley sequence that poetry was my substitute for religion. I have now found the evidence for this. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

I went on then to explain to myself that poetry is an endorsement of my humanity. Pain, violence and lies have been inescapable aspects of human experience from the very beginning, and when seen through poetry, which offers a point of view that accepts all experience as rich in meaning, they become less agonising. Poetry and art, I tried to persuade myself, offer the possibility of incorporating the unacceptable into a pattern of grace. It welcomes raw experience of any kind as a means of achieving a more comprehensive understanding and expression of life, a greater degree of humanity.

I don’t think I placed enough emphasis on the need for achieving the best possible balance in the poem, painting or piece of music, between dark and light, though I did develop the idea to some extent. I wrote that poetry is courage, the courage to face horrors and accept them into a pattern which acknowledges pity, terror, violence, hope, joy, love and creativity. Poetry does not run away from pain, nor does it court it masochistically. Poetry faces what is there and, like all art, puts it into some kind of perspective.

Art/poetry is hope. There is no need to try and run away from hurt if hurt is there to be felt. Beauty is in the whole of life and poetry reminds you of harmony and rest even in the midst of pain and torment. Poetry reminds you of the best even in the midst of the worst. It can accept and express despair, but the very act of writing a poem somehow transcends or counteracts it. The act of writing (or committed reading) implies the hope of resolution and of the existence of other values, of understanding, of reaching out and touching, if not another mind, and at least an unperturbed and accepting part of yourself. Poetry endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.

Art which coarsens sensibility and sets people against another, or makes them more indifferent to their fellow human beings, is counter-productive. Art which draws attention to what humanity has in common, which draws us closer to each other, which is committed to life and love rather than death and hate, is the only art with any kind of value. True art loves life and abhors death and destruction. True art derives its power and meaning from the creative impulses of humanity and is a constant reminder of them.

Attempts to prostitute art for life-hating purposes and petty propaganda are abhorrent violations of art’s true purpose and nature, and should be withstood intransigently at all times. Art is humane, life enhancing, or else it is not art.

On the whole, I was glad to find these notes again and felt some of the insights were worth sharing here. I hope I was not mistaken in that and carried too much away by my own rhetoric!


[1] I was already intrigued by existential philosophy at this stage, though I was to dig much deeper in that field nearly two years later. It’s perhaps also worth saying that I was intellectually still a convinced atheist at this point, which makes the language I was choosing to use in my consideration of the poetic perhaps an indication that my heart and my head were not quite in alignment.

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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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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)

This is an age when the poet is not the only seer we have on earth, but is the seer particularly endowed to sing of what he sees.

(Bahíyyih Nakhjavání in Artist, Seeker and Seer)

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 is the last post in the sequence,.

At the end of the previous post I had come to the conclusion that in the poem Julian & Maddalo we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.

This is, I think, very different from the situation we now encounter in the next two poems.

The Mask of Anarchy – the Music

First of all, does its music match its meaning?

A good place to look is a key moment of transition in the poem. In an earlier post I have quoted the opening lines that lead to our first sight of Anarchy riding along exulting in his power and the adulation of his followers. Then things are about to shift.

Then all cried with one accord,
“Thou art King, and God, and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!”

And Anarchy, the skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education,
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

For he knew the palaces
Of our kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.

So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned parliament,

When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair;
And she cried out in the air;

“My father, Time, is weak and grey
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

“He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me–
Misery! oh, Misery!”

Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses’ feet,
Expecting with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.

Ship STC
This is a completely different verse form from that of Julian and Maddalo. This is ballad metre, the verse form of the people not the elite, similar, it is interesting to note, to the metre Coleridge chose for his masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Michael Schmidt, in his massive overview of poetry in English – Lives of the Poetsastutely remarks (page 384):

This is not the language of the ballad. Ballad was beyond the aristocratic populist. He can write directly, but on his own terms which are – in his view – universal. Ballad is rooted in the tribal and rural; this poem addresses an urban populace, a proletariat.

It tells a story well. Written in this way, the language is plain and accessible to all. The rhythm and the rhymes are strong, perfect for the forceful and dark anger of this poem, but also capable of carrying the depth of compassion for the oppressed it also includes. The repeating rhythm is like a hammer or a drum beating the meaning into our skulls.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

I have no doubt about this. The outrage Shelley feels against the atrocity of the massacre is one almost everyone would share as is the feeling that a strong protest needed to be registered in as many ways as possible.

In this poem, though, Shelley took his own understanding and that of his audience to a completely new level. After the intervention of a mysterious power,

. . . the prostrate multitude
Looked — and ankle deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien . . .

The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. It is perhaps no accident that here we have another ‘maniac.’ She describes the forces arrayed against them before she advises them how to respond:

“Let the fixed bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood,
Looking keen as one for food.

“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

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

The combination of a powerful theme and a new understanding make this poem great in this respect at least. I feel the combination of that with a strong but accessible verse form, brilliantly managed, makes this a great work of inspired poetry.

The Inspiration

So, now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

It is undoubtedly the trauma of Peterloo that triggered this poem, though it was also fed from years of mulling over in prose and poetry the political ideas that underpin its message.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to the outrage of Peterloo. 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.

That a poem of this length and quality was written in a mere 12 days suggests something of the subliminal pressure that might have been behind it. It is not just the speed though that suggests the inspiration of the poem goes beyond the kind of emotional reaction that fuelled Julian and Maddalo.

He avoids repellent didacticism, even though the poem clearly has a message. The message is rooted in a vividly created situation. There is a narrative and the characters, even though symbolic, have a physical presence that is conveyed by few but telling details – ‘skeleton,’ ‘palsied’ ‘ankle-deep in blood’ etc. At the same time, amidst the horror and the outrage, he does not lose the music, moving between dissonance and grace as the occasion demands: in one stanza even we move from the dissonant half-rhyme of ‘. . . the prostrate multitude/Looked — and ankle deep in blood’ to the harmony of the long rhymes ‘Hope, that maiden most serene,/Was walking with a quiet mien . . .’

This is, for me, Right-Brain Poetry of a high order.

Just as importantly, he also does not capitulate to the dissonance of the events by making them all there is in the poem. Shelley manages to avoid this trap, which I described in an earlier post, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. 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. I feel he has lifted his own consciousness and thereby become capable of lifting ours.

This makes the work far greater than the man. So, great art like this – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being. It can be written at great speed – too fast perhaps for conscious control to explain it completely – and yet break new ground and maintain a wide-angled perspective on events.


‘The Angels descending the Heavenly Ladder’ by Gustave Dore (for source of image see link)

Ode to the West Wind – the Music

First of all, does this poem’s music match its meaning?

Of all the poems I have chosen to consider, this is by far the most musical, the most purely lyrical.

The form is a mix of two – terza rima and an improvised sonnet structure. Terza rima is best known in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sonnet blend is achieved by dividing his poem into five fourteen-line sections, each ending as the Shakespearean sonnet does, with a couplet. I’ll quote the first section in full to illustrate:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

I feel Shelley is at his best when he constrains his impetuous turbulence within tight forms such as this and the ballad form of The Mask of Anarchy. The way Shelley uses this form evokes the gusts and eddies of the wind he addresses. Enjambments cross over stanza breaks, not just line breaks, and focus switches between the ends and beginnings of lines in mimicry of the wild wind’s switches of direction. Even the apparently clumsy parenthesis in the last triad serves to convey the hidden strain of new life bursting through once spring is here.

In all the succeeding sections the sense ebbs and flows in this same masterly fashion across line and triad breaks, the meaning and the music of the verse are so closely intertwined.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

I think so. Shelley is addressing one of the fundamental questions this whole sequence of posts is in part concerned with. What is art, in this case poetry, for? What is it supposed to do and how is it supposed to do it? For anyone concerned about the over-mechanised instrumental model of education that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our market-driven civilisation, there are few questions more important than this.

We need to leap to the last section to examine this further:

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

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

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

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

It expresses a model of inspiration. After all that word comes from the same source as respiration and is linked to spirit as derived metaphorically from breath. It is vital to life. In this case there is a strong link made with attunement to Nature. In part, he sees the poet as an instrument that unseen powers play to produce harmony.

Comparing thoughts to autumn leaves unlocks other powerful implications. Thoughts, on this model, are the product of powerful natural processes involving soil, sunlight and rain. They are part of a natural cycle of creation, death, transformation and renewal. They are meant to fertilize new growth. Interestingly, in the light of the discussion in the next set of posts on a model of creativity, he switches metaphors from compost to fire. While wood ash will help in the processes of gardening, sparks of fire are clearly intended to set other minds aflame.

So, Shelley seems to see the poet’s role as nurturing within himself deep insights into truth, which have to be spread abroad by the same wind whose air has helped form them, so that new and deeper forms of thought may be created that will change the world, make it more beautiful. By ‘prophecy’ Shelley does not mean foretelling the details of the future, but tuning into the spirit of the age and helping shape the future by the intimations so received. Ann Wroe explains (page 312):

Poets, Shelley hastened to say, were not prophets ‘in the gross sense of the word.’ They could not foretell [events]. . . . . [But t]hey could not deny the Power that was ‘seated on the throne of their own soul’ . . . . . ‘For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time. [The quote is from A Defence of Poetry.]

How art is to do this remains an interesting implication. That he sees thought as leaves not seeds suggests that the artist’s work nourishes new growth that is inherent in reality. The seeds are there already waiting to be cared for, fed if you like. The world is fertile with constructive growth: the poet’s job is to make sure the seeds can grow. Our job is to tune into what he is saying and add the dead leaves of our own thoughts to the enriching layer of mulch. There is also here the implication of sadness and sacrifice. We won’t be able to contribute to this process by remaining in our comfort zone. The sacrifices of the artist are meant to inspire us in this respect as well.

Schmidt’s comment (page 386) is helpful here. He contrasts what he terms the ‘abstracting technique’ and a ‘process’ which ‘tends to particularise emotion.’ He spells out a key implication:

Between these two processes a crucial difference exists: the first constructs, the second interprets experience. Shelley’s most popular poems are in the latter category. He sees himself as a moral, not a didactic writer, seeking to ‘awaken’ and ‘enlarge’ the mind, and this he does best through experience, not through projection.

Perhaps it would be best to give Shelley the last word on this issue. In his Preface to The Revolt of Islam he explained  (Ann Wroe – pages 259-60):

I have sought to enlist the the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal combinations of the fancy, the rapid and subtle transitions of human passion, all those elements which essentially compose a poem, in the cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality; and in the view of kindling within the bosom of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for the doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation nor prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind.

Beech hedge

The Inspiration

Now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

Its source this time seems to be his sense of aging, though the immediate trigger was his experience of the powerful winds of Italy in autumn. The resonance we can get from nature, or other aspects of the environment, can help pierce the membrane which separates us from the subliminal, while not being in themselves traumatic events. They simply connect us to our depths by what they represent.

This makes it even more likely that the main source of the poem’s power is from ‘subliminal uprush.’ There is no association with a community of minds behind it in the same way as there was with Julian and Maddalo. There is no dramatic event such as the massacre of Peterloo fuelling an outrage that seeks an outlet in poetry. There simply seems to have been a strong and sudden sense of what his life as a poet should mean, which poured out rapidly in a specially created form, whose solemn music and rich imagery contain a wealth of implications for the rest of us to reflect upon at length, spending more time reading and re-reading it than he did on composing it at the time. For me the poem pushes the boundaries of my understanding of the nature of poetry and its purpose: this is because, in his struggle to capture his own emergent conception, he has seized on a rich vein of imagery with a multitude of penetrating implications, some of which I have tried to explore.

It is probably only fair to add that all three poems probably have a kind of composting gestation of subliminal influence behind them as well, something I have referred to once or twice but not analysed in detail.

The next post takes me to the more difficult bit.

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