Category Archives: theology

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.


Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Derivation and Noise

I may have to extend this particular fortnight by a week or so and then come back with some more during the summer, hadn’t realised how much there is that I want to write about.

I mentioned the derived traffic island as a problem for a listener without access to the text. I’ve been given some consideration as to what this strange description might involve. The relevant long lines are:

     I from a nylon jacket announce recombinance because it is unreasonable that my skin not also learn to survive in plastic consciousness of objecthood
So when I in congealed oil products may orange it to the top at the derived traffic island or at some other holy place as though some beacon were lit
    Then I precisely may not die and may not be killed but persist like toxins or persist like some unvanquishable god-component in e.g. chthonic

To those of us familiar with the Late Modern strain, this isn’t too tricky although it is convoluted. The only stumbling point is this piece of road accoutrement that is said to be derived. In the most commonly used sense, to be derived is to be based on or developed from something else which doesn’t make any kind of sense especially when the traffic island is described as a holy place which seems to bestow something along the way to immortality. Having alluded to this in the previous post I mulled it over and tried the usual bebrowed method of looking at the OED but nothing immediately clicked into place and then another possibility came to mind. The Situationists made use of ‘derive’ and Guy Debord defined it in 1958 as:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Psychogeography has since gone through a variety of phases, permutations and (in the UK) moves from being in vogue to relative obscurity every five years or so. Without wishing to overread too much and acknowledging that I do want the Jarvis Project to at least nod towards Debord, it is possible to see this traffic island a a fixed point on a geographical contour. This point also is a place of safety from being knocked down and holiness might spring from what some see as the ritual significance of ‘sight points’ in the landscape, hence the reference to lit beacons.

Of course this is more tentastive and provisional than usual but I’m going to have to look at the other road bits in the rest of the poems to see whether this hunch can be supported. This might be timely because I understand the next long poem is going to relate a series of journeys through the landscape.

We now come to noise and its relationship to sound. Last year I did four or five gigs involving multiple voices speaking simultaneously and made a couple of audio-visual pieces using the same technique. Having spent many hours mixing and layering what people say in interviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that two voices saying different things at the same time is reasonably intelligible (sound) whereas three voices isn’t (noise). Having already written about the first use of two overlaid voices, I want to pay some attention to the other three:

The first of these starts at about 21.30 on the track and is a rendition of what I think of as ‘the cross page’ because its central feature is the figure of a cross over most of the page with the text interspersed in and around it. This is another section where the two voices follow each other. Listeners with no previous knowledge/familiarty will need to make their own mind about coherence but I have trouble following what’s being said even when I have the text in front of me. It can be argued that this is due to the apparently random setting out of the lines but it is more likely due to the speed of the delivery and the very short gap between the voices. I accept that some of the lines are quite a challenge in themselves (Ive so you can rip / Girlyboy up now / Peeping Non / Mummy hates him too) but read this way doesn’t help, unless the intention is to make noise rather than ‘sense’.

The second is more conventional and ‘works’, it occurs in three places on the Messenger section of the poem, the first two lines are:

    Were screaming for Cheryl and Ashley to get back together or else for essential supplies of fresh water                     impaled on the fir
So hard I could hardly remember the theme tune that Pen had reminded me made up the keycode which opened                        in matchless pain

So, the long lines are read by Simon with Justin providing the brief interjections and this ‘works’ because the pace is easier and the voices don’t seem to be in competition with each other. This has the effect of drawing the audience in rather than the previous bombardment.

The last piece takes up almost all of the Canticle page and starts at about 28.15 on the track. This was completely unexpected because I recognised that the setting out of the lines was unusual but hadn’t worked out that this was written for a singing and a speaking voice using different lines from the text. I’m guessing that most listeners will find these last few minutes very challenging indeed but I think it’s brilliant and an example of what can be done of the sound / noise boundaries. It’s not so much that the reading of Canticle makes the lines discernible, it is the impression formed by listening that seems to be important here. I’m reminded here of the many discussions I’ve had with friends as to the merits of free jazz which treads the same kind of lines but is completely alien noise to most people.

To conclude, Dionysus Crucified is a brilliant poem and Claudius App have provided a valuable service for us all by hiding this recording in the recesses of their site. Listen to it with headphones, buy it from Critical Documents and read it- you won’t be disappointed.

David Jones Week: Jones reads from The Anathemata

We’ll start with the obvious: Auden was right when he said that the above was the finest long poem of the 20th century. This is an incredible piece of work of sustained brilliance throughout and its once scary level of obscurity has been considerably reduced by the availability of reliable information to be found on the interweb.

Once again, these recordings are made available by the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson and Dylan Lloyd.

For those who are not familiar with The Anathemata, it is a glorious exploration through time and place of Jones’ personal cultural enthusiasms. These include his Roman Catholic faith, his interest in myth, the nature of the Roman Empire and what I think of as Welshness.

There are many ‘depths’ to the work but an appreciation of these is not necessary to an appreciation of its stature and worth.

The first reading is from the second section which is entitled Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea:

These next two are from section VII, Mabinog’s Liturgy which manages to be both profound and beautiful:

The last of these is taken from eighth and final section, Sherethursdaye and Venus Day:

That’s the end of David Jones week, now I think I’ll have a Claudius App fortnight.

David Jones Week: The Book of Balaam’s Ass

I’m mindful that the week is drawing to a close and, as with Prynne, there are so many things that I need / want to write about but I’ve just paid some attention to the version of the above which closes The Sleeping Lord which was published by Faber in 1974.

Thanks to the input of John Matthias and Tom Goldpaugh I’m now aware that there are three extant versions of The Book but I’m confining myself to this one for the moment primarily because of what Jones says about it in his introduction:

Anyway, for good or ill, these few pages from one section of the abandoned ‘Book of Balaam’s Ass’ were chosen as seeming to afford a link of sorts between the two widely separated books: ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’.

On a reasonably attentive reading of all 14 pages, I think I can see more than a few elements that may provide a closer understanding of the relationship (for the want of a better term) between the two longer poems and how the apparently wide gap between them isn’t as wide as I’ve thought. The subject matter is focused on the First World War but there is greater emphasis on myth and ritual together with the kind of incantation that is prominent in The Anathemata’. What I think strikes me most however is the elements which don’t appear to be part of this linkage. The first of these is a different kind of abstraction which seems out of place in Jones’ work. This is, of course a purely subjective response on my part and I haven’t been through the two longer poems to see if I’ve missed anything, no have I looked at either of the other versions to see if this particular tone/mode was extended there. I was however genuinely startled because what I was reading did not in any way tally with the David Jones that lives in my head. This is first part of the second paragraph with the same line breaks as the Sleeping Lord version:

     I know it bores you Cicily, and you too, Pamela/born/
between/the/sirens, but Bertie will corroborate what I'm saying,
and you ask poor Clayton. Willy and Captain Varley never
used any other analogies, and Belle Varley takes it like a lamb,
and even asks intelligent questions between her dropped stitches
-about all kinds of details about what the 5th did when Theodore
Vaughan-Herbert - ('Taffy' for short) caught a nasty one in the
abortive raid, east of Hulluch - O yes I was, I was with Taffy for
a while, only we differed in glory, but I expect he's know me.

In his brief introduction Jones describes The Book as “a harking back to conversations of the immediately post- 1914-18 period and to the later phases of the conflict itself”. The first few lines give an almost impressionist report of a kind of dialogue centring on three women who don’t make any further appearance in this particular fragment. It is not the presence of Cicily, Pamela and Belle that I find surprising but the tone of these few lines. I am aware that ‘ordinary’ real life conversation is often cryptic and haphazard but this ‘feels’ deliberately mannered, as though Jones had stepped outside his own cadences to make a particular point whilst leaving it more than a little mysterious.

This is all the order because I shouldn’t be this surprised, it’s to be expected that a modernist hailed by both Eliot and Auden should experiment with this particular idiom and I didn’t notice this on my first reading of the Book. It then occurs to me that I may be experiencing an example of the ‘dirty eyes’ syndrome that, as social workers, we were supposed to be wary of. This consists of having a fairly rigid and world-weary set of expectations as to how things will work out. Boys born into the underclass will truant, become involved in petty crime, receive a number of custodial sentences and ‘work’ in the black economy with only a few being ‘saved’ at the age of 23 or so by the love of a good woman. Girls who have experienced any kind of abuse will self-harm, develop eating disorders and seek out destructive relationships.

All of this points to a kind of poetry complacency, ‘David Jones writes long poems in his own distinctive voice without any of the more mannered modernist fripperies’ seems to have buried its way into the skin when I wasn’t looking, along with the view that Jones didn’t write anything of significance other than IP and TA. My only excuse for the second of these has been the initial shock of being introduced these two works and finding enough in both to occupy me for more than a few years. However the placing of Jones in this particular cognitive ‘box’ does nothing for the open-minded, eclectic and generally unprejudiced reader that I thought I was. Enough of the morbid introspection, on with the second surprising element.

There exists throughout human history the myth of the soldier who can’t be killed, the one who is always left standing when everyone else is dead. Jones introduces this into the latter part of The Book after an account of a disastrous raid on a windmill:

.......................................................And three
men only returned from this diversion, and they were called:
Private Lucifer
Private Shenkin
Private Austin
and the reason for there vulnerability was this:................

This is followed by a description of Pte. Lucifer’s “agility, subtlety and lightness’ in avoiding enemy fire that the Gremans considered him to be invulnerable to their efforts: “That Tommy, sir, is but an Anointed Cherub’. At the other end of the spectrum, Pte. Shenkin is said to be awkward and clumsy and stumbles into a shell hole about half over no-man’s land. Lying prone there he gets tangled up in his kit and lies there until nightfall. There is a beautiful and compelling account of the voices of the dying and the dead that he hears from his protected position before crwaling back to the safety of the assembly trench.

Following this piece of heartbreaking brilliance, we come to Pte. Austin:

The invulnerability of Pte. Austin was by reason of the suff-
rages of his mother who served God hidden in a suburb, and
because of her the sons of the women in that suburb were believed
to be spared bodily death at that time, because she was believed
to be appointed mediatrix there. And it was urged by some that
Mrs Austin conditioned and made acceptable in some round-
about way the tomfoolery of the G.O.C. in C. Anyway it was
by reason of her suffrages that Private Austin was called one of
the three who escaped from the diversion before the Mill.

This is surprising because, to my ear, it doesn’t work and it fails on more than one level. Both the previous survivors are given characters and attributes that convey their humanity and the accounts of their escape are vividly told in ways that I can envisage. Here we are given nothing of Pte. Austin and only a little bit more about his mum. I fully appreciate the sincerity and depth of Jones’ faith and I acknowledge the purported strength of intercessory prayers but surely every mother would be making such prayers at the time. In addition I don’t understand the equivocation in ‘were believed’ and ‘was believed’ unless it is ham-fistedly making a point about the power of faith This paragraph seems weak and not well thought through which is astonishing given the description of the Queen of the Woods in IP.

The fragment closes with Mrs Austen which is a pity because it’s by far the least satisfactory bit. I guess the section for me that most clearly marks for me a link between to two long poems is the description of the voices heard by Private Shenkin in his place of shelter. This obviously retains the setting of IP but takes the density of allusion and reference much further.

I was on the verge of forgiving my ignoring of the fragments because life may be too short and then I realised that I ‘like’ Jones’ work more than that of Sir Geoffrey Hill and I have most of Hill’s material in duplicate and his collection of essays. Will now go and order The Roman Quarry.

David Jones Week: Homage and Heresy

I was going to post recordings of The Anathemata today but then changed my mind because there’s something else I’ve been meaning to do for the past couple of months. One of the things that I’ve wondered out loud about is the absence of Jones’ successors, worrying that he may suffer the fate of John Skelton and have no successors.

Vested interest time, Earlier this year I was invited by Carlo Parcelli to write something for Flashpoint which I duly did. Carlo then drew my attention to Flashpoint’s special on Jones and sent me a copy of his remarkable The Canaanite Gospel, A Meditation on Empire. In addition, John Matthias sent me a copy of his A Gathering of Ways and his Selected Works of David Jones when we started corresponding in 2010. End of vested interested disclaimer.

The Homage.

I’ll start with John’s An East Anglian Dyptych which is written in memory of David Jones and Robert Duncan. The poems is dived into two parts, Ley Lines and Rivers and encapsulates some of John’s writing about the English cultural past. I’m of the view that John is currently the best poet that we have on England’s many layers which is odd because he’s American. Perhaps British poets have a kind of bashful ambivalence about England (I include G Hill ) and this produces an odd kind of queasiness in the work. Anyone who is in doubt of this claim should read both the Diptych and Kedging in Time and then come back and argue with me.

The OED defines a homage as ” A work of art or entertainment which incorporates elements of style or content characteristic of another work, artist, or genre, as a means of paying affectionate tribute” and also a declaration of allegiance and I’d like to use both of these to think about the Diptych. The first ‘panel’ uses the ley line as its framing reference point. a ley line is a straightish line/track in the landscape between specific vantage points. The identification of these lines was first made and developed by Alfred Watkins in the 1920s. It has to be pointed out that the existence of these is denied by most of academia but the idea of these lines has embodied itself quite deep in our current popular culture.

Jones work is knee deep in myth and in his cultural past and these form a rich vein running through his work. In his notes John describes the Diptych as a ‘poem of place’ but it is much more than that. As with Jones, the lines are packed with proper nouns and both poems track to and fro through time. This is very difficult to carry off, only Olson springs to mind but he had to use many, many pages and years to do it. In terms of homage, the poms carry Jones within but John has made this spatio-temporality his own. This is the first half of the third part of Ley Lines:

Past Tom Paine's house behind the pudding stone
and castle there aligned
strategically along the Icknield Way

Beyond the Gallows Hill
beside the Thetford tracks to Brandon
down the Harling Drove

Across the Brickkiln Farm to Bromehill Cottage
& below the tumuli before
the rabbit warrens and top hats...

Some burials, some dead,
and here their flinted offerings.
Seven antler picks,

A phallus made of chalk, 
a Venus (did they call her yet Epona?)
and a tallow lamp...

Beltane fire line forty miles long?
Conflagration's law where energy's electric
down the herepath 
                         if belus is spelled Bel...

In terms of the temporal ‘shift’, there is also a poignant description of Edward Thomas who wrote about the Icknield Way which is one of England’s major tracks.

This seems written as an ‘affectionate tribute’ but also a declaration of allegiance of John pinning his colours to the Jones mast, a statement about the worth and strength of Jones’ work at a time when this had all but disappeared from view.

Rivers is equally remarkable and moves from prehistory to John Constable and the 19th century:

Or with a ship, a Syren or a Terpsichore. And if a giant, then a giant
metamorphosed over time. The man who'll six years later paint The Hay 
Wain may not know his river rises as a tiny Brook east of the Chilterns 
in the Gogmagogs. And yet he feels the giant in it, yet he knows its
gods. Today he finishes his sketch of Flatford Mill--the mill itself, the
locks, the barge and bargemen, and the small distracted barefoot boy on
his horse. He'll work it up in 1817 for the Academy and no one will
complain that it lacks finish. The sketch itself is rough he add an 
ash--his favourite tree--some elms a broken oak. He shades in clouds
he's come to study with a meteorologist's precision. Then he shuts the 
sketch book and trudges off toward Denham, marking in his mind
the river's fringe of willow herb and reed, the rising heron and the darting
snipe and redshank in the sky...

Before we get to the heretic, I’d be grateful if anyone knows of similar homages to Jones could let me know.

The Heresy

Before we go any further I must warn those of a sensitive disposition that this isn’t in any way comfortable material and that there will be film.

Carlo’s Gospel is a collection of 88 poetic monologues spoken by a range of characters at the time of the Passion. The heresy works in two directions, the first being the absence of reverence and the second being defiant irreverence in the face of critical sobriety. Needless to say I’m all in favour of the second of these traits and not at all offended by the first. Before we get to the extract I think I should mention that Carlo is of the view that the Romans should speak with a cockney twang. This is the first part of Orianus 1 which is subtitled “a Roman principalis protests his confinement to quarters adamantly denying the frumentari Gatian’s accusation that he and his detail killed Ezekial and several members of his gang after questioning them in the fortress Antonia”:

And you can tell that Capuan shite Gatian
     Me proper animus a any bangers
         What's slinging stones at me detail,
Special when posted bounties for these body snatches, and a fuckin'
         80 denarii donatio for any nasty bits a the Nazarene.
If these Jew mommas can't keep their little Davids
    Out the road I'll bring Hephaistos down on 'em to leave a mark.
Lucky I didn't request me ordo send a writ to the speculatores.
      A mock drownin' and a broken chalk's a bargain
What these whinin' women better be gracious
      Or next it'll be bread and the house what goes missin'.

Before we go any further, the good news is that youtube has a video of Carlo reading this monologue and seven or eight others of an equally scabrous and gnarly nature. I do appreciated that some may wish to denigrate this kind of material but there’s much to be admired about one who appears so single minded in moving the demotic on to a different plane. The po-faced historian in me would also like to point out that this kind of language and these attitudes are probably a much more accurate portrayal of the average Roman NCO than the description(s) that Jones gives. Of course, the heresy is counterbalanced by the affectionate nod in Jone’s direction. I also wish that more poets would provide reasonably produced videos of themselves reading their work because poetry should be read out loud.

The other important point to note is that the monologues tell provide an interlinked narrative on several levels, one which challenges most of our stereotypes and assumptions. Reading this through in sequence I have gained a much clearer impression of the place and the time. It’s a fascinating piece of iconoclasm and one that I thoroughly recommend, currently available on amazon and from County Valley Press.

David Jones Week: Reading The Fatigue.

First of all,I need to than the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson and Dylan Lloyd for their generosity in providing me with these recordings which have been an absolute revelation for me. This one is from Nathaniel and it is the longest (23 mins) and it jumps around a lot at about 19 mins, I’ve decided to leave this in rather than edit it out because it is how it is, if that makes sense.

Secondly, because of these recordings, I’ve realised that I haven’t paid enough attention to the shorter work and this has done Jones a great disservice because this material is staggeringly good and I’m very, very impressed by The Fatigue because of its elegance and deep humanity.

This oversight is even more heinous because I’ve had a copy of The Sleeping Lord collection for more than three years and have failed to give it the attention that it deserves. This is made worse by the fact that these ‘fragments’ are probably the best entry points for most new readers. Although Jones’ intro here is good, I want to quote something from the print intro where Jones describes an incised stone marking the site of a legion’s cook-house that he saw on a trip to Jerusalem in 1934:

The incised stone they showed to me was set up more than half a century after the Passion, for the tenth Fretensis was not I understand posted to Judea until the days of Trajan. None the less the sight of it brought the ordinary serving soldiers of First Century Roman Judea very close to one especially owing to its alleged domestic-regimental use. And at the same time it brought back vividly to my mind those ill-scrawled inscriptions of the Forward Zone. equally domestic and regimental, marking at the turn of a duck-board track, the flimsy shelter that served as the cook-house of B Coy, nth Batt. R.W.F. or the painted board, set askew, and pock-marked by stray bullet-holes, which read nth Field Coy. R.E. To gum-boot store. No loitering by day. But what a fall in the calligraphy.

Given that In Parenthesis was published two years later, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to suggest that this neatly expresses the shifting complexities of that long poem about life in the trenches. I don’t want to over-read (again) but this fascination with his personal cultural clutter talks to me of a strong notion of the past living and breathing in the apparent immediacy of the present.

This will take less than twenty five minutes of your life and hopefully will demonstrate to you just how important a poet Jones is to all of us.

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.