HOW DO WE GROW?

We may say that when we use language, or a probe, or a tool, and thus make ourselves aware of these things as we are of our body, we interiorize these things and make ourselves dwell in them. Such extensions of ourselves develop new faculties in us; our whole education operates in this way; each of us interiorizes our cultural heritage, he grows into a person seeing the world and experiences life in terms of this outlook. (from Michael Polyani “The Logic of Tacit Inference” (Knowing and Being)

What do you think of this quotation?

I love it because it challenges the idea that education is an accumulation of facts, of external knowledge, of developing skills detached from who we are.

Education is to do with “indwelling”, within a science, an art, a language, a literature, a history; so that it becomes “interiorised” within our person.

It challenges the idea that education is simply for utility and not for our personal growth.

Let me know what you think.

“THE MARRIAGE AT CANA” : A POEM. (1)

The following poem gives a wonderful sense of the mysterious vitality of the story of Christ’s first sign or miracle from the Gospel of St John.

THE STEWARD’S TALE”

We did not usually run out of wine;
My chief, a stern man, took his stewardship 
So very earnestly. There had been, 
You might say, an administrative slip.

This was, you understand, a marriage feast 
Of consequence. The guests had come from far 
And wide. I startled when I saw the last 
Drops slowly draining from my serving jar.

Word of the shortage had not got around; 
The chief knew nothing. How could I tell him? 
Then the voice of one who knew his own mind 
Bade me fill up six pitchers to the brim.

I turned to see a young man standing there, 
One of the guests, quiet, knowing, benign. 
Do as I bid he said, and have no fear. 
You bring me water I will give you wine.

Strange to say I did not hesitate, though 
Even at this time it seemed absurd. 
Those pitchers were so heavy it took two 
To lift them. I obeyed without a word.

It was with trepidation that I took 
A sample for approval to the chief. 
He sipped, nodded and with a puzzled look, 
Sent me away. Imagine my relief.

Later, as the feast progressed, I heard 
Him laugh and chat, politely tease the groom 
Uncannily an atmosphere of  shared 
Peace almost of blessing had filled the room. 


I often wondered about that young man, 
When I left Cana for another place, 
Another life. Until today, watching 
Them unfix the Nazarene from the cross,
 I recognised at once his gentle face.    

Chrsitopher Morgan in this poem (in the short collection Stalking the A4 The Brynmill Press 2009) is presented by critic Ian Robinson as one of the few contemporary poets whose work continues to “haunt” him

. “He is the best practitioner of English verse I have read in our time. Especially in the twenty first century it is not faint praise to call a writer a supreme master of the iambic pentameter and Morgan’s fluency in other forms is amazing.”

The Marriage of Cana in St John’s gospel is one of the great tales of the gospel. Rich meaning is distilled through Jesus’ direction leading to the transformation of water to wine.

The steward’s predicament here gives another perspective: the telling the tale from another imagined angle, through a dramatic monologue of one who has no previous knowledge of the man Jesus, so giving a fresh view on the power of his influence in creating an atmosphere of “shared Peace, almost of blessing” through the room. Behind this feeling is the cryptic and powerful prediction the Lord has made: “You bring me water I will give you wine“.

The steward speaks in exact, measured terms as one seeking to describe the events simply for a hearer. The precise account and the sure poetic use of enjambement (last Drops), the surprise of the single word active verb for “startled” (it is usually in passive voice) enables us to focus on the steward’s predicament. The introduction of Jesus is striking: first by unexpected voice-he is heard before he is seen- “ the voice of one who knew his own mind“- and then his appearance “quiet, knowing, benign” confirming the authority of voice when the steward is at a loss as to how to break the news. The decisive command is intriguingly reinforced by the fine chime of “wine” with “benign”.

The immediate effect within the poem is witnessed by the steward, in trepidation as he watches the master of the feast imbibe that drink he knows was poured out water. His relief at his master’s reaction is developed into wonder by the transformation wrought in the room.

This is beautifully wrought poetry. The steward’s wonder is prepared for by “uncannily”. As we return to the word we realise it is a stretched four syllable word drawing out the sense of the steward’s feeling as he sees the transformation gradually taking place. Note how the enjambement throws the emphasis on the keyword “Peace”( rhythmically elongated) . We are seeing the room through the steward’s eyes. His additional “almost of blessing” reminds us this is the voice of one who does not know Jesus, trying to find the right word and lighting on the powerful word “blessing” with its strong religious implications (of grace, of revelation) to describe the effects of his action.

That could have ended the poem but there is an additional five line stanza bringing us up to date linking the forgoing story with the crucified Jesus. The one who brought blessing and new life, the one whose “cup” he invited his disciples to drink as his blood at the Last Supper, is the one whose potential is declared in that opening miracle of John’s gospel.

The poem is thus an inspired re-telling of the first sign the inspired gospel writer, John brings of one who continues to have the power to transform.

TELLING HOME TRUTHS!

Chris Jordan/The Guardian/March 12 2018

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART 7

This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with marineres
That come from a far countree.

He kneels at morn, and noon, and eve-
He hath a cushion plump:
It is the moss that wholly hides
That rotted old oak stump.

The skiff-boat neared: I heard them talk,
"Why this is strange I trow!
Where are those lights so many and fair,
That signal made but now?"

"Strange, by my faith!" the Hermit said-
"And they answered not our cheer!
The planks look warped! and see those sails,
How thin they are and sere!
I never saw aught like to them,
Unless perchance it were

Brown skeletons of leaves that lag
My forest-brook along:
When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow,
And the owlet whoops to the wolf below,
That eats the she-wolf's young".

"Dear Lord! it hath a fiendish look-
(The Pilot made reply)
I am a-feared"- "Push on, push on!"
Said the hermit cheerily.

The boat came closer to the ship,
But I nor spake, nor stirred;
The boat came close beneath the ship,
And straight a sound was heard.

Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dread:
It reached the ship, it split the bay;
The ship went down like lead.

Stunned by that loud and dreadful sound,
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that had been seven days drowned
My body lay afloat:
But swift as dreams, myself I found 
Within the Pilot's boat.

Upon the whirl, where sank the ship,
The boat span round and round;
And all was still, save that the hill
Was telling of the sound.

I moved my lips-the Pilot shrieked
And fell down in a fit;
The holy Hermit raised his eyes
And prayed where he did sit. 

I took the oars: the Pilot's boy, 
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
"Ha!ha!" quoth he, full plain I see,
The Devil knows how to row."

And now, all in my own countree, 
I stood on the firm land! 
The Hermit stepped forth from the boat,
And scarcely he could stand.

"O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!
The Hermit crossed his brow.
"Say quick " quoth he, " I bid thee say-
What manner of man art thou?"

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony
Which forced me to begin my tale: 
And then it left me free.

Since then at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night from land to land:
I have strange power of speech:
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that I must teach.

What loud uproar bursts from that door! 
The Wedding-guests are there: 
But in the garden-bower the bride
And bride-maids singing are:
And hark the little vesper-bell, 
Which biddeth me to prayer!

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage -feast
'Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!-

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small:
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
hose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned, 
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn. 
 

  
 

The journey is almost done. We are being returned again-as the previous part has indicated-to the lighthouse-top, the hill, the church.

In Part 7 the Mariner is conducted to harbour by the Pilot roused by the strange lights of the incoming ship. The pilot is attended by the Hermit who brings the imagery of the wood into this poem of sea voyage. The Hermit combines a God-fearing quality with love of Nature ( of which he is revealed to be a close observer), and also a curiosity in the tales of mariners from far abroad.

The transfer of the Mariner to the pilot’s boat takes place after the mysterious sinking of the ship, which Coleridge makes wonderfully dramatic, or climactic. The supernatural powers have completed their mission of carrying the mariner back to his homeland; the ship disintegrates and goes down “like lead”. The Mariner is submerged and then :

Like one that hath been seven days drowned 
 My body lay afloat   

Guite (Mariner:A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hodder and Stroughton 2018) likens this experience of the mariner to baptism. “Baptism is a ritual enactment of dying and rising, of drowning and breaking the waters coming to new birth.”

The shock of the disappearance of the ship, the whirling round of the pilot’s boat in the consequent whirlpool and the mysterious transition of the body of the Mariner to the company, not as a drowned body but one capable of speech and action induces the fear that the mariner is a ghost and is, amid the boy’s hysteria, relieved by a moment of humour :

" Ha! ha! quoth he, "full plain I see
The Devil knows how to row".
 

The presence of the Hermit advances the redemption theme. The Mariner needs to be shrieved-to utter confession to be fully absolved of his sin and continue in penetential purpose. This develops the Wandering Jew idea in which the Mariner becomes a wanderer from land to land as one also, needing to tell his tale.

There is a shift of perspective, returning to the Wedding-Guest scene of the start of the poem, to the Mariner’s address to the Wedding-Guest, bringing to him a new understading of the familiar: communal-life, the need to share in worship and prayer and a reminder of the great moral point of the poem. While Coleridge later felt that this section was too overt in its putting out the moral message -ideally he believed the moral truth should be contained within the art and not made to become explicit moral statement-it is also the case that for the mariner on his mission such explicitness would be a necessary part of his mission. As such it seems to me to work:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.   

These stanzas are contrasted with the previous one which emphasises what had been the Mariner’s plight:

"O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely twas that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be. 

Isolation and disbelief are put together. The poem affirms, however, that the God who “seemed” not to be is in fact there as a potentially redemptive power which eventually on the turn of the Mariner’s mind towards love of the beauty of the water-snakes comes fully into play.

Modern readers have recognised the continuing relevance of the poem especially in our time when the threat to the natural world destroyed by human exploitation has come to the fore. The albatross destroyed by the Mariner’s arrow remains a creature encapsulating the wanton heedlessness and greed of humankind. That came to the fore with Chris Jordan’s film of the devastation plastic is causing in the albatross population. (See an excellent review of his film in The Guardian March 12 2018)

Chris Jordan/ The Guardian/ March 12. 2018

Coleridge’s poem in its theme is peculiarly modern in its concern with our relationship with the natural world while also pointing to the crisis of the individual soul having lost a belief in a creator God separated from Nature, living in a state of apartness from the creation which for his own health or wholeness he needs to reverence. Aware of the individual’s capacity for evil Coleridge combines what we might call the ecological theme with the need for personal redemption. This is the challenge of the poem to the modern reader, who may tend to emphasise the priority of the ecological theme at the expense of the religious purpose. But Coleridge reminds us that -to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn- the line between good and evil runs not just between political ideologies-the ecological -minded against the promoters of growth- but through every individual heart. To Coleridge the heart turned to a loving Creator knows the need to reverence God’s creation.

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART VI

FIRST VOICE
"But tell me,tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing-
What makes that ship drive on so fast? 
What is the ocean doing?" 

SECOND VOICE 
Still as slave before his lord, 
The ocean hath no blast; 
His great bright eye most silently 
Up to the moon is cast-

If he may know which way to go; 
For she guides him smooth or grim. 
See, brother, see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him." 

FIRST VOICE 
"But why drives on that ship so fast, 
Without or wave or wind?"
SECOND VOICE 
"The air is cut away before, 
And closes from behind. 

Fly, brother fly! more high,more high! 
Or we shall be belated: 
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner's trance is abated. 

I woke, and we were sailing on 
As in a gentle weather; 
Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together. 

All stood together on the deck, 
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stony eyes, 
That in the moon did glitter. 

The pang, the curse, with which they died, 
Had never passed away: 
I could not draw my eyes from theirs, 
Nor turn them up to pray.

And now this spell was snapt: once more 
 I viewed the ocean green, 
And looked far forth, yet little saw 
Of what had else been seen-

Like one that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round walks on, 
And turns no more his head; 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me, 
Nor sound nor motion made: 
Its path was not upon the sea, 
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek 
Like a meadow gale of spring- 
It mingled strangely with my fears, 
Yet it felt like a welcoming. 

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too: 
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Oh! dream of joy is this indeed 
The light-house top I see? 
Is this the hill? Is this the kirk? 
Is this mine  own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar, 
And I with sobs did pray-
Oh let me be awake, my God! 
Or let me sleep alway. 

The harbour-bar was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn! 
And on the bay the moonlight lay, 
And the shadow of the Moon. 

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less, 
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness 
The steady weathercock. 

And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same, 
Full many shapes, that shadows were, 
In crimson colours came. 

A little distance from the prow 
Those crimson shadows were: 
I turned my eyes upon the deck-
Oh, Christ what saw I there! 

Each corse flat, lifeless and flat, 
And by the holy rood! 
A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph- band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart-
No voice;but oh, the silence sank 
Like music on my heart. 
But soon I heard the dash of oars, 
I heard the Pilot's cheer; 
My head was turned perforce away 
And I saw the boat appear. 

The Pilot and the pilot's boy, 
I heard them coming fast: 
Dear Lord in heaven! it was a joy 
The dead men could not blast. 

I saw a third- I heard his voice: 
It is the Hermit good! 
He singeth loud his godly hymns 
That he makes in the wood. 
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.

 

  
  

It seems to me there are two ways readers might regard Part VI. If the poem is seen as simply story, plotting a development from a wicked misdeed, with gothic incident, spells, supernatural visitations thrown in to create a tale of fantastic incident, then the ending of the poem over this part and the next might seem a malingering. What has to be done is after all becoming clear: the mariner has to be got home, an exit has to be arranged for the corpses, a moral neatly relayed. For such readers Part VI might seem unduly extended. But increasingly I have become aware that this is a spiritual poem in every sense, that it is an organic poetic unity and I am more and more impressed by the way in which mythological and cosmic elements give depth to the redemptive process. The mariner- and we along with him -has to learn that his crime is meaningless destruction; it is something that goes against not only the natural order but the spiritual interconnectedness of living beings. The conclusion has therefore to be given time for working out.

In terms of the poem’s unity note how effects are repeated. Stanzas and phrases are repeated, recalling earlier stages of the (spiritual) journey. The mariner although on the way towards home and redemption has flashbacks which threaten to immerse him. Once again he cannot escape the accusing eyes of the dead, he is trapped by the inability to pray, he is, as before ( in Part 1), like one pursued by a foe. In effect, Coleridge is maintaining dramatic interest as we shift between the possibilities of the mariner being trapped and finding escape. An example of this is the invocation of Christ ( another echo, this time from Part 2) which leads us to expect the worst when in fact, this time, it leads to a wondrous seraphic visitation.

Coleridge knew -if anyone knew-that the road to spiritual redemption is not linear. Malcolm Guite in his marvellous book on the poem (Mariner) and Coleridge’s life which I would encourage every reader interested in this series of posts to read, links these reversions to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Guite connects this condition with the agonies and self- recriminations the opium- addicted Coleridge had to contend with. It is true when Coleridge first wrote the poem (which appeared with Wordsworth’s in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads) he was not an addict but Guite argues that imaginative fore-seeing is one of the powers at work within the poem. It is certainly remarkable the extent to which the mariner’s journey towards redemption reflects that of the great poet. as Guite so effectively shows..

The Part re-invokes the spiritual and redemptive qualities the Moon retains throughout the poem (see earlier parts of the discussion):

See, brother,see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him.

  

The supernatural aspect is brought out by the seraphic -band:

A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph -band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart- 
No voice; but oh! the silence sank 
Like music on my heart.   

This has a spiritual beauty underlined by the redemptive effect of a silence compared with the power of music. The passage seems to me to possess a wondrous quality which is nevertheless connected with a practical purpose. The ship having reached the harbour-bay would normally signal by light to the harbour pilot for guidance for entering the harbour walls.

The Part then continues the marvellous interplay of story with spiritual symbolism, with the regressive pull of defeat mixed with the progressive urge towards redemption encouraged by the ever present gracious Moon and the startling supernatural sublimity of the seraphic presence. It ends with a note of hope- on the mariner spying the Hermit on the pilot boat with the inevitable final recall of the last stanza to the (always capitalised) Albatross:

He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART 5. COLERIDGE’S MYTHOLOGY.

O sleep ! it is a gentle thing.
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven
That slid into my soul.

The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained.

My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.

I moved and could not feel my limbs:
I was so light- almost
I thought I had died in sleep,
And was a blessed ghost.

And soon I heard a roaring wind;
It did not come anear;
But with its sound it shook the sails,
That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.

And the coming wind did roar more loud, 
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain poured down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge.

The thick black cloud was cleft, and still
The Moon was at its side:
Like waters shot from some high crag,
The lightning fell with never a jag,
A river steep and wide.

The loud wind never reached the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes:
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen the dead men rise.

The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools-
We were a ghastly crew.

The body of my brother's son
Stood by me knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.

"I fear thee ancient Mariner!"
Be calm thou Wedding-Guest!
Twas not those souls that fled in  pain,
Which to the corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blessed.

For when it dawned -they dropped their arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly from their mouths,
And from their bodies passed. 

Around,around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again, 
Now mixed, now one by one.

Sometimes a dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!

And now 'twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel's song,
That makes the heavens be mute.

It ceased; yet still the sails made on 
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.

Till noon we quietly sailed on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath.

Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The Spirit slid : and it was he
That made the ship to go.
The sails at noon left off their tune,
And the ship stood still also.

The Sun right up above the mast,
Had fixed her to the ocean:
But in a minute she 'gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion-
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.

Then like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound:
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.

How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But e'er my living life returned,
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

"Is it he?" quoth one, "Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low 
The harmless Albatross.

The Spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow."

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he" The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do."

  
  

Coleridge’s universe is vital: full of stir and movement and spiritual presences. The eighteenth century, by way of Newtonian physics, had presented a mechanical universe, run like clockwork, according to “regular motions” . The Deist God existed as a distant applicator of the workings of the machine, the Divine Clockmaker who designed the clock and left it to run. So when Coleridge writes:

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro and in and out,
The wan stars danced about.

he is consciously reacting against the mechanical lifelessness of the Newtonian heavens.

The Romantics were fascinated by Science; for instance, by the new understanding of electricity and electro-magnetism.. The idea re-emerging in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley was of spirit interacting with matter. The discovery of Electricity, an unseen power with material effects, suggested the complementary association of universal Spirit with created Nature acting upon the mind. Wordsworth gives the idea expression in “Tintern Abbey” in these wonderful lines:

"                       And I have felt 
 A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: 
A motion and a spirit that impels 
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things.

What Coleridge does in “The Rime ” is to particularise within the unfolding of the poem what Wordsworth gives expression to in these lines of the interfusion of spirit, Nature and human thought; this is done by underlaying the story of the poem with a mythic depth. There is a bringing together of Christian and pagan elements ; or, perhaps more truly by demonstrating the development of Christian thought from pagan ideas. The Pagan worshipped- Sun, that which creates life, is made to symbolise the Christian God; the “moving” Moon of pagan mythology is given renewed life expressing the redemptive powers of the Blessed Virgin. (Male and female, it might be said, are given a living connection within the godhead which they lack in Milton’s Protestant epic “Paradise Lost”). Towards the end of Part 5 we are introduced to conversing spirits of the Polar region as a further element of the poem’s mythology.

It is the quality of the poetry that gives potent power to the mythology. This is invoked by the opening stanzas in explaining the renewing sleep of the mariner:

To Mary, Queen the praise be given! 
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven, 
That slid into my soul.

We notice the way in which the restorative power of sleep is created by the preponderance of s-sounds and especially by the alliterative “slid” that suggests the gradual peaceful movement of restoration. The redemptive movement that brought the previous part to and end with the water-snakes being blessed by the “Spring of love gushed through my heart” is confirmed first by sleep , then dreams of moisture and then the blessing of rain. Given that one of the most powerful effects of the mariners’ physical condition has been that of a desperate feeling of thirst ( “with throats unslaked, with black lips baked”) we empathise as readers with the joyful release of the rain on the mariner. And the release from burden is emphasised by turning the fearful implications of ghostliness to one of blessing:

I was so light- almost 
I thought that I had died in sleep,
And was a blessed ghost.

    

A similar transformation is made of the crew members where their corpses become spirits guiding the ship. The astonishing development here is to show these spirits not just in action but as a worshipping gathering. Hence, the wonderful lines:

"Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.

Around,around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun; 
Slowly the sounds came back again, 
Now mixed, now, one by one."

A wondrous sense is created of sound being circulated and rising to the Sun and then being renewed and returned. To emphasise the importance of what he is seeking to convey Coleridge adds two stanzas on the nature of the sound, comparing it to a profusion of bird song and then to a sounding orchestra followed by the single note of a flute. This rises to the finale of “an angel’s song That makes the heavens be mute”. Coleridge is creating not so much a poetry of spiritual enchantment but a poetry in which transcendent spiritual life, extended throughout the universe, is given expression, so that we as humans are made receptive to other spiritual possibilities within a universe radiated by spiritual life.

Towards the end of the Part there is a further development in the mythological aspect with the re-introduction of the Polar Spirit. This spirit is linked to the Southern Ocean where the ship had earlier ventured when it was visited by the Albatross and it is this Spirit which seeks vengeance for the killing of the Albatross. In his marginal gloss which he added to the poem for further elucidation Coleridge has written alongside the conversation between spirits ending the part:

The Polar spirit’s fellow daemons, the invisible inhabitants of the element, take part in his wrong; and two of them relate, one to the other, that penance, long and heavy for the ancient Mariner hath been accorded to the Polar Spirit who returneth southward.

This conversation enables the ending of the part to bring together the mythological element with the spiritual direction of the poem. The two spirits in their talk bring out not only the need of accountability for evil but also of mercy for the redeemed soul performing penance, with the concluding stanza bringing out with a beautiful image, the tender compassion of the merciful spirit.

"The other was a softer voice, 
As soft as honey-dew: 
Quoth he: "The man hath penance done, 
And penance more will do." 

“ON THE FARM”: R.S.THOMAS -NATURE AND REDEMPTION.

           On the Farm

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in  his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail

There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say?
I have heard him whistling in the hedges
On and on, as though winter
Would never again leave these fields, 
And all the trees deformed.

And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence: God is love.

R.S. Thomas.

 

Early June with the sun shining, trees, blossoms , birds’ nest and song how easy it is to see Nature as genial and a blessing. “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here” went the Max Ehrmann poem ” Desiderata”. Popular in the sixties it sounded ever so romantic!

Wordsworth in a poem like “Tintern Abbey” treats Nature as a blessed power which when contemplated can have a redemptive effect on us. In his famous “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” he states his aim to “use language such as men do use” particularly those whose speech has been shaped in rural settings such as the Lake District. It would be simplistic to say that Wordsworth’s attitude to the rural enviromnent is idealistic. He shows the reality of rural poverty and suffering unforgettably in poems like The Ruined Cottage, Michael The Thorn and rural stoicism in a poem like “Resolution and Independence”; yet there is nothing in Wordworth I can think of that presents the rural character so bleakly as the poetry of the Welsh priest R.S. Thomas, featuring the lives of the Welsh peasantry and small farmers living in the Welsh uplands representative of the endurance and fortitude of people who have lived there for generations.

This is the stark environment in which Thomas worked as a priest, serving from 1936 to 1978 in six different Welsh parishes. What ever Thomas is as a poet he is not romantic.

“On the Farm” presents (we presume) three brothers and one sister. Two brothers are “no good” and the third worse even than that. There is nothing attractive about any of them or their lives. The poem exposes their blatant mental vacancy: two of them with little or no ability to do productive work, one debilitated by the work he does do so he is unfit for anything else.

In the final stanza we are made aware what Thomas is doing. The sister as “lantern” gives a light which rescues the brothers from darkness. In her they could read what otherwise they would be incapable of understanding. For “life’s dark book” is unreadable to them, only she can represent it in person:

And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence "God is love".


    

What she represents is the meaning of the book otherwise “dark” to them: ” God is love”. The phrase is shrill because to make sense to them, to get through to them, her voice has no doubt become shrill to overcome thir obdurate emptiness but nevertheless she gives the love they need.

It reminds me- on a small scale- of Dickens’ great novel Little Dorrit -possibly the greatest novel in the language -in which Amy Dorrit alone brings to her father incarcerated in prison and her empty-headed brother and her vain sister, both with their “mind -forg’d manacles”- the love without which they would be as nothing.

Thomas is right: you cannot romanticise the peasant life he shows. Nature of itself cannot redeem the empty mind, the universe does not save them; what alone has the possibility to get through and give them lives to live is signified by a sister who shows them by action and “shrill voice”the love, which is the love of God.

” CAN SOCIALISTS BE HAPPY?”: WHY DOES UTOPIA NOT WORK?

I have just been reading Orwell’s essay entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy”?” it sounds a challenging title, particularly from a writer of the Left who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Interestingly Orwelll was encouraged to ask the question by comparing the writings of Charles Dickens with a number of more recent writers who had tried to make Utopia convincing. He discusses H.G. Wells who wrote among other things science fiction including Utopian novels (eg. A Modern Utopia, The Time-Machine, War of the Worlds, Men Like Gods).

Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries that we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear. overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that it is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things that Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia?

Well perhaps Wells is the wrong writer to read to make Utopia appealing. So Orwell looks wider. He tries the early Fabian Socialist William Morris. But Morris’ News from Nowhere is as unattracive as it sounds : “It is a sort of goody-goody version of a Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a kind of watery melancholy.”

What about the further-back past? Orwell turns to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The early parts are ” “probably among the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written”

claims Orwell- a judgement to ponder- but he goes on:

In the last part, in contrast with the disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the heroes of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, “reasonable ” lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from “passion”, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic priciples, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the early parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and the scoundrelism lead him, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

Against these Utopias Orwell points to Huxley’s Brave New World as actually reflecting the fear we might have of these organised Utopias: A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which is within his power to create.

Huxley’s “rationalised hedonistic society” is a society in which sex is so readily available that it has become vacuous; in which promiscuous relationships have taken the place of marriage and the requirement of raising a family is state- provided. The living connections between what Burke pointed to as the unborn, the living and the dead have become severed. Meaningful living is unavailable to a generation uprooted from the past dwelling in such a society.

Readers can make up their minds how close we are to this whether we desire it and the kinds of alternative to it.

But to get back to the title. In showing imagined Utopias as undesirable Orwell. asks where in literature we find a living sense of happiness to pose against these failed Utopias. It is Dickens he points to: the Dickens of Pickwick and the concluding scenes of Christmas Carol where the Cratchit family are shown enjoying their Christmas dinner.

the Cratchit family do give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance,the citizens of William Morris’s News From Nowhere don’t sound happy. Moreover -and Dickens’ understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power- their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat…. The steam of Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour…

Dickens is master of showing human enjoyment and happiness. This may surprise readers who also know his novels -the later ones- as dark. But as Orwell points out the two go together. He prizes the creative enjoyment and revelry of the poor because he knows how hard won it is.

So if Utopias are to be desired but yet fail where does this leave us?. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Judaeo- Christian narrative begins with a kind of perfect world- the Garden of Eden which cannot last. Ever since humankind has had to take account of sin and death and also the difficulties of earning bread (“In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread” Genesis 3:19).

The Bible suggests however the struggle is not mainly socio-economic (which does not stop the prophets speaking out about exploitation and justice to the poor is a preoccupation) but to do with our relationship with God; so to imagine a society- Socialist or whatever- in which our social problems are resolved is unrealistic. The struggle for meaning and meaningful living is central to our human search; and that search cannot be resolved by a Utopia- socialist or otherwise- that attempts to take the struggle away.

“COMPUTERS CAN WRITE POETRY”: “YES THEY CAN”; “NO THEY CAN’T”.

THis is how the powerful critic F.R. Leavis described the possibility back in 1970 in his essay “Literarism” versus “scientism”“.

I was, I confess, a little amused when, sitting at a formal lunch next to the director of a City Art Gallery, I was told by him, in the tone of saying something very impressive: ” A computer can write a poem”. I replied, very naturally, that I couldn’t accept that, adding that it was one of the things I knew to be impossible. When he responded by being angry , fierce and authoritative, I reflected he was a German, if an emigre, and that in any case his business was Kunst and he hadn’t said a computer could paint a work of art. The other occasion on which I was confronted, point-blank, with the preposterous and ominous claim, which by then I had discovered to be pretty current, it made a profound impression on me. The testifier was a philosopher, a lady and cultivated; her place and conditions of residence gave her access to a friendly computer laboratory. She had taken advantage of the opportunity, I gathered, to develop an intense experimental interest: “It’s incredible” she said, ” what a computer can do; it’s awfully fascinating; you know a poem can write a poem.” I couldn’t let that pass; with the appropriate urbanity I said: ” Well, “poem” means different things” there was no Teutonic anger this time. There was a sudden descent, a heightened nuance of pink, a concessive philosophic laugh, and then “O well, yes; but it’s great fun”.

Leavis is a very fine writer. As criticism this works in a novelistic way. The two characters encountered are made vividly alive (we are perhaps less happy with asserting national cultural characteristics so boldly, as Leavis does with the art director, but in 1970 our kind of political correctness in these matters was less common ) and the types of contrasting ways of defending the idea are very effectively presented. On the one hand, there is what one might call dogmatic materialist fundamentalism that does not brook dissent; on the other, a kind of philosophical playfulness, subject to embarrassment when it senses opposition, while resting on a self- indulgent sense of fun. Both kinds of response , one might add, remain characteristic of our modern Britisn intelligentsia.

You might read the passage and say however, “Well this was fifty years ago, in a different world in which people had not adjusted to the new reality computers were to bring”. Leavis, however, goes on to ask the fundamental question and to demonstrate the danger of letting go the meanings of our most important words.

That any cultivated person should want to believe that a computer can write a poem!-the significance of the episode, it seemed to me, lay there. For the intention had been naive and unqualified. It could be that because of the confusion of different forces of the word “poem”. And yet the difference is an essential one; the computerial force of “poem” eliminates the essentially human- eliminates human creativity.

We can , of course, choose to “want” to believe a computer can write a poem. The technology is far advanced from its rudimentary 1970 stage and computer addicts can develop programmes in which an Emily Dickenson poem, say, is broken up into individual words which when fed into a programme can be so managed as to produce a combination of words and phrases put together in short lines which can give it the look of a quizzical Emily Dickenson style composition-until, that is, you begin to read it. Or you can organise rhythmic and rhyme pattern that present a ballad-form. You can even-for I have checked You Tube- organise events in which you get people to choose between two “poems”- one written by a human the other by a computer, and find the audiences, by immediate reaction with a show of hands can mistake one for the other. “Great fun!” as the philosopher in the story said.

Or is it? The value we put on the word ” poem” and the creativity it manifests is made a mockery of if it can also mean it is “created” by a computer programme being designed to follow the human brain’s linguistic patterning. Because poems are not cerebral constructs, they are not merely or mainly brain-work but creations of the whole person, body, mind and spirit working together.

To pretend a computer can write a poem is to reduce the significance of the word and the wondrous power of the creative imagination as it expresses itself in language.

But in an era, dazzled by technology, in which science and technology are made the central agents of progress it is vitally important to insist what it is science within its limitations can do and what it cannot and what computers can do and what they cannot.

So let us be grateful for well-designed and programmed computers; but for the sake of what is precious in our humanity don’t become over-impressed.

“APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH”: TWO POETS, TWO MEN, TWO AGES

April is the cruelest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain, 
Winter kept us warm, covering 
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding 
A little life with dried tubers. 
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbargersee 
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. 
Bin garkeine Russin, stamm'aus Litauen, echt deutsch. 
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's, 
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, 
And I was frightened. He said, Marie, 
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. 
In the mountains, there you feel free. 
I read much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow 
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 
You cannot say or guess, for you know only 
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, 
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, 
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only 
There is shadow under this red rock, 
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), 
And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. 
              Frisch weht der Wind 
              Der heimat zu 
              Mein Irisch Kind, 
              Wo weilestdu? 
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; 
"They called me the hyacinth girl"
- Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, 
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not 
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither 
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 
Looking into the heart of light, the silence 
Oed' und leer das Meer.
T.S.Eliot The Wasteland.

April: the month that heralds the season of spring; after long winter, the release towards renewal and regeneration; the time of year traditionally when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. Also, usually, the month of Easter, of faith gathered round the ritual of death and resurrection.

Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month denies all this” negates, as it remembers, all this. His April sees no possible fruition. Hence the cruelty of memory mixed with desire; he lives in a place and time gone sterile: the desire for love, the desire for sex, the desire to celebrate faith in unity are all still remembered but no longer meaningful.

“The Wasteland” decisively confirms a new age of poetic expression in English. The Great War, the First World War, is over but the poetry has nothing to celebrate: there is, apparently, no hope of European renewal, only an awareness of lack of continuity of the desire for life, faith, renewing love. Hence, a poetry of changing voices, fragments, with no narrative progression.

Was this the problem of Eliot or the age?. Eliot’s wife suffered from a severe hormonal condition that eventually led to being a patient at a mental institution. Eliot wrote in a letter: “To her the marriage brought no happiness to me ot brought the state of mind that led to The Wasteland.” (Collected Letters of T.S. Eliot Vol 1).

Yet it also reflected powerfully an age, devastated by war, torn by fragmentation and a lack of cultural continuity and shared faith. Given the continuation of all these through the century the wasteland may be seen as not only personal but societal.

Compare this with the opening of The Prologue of Chaucer’s masterpiece “The Canterbury Tales” also featuring April.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote [sweet]
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote  
And bathed every veyne in swich licour [plant vein,liquid]
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; [potency]
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth [west wind,also]
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth  [woodland,heath] 
The tendre croppes and yonge sonne      [shoots]
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, [Aries]
And smale foweles maken melodye         [birds]
That slepen al the nyght with open ye   [eye] 
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); [incites, their, hearts]
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken stronge strondes [professional pilgrims]
To fernes halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; [far-off shrines, known]
And specially from every shires ende 
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,  [go] 
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,    [blessed,Thomas Becket]  
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.  [helped, sick]
 

In Chaucer there is a continuity, lacking in Eliot, from the Nature that pricketh in the hearts to the longing to go on pilgrimage. In Eliot the holiday , going to the Alps in winter is exclusively enjoyed by the well off, not by the variety of classes which “The Prologue” shall introduce us to . And though for many of Chaucer’s pilgrims the religious aspect is less holy day than holiday there is no need to inquire, using the Biblical prophets: “What are the roots that clutch out of this stony rubbish” ; there is a combination of faith and culture that holds it all together.

Eliot’s sterility is replaced by a perceived vital connection linking the life of Nature with the life of folk with shared faith.

As a man Chaucer is in mid-career, a successful diplomat and an experienced poet. He is a Londoner where Norman French is the common tongue of Court and upper society so he is helping to develop the possibilities of a new poetry in “southren” English in that great era of English poetry with Langland and the poet of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight developing on the alliterative tradition of North WestEngland.

Chaucer is now recognised as one of the very greatest of poets in English. Eliot after “The Wasteland” journeyed towards a renewed Christian faith that found expression, specially, in “The Four Quartets”

For Chaucer the world was all before him, for Eliot, at this point, the world was collapsing around him.

“ALL OUR DOINGS WITHOUT CHARITY ARE NOTHING WORTH”

O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

“Charity” is in Latin “caritas”, in Greek “agape”, in modern English translations, simply, “love”. It is, for Christians, but not only for Christians, the essential virtue.

The prayer appears in Thomas Cranmer’s The Common Book of English Prayer 1549 rev.1552). It is a collect (a short prayer, in Cranmer of one sentence, read by the minister in the Anglican liturgy) used on the Sunday before the start of Lent, the period of forty days leading up to Easter in the Christian calendar.

I have many readers who are Christian but also readers of different religions and probably readers with no religion at all. To some the above prayer will (perhaps) be both beautiful and profoundly moving, to others perhaps interesting, but without stirring any form of commitment. Its theme, however, is universal.

In a recent post I named Cranmer (along with the King James Version of the Bible, the Authorised Version, and Shakespeare ) as a maker of the English language during its freshest, most potent and expressive phase, making possible an extrordinary flourishing of the language and representing a standard by which English today might be tested.

Cranmer’s prayer is simple, direct , powerful. Monosyllabic words predominate. We seem to be moving to a positive from “O Lord who hast taught us that all our doings” to anticipate a favourable effect, whereas what we get is the negative counterplay of the second half of the phrase “without charity are nothing worth” resulting in the surprising force of the conclusion of the phrase, empowered as it is by inversion. We, today, would tend to say “are worth nothing” which would flatten the rhythm (with a slack ending) ; “nothing worth” (with two beats on first syllable of “nothing” and “worth” makes both words powerful, giving climactic force to the declaration.

Notice again ” doings”. Again we would attenuate it “the things we do” or else we would make them “actions”: same meaning, but more abstract and distant than the physically active “doings”.

The words are given, where possible, physical force. Along with “doings” look at the verbs “taught, “Send” , “pour”. Where there is superlative “that most excellent gift” the gift is given further substance: “the very bond of peace and all virtues” – or what holds all the virtues together meaningfully.

Then another powerful and daring climax : “without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. After all those monosyllables a clutch of longer words marked by alliteration makes us pick out the words precisely before the shock force of the living being “counted dead”. How can the worldly great or the self-centred in general be so discounted? The daringness is to be given a God’s eye view presented as we know it through Christ’s teaching on the primacy of “Love”. If charity is a Heaven-sent gift, which gives us life then all that is contrary is counted dead. “Dead before thee” shows the damning force of God’s valuation contrasted to what the world values.

The prayer holds together a dramatic conjunction of two forces: one making for charity, one in negation of charity within the perspective of God, who in Love provides those with faith in His gift of charity the blessing of fuller life as opposed to those lacking the gift who are rendered as naught without it.

The prayer has, I suggest, still the power to shock. We may think ourselves the star turn- leading goalscorers, sexy singers, the richest businessman in town, a top academic-one whose actions leads to a sense of self- importance – but we are suddenly told, our “doings”, our achievements, our ambitions ” without charity” are “nothing worth”. Charity comes before everything else and has to contain our “doings”, not the other way about, as the “rich young ruler” also found out.

The power of the message of the poem cannot be distinguished from the power of the style of writing. It is true Cranmer and his associates are often translating traditional material from the Latin but Cranmer’s greatness is to create a distinctive English style that reads well in public for centuries.( I have heard reports it is regaining popularity in Anglican services). To do this he developed English speech rhythms where the beat would fall on the words that need it most “whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. (Probably the final two words read best as anapaestic, rather than equivalent beats, with a rise in emphasis on each syllable to the long e-sound of “thee” acting to perpetuate the eternal consequences of being before God as Judge. There is a strong emphasis on monosyllabic , physical sounding words of Anglo-Saxon origin, consolidating English as a language of muscular force rather than a more musical romance language, like Italian.

The critic Ian Robinson places Cranmer as the starting point of modern syntactic English prose:

“Cranmer developed an English prose syntax, the first time this had been done since King Alfred the Great insisted that translations from the Latin must be into genuine English”.(1)

Almost five centuries later we remain his beneficiaries.

NOTES

  1. Robinson, Ian The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment Cambridge University Press 1998