Category Archives: theology

Prynne week: J H Prynne on George Herbert’s Love [III]

Today I’m going to turn away from the harrying of the poetry and pay serious attention to the prose. Prior to the publication of Prynne’s tome on the above (in 2011) I was completely in the dark about the strength of Herbert’s work and the place it seems to occupy in the God-related debates of the time.

I’d previously read Prynne’s equally lengthy work on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper which didn’t encourage me to read more of the Romantics but did suggest a new way of reading poems. Given that the book is 87 pages in length, I’m not going to attempt a précis but pay attention to one aspect of Love [III]:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
                 Gulitie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
                 From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                 If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
                 Love said,  You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                 I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                 Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
                 Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                 Me deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes love, and taste my meat:
                 So I did sit and eat.

This seems a fairly straightforward exposition of how the “grace” might ‘work’. Those familiar with the first half of the seventeenth century will know that this was the most controversial subject of the day which split the Protestant faith into a bewildering plethora of competing factions. One of the main causes of controversy was the increasing popularity of Arminius, a Dutch theologian, who held that recognition of and repentance for past sin could be a way of gaining salvation. As a gross simplification, this might be seen as a ‘half-way’ position between the teachings of Calvin and the Roman Catholic church. Needless to say, Prynne gives much space to the place of the poem in this debate which seems (to me) to be closest to the Arminian ‘position’.

I want to pay attention to what Prynne has to say about the first line of the third verse, he starts with ‘truth’ and remarks that “notable is the way in which the admission of truth is brought forward as a countering concession in argument, when what is at stake is the divine agency of God’s own constant fidelity”. He goes on to quote from John’s First Letter: “…….it is the spirit that beareth witness, because the spirit is trueth”. This is followed by three extracts from Donne, Savnorola and Toshell expounding on the nature of God’s truth and how it is indivisible from His mercy.

Some might think that this is too small a detail to spend much time over but ‘truth’ has always been a term that is loaded with significance and this was very much the case in the second decade of the 17th century when the poem was written. From my perspective, as one who has some problems with the notion of truth as Truth, it is as well to be reminded that the truth was considered to be part of the spiritual rather than the imperial realm and that it was most impertinent to suggest otherwise.

The discussion moves to “Truth Lord” which Prynne takes to be the guest’s acknowledgement of ‘weak’ humanity’s distance from God. We are also presented with this dilemma described by George Downame in 1631 “And if we acknowledge him to be our Lord, we must be carefull to do his will, otherwise in vaine do we call him soe”. I’m not so sure that the word placed here carries that much significance but I accept that it might carry more than an echo of The Lord’s Supper, Prynne describes this as an “implicit presence” which seems accurate given the guest/meal metaphor that frames and structures the poem.

So, hopefully the above demonstrates the kind of detail and consideration that Prynne is prepared to give each part of the poem. As with anything so densely argued as this, over reading can occur but the overall impression here is a respectful and careful attention that is given to the text. I’d like to contrast this favourably with other current criticism which is (usually) badly written and overladen with underlying themes that simply aren’t there. In this instance I think our critic is correct to give weight to the theological context but should perhaps have wondered what these two words are doing in this particular place. It is possible as reading them both forward and back, that is to confirm Love as the creator of sight but also to add some kind of veracity to them being harmed by sin. I know that this might further complicates this but it strikes me that someone as technically adept as Herbert could be, in effect, making two points as one. Of course I readily acknowledge that Prynne is a much more astute reader than I will ever be, indeed I wouldn’t have considered any of this without his gentle prodding.

Even with the above quibble, I am staggered by the brilliance of the final sentence on Truth Lord: “These are august shadows to the ostensible debating tone in the poem’s polite cross-talk; the social idiom of speech intonation unmistakably implicated with fundamentals of belief”. Sentences like this demonstrate just how far in front of the rest of us Prynne is. Needless to say, I’ll be throwing ‘august shadows’ and to be ‘unmistably implicated’ into as many sentences and conversations as possible in the coming months.

Now we come to the importance of words and their various meanings. Mar, it is pointed out, apparently had a much ‘firmer meaning than it does in contemporary use: to impair fatally, to destroy or to cosign into irretrievable ruination. In the interests of readerly research, I’ve looked at the OED and these do appear but there is another definition that might be more pertinent: “To damage (a material thing) so as to render useless”. This works for me because of the place it seems to occupy in the poem. It’s also a bit odd that Prynne doesn’t provide this definition as well.

Further examples are provided of the use of ‘mar’ with prominence given to a sermon given in 1609 by Lancelot Andrewes on the way in which God sent Christ to redeem mankind: ‘He should not have sent Him made: but as he was, neither made nor created, but like Himselfe, in His own estate, as was meet for the SON OF GOD , to be sent. To make Him any thing, is to send Him Marred and no better’. Now, I’m not disputing the erudition deployed here nor am I doubting the point of placing the verb in a contemporary god-related context but I’m having a little trouble seeing how God’s putative marring of Christ has a lot to do with the guest’s eyesight.

There’s another paragraph, the gist of which is that the guest is confessing his responsibility for the ‘spiritual damage’ that he has caused but is blocked from repentance (and hence salvation) by his insistence on condemning and punishing himself.

Time for a personal interjection: one of the many reasons that this poem appeals to me is that I’m a bipolar depressive with a fairly ropey psychology and I can identify with the kind of self-negation that the guest is expressing here, especially shame, perceived wrongdoing and a complete denial of self-worth. What I find hard to get my brain around is the view that this state equates with not being ‘saved’ by God, even though I don’t dispute the technical skill involved in expressing so many things with such compressed precision.

Returning to the poem, Prynne gives a full account of the nature of religious shame and provides this explication from Thomas Wilson’s wonderful A Christian Dictionary:

Trouble and perturbation of minde and Conscience, being greeved and cast down at the remembrance of sinne against God … This is shame of Conscience, which in wicked men is an euill affection, and part of the torment of Hell: but in the godly it is a good affection a signe and fruite of their repentance.

This may we be evidence of a rapidly vertiginous descent into peculiarity but I cannot express how much I love rummaging through and plundering this tome. The above is a good example of its unequivocal no-nonsense approach to what many thought of as hopelessly complex terms. We should have more of these now- and I speak as one who is over-fond of complication.

I’d have left it at that and felt quite pleased with myself but our critic takes things a couple of steps further pointing out that here there are two meanings:

  • the objective and public shamefulness of the guest’s acts and omissions and;
  • the inward sense of shame and contrition that these acts and omissions give rise to in him.

I’m not sure that there’s a clear difference here even though Wilson points to it. As a shame regular, from the inside there is always an awareness of both even if the first is fictive. For example, I feel deep shame, inwardly and outwardly, about (as I see it) succumbing to my condition> I’m sure that the above good/bad dividing line has its god-related appeal but from the inside the problem is that they are both intertwined and feed into each other. End of second interjection.

Prynne follows his double meaning up with the ‘mistake’ of the guest in his assumption that he is inevitably condemned but that ‘Love knows better’.

So, is this the kind of attentive reading that we should all apply? What might this tell us about the ‘way’ to read the later Prynne? I consider myself to be an attentive reader, I like to think that I’m careful and thoughtful in my reading but I’m not sure that I’d want to be this relentlessly forensic although I acknowledge that I might be tempted to be this forensic but by giving a bit more weight to the poem as poem- those of us who are not fans of theological debate in the early 17thy century may feel overwhelmed by the amount of context. I do however think it’s a good thing to be extremely concerned with words in all their various glories and must try to apply this concern to more contemporary material other than Hill and Prynne. The insights this material give to Prynne’s poetry are many and varied, there’s the interest in the nature of faith, in the ambiguities and contradictions therein and about social and political context. Most of all though I think there’s a clear indication of approach to the poem with a capital P and that must be useful for those of us who want to get a little closer to the poems.

Night Office and Spiritual Pain.

First of all, I have to report that the above has also received a measured and comprehensive review by Arabella Milbank in Issue 5 of The Cambridge Humanities Review. In contrast to the review in the TLS, this makes no spurious reference to either J H Prynne or the Cambridge School but concentrates on what the poem says and how it says it.

It is both erudite (ie it has words in it that I don’t understand) and focuses on the overriding religious theme rather than the structure of this startling work. What surprises me is that, as far as I can work out, Milbank does not discuss the issue of suffering and spiritual pain which, to this reader at least, appears to run a broad thread through all 227 pages. She does however have this:

Jarvis revoices tenets in some extraordinary ways, reminding us that he believes poetry is “no alibi for weak theology”. These can be very dark. Extraordinary sections in this wintry, Adventine poem cover much of the traditional ground of the Four Last Things, taking the poet down to hell and into Judgement. At one point this vigil is referred to the orthodox mesonyktikon, where the night office is particularly that of eschatologically awaiting wakefulness. Its troparion of the Bridegroom is taken up to paint these lucubrations as those of the faithful virgin. The possibility of properly negative, absolute judgement or damnation haunts, and is not refused, by the poem:

at which this sorry this this & this & this
meet you yourself as your beloved’s right
clear irreversible refusal, set
into that helpless falling out of love
with no past, future, forward, back, above

Being not all that erudite, I’ve spent some time with the interweb and have discovered that the mesonyktikon is the mdinight office of the Orthodox Church and a troparion is a type of Orthodox hymn and the Services of the Bridegroom are held every evvening from Palm Sunday until Holy Tuesday and that the name is taken from the parable of the Ten Virgins. ‘Lucubrations’ are defined by the OED as ” The product of nocturnal study and meditation; hence, a literary work showing signs of careful elaboration. Now somewhat derisive or playful, suggesting the notion of something pedantic or over-elaborate”. I’ll glide over the exclusionary nature of the above and move on to my theme which is that this figure is beset by suffering, by a complex anguish in his relationship (or the absence of it) with God.

Rather than dive into a series of examples to demonstrate my contention, it may be useful to add a personal note with regard to anguish. I have no experience whatsoever of the spiritual / religious aspects of existence because I don’t believe in God and view those that do as fundamentally mistaken. It is therefore difficult for me to fully appreciate what this figure may be going through. As regular readers will know I am prone to bouts of severe depression which, together with a reasonably ropey psychology, gives me some in sight into what non-physical pain is like and the sensibilities that come with it.

I also have some readerly experience in poetic spiritual pain and one of the problems that I have is that of sincerity rather than manipulation. I’ve had lingering doubts about the sudden cries of emotion that leap from some of George Herbert’s lines since reading his manual for priests, A Priest to the Temple where he advocates the occasional exclamatory outpouring to intensify the faith of the congregation. There’s a different kind of problem with R S Thomas whose religious doubts and sufferings seem to be much more about the poet (as poet) than they are about the experience itself. I don’t have any doubts at all about the sincerity embedded in the later work of Paul Celan whose agonised struggles with faith and the You are almost unbearable to read:

SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands:
your name 
that hands comforted

When I knead the 
lump of air, our nourishment,
it is soured by
the letter effulgence from
the dementedly open
pore.

With regard to the Jarvis project, one of the many honesties from The Unconditional onwards is this sense of personal vulnerability, a willingness to expose and explore this fragility without resorting to the confessional ‘ah me’. This is at some distance from the interspersed rants about the ways in which capitalism ensnares us, a much more personal meditation on a suffering that is keenly felt:

These chimes and echoes form the long relay 
postponing that intolerable minute
when I should not be able to delay
sight of my face and all the crimes hid in it:
so the quick rhapsode stitches up all
fact-calques and formulas, where who would bin it
must stare down that total knowledge of his error,
continuous inobviable terror.

I’m taking (tentatively, provisionally) ‘rhapsode’ as someone who reads poetry aloud to others, a ‘fact-calque’ to be a premise or supposition that is loaned and eventually adopted by a foreign culture and ‘inobviable’ to be that which cannot be obviated or circumvented.

Severe depression has these characteristics and they hurt a great deal. The extent of the self-loathing is such that staring into a mirror is exceptionally difficult not just because of the hidden crimes but also because of the shame that the acute knowledge of these brings about. Continuous terror is a bit more tricky in that I experience a continuous and nagging fearfulness but this isn’t related to my perceived crimes. I can however just about appreciate how difficult this combination might be to bear.

I think it might be worthwhile as well to consider the use of ‘crime’ rather than ‘sin’, is this because the former carry a degree of forethought/intent whereas a sin can be because of some personal trait.

Of course, with such a lengthy poem, it may reasonable to suggest that I have selected the above purely to make my case and that it isn’t, in fact, representative of the whole. This may well have some truth in it but I’m trying to describe what came across most clearly to me on an initial reading as a devotee of poetry. I’ve acknowledged that I don’t share the beliefs described here and have obviously missed out on many of the theological and liturgical ‘points’ but I do continue to read the poem for its honesty and its strength.

Incidentally, the review refers to Night Office a “great religious poem”, the ‘g’ word is a very big word indeed and not one to be idly thrown about. In my head there are very, very few great poems, religious or not and I don’t think this is one of these even if it is both compelling and exceptionally addictive. Perhaps we may need to wait for the next four poems in the sequence to make a decision on ‘g’ ness.

Simon Jarvis’ Night Office reviewed in the TLS. Sigh.

Oh dear. I’ve just caught up with last weeks British Book Comic and came across a review of ‘Night Office’. This is a rare event in that this prestigious rag rarely publishes anything on anybody (apart from Sir G Hill) that I read. I’ve been waiting for the mainstream to take some notice of this and of Keston Sutherland’s Odes because both are put out by Enitharmon, an established and respected publisher.

I think I’ve read all of Jarvis’ published work and some of his essays with a fair deal of attention. I remain of the view that he is unique and his work challenges the foundations of what passes for contemporary verse. This is not shared by William Wootten, the reviewer who starts with this:

When a devotee of the astringent “difficulty” of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican in formal rhyming verse, it is safe that he has had something of a change of heart. Not total, perhaps. Simon Jarvis’s Night Office, the poem in question, alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics. Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming pentameter since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation. Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.

I’m going to leave aside the weak prose and worry about the sad fact that this appears to be an extended sneer. In a land that cherishes freedom of expression this is all very well provided that it is factually accurate. Starting at the beginning, the only occasion that I can recall Jarvis writing on Prynne was in the manner of complaint and impatience, complaint about having to read a poem as a crossword puzzle and not being that interested to do so. This is hardly the manifestation of a devotee- defined by the OED as “A person zealously devoted to a particular, cause, pursuit etc.”. This change of heart is also a bit of a mystery given the publication of the equally lengthy and formal The Unconditional in 2005 and the more recent religious themes in Dinner and Dionysus Crucified. We now come to the Adorno jibe, regular readers will know that I’m of the view that Adorno was mostly wrong (as in incorrect) but especially wrong about poetry. I readily concede that he looms large over some things Cambridge and over Jarvis’ academic work but I don’t think that Prynnian poetics can only justified in this way, I like to think that I’ve managed to locate an approach that has nothing whatsoever to do with Critical Theory.

I need to move on to what appears to be the main target dressed thinly as context, this strange beast known as the Cambridge School. If this name applies to the contributors to The English Intelligencer then this ceased circulation more than forty years ago. If we mean those poets who emulate Prynne, there aren’t any although some place Tony Lopez in that group. If we mean those of us who can see the point of Prynne and consider him to be Very Good indeed then I’m part of this School- which is ridiculous beyond words.

I haven’t got the space to pay the attention to ‘Anglican’ that it deserves other than to ask which particular brand of that broad church is the poem supposed to belong?

Now, how many readers of the poetry section of the TLS are going to be motivated to read the rest of the review? How many of these are going to approach what follows with an open mind? Is this kind of naked factionalism the main problem with the State of the Poem today? As I’ve said, polemic is fine but misrepresentation is not.

We now come to tactics, if you want to scare readers off you use the ‘P’ word as frequently as possible and throw in a German thinker that most won’t have read. You do not start by outlining the Jarvis thesis that verse constrained by rhyme and meter is the best way of making philosophical and theological work, you do not mention Alexander Pope but you do churn out the same 40 year old clichés because it’s easy.

For those who do persevere, Wootten makes some reasonably valid points, he acknowledges that the use of rhyme “seems well suited to Jarvis’s turn against poetic puritanism” but qualifies this by pointing out that some of the rhymes are ‘wince-inducing’. He also questions whether or not Night Office would be better in prose. These are both reasonable responses but the prose option completely misses the point. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the wince-inducing rhymes of Sir G Hill’s later work but I can’t recall being induced to wince.

The conclusion is condescending in the extreme:

Night Office may well be a transitional work from a writer at last discovering his true strengths. Since it is apparently the first of five such long poems, written or in prospect, there will be plenty of chance to find out.

The only response to this is that Jarvis’ strengths have been apparent to those of us who have read him since The Unconditional as have his weaknesses but this remarkable work is a progression that develops those strengths and I for one await the next with eager anticipation.

Stumbling over David Jones

I’m currently confused, this doesn’t often happen. During last summer I began a project for arduity which involved writing about Simon Jarvis’ Night Office, Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P and David Jones’ The Anathemata. Things went reasonably well for a while, writing about the poems from the beginning and proceeding through at a leisurely pace until I hit a wall with The Anathemata. This took me by surprise because I’ve come to share Auden’s view of it as the finest long poem in English of the twentieth century. The nature of the wall was a passage where things start to get a little academic and I wasn’t keen because it feels like it’s trying too hard, with some of the notes displaying some of the worst traits of the self-taught, especially the desire for some kind of scholarly respectability instead of explaining what needs to be explained. This is usually something I can overlook but in this instance the tendency goes on for four pages and is also quite boring.

Of course, the sensible thing would be to mention my reaction and perhaps give a couple of examples and then move on but I didn’t, I decided to leave things alone for a while and come back to it later. I’ve been back to it twice since and each time I get the same sense of annoyance. I’m still of the view that The Anathemata is a staggeringly important poem and I am aware that it was written over a number of years and various bits were pushed together with varying degrees of success but I am genuinely taken aback by how much I dislike these four pages. What is equally puzzling is that I’ve read the poem several times over the last three years and this reaction hadn’t occurred, at all.

One of the reasons for this may be that I’m now reading with the specific intention of writing in some detail about the work and I’m doing this in an attempt to bring Jones’ work to a wider audience and this kind of reading may be different from my earlier incursions which didn’t have a fixed / specific objective. The other factor may be that I was previously more concerned with meaning and unravelling all the very many references and not enough on my readerly reaction.

Now, the secondary level of confusion occurs with whether reading in order to write is the best way for me to occupy my time. In 2011 I stopped blogging and writing about poetry for about 4 months because I felt this approach was taking away some of the pleasure I get from paying attention to this material. I’m also aware that things may be becoming a little too lit crit which is not what I want to do.

I’ll try to giv an example from the offending four pages, this is from the Rite and Fore-Time section of the poem:


                   For the phases and phase-groups
sway toward and fro within that belt of latitude.
There's where the world's a stage 
                   for transformed scenes
with metamorphosed properties 
                       for each shifted set.
Now naked as an imagined Belle Sauvage or as is the actual
Mirriam.

(The last sentence above is prose but I’ve matched the line ending from the 2010 Faber edition).

The note for this is:

The Mirriam are a people of the Shendam Division of the Plateau Province of Nigeria. The men of this tribe are not totally naked, but the women in general are, except for ornaments of bamboo pith. I am indebted for this information to Captain A.L. Milroy, MC, for many years an official in that area.

I stumble on two things, the first is the fact that we don’t need the Mirriam in the poem, it ‘reads’ badly and is superfluous to what’s being said and second is that the note doesn’t need Captain Milroy and his Military Cross. This annoys me because stating the obvious (there are still some people who go without clothes) for no good reason and the identification of the source and the status of that source is unnecessary. I freely admit that all of us auto-didacts do have some inherent anxiety about our absence of education but this particular example gets in the way of the poem.

I’m also of the view that if things are a chore to write then there is a greater danger that they are a chore to read. I’m therefore going to spend a period of time writing about things that crop up spontaneously rather than what I feel I ought to be attending to. Oddly, I don’t feel this way about the Annotated Trigons project which I’m working on with John Matthias and I think this is because it’s a bit of an adventure in that we’re experimenting with what the web can do and I’m also pushing my abilities (such as they are) in a new direction.

I’d like to conclude with something from The Anathemata that’s triggered something unexpected. Immediately after the offending section there is “For all WHOSE WORKS FOLLOW THEM which has a longish note, the second paragraph of which is:

The dictionary defines artefact as an artificial product, thus including the beaver’s dam and the wren’s nest. But here I confine my use of the word to both artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous. If there is any existence of this kind of artefacture then the artefacturer or artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion because the extra-utile is the mark of man.

I’ve either missed or skimmed over this in the past but it does seem quite important in furthering my understanding of what might be going on. In his longish introduction, Jones claims that he is presenting the main elements of his own cultural background and history, the items and ideas that have significance for him, he also makes it clear that the central element for him is the Catholic Mass. What he doesn’t make clear is the direct connection that he makes here between Christ’s crucifixion and the act of artistic creation. Jones’ added emphasis on ‘direct’ makes it clear that he sees Christ’s death as much more than giving us the possibility of salvation but also enabling the creative process. I’m not reading this as God being immediately present in every creative act but it does seem to suggest that Passion in some way initiates each creative act.

I give this as an example of something that I wasn’t looking for and didn’t intend to write about but would give me more than a little pleasure to explore out loud the possible implications of and the rationale for the above. Next I think I’ll tackle Keston Sutherland’s dot problem….

Geoffrey Hill and the Collected Problem(s)

I was given Broken Hierarchies for Xmas and this is an initial report having spent some time with knotted brow and the occasional moment of delight.

First of all, I must confess to having a chequered history with Collecteds, Lowell’s made me realise that I didn’t like any of his work after The Mills of the Kavanghs which was a shock, R S Thomas’ seemed much slighter and less majestic whole as did that of George Herbert, John Matthias’ otherwise fascinating three volumes commit the sin of omitting Trigons which he and I are currently annotating for the web. So it is with some unease that I’m approaching Hill’s Collected especially since I haven’t been overly impressed with the three (out of six) Daybooks sequences that I’ve read. The other anxiety is about how much has been changed/revised since the original publication and what this may mean for the poems that are already in my head.

First, there’s the new stuff, there is a lot of new stuff and some of it is intriguing and a lot of it does the half-rhyme thing which isn’t. There is one sequence of poems that are all set out (as with Clavics in the shape of what appears to be a key. Then there’s the revisions and expansions which have been applied to Hymns to our Lady of Chartres, Pindarics, and Clavics. This is okay because I’ve never been keen on the last two and I’ve never read any of the first. The other change that I’ve noticed thus far is that we now have headings in the index for the Offa sequence.

We’ll start with Hymns to our Lady of Chartres which is new to me although I understand from the interweb that it started life in 1984 or thereabouts as a sequence of three poems and then expanded to seven. The new version has twenty one poems each consisting of five quatrains which use half-rhymes. I’ve been giving some further thought to rhyme in general following the discussion between Rowan Williams and Simon Jarvis at the launch of Night Office when they both agreed that the ‘sense’ becomes subordinate to the form in that the poet is never sure where the rhyme is going to lead. Now, puzzling with furrowed brow over the rhymes that Hill deploys, which depend largely on word endings rather than vowel sounds, it occurred to me yesterday that this is a way of retaining more control over sense and direction rather than the full rhymes that Jarvis deploys.

Before we proceed with an example, I’d like to differentiate between two technical terms. The first of these is ‘clunky’ whereby the poem is well-intentioned but some lines are unduly awkward whereas ‘naff’ denotes poems that are so bad/inept that they shouldn’t have been started let alone published. This latter term is similar in many ways to John Matthias’ ‘gawdawful’.

This is poem 9:

A match crack-scuffs, a flame spurts in the fosse,
faces bow to cupped hands, a thing archaic,
a gesture proletarian and stoic;
Homeric, even, look at Odysseus,

who was of course a prince in his own country
champing on Gauloises; Hector of the taut
monocle, dragged helplessly by a foot.
Other manners, another century.

Herod was dire but he was not the Shoah.
What do you say, Vierge, to this Jewish child
fixed at your breast, in the great glass annealed,
Himself the threefold shattering of Chaos!

Another language, such as your Dai Greatcoat
unerringly presented: misadventure
for the machine gun's cunningly-loosed ceinture
binding in blood who late set out-

Jehova's time not ours. We might have given
the temple scroll for Peguy to repair,
indomitable, as an unsold Cahier,
mystique and politique there intershriven.

For those who still haven’t read him, Dai Greatcoat is David Jones and he is (probably) ‘your Dai Greatcoat’ because of the closing scene in In Parenthesis when the Lady of the Woods gathers the dead and dying to her at the end of a day’s fighting in Mametz WSood on the Somme. Now, I may be slow on the uptake but I am not aware of any other reference to Jones in Hill’s poetry. I know that some find the deliberate choice of the obscure word in preference to something more familiar (fosse instead of trench, ceinture instead of scope or range etc) but I’m fond of this particular quirk because there are words and meanings of words that should be kept breathing in the face of the current blandification that appears to becoming dominant. Having written that sentence I realise that I’m sounding as elitist as Hill but it’s something I can live with.

Of course, there is no connection that can be simply made between the biblical Slaughter of the Innocents and the Holocaust but it is certainly a startling line although I am concerned that it may be present just to startle- a tendency that seems to be on the increase lately.

These twenty lines do cover a lot of ground, as well as Jones, we get the Iliad, Christ, the Virgin Mary, French and German stereotypes, Charles Peguy, Herod and the Holocaust. Whilst the whole seems reasonably coherent and has
some threads that run through Hill’s work, I’m not entirely clear that there’s a convincing coherence here. There isn’t, for example, a link between soldiers lighting cigarettes in the trenches of the Somme to the figure of Hector been dragged around behind Achilles’ horse. Peguy was a poet and essayist who edited the literary magazine Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine and in 1909 made the observation that “everything that begins in mysticism ends in politics” which makes much more sense of the last two lines, as does the fact that he was killed in battle in 1914.

We now come to the headings problem, each of the Mercian Hymn poems has been given a title or sub-heading in the index but not on the printed page. Many of the titles occur more than once and seem a bit superfluous, we now have three poems each on ‘Offa’s Laws’ and ‘The Crowning of Offa’ for example which we don’t really need, it’s always seemed self-evident to me what the poems are about. The other quibble is that if these are in the index as part of the title then shouldn’t they be at the top of the poem as well? The opposite problem occurs with Pindarics, there are twenty one of these in Without Title and each begins with a quote from Cesare Pavese and is a response to that quote. We now have 34 Pindarics and all the quotes have been removed. The order of the first twenty one has changed too so that Pindaric 21 has become Pindaric 5 and there have been two changes to the text. This is very puzzling for my small brain, does this now mean that we should forget about the quotes and read the poems as a response to the three sentences from Pavese that now serve as an epigraph? None of this matters much to me because I didn’t like these poems the first time around but I do wonder how less indifferent others may feel.

I do intend to address the new material once I’ve got my brain around it- Ludo and The Daybooks take up 330 page or one third of the collection. This may take some time.

What poetry does to philosophy.

I’ve been putting this off for weeks but have decided that now is the time. The berowed view that poetry and philosophy are incompatible has undergone some more waning but I’m now drawing a distinction between poetry that sets out as its main objective to ‘do’ philosophy and poetry that sets out to do Other Things that might have a philosophical component somewhere near the surface.

I’d like to consider first the nature of the poem and the nature of the philosophy tract. I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually an expansion. I’m making this distinction even though my reading of philosophy is quite sparse but it does seem that there’s a long windedness in terms of refuting all other philosophies before putting forward your own view.

Of course there are some poets, Lucretius, Pope and Jarvis spring to mind who are equally long-winded but most go the other way. Paul Celan and Edmund Spenser work by compression as does Charles Olson but in different ways and with different results. With regard to all of these, there is one element that I’d like to get out of the way before proceeding: the line between God and Truth aka between theology and philosophy. I’m taking Martin Buber, the Neo-platonics and Alfred Whitehead primarily as philosophers even though theologians have made extensive use of their work.

I’d like to start with Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie Which Frank Kermode referred to as the best philosophical poem in English. As the title suggests, it has change and time as it’s subject and this is one of Spenser’s recurring themes especially in The Faerie Queene. Essentially ‘Change’ puts forward the arguments for the priority of mutability over fixity and then Nature demolishes this with:

   I well consider all that ye have said
      And find that all things steadfastnes do hate
      And changed be: and yet being rightly wayed
      They are not changed from their first estate;
      But by their change their being doe dilate:
      And turning to themselves at length againe,
      Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
      Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne;
   But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.

   Cease therefore daughter further to aspire
      And be content thus to be rul'd by me:
      For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire,
      But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
      And from thenceforth, none so more change shall see.
      So was the Titanesse put downe and whist,
      And Iove confirm'd in his imperiall see.
      Then was that whole assembly quite dismist
  And Natur's self did vanish, whither no man wist.

As a long-standing Spenser fan, this makes me want to jump up and down with delight because it’s supremely accomplished as poetry yet also manages in eighteen lines to express a fundamental aspect of 16th century philosopphical ‘truth’. Each stanza has one crucial and brilliantly crafted line, the first hinges on ‘dilate’. Bert Hamilton glosses the line with:

i.e. expand as they fill their natures, showing that change is not random but purposeful (see N.Frye 1990b: 160-161) acting in accord with the Pauline concept of sowing a natural body to raise a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15. 36-44). It is not circular, then but spiral in returning creation to its beginning.

This may be the case but I can’t help reading Ficino on God’s dance of joy into ‘dilate’ primarily because it seems a more logical and less complicated ‘fit’. Anyway, it is at once both plain and gloriously compressed and serves as a counterpoint to Spenser’s view of the world in continuous and relentless decline.

I think I need to note the extensive and frequently tiresome critical debate about the relationship between these Cantos and the rest of The Faerie Queene which is an argument without any facts. I will however set out the subtitle from the first edition of Mutabilitie which was published in 1609

   Which, both for Forme and Matter, appeare
      to be parcell of fome following Booke of the
               FAERIE QUEENE,
             VNDER  THE  LEGEND
                     OF
                 Conftancie 
              Never before imprinted.

‘Appeare’ is the tell-tale verb and we should leave it at that because we will Never Know.

The next act of compression comes from Paul Celan:


   ILLEGIBILITY
   Of this world. All things twice over.

   The strong clocks justify
   the splitting hour,
   coarsely.

   You, clamped 
   into your deepest part,
   climb out of yourself,
   for ever.

I’d argue that what we have here is a struggle with philosophy, an incredibly dense working of the major strands of 20th century thought with it’s concerns about perception, temporality and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, many argue that this is too dense, that the distillation is too great and falls into meaningless and psuedo-mystical babble but this seems to miss the point entirely. Throughout his writing Celan is concerned with very Big Things indeed and explores the challenges inherent in living any kind of purposeful life when surrounded by our many violences and absence of thought.

Many who do accept the brilliance of this material insist on imposing the work of Martin Heidegger as the main philosophical thread and equate the ‘mystical’ quality the poetry with Heidegger’s later work. This seems to overlook other influences far removed from and (in some cases) directly opposed to all things existential. Martin Buber’s concerns with the demands of and responsibility for the Other are also very much present in the above. As with Spenser, I don’t want to examine the acres of critical pondering on this but I would like simply to point out that poetical philosophy, in the hands of genius, can be a more profound and provocative exploration of Truth in all its manifestations.

I’d like to finish with Charles Olson’s frequent nods to Whitehead’s Process and Reality in his Maximus series. In the past I have expressed the view that the work in its entirety can be seen as a transcription of Whitehead into poetic form. I’d now like to amend that view, Process and Reality was clearly a central aspect of Olson’s view of the world and this is apparent in parts of the sequence but there is much more of Olson the man here than there is of philosophy, even his clearest expositions are made by using himself and his everyday experience to make the ‘point’.

So, the best poetry adds other dimensions to philosophy because it can distil and intensify. This does not mean that poetry is in any kind of privileged position with regard to Truth but it does mean that it can, on occasion, push the conversation a little bit further.

Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill and celebrity

Speech! Speech! has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. It’s meant to be the middle part of a sequence that starts with The Triumph of Love and ends with The Orchards of Syon. I’m familiar with both of these but I’ve never been able to pay attention to the filling in the sandwich until the last week when I noticed that the blurb has “allowing us to glimpse the mythical in the insistently modern, the tender in the intensely savage, especially in the elegaic sections on the death of Princess Diana”. Obviously, being congenitally attracted to the odd, I immediately sought these out and was not disappointed.

First of all, a couple of clarifications. Hill isn’t terribly keen on the current state of our nation and is instead very keen on an England that never actually existed. Politically Hill would be most at home with UKIP because of a shared patriotism and a detestation of all things EU. Hill is not, however, stupid and his views should be seen as part of the long line of Tory paternalists that stretches back to the 18th century rather than the inanities of this current crop of patriots.

The relationship between myth and the time of writing is one of the things that poetry has always done, what it hasn’t done with any great success is ‘deal’ with the problems of fame and celebrity. I’m interested in the figure of the celebrity in our culture because of what this says about us and the contents of our collective heads. I’m indifferent to the British Royal family and I was completely mystified by the extent and depth of national trauma brought about by that particular car crash. I saw Diana as a particularly vacuous member of her class who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and I still don’t think that she will have more than a fleeting effect on the rest of us. It transpires that Hill is not of this view, that he is firmly entrenched in the nation’s grief and has written about it.

We need to take a bit of a pause here, you have just published one of the finest poems of the last 30 years, a work that is a remarkable and innovative and wonderfully human meditation on the many traumas of our recent past and yet you choose to follow this up with a sequence that contains a number of mawkish sentimentalities about a product of the culture that you effect to despise.

This is the first Di-related stanza:

         22

Age of mass consent: go global with her.
Challenge satellite failure, the primal
violent day-star moody as Herod.
Forget nothing. Reprieve no-one. Exempt
only her bloodline's jus natalium.
Pledge to immoderacy the outraged 
hardly forgiven mourning of the PEOPLE,
inexorable, though in compliance,
media-conjured. Inscrutable I call
her spirit now on this island: memory
subsiding into darkness | nowhere
coming to rest.

(The vertical line between darkness and nowhere is the closest I can get to how it appears in print. There’s an acute accent above the o in ‘her spirit now’ which WordPress doesn’t (won’t) render)

There are a couple of typographical tics which we can reasonably avoid but the capitalised ‘people’ might require some attention. I’m taking the Latin as ‘birthright’ which would seem to make grammatical sense of the line and would suggest that those who are to be exempted are her two children. I’ve spent at least twenty minutes with the OED and what I know of Hill’s work and have come to the regrettable conclusion that “Pledge to immoderacy” doesn’t actually work, even allowing for Hill’s penchant for obscure words and secondary definitions. I think I know what he’s aiming for in his typically convoluted way but I think there are more precise ways of saying it. The rest is reasonably clear but I’m not sure that it’s accurate. My (admittedly dim) recollection of those strange few days is that the media were unprepared for the extent and depth of the collective grief. One of the things that interests me about celebrity is the mutual involvement of the media, the audience and the individual. Diana fed the media’s need to report this new and much trendier addition to the cast of dysfunctional misfits and the audience could take sides in the ‘narrative’ whilst the celebrity felt that she could manipulate sections of the media into supporting her ‘position’. I can’t explain this grief but I have to report that relatively sane friends of mine got caught up in it and were clearly feeling some pain. The last three lines are oddly mawkish and I wonder why Hill feels the need to say them unless, of course, it’s an example of the mythical in the present as advertised in the blurb.

Thirteen stanzas later we get these two:


    35

Say you dispute the audit - no offence
to her intended (or to her intended)-
pending the hierarchies so soon to be
remade | though not with her demotic splendour.
Fantastic, apocryphal, near fatalistic
love of one's country | bearing with it
always something over- or under-subscribed,
bound to its modicum of the outrageous,
cartoon animation: jovial, martial,
charwomen, their armour bristles and pails,
dancing - marching - in and out of tune
to Holst's JUPITER | as to JERUSALEM.

   36

Huntress? No, not that huntress but some
other creature of fable. And then for her|
like being hunted. Or inescapably
beholden (this should sound tired but not
emotional to excess). Half forgotten
in one lifetime the funeral sentences
instantly resurrected - how can they do it?
Whatever of our loves here lies apart:
whatever it is you look for in sleep:
simple bio-degradation, a slather 
of half-rotted black willow leaves
at the lake's edge.

(Again all the accents are missing).

This is much more to my taste, there’s the assertion of the patriot, the brief riff on the power of a Christian funeral – even if ‘resurrected’ might be going a little too far – there’s nothing clumsy here, the phrasing and word-choice seem to be adept and accomplished rather than mannered. The image of the charwomen speaks to me of a culture and a set of values that disappeared at about the time that the nation discovered sex (1963) and does so with exceptional skill and warmth. Some might argue that 36′s bracketed aside is both arrogant and out of place but I’m of the view that it’s a mark of the confidence of an able and accomplished craftsman who simply knows what he can get away with and does so.

Given my interest in the man and his work, I’m intrigued by ‘apocryphal’ which, for the moment I’m taking to mean “of doubtful authenticity” rather than relating to the Apocrypha. Hill can be relied on to promote the patriotic cause and I’ve always got the impression that he saw this as something innate in him and in others so this puts a new light on things. It certainly adds another layer to an already complex and contradictory picture. It’s also very heartening to note the completely unfunny ‘intended’ jape and the use of ‘slather’ which the OED tells me is limited to Scotland and the North of England but is also one of the most expressive nouns in the language.

So, I’m now going to persevere with Speech! because it might have other really good bits and it may persuade me to like ‘Orchards’ a little more.

Brief media bulletin: Jarvis, Sutherland and Jones.

The audio of the launch of Simon Jarvis’ Night Office is now available on the Enitharmon site. This has the reading and a discussion between Simon and Rowan Williams followed by a brief Q and A. Essential listening for those of us currently paying attention to the work. The Claudius App Soundcloud Gizmo has a reading of the stunningly odd Dionysus Crucified read by Simon and Justin Katko- I’ll be writing about this in the reasonably near future.

The Archive of the Now Keston Sutherland page has both the Cafe Oto and the Brighton launch readings of The Odes to TL61P. The Claudius App Soundcloud gizmo has a New York reading, apparently there’s a New Haven reading as well that Keston feels is the best to date- will provide the link when I get it.

There are also two films on David Jones by David Shiel and commissioned by the David Jones Society. Both of these are more about the paintings and drawings than the poems but there’s still plenty to argue with.

Simon Jarvis, Rowan Williams and complicity.

We’ll get to Pushkin later but first of all I want to report on my third book launch of the year which occurred last Thursday evening in darkest Marylebone and centred on the latest (unless you count the latest edition of The Claudius App) of what I’m increasingly thinking of as the Jarvis Project. The idea of this particular gig was that Simon should read from ‘Night Office’ and then Rowan (ex head of the C of E and Dostoevsky expert) should chat to him about it.

The reading was from the beginning and (I think) followed the course of the version in ‘Eighteen Poems’. I was a little disconcerted to hear the first few pages read in a voice that almost went out of its way to avoid the rhyme and metre before injecting some vigour with the remarkable description of the cathedral that I’ve written about before. The explanation for this approach came in the chat with Williams which I’ll think about below. The chat was far ranging and reasonably complex and I wish I’d taken notes because what was said was immensely helpful in enabling readers to get more directly to grips with the work. I outline below what I took to be the main ‘points’.

Complicity.

In response to a question from the floor Simon said that he was very aware that he was criticising our culture from a position within that culture and that this brought its own difficulties – Rowan made the same point about his position in the church. At this point I recalled Simon’s protest about ‘the bloke thing’ blog which I wrote earlier this year because that was an (albeit inept) attempt to illustrate how all of us are enmeshed in a system that many of us aren’t terribly keen on.

There is a complicity ‘thread’ in “Night Office” but I don’t think it’s as pervasive as or direct as it is in some of Simon’s earlier work but his point has got me thinking about the way in which Poetry in its widest sense might be equally complicit. There are the obvious facts, poetry is published and sold for money, poetry ‘events’ sometimes charge people to attend, students pay to go to college and a few are taught about poetry. Many people pay money to attend creative writing courses. We have a State Poet, we don’t have a State Novelist. Poems are used to sell products. So, as well as individuals who are complicit by virtue of their dependence on the current neo-liberal fallacy that underpins our lives, poetry is also caught up in this New Stupidity. I’m very (was going to write ‘painfully’) aware of my own surrender to aspects of s culture that I despise, I know that in terms of the basics (food and shelter) I’m up to my neck in market forces from property bubbles to commodity booms yet this hasn’t prevented me from, with varying degrees of intensity, trying to change things. The other thought took a bit longer to sink in and it has its basis in ‘The Unconditional’. I think it goes lie this, if you want to challenge the current poetry status quo and/or debate then you either write poetry that denies the poetic or you write poetry that embraces the poetic in a way that hasn’t been seen for about two hundred years. ‘The Unconditional’ is very long and very metrical, ‘Night Office’ is even longer, is the first in a series of five, rhymes and is equally metrical all of which puts it at odds with and subverts the current Poetic.

The Liturgy.

This is clearly the cornerstone of the work, Simon appears to be of the view that all of us continue to participate in various forms of ritual but that these have had the spiritual element removed. Both speakers were keen to express the crucial importance of liturgical practice and the need to in some way revive its central position in our lives.

Poetic structure and the wine bottle.

There was a lengthy exchange about rhyme and metre with both agreeing that the structure of the poem must come first when thinking about writing something with these constraints. Simon pointed out that, contrary to the established view, the metrical poem is not the wine held in place by the structure of the bottle but is the wine that is produced by the action of the wine press. I like this line of thought even though I’m still not convinced by the Jarvis Argument that poems that are thus constrained are more effective at expressing Big Thoughts. I am however prompted to re-read the ‘Prosody as cognition’ essay, which at first glance is ‘against’ the idea of prosody as some kind of measuring exercise.

Russian Poets and Russian prosody.

There are more than a few references to Russia in ‘Night Office’ and the occasional Russian phrase. During the discussion Simon mentioned that Russian had many similarities to English but that the Russians had given much more thought to prosody. He also mentioned with approval one or two of the Russian poets that are named in ‘Night Office’.

The conversational reading.

This explained the restrained nature of the reading, Simon feels that it is important for poetry not to make a fuss about itself but to be read in a conversational rather than a dramatic fashion, he used the examples of Wordsworth and Coleridge as opposing sides of this particular coin. Of course, anything that takes this floridity out of poetry is absolutely fine by me. The only point of disagreement between the two was when Simon likened Pushkin to Wordsworth. On the strength of this assertion I’ve looked at the first page of the Nabokov version of ‘Eugene Onegin’ and decided that I don’t like Pushkin either.

Joy.

This was a little odd, there’s a huge amount of painfulness in ‘Night Office’ and Simon was asked as to the whereabouts of joy. He replied that joy itself is a kind of pain in that it entails a complete loss of self-control. I’m now trying to get my brain around the possibility that the Jarvis worldview is unremittingly bleak. This may however be an extension of his view that Greek tragedy lies behind every aspect of European culture.

Gillian Rose.

Simon noted with complete approval the Gillian Rose thesis as expressed in her “Broken Middle” which is one of the Rose tomes that I haven’t read. Given that the late Ms Rose gets praise from both Hill and Prynne, there must surely be a phd or two on Gillian Rose and the Late Moderns.

So, additional perspectives on Night Office and on the body of work as a whole whereby a few things become much clearer whilst others become more complex than I first thought.

Beautiful poetry: Jarvis, Jones and Matthias

We’ll start with a couple of qualifiers. I used to know what Kant said about what made something aesthetically pleasing but I’ve since forgotten it. I hadn’t thought until very recently about the relationship between the beautiful and the poem so most of what follows has probably been said before. I have however noticed something that might be useful to share.

Regular readers may know that I’m in violent agreement with K Sutherland on the need to pay attention to serious work. In my experience as a reader, reading attentively is far more rewarding than reading the work as if it were a novel. Of course, I have to be interested enough in the first place in order to start being attentive but fortunately I find that I am interested in many (perhaps too many) different kind of poem. Material that challenges me with either it’s subject matter or its deployment of language usually gets some interest but beauty has never struck me as interesting enough to gain my attention.

With the annotated Trigons project with John Matthias and the ongoing experiments in reading I’ve been paying sustained attention over a number of weeks to The Anathemata, The Odes to TL61p, Night Office and Trigons. Oddly (at least to me) its seems like bits of beautiful poetry have crept up on me and caught me unawares. This was the first:

   Within the railed tumulus
       he sings high and he sings low.

    In a low voice
         as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
    and one, gone out.

This refers to the Last Supper and is part of the announcement of Jones’ main theme. Before I started writing about it I thought it was one of the many pieces of sustained brilliance that run through the book but then I noticed within me a reluctant recognition that this was primarily a beautiful piece of poetry in itself. By this I think I mean that it isn’t describing anything that I might find attractive to the eye but that the combination of words (poems as poem) move me more than something I find visually inspiring. I’ve thought about analysing the above but the only guess that I’m prepared to venture relates to brevity and simplicity. Of course, the above does crop up in the most accomplished long poem of the 20th century so the poetic context may make a contribution.

However, I’m going with an unmediated almost physical response which I also get from this from the first poem in the Trigons sequence:


for such is fate Senor and yet
the alphabet was left us when alas ambrosia
turned to vin ordinaire and Icor
just poor plain red & human blood spilled & spilling
in the deserts mountains seas

and islands too, fit for Eucharist in world conflagration

(the first five lines are the last lines from section five, the last line is the beginning of section 6.

I’ve written before about over-reading the theme of this poem, of seeing in it a complex portrayal of the tragic nature of 20th century Greek politics. I’ve also written about John’s ability to make the very difficult look easy. The above is remarkably complex and works on a number of different levels but what makes it beautiful for me is the strength and clarity of the fourth line, especially “red & human” and “spilled & spilling” which seem to hold the whole thing together. I recognise that there is a religious element to this but it is only one of many threads that are interwoven in these few lines. So, brevity and simplicity, as with Jones, but also superb technique in terms of word choice and pacing being utilised to maximum effect. Perhaps even more than Jones, these lines stand by themselves, with or without context as a beautiful thing. It could be argued that ‘conflagration’ is too big a word to end with and that it isn’t sufficiently lyrical but the point is that it both punctuates and contrasts what has gone before.

The last of these is from Jarvis’ Night Office:

just in the corner of my eye the vast cathedral,
too large for its believers, and just now
dwarfing small clumps of them in polyhedral
splendours and gestures. Its bright sharpened bow
went sailing through the night, to put down evil
wherever it might surface, so that how 
this back of it disgorged the faithful, few
at this cold, minor, festival, and who

they were, could not be seen, but, from its gaps
immensities of music, and their wide
curves, flights and logics, rivets, knots and straps
let the machine preposterously ride
out into air, let open all its taps,

I’ve quoted this at length because most of it isn’t particularly beautiful and because there are bits that are Very Awkward Indeed but that does not prevent some inherent beauty leaking out. I’m not entirely sure but I think it’s the list and the splendours and gestures that transform this reasonably straightforward description into something quite wonderful. I readily acknowledge that I’m a sucker for lists, that there’s something about nouns next to each other that I find deeply satisfying. This is a particularly good list mainly because it has logic as an item. I know that there’s more than a little religion in this but I’m not religious and I can only speak as I find.

I think I need to contrast these examples with the apparent beauty and lyrical dexterity of some bits of The Four Quartets. I was captivated in my late teens by these until I worked out that almost all were cynical attempts to appear profound. These three, on the other hand, are not trying too hard, are not desperate to impress but do have more than a degree of honest depth and skill.