JOHN DONNE CHANGES WHAT IT MEANS TO READ POETRY.

I will never forget the effect of reading John Donne for the first time.

Donne (1572-1631) may have lived three hundred and more years before but he speaks with a living force on love and sex, and to me, a distinctly naive nineteen year old second year university student with little experience of what is called life, his poetry had and continues to have, startling immediacy.

Songs and Sonnets provides an astonishing range of love poetry from sensuous to playful, from platonic to loving and it does so with a direct urgency of voice that makes the poems vitally alive.

You just need to look at some of the opening stanzas :

I wonder , by my troth, what thou, and I 
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then 
But sucked on country pleasures childishly 
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers' den? 
'Twas so; but this all pleasures fancies be. 
If ever any beauty I did see 
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee. 

  
  

( “Did” and “got”; two of the most common verbs in English speech, but hardly poetic sounding; has ever a poet given them more force than here? Consider the power the enjambment gives to “Did”. Again look at “weaned”, sucked”,” “snorted”:all strongly physical Anglo-Saxon, Old English verbs considered too unpoetic in times where more euphemistic words would have might have been preferred).

Or:

 Busy old fool ,unruly sun, 
Why dost thou thus 
Through windows and through curtains call on us? 
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run? 
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide 
Late school boys and sour prentices 
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride 
Call country ants to harvest offices: 
Love, all alike, no season knows or clime, 
Nor hours, days , months  which are the rags of time.



 

(Notice the shocking scorn with which the sun, regarded traditionally as splendid, often in Elizabethan times aggrandised by classical references to Phoebus or Apollo. There is a wide view of society that suggests the wide sweep of Jacobean drama; the influence of Shakespeare is hinted at by – “Late school boys and sour prentices” which reminds one of the Seven Ages of Man speech In “As You Like It” -and the dismissive “country ants to harvest offices” suggests the royal indifference of say, a Richard ii.).

Or:

For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love, 
Or chide my palsy or my gout,
 My five grey hairs, or ruined fortune flout ,
With wealth your state, your minds with arts improve 
Take you a course, get you a place, 
Observe his honour or his Grace 
Or the King's real, or his stamped  face, 
Contemplate; what you will, approve, 
So you will let me love.  
 

(The influence of the dramatic voice speaking forth is presented here; it is as if the the voice is arguing against the restraining influence of friends, from out of the midst of conversation as if it is an excerpt from a play of voices. Notice , here, and throughout the three examples the command of rhythm that makes the verse flow.).

John Donne (along with other so-called Metaphysical poets) was a shaping influence on T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Eliot saw his poetry, as showing a combination of intellect, wit and feeling at play and it was this combination he sought to recapture in his own verse. John Donne was central to his idea of the “dissociation of sensibility” which shall be discussed in a future post.

F.R. Leavis in his revaluation of English poetry makes Donne central in the “line of wit” and demonstrates how Donne’s language follows the rhythms of the the “speaking voice”: “the subtleties of Donne’s use of the speaking voice and spoken language are inexhaustible ….The art has evident affinities with Shakespeare’s”.

It is little wonder I was so startled by John Donne when I first read him. Reading and appreciating Eliot and Leavis inevitably involved regarding John Donne highly. There is of course much more to Donne than can be attempted in this post; as well as “Songs and Sonnets” he created satires and significant religious poetry. He is a poet I shall come back to.

“Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes”

In his last letter, Tyndale asked that he might have “a warmer cap, for I suffer greatly from the cold… a warmer coat also for what I have is very thin: a piece of cloth with which to patch my leggings. And I also ask to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency that the commissary will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary, that I may continue with my work.”

Tyndale’s New Testament. Translated by William Tyndale in 1534. Intro. David Daniell. Yale University 1995.

William Tyndale is a hero of the Christian faith and also our language. We live in an age that complacently takes both for granted.

Let it be said clearly every school child in an English speaking country should know the name of William Tyndale.

Living in the reign of Henry VIII, he was there at the start of the Reformation. It was in 1517 Luther nailed his proclamation challenging the Pope’s authority on the church at Wittenberg. An essential angle of the Reformation was making the Bible available to the laity in their own tongues. Up to that time Latin was the official language of the church and only though Latin could Christian truth be mediated in church.

Tyndale, living in exile, did what was rigorously repressed and forbidden in England. He translated the Bible into English: the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek. Around sixteen thousand translations were smuggled in from the continent over the years. This was dangerous work and ultimately Tyndale paid the price. Found guilty of heresy by a court in the Netherlands he was strangled, demonstrating he, and his like, were to be made voiceless.

It was a vain hope. He told a cleric who challenged him: Ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost. What Tyndale started could not be held back. The voice could not be silenced.

Ultimately, after his death, his translation was allowed being incorporated in the Great Bible of 1539. It was not so much that the eyes of King Henry VIII had been opened. His marital affairs famously led to his quarrels with the Pope and he became more accepting of Protestant states in Germany so allowing English publications were more a matter of political expediency than principle especially when his chief archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who developed the English Book of Common Prayer, was in approval of the use of English in church.

It is not generally realised how much of the greatly loved Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611 is based on Tyndale’s translation: according to Tombs “80-90percent of the New Testament and a large part of the Old Testament remained Tyndale”. This version tends to give a more formal and rhetorical elaboration of Tyndale. Here is the opening verse of Genesis in Tyndale’s translation:

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water

Tyndale’s Old Testament Intro by David Daniell 1992

The Authorised Version builds on this, slightly (I think improves it ) but we can see Tyndale’s more direct, less rhetorical syle in operation:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

King James Version of the Bible.

Notice the King James Version elaborates and slightly improves phrases ( “was without form”) and it uses the paratactic form (ie sentences beginning with “And”) which helps give weight to the delivery. Some find the Tyndale’s more direct, less formal style more appealing than the Authorised Version but what cannot be denied is the predominant influence of Tyndale on it and therefore our language for four hundred years

A look at the familiarity of words and phrases brought into the language by Tyndale’s translation makes this clear. I quote from Robert Tombs:

salt of the earth, the fat of the land, the powers that be, let there be light, the spirit is willing, the apple of his eye, a law unto themselves, filthy lucre, as bald as a coot, the straight and narrow, my brother’s keeper, blessed are the peacemakers, let my people go, eat, drink and be merry, flowing with milk and honey, a stranger in a strange land, the flesh pots, thou shalt not kill, love thy neighbour as thyself.

Robert Tombs “The English and Their History” Allen Lane 2014.

Tyndale’s language working through the earlier English translations and then the Authorised Version of the Bible, meant that for four centuries his English has made a unique contribution to the language wherever it is spoken.

David Daniell in his introduction puts it well:

It is commonly said that Luther’s 1522 New Testament gave Germany a language; it ought to be said more clearly that Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament gave to English its first classic prose. Such flexibility, directness, nobility and rhythmic beauty showed what the language could do. There is a fine line from Tyndale to the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest English prose that followed: English, that is, rather than Latinised , prose. The sixteenth century began with debate about the worthiness of English. The later poets under Elizabeth and James-Shakespeare above all-showed that English was a language which could far out -reach Latin in stature but Tyndale and his successors made an English prose which was a more than worthy vehicle for the most serious matter of all.

ibid. Tyndale’s New Testament Tr. William Tyndale. 1534 Intro. David Daniell.

To forget or ignore Tyndale would be a sign that those of us who have inherited his language have forgotten where we have come from.

“SWEET THAMES RUN SOFTLY, TILL I END MY SONG”: TWO KINDS OF POETRY; TWO KINDS OF USE OF ENGLISH?

https://www.pinterest.com/pin556124253977184339

It’s a famous, striking and beautiful line I think! It is also a charming illustration! Charming, however, is not a critical word. It means simply you are attracted by the refrain and the illustration. What changes when we make a critical response?

But let me leave the question in the air while I give more information

The refrain is from the Elizabethan Edmund Spenser’s poem Prothalamion.

Prothalamion is word invented by the poet. It comes from two Greek words: pro -before and thalamion meaning bridal chamber. A forthcoming wedding is being celebrated: the double marriage of twin sisters is being held further downstream in the city . Here, up- river we are made conscious of the charms of Nature and two swans floating downstream represent the brides to be. There is a pastoral element to the poem and plenty of classical allusions but to me the artifice adds to the poem rather than chokes it.

The artifice is, at first, disguised by a curiously personal quality with the poet’s voice and mood introduced in the first stanza. He is pictured, in “sullen” mood needing the refreshment of Nature. However, the picture he paints is purely connected with the forthcoming wedding and here the pastoral element of the poem develops with the description of the nymphs bedecking themselves, and then the swans with flowers

The poet’s stance poet as narrator changes in the first stanza; changes from the personal to one reflecting that of the Muse. This is illustrated by refrain “Sweet Thames run softly while I sing my song” in which the narrator is supposed as Muse to have the authority to command the river while he presents his work.

As I say, this to me gives the poem a charm connected not with its realism but with a ready ( in my case-perhaps not in yours) acceptance of artifice and its skilful arrangement.

But see what you think in reading the first three stanzas:

Calm was the day, and through the trembling air  
Sweet breathing Zephyrus didst softly play 
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay 
Hot Titan's beams, which then did glister fair:              (glitter)
When I whom sullen care, 
Through discontent of my long fruitless stay 
In Prince's court, and expectation vain 
Of idle hope, which still do fly away 
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain, 
Walked forth to ease my pain 
Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems 
Was painted all with variable flowers, 
And all the meads adorned with dainty gems,
Fit to deck maidens' bowers 
And crown their paramours, 
Against the bridal day which is not long: 
Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song.

There in a meadow by the river's side, 
A flock of nymphs I chanced to espy, 
All lovely Daughters of the Flood thereby, 
With goodly greenish locks all loose untied, 
As each had been a bride, 
And each one had a little wicker basket, 
Made of  fine twigs entrailed curiously,                       (entwined)
In which they gathered flowers to fill their flasket:   (a shallow basket)
And with fine Fingers, cropped full feateously           ( dexterously)
The tender stalks on hye. 
Of every sort which in that meadow grew, 
They gathered some; the Violet pallid blue, 
The little Daisy, that at evening closes, 
The virgin Lily, and the Primrose true,
With sore of vermeil Roses, 
To deck their Bridegrooms' poesies,
 Against the Bridal day, which was not long: 
Sweet Thames run softly till  I  end my song.

With that, I saw two swans of goodly hew, 
Come softly swimming down along the lee; 
Two fairer birds I yet did never see: 
The snow which doth the top of Pindus strew, 
Did never whiter show, 
Nor Love himself when he a swan would be 
For love of Leda, whiter did appear: 
Yet Leda was they say as white as he, 
Yet not so white as these nor nothing near; 
So purely white they were, 
That even the gentle stream, the which them bare, and bade his billows spare 
To wet their silken feathers, least they might 
Soil their fair plumes with water not so fair 
And mar their beauties bright, 
That shone as light, 
Against their bridal day, which was not long: 
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.     
   

         

With Spenser’s verse we associate that strain of music that runs through English verse from Spenser himself through Milton (cf. Lycidas), Keats and Tennyson. The language has a decorative quality (Flasket, feateously, entrayled, posies, meads, maidens, paramours) as opposed to a poetry that emphasises the rhythms of the speaking voice and the physicality of the language; it reflects more the Anglo-Norman French inheritance of English rather than that of Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Spenser sometimes adopts the mode of the Old English alliterative line ( In which they gathered flowers to fill their flaskets /And with fine fingers cropped full feateously.) but the words are chosen for grace rather than for their physical immediacy.

While this I find attractive I find poetry rooted in the physical- sounding more Anglo-Saxon form of English more meaningful as an elucidation or actual enactment though words of thought.

Compare with Spenser this of John Donne, for instance, in The Hill of Truth:

                                         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 
Yet strive so, that before age, death's twilight, 
Thy soul can rest, for none can work in that night.

The language is decidedly rooted in Old English. Huge, cragged (two syllables), steep, strive: note the strong physical words; note how the enjambment separating the complete verb “will Reach” enables the enactment of stretching; note the decisive words rhyme words ending lines. The language represents strength rather than grace ; focused thought rather than ornamentation; unexpectedness rather than convention .

What do you think? Do you tend towards one or the other?

DEBATE BETWEEN A RETIRED TEACHER OF ENGLISH AND AN ENTHUSIASTIC STUDENT ON SALLY ROONEY

So large and so significant is English as a literature that you never really lose sight of the need to learn and study more. Additionally I was brought up to suspect the idea of being just a specialist ( though specialists are obviously necessary) so I never wanted to concentrate my efforts on one period or one genre or one extension. It is a subject in which you want, even as you focus on one of its parts, to keep a sense of the whole.

That said, one feels a certain resistance to the contemporary. To keep up with the sheer volume of modern fiction is both an impossibility and from my point of view not specially desirable. One keeps ones eyes on the reviews; one looks -with decreasing hope- to hear of a new writer who will take the literature and the language-and re-direct it -as Eliot or Lawrence or Joyce did a hundred years ago.

This, however, is one of the irritations. I am surrounded by insatiable readers of the latest Booker Prize winners, or the latest young discovery (we’ve moved from Zadie Smith to Ali Smith to Sally Rooney).

Here I imagine a conversation with a young enthusiast.

Me : I’m interested in Literature too. I spent much of my life teaching it for the Open University and now I write blogs on the subject.

She: Fascinating. I’m looking forward to studying in third year. We’ve concentrated on modules on post-colonial stuff, as well as plenty on how lack of diversity and lots of racism is shown in the in the writing of the past.

Me: Anything on Chaucer or Piers Ploughman?.

She: No they have ditched all that medieval stuff as irrelevant and not sufficiently marketable.

Me: Oh no! Shakespeare?

She: Yes a lot on the Merchant of Venice and anti-semitism in the module on racism. Also Othello came in as the Moor.

Me: So you say you are finishing third year with a dissertation. What do you hope to focus on?

She: Definitely something on Sally Rooney.

Me: But she is still only in her twenties or so isn’t she?.

She: So what, she matters!. She’s the modern voice of fiction.

Me: I am afraid I read Normal People and found it dreary.

She (shocked): Dreary!

Me: Ok the main relationship , the on and off and then on relationship is sharply observed and well-done. It is very immersive as if the author is very personally involved but there is little or no attempt to set it in the perspective of another kind of reality. The novel shows a young writer hopelessly confined to the non-descript land of “anywhere”: depictions of council-house estate, school grades, the emptiness of youth culture, the nonentity of the lives of the rich, condemned because they are rich. Outside the two Connell and Marianne the family relationship is so unexplored. Connell is better with his mother; she at least gives him some moral direction. Of course there is no father and that is just taken for granted. But with Marianne it is as if the brother is a given as a bully and a weakling and the mother is contrived to be opposed to Marianne without sympathy at any point. She is only rich and mean.

She: But this is linked with the father’s abuse of her. Women have to fit in. And the brother learns from that too.

Me: Yes. it is a too easy given. It’s not really explained or developed

She: But the writer cannot include everything.

Me: Perhaps, but apart from that there is no sense of a real other Ireland, Nature, only the naive Marxist reading of spoilt comfortably-off rich and cheated poor. He offers her “The Communist Manifesto ” to read when they are at school for goodness sake. The writer is so caught up in her lived-in world and has no resources to get her beyond being miserable about things. To be so young and dreary! Young creative life shout be a kick against misery not a lament.

She: But that is the world of the young, the world they know. She writes about it and makes it art.

Me: I agree that if you want to learn about the sexual mores and the ways in which the young socialise she is an excellent source allowing for the slant she is taking. As to “art” she gives fine short impressionistic glimpses of the effects of say rain, or as she looks through a window misted by her breath. But then there are other descriptions of her taking a shower and you ask “Why is this here?” So what.

She: Is it not connected with giving a sense of the ordinary, like normal people?

Me: I don’t know. For me art is there to make significant. Too much of the description is just detached observation that does not go any where. The detached objective view, neutral.

She: It often runs as if for a film.

Me: Yes , that’s a really good observation. The narration is like the neutral eye of the camera viewing things. I say “neutral eye” but it is apparently neutral-it is still chosen. It’s like it is being prepared for the cinema or the televising it got.

She: Yes, it’s our way of seeing.

Me: But we need to go beyond our common-sense way of seeing rather than just refining it here or there with fine impressionistic glimpses and I don’t think she does that.

She: Perhaps but she is still young and it is not just dreary. There is a slow movement towards hope.

Me: Mm, I’m reminded of that quotation “The individual condition is tragic yet there is social hope. “- that might describe Rooney with her rather detached Marxism. They moan at what they call capitalism and say yes to activism but remain detached waiting for things to happen elsewhere. But if there is a vague social hope I am reminded of what F.R. Leavis said about that quotation: “Where if not in individuals is, is what is hoped for to be located?” Especially in the young and creative but I don’t get that with Rooney. Connell ends up doing Creative Writing: play around with Creative Writing while you wait for the debacle: it’s not inspiring.

She: The lovers do get themselves sorted out. Marianne overcomes her dependency on being trampled on. He gets to the point of commitment. She is freed by his belief in her.

Me: There is something there perhaps. But put the novel in the tradition. One hundred and ten years ago Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers autobiographically based discovering in himself the problem with finding a relationship with a woman that gets himself beyond the hold on him with his mother. In one relationship he and a secondary girlfriend find a kind of sexual togetherness that connects them with the Nature around them, the “wheeling peewits etc..” There is hardly any sense of Nature in this work certainly not impinging on the world of the lovers. They -or at least Marianne wants to make love in a derelict building. Ok that fits with the theme of her self-negation. But there is also a lack which Lawrence shows in his work: wonder. In The Rainbow the young farmer character looks for a woman with a kind of religious intensity. It isn’t piety it is an understanding his sexual longing belongs to his religious urge for wholeness. I don’t get that with today’s young writers. For these young writers sex is too easy in our world and has become a quagmire.

She: That’s interesting but I think she had to clear the ground first and she did that with this novel. It will be interesting to see how she will progress.

He: Well Lawrence did say after writing his autobiographical novel: ” one sheds ones sicknesses in books -repeats and presents again ones emotions to become master of them” . Then he became free to write his best stuff. Perhaps Rooney will do the same.

“WHAT IS HONOUR? A WORD”

Eduard Von Grutzner Falstaff 1896

The affections lead us on says Wordsworth. So does language. This is what Falstaff is resisting in connection with the word “honour” . He has landed himself in a battle but, no soldier, he does not want to fight:

..honour pricks me on. Yea but what if honour prick me off when I come on ? How then? can honour set to a leg? No Or an arm? No . Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. “What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? Air-a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it no. Tis insensible then? Yea to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon- and so ends my catechism.

William Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1 1597

(NB “scutcheon” painted shield with coat of arms identifying a dead nobleman. (“Henry iv P1 Signet Classics 1963) )

For Falstaff what comes first is self-preservation. The language of honour, of military and heroic ambition means nothing. Honour is mere air. A word. The speech is a marvellous piece of deflation. In the play we have a character who lives by honour. Hotspur is genuinely heroic, he believes in honour; but he drives himself impetuously on the word to the point of madness. He is made use of by others who encourage him into a risky rebellion. Behind “honour” we still need reason. Falstaff uses reason in this speech to safeguard self; Hotspur in holding to the inspiration of the word avoids thinking.

Nevertheless we do despite Falstaff and notwithstanding Hotspur live on the inspiration of words. They are not mere air. Or if they are air they are the air that stirs us into life. “Honour” is still a great word involving our essential self-respect. So is the closely connected word “troth”.

“And thereto I give thee my troth” are the words of commitment in Cranmer’s great marriage service.

THE NAMES OF WILDFLOWERS: A VOCABULARY TO TREASURE.

wild flowers at publicdomainpictures.net

Savour the names! Jenkins is writing his response to receiving a copy of Sarah Raven’s “Wild Flowers” . But the first thing he pays attention to is the index so as to marvel at the incredible range of names applied by generations of country-folk to these plants. For

The names are, in truth, the pictures recording how country people down the ages have seen nature a mirror of their lives. Here are adder’s tongue, autumn lady’s tresses, betty-go-to- bed- at -noon, runaway jack, change-of- the- weather, codlins- and- cream and creeping jenny. Here are dodder, madder, fat-hen and ling. Here are polypody, pignut and pudding dock, sowthistles, sorrels and spurges. Here are stitchwort, woundwort, sneezewort, lousewort, mugwort and nightshade.

Simon Jenkins. theguardian.com

For Jenkins the names reflect the extraordinary creativity of the people who have created, made the names their own and either kept them in their own place or had them passed on to become more widely known:

Flower names can be peculiar down to individual parish….They can be vulgar, poignant and romantic. What pain yielded traveller’s foot or nipplewort? What anguish went into heartsease, love-in-a-mist, love-in-idleness and love-lies bleeding? What majesty christened grass-of-parnassus?

ibid.

For students of language these names are invaluable. In the post on “The Third Realm” I quoted Leavis’ emphasising to Snow an achievement prior to the creation of the scientific edifice representing modernity; that was the development of language. Leavis knows that the specialised language of science can only be developed following the development of the common language. But the common language is not just ordinary; it demonstrates- as the range of these wildflower names shows – creativity, non-academic and often poetic, at work in the rustic communities.

Also it demonstrates what Leavis means by the “third realm”. For, before these names could become current, you needed more than the individual flair of creating an appropriate name; that appropriateness had to be recognised, savoured and passed on. A name might be offered and nudged into something slightly different as the community mind considered it. . It might stay in a particular parish, affected by dialect or it might travel further afield-who is to say. There is something wondrous about it!

Remember we looked at Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” . Curiously he mentioned our subject in passing.

An interesting illustration of this is the way in which the English flower names which were in us till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, snap-dragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myositis etc- it is hard to see any practical reason for this change: it is probably due to an instinctive turning away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific .

George Orwell.

What Orwell noted two generations ago is very much more developed by the determination of a commercial world to globalise its products making the use of a common specialised term more favoured than a more localised name.

But the process is the same : the creatively community developed term is made to appear old-fashioned as the more specialised, “scientific-sounding” word is allowed to take over.

We need to value our common unspecialised language more with its names, its rhymes, lore and folk song.

“BY BOOTS I AM M.A”

In the 1920’s D. H. Lawrence wrote the following clever poem. It may not be one of his best but it is witty and challenging, probably more to us now than when it was written. There used to be a conception of something called “liberal education” which was very different from education as vocational training or as developing skills or preparing us for the “real world”- which is separate from the world discerned from what is often mockingly dismissed as the “Ivory Tower”.

Liberal education was to do with the “enlargement” ( Newman’s word) of the mind and its cultivation because that cultivation, in itself, is a good both for the individual but also for Society which, for its good, needs not only people who are well trained but people who are deeply conscious and widely read.

What does our society really think university education is for.? The orthodox view of government these days appears to that universities are tied to the economy, a good investment designed to make us all better off. That is conception that Robinson and Maskell discern and expose in their New Idea of the University (Haven Books 2001) contrasting it with Newman’s idea of the university providing a liberal education.

You will see then, when you read it, why the poem is prescient.

NOTTINGHAM’S NEW UNIVERSITY

In Nottingham that dismal town
where I went to school and college,
they've built a new university
for a new dispensation of knowledge.

Built it most grandly and cakeily
out of the noble loot
derived from the shrewd cash-chemistry
by good Sir Jesse Boot.

Little I thought, when I was a lad
and turned my modest penny,
over on Boot's Cash Chemist's counter,
that Jesse by turning many

millions of similar of honest pence
over, would make a pile 
that would rise at last and blossom out
in grand and cakey style

into a university
where smart men would dispense 
doses of smart cash-chemistry
in language of common-sense!

That future Nottingham lads would be
cash-chemically B.Sc.
that Nottingham lights would rise and say
-By Boots I am M.A.

From this I learn, though I knew it before
that culture has her roots
in the deep dung of cash, and lore
is a last offshoot of Boots.

D. H. Lawrence Pansies



 

NOTES.

D.H. Lawrence Pansies 1929

Sir Jesse Boot was born in Nottingham in 1850. After his father’s death he helped his mother run the family shop selling herbal remedies. The shop did well, business multiplied and Boots shops appeared all over the country from 1900 with the branding “Chemists to the Nation”.

Cardinal Newman “The Idea of the University” 1852

DISCUSSION POINTS

What do you understand by the phrase “Liberal education”?

University education can teach us in the “language of common sense”, develop our use of a specialised language or seek to provide “enlargement of the mind”? Discuss the aim of our education.

Should there be a distinction between vocational training and education?

What do you make of the meaning of the final stanza?

Is the poem snobbish? Is it fair to Sir Jesse Boot or is Lawrence’s target still relevant?

THE THIRD REALM

The Third realm sounds mysterious, perhaps mystical, but is simply like this.

It is English class and a group of students look at a poem, let us say this by Wordsworth.

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky,
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
  Or let me die!.
The Child is father of the man 
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety. 

It is a well focused class. The teacher reads through the poem twice with them and then they discuss it.

Here is the question: ” As they listen and discuss the poem where is the poem?”

Yes simple as that : Where is the poem?

Is it on the page in those black marks? Or written in the past is it a document that belongs to the year 1802 or whenever Wordsworth wrote it?

This does not seem satisfactory.

The poem has been recreated in experience by the reading. It is not just black marks on a page and it is made vividly present not an antiquated document from back there.

Is the poem then in the minds of the teacher and students?. Well yes , that can be said.

Is it purely subjective experience then? Perhaps, but it is a common subjective experience and yet each subjective mind no doubt has a slightly different take on the poem.

In the discussion the teacher asks questions: like why “behold” rather than “see” , “view” “observe”?. What are the connotations, the sound, the meaning, the length of “behold” that makes it appropriate Wordsworth chooses that word.

Why the three lines beginning “So was it” “So is it” “So be it”. What is being done by that format?

How does this development of past, present and future lead to the general statement: “The child is father of the man”.

What does the poignant sounding “Or let me die” suggest?

How does the finale complete the meaning of the poem?

There are loads of questions to explore.

The students seem alive to the poem and what it has to offer. One smart guy points to the opening rhythms of the opening lines “Are they not a wee bit slack the sort of emotive sound and rhythm that can easily be mocked?” You see the point. Wordsworth can be so overly simple and emotional sounding his work can often get parodied. At the same time the teacher sees this possible weakness compensated for by the strong binding rhythm of the centre of the poem.

Lots to discuss; the class remains well focused.

Where in all this interaction is the poem?

The 1802 poem is being recreated, it is a sustained following through the making of the poem making it alive again.

That is the third realm. The poem is there in the exchange of reading listening, discussing, imaginative re-reading.

It is real experience; all have been vividly involved. But the experience is not directed towards objective truth. It is not like a scientific experiment where verification happens when the liquid in the test tube turns colour. Nor is it simply subjective. The teacher is not saying “Take away your own meaning and be satisfied with that.” The focus is all on the meaning achieved by the poem.. One student might say this and you might want to interject “Yes, but..”.

It is a learning experience but you are not just looking for a definite answer to the meaning of the poem, as in the scientific experiment; objectively established. You are seeking to bring together through discussion, what T. S Eliot spoke of as the common pursuit of true judgement. You are looking to establish Wordsworth’s arguable meaning, not propose your own individual one.

The third realm: discussion in which minds meet.

Now read this quotation from F.R. Leavis:

It is in the study of literature, that one comes to recognise the nature and priority of the third realm… the realm of that which is neither merely private and personal nor public in the sense it can be brought into the laboratory or pointed to. Y ou cannot point to the poem; it is “there” only in the re-creative response of individual minds to the black marks on the page. But -a necessary faith- it is something in which minds can meet. The process in which this faith is justified is given fairly enough in the account of the nature of criticism…..The implicit form of a judgement is: This is so, isn’t it? the question is an appeal for confirmation is that the thing is so; implicitly that , though expecting, characteristically, an answer in the form, “yes,but- ” the but standing for qualifications, reserves, corrections. Here we have a diagram of the collaborative creative process in which the poem becomes established as something “out there”, of common access in what is in some sense a public world. It gives us, too, the nature of the existence of English Literature, a living whole, that can have its life only in the living present, in the creative response of individuals, who collaboratively renew and perpetuate what they participate in – a cultural community or consciousness. More it gives us the nature in general of what I have called the “third realm” to which all that makes us human belongs.

F.R. Leavis “Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow.” Richmond Lecture 1962.

This is dense and precisely focused argument. Note how the discussion of say a poem, by which it is placed as something admired (or not) is a paradigm for the way in which the idea of a literature becomes created by criticism ( Shakespeare is supreme where Ben Jonson is simply very good).- though criticism is always open to revaluation and agreement will never be universal. But also, and perhaps especially, note how the “third realm” also stands for the way in which a language is created and the way in which we belong to a particular form of the human world within that language.

Phew!

I’ll come back to this!

MUSIC THAT MURDERS SILENCE

You cannot escape it can you? That loud over-powering pulsating beat! We have gone to a bar cafe for a late Saturday lunch and all we want to do is enjoy the meal-we know the food to be good- and have a chat. But you cannot escape the noise that is pretending to be music. How is it conceived that this is something customers want? Yet it seems not to bother them. There they are all dressed up in Saturday ostentation that declares that though this is afternoon the night they are going to enjoy starts here, chattering as if to chat with that deadening beat in the background is as normal as chatting over the fence with their neighbour.

This all came to mind as I read this from Joseph Conrad’s superb novel Victory. Set on an island in the South Pacific a travelling band of musicians is doing a concert for hotel guests including the hero Heyst who has unwillingly joined the audience.

The Zangiacamo band was not making music ; it was simply murdering silence with a vulgar ferocious energy. One felt as if witnessing a deed of violence; and that impression was so strong that it seemed marvellous to see the people sitting so quietly on their chairs, drinking so calmly out of their glasses and giving no signs of distress, anger or fear. Heyst averted his gaze from the unnatural spectacle of their indifference.

Joseph Conrad Victory 1915

“Murdering silence” is a good way of putting it. The thump of the “music” is designed to dominate, to desensitise the auditors . You are not in fact “listening”: listening involves choice and you have no choice, just as you have no choice if a helicopter flies low overhead or you have to walk past as an electric drill breaking up the road. You are a victim.

So to Heyst the other guests seeming indifferent is unnatural. The word “unnatural” reminds me of a passage in D. H.Lawrence- also about so-called music: a singing class in a school in the industrial Midlands:

Standard Five girls were having a singing lesson, just finishing the la-me-do-la exercises and beginning a “sweet children’s song”. Anything more like song, spontaneous song, would be impossible to imagine: a strange bawling yell followed the outlines of a tune. It was not like savages: savages have subtle rhythms. It was not like animals: animals mean something when they yell. It was like nothing on earth and it was called singing.

D.H. Lawrence Lady mChatterly’s Lover 1928.

Murdering silence”, “vulgar, ferocious energy” a “strange bawling yell”; yet something it is assumed we should accept as normal or natural. “Unnatural”: in the Lawrence passage the “bawling” indicates a lack of sensitivity to what the song requires; in the Conrad it suggests an audience desensitised to what music might be.

Too late on that Saturday afternoon bar visit we recognised the mistake. The bar music was in fact aimed at its clientele. Its aim was to get them in the mood for an ongoing period of pleasure stretching into the small hours. Noise deadens sensitivity; it lowers inhibitions; voices are raised just to hear; drink is constantly needed to keep up the conviviality. As Conrad puts it “ferocious energy” is needed. The music helps to shape you into being a true party participator; bludgeoning the mind into acceptance of what the party demands……..

If the frantic, fervid quality of modern pleasure is unnatural the noise of its music murdering silence is integral to what it requires.

EXPANDING SCIENCE AND THE DECLINING CENTRE.

As though the scientific edifice of the modern world were not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful collective work of the mind of man.

C.P. Snow The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Rede Lecture 1959

It is pleasant to think of Snow contemplating, daily perhaps, the intellectual depth, complexity and articulation in all their beauty. But there is a prior human achievement of collaborative creation, a more basic work of the mind of man (and more than the mind), one without which the triumphant erection of the scientific would not have been possible; that is, the creation of a human world, including language. It is one we cannot rest on as something done in the past. It lives in the living creative response to change in the present.

F.R.Leavis .Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow Richmond Lecture 1962

But the religious virtue of knowledge was become a flunkey to the god of material success.

D. H. Lawrence The Rainbow

I was at school in Northern Ireland when the furore over Leavis’ radical dismantling of C.P.Snow’s Rede Lecture (known as the Two Cultures lecture) took place. Not that as a schoolboy I knew much about it. Nevertheless the time was coming when one had to choose between specialising in Science subjects or the Arts. There was no doubt which of the two was considered superior. Science was given an intellectual weight beside which the arts were made to seem to be rather light and flimsy; my interest, however, was in the arts and I concentrated at school and then university on English Literature and History.

This dispute might seem long gone, an academic affair that has become outdated, of interest only to academics. Not so! It is still very much with us.

Ostensibly Snow’s argument seemed attractive. There was a gap and the gap should be narrowed between education in the sciences and education in the arts. It was begun at school and went on into life, making for two groups of educated people who could not share intellectual and cultural interests. If it had been left at that fair enough.

But the thrust was plain. Scientific education should be backed at the expense of the arts because it was the sciences rather than the arts that contributed to the good of society. “Scientists had the future in their bones” whereas the literary representatives of what Snow called “traditional culture” are “natural luddites“. The arts were fine but only as something ornamental, an attractive display that added grace to life. Real knowledge, real progress belonged to Science and to adjusting our education so that more science got taught, there was greater specialisation in science. Ultimately this would lead to greater prosperity and the material improvement of life for all and this is what was primarily needed.

Well the argument is still with us. The other day Sir Patrick Valance involved in the health response against Covid pleaded for more iintegration of science and politics. Government responds by launching a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy declaring its aim to make Britain “a science super-power”.

Leavis’ argument however was concerned less with the need for more Science( which he did not dispute) more for the importance for society to develop critical intelligence rooted in culture. For only a rooted culture could provide us with a centre which materialism could never provide -though it might dissipate such- and Snow’s educational remedies were externalist ( note the image of the “edifice” in the quotation) directed towards science and technology creating the jobs that would give the population sufficient “jam” (yes, that was his term!) to live on.

I won’t go into the “nitty-gritty” of the argument here though I plan to discuss it further in future posts. For me however, as a young man seeking his way in life when I eventually studied the matter in more depth on reading the two sides it was Leavis who stood not only for humanitas but for the human spirit. Snow’s focus was purely materialist. For him it was a question as to what the country needed materially for its advancement and only that,. Leavis’ challenge was :

” what we need and shall continue to need not less, is something with the livingness of the deepest vital instinct for the sake of our humanity, for the sake of a human future … to maintain the full life in the present -and life is growth- of our transmitted culture”

It might be said he understood, as Snow did not show any sign of doing, that Science and material welfare could not provide a country with a centre. He understood, that is, what Yeats meant, when he wrote:

 "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. 
W.B. Yeats The Second Coming.

It was this awareness that drove me as it had done many others influenced by Leavis, perhaps the greatest teacher of English, as well as the greatest critic we have known in the last century, to become a teacher of English, because in English we saw a meeting ground with pupils and students wherever they were at; for the value of absorbing literature is perennial not because of its external benefits but because it develops us in our sympathies and understanding in the common pursuit of true judgement. And without that pursuit strongly pursued society wilts.

It was Snow of course who succeeded Endorsed by Harold Wilson who offered him a place in his government and spoke of the “white heat of the technological revolution” as something the country must embrace. Polytechnics, admirable institutions designed to provide a technical education, became universities. Universities packed with specialisms became multiversities designed to give their paying career savvy- students the vocational preparation they needed. Arts students were poor relations.

University once meant a centre for the gathering of knowledge in an attempt to integrate knowledge: a collocation of specialisms cannot offer that. In the meantime religious faith has dwindled and cultural choice is more and more directed by market values. Political debate is concentrated on economic matters and “culture wars” are responses to bitter divisions over questions of rights- divisions stirred by social media.

The question of restoring the centre is one of urgency; but it cannot be done without faith and rooted intelligence.