This was going to be the start of another part of the book project which was going to alternate with ‘Night Office’ and “The Triumph of Love”. Again it’s an attempt to encourage a wider readership by writing something that’s bit more personal and immediate, a work in progress….
You’re daunted, you’re aware of its reputation with regard to readability and obscurity but you’ve just read ‘In Parenthesis’ which is the most heartbreakingly magnificent war poem/novel that you’ve ever read and it wasn’t too difficult but you’ve got the Auden quip in your head (been living with it for 10 years and still didn’t understand it- he also thought it was the best long poem of the 20th century) and you know this will take time. You’re relieved to find that Jones has provided a longish introduction which sets out what he’s aiming for. This seems to be a description of the important aspects of his cultural landscape of the last two thousand years. Of course ‘landscape’ is your noun, he uses ‘mythus’ and ‘sign’ and deposit’ and it’s clear that the Catholic liturgy is going to be a central focal point. As with ‘In Parenthesis’ there’s notes but these re t the bottom of the relevant page. You know that their are many different recommended ways to read the poem and you decide on a middle path of using the notes (where possible) to establish the ‘sense’ of the text.
You find yourself thinking about liturgy and realise that this is stuff you should really know a little more about because it’s been an expression of belief for the majority of people in the West for the last two millennia – even though there isn’t a God.
You re-read the introduction and come across four paragraphs that might be Quite Important:
“Or, to leave analogy and to speak plain: I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, materiere, ethos, whole res. of which the poet is himself product.
My guess is that we cannot answer the question ‘What is poetry?’ (meaning, What is the nature of poetry? cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits.
We know – it goes without saying – that the question ‘What is the material of poetry?’ cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits..
We know also, and even more certainly that this applies to the question ‘By what means or agency is poetry?’ For one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependant involves the employment of particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.
Now, you’ve spent more than a few years thinking about poetry, you have fairly well-formed views about what poetry can and can’t do. In particular you are of the view that poetry takes itself far too seriously and isn’t, in fact, all that special or privileged. The above does however seem to offer a key to at least part of the underlying rationale of the work even though you may not agree with it. What is also an immense relief is that you understand it. You’re not familiar with ‘torcular’ so you check the OED and find that it means ‘tourniquet’ but is also Latin for a wine or oil press which makes additional sense given Jones’ interest in imperial Rome.
You are deeply suspicious of the idea that poetry somehow makes use of ‘heightened’ language primarily because you don’t understand how this heightening works and think it my be a way of avoiding the fact that poets make use of a bagful of tricks which is more about adaptation than refinement. Still there’s something satisfying about the notion of poetry giving expression to these deposits. You start to think about your own mythos and now feel less daunted because you might now have a point of entry and a vague template of what is intended.
You begin and are immediately relieved that the beginning is comprehensible and in line with the introduction:
“We already and first of all discern him making this thing other.
His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM... and by pre-
application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.”
There is a note to the Latin:
“See the Roman Mass, the Prayer of Consecration, beginning ‘Which oblation do thou… ascribe to, ratify, make reasonable…’
and a further note to ‘venerable hands:
‘Cf. the same ‘… in sanctas ac venerabiles, manus suas…’
At which point you know that that re-reading Eamon Duffy isn’t going to be enough so you look at the Catholic Encyclopaedia and decide that this is probably too much so you turn to Wikipedia and find ‘Text and Rubrics of the Roman Canon’ which provides the relevant texts in full. The first is “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect: make it spiritual and acceptable so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” You note that this seems to be radically different translation of the same Latin words but you know that Jones was a staunch traditionalist and continued to adhere to the Tridentine Mass after it was superseded. Wikipedia also tells you tht it is Christ’s hands that are referred to and not (as you had assumed) those of the priest. You take the ‘efficacious sign’ to be the sign of the cross as this is made by the priest at this point in the Tridentine Mass. You think about the adjective and wonder about its choice. A little further rummaging about finds that the sign of the cross is used to bless the bread and the wine 25 times during the Tridentine Mass which seems a little excessive.
You then think about what it means to bless something and you recognise that things are blessed in order to endow them with some sort of spiritual or holy quality and you also remember something from ‘O’ level history about transubstantiation and the belief that the bread and wine became the flesh and blood of Christ and you think that this might be to do with the efficacy of the sign(s) of the cross.
There’s another couple of oddnesses: why should our discerning have already have occurred if this was ‘first of all’ and does this somehow tie in with ;pre-application in the second paragraph? Both of these seem to imply something that happened before the scene that is being described, then again Jones could be implying that the rituals and signs of the Mass have been with us since the Last Supper or he could be referring to the eternal presence of Christ amongst us. You decide to read on:
“These, at the sagging end and chapter.s close, standing
humbly before the tables spread, in the apsidal houses, who
between the sterile ornaments
under the paste-board baldachins
as, in the young-time, in the sap-years
between the loving floriations
under the leaping arches.
(Ossific, trussed with ferric rods, the failing numina
of column and entablature, the genii of spire and triforium,
like great rivals met when all is done, nod recognition across
the cramped repeats of their dead selves.)”
This is a relief, we’re still in church and there’s kind of elegy for the early years of Christianity (young-time, sap-years) which are contrasted with today’s elderly congregations and it’s fake features. Then there is this remarkable bracketed paragraph which you have to read a few times before you understand what might be going on. The church is ossified and held together with iron trusses. The inspirational spirits behind (within?) the architectural features and flourishes acknowledge each other and what they once were.
You really are quite pleased with this, you know that things will get denser and more obdurate as you proceed but this is quite a gentle beginning. Because of your complete ignorance in these matters, you check out the less obvious architectural terms and note that ‘triforium’ has a slightly misleading background in that before the 19th century the term was only ever applied to features of Canterbury cathedral but has since become more general in application. You love little nuggets of obscurity like this and consider delving further but the rest of the poem awaits.
A little way in there’s a lengthy description / account of the Last Supper, you’re surprised by how poignant you find this passage to be even though you don’t believe that any of these events occurred. Not only does Jones believe this story, he also holds it to be the central event of human history- one that continues to exercise its power two thousand years later. You re-read and discover that it’s the understated that has this effect, the words that do no more than ‘point’ to what might be going on:
“In a low voice
as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
and one, gone out.”
You’re taking it that the one that has gone out is Judas Iscariot on his way to betray Jesus and you haven’t actually felt anything at all about this event until now, you’ve understood its significance in terms of Christianity and Western culture and you know the endless debates about what this final meal signifies.but all of this has been without emotion, you haven’t been moved by these events because you don’t think that they occurred. These four lines have evoked something in you – the only other religious verse to achieve this response is the middle bit of George Herbert’s ‘Love III’ which is in part about worthiness. The initial ‘low voice’ is that of the priest which then becomes (or is likened to) the voice of Christ. You wonder why ‘the’ or ‘a’ have been dropped from the place of this speaking and why there’s a hyphen. You’ve never fully understood the blame heaped on Judas Iscariot, if we are to understand that Christ’s execution was pre-ordained then it was Judas’ pre-ordained role to betray him. You don’t want to tax your brain too much but it would appear likely that Jones held to the ‘traditional’ view of free will or some variation of it, which may mean that Christ’s self-sacrifice was inevitable and that Judas was one of the instruments by which this was achieved. You don’t hold to the view that Judas was a political extremist who wanted Christ to be arrested so that He could reveal his identity and wreak havoc on his enemies. You then realise that you haven’t thought about any of this for many, many years and begin to see how much of ‘gap’ there is between those with faith and those without.
There is then a description of preparations for the meal which is heavy with sea faring phrases: “They set the thwart boards / and along”; “furbish with the green of the year the cross beams and the / gleaming board”; “The make all shipshape / for she must be trim / dressed and gaudeous / all Bristol fashion here / for: / Who d’you think is Master of her?” You’re aware that there is a strong nautical / seafaring strand to ‘The Anathemata” but you are surprised to find it given such emphasis here- you aren’t struck by the oddness of it but you do find it startling and recall something that Prynne wrote about modernist poetry seeking to surprise and thereby take your breath away. You also need to check on some of the terms, the OED gives this for ‘thwart’ as a noun: “a seat across a boat on which the rower sits, a rower’s bench” which makes sense but it also gives this etymology “ apparently a noun use (which came in after 1725) of thwart adv., thwart adj., having reference to the position of the rowing benches or seats athwart or across the boat. Whether its use was partly due to similarity of sound to thaught , thawt , or thought , previously applied to the same thing, is uncertain. Our latest contemporary instance of ‘thaught or thought ’ is of 1721, of thoat 1697, of thout 1725, while our first of ‘thaughts or thwarts ’ is of 1736, so that the appellations were continuous in use, as if the one had passed into the other. But, for the full determination of the relations between thoft , thought or thaught , and thwart , fuller evidence between 1500 and 1700 is needed” which strikes you as wonderful especially as it’s from the first edition and hasn’t suffered the inevitable update yet. In terms of meaning, you recall that some big ships were propelled by oarsmen who sat on benches that didn’t go all the way athwart the boat but you do like the idea of these boards going across the general run of things (bow-stern) being used as seats at the Last Supper because their purpose was to enable the ship to move forward. You now feel very pleased with yourself and decide to tell very many people about the ‘thaught – thwart’ conundrum and hope it is never resolved.
You decide to move on to ‘Bristol fashion’ even though you know what the phrase means and you come across the excellent Phrasefinder site which tells you that the term may have been derived from the fact that ships docking at Bristol had to be sturdy and in good condition because they would be beached when moored at low tide. The site adds that this is circumstantial reasoning but you do prefer it to the OED quote from the Sailor’s Word Book of 1867 which just equates it to Bristol’s commercial prime when all its shipping was in good order.
Everything is being prepared for Christ, the ‘Master’ but we are not told this but instead are asked this rhetorical question. You are reasonably certain that reams and reams have been written on the use of rhetoric in Big Poems and you may even have read some on Spenser and/or Milton in the past but you’ve forgotten all of it even though you think that rhetoric should still be taught in schools. So, you take note of the fact that this is the first time that you, the reader, are addressed and that the use of ‘her’ might suggest a parallel between the upper room and a ship.
Things then take a deeper turn:
“In the prepared high-room
he implements time inside time and late in time under forms in-
delibly marked by locale and incidence, deliberations made
out of time, before all oreogenesis
on this hill
at a time’s turn
not on any hill
but on this hill.”
You are about to make number of rash leaps in the dark but you need to get ‘oreogenesis’ out of the way first. It turns out that this isn’t in the OED but ‘orogenesis’ is. You then turn to google and come across this from “Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850 – 2000” by Richard Griffiths:
“And now we come back to the priest, who, though imprisoned in time, is also performing a timeless act, an act that had been decided by the Word before the beginning of time, before the crearion of the earliest creatures (oreogenesis) and before the creation of time itself; and the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice is shown by the fact that, ‘before all oreogenesis’, it was decided ‘on this hill’ (a clear reference to Calvary):”
He then quotes the above passage. You then have a brief run of the auto-didact panics before deciding that he’s both wrong and inept even though he’s written a book and it’s been published (this kind of anxiety is never far from the surface). It is fair to say that this remarkable passage only makes sense if we don’t go ‘back to the priest’ but recognise that it is Christ who is implementing inside time and if we don’t look for meaning the creation of time and we avoid cliches like ‘the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice” becuase that’s the kind of thing that people say when they have nothing to say.
You, of course, want this passage to be (at least) a nod towards Whitehead’s “Process and Reality” and this needs to be kep in check. You’re also more than a little sceptical about stuff that sounds like it might be mystical mumbo-jumbo. You therefore go back to basics. The Catholic Mass is a re-enactment of the Last Supper and it is this ‘deposit’ that has persisted and endured in a very real form. ‘Implements’ will be a deliberate verb, in the sense of to make something happen or to put something into effect but also to provide with implements which may refer to the chalice and other paraphenalia but might also be the bread and wine.
You then notice (whilst looking for something else) that Jones expands on this in his introduction:
“So that, leaving aside much else, we could not have the bear and absolute essentials wherewith to bear the command ‘Do this for a recalling of me’, without artefacture. nd where artefacture is there is the muse and those cannot escape her presence who with whatever intention employ the signs of wine and bread. Something has to be made by us before it can become his sign who made us,. This point he settled in the upper room. No artefacture no Christian religion.”
Jones provides a note to ‘recalling’ which points to this from “The Shape of the Mass” by Gregory Dix:
“But in the scriptures of both the Old and New Testament anamnesis and the cognate verb have a sense of “recalling” or “re-presenting” before God an event in the past so that it becomes here and now operative by its effects”.
In spite of yourself you try to have another think at this, you find a copy of the Dix book on the interweb and read the relevant pages and are immediately disappointed- the underpinning argument does not even nod towards Whitehead but is a rather confused and ill-founded model built on the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. You could resolve the problem by allowing yourself to think that Jones would have agreed with Whitehead on the primacy of the event but the sad fact is that he wouldn’t.