Posts Tagged ‘soul’

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

Given that Virginia Woolf, as a female novelist, picked up the challenge of Middlemarch and took it to a different level, it seemed worth republishing this sequence which focuses mainly on her.

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

(Bahá’u’lláh Gleanings CXII)

As I was in between switching my focus from one Eliot (Thomas Stearns) to another (George), I needed more time to ponder on why Middlemarch, her masterpiece, resonates so much more strongly with me than The Waste Land. Given that George Eliot is praised for the skill with which she conveys the consciousness within, it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. It also gave me the chance to add two more possibly closing posts to the sequence. Here’s the second and possibly last. 

It is one of those rare days in recent times when the pressure of other problems has subsided for a while. During the night my mind was playing around with ideas about how I could build earth, heart and art into some kind of mnemonic to help me create and sell a plan to the two remaining fragments of my Parliament of Selves. I toyed with the idea of a balloon, rounded like the earth with wings shaped like the two sides of the heart, rising to higher levels of understanding with the heat generated by burning the gas of reflection. Then came the idea of an arrow head, the heart as its shaft, earth and art as its sides leading to a point and reflection as the material it was made from. A couple of other equally unworkable ideas passed through my mind before I fell asleep.

Fortunately Roberto and Christine did not appear in any dream: I was far too unprepared for such an encounter.

Once I was awake, with time on my hands, I made a start. Right now I’m staring at the fruits of two hours of scribbling and sketching. A way of capturing what I most want to hold on to as my purpose and how I need to turn it into action is really beginning to take shape.

Before I try to finalise it. I decide to do what I often do when I want to free my mind to think creatively – I’ll go for a walk. I grab my keys and the cap I wear to keep the sun out of my eyes and head for the door. It may be no coincidence that I’m dressed in green.

I’m already clear that I want, as part of my plan, to slow down, reflect and take the time to explore the reality around me and connect more with the people who cross my path. As I walk I spot the familiar holly bush with purple flowers from another plant trying to push their way through to daylight. As usual I keep walking until, suddenly, I ask myself, ‘Why not take a closer look this time? That’s what you’ve always really wanted to do.’ So, I do something I very rarely allow myself – I turn round and walk back.

I’m not sure why I find that so hard. It’s partly my hurry up and partly my fear of looking odd or stupid. This time I say to myself, ‘It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I’m not doing any harm. It doesn’t matter if I’m late back home. I’m going back.’

I notice how the plant has somehow pushed itself through the densely packed holly bush. The five purple petals are held in place, it seems, by a sunburst at the centre. I decide to take a photograph. My aphantasia means that no matter how long I stare at something I cannot visualise it at all even moments later, and I want to keep this image to look at later so I can at least identify the flower.

I walk away quite pleased with myself for defying my script. Only a few steps later I have another chance to do the same again. Across the road I see the stonewall draped in flowers that always gives me a boost as I walk by it on that side of the road sometimes. I risk my own displeasure and cross over. My phone comes out again to take a picture before I get too close to get the whole wall in shot.

As I move on after taking the picture I realise I’ve been spotted by the owner of the house who’s sitting on the path below her front window chatting to a friend. This time, instead of speeding up to avoid embarrassment I shout, ‘I couldn’t resist taking a picture of your wall with all its beautiful plants.’

‘The aubretia, you mean. They’re lovely.’ She starts to get up.

‘Don’t let me spoil your day,’ I protest. She keeps walking towards me. ‘Even the daisies on your lawn are lovely.’

‘I only trim a path round the edge to show I’m looking after it,’ she explains. ‘I’ve got ants’ nests as well. They feed the woodpeckers.’

‘We’re trying to do the same,’ I add, ‘though some of the neighbours don’t like it.’

She put her thumbs to her nose and wiggled her fingers in a gesture of contempt.

‘Just how I feel,’ I say laughing as I begin to move away. ‘You’ve done a great job. Well done.’ As I move on she moves back to sit down again grinning back at me.

On a bench in the park about halfway up the hill I break my hurry up script again and sit to jot some notes down to remind me of what just happened.

Once I get home I finalise a diagram on my laptop that seems to capture the essence of what I want to remember. I print a copy off to paste into my Ideas notebook which contains all my earlier scribblings. As I look at the printout I feel the tingling down my spine that signals something important has just happened. Will I be ready for my encounter with Chris and Roberto? I think so.

When my wife has gone to see a friend, I put my ear phones on and play the old familiar meditation track. It doesn’t take long before they let me know I’m on line and they can hear my thoughts.

‘Can you see what I am seeing?’ I ask as I open the Photos app on my laptop and select the latest version of my diagram.

‘We can,’ Chris assures me.

‘Good. So let’s get started. I guess I don’t have to teach my grandmother to suck eggs and explain why I’ve got my heart and the earth overlapping.’

‘’Course not,’ Chris speaks for them both again. I assume Roberto is nodding but we can’t see each other working this way.

‘OK. D’you get what I mean by areas of concern and spheres of influence?’

Here Roberto steps in. ‘Mires and Humfreeze always had an interest in tracking your reading and I’ve inherited what they learned. You’ve borrowed that idea from Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where he writes about circles of influence and circles of concern, and the need not to strain yourself by extending your circle of concern too far outside your circle of influence, right?’

‘Absolutely right. And the situation is really acute in terms of inscape and landscape. These are not just neighbourhood social situations like your place of work, which are bad enough. Here the discrepancy between what we can influence and how far our anxieties could extend is massive. In his mystical work, The Seven Valleys, Bahá-u-lláh quotes these lines from a poem: ‘Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form/When within thee the universe is folded?’ I believe both inside and outside space extends across immeasurable distances. So, we’ve really got to make sure our circle of concern isn’t fuelled by any delusional belief that we can alone impact significantly upon those interconnected realities.’

‘How did you sort that one out then?’ Chris wonders sardonically, clearly believing I’m in cloud cuckoo land. ‘And what do you mean by alone? I hope you’re not relying on some kind of god to be on your side.’

‘Well, I haven’t really sorted it out completely. I’ve just got an action plan based on what I can do and how I can do it with the best hope of lifting my understanding a few millimetres nearer the truth in what remains to me of mortal time. Hopefully that will also enhance my ability to influence the climate of my mind and of the world to the maximum extent possible. I know my impact will be tiny, but as George Eliot makes clear at the end of Middlemarch ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”. If enough people do the little that they can, huge changes can come about.’

Christine says nothing.

‘That makes some kind of sense, I suppose,’ Roberto quietly observes after a pause. ‘What exactly is your plan, then?’

‘That’s what I spell out in the orange box with the mnemonic CARE. This is taking hearticulture to a different level. That idea sank without trace for a while, which was probably no bad thing as it probably didn’t go far enough even though the basic idea was right. I didn’t have this core idea of CARE in my head at the time. It’s taken months of work since the middle of 2022 to get this far. I may not still have got it quite right but I think it’s good enough to make a start with. And if you believe in a god it will probably help but even if you don’t it will get you a long way, I believe.’

‘Listen,’ Christine blurts out. ‘I get most of the stuff you’ve tagged onto the care idea – consultation, altruism, connectedness, art etc – but you’re still making this reflection thing central, and the trouble with that is that it’s got that ‘Higher Self’ crap in the middle of it. I’m not sold on any kind of soul idea. I want something that works without that. I know you’re saying it should work without a god behind it, but how can you prove that?’

‘You said a while back that the proof of a pudding is in the eating,’ Emergioli interjected. ‘And that’s exactly the issue here. I buy the Higher Self idea: you don’t. But we can agree at least to support Pete in trying this out to see how far it gets us. Only if we act in unity will we find out either way. And I feel that even if you don’t believe in a spiritual dimension, a lot about reflection makes sense. It’s not just a Bahá’í thing – you may not realise that Pete first came across it in an Existential Philosopher’s book. Consciousness is not its contents – it’s like a mirror. If we begin to realise we’re not just what we think, feel, remember and believe but a capacity in pure form to do all that, it changes us. We can step back from the identities that create divisions within and between us. We can even lift our consciousness way beyond blending the two hemispheres. We can get closer to the ideal of an understanding heart, even if we do not believe that achieving that proves we have a soul. Can you get on board with that, Christine?’

‘That just might be possible,’ Christine grudgingly admits. ‘It’s going to be hard going though. Is all that stressful gruntwork really necessary?’

‘I think so,’ I reply. ‘Can I take a bit more time to explain?’

‘Please do,’ she says. ‘It might help.’

‘OK. As I see it, where heart and earth overlap, captured in the word hearth in my dream all those years ago, is where we need to focus if we are to make the planet which is our home, sustainable and flourishing. We need to take care, to nurture, if we are to flourish. To do that will not be an easy task. We’re caretakers of the planet and its climate, not its masters. Caretaking in this context is a demanding art of the highest order. The right thing to do, to our modern mechanical mind, often feels counter-instinctual. We have to force ourselves against our indoctrinated grain and immerse ourselves in our connectedness with nature and every form of life on earth including our fellow human beings, just as some wiser previous cultures did. Art and science can both help us realise the need for this and suggest the tools we need to tackle the problems we find. Then it would feel deeply intuitive to do the right thing.

‘To reprogramme ourselves, to work on our inscape, to heal the climate of our minds, and to bring some kind of peace into this warring world, we need to master the powerful skill of reflection to help us replace our machine mind with the understanding heart, to use Bahá-u-lláh’s terms, which lies hidden at the core of our being. A belief in God admittedly would help us feel we can succeed in doing this: without such a belief it will probably harder to maintain the necessary effort. But, believe me, if we don’t strain very ounce of our being to re-landscape our hearts we’ll never be able to sustain the necessary effort to heal the earth of all the harm we’ve inflicted upon it. Maybe realising that if we don’t lift our game in both respects most of our children will die might help.’

‘I’ll buy that last point,’ Christine concedes reluctantly, ‘and will give this my best shot.’

‘Thank heavens for that,’ sings Emergioli, probably causing Christine’s eyebrows to raise in exasperation at the celestial reference.

‘So, are we there, d’you think? Can we all climb on board the ark of care and see how far it takes us across the stormy waters in store for us right now?’ I ask, holding my breath.

‘Yes,’ they both say in harmony. The music stops. The conversation ends. I am left hoping that I have the conviction, time and energy to make some real progress with this plan. Wish me luck and if you are a believer, please spare me some prayers!

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As promised here comes this poem again.

For source of image see link: for the original Spanish click here.

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As promised here comes this poem again.

See here for the original Spanish. For source of image see link.

See here for the original Spanish. For source of image see link.

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O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Bahá’u’lláh Arabic Hidden Words No. 67

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

(John Donne Satyre III lines 79-82)

Themes that Resonate

Given that the second post of my short sequence on Khursheed’s exploration of the universe within, included a reference to William James’s sense that, in terms of deep reality, even when what we are thinking is true, we can never know for sure that this is so, it seemed appropriate to republish this sequence whose final post comes back to this same issue.   

The previous two posts, after a brief look at his life, considered issues such as politics, linguistic obscurity, doubt and egotism in relation to his poetry. Now I’ll begin to look at the themes that resonate most for me. There will some slight overlap with the themes previously discussed. The main problem though will be knowing where to start and when to stop. There is so much I could say.

Just to say, before I plunge right in, there are two main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, and Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.


Perhaps the best place to start is with the explicitly spiritual aspect of Machado’s poetry, and it’s not just me, with my bias in that direction, finding a spiritual element. It’s there in Machado’s own words, as translated by Trueblood (Page 5): ‘I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.’ Xon de Ros quotes the original Spanish to support her sense of what Machado describes as his genuine voice – voz verdadera (page 186):

However, Paterson’s post-modern notion of a decentred identity is alien to Machado’s metaphysics where the individual consciousness (however problematic) lies behind both the Bergsonian ‘moi fondamental’ and the ‘tú esencial’ of his later poetry. Machado defines his ‘voz verdadera’ in rather abstract terms as ‘una honda palpitación del espíritu; lo que pone el alma, si es que algo pone, o lo que dice, si es que algo dice, con voz propria, en respuesta animada al contacto del mundo.’

I do not feel his doubts about the soul disqualify the use of the word ‘spirit,’ though exactly what he does mean by the term is hard to determine.

Trueblood raises the interesting possibility that his later style has traces of a mysticism which relate at least partly to the impossibility of expressing what he has experienced (Page 57):

The sureness of Machado’s mature touch is revealed in this mere hint of a state of consciousness which, like that of the mystic at the end of his journey, is inherently inexpressible – and, to the modern mind, unknowable.

I’ll be looking more closely at the issue of the inexpressible later. What will also come into the mix is Machado’s use of paradox to convey the ambivalent state of his reaction to experience (Xon de Ros – page 4): ‘paradox invites resolution, urging the mind to expand and move beyond both scepticism and belief.

Dreams & Spirit

Right now I want to look briefly at a poem that illustrates the interconnection in Machado’s writings between spirit, dreams and loss, all issues of concern to me, as readers of this blog will know.

Poem 10 in Trueblood’s selection pulls these three themes together. It opens with ‘Oh tell me, friendly night, so long beloved,/bringer of my puppet world of dreams,/bare barren stage that holds/only my phantom inside . . .’ before shifting later to a sense of loss in the night’s response, ‘I do not know your secret,/although I have seen that forlorn phantom/you speak of, roaming through your dream.’ Night also admits ignorance because ‘in the deep recesses of the soul,/whether weeping is voice or echo/I do not know.’ This intermixing of such themes runs through the whole of Machado’s poetry. The uncertainty here is also characteristic of Machado’s take on reality as I will explore later, explaining why this also appeals strongly to me.

The notes (page 281) shed light on the effect of writing such poems on Machado’s mind by quoting another poem of his: ‘If I speak, my own voice sounds like an echo and my song is so hollow that my pain is no longer frightening.’ I’ll also come back later to another note to this poem – this time one dealing with the issue of our having ‘many personalities.’

Trueblood quotes Machado to explain why dreams were so important to him (page 19): ‘one who does not remember his dreams does not even know himself. . . . I have always been a man very attentive to his own dreams, because they reveal to us our deepest disquietudes, those which do not always reach the surface of our waking consciousness.’ The influence of Freud is detectable here. Their effect, for Machado, is more profound though than Freud’s take on the matter (page 22): ‘Poem 18 . . . equates the inner space of a dream with the deep vault of the soul.’ Trueblood hypothesizes that they are linked perhaps in Machado’s mind with poetry itself, referring to an English Romantic poet (page 200): ‘Keats’s final poem ‘Sleep and Poetry’ establishes a correlation between the two as purveyors of visions and dreams conceived as a source of creativity.’

If anyone needs an explanation of why Machado’s engagement with dreams resonates with me at least as much as his sense of loss, they will find it in my discussion of my Hearth dream. At the end of my explanation I wrote: ‘I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is ‘the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness,’ as a friend of mine once put it in a workshop.’

At the head of the post I had quoted from Machado (Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood: page 90-91):

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Not surprisingly it triggered an arresting thought: ‘An intriguing question arose after I had re-read Machado recently.  Did I read him before I had this dream? Was there some subliminal influence from that encounter? The date I bought the book permits that possibility, but I can’t be absolutely sure.’ A Machado moment if ever there was one!

This poem is one I love to read and re-read. Partly because, as Trueblood explains in the notes (page 281), it is ‘expressive of aspiration to faith but not of its possession.’ The poem ends:

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was–
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

I will be exploring later my uncertainty principle and the idea that John Donne expressed of ‘doubting wisely,’ a turn of phrase to be found a few lines later in Satyre III which I quote at the top of this post. Absolute certainty is elusive and possibly illusory and not the same as the ‘Certitude’ Bahá’u’lláh explores in a book of that name (the Kitáb-i-Íqán). Not all the dreams we have of God are true.

His preoccupation with bees, a frequent trope in his poems, also holds my interest. Until I read Trueblood’s notes, though, I hadn’t realized that ‘bee imagery is not uncommon in manuals of devotion.’ However, there is a caveat here before we assume that this is exactly what Machado means: ‘Whereas the emphasis of the mystical writers cited is on the humility and the diligence of the bees, with Machado it is characteristically on the mysterious powers of creative transformation of their honey-making process, powers here seen at their most striking.’

The ending of the next poem in Trueblood’s selection flags up how far Machado is from the comfort of complete faith, and how close he is to the spirit that infuses R S Thomas’ poetry (page 93):

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming –
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of the vast silence.

That’s enough for now I think. More on resonant themes next time. For now I’ll close with another poem about bees. The first poem below is the Spanish version, followed by Trueblood’s translation, with my lame version trailing behind after the end of the sequence, though I have improved the ending over my first attempt.


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From Don Paterson’s The Eyes page 9 (The pink highlight, my regular defacement of books, couldn’t be removed.)

Given that the second post of my short sequence on Khursheed’s exploration of the universe within, included a reference to William James’s sense that, in terms of deep reality, even when what we are thinking is true, we can never know for sure that this is so, it seemed appropriate to republish this sequence whose final post comes back to this same issue.   

Following on from the previous overview of his life and of issues such as politics and accessibility impacting on Machado’s poetry, there are others at work as well, aspects of Modernism for instance.

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Aphorisms & Obscurity

Xon de Ros points towards the Poem that Paterson has translated. She concludes that (page 214) ‘Overall, the image suggests an interest in form and shape rather than content, a modernist privileging of aesthetic experience over didactic import.’ His use of aphorisms, a long tradition in Spain, that cancel each other out takes potential confusion further, as Xon de Ros quotes Stern to explain (page 222):

. . . the modern aphorism which has been defined as ‘a genre which more than any other aims at preserving in literary expression the discrete and contradictory nature of lived experience.’ (Stern: 1959)

Aphorisms (page 209) ‘also move in ways which problematize any notion of a single truth.’

And last of all we can’t avoid the impact of Cubism (page 223):

Whiston explains cubicación as the systematic scrutiny of received ideas from multiple perspectives in order to extricate ‘the living reality behind the expression.’ (‘The Cubing of Language in Antonio Machado’s Juan de Mareina:  1989 – page 151)

I am still struggling with how far it is legitimate for poetry, or art in general, to capitulate to the chaos of our current complexities so completely that a poem is completely obscure. I have elsewhere referred to this as brick-wall poetry and the conduct of a ‘quisling.’

My own sense so far, from my reading of Machado, is that he does not usually go that far. There is almost always a trace of music or a haunting image for me to hold onto amidst the fog. Perhaps that’s why Xon de Ros’s comment is more praise than criticism for me. She writes (page 246): ‘it is undeniable though that Machado’s poetry has a certain anachronistic feel to it. . .  [He’s] a modern poet, as it were, by default.’

Faith, Transience & Memory

Also Machado’s reaction to the world he paints is one to which I strongly resonate, as Trueblood indicates (page 35) when he writes  ‘. . . in Machado the poem is less a profession of faith than a doubting with faith.’ He’s following in John Donne’s footsteps here whose injunction to ‘doubt wisely’ I’ve referred to elsewhere. There’ll be more on that later I suspect.

An additional factor, that Xon de Ros picks up on, is the shifting nature of poetic language, something of which Machado was all too aware (page 3): ‘beneath the existential reflection on human transience, there is a preoccupation with the mutability of the poetic word.’

A particularly intriguing issue is the impact of memory on the making of a poem. Trueblood expands on the point (page 20):

Memory for him is less a well than a reservoir, constantly renewed by inflowing and outflowing waters. . . . . [H]owever deliberate the process of recall, time will have been at work on what is recalled. We are thus brought back to the characteristic Machadian emphasis on the transforming action of memory.

My diaries help me grasp this point only too well, as on innumerable occasions I have checked my memory of an incident against my diaries and found my memory significantly at fault. There is no reason why poets should be an exception. Maybe Wordsworth’s dictum, that the core of poetry is ‘emotion recollected in tranquility,’ is no guarantee of accuracy.

It may not even be the memory of the poet alone that works on a poem, as Xon de Ros indicates in Machado’s concept of palimpsest (page 178):

. . . stating that every poem is in a way a palimpsest raises the question of the ontological status of poems, and suggests the view of poetry as a collaborative art…, which involves a ‘comunión cordial’ with the reader.

Landscape & Inscape

Landscape is of immense importance to Machado, and, in a way that matches my own desire to find hints in the outside world to help me decode my inscape. Many of his poems, according to Trueblood (page 42), show ‘with particular clarity that the shifts from outer scene to inner landscape and back again are never absolute breaks in Machado.’ This is reminiscent of what I learned about Munch as well. Ulrich Bischoff in the Taschen book on Munch explains (page 38) that in his painting The Storm, ‘Munch has transfigured the seen world into a landscape of the soul,’ and (page 80) ‘for Munch, landscape always had to convey a message of human import: his visual idiom transformed the reproduction of landscape scenes into landscape of the soul.’ And finally, (page 82) ‘The details of Munch’s landscapes – trees, snow-covered hills, beaches or waves – were also symbols expressing a personal language of the soul.’


Many people raise the question of whether art and life are so much at odds that only a self-absorbed narcissist can be an effective artist. For me the jury is still out on that one, even though I have concluded that some great artists are certainly not narcissists. Opinion seems divided about Machado, at least among the critics I have read so far. While Paterson expresses the clear opinion that Machado is not an egotist in his verse at least, when he asserts that (page 55) ‘I can think of no writer so obsessed with the suppression of his own ego . . .’  Xon de Ros seems not so sure (page 202): ‘While Machado’s early poetry shows a degree of ambivalence towards self assertion… the poet’s self-consciousness becomes more apparent in his second collection…’ This caveat has to be balanced against her depiction of the purpose of his poetry (page 207), ‘[The] notion of a depersonalized lyric becomes increasingly linked to an ideal of poetry as the expression of a communal experience beyond the poet’s subjectivism,’ and furthermore the relevance of T.S.Eliot’s tenet that ‘the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continuous extinction of personality’ and his doctrine of poetry as ‘an escape from personality’ and not just ‘the expression of personality.’

His Value as a Poet

In the end, perhaps the clearest summary of Machado’s value as a poet comes towards the end of Xon de Ros’s book (page 245):

. . . while Machado has been a constant presence in Spanish poetry since 1940s, his aesthetics came to the fore in the so-called ‘poetry of experience’ which since the 1980s has become the dominant trend in Spain’s poetic panorama. For the poets of experience the rapport with the reader is a central concern. Rejecting avant-garde poetics and intellectualism, this poetry seeks a rehumanization, focusing on the lived experience and everyday language, while also exploring alternative subject positions and adopting techniques of defamiliarization such as parataxis, dramatic monologue, poetic masks, irony, and metaphysical meditation, to establish a relation with the reader which is close to the ‘comunión cordial’ advocated by Machado.

She earlier attributes part of his recent acclaim to Bloom’s flagging up Trueblood’s translations (page 182):

[Trueblood’s] is the translation recommended by Harold Bloom in ‘The Western Canon,’ where Machado, at least according to Bloom, finally joins the ranks of the modern Immortals.

Interestingly, in my 1994 copy of The Western Canon there is not a single reference to Machado anywhere. Xon de Ros is referring to the 1995 edition, suggesting a rapid change of mind. I felt I had to check this out on the web and did in the end track down a list of Western authors generated by Bloom and published in the Appendix of his Adelaide edition, which includes Machado on the basis of the Selected Poems (see link).

I also do like Gerald Brenan’s verdict (page 435):

He wrote a strong, bare, sonorous verse which has some of the qualities of the best sixteenth-century prose and which is always alive because it is saturated in every part by its rhythm. It has less artifice than that of Yeats and not a trace of mannerism, and when it leaves the ground it takes off with a great spread of wings like, for example, Yeats’ two poems on Byzantium.

Next time more quotes from Machado as we look more closely at the themes that resonate for me. For now there is another poem below that resonates with me. As before the Spanish comes first and Trueblood’s English translation next, both from Alan S Trueblood’s book: my personal rendering will be republished after the sequence is over.  Loss is the theme again.

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