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.
In lieu of a new blog post, here is a link to the Hercules Editions webpage on which I have formulated a few thoughts about the current lockdown, photography and the (forgotten?) refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. It is a piece in part related to the Hercules publication of my longer poem, Cargo of Limbs.
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.
Sean O’Brien’s recent book, Europa (Picador Poetry, 2018) has made it onto the 2018 T.S. Eliot award shortlist. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Magma magazine on-line to write a brief review of the book (alongside Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet Press, 2018) and Alice Miller’s Nowhere Nearer (Liverpool University Press, 2018). What follows is an expanded version of my original review of O’Brien’s book.
You know why they chose to do it but Picador’s presentation of Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection as a book about Brexit does nobody any favours. It’s a far more heterogeneous set of poems – there’s a good dose of elegiac texts, for example – though the opening 19 pages certainly does have the UK and Europe steadily in their sights. It turns out, what these two blocs share in O’Brien’s view, is a history which is ironically mostly one of conflict (a view also reflected in O’Brien’s Robert Graves Society lecture recently published in P.N. Review 244) . The opening poem, ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ repeats the line, “The grass moves on the mass graves”. The poem goes on to ask how many “divisions” the grass has at this activity and the play on words manages to evoke both military logistics as well as peace-time political conflicts. The narrative voice is downcast, speaking in short breathless little phrases as if anything more lengthy would be beyond him or not worth it. The steadying recourse is merely “my work” which serves to sustain but for no other obvious purpose than to arrive at “the graveyard I become”.
Other poems draw on material from the Great War or the Balkan conflict while ‘Wrong Number’ looks back to visits to the divided city of Berlin, visits that read like a catalogue of failures ending in a self-regarding and (later) self-ironised “species of moral exhaustion”. How effectively poetry – or a literary sensibility – can engage with what is really existing in political terms is one of the themes here:
I chose not to mention this
Because it was too obvious or literary,
Like making something out of nothing
For the sake of poetry, as if that were a sin.
But O’Brien is always at his best engaging in his love/hate relationship with England. ‘Dead Ground’ explores who owns the English countryside. It describes a ‘theme park’ landscape, a fantasy “[w]here things are otherwise” than what they really are, yet an exclusive park round which ancient walls “will be built again, but taller”. O’Brien’s second person addresses are always discomfiting, levelling an accusing finger at the reader more than most contemporary poets though it’s effect is complicated by the clear sense that he implicates himself as well. Art again gets short shrift – here it is batted away as “[t]he never-was and never-will” in contrast to the brute facts of ownership and possession. Is it the sensibility of the artist/poet again being prodded and provoked here: “The liberties you think you claim / By searching out the detail / In the detail”? Again, this is a task that seems to end nowhere better than “your six-foot plot”. In fact, in O’Brien’s vision of contemporary England, the most vital activity is wholly mercenary, “counting the takings”.
Those who live outside this country’s circles of possession and privilege, those to be found in “Albion’s excluded middle”, are more than likely to end up in the kind of neo-Nazi meeting so brilliantly described in ‘The Chase’. Here, in Function Rooms where “gravy fights it out with Harpic” O’Brien finds “[w]ould be Werwolfs” who are planning to make Britain great again. The narrator’s antagonism to them is clear enough – the poem enjoys mocking their “banal resentments”, their abortive calls to phone-in radio shows, their “bigotry” – but the moral stance is complicated by his inability directly to confront such attitudes, though he acknowledges that he should: “Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think / These people do not matter. Then they do”. Here too, the “you” does a great job of skewering the complacent reader.
O’Brien’s smokingly apocalyptic visions, familiar from earlier collections, recur in Europa, though (again) to pin these to the shameful, self-wounding moment of Brexit is surely too reductive. ‘Apollyon’ is a scary vision of destructive power as a “[g]ent of an antiquarian bent” and ‘Exile’ relishes the blunt pessimism of its given-and-snatched-away conclusion: “It is from here, perhaps, that change must come. / You are garrotted by a man your hosts have sent”. One of the instigators of betrayal and disaster, in what begins to heap up in the book as a modern wasteland, is recognisable in her “leopard shoes and silver rings” and it feels particularly pointed that O’Brien has to go as far as Mexico City (and a more mythopoetic mode) to find a strange man/beast at a bar who suggests the possibility of “living in hope despite the mounting evidence” (‘Jaguar’).
As I have already hinted, the equivocal role of the artist has long bothered O’Brien and – it’s my impression – that he beats himself up more frequently nowadays over the poet/artist’s impotence. The hilarious but ultimately cynical account in ‘Sabbatical’ of university life (especially Creative Writing) paints a depressing scene:
Apres moi, Creative Writing, dammit.
Good luck, my friends, my enemies,
And those of you to whom in all these years
I’ve still not spoken. Now I bid farewell,
Abandoning my desk, my books
And thirteen thousand frantic e-mails
Enquiring about the Diary Exercise
On which the fate of everything
(To whit, this institution) hangs
The collection ends with ‘A Closed Book’, a poem which has clear echoes of Shelley’s apocalyptic, unfinished last poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’. Someone – it’s “you”, of course – impotently watches a parade (“a cart”) rolling through an unspecified European square where he is sitting like a tourist (or someone on a sabbatical). The figure does little other than observe and wait, “As if this one venue would give you / The secret entire”. But here too, the knives are elegantly brought out. It is for such a moment “you spent your life preparing”, we are told, and though hopes of “transfiguration” and “perfection” are voiced, the sense is more of an exhausted spirit, of self-delusion.
Europa is full of such unflinching, incisive moments, combined with a breadth of vision and dark sense of humour that few contemporary poets can match. But I worry that in so frequently denigrating his own art (ironically because he expects so much ‘achievement’ from it), O’Brien ironically runs the risk of allowing darker agencies too much influence in a culture that, for its many faults, permits a high degree of liberal civilisation. A civilisation, in the interstices of which (at the risk of sounding too complacent), pass lives of relative peace and achievement, where even art with fewer explicit political designs should be lauded and encouraged, since it too plays an ethical/political role, as if to say, ‘this is what must be protected’.
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.
With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?
It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).
Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .
For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.
Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.
Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.
A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.
A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”
Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.
In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?
Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here
Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)
Many thanks to Peepal Tree Press for providing a copy of Nick Makoha’s book for review purposes.
Poetry is an art of the relative, but the ability to write about contemporary events beyond one’s personal sphere always strikes me as an absolute and rare talent. Yet it always turns out the poet’s individual circumstances contribute to such escapes from the personal and this is so with Nick Makoha who has talked of writing in exile from Uganda. He fled civil war and the rule of Idi Amin as a five-year old boy in 1979. Many of the poems in Kingdom of Gravity are shocking (and so powerful in particular ways as art) and their obsessive subject is power without justice in post-colonial Africa.
There are moments when early Auden seems a useful comparison. Each poem creates its own world of suspicion and unease, often of violence. Each poem is spoken by a human subject – I thought of Glyn Maxwell’s phrase “the presence of a human creature” (On Poetry, Oberon Books, 2012). This is maintained even though the materials of the poems are journalistic, clogged with stuff, hawked up, hacked off incidents that most of us are only familiar with from news, TV and film. The forms are often shaped but roughly so; Makoha’s voices often make use of anaphora/repetition and tend to the epigrammatic. Such patterning is mostly ironic because if there is one thing this collection expresses it is a sense of exile and disconnect, a loss of all moral compass. The construction of the book seems to encourage this sense of disconnect. Three poems evoking Uganda’s 1979 turning point (after Amin’s 8 year rule) are scattered across 2 of the 5 sections of the book. Each of the 5 sections are introduced by poems linked with airports and travel, distance, arrivals, departures – exile again – and these set the tone.
The figure of Amin – and those in the ensuing years who have resembled him – recurs. The book is full of father figures, often distorted, corrupt, vicious, God-like, their hands covered in blood. A crocodile is considered in one poem, the creature imagined as Idi Amin’s teacher:
Wrath the only nature of God you taught him.
What of mercy, peace and Uganda?
Our bodies still rest in your jaws.
The book’s opening lyric, ‘Highlife’, praises the power that comes with “Presidency” and these include the power to throttle another man, to spare a life, to change perception by force, to be acknowledged as “God”. Such big men always promise much to gain adherents but in promoting themselves they soon threaten far more than they deliver:
This man is a firm knot in our chest. A landlord draped
in Savile Row suits, who uses our towns as a race track.
Mark the length of his shadow; where it reaches,
The book’s title poem is like this. Re-writing Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Auden’s 1939 ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ from the inside, Makoha speaks as a man wanting to create a world wholly in his own image: “What makes a man name a city after himself, / asking bricks to be bones”. His conviction is that he has been spoken to by “an oracle”; he claims to be searching for “a place to call home” but ominously is equally “in search of fire”. The kingdom of gravity is the condition of “having the world at your feet” and Makoha’s analysis of tyranny looks deceptively open-ended, asking if once the world is believed to be fully known, a reflection of the power-hungry self, then “how will you be sure that nothing is lost?” Such absolute control is an impossibility, of course, and for the tyrant the only solution is a call to arms: “Smear your bodies in red oil. Tonight we split the darkness. / We will be remembered as the wild cats // who smeared their bodies in blood” (‘From the King’).
As this makes clear, tyrants need followers. They are well represented in the book – both as victims and as the breeding ground for the next wave of tyranny. ‘Watchmen’ seems voiced by a man in whose calculations his wife, children, contraband, money, beer and a prostitute all seem interchangeable counters in his mind’s equations. Hard to follow what happens next – the border between fact and fantasy is uncertain – but a powerful male figure rips a sheep to pieces, offers it to other men if they become his “true bloods”. There are plenty of takers:
Some say he had promised land, others positions,
and yet others gold. The truth is we all wanted
to be kings with wives and cars.
There is a drone in our voices.
The night’s coolness has not yet gone.
The apparition snatches a Kalashnikov from a shepherd’s fist
and slips into the river. What’s weird is we all break rank
and like a swarm follow singing his incantations
and like a swarm follow singing his incantations.
The willing yielding up of individuality implied in the choice of the word “drone” is driven home in the final lines which repeat Frost’s repeating trick in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ but turn his swooning/determined ambiguity into an unambiguous, threatening, weaponised, overwhelming “swarm” of humanity.
The speaker’s sense that something “weird” is happening, the potentially redemptive sense of the growth of evil is reflected in a few other poems such as ‘The Liberation’ where someone who “used to be a boy” now moves “like smoke across the red dirt towards the second terminal”. In this case, such drastic shifts in human behaviour are considered “a costume” to be worn when the earth “erupts” but the potential reversal of the process implied by this metaphor elsewhere looks like liberal wishful thinking. ‘Candidate A’ seems voiced by a tyrant selection committee, enumerating an individual’s qualities, making him suitable for elevation to “His Excellency, Field Marshall, / Effendi etcetera”. Love of his own reflection, unprovoked violence, rejection of the rules, an appetite for acclaim and acquisitiveness replaced by “immediate gratification” mark out this fanatic among the ranks for a bright future though ultimately he’s to be used by whomever is speaking: “in his effort to be remembered, we will make our mark”.
I was reading this book partly while visiting Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. In the commemorative museum, I was struck by a quotation from Gandhi: there is no way to peace; peace is the way. As in Picasso’s painting of the bombing of the town in 1937, Makoha’s poems give us more of the horror of when things break down, but also remind us that peace is more than just the absence of war. Poems like ‘Resurrection Man’, ‘The Dark’ and ‘How to Make Blood’ ask great determination of the reader and also ask us where we stand as we read them. The poet’s stance is driven by a form of survivor guilt. His escape to the UK meant an equivocal freedom:
My own country rebukes me. I hold the world on my back.
Look for me in translation. In my own language you will go unanswered.
My Ugandan passports are a quiet place of ruin.
One of the airport poems, set at Charles De Gaulle, Paris, perhaps speaks in something like Makoha’s own voice. It is about the impossibility of telling a story fully. He has no problems with endings – the difficulty is that “I have lost where I began”. The condition of the exile is always liminal, not living fully in either of two places. In Makoha’s case this gives him the space to contribute to English poetry a dark, knotty, often difficult kind of music, plainly relevant in its response to some of the horrors of the contemporary world. The book’s cover has been well-chosen by Peepal Tree Press: a grey scale image of a child standing beside an utterly devastated tree trunk. Hands by her side, she seems to be waiting for something to happen. Something else to happen.
Last week I was pleased to be involved in the first of the on-line journal Bow-Wow Shop’s evening events in Clapham. Its focus was the figure of Orpheus: What is it about the story of Orpheus and his pursuit of his dead wife, Eurydice, into the underworld that has so inspired generations of artists, writers and composers?
Editor of The Bow-Wow Shop, poet and Independent arts and culture journalist, Michael Glover organises and he programmed a terrific mix of material. Ann Wroe’s 2011 book, Orpheus: the song of life (Cape), explores the roots of the Orphic story and traces its many manifestations through Classical to modern times. I was lucky enough to read with her at an event at Lauderdale House a couple of years ago. In Clapham she was in conversation with Marius Kociejowski. I was there on the strength of my 2012 translations of Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus (Enitharmon Press). Providing musical illustrations of the power of the Orpheus story were mezzo-soprano Lita Manners and guitarist Paul Thomas. There was also an exhibition of prints by Tom de Freston, creator of OE, a graphic novel on the Orpheus material.
Lita and Paul performed extracts for Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), songs by Vaughn-Williams and from the 1959 film Black Orpheus. Marius interviewed Ann though she needed little prompting to discuss several aspects of what is a wonderfully original book. Rilke’s inspired writing of the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) form a thread through the book but she steered clear of that and concentrated more on the first evidence of the myth in the 6th BCE: a painting in black figure on a Greek vase, pictured with a huge lyre that almost seems part of him. Already at that early stage he is called ‘famous’. A 13th century BCE Cretan vase perhaps images him, again with the super-sized lyre (denoting divine powers, his music powerful even over inanimate objects birds, trees). Elsewhere he seems imaged as a bird himself – the power of song and music so strong that he must take on the attributes of a bird-god.
Perhaps even further back, Ann suggested, the figure is based on fertility myths, perhaps of Indian origin. His wife Eurydice likewise is linked to the figure of Persephone, the whole narrative in its original forms reflecting ideas of the seasons, death and re-birth of the earth, the crops. But there remains something irresolvable about the Orpheus myth – this polyvalent quality is one of the reasons for its productive quality in terms of inspiring artists. We kept recurring to the question: why must Orpheus turn as he is leading Eurydice out of the Underworld? The story contains its own tragedy. Ann suggested one interpretation might be to do with the fact the Eurydice represents the mystery of the natural world, or perhaps of knowledge/speech about the natural world, and that must necessarily remain hidden. Such a thing is the remit of the Gods alone. Orpheus must leave the Underworld empty-handed.
I spoke about Rilke in 1921, settling into the Château de Muzot in the Swiss Valais. How he liked to walk in the garden with its orchards and roses in full bloom, a landscape often evoked in the sonnet sequence which eventually arrived. He later declared that in the month of February 1922, he ‘could do nothing but submit, purely and obediently, to the dictation of [an] inner impulse’. In an extraordinary inspirational period, between the 2nd and 5th of that month, most of the 26 sonnets of Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus were written. He then polished off the ten year old sequence of the Duino Elegies. Between the 15th and the 23rd, Rilke went on to complete the 29 poems of Part Two.
Perrcy Bysshe Shelley wrote a longish fragment on the myth in 1820:
Is clothed in sweetest sounds and varying words
Of poesy. Unlike all human works,
It never slackens, and through every change
Wisdom and beauty and the power divine
Of mighty poesy together dwell,
Mingling in sweet accord.
Here, as often, Orpheus is an image of the (male) artist/poet as well as being an image of our desire to find or create order or harmony in the world about us.
Rilke’s inspired poems brim with optimism and confidence about the role of poetry. In contrast, but more typical of the growing 20th century gloom, perhaps with intimations of a second world war, 15 years later – Auden’s brief 1937 poem ‘Orpheus’ is mired in uncertainty, asking “What does the song hope for?” Is it to be “bewildered and happy” – a sort of ecstatic but unthinking bliss? Or is it to discover “the knowledge of life”? No answer is given. The poem ends: “What will the wish, what will the dance do?” This is the Auden who doubts the power of poetry – it makes nothing happen – in his Elegy to Yeats.
And more like Auden than Rilke, the 20th century tended to take a more sceptical view of the myth – giving a more powerful voice to the traditionally passive Eurydice – more critical of Orpheus as careless, self-centred, weak. For example, in 1917 – 4 years before Rilke arrived in his chateau, H.D.’s Eurydice was condemning Orpheus:
for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth
Such radical revisions come also from more explicitly feminist poets like the American, Alta:
all the male poets write of orpheus
as if they look back & expect
to find me walking patiently
behind them, they claim I fell into hell
damn them, I say.
I stand in my own pain
& sing my own song
Carol Ann Duffy’s revision (in her 1999 book The World’s Wife) gives Eurydice both poem title and narrative perspective. Her Orpheus is:
the kind of a man
who follows her round
writing poems, hovers about
while she reads them,
calls her his Muse,
and once sulked for a night and a day
because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.
She saves herself from having to accompany Orpheus back to the upper world by offering to listen to his poem again. Orpheus, seduced and flattered, turns. “I waved once and was gone” she comments.
In this context Rilke’s take on the myth is (not surprisingly) very traditional and brimming with confidence in the role of the poet and patriarchal sidelining of Eurydice. So Rilke’s interest lies with the world and the underworld, life and death. He is more like Shelley who set his fragmentary poem after the loss of E and it’s coming through that experience that seems to add power to his song. Rilke is interested in the idea of transition. Orpheus tries to recover Eurydice; he moves from life, into death and then back again. This fluidity, the courage and a readiness to renew ourselves, to be risked in the absorption with something other, to be translated from one realm to another, to come and go, to be and not to be is what draws Rilke to the myth.
This is also Don Paterson’s thinking behind his versions of the Sonnets in Orpheus (Faber, 2006). He argues Man is unique in having foreknowledge of his own death, meaning we act as if we are already dead, or historical. This means that we construct life as an authentic and intelligible narrative, a life with meaning, but it is death that drives the plot of our life. This is one of Paterson’s key ideas and he refers to it as our ‘ghost-hood’. So we are like Orpheus: we too have descended to the land of the shades and then returned to the present moment – our condition is therefore existentially transgressive, riven, divided.
It’s the singing of the Orphic artist that addresses and bridges such divisions. This explains Rilke’s interest in the Orpheus myth: its narrative is a metaphor for the longed-for transit or communion between the realms of life and death. He possesses the desired ability to inspire the renovation of human perception that can initiate a more comprehensive, joyful and celebratory experience of life. One of the things most people know of Rilke is his exhortation to praise. Praise is a form of secular prayer for Rilke and it demands a renovation of conventional language through Orpheus’ song – as also noted by Shelley in Prometheus Unbound:
Language is a perpetual Orphic song,
Which rules with Daedal harmony a throng
Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were
Orpheus’ singing as a way to think about the language of poetry can clearly be seen in Rilke’s celebratory sonnets about the garden at Muzot. Here’s my translation of sonnet I 13:
Pear and plump apple and gooseberry,
banana . . . all of these have something to say
of life and death to the tongue . . . I guess . . .
Read it in the expression on a child’s face
as she tastes them. It comes from far off.
Slowly, does speechlessness fill your mouth?
In place of words, a flood of discovery
from the flesh of fruit, astonished, free.
Try to express what it is we call ‘apple’.
This sweet one with its gathering intensity
rising so quietly – even as you taste it –
becomes transparent, wakeful, ready,
ambiguous, sunny, earthy, native.
O experience, touch, pleasure, prodigal!
Rilke’s vigorous and self-conscious mutations of the sonnet form create a variety of rhyme schemes, line lengths, iambic and dactylic pulses. David Constantine has described this as suitably fitting forms for the figure of Orpheus because he is himself a figure of transition, fluency and mystery.
Forthcoming Bow-Wow Shop events in Clapham will focus on the work of Edward Lear and Gabriel Garcia Lorca.
Don Paterson’s 1997 book, God’s Gift to Women (Faber) includes a poem sporting the title ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’. The reader’s eye hops off the perch of this lengthy title only to flutter down, looking in vain for a foothold, for a line, even a word – it’s a completely blank page. In a collection that includes a poem called ‘Postmodern’ and another on ‘The Alexandrian Library’, the joke is obvious enough. Any search for ‘masterly’ advice in the Kyushu Mountains or closer to home in a post-modern, relativist world in which language hides as much as it might reveal, must draw a blank. I remember seeing the poem – probably heard Paterson ‘read’ it too – the long title building expectation, a too-long pause, the announcement of the next poem (cue laughter) – and something bothered me. I think now I know what it was.
I wondered if Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu(tr. Arthur Cooper, 1973). The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Cooper’s note tells us that ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’ is actually a very common theme in Chinese poetry. Such a poem (we are told) is not just an excuse for a “nature poem” but relates to the frequent “spirit-journeys” that Li Po was fond of writing. Here is Cooper’s translation:
Where the dogs bark
by roaring waters,
whose spray darkens
the petals’ colours,
deep in the woods
deer at times are seen;
the valley noon:
one can hear no bell,
but wild bamboos
cut across bright clouds,
hang from jasper peaks;
no one here knows
which way you have gone:
two, now three pines
I have leant against!
I had come across this poem while compiling my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990). I liked it for reasons I didn’t then understand and, in a very simple form of translation, I wrote an up-dated version:
Looking for an Old Man
Where red dogs bark
on the sodium ring-road
and traffic noise
blackens adjacent houses,
I’ve come to seek you.
In each garden I pass,
pale heads of bindweed.
The night is undistinguished.
The savour of coalsmoke
flattens across the kerb.
No-one here knows
which way you have gone:
two, now three lampposts
I’ve leant against.
Li Po is the more Daoist of the two poets presented as a complementary pair in this Penguin book. Now, with a bit more understanding of this tradition, I’m sure that 26 years ago I was responding to something at the heart of the poem. The fact that the Daoist master cannot be found by the searching student is precisely the point since the Daoist teacher teaches “in the absence of words” (Chapter 43, ‘Best Teaching’) as I translated it in my version of the Daodejing(Enitharmon, 2016).
Interestingly, Li Po’s poem expresses this not with a blank page but (as Cooper says) through further encounters with “nature” (petals, woods, deer, valley, bamboo, clouds) or, in my version, the natural and urban world (ring-road, traffic, houses, garden, bindweed, coalsmoke, kerb). Whether we designate this a ‘spiritual’ journey or not, the point remains that the student’s search for knowledge in the form of a direct download from some master must be denied. The student’s anxious search for guidance is reflected in the number of pines/lampposts he leans against as well as the geographical over-specificity of the titles of such poems. The student’s dependency and naïve optimism is the satirical butt of the poem as he is directed back to the source of all knowledge (the world surrounding him) even as he wanders in search of his master. So Paterson’s 1997 version achieves three things: it misrepresents the spirit of the original, it’s more dramatic (comic), it’s more superficial.
When I first read Li Po’s poem I was coming off the back of doctoral work on the Romantics, especially Shelley whose ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) argues that the “poetry in [our] systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes [. . .] we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know”. This is succinctly put in Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, defined as a passive openness to the fullest range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. The student in Li Po’s poem seeks just such certainties and facts and is gently deflected back into the world of observation where (I take it) he is encouraged to pursue a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with the 10,000 things which (in Daoism) constitute the One, ‘what is’.
The two attitudes to knowledge here are really two ‘ways of being’ as Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating book, The Master and his Emissary(Yale, 2009) phrases it. McGilchrist argues that right and left human brain hemispheres deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”. Shelley described this in 1821 and linked it to the processes of Reason and this is the attitude to knowledge and education that the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses. In contrast, what Shelley calls Poetry or the Imagination is what McGilchrist associates with the right brain. It tends to perceive “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”.
Without doubt, this is also the viewpoint of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the uncarved block, the One, and who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage is dependent on conceptual thought which is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. I imagine that Li Po’s master-teacher and sage is deliberately hiding somewhere beyond the bamboo canes – and this is part of the student’s lesson.
So Don Paterson’s blank page bothers me because – as McGilchrist expresses it – it represents a rather glib, post-modern position, a scepticism about language which is in danger of throwing out the interconnected real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth” (McGilchrist, p. 6). I’m also reminded of Yves Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battle with the early stirrings of French post-modernism. He writes: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply withus. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna(1953), he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but as “presence”. The right brain knows this; the left brain sets about fragmenting it, making use of it, disappearing it.