“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.

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.

“GETTING YOUR RHYTHM RIGHT”

Photo by pavan gupta on Unsplash
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance, 
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence, 
The sound must seem an echo of the sense; 
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows, 
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows; 
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore, 
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar; 
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw, 
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain, 
Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main. 
Alexander Pope Essay on Criticism    

“Pope lived in an age when dancing was an art, not just for professionals, but for all requiring physical suppleness and co-ordination, good rhythmic sense, nimbleness, grace, and lots of stamina. Those who understand the discipline needed for good dancing can understand by analogy that good writing comes from a similar taxing discipline; and can appreciate, moreover, the dancelike steps and grace of Pope’s lines and how, reading them aloud, the sound does echo the sense. ” (P..J.M. Robertson Criticism and Creativity Brymill 1987)

This excerpt from Pope is an excellent guide for writers of verse dealing with that perennial problem “How do I get the rhythm sound right without getting the meaning wrong?” Everyone will remember getting into a jogtrot rhythm which starts a poem well but cannot be adapted to changes in meaning. So they try free verse and then find it comes out flat and prosaic. Whatever you try the important thing is to make the sound adapt to the meaning of what you are seeking to say. The changes in Pope from light to powerful from laboured to swift gives a good lesson on this.

“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.

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." 

“NOW THE GREEN BLADE RISETH”

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. St John 12. 24.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain, 
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain; 
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:  
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

 In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain,  
Thinking that never he would wake again.  
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen: 
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.


Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain, 
He that for three days in the grave had lain. 
 Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:  
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green. 

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,  
Thy touch can call us back to life again; 
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: 
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green. 

J.M.C. Crum 1872-1958  

EASTER POEMS

The Crucifixion

“String him up,” some repoman shouted, (repossessor)

He’s a weirdo” “In the bin, in the bin”,

Yelled another and grabbed some thorns,

Sharp as needles, twisting them round

A fresh-cut-thorn branch. He made

A wreath and forced it down on his head,

The pain piercing his flesh. “Morning vicar”,

This comedian said and darted twigs

At him, aiming at his eyes. With three

Nails, he nailed him naked to the cross,

Lifted bitter drink to his lips, telling

Him drink and stop dropping off, hang

On a bit longer. “Now if he’s really something,”

He said, “He’ll get himself out of this one.

If you’re Christ, and if Christ is God’s

Son, come on down off that cross.

We’ll believe it then, you’ve got a life

On a string, you’re nevergoing to be

A goner”

“That’s it”

Christ said,

“That’s it”.

His senses

Began to fade

Pale and piteous

Like a prisoner

In death, the Lord

Of life and light

Closed his eyes, day

Shrank back, appalled,

And the sun darkened.

The Temple wall

Shattered and split

The solid rocks

Of earth ruptured,

It was dark

As thickest night,

Earth convulsed,

Quaked like a live thing.

The noise brought

Dead men clambering up

From the coffined depths

Who told why the tempest raged so long.

One corpse said

“There is in darkness

Here a bitter fight

Life and Death

Destroy each other, None can know

For sure who wins

Till Sunday

As the sun rises”,

And with these words

Sank back in earth.

From Piers Plowman by William Langland 1330?-1400?

translated by Ronald Tamplin. (from “The Lion Christian Poetry Collection” compiled by Mary Batchelor Lion Publishing 1995)

This translation combines a vivid recent colloquial language with the freshness of Langland’s great medieval poem ( contemporary with Chaucer). Tamplin gives us a sense of Langland’s realism in the frank brutal savagely comic talk going on round the crucifixion spectacle. The cosmic consequences of the death is based on some less familiar details to be found in Matthew’s gospel, much more readily grasped by the common people in the medieval period.

“And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom ;and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves opened: and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came of the graves after the resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many”.

I’d be delighted if this extact encouraged readers to look at Langland’s work which has become too much neglected in recent years. Langland was a contemporary of Chaucer who uses Middle English rather than Chaucer’s “southren”. It is in unrhymed alliterative form based on Old Germanic (as was Beowulf in Old English).

Try reading aloud to get the sound of the alliterative verse. Individual words can be checked from the above translation- although this will not always be exact. The two Latin phrases quoted from the Bible are in Latin (” “It is finished” and “Indeed this was the Son of God”).

The passage from Langland starts from “His senses Began to fade” in the translation. Enjoy having a go and getting a feel of our ancient tongue and its poetry!

Consummatum est, quod Crist,and comsede for to swoune,
Pitousliche and pale as a prison that deieth;
The lord of lif and of light tho leide hise eighen togideres.
The day for drede withdrough and derk bicam the sonne.
The wal waggede and cleef, and al the world quaved,
Dede men for that dene come out of depe graves,
And tolde why that tempeste so long tyme durede. 
"For a bitter bataille" the dede bodie seide;
" Lif and Deeth in this derknesse, hir oon fordooth hir boother.
Shal no wight wite witterly who shal have the maistrie
Er Sonday aboute sonne risyng- and sank with that til erthe
Some saide he was Goddes sone, that so faire deyde:
Vere filius Dei erat iste
And some seide he was a wicche- "Good is that we assaye
Wher he be deed or noght deed, doun er he be taken."   

FOR PALM SUNDAY : THE DONKEY

          
Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorns, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil's walking parody 
  On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth 
  Of ancient crooked will,
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
  I keep my secret still.

Fools for I also had my hour 
  One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears
  And palms before my feet.

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

I love the way this poetic monologue gives a sense of the astonishing oddity of the donkey. The picture is humorous, self- mocking without ever being self-abusive. There is an inner self-worth that is to be justified by the finale.

The first stanza offers a fantasising version of an evolving creation with its outlandish projection of a world in which “fishes flew and forests walked”. The alliteration underlies the playful amusement of the picture The comic strangeness anticipates the weird creature presented in the second stanza.

It is worth noting , however, that the spiritual significance of the climax of the poem is suggested as early as the first stanza with the line “And figs grow upon thorns”which will remind all Biblically- literate readers of Christ’s saying (Matthew 7:16) “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” The witty suggestion of Chesterton is that there was a nascent stage of creation where this confusion was possible and it was from that kind of state the donkey emerged.

The comic strangeness of the creature develops in the second and third stanzas. “Sickening cry” is followed by the excellent phrase “errant wings”. “Tattered outlaw of the earth” reminds us we might expect to see a handsome horse but rarely a smart-looking donkey. “Outlaw” confirms its oddity. But the third stanza moves to the reaction to the “outlaw” of public condemnation. “Scourge” and “deride” point to the unfolding connection with the passion story-to the One who, made an “outlaw,” was also scourged and derided. The poem as it moves towards “the secret” is revealing the donkey as a victim- primarily a victim of public scorn and this is preparing for the paralleling of the creature with Christ, the victim of the Easter story with which the donkey is to be connected. But if the victim triumphs, if Christ triumphs through the Resurrection, then his chosen creature has the confidence to tell its story as one of vindication. Because of Christ the one who was rejected is no longer incongruous:

Fools for I also had my hour 
   One far , fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears 
  And palms before my feet.

  

On a first reading we await that revelatory final line for the full meaning of the poem to come home to us. It is only then we realise the significance the poem has been so skilfully leading us towards. The donkey owes its sense of worth to being an important participant in a drama of universal human significance.

The poem leaves us with a very interesting question to which the Easter story proffers a possible answer: “If I am made a victim, in what might my sense of self -worth consist?”

THE LANGUAGE OF THE SUN AND MOON : DRAWING ON BOEHME.

You may have noticed in our readings of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” how the sun and moon are significant presences in the poem. Coleridge thought deeply on the subject of symbols and symbolic language. He saw Nature as reflecting the language of God the Creator and he also conceived that the poetic imagination, given that Man was created in God’s image (Gen.1: 26-27), was a means of discerning the meaning of God’s language working through Nature.

Many of the poem’s first readers were shocked by the description of the Sun::.

Nor dim nor red, like God's own head
The glorious Sun uprist. 

According to Malcolm Guite in Mariner (Hodder &Stoughton 2017) one contemporary viewer wrote the likeness “makes the reader shudder…with religious disapprobation.” For the second edition Coleridge was persuaded to remove “God” and replace the phrase with “like an angel’s head” but when he produced the Sibylline Leaves edition (1817) he brought back the original phrasing.

The association of God and the Sun is of course both common and apposite. Without the sun there is no life, with light and heat the Sun enables growth; God the Creator acts to give light. Guite argues that the identification of the Sun with God as source of light is vital for Coleridge’s “sacramental” view of Nature. If God is creator, then the universe should not simply be seen as a mass of dead objects but as vital elements expressing God and our attitude to the universe should not be of its instrumentality or usefulness to us but reverential. As we have seen this is the message the mariner’s experiences teach him.

Guite here brings in Blake because Blake, like Coleridge, was profoundly opposed to what both saw as the deadening effects of the Newtonian view of the universe, Deism and Locke’s empiricism. For both poets, humans are creative participants in reality , not passive recipients of a reality presented to them. Blake has an interlocutor asking, “When the sun rises, do you see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea” and replies” O no,no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Why then readers of the poem might ask is the God-like invocation of the Sun followed by a more negative picture? :

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand 
No bigger than the moon.

 

The answer to this is suggested by Coleridge’s reading of a German mystic, Jacob Boehme 1575-1624 (also an influence on Blake). John Beer in his work “The Mysticism of Coleridge (Chatto & Windus 1970).

The heat of the sun is an essential element in the speculations of Jacob Boehme. Boehme’s insistence on the benevolence of God led him to the doctrine that if God sometimes seems angry, this was no more than an appearance engendered by the diseased imagination of fallen man. Cut off from the light of God, he could experience only the heat of his presence: and an exposure to his full glory would therefore be felt as nothing less than exposure to unendurable fire,

In relation to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” this is clearly relevant to the expression of the Sun as not only ” glorious” but also as oppressive, “bloody” and by implication condemnatory. The mariner’s guilt metaphorically expressed by the blood on his hands is projected on to a “bloody” sun representing an angry, vengeful God as Judge. ( The idea has a wider relevance when we consider the way in which the Israelites in the Old Testament project their guilt on to a God who is perceived as vengeful and angry with them for their misdeeds). Guite points out that the sense of blood-guilt is expressed later in the poem when he longs for forgiveness:

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

It is the action of the Moon that saves the mariner from living under what he feels as oppressive judgement. As noted in my commentary on Part 4 there is a rhythmic shift of the verse when the Moon appears. The presence of the Moon is set against the shadow of the ship :

But where the the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt away
A still and awful red.
 

While the “awful red” is associated with judgement and condemnation when the mariner looks beyond the shadow he sees the action of the moon on the water and his vision is transformed. The water-snakes, hitherto rejected with disgust are now seen as creatures of beauty. As Coleridge’s marginal gloss puts it: “By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”.

Beer considers that as the moon is reflected sunlight the moon is interpreted by the poem acting as a mediator between God and Man in his fallen state. The moon is associated with radiating grace. It can also be seen in its traditional form as female; there is a Marian element in Coleridge’s poem. In part 3 when the skeletal ship comes between the Sun and the mariner’ s ship the mariner appeals to Heaven’s Mother:

"And straight the sun was flecked with bars
(Heaven's Mother send us grace)"  

This corresponds to the mediating action of the moon in Part 4:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared the elfish light 
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green and velvet black 
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

 

As we have seen in the previous post it is the sight of the hitherto abhorred water- snakes in the beauty of the moonlight that enables the beginning of the redemption of the mariner. As Coleridge’s later-added gloss puts it:”By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”. He sees what he did not see with the albatross when he killed the bird, that these are God’s creation. The moon, then, as reflector of the Sun’s light, Heaven’s mother, bringer of grace, mediates the mariner’s transformation.

Guite points to an entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks which has relevance to the meaning he is addressing here: “Quiet stream with all its eddys [sic] and the moon playing in them; quiet, as if they were Ideas in the divine Mind anterior to Creation.”

Guite goes on:

For Coleridge, the meaning of the moon and moonlight is not a purely human invention. It is a symbol, but it is not a randomly chosen or arbitrarily constructed human one; it is a symbol which is moulded by and participates in the reality it represents.

Guite refers to a late work in which Coleridge writes: The Symbol is characterised by… the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which renders it intelligible, and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it is representative. (The Statesman’s Manual).

The Sun and Moon then in Coleridge’s work point to the spiritual and transcendent dimension working in Nature. They represent God’s creative glory, the expression of His Word, Logos, within Nature. Coleridge sees his responsibility (as does Blake) to challenge the materialist view of Nature as a mechanism, with God as the absent clock maker who has created the laws of operation and then retired from the scene. Reality for Blake, the visionary and Coleridge, the idealist, is God-penetrated and the creativity in Man is continuous with what God has created in Nature. Coleridge’s use of the Sun and moon as symbols in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”brings together the life within and the living reality of the external world.

They represent for us, these Romantics the first great creative reaction, developing the Christian world-picture to fight against the reductive tendencies of scientism and materialism. In a world still so reduced we still can find inspiration in these poets.

RIME OF ANCIENT MARINER: PART 4 COLERIDGE, ADDICTION, RELEASE.

                        PART 4
"I fear thee ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long,and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.

I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand so brown."-
Fear not, fear not thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down.

Alone, alone, all,all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on 
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand, thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck
And there the dead men lay.

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made 
My heart as dry as dust.

I closed my eyes and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat:
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.

The cold sweat melted from their limbs:
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.

An orphan's curse would drag to hell 
A spirit from on high:
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up
And a star or two beside-

Her beams bemocked the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt away
A still and awful red.


Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gusht from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure some kind saint took pity on me 
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off and sank
Like lead into the sea. 

Coleridge was not an opium addict when he first wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but by the time he published a re-edited version in the collection “Syballine Leaves” (1817) his life had been transformed for the worse by the severity of his dependence.

Nevertheless while in the first version he had had medicinal recourse to laudunum for pain relief (he suffered from early in life from rheumatoid arthritus) it is very striking that the poem imaginatively describes effects on the mariner that Coleridge was to come to know through his drug misuse. Look at the experiences Part 4 shows of the mariner’s isolation, his self- hatred and disgust, his profound sense of guilt, his fear, his reaction against the world around him, his inability to pray. These are all elements of Coleridge’s state of mind that his dependence induced in him.

Just look at the way this variety of feelings is expressed. First profound isolation and agony:

Alone, alone, all,all alone, 
Alone on a wide, wide sea! 
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

Without doubt the mariner’s agony is real ; enough has been shown to demonstrate this. Likewise Coleridge’s isolation and agony are terribly real when we read of some of his experiences of addiction; yet it is also possible to see in that complaint of others to take pity a tendency to self-pity. This of course is also bound up with the addict’s dependence on a drug creating isolation where the other is both held at a distance and yet regarded as being indifferent. for failing to break down the wall of self-protection the addict has surrounded himself with. For actual pity when it is presented is often resisted like an insult.

The many men so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie 
And a thousand, thousand slimy things 
Lived on; and so did I. 

I looked upon the rotting sea, 
And drew my eyes away; 
I looked upon the rotting deck 
Where all the dead men lay. 

  

Here we have idealisation put in contrast with a profound sense of self-disgust, which brings together the mariner’s feeling of antipathy from the repulsive-appearing creatures imagined to be slimy with a squalid sense of self-failure. The men who are dead are seen as beautiful, now they are safely dead, in contrast to the perceived rottenness of self. Guite in his analysis (in Mariner) has pointed also to survivor-guilt: “Why am I alive when they are dead?”

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;  
But or even a prayer had gusht,  
A wicked whisper came, and made  
My heart as dry as dust.  

We are reminded here of the wicked king in Hamlet. Claudio ( note how the name emphasises the word ” clod”) tries to pray asking forgiveness for his murder of the King, Hamlet’s Father but he cannot. Governed by self-disgust, neither the King nor the mariner feels they can escape their condition sufficiently to cry out to God. The spontaneous gushing forth of prayer is prevented by the accumulation of feelings of self-protection, lack of self-worth, self-hatred which make a mockery of the self seeking to pray. The heart remains as dust, as ground that lacks irrigation, the renewing action of spontaneous emotion.

I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat; 
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
 

In total, the experience is one of oppression. The outer world, the world of the senses weighs upon the inner which is as we have seen crushed. There is no restorative balance of selfhood within, that engages with the world of sense-experience. The eye is “weary” , not only from the glare of the day but because there is no inner self re-energising it. Life has no purpose; the movement is towards death.

An orphan's curse would drag to hell 
A spirit from on high: 
But oh! more horrible than that 
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.   

We develop in society, we need others to be who we are. But added to the weariness of oppression of the senses is the awareness of the affliction, of being despised and cursed by his fellow crew. This is the reality of the” Nightmare Life-in -Death” where life is a continuing nightmare from which there is no release, not even that of death. Coleridge’s affliction as an addict was the perception he was a burden on those he loved and the fear that he had become unloveable. Locked in nightmare you cannot reach out to the other and the other cannot get through to you.

Then suddenly after that build- up, stanza by stanza of life become unendurable there is a shift of focus. The “moving moon” takes over as subject. The perception is turned outwards from damning daylight replaced by the radiance of the moonlight. . The signal of change in the mariner is the word “Softly”

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up 
And a star or two beside-

Whose voice are we hearing? With the shift in subject to wider description we might think it a more objectively placed more distant narrator. But when we reach the word “Softly” we know we are not hearing another voice, but that of the same mariner. For“Softly” is not objective description. -what objectively would it mean to say the moon moves softly? It is a word that denotes rather a movement of interest beyond the self in the mariner towards the peaceful heavens, away from clamorous oppressed feeling towards the quietness of the skies and a watchfulness aware of slow, stealing, gentle movement: hence “Softly”.

The inner movement is an apperception of a world beyond the ship’s ” huge shadow” where the water is “a still and awful red” -red associated with fiery judgement and condemnation- towards a greater world of beauty beyond the immediate. It is thus scarcely understood by the reader at the time of first reading, but we are being prepared for a dramatic change in the mariner.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes: 
They moved in tracks of shining white, 
And when they reared, the elfish light 
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship 
I watched their rich attire: 
Blue, glossy green; and vevet black,
They coiled and swam: and every track 
Was a flash of golden fire.

    

The revelation of beauty; the movement in perception is brought by watching in wonder. The peaceful heavens, the movement of the moon replacing the oppressive daytime sunlight has enabled a shift of attention which has re-focused the mariner’s attention beyond the self- bound enclosure of the condemned ship, in shadow, towards what Coleridge, in his “Syballine Leaves” marginal gloss, calls “God’s creatures of the great calm.” He is thus prepared for revelation:

O happy living things! no tongue 
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart, 
And I blessed them unaware: 
Sure my kind saint took pity on me, 
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free 
The Albatross fell off, and sank 
Like lead into the sea.



   

How much to notice here! You will see how Coleridge picks up on earlier words and phrases to demonstrate change. Thus the “saint” is now acclaimed for his pity. But more wonderfully is the repetition of the verb “gushed” The verb emphasises a welling up like water from a fountain or a stream, it cannot be held back. Love cannot be calculated or deliberate; it breaks through spontaneously. We noticed before how feeling, the desire to pray, was too repressed to express itself; here, however, the expression is no longer held back. Attentiveness, has led to openness to beauty, developed into wonder and now into love. The heart is no longer dry. The soul is open to pray. He is freed of the burden of guilt.

Only the very greatest poets can do what Coleridge in this Part does. He does not state, he does not tell us, he internalises, dramatically realises, the movement of wonder and the moment of revelation. To read this part with anything like justice the reader is induced, because drawn to empathise with the mariner, to experience that movement within themselves. That is why the greatest poetry is spiritual; it has the capacity to change who we are.