As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’ and another piece was entitled ‘How I Write’. These two recordings are still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this published piece is ‘The Writer and Technology’ – a subject about which I have some experience in relation to the former and not a huge competence in relation to the latter. Nevertheless, I’m not one to duck a challenge.
Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.
Writing and Technology
It frightens me: she gives with one hand and takes away with the other. I become too monogamous. I don’t look up. I google recipes using oregano or the name of the drummer in Coltrane’s 1960s quartet. I love her library of reference all within clicking distance. I email friends, family, writers, publishers (I remember stamps and letterboxes with no fondness). Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime make it a breeze to stay in touch, offer advice, give poetry readings to people around the globe. I’m never lost; I use Google maps. I post and follow on Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook. All this she gives me.
And most days I crave her distractions, her sensational sweep of sights and sounds, her informational vistas at the swipe or dab of a fingertip. I substitute longer, slower satisfactions with a preference for her novelties. Though I’ve read about how our cultural (and fiscal) economies promote such transitory stabs at contentment in the absence of other satisfactions, still – I can seldom resist. I do glimpse vicious cycles – her short-lived pleasures liable to collapse, disappointing anticipation – yet I play her perfect subject, eyes flicking without rest from screen to screen. I do not look up. Her multitudinousness spawns my passive respect for numbers, speed, spectacle, calculation, all of which barely disguises the non-event. I attend with others – but spend as much time watching a screen as the performance. I still tell my friends: I was there, it was huge, so many people . . .
She makes me fear something’s missing. Addicted to her click bait, I love her machines in their elegant black and silver. They seem to promise to breach the ancient laws of time and space. Yet having acquired the newest devices with which I calculate, communicate, translate, find millions of pages of information, actually, I can’t remember what it was I hoped to do with them.
Sometimes I remember. What she interrupts – with her shows of pleasure, power, riches, praise – is the creative impulse to look up, observe (look out!). Once this ceases – prophetically, the poet Shelley said this back in 1821 – new imagery stops being generated, language withers and dies. Only in my relations with the world (not with her) am I truly warmed. Then I’m the matrix through which the world steps – as the world becomes the matrix through which I step – to rediscover myself not ‘me’ (an atom in an empty universe), but ‘mine’ (living in relation to others, other things).
When I leave her, often there’s the startling beauty or strangeness of scenes that draw me away from my ‘self’. Perhaps for a moment, I’m lost for words. It’s not enough to take a picture, post it up, surround it with talk, comments, likes, shares. Poetry expresses such sensations as record, reminder, model and vicarious experience for its readers. Using form, figurative and musical language, I write to re-present such ineffable, inexpressible moments. The French poet and philosopher, Yves Bonnefoy, says: poetry is not about something but it restores the self to the lucid intensity of the truth of relational experiences.
Last week I was invited to take part in an on-line discussion about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, written to a young would-be poet in the early 1900s.This event was organised by the Kings Place group, Chamberstudio, and the panel included two other poets, Martha Kapos and Denise Riley, musicians Mark Padmore, Amarins Weirdsma and Sini Simonen and composer Sally Beamish. We had such a fascinating discussion on Rilke’s advice to young artists (though perhaps we hardly scratched the surface) that I wanted to re-visit it and re-organise my own thoughts about the letters; hence this blog post. Though warm in tone and supportive, the letters are a way of Rilke talking to himself, developing coherent ideas that can be traced through the New Poems (1907/8), Requiem to a Friend (1909), even to the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheusof 1922. I am quoting throughout from Stephen Cohn’s translation of the letters, included in his translation of Sonnets to Orpheus (Carcanet, 2000).
Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus was evidently received with gratitude as the correspondence between them continued (if sporadically) from early 1903 to December 1908. We don’t have Kappus’ side of things, but from Rilke’s comments it’s clear the younger, aspiring poet’s letters were remarkably open, even confessional in substance, as suggested by the published letters’ recurring observations about sexual relations. But as for practical advice to a young poet, Rilke offers little, opening with, “I am really not able to discuss the nature of your poems” to “You ask if your poems are good poems . . . You doubtless send your poems out to magazines and you are distressed each time the editors reject your efforts . . . my advice is that you should give all that up”. Probably not what Kappus hoped to hear, though he will have quickly understood that Rilke has more profound points to make. But it means these letters ought to be read less as advice to aspiring writers and more as advice on the best ways to ripen (Rilke’s metaphor) the inner self, a consequence of which might be the conviction that creative work was a necessity for the individual. Peter Porter once suggested a better title for the sequence would have been, ‘Letters to a Young Idealist’ (Introduction to Cohn’s Carcanet translation).
The advice given is carefully positive – what to seek – and fulsomely negative – what ought to be avoided. Friendly and remarkably sympathetic as his tone is through the series of letters, what Rilke asks, in truth, is extraordinarily demanding for mere ordinary mortals. Rilke urges a priest-like devotion to his High Romantic, Godless programme. In brief, what is to be sought is a clear, honest and open relationship with one’s own inner life and that demands a corresponding avoidance of everything that might distance us from it, especially the pernicious influence of social and cultural conventions, what has been thought, said, written or done before. Rilke makes no bones about how difficult the former is and how frightening the latter is going to feel.
The only way, Letter 1 insists, is to “goinside yourself”. And in Letter 3, we need to “allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience to await the birth of a new illumination”. For reasons discussed later, there has to be a degree of passivity about this process: we must “await with deep humility and patience the moment of birth”. In his reply, Kappus must have enumerated the pain and suffering he was experiencing as a young man because Letter 8 spins this positively: “did not these sorrows go right through you – and not merely past you? Has there not been a great deal in you that has changed? Were you not somewhere . . . transformed while you were so sorrowful?” These often rough inner weathers of our emotional lives are precisely what is required. Only then, “something unfamiliar enters into us, something unknown; our senses, inhibited, and shy, fall silent; everything within us shrinks back, there is silence, and at its centre this new thing, strange to us all, stands mutely there”. In one of several memorable images, Rilke explains, through such emotional experience (the pains as much as, or even more than, the pleasures) “we have been changed as a house changes when a guest enters it”.
Those familiar with Keats’ ideas (expressed in his 1819 Letters) about the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ will find something very familiar here. But Rilke’s take on the process of ‘spirit creation’ lays far heavier emphasis on the need for solitude to achieve it. Letter 5 tells Kappus, “win yourself back from the insistence of the talk and the chatter of the multitude (and how it chatters!)”. The chattering world is a distraction from what ought to be the subject of our study (our inner selves): “What is required is this: solitariness, great inner solitariness. The going-into oneself and the hours on end spent without encountering anyone else: it is this we must be able to achieve” (Letter 6). Such solitude enables greater concentration but also more true (uninfluenced) perception of our inner life. Yet to turn away from so much that is familiar will be frightening. In Letter 8, Rilke compares this to someone “plucked from the safety of his own small room and, unprepared and almost instantaneously, set down upon the heights of some great mountain-range”. What must then be experienced is “a never-to-be-equalled sense of insecurity, of having fallen into the power of something nameless [and this] would virtually destroy him”.
The negative influences of those (us, the timid majority) who have pulled back from such a state of perception is explained. Rilke’s basic tenet is that we are all “solitary”. But the uncertainty of a ‘true’ perception of this is too much for most people: “mankind has been pusillanimous in this respect [and] has done endless harm to life itself: all phenomena we call ‘apparitions’, all the so-called ‘spirit-world’, death, all these things so closely akin to us have been fended off . . . and so thoroughly purged from our lives that the senses by which we might have grasped them have atrophied. To say nothing at all of God”. What Rilke describes here are a number of the conventional ideas – pure figments about the truth of spirituality, death and a deity – that people have populated their world with in seeking greater security. Kappus is told, “a perilous uncertainty is so very much more human” and the truly human, let alone the ambitious poet, must accept the principle that “we arrange our lives in accordance with the precept that teaches us always to hold to what is difficult – then everything that still appears most alien will become all that is best-trusted, most dependable”. Rilke’s chosen metaphor here is the folkloric/mythic image of the terrifying dragon that turns into a rewarding princess at the last moment.
Herein lies also the wisdom of passivity. As Keats argued in parallel, with his idea of negative capability (the knack of remaining “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), so Rilke’s fourth Letter advises Kappus not to seek out answers now but to “love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or books in an utterly unknown language”. The key is to “live them” by which Rilke (like Keats) means to examine and attend to them as fully as possible. He goes so far as to advise a child-like incomprehension (which is at least based on an openness to the questions asked) over a cowardly defensiveness or contempt (which falls back on a distancing from those questions). This is why, in Letter 2, he sharply advises Kappus to avoid irony. There are, says Rilke, “great and serious subjects before which irony stands helpless and diminished” because irony is, by definition, a standing outside of a question or topic. For the same reason, Rilke distrusts engagement with literary or aesthetic criticism (precisely what Kappus has asked of him in relation to his own poems). Letter 3 argues such critical discussions are “received opinions, opinions grown petrified and meaningless, insensitive . . . clever word games”, hence far distant from life itself. The same Letter suggests the artist needs to retain an innocence, even a lack of awareness of his/her creative powers, lest self-consciousness diminish freedom and “purity”. Indeed language itself – the common method of exchange between people – is suspect in representing, in its unexamined use, conventional thought and feeling: “it is so often on the name of a transgression that a life is shipwrecked, and not on the individual, nameless act-in-itself”.
Even these letters, Rilke says in Letter 9, need to be treated with caution and patience: “receive them quietly and with not too many thanks, and let us, please, wait and see what may come of them”. This is a warning not enough heeded by subsequent generations of readers, but Rilke’s real humility is re-emphasised at the end of the preceding Letter. Perhaps feeling he has been delivering advice from ‘on high’, Rilke warns Kappus, “do not believe that he who seeks to console you dwells effortlessly among the quiet and simple words which sometimes content you. His own life holds much trouble and sorrow, and it falls far short of them”. Surely Rilke is not merely alluding here to the life of the creative artist. Prompted, as I have said, by Kappus’ own openness about what we might call ‘romantic’ aspects of his own life, Rilke devotes a lot of space to interpersonal relationships in these letters. His point in Letter 7 is that this area of human life too is poisoned (“well-furnished” – this topic brings out Rilke’s satirical side) with conventional thinking and language: “here are life belts of the most varied invention, boats and buoyancy packs . . . safety aids of all conceivable kinds”. Such ‘safety’ features are more fictions designed to forestall a true encounter with the kinds of questions that human relationships inevitably throw up. Letter 3 particularly criticises male sexual attitudes (lustful, drunken, restless, arrogant, prejudiced) and Letter 7 anticipates a “new and individual flowering” of female sexuality which will lead to relationships not defined as male/female but as “one person and another person”.
Such a renovation of individuals, from the inside out, is the urgent call of this series of letters. As to advice to Kappus the wannabe writer, Rilke offers very little, but what he does suggest is wholly in keeping with his other ideas. Letter 1 urges close observation as the only viable method. As I have made clear, this is especially close observation of our inner lives. But one’s whole life needs to be built around this principle, so “you must approach the world of Nature… try to tell of what you see and experience”. Rilke says don’t try to write love poems or on other common subjects of poetry. This is because they will be infected with those conventions of thought and expression I have discussed above. Rather, “favour the subjects which your own day-to-day experience can offer you”. The poet’s approach to such everyday subjects needs to be “quiet, humble, [with] passionate sincerity” to avoid clichés of thought and feeling, hand-me-down solutions or worn out, petrified language. These are the methods Rilke learned from watching Rodin sketching in Paris. Pre-empting likely objections that such an approach would produce work of little importance, Rilke goes on: “If your daily life seems mean to you – do not find fault with it; rather chide yourself that you are not poet enough to evoke its riches” (Letter 1).
The everyday is rich and complex enough for Rilke without any irritable searching after more conventionally dramatic, sensational, controversial subjects to address. The images that Letter 3 associates with this humble creative process is of gestation (“to carry, come to term, give birth”) and the slow growth of trees (“letting the sap flow at its own pace”). In Letter 6 he compares it to bees gathering honey (“drawing what is sweetest from all that there is”). Whether focusing within or without, the artist must begin from what is “unremarkable” and we become better acquainted “with things” and if this is too frightening a prospect – with no off-the-shelf solutions to human fears and insecurities, no God above all – Rilke has few comforts to offer the young poet. As regards God (or, as letter 6 refers to him, the “one who never was”), Rilke allows the idea of God only as the ideal or terminus towards which we travel, a state of full comprehension – through knowing humble things: “Does he not have to be the last, if everything is to be comprehended in him? And what meaning would there be in us, if the one we crave had already been there?”. God, for Rilke, does not pre-date us as an origin. He is the goal towards which we travel, aspire, build, create – ‘he’ is no more nor less than our fullest comprehension of life and death, hence our fullest sense of being in the world.
That the young Franz Kappus, after all this, decided to pursue a military career rather than a creative one is perhaps hardly surprising. It may be that the former presented the least frightening option! Rilke asks such a lot. His poem Requiem to a Friend of 1909 (the year after his correspondence with Kappus came to an end), dwells on the “old enmity / between life lived and great work to be done” (tr. Crucefix). The tragic lament of that particular poem arises from his conviction that the subject of its in memoriam, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, had proved herself strong enough to carry forward the huge burden of being an artist and that, therefore, her untimely death (just after the birth of her first child) was an irreparable loss to a world that needs all the true artists it can nurture.
Last week I attended the launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection, published by Seren Books. Tammy and I have known each other for a long while, are both published by Seren and, in her role at Hercules Editions, she has just published my own recent chapbook, Cargo of Limbs. So – in the small world of British poetry – I’m hardly an unconnected critic, but I have the benefit of having followed her work over the years, reviewing her most recent New and Selected, A Formula for Night (2015) here.
In an earlier blog post, I spoke – in rather tabloid-y terms – of the tension in Yoseloff’s poems between the “sassy and the sepulchral”. In 2007’s Fetch (Salt), there were “racy, blunt narratives” which in their exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo made for vivid, exciting reading. The other side of her gift inclines to an “apocalyptic darkness”, a preoccupation with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. In A Formula for Night, the poem ‘Ruin’ invented a form in which a text was gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, were gradually edited out, displaying the very process of ruination. Interestingly, The Black Place develops this technique in 3 ‘redaction’ poems in which most of a text has been blacked out (cut out – see Yoko Ono later), leaving only a few telling words. A note indicates the source text in all three cases was the booklet Understanding Kidney Cancer and the author’s recent experience of illness is an important element in this new collection.
But unlike, for example, Lieke Marsman’s recent The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry, 2019 – discussed here), Yoseloff’s book is not dominated by the experience of illness (and one feels this is a deliberated choice). The book opens with ‘The C Word’ which considers the phonetic parts of the word ‘cancer’, as well as its appearance: “looks like carer but isn’t”. But – within its 12 lines – Yoseloff also considers the other C word, “detonated in hate / murmured in love”. The poem is really about how an individual can contain such divergent elements, “sites of birth / and death”. So unanticipated personal experience is here being filtered through the matrix of this writer’s naturally ambivalent gift.
Illness re-emerges explicitly later in the collection, but for much of it there is a business as usual quality and I, for one, am inclined to admire this:
I refuse the confessional splurge,
the Facebook post, the hospital selfie.
I’m just another body, a statistic,
nothing special. Everyone dies –
get over yourself.
So Yoseloff gives us a marvellous send-up of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ in ‘Sheeple’, a central place on the darker side of Yoseloff-country: “The heartland. Lower Slaughter”. There is urbanite humour in ‘Holiday Cottage’ with its “stygian kitchen”, bad weather, boredom and kitsch:
We stare at the knock-off Hay Wain
hung crooked over the hearth
and dream of England: the shire bells,
the box set, the M&S biscuit tin
‘The Wayfarer’ is one of many ekphrastic poems here – this one based on a Bosch painting – but the “sunless land” is patently an England on which “God looked down / and spat”. These are poems written in the last 3 years or so and, inevitably, Brexit impinges, most obviously in ‘Islanders’ (“We put seas between ourselves, / we won’t be rescued”) but the cityscape equally offers little in the way of hope. There is a caricaturing quality to the life lived there: everything “pixilates, disneyfies” (‘Emoji’) and gender relationships seem warped by inequitable power, by self-destructive urges and illness: “I’d super-shrink my dimensions, / wasting is a form of perfection” (‘Walk All Over Me’).
Perhaps ‘Girl’ shows us the figure of a survivor in such a hostile environment, her energy reflecting those female figures in Fetch – “a slip, a trick, a single polka dot” – but the darkness seems thicker now, the lack of lyricism, the impossibility of a happy ending more resolved:
She’s good for nothing because nothing’s
good: sirens drown out violins
and crows swoop to carnage in the street.
As the blurb says, the book boldly eschews the sentimental sop, the capitalist hype, for truths that are hard, not to say brutal. ‘Little Black Dress’ takes both the archetypal ‘girl’ and the author herself from teen years to widowhood in a dizzyingly rapid sonnet-length poem:
drunk and disorderly, dropping off bar stools one
by one, until the time arrives for widow’s weeds
and weeping veils, Ray-Bans darkening the sun.
And it is – unsurprisingly – mortality (the sepulchral) that eventually comes to the fore. A notable absence is the author’s mother, who has often been a powerful presence in previous books. Here she re-appears briefly in ‘Jade’. The stone is reputed to be efficacious in curing ailments of the kidneys and a jade necklace inherited from Yoseloff’s mother leads her to wonder about the inheritance of disease too: “a slow / release in her body, passed down, // down”. Both parents put in a fleeting appearance in the powerful sequence ‘Darklight’, the third part of which opens with the narrator standing in a pool of streetlight, “holding the dark / at bay”. She supposes, rather hopelessly, that “this must be what it’s like to have a god”. Not an option available to her; the dark holds monsters both within and without and not just for the child:
my parents would sing me to sleep;
now they’re ash and bone. Our lives are brief
like the banks of candles in cathedrals,
each a flame for someone loved;
It’s these thoughts that further the careful structuring of this collection and return it to the experience of a life-threatening illness. ‘Nephritic Sonnet’ is an interrupted or cut off – 13 line – sonnet that takes us to the hospital ward, the I.V. tubes and – as she once said of the city – the poet finds “no poetry in the hospital gown”. Except, of course, that’s exactly what we get. The determination or need to write about even the bleakest of experiences is the defiant light being held up. Yoseloff does not rage; her style is quieter and involves a steady, undeceived gaze and also – in the sequence ‘Cuts’ – the powerful sense that (as quoted above) “I’m just another body, a statistic, / nothing special. Everyone dies”.
It’s this sense of being “nothing special” that enables ‘Cuts’ dispassionately to record very personal experiences of hospital procedures alongside the contemporaneous facts of the Grenfell Tower fire and (another ekphrastic element) a 1960s performance piece by Yoko Ono called ‘Cut Piece’. These elements are ‘leaned’ against each other in a series of 13 dismembered sonnets, each broken up into sections of 6/3/4/1 lines. The fragmentary, diaristic style works well though there are risks in equating personal illness with the catastrophic accident and vital political questions surrounding Grenfell. Ono’s performance piece offers a further example of victimhood, one more chosen and controllable perhaps. What’s impressive is how Yoseloff avoids the magnetic pull of the ego, displaying – if anything – a salutary empathy for others in the midst of her own fears.
The book is titled after a Georgia O’Keefe picture, reproduced on the cover. O’Keefe’s steady gaze into the darkness created by the jagged relief of the Navajo country is something to which Yoseloff aspires, though it “chills me / just to think it into being”. It is the ultimate reality – a nothing, le néant – though like the ultimate presence of other writers (Yves Bonnefoy’s le presence, for example), can at best only be gestured towards:
We’ll never find it; as soon as we arrive,
the distance shifts to somewhere else,
we remain in foreground, everything moving
around us, even when we’re still.
Along such a difficult path, Yoseloff insists, O’Keefe’s art found “the bellow in a skull, / the swagger in a flower”. And, even in the most frightening brush with her own mortality, the poet will follow and does so in a way that is consistent with her own nature and work over many years.
A few weeks back, I was asked to contribute to an afternoon event in Palmers Green Library, north London, with the title – from Robert Frost’s poem – ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was introduced by Maggie Butt, with readings of their own poetry around the theme by Mark Holihan and Denise Saul. I was also asked to deliver a few thoughts on the work of Robert Frost. What follows is an edited transcript of what I said then and I think of it as a basic introduction for the general reader to Frost’s work and some of the ideas which I see recurring in it. As previous posts have mentioned, I’ve been teaching Frost for a few years recently – thanks to all those students who made me go back and read the poems again!
Despite the apparent simplicity of many of his poems, the real identity of Robert Frost (1874-1963) is hard to pin down. Though raised in late 19th century America, his first book was published in England. Though on the brink of the Modern, a year before the First World War, these poems used plain language and traditional forms. He loved Europe, befriending Edward Thomas – stirring him from prose into poetry – yet Frost sailed back to the US, to farming, north of Boston. By all accounts he was never a very successful farmer, though he often presented himself as talking downright farmer-like common sense. Some find his work consolatory; but he was famously called a ‘terrifying’ poet, a bleak Modernist.
If all this sounds slippery, then Frost took it into his poetics too. He said that, while writing a poem, he was conscious of saying two things at once. But he always wanted to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel able to rest there. Yet, he implies, for those interested in going further, beyond the particular, overt or explicit meaning – say, two farmers re-building a wall between their properties, a man stopping to watch snow fall in a wood, a mower and a butterfly – there is always an ulterior meaning (at least one) that might also be opened up.
At all levels, such defining walls, barriers and boundaries – physical, mental, spiritual – proliferate in Frost’s work. But his view of them is complex. These walls are often porous. But sometimes they can seem impenetrable. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his biological knowledge, but here is something else Frost repeatedly jotted down in his Notebooks: “All life is cellular. No living particle of matter however small has yet been found without a skin – without a wall.”
On one side, these secure boundaries seem necessary for a successful life – like the wall round all cellular organisms. He would say: “I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person”. But the dangers are obvious. The cellular wall of identity becomes more than a means of self-definition and grows to become an exclusion zone, a solitary place, a state of solipsism. Many of Frost’s figures and narrators are found to be struggling with this state. Yet Frost’s comments about identity, wanting to be a person, wanting you to be a person, in fact continue: “then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses – do all sorts of things”.
So the presence of these cellular walls do not necessarily hold us back. They are as often porous or permeable. Yet they seem also to offer a firm foundation from which we may reach out, we can humanly interact. We can pull each other’s noses. And there is indeed much pulling of noses in Frost’s poems. In particular, he liked to pull the nose of the person he chose to narrate many of his poems. There is very often an irony at work against the speaker. His poems are often more dramatic than lyric.
We might ask why is Frost so concerned about being a person, about the relative security of identity? Because, in other moods, he knows the dangers posed by the absence of any functioning cellular membrane: the leaking out of personality into the surrounding world, of identity dissipating to become nothing, the risk – as it were – of personal extinction.
There is a little poem called ‘The Cow in Apple Time’ which (on the face of it) is about a cow who is driven by an unspecified desire to disregard the walls about her pasture. The wall is no more than an open gate to her. She charges through and greedily eats fallen apples, growing intoxicated, her face splattered with apple juice. But in this kind of gluttonous state she grows sick, in pain:
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
It’s a perfectly satisfying poem about a rural incident – perhaps Farmer Frost, had once witnessed it himself. But there is Frost’s ulteriority too. The cow is consistently described using terms which anthropomorphise her. The wall breaker is perhaps on one level really human, a rebel, a sinner – written in 1914, some have even suggested the cow is an invasive force. However we see her, she is punished for her disregard of, her undervaluing of, those walls and boundaries which perhaps ought to serve to define her life.
Remember this is the same Robert Frost who disparaged the writing of free verse, by many of his more obviously Modernist contemporaries, as trying to play tennis with the net down. The same Robert Frost who disparaged the, then fashionable, interest in Surrealism with its wild leaps over convention, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices could lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.
The cow with the aching stomach is paralleled by a dying peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. The narrator has moved “far north” and has transplanted a peach tree and now the northern winter is threatening it. He sits indoors and frets about it, trying to blame the weather rather than himself. But self-criticism arises all the same and it is human “ambition” that gets the blame, that “limitless trait in the hearts of men”. More precisely:
[. . .] though there is no fixed line between right and wrong,
There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.
I love the messy pragmatism implied by “roughly zones”. One of his recurring concerns, Frost said, was with “the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making exact distinctions” – no red lines, lines in the sand, defined boundaries, but zones of negotiation, places calling for compromise, no fundamental clarity, rather a feeling-out, a region requiring a dialogue.
As in a poem like ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. A man comes to a mown field to turn the cut grass, the hay, to help its drying. He looks about for the man who had earlier mowed the grass:
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been, – alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart
The hermetically cellular, or as we would now say, atomised nature of society seems to be assumed by the narrator. It looks like there is going to be no breaking of boundaries here. But a “[be]wildered” butterfly passes him, looking for flowers that grew there yesterday, now cut down. The butterfly leads him to a “leaping tongue of bloom” left deliberately, out of “sheer morning gladness” by the mower. The narrator hears the message from this “tongue of bloom” which speaks of each man as a “spirit kindred” to the other. It’s as if they now enter into a dialogue, revising the earlier solipsistic observation. Now:
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
There is a rosy-edged hint of sentimentality here perhaps. But the fanciful dialogue between the two men (who actually never meet) represents a successful negotiation into that rough zone between individuals, the cellular membrane is actually permeable, and the result here is consolatory.
In ‘Mending Wall’, two farmers meet to patrol on either side of a dry-stone wall marking the boundary between their farms. Parts of it are always falling down. They build it back up. But the paradox is that the action of building up what separates them, brings them together each year to perform the task. The wall does not prevent or act as a brake on their relationship – rather it facilitates it – it perhaps is their relationship, what links them. From their respective sides – from their respective identities or persons – they are free to become ‘interpersonal’. But the mischievous, sceptical, modern-minded narrator expresses doubts about the importance of walls, particularly when “He is all pine and I am apple orchard”. His neighbour is a more traditional, unquestioning man, who likes to repeat his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The narrator mocks him (though in silence, in his head) as “an old-stone savage”, lost in actual and intellectual “darkness”. But it is significant that the wall-believer has the last word. For me, it is the moderniser is the one being ironised. If he was a versifier, he’d be trying to write poems with the net down.
Why Frost’s concern with the importance of walls? Because – in still other moods – he has looked into the abyss of experience without them. One example is given in the 16 terrifying lines of ‘Desert Places’. The narrator here seems to have taken the more modern, sceptical wall-mender’s view to heart. It seems there are no bounds here – all have vanished under “Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast”. That note of fear there adds to the nightmare feeling and when the outward-looking eye turns to look within – to find himself – he finds nothing: “I am too absent-spirited to count”. That phrase is an echo of ‘absent-minded’. There is a vacancy within and without – no mind, spirit, self, identity. There is only the concluding, devastating rhymes of “empty spaces . . . where no human race is . . . my own desert places”.
And if ‘Desert Places’ evokes the desolation of a world viewed in the absence of a relatively secure cell-walled self, then ‘The Most of It’ shows us the horrifying effects of being walled in. In this poem, the narrator “thought he kept the universe alone”. There seems nothing else but him, only a “mocking echo of his own [voice]”. Yet he does remotely feel a desire for dialogue – perhaps just in being human – and does express a desire not for “copy speech. / But counter-love, original response”. But when the universe does eventually break into his consciousness, it arrives not in the form of dialogue or a negotiated relationship but as an utterly alien thing.
It emerges only as a strange, vague “embodiment” that “crashed” and “splashed” towards him and is recognised only by means of a simile. Perhaps it is an elk.
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.
There, Frost captures the egoist’s struggle to comprehend what is other than him; followed by the arrogance of his dismissal of it. And perhaps this is a particularly masculine thing. Yet there is no need to attribute these feelings to Frost himself. The speaker is best read as a dramatic representation of one extreme of Frost’s concern for borders and boundaries that are vital for our own selfhood yet must be porous enough to allow for knowledge and experience.
So in ‘Birches’ the narrator remembers – as a boy – climbing slender birch trees, to the top, only to leap out and bend them down with his weight. This swinging of birches can be seen – ulteriorly – as representing Frost’s belief in those negotiated rough zones of a life. We climb up, out of our element, but not too far:
It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate wilfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
And if we find this frustratingly ambivalent – Frost sitting carefully on the fence – then he often rubs our noses in it. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ famously concludes with two lines which are identical. For me, the repetition introduces greater ambiguity into the moment. Does the narrator stop, perhaps to die, entranced by the snowfall? Or does he shake himself up, turn back to his life in the village, his roles and responsibilities?
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Frost throws the question back to the reader. What Frost knows is that we do not keep the universe alone. We are parts of a whole – but the borderlands are uncertain – sometimes we cross them and lose touch with ourselves, at other times we too easily accept them and fall into egotistical isolation. There maybe be a happy medium – but Frost’s dynamic poems suggest the truth is we can never find and hold to that; we are always involved in the complicated fraught business of negotiation, of swinging birches, of chasing butterflies, of building walls that will promptly fall down again.
If you ask them, most teachers are very happy, occasionally, to replace their usual mask with the one of an eager student. I don’t often get to participate in writing workshops as a consumer, but when I do it’s always fascinating. For the last one I took part in, I chose it because of its intriguing promise to use Shakespeare’s work as its starting point. Last weekend I was drawn to Amy E. Weldon’s workshop at Keats House which promised to do the same with Keats’ work.
This event was part of Keats House’s bicentenary celebrations and a dozen of us gathered in the atmospheric Chester Room on a sunny day (Keats gazing down at us from Joseph Severn’s painting on the wall). Amy Weldon – a Professor of English at Luther College, USA, whose book on creative writing has recently been published by Bloomsbury – was very good at reminding us of the presence of ‘Brother John’ in the surrounding fabric of the house and its beautiful gardens, where he wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Probably no-one there – teachers, journalists, writers of poetry and teen fiction, autodidacts – really needed it, but she also kicked off with an enthusiastic reminder of the importance of “books and ideas”. And it was a number of Keats’ own ideas – as expressed in his letters – that we discussed first of all.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the importance of Keats’ ideas for my own work and it powerfully struck me again, joining Amy and the other workshoppers in considering them, how coherent they are, despite being expressed and developed in scrawled letter form over a period of 2 or 3 years. From his ‘taking part’ in the sparrow’s existence, or that of the stoat or field-mouse, to the belief that poetry ought not to startle or amaze with itself (but with its subject), to his understanding that “extensive knowledge” is what gives a writer the kind of shoulders that are sufficiently “fledged” to enable creative flight, to his brilliant, improvised description of the gathering of such knowledge in the letter written in Spring 1819. The latter is the vale of soul-making letter to his brother George in which our identity (Keats’ word is ‘Soul’) is accumulated/created through the heart’s emotional encounters with the world. Without such encounters – the sparrow, the stoat and field-mouse, and this is what he means by extensive knowledge, we must extend ourselves in such encounters with the Other – we are not able to suck an Identity from experience and – like children who die tragically young – we have had “no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart”.
Such encounters – vigorously and passionately advocated by the workshop leader – formed the basis for the creative side of the rest of the day. We were sent outside to roam around the garden in search of sensory images, in particular, the May-time flowers in their blooming colours and scents, the birdsong, the noise of traffic or quiet conversations of other visitors, the smooth or veined surface of leaves, the rough gravel paths. On the day, I didn’t taste anything myself – perhaps others successfully used all five senses! We jotted as if our lives depended on it – the task made easier by Amy’s insistence on the messiness of writers’ notebooks, on the provisional nature of whatever it was we were writing.
Amy’s approach on this occasion was to direct us towards fairly openly/widely-defined tasks – as in this first one – rather than setting out a framework within which to work. Such frameworks might be formal or linguistic (repetitions, the use of particular words and so on) or models derived from other writers and can often lead workshop participants towards experimenting, bumping us out of our usual modes, forms and tones. Nevertheless, we all returned from the task with plenty of notes and – for those who attend such events – Amy’s suggestions as to next steps were familiar enough. Circle the “interesting” moments in what you have written down (interesting here is wholly self-defined). Find and remove editorial (directive) words like ‘beautiful’. These latter tend to be adjectives and adverbs and, if not removed, they were to be replaced with more directly sensory words – so not ‘beautiful’ but ‘lime green’. Another suggestion – which I found very difficult to put into practice – was to remove all words of more than one syllable. But you can see the direction of travel here: the valuing of plainness and the directness of sensory experience over anything close to judgment or the writer looking to ‘persuade’ the reader.
During lunchtime – apart from feeding and drinking – our tasks were to make a list of ten things we “noticed” and to actually make an attempt to draw one thing. In each case – Amy was always clear on this – anything was to be grist for the mill, so we had to resist bringing in censorship or evaluation: two people wearing identical hats; the type of cakes on sale down the road; overheard comments from passers-by; what they were promoting at Keats Pharmacy near the station. I drew a house on Devonshire Hill. Very badly.
Once we’d gathered again, Amy quoted John Ruskin on the value of drawing, I think to the effect that even writers ought to try to draw as in doing so they begin to see more “brutally” or clearly. I can’t find the actual quote itself but, having drawn my house on Devonshire Hill, I can testify that he’s right. It makes you look first – language comes second. However dismal the results, I’ll try drawing again. We also shared some of our ten observations – though interestingly neither the observations nor the drawings were developed any further on this occasion.
Instead we read an extract from Amy’s book, The Writer’s Eye. The extract suggested that an ‘image’ is a mental picture (probably from the past) that releases emotions into your mind in the same way as a bunch of mint leaves from a garden releases flavour and colour when steeped in water (good image). These sorts of mental images can be starting points for poems or stories – much more so than (the common colloquialism of) starting with an ‘idea’. The latter tend to be dead, whereas the ‘image’ is by definition enlivened with emotions. So our next task was to find such an image in ourselves and to write on it (again our instructions were open as opposed to delimited or framed). Later we had the chance to re-cast what we had written – perhaps re-starting from ‘interesting’ things we had again circled ourselves.
There had so far been no reading round of anything we’d written (apart from some of the 10 things observed over lunchtime). Eventually, we were put into pairs to give some feedback on the final piece written, now read aloud. Amy’s instructions here were interesting. The listener was only to offer two types of comment. The more positive one was in the form of ‘More like this’. And to express reservations, rather than ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I don’t get this’, we were to say simply, ‘This stops me’. I thought both these formulations worked well and I would use them again.
It was a good day and I’m sure we all came away with several pages of material to work on. One of Amy’s stories stuck in my mind and, though about a prose writer, is applicable to poetry too. A friend of hers goes to a burger joint. Over the grill, with his back to the customers, the owner is flipping burgers, not looking round. The friend gives his order. Still the guy goes on flipping burgers, not looking round, not responding. After a moment or two, the friend orders again, verbatim, just to be clear what he wants, perhaps just a little louder. Still without turning round, the owner says simply: ‘Yuh said that already’. The writer friend, I presume, did get his burger, but he also came away with the guy’s phrase as a memorable maxim for those of us who write, then out of our anxiety to communicate, to be understood, write it again: ‘Yuh said that already’. Time to pick up your editing pen . . .
I hope you have read my earlier post on this subject because here comes my commentary on the second half of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy. It’s the poem he wrote in responsetothe so-called Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 and one that Richard Holmes and Paul Foot have called “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English”. I was sent back to the poem after having watched Mike Leigh’s recent film Peterloo – which I would recommend to those interested in the politics of the early 19th century as much as the politics of today. The political climate at the time (as Leigh’s film so vividly demonstrates) was increasingly repressive in regard to any speech or publication in favour of Reform and because of fears of prosecution the poem only saw the light of day after the Reform Bill had been passed in 1832.
Earth Speaks: on the Nature of Slavery (ll. 147-212)
So, Earth now speaks the imperative injunctions that many people will recognise. She first addresses the men of England as rightful and eventual “heirs of Glory” and nurslings “of one mighty Mother” which must be a reference to herself. Then, in what sounds like a call to battle, she cries:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.
Though the nobility of lions is proverbial, so is their ferocity and here again it’s hard not to hear a call to arms as well as a shucking off of political chains that have imprisoned the Rousseauistic noble savage.
Earth continues by diagnosing the state of slavery into which England has fallen. This – and the following passage with its more positive analysis of what Freedom means to working people – makes for powerful, relevant, realistic reading in contrast to Shelley’s hard-to-pin-down mechanisms of political change. Slavery is to have to work and be paid only enough to live for another day’s work. It is to work not for oneself but for “tyrants”. It is to see family suffering and dying, to go hungry while the rich man surfeits his dogs. It is to suffer the “forgery” of paper money, to have no control over one’s own destiny. It is – when driven to the point of protest – a more direct reference to events in Manchester – “to see the Tyrant’s crew / Ride over your wives and you”.
The remaining stanzas of this part of the poem contrast the plight of English working people to that of animals both wild and domesticated: the animals are better off. But lines 192-195 are especially interesting. In the face of such slavery, the narrator says, it is likely that the desire for vengeance will arise:
Then it is to feel revenge
Fiercely thirsting to exchange
Blood for blood – and wrong for wrong –
But such a use of force, when a degree of power has been achieved, resulting in further bloodshed, is here explicitly rejected: “Do not thus when ye are strong”. This theme of not answering violence with violence is developed much more clearly later and it’s difficult to square this with the earlier images in the poem of Hope “ankle-deep in blood”.
Earth Speaks: On the Nature of Freedom
Now earth’s imagined voice sets about answering more positively, indeed in downright terms, her own question: “What art thou Freedom?” It is not an abstraction, “A shadow . . . / A superstition . . . a name”. Rather it is the provision of bread on the table, of clothes, of fire. As Anarchy was really the law of the rich, so Freedom assumes a strong legal system to prevent exploitation of the poor by the rich. Freedom is therefore justice available to the poor as well as the rich, to protect both “high and low”. Freedom is also wisdom – this must be partly the kind of free thinking (l. 125) generated by the Shape conjured by Hope and certainly (as always for Shelley) it means a thoroughly sceptical take on the teachings of the Christian church. Freedom is also peace – Shelley regarded the war on post-Revolutionary France in 1793 as a war against Freedom.
Freedom is also love – the examples given here suggesting a narrower definition than earlier in the poem. But love is accorded a Christ-like comparison in that some of “the rich” abandon their wealth to follow him and the cause of Freedom, indeed they turn their “wealth to arms” to combat the iniquitous influence of “wealth, and war, and fraud”. The paradox of taking up arms against war itself again perhaps highlights confusion in Shelley’s thinking though the kind of rich man he must have in mind here is Orator Henry Hunt (brilliantly played by Rory Kinnear in Leigh’s film) whose commitment to the cause of Reform was genuine (if a little self-regarding).
This passage ends less effectively with something of a shopping-list of abstract qualities which also comprise the nature of Freedom: Science, Poetry, Thought, Spirit, Patience and Gentleness”. Shelley himself may sense the dropped poetical pressure as the earth here sweeps aside the risky cheapness of such words in favour of actions: “let deeds, not words, express / Thine exceeding loveliness”.
Earth Speaks: Making a Call to a Great Assembly
In this section Shelley puts aside any ambiguity as to the nature of the action required to achieve political change. Through earth’s voice he demands more occasions like the St Peter’s Field gathering.
Let a great Assembly be
Of the fearless and the free
On some spot of English ground
Where the plains stretch wide around.
People must assemble from all “corners” of the nation including palaces of the rich where “some few feel such compassion / For those who groan, and toil, and wail / As must make their brethren pale”. The purpose of the assembly will be (as at Peterloo) to declare and demand the freedom of the people. These words will be “measured” and it is they that will serve as weapons (swords and shields). Here, Shelley’s belief in passive resistance is quite explicit in contrast to earlier in the poem. The narrator anticipates the establishment’s potentially violent response to such assemblies. But the repeated phrase “Let the . . .” drives home the point of passive resistance:
Let the tyrants pour around
With a quick and startling sound,
Like the loosening of a sea,
Troops of armed emblazonry.
Let the charged artillery drive
Till the dead air seems alive
With the clash of clanging wheels,
And the tramp of horses’ heels.
Let the fixèd bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood
Looking keen as one for food.
Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.
Earth Speaks: on the Need for and Efficacy of Passive Resistance
Safe, if unhappy, in Italy it might have seemed easy for Shelley to have been recommending this course. But he does so, imaging the passively resisting working people of England as “a forest close and mute, / With folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war”. Such a non-militaristic “phalanx” will remain “undismayed”, he argues, and eventually victorious for three reasons. One is that the “old laws of England” will offer them some protection. These laws are personified as wise men, now old but “Children of a wiser day” from an imagined period of Rousseauistic natural justice and freedom. But their protection is by no means strong – indeed it seems pretty flimsy. Shelley still envisages Peterloo style violence from the powers that currently rule England. But this must still to be met with passive defiance:
And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew,–
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.
The fading of such aggression is probably linked to the second reason for the cause of Liberty’s ultimate victory. This is hardly stronger than the first: it is that the perpetrators of violence against the people will be shamed and ashamed of their actions. The blood they shed will reappear as shameful “hot blushes on their cheek”. Women will cut them dead in the street. And true soldiers will turn from them towards the people, “those who would be free”.
The third reason Shelley gives – via the voice of the earth – also offers only equivocal, indeed very uncomfortable, hope. Offering little or no consolation to the victims and their relations – though a point proven true through many centuries – such massacres by repressive forces will prove an inspiration to those who come after them: “that slaughter to the Nation / Shall steam up like inspiration”. Using another of his images for revolutionary fervour, this steam will eventually result in a volcanic explosion, “heard afar”. Once more in this poem, these reverberations are translated into words to mark “Oppression’s thundered doom”, stirring the people in their on-going fight for justice and liberty. Shelley concludes with the actual words he imagines being uttered – and we have heard them before:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number–
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you–
Ye are many — they are few.
At which point the poem ends, still with the imagined voice of the earth speaking, repeating herself and the impression is of some circularity in the argument though this is really one of Shelley’s core beliefs: the fight for freedom and justice is never once and for all. The enemy will re-group so the cause of the people requires a continued alertness and watchfulness as well as the offer of resistance (passive for the most part, but perhaps with occasions of violence).
Having recently seen Mike Leigh’s powerful rendering of the events leading up to and including the so-called Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819, I re-read the poem Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote as a direct and angry response to those events, a poem Richard Holmes and Paul Foot have called “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English”. In my twenties, I spent several years writing a PhD thesis on Shelley’s work – more on his ideas about language than a conventional lit. crit. of the poems – so it’s a curious pleasure coming back to this poem after all these years. And perhaps it does not seem in need of much explanation, written as it was so self-consciously to reach as wide an audience as possible to achieve its political impact. Yet its driving ballad-like form hardly gives the reader time to reflect and there are areas of obscurity within it – apparently real uncertainty on Shelley’s part. Of course, the political climate at the time (as Leigh’s film so vividly demonstrates) was increasingly repressive in regard to any speech or publication in favour of Reform. Even the radical Leigh Hunt – to whom Shelley sent the poem from his exile in Italy – refused to risk publication. The poem eventually saw the light of day only after the Reform Bill had been passed in 1832.
A Voice from Exile (ll. 1-4)
The whole poem is notable for the multiple distances Shelley maintains from the actual events of August 1819 (there is no poetic reportage of any kind, though he had read several newspaper accounts), in his own remote position (he had fled England in 1818, never to return) and in the way in which the poem comments on political realities (through the filters of ballad form and caricature and the sophisticated layering of voices). The opening quatrain briskly deals with the geographical distance, though with something of the air of a fairy tale.
As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
The AAAA rhymes here announce the poem with a series of thumps like an overture to wake his listeners and perhaps also himself from his guilt-ridden sleep, so far distant from the causes of political reform and revolution that he had long supported in England. The “visions” of poetry immediately give license to the strange encounters that follow.
The Triumphal Parade of Anarchy (ll. 5-37)
The kind of gothic caricature that dominates the following stanzas has often been linked to the style of political cartoons by Hogarth and Gillray. But Shelley’s adolescent love of the gothic genre is well known and the resulting mix is all his own. The reader (accompanying the narrator’s “walk”) is thrown into a parade of characters who precede the climactic appearance of the personification of Anarchy himself.
This is the “triumph of Anarchy” (l. 57) in the sense used by the Romans as a victorious parade through city streets. The narrator meets three main figures – Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy. Reversing the usual method of personification, each abstract figure wears a mask in the guise of a contemporary politician – the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, the Lord Chancellor, Eldon and the Home Secretary, Sidmouth. The satirical effect of these masks is driven home by the figures’ actions. Castlereagh feeds human hearts to the dogs that follow him, Eldon sheds tears that turn into mill-stones and children have “their brains knocked out by them” and Sidmouth, clothed equivocally by both Bible and “night”, rides by on a crocodile (more false tears, geddit?).
Shelley glancingly refers to “many more Destructions” traipsing along in this “masquerade”, and they are all “disguised, even to the eyes, / Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies”. The enemies of the people are therefore boldly named and it’s clear that the poem’s title contains a pun on mask/masque, alluding to the paper-thin disguises that the abstractions of corruption and injustice wear as well as the arrogant self-regarding performance of the triumph or parade they are taking part in. The climax of this parade is the approaching, apocalyptic figure of Anarchy himself:
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.
And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw–
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’
Anarchy here means a state of lawlessness in which the rich and powerful are freely able to control all religious, state and legal power. Their laws preserve their own freedom to exploit. We’ll see a bit later that Shelley had a concept of the “old laws of England” (l. 335) that he believed had been overridden but that once had served to protect the lives of ordinary people.
England Under Anarchy’s Rule (ll. 38-85)
Shelley’s poem broadcasts and accelerates the trope of the parade (“With a pace stately and fast”) to show the appalling results of this rule of the rich and powerful across the whole country. There are echoes here of the charges into the crowd at St Peter’s Field in Manchester:
And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.
Their Lord here is Anarchy himself whose pageant is now seen to be passing through England, “Drunk as with intoxication / Of the wine of desolation”. It lays waste to everything, tearing up and trampling down, eventually arriving in London. Ordinary citizens feel terror and panic while the supporters of Anarchy flock to him, repeating the slogan and self-announcement written across his brow. Those who flock to his side are lawyers and priests and:
The hired murderers, who did sing
`Thou art God, and Law, and King.
We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’
Anarchy bows in response to this obeisance with a false and aristocratic grace (“as if his education / Had cost ten millions to the nation”) and recognises the bases of his power are secure in Palaces and quickly to be seized in the Bank (of England) and the Tower (of London), after which he anticipates meeting with a compliant, “pensioned Parliament” to further confirm the rule of Anarchy in the England of 1819.
Hope and the Mysterious Shape (ll. 86-125)
But as Shelley’s sentence crosses the next stanza break – ie. without any clear pause – the seemingly unstoppable parade of bloodshed, inequality, injustice and hypocrisy is strangely interrupted by a counter personification. A crazed-looking young woman (“a maniac maid”) runs out declaring that her name is Hope, though the narrator says “she looked more like Despair”. The perception here is interesting as even Shelley’s narrator has been so infected by the toxic atmosphere spread by Anarchy that the girl (who is soon to bring about a challenge to Anarchy) looks to be insane and more resembles the absence of hope than otherwise. This is one of Shelley’s core political beliefs and had already appeared in the closing lines of Prometheus Unbound. There, Demogorgon urges optimism in the long term conflict with abusive power: “to hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates”. The movement for Reform will – it seems – have to come close to despair, or its own wreck, before the powers of Anarchy are likely to be defeated.
Hope’s father is Time, whose other children – these are the previous occasions when the cause of liberty and reform had been strong – are covered in the “dust of death”. So Time has brought forth a new opportunity though the actions of the young woman called Hope are surprising. Less Joan-like, more Christ-like she simply lies down before the trampling hooves of the triumph of Anarchy. But moments before she too is about to be trampled into dust:
[ . . . ] between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak, and frail
Like the vapour of a vale
This mist – later called a “Shape” – is one of the mysteries of the poem’s politics. Hope provokes its appearance. At first weak, it gathers in strength. Shelley compares it to clouds that gather “Like tower-crowned giants striding fast, / And glare with lightnings as they fly, /And speak in thunder to the sky”. In the next few stanzas it becomes more soldierly, “arrayed in mail”, compared to the scales of a snake (for Shelley the snake was usually an image of just rebellion not of evil), yet it is also winged. It wears a helmet with the image of the planet Venus on it. It moves softly and swiftly – a sensed but almost unseen presence. And rather than any military action or campaign of civil disobedience, this Shape, conjured by Hope, creates thinking:
As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.
The Shape has variously been interpreted as liberty, England, the people, revolution, nature, intellectual illumination. But I think the image of Venus suggests that the Shape is Love which, in Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, is synonymous with the Imagination, the expression of which is Poetry. Poetry here is a cultural and perceptual shift (artists and writers are merely one aspect of its manifestation). At its heart, is the rejection of reason which perceives and depends on differences and the embrace of a mode of perception that favours similitude, including the similitude between all people and classes.
The Death of Anarchy (ll. 126-146)
How exactly Love, so broadly defined, brings about the dramatic consequences detailed in the next few stanzas is unclear. There seems to be evidence of a battle as Hope is suddenly seen walking calmly, though “ankle-deep in blood”, and Anarchy himself is reduced to “dead earth upon the earth”. In the light of the bloodshed at Peterloo, such actual conflict and resulting casualties are hardly surprising but the use of force by those seeking political reform seems to contradict Shelley’s later pronouncements in this poem. The only alternative is that the blood she wades through is that spilt by the powers associated with Anarchy.
Yet in the calm aftermath of these events, there comes a sense of renovation, a “sense awakening and yet tender / Was heard and felt” and, most importantly, there are further words. This time the speaker is unclear though it is “As if” the earth itself, the mother of English men and women, feeling such bloodshed on her brow, translates this spilt blood into a powerful, irresistible language, “an accent unwithstood”. Shelley repeats “As if” once more, confirming the mystery of this voice, a voice which proceeds now to speak the whole of the remainder of the poem. For Shelley, Poetry in his broad sense is “vitally metaphorical” and the earth’s imagined speeches convey a sense that the cause of liberty is in accordance with the truly understood (surely Rousseauistic) nature of creation.
An earlier post in which I talked my way through Frost’s essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’has proved to be one of my most visited pieces. As both teacher and poet, I wanted to explore Frost’s often teasing pronouncements and here I want to do the same with his longer essay, ‘Education by Poetry’. This was originally a talk delivered at Amherst College. It was subsequently revised for publication in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly (1931). Frost also separately printed an extract from the conclusion of the essay under the title ‘The Four Beliefs’. Frost’s full text can be accessed here. In the essay, Frost argues that nothing (other than mathematics)is known in itself – our knowledge is only via relations. So we must live by crediting metaphors of self, love, art, nation and deity, among others. Yet all these break down at some point and it this awareness that education ought to provide us with. There is a clear connection to Frost’s idea of a poem as a “clarification of life [. . .] a momentary stay against confusion” (‘’The Figure a Poem Makes’).
Frost does not do rebarbative. Even when ultimately – as here – he has complex and profound issues to discuss, he invites us in and we follow trustingly. Here, he lulls us with the idea that he will “urge nothing”, will merely consider and describe. Only once he has finished will we grasp that his sometimes infuriating reluctance to commit lies at the core of his thinking.
His subject is how poetry is treated in American education. One approach is to bar it which, he admits with full-on irony, “takes the onus off the poetry of having to be used to teach children anything”.
Only slightly less ridiculous is the method of other institutions which permit a few examples of traditional poetry but “bar all that is poetical in it by treating it as something other than poetry”. What Frost means by “poetical” emerges later but here he mocks the way that poems are treated as no different to other conventional knowledge-based texts (“science”) or are examined merely for their linguistic and technical illustrations (“syntax, language”).
In a passage that all English teachers will recognise, Frost ironically concedes that education treats poetry in this way in large part because we have to submit marks for assessment. The brute simplicity of a marking regime has its attractions, but it inevitably narrows our focus until we mark for little else but “for accuracy, for correctness”. Still keeping what constitutes the “poetical” up his sleeve, Frost tempts us on by suggesting that such accuracy is “the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins”. The adventure is the real nature of a poetic text.
Having considered the abolition and the denaturing of poetry as ways of dealing with its “nuisance” value in education, Frost considers a third way of neutralising it. Mockingly once more, he describes those who accept poetry as a separate discourse but assign it to a “nowhere”, exile it to the “flowery”, to a place diametrically opposed to the “rigorous and righteous”. Poetry here becomes mere entertainment with no truth value, no concern for, or capacity for, knowledge. Poetry occupies only that part of the curriculum that “scatter[s] brains over taste and opinion” but this is hard to assess. Teachers may resort to “a general indefinite mark of X” in such courses and if a marking regime cannot be imposed then such a course can hardly be graced with the description of ‘education’. Frost’s tone is simultaneously sarcastic and passionately concerned: “How shall a man go through college without having been marked for taste and judgment? What will become of him? What will his end be? He will have to take continuation courses for college graduates. He will have to go to night schools”.
Coming closer to his real intention, Frost really does lament this lack of education in taste and opinion. Look at the rising seriousness of concern in this passage: “they have not been educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature. They don’t know what they may safely like in the libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign”.
This is a key moment because Frost makes it clear that for all his self-deprecatory tone, the foolery and sarcasm, he is leading us to a declaration that education does have a responsibility to prepare young people to be citizens as well as members of a skilled work force. Frost expects education to inculcate interpretative skills and too many Americans leave school/college ill-equipped to “know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable”. This is not science, nor is it merely syntax or language: “metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about”. For Frost, an understanding of how metaphor works is a key part of understanding the world (he will explain this later in the essay) and an understanding of metaphor is best learned through a study of how poetry works. Education about metaphor is education through poetry and “Education by poetry is education by metaphor”.
I find the next two paragraphs hard to follow. Frost’s end point is to return to the importance of metaphor but here he detours through the idea of enthusiasm. As much as taste, enthusiasm is not something the academy can easily mark, but Frost wants it, or at least he wants enthusiasm “taken through the prism of the intellect”. This prism metaphor suggests that enthusiasm, when processed through the intellect, refracts a pure-blooded enthusiasm (Frost calls this latter “crude” and likens it to the “oh’s and ah’s” of someone admiring – without any thought? – a sunset). Such a refraction gives rise to a continuum of different levels of enthusiasm, from “something of overstatement, something of statement, and something of understatement”. The prism of the intellect is now re-named as “an idea”. I think Frost wants a not-unsurprising blend of passion and thought in his enthusiasm – neither cold assessment (marking?) nor the oh’s and ah’s of thoughtless fanaticism.
Frost now returns to his main theme via a slight revision of his thought, suggesting he’s really been discussing “enthusiasm tamed by metaphor”. His next point is much clearer: “I do not think anybody ever knows the discreet use of metaphor, his own and other people’s, the discreet handling of metaphor, unless he has been properly educated in poetry”. Metaphor is the prism (spawned from intellect, something of an idea) through which our emotional responses are projected to achieve knowledge. But Frost is convinced that an awareness of this fact is not shared equally amongst us and that education through poetry will serve to increase this awareness.
Now Frost begins to talk more clearly about metaphor itself. The importance of it lies in the fact that it “begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, “grace” metaphors” but (as his essay argues) metaphor also “goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have”. Frost talks elsewhere of what Tim Kendall calls “ulteriority”, glossed here as the method of poetry of “saying one thing and meaning another”. The way Frost discusses this he is sure it is not an abstruse poetic idea but a day to day, almost instinctive human preference: “People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections—whether from diffidence or some other instinct”.
Frost wants to make big claims for metaphorical thinking: “I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking”. He allows the exception of “mathematical thinking” but wants all other knowledge, including “scientific thinking” to be brought within the bounds of metaphor. He suggests the Greeks’ foundational thought about the world, the “All”, was fundamentally metaphorical in nature, especially Pythagoras’ concept of the nature of things as comparable to number: “Number of what? Number of feet, pounds and seconds”. This is the basis for a scientific, empirical (measurable) view of the world and hence “has held and held” in the shape of our still-predominating scientific view of it.
Frost refers to a visiting scientist who tried to mix spatial and temporal metaphors: “The two don’t go together”. Another such modern metaphor is that a thing is “an event”. Another is that space “is something like curved”. Another is that individual particles possess a freedom. Another is the “metaphor of evolution” or indeed that the whole universe, the whole of everything, “is like unto a growing thing”. Frost wants to alert his audience to the role of such metaphors – often unrecognised as such – in both our everyday and more refined scientific views of the world. He briefly dwells on the metaphor of evolution, accepting its brilliance (in terms of its still-continuing applicability) but insisting that even this “will break down at some point”.
These are the key paragraphs. Frost argues that our lack of understanding of how metaphor works will leave us “not safe”. We must understand “figurative values” and so be able to assess “the metaphor in its strength and its weakness”. In an image that brings to mind his poem ‘Birches’, he explains we will not “know how far [we] may expect to ride it and when it may break down”. The point is that it will break down (the boy riding the birch always comes back to earth) and education ought to give us the experience and the equipment to recognise a “good metaphor, as far as it goes, and [we] must know how far”. As I understand it, Frost wants us to approach human knowledge more tentatively, more sceptically, recognising its provisional nature because it is based in metaphors which will at some moment break down and need to be replaced by a better, more “brilliant” metaphor. The study of poetry offers us experiences of figurative thinking and (if we think of Frost’s poems) the sense of provisionality they often inculcate.
That we have a tendency to forget this provisional nature of knowledge and understanding seems to be Frost’s next point. We take up arms (as it were) by taking up certain metaphorical ideas and making totems of them. He berates Freudianism’s focus on “mental health” as an example of how “the devil can quote Scripture, which simply means that the good words you have lying around the devil can use for his purposes as well as anybody else”. That this is dangerous (makes us not safe) is illustrated by the passage of dialogue Frost now gives between himself and somebody else. The other argues that the universe is like a machine but Frost (adopting a sort of Socratic interrogation technique) draws out the limits of the metaphor, concluding he “wanted to go just that far with that metaphor and no further. And so do we all. All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don’t know when it is going. You don’t know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself”.
Frost now returns us to the school room and what it is for a student to “Think”. It is now clear that this frequent exhortation from teachers really means “just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another”. In a clear allusion to his poem ‘After Apple-picking’, Frost says to explain to students about the workings of metaphor is to “set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky”. The most significant example of such metaphorical thinking is “the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter.” This – like all metaphors in the end – is an attempt that must fail but “it is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking, that attempts to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter”. Frost clearly feels each realm is more clearly understood via metaphors of the other but (speaking in the 1930s) the main danger he foresees is a too-materialist vision of the world: “The only materialist – be he poet, teacher, scientist, politician, or statesman – is the man who gets lost in his material without a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order. He is the lost soul”. He is lost because blind to metaphors.
Frost starts to look at metaphors through some “trivial ones” from the Odyssey – a shield and seeds of fire. These are the raw materials for an education by metaphor and recall his definition of a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion” in The Figure a Poem Makes where he argues “I would rather have trivial ones of my own to live by than the big ones of other people. But there are more significant metaphors: “the ones we live by”. Frost repeats: “[metaphor] is all there is of thinking”. He explains we do not have to write poetry to understand metaphor. Reading it serves as long as we read it “not as linguistics, not as history, not as anything but poetry”. The only form of assessment a teacher can apply to someone reading poetry is how “close” they come to it. This remains vague, to say the least, but Frost insists “everything depends on the closeness with which you come, and you ought to be marked for the closeness, for nothing else”.
Evidence of such closeness to the true nature of poetry (and hence metaphor) is now termed a form of “belief”. He gives five different forms of such belief. Frost makes each sound like a sense of conviction, arising from the perception of a metaphorical connection between two things. Our giving credence to this sense of connection is also what can give rise to a fulfilling of such a connection, almost as if our belief in it gives rise to it.
His first illustration of this is in a young person’s self-belief. Is this like a young woman seeing herself as an engineer, giving that vision credit and hence pursuing it towards fulfilment? Of course, such metaphors break down and this is something more clearly acknowledged in Frost’s second example: “the belief of love”. The metaphor of a romantic relationship between two individuals must be given credence (on both sides) to be pursued but “the disillusionment that novels are full of is simply the disillusionment from disappointment in that belief. That belief can fail”.
The third form of belief is literary or art belief. Frost focuses on the creation of a work of art which should arise not from cunning or calculation but from “belief. The beauty, the something, the little charm of the thing to be.” This is more “felt than known” (again recalling The Figure a Poem Makes) and we need to see the artist sensing a connection to something other, giving it credence, and trying to fulfil the insight, working towards it, bringing it in existence (not merely recording something already known). This is also the model for Frost’s fourth belief – the God-belief. He’s most brief on this but the implication seems to be that God is something we bring into existence through our belief. Again, we need to remember that both literary- and God-belief is liable to failure and break down.
Here, Frost’s final belief is national belief, a belief in a nation to which we give credence and hence bring about its fulfilment, bringing it into existence. The particular and personal nature of each of these beliefs is brought out when Frost reaches for the metaphor of the painter’s palette. As he says elsewhere, being forced to adopt others’ metaphors, even a whole culture’s metaphors, becomes a form of tyranny that he would resist. This is partly because all metaphors break down eventually, but also because “I want my palette, if I am a painter, I want my palette on my thumb or on my chair, all clean, pure, separate colours. Then I will do the mixing on the canvas”. Whether we are engaged in self-, love-, art-, God- or nation-creation, we must make our own.
Interestingly, Frost concludes by reviewing and re-ordering the five areas of metaphorical belief. Each has a “shyness” about it in that we are reluctant or incapable of pronouncing upon it until we have tried to pursue it: “only the outcome can tell”. This must be, in part, the source of Frost’s slipperiness, the sense we often have that his commitment is always provisional, or yet forthcoming. Even in national-belief, “it has got to be fulfilled, and we are not talking until we know more, until we have something to show”. This is understandably true of writing a poem which arises “not of cunning and craft [. . .] but of real art”. This is now glossed as “believing the thing into existence, saying as you go more than you even hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to an end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion”. In this conclusion, Frost holds back God-belief for its more traditional, ultimate position: “And then finally the relationship we enter into with God to believe the future in – to believe the hereafter in”.
Here are two poems about climbing in through windows. I’m sure it’s ill-advised to pit something of one’s own against one of the best poems appearing in the Forward Poems of the Decade anthology, but the similarities were so interesting that I decided to lay good sense aside. I hoped also to put aside any spirit of competition and to further that you will find that I have adopted a very impersonal tone towards my own poem. That poem – ’17 Britannia Square’ – was first published in 2004 and it certainly feels remote from me now, as if written by someone else. The following essay zig-zags to compare the two poems as students are asked to do in the Edexcel A level examination (9ETO/03). The text of Julia Copus’s poem can be found here. My poem can be read by scrolling down the page on this link.
Both poems convey details of the climb into a house which, in each case, is taken to represent something about the progression of individual lives, about developing identity. Copus’s climbing girl is on the brink of womanhood, a journey into “the way of the world” and her poem implies the difficulties ahead, especially, perhaps, for a woman in a patriarchal world. Crucefix’s poem is altogether more male and concentrates more on what has come to divide the two men, the surprising shift (“strangeness”) in identity over time. The forms of the two poems are similar: continuous blocks of unrhymed verse, though Copus uses a more variable line length and flowing syntax that evokes the ‘ease’ of the girl’s passage. In contrast, Crucefix’s verse halts and re-starts on several occasions, suggestive of the disjunction between his two characters.
Julia Copus’s 13 year old girl is repeatedly imaged in border territory, a “halfway” stage, a liminal state of age, sexuality, friendship and her literal broaching/breaching of “the warm flank of the house”. The journey or passage she is taking is into adulthood, a transition presented as exciting, anxious and relatively “easy”, though what awaits her is more uncertain and even forbidding. The opening descriptions emphasise her vulnerability (crouched, trembling, narrow windowsill, sharp drop). Yet she continues to find reassurance in the presence of her (similarly aged) friend, though this is precisely what she is climbing away from. For further reassurance, she dwells on the tangible details of the moment: “the fact of the open window, / the flimsy, hole-punched, aluminium lever”. Crucefix’s ‘17 Britannia Square’ also opens with a concern to keep things “steady” but here it foreshadows the narrator’s growing awareness of changes in personal identity and relationships. The details and onomatopoeia of line 3, quickly settle us into a concrete situation, but the simile of the “coins being scraped together” is the first indication of one of the poem’s divisive elements, material wealth. Given her age, Copus’s girl was not trusted with the keys; Crucefix’s narrator readily accepts responsibility for the lock out (he forgot to pick up the keys) and self-deprecatingly confesses his own inadequacy which is again linked to the material successes of his friend: “I could not manage ten minutes / in charge of your tall, Edwardian house”.
Copus’s girl’s physical position, perched perilously on the porch roof with its rough asphalt like “a square of petrified beach” is marvellously conveyed. The word “petrified” works physically and psychologically, evoking both stoniness and felt fear simultaneously, but it also foreshadows her eventual dive through the window, mermaid-like, into the ambiguous ocean of her future. The omniscient narrative voice asks, “What can she know / of the way the world admits us less and less / the more we grow?” The narrative voice knows the future as the girl does not and the personal pronoun (“us”) probably implies the voice is female and is making a comment on the patriarchal nature of the world of adulthood into which the girl is moving. It is a world that will “admit” her less and less. The choice of the word “admit” suggests the future will acknowledge the girl’s existence less as well as give her less literal admission to what it might offer. By contrast, watching his friend climb the ladder, it is the past that preoccupies Crucefix’s narrator. It’s interesting that the “cat-burgling high-jinks” are already distanced by being something they “might” have done, though it seems likely they did not in reality. It’s not clear whether this suggests their earlier relationship also had its limits or whether the familiar image of the wall-climbing wayward students is itself being ironised – a cliché that is displaced by the later more painfully honest assessment of their relationship. The elaborate, polysyllabic phrase used to describe what the two students hoped to evade – “vigilant authority” – also suggests the way the poem looks to evade accepted modes of presenting such male friendships.
This is even more clear when we reach the narrator’s statement about the subject of their earlier, collegiate discussions. They focused on personal identity and the allusion to John Keats points to that poet’s ideas about Negative Capability. Keats records the sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me”. Yet this absence of a resolved (what the poem calls “determined”) self, pushing confidently outwards, facilitates delicately perceptive encounters such as catching a glimpse of a “fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (229). The resultant freshness and truth, the absence of pre-judgement in such a moment, is what Keats valued and perhaps it is what this poem strives for in its examination of male friendship. The startling simile introduced here (“how a man / could possess no determined self, like a state / that sees no need of a constitution”) also gestures towards an underlying concern about national identity too. This is reinforced by the title of the poem and suggests that the issues of identity and division on a personal level might be reflected more broadly in contemporary Britain and the narrator’s observation that such a view now “looks as much risk as opportunity” indicates he sees subsequent developments (personally or politically) as putting closeness and cohesiveness at risk.
In ‘An Easy Passage’, lines 19-22, create a dramatic pause or lull in the poem, a briefly “lit”, but still present, paradise of innocence. The statement that “for now the house exists / only for them” pre-empts the most significant change in perspective in Copus’s poem. Their innocence is indicated by the girls’ small scope of vision and the second half of the poem enacts its innocence / experience theme by drawing away to the wider perspectives of the street, the absent mother, the workers and finally the secretary. It is the latter who is said to be “most far” from the girl. The phrase ironically has the effect of associating the two characters, perhaps implying that the girl’s future can be seen in the older woman’s present situation. If so, the portrait is not inspiring with her small plans for an “evening class” or contrastingly improbable plans for the “trip of a lifetime”. The tone adopted about the “stirring omens” in an astrology column comes close to a sarcasm at the secretary’s expense. Growing distance and division are also indicated in lines 19-27 of ‘17 Britannia Square’ via the vivid details of the friend’s climb to the top of the ladder and his awkward tipping in through the bathroom window. The paralleling of the climb up the (social?) ladder and the reflections on identity are made explicit in the yoking together of literal and psychological facts: “I see you pull up the sash, begin to wriggle /into your bathroom and it seems less a truth / to last beyond our teens”. The simile describing the damage caused by the friend’s flailing foot, as he slips through the window (breaking it and making a “white star-burst like a rifle shot”), perhaps implies the demise of the earlier self. This is again reinforced by the forcible linking of immediate, physical events with more personal developmental vocabulary: “you vanish at last, absorbed to your house, / your job, your family”.
But ‘17 Britannia Square’ is not really a poem about envy. In fact, the narrator waits below, watching his old friend vanish into his house/life, yet remains “in love with mine”. Furthermore, the closing lines of the poem present an act of Keatsian sympathetic imagination as the narrator melds past and present, himself and his friend into a moment of alertness to the possibilities of life, even if the possibilities are of growing alienation. The tone is not dark – the friend will re-appear at his own front door “laughing” – and the explicit birthing image of line 30 is equivocally described with the phrase “bruised and quivering”. The poem leaves the reader with a heightened sense of the unpredictability of individual lives as expressed in the choice of the word “strangeness”. The word implies estrangement but also of the richness of mutability and the unexpected, perhaps reminiscent of Ariel’s song to Ferdinand in The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”.
By contrast, I think the youth and still-retained freedom of Copus’s two girls is described (from the secretary’s perspective now) with some envy (silver, neat, shimmering, flash, gracefully). It’s not clear if this is mere personal envy or that of an older generation viewing the more secure freedoms of younger women. Certainly, Copus loads ambiguity in at the close. The “shimmering- / oyster-painted toenails” re-evoke the beach image of line 16 and the graceful movement of the girl into the house suggests an assured transition into another element/time. Yet the simile of the nails flashing like “armaments” complicates matters. Is the suggestion that she will need not only grace and beauty but also an arsenal of weapons with which to defend herself in the adult world? Does the simile persuade us that the girl does possess such means to defend herself? Or that she lacks it (what use are painted toe-nails)? There is something surely ominous in the very last phrase, as she drops “into the shade of the house”.
So ‘An Easy Passage’ is full of the girls’ grace and beauty on the verge of adulthood. Through predominantly concrete description, the poem conveys complex emotions about their likely transition into the adult world and Copus leaves the nature of their future experiences carefully undefined. Crucefix’s poem is equally honest about what divides his two male figures as they have grown into maturity. It is largely money but also the divergent demands of house, job and family. Yet the poem develops ideas about the fluidity of personal identity from Keats’ thoughts on the matter and concludes that the human heart draws its sustenance as much from distance as closeness, pain as much as pleasure.
This is my review of Friedrich Hölderlin’s only novel, Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece. The reviewfirst appeared in the Temenos Academy Review (No. 20, 2017). The translation I am discussing is a very recent one by India Russell which was published by Melrose Books in 2016.
Begun in Tübingen in 1792 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and published in two volumes in 1797 and 1799, Hölderlin’s only novel is really a philosophical and spiritual biography of its eponymous hero. It does not deliver what a novel reader might expect in terms of characterisation, suspense or specificity of incident (though its retrospective narrative is cleverly designed). It is best read as a doorway to the more metaphysical thought that underpins the later poetry. But Hölderlin’s youthful passion and urgency are evident, for example, in the portrait of his native Germany. Its people and culture are subjected to a withering satirical attack, with the corrupt state of German life acting as the penultimate phase of Hyperion’s long education. He reports, ‘I can think of no people more torn than the Germans. Artisans you see, but no human beings, thinkers, but no human beings, priests, but no human beings […] – is that not like a battlefield, where hands and arms and all limbs lie dismembered amongst one another, whilst the shed life-blood runs away into the sand?’ Such vivid images of division – between warring powers, within bodies of individuals – are central to Hölderlin’s critique of what was wrong with late eighteenth-century Europe.
Hyperion is an epistolary novel, the narrator writing from his native Greece to a friend, Bellarmin, who lives in Germany. Hölderlin’s prose is heightened and mellifluous, dramatically ebbing and flowing; and India Russell’s translation catches this far better than Willard Trask’s 1965 version or David Schwartz’s from 1990. The writing is breathless and aspiring; it is Shelley’s prose not Keats’s. The novel’s picaresque narrative records Hyperion’s travels after his birth on the Greek island of Tenos, where he spends his childhood and school years. He moves to Smyrna, returns home, then travels again to Calaurea, an island close to the eastern coast of the Peloponnese. It is here he meets and falls in love with the young woman, Diotima. Called back to action in the world, he fights the Turkish forces occupying Greece and later fights alongside Russian troops. He is defeated and wounded, then travels to Sicily, thence to Germany, befriending Bellarmin. Only on his return to Tenos does the novel’s account of his life open. So the narrative trajectory means that Hyperion reflects on his own life’s journey in the letters. Importantly, though no significant external events intervene, we perceive a difference between the Hyperion of letter one and the man writing the final words of the novel.
The retrospective nature of the narrative only partly accounts for what Hölderlin calls in the Preface Hyperion’s ‘elegiac character’. In his opening letters, the protagonist regards reflection/judgement (‘Urteil’) as a curse, cutting him off from an unthinking sense of oneness with the world. As the novel opens, it is especially in relation to the natural world that Hyperion feels this alienation, though the limits of his current understanding are revealed: ‘I know not what happens to me when I lift my eyes before your beauty […] My whole being becomes quiet and harkens’. He later exclaims, ‘To be one with all, that is the life of the Divine, that is the heaven of man’ and yet ‘a moment’s reflection casts me down […] Nature closes her arms and I stand like a stranger before her’. He identifies his schooling as having made the first break between the sense of oneness experienced by a child and this later sense of estrangement. The loss is blamed on ‘Knowledge’ which inculcates the desire to be ‘absolutely reasonable, [to] have thoroughly learnt to distinguish myself from that which surrounds me’; and in such a state of nurtured division he suffers solitude and rejection from the world about him.
Hölderlin’s preface to the Thalia fragment of Hyperion (published by Schiller in 1794) lays these issues out more philosophically. ‘Man would like to be in everything and above everything’ he argues, quoting Loyola: ‘Not to be confined by the largest, but to be contained in the smallest, is divinity’. He observes how this pronouncement ‘designates the all-desiring, all-subjugating dangerous side of man as well as the […] most beautiful condition he can achieve’. On one side, we desire the freedom to be above our lives, to shape them, yet on the other we long to feel at home in our world, to be in it at the cost of our liberty. With one eye on the Revolution in France, it seems to Hölderlin that pursuit of freedom at the expense of a sense of unity with the world leads to a deracinated fanaticism that harms both ourselves and the world. But on the other hand, to experience existence without liberty and self-determination is to be sunk deeply in a form of passivity verging on idiocy. Hölderlin’s originality lies in his view of human life as being endlessly dynamic, the two impulses – to be both in and above our own lives – are to be held in tension, the self drawn in contrary directions with no anticipation of a resolution.
In the novel, Hyperion’s early and brief encounters with Adamas on Tenos present one possible easement of his sense of alienation. Excited by the older man’s devotion to the past, he reads the Classics and visits Mount Athos, Olympia, Mount Cynthus and the grave of Homer. Hölderlin’s earlier poems frequently echo just this nostalgic impulse in his idealisation of the Classical past. David Constantine points out that for Hölderlin, ‘the civilisation of Periclean Athens seemed to him the best the human race had ever achieved and he wanted an equivalent of it for his own day and age and even believed the French Revolution might bring it about’. So this is not, for Hölderlin, any simple nostalgia but rather a call to spiritual and philosophical revolution. A poem like ‘The Archipelago’ portrays the devastation of eighteenth-century Greece (under the rule of the ‘Persian’) but also anticipates its renovation:
Lovingly back to the waiting abandoned river
Come the people of Athens and down from the homeland’s mountains
The shining crowds, meeting like waters, replenish
The emptied plain with joy.
But in the novel, Adamas’ overly literal idealisation of the past is quickly dismissed by Hyperion. Alone, Adamas travels on into Asia in search of peoples of ‘rare excellence’ who, he hopes, are still living out such ancient virtues. Left dissatisfied, Hyperion is bored and restless on Tenos. He leaves for Smyrna and encounters a very different solution to his problems in the form of Alabanda, a man devoted not to the worship of a past age but to the struggle for social change. For a period Alabanda and Hyperion live ‘like two streams which roll down from the mountains and cast off the burden of earth and stone and rotten wood and the whole inert chaos that had impeded them, to forge the way to one another and break through until where, seizing and seized with equal strength, united in one majestic River, they then begin the journey in to the wide Sea’. Such a sentence is a good illustration of Russell’s skill in this translation – the results are flowing, energetic, with just the right degree of distancing from conventional language usage. For the two men, the present state of society is like a ‘barren, rotten tree’, needing to be felled so that a ‘new world’ can grow in its place. But Alabanda is too much a man of action, a fighter, consumed with the wish to exercise freedom to effect social change and (as the simile above suggests) liable to destructive violence and a moral fanaticism. His mode of operation is to ‘burn the weeds […] blast the dull clods from the Earth!’. He himself admits to being ‘rough and offensive and unsociable’. Hyperion finds he cannot commit himself to this course either and we become conscious of his tendency to vacillate between (again) being within and without, between commitment and alienation and aware too of the fact he perceives this as is a problem needing to be resolved.
It is on the visit to Calaurea that Hyperion meets Diotima, a young woman who is unreflectively at home in the natural world. This character was introduced into later drafts of the novel and is a portrait of Susette Gontard, the married woman whose children Hölderlin was appointed to tutor in 1795, the woman he loved. Though Susette seems to have reciprocated Hölderlin’s affections, the relationship was doomed. He dedicated the second volume of Hyperion to her. The name Diotima appears frequently in Hölderlin’s later poetry and is the name of the seer or priestess who first taught Socrates to regard love as the means of ascent to a contemplation of the Divine. In Hyperion she lives contentedly in the world as opposed to Alabanda’s position above the world, and his wish to change it. Her heart is most at home among flowers, ‘as though it were one of them’, and Hyperion enviously observes her unreflective unity with the natural world: ‘Diotima’s eyes opened wide and quietly, as a bud opens, her dear little face opened before the airs of Heaven, became pure speech and soul and, as though she began a flight into the clouds, her whole form stood stretched gently upwards in easy majesty, her feet hardly touching the Earth’.
Diotima is initially unconscious of the beauty Hyperion sees in her but she becomes more self-aware in the letters documenting their relationship. She also comes to understand the real nature of Hyperion himself, recognising that (as Hölderlin’s philosophical thinking suggests) he cannot remain content with what she has to offer. Though Hyperion may indeed wish for such oblivious contentment, it is ironically Diotima who suggests he must do otherwise: ‘Will you lock yourself in the heaven of your love, and leave the world that needs you? […] You must, like the ray of light, descend like the all-refreshing rain, you must go down into the land of the mortals, you must enlighten like Apollo’. Light, healing and poetry are, of course, among Apollo’s many attributes and it will be as an artist that Hyperion must give (as Diotima puts it) ‘what you have within you’. In ‘As on a holiday…’, one of his later hymns, Hölderlin advises his fellow poets:
us it behoves to stand
Bareheaded beneath God’s thunder-storms,
To grasp the Father’s ray, no less, with our two hands
And, wrapping in song the heavenly gift,
To offer it to the people.
It takes a long time for Hyperion to accept Diotima’s proposal that his true role must be that of an artist. Only after the process of recording his life for Bellarmin does Hyperion achieve what Hölderlin’s Preface refers to as the ‘resolution of dissonances’ in his character. At one point he notes, ‘I am an artist, but I am not skilled’. He returns to Alabanda for a period, fighting and being wounded in a war with the ‘Persians’, then suffers the loss of Diotima. Her last words to him suggest that he has been ‘put to the test and it is bound to become clear who you are’. Hyperion’s test will include the writing of his self-examining epistles. In effect, Hyperion ends by pursuing an art, like Hölderlin’s mature poetry, that essays some interim representations of the Heraclitean ‘One differentiated in itself’. Russell’s essay, accompanying her translation, interprets this as the lightning strike of a ‘Divine force’, an insight that (loosely) links Hölderlin, Shelley and Empedocles. She tends to replace philosophical incisiveness with a blustering, autobiographical style, but what her exposition lacks in rigour it makes up for in enthusiasm.
In a letter of 1801, Hölderlin declares there ‘is only one quarrel in the world: which is more important, the whole or the individual part’. Hyperion finally accepts that the irresolvable tension, the pulse or heartbeat vital to the fully-lived human life is that between unity and freedom, Being and reflection, living in life and above it. With new-found optimism, he compares these ‘dissonances of the world’ to lovers’ quarrels, where ‘Reconciliation is in the midst of strife and all that is parted finds itself again’. He offers a further encouraging metaphor: ‘The arteries divide and return to the heart and one, eternal glowing life is All’. What remains to us is an unending quest or process not liable to completion or final stasis. The impossibility of completion is famously expressed in the novel’s final, almost throw-away phrase (‘Nächstens mehr’). In Russell’s fine translation this is rendered as ‘More shortly’ and the ‘more’ that followed was, of course, the poetry for which Hölderlin is now most famous.