Tag Archives: boethius

‘Scenes from Comus’ on Arduity.

About two years ago I started (launched would be too grand a verb) the Arduity site with the aim of helping readers to engage with poetry that is thought to be difficult. At the same time I applied for Arts Council funding which wasn’t forthcoming. For a year or so I added bits in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion and then left it alone. To my surprise it continues to attract between 100 and 200 user sessions per day and people still say encouraging things about it.

In an attempt to get a bit more structure into my life, I’ve decided to overhaul arduity and to move it more in the direction of poets and their work but with the same objective of encouraging ‘lay’ readers to pay attention to this material.

Apart from tidying up some of the navigation and a few of the very many typos, I’ve spent most of today writing about ‘Comus’ because the Geoffrey Hill section is a bit thin and doesn’t contain any direct examples of the work. Then there is the fact that I really like writing about this particular sequence as it’s the one that converted me to his work.

After much internal deliberation I’ve also mentioned on the Hill index page that the last three books might not be very good but, for the moment, I haven’t spelled out how utterly dismal ‘Oraclau’ actually is.

Having now read what I’ve written on ‘Comus’, which I still think of as one of the clearer sequences, I’m now beginning to dither. Two years ago I had a typical user in mind, a keen reader of poetry with a reasonable level of intelligence who is nevertheless deterred from this work because of its density, word use and allusions and by the critical chatter that surrounds it. This had been my experience and it took a very positive review of ‘Comus’ by Nicholas Lezard to attempt to tackle this kind of stuff. So, the tone was to be one of positive encouragement together with an overview of the tricks of the late modern trade.

Having now re-read some of the initial content, I’ve decided that most of it is more didactic and patronising than intended and that it lacks personal enthusiasm and tends to glide over some of the very real obstacles to access.

Starting with enthusiasm, I’ve tried with this blog to find different ways to do avid pleasure and admiration. Sometimes this ‘works’ and on other occasions it falls flat on its face but my point is that I do try to communicate the pleasure/provocation/incitement that I get from some of this material on Bebrowed whereas I haven’t with Arduity. With regard to obstacles, I’ve just written something that indicates that the reader may benefit from some baseline knowledge of-

  • Wyatt and Surrey;
  • Boethius and Fortune and/or Providence;
  • the relationship between Andrew Marvell and John Milton;
  • the red Tories of the 1820s
  • Hopkins’ improvisations on ‘self’, ‘inscape’ and ‘selving’
  • the meaning and usage of ‘couvade’

My dithering stems from not knowing how my intended user would respond to this kind of exposition. I did some self-censoring in that I haven’t done chapter and verse on ‘selving’, I’ve omitted almost completely the workings of grace and have merely mentioned Hill’s promotion of poetry as memorialisation. I tell myself that this isn’t being too dishonest and explication of some of the above does at least let users know what they might be in for.

However, there is this lingering doubt that a line has been crossed and that (again) I’m writing for myself rather than for the user and that I haven’t injected enough enthusiasm to counteract the density of the references/tone/theme. This is even harder to judge. I have been known to opine that anyone who doesn’t like a certain poem is obviously devoid of a soul and have resorted, on occasion, to quite florid hyperbole but there are very few times when I’ve said what I needed to say. Those that do come to mind have tended to be more personal and immediate rather than considered and/or mannered. For example, I’m reasonably happy about my writing about Keston Sutherland, Amy De’Ath, Sarah Kelly and Andrew Marvell but I don’t think I’ve been as spontaneous as I should about Paul Celan, Vanessa Place and Timothy Thornton.

For once, this isn’t an imaginary problem. Tomorrow I intend to write a couple of thousand words on ‘The Triumph of Love’ and I’ll enjoy this because it’s a wonderful piece of work that is also completely bonkers in term of tone and rationale. I do want to emphasise this level of eccentricity but also let users know that they will need to deal with the workings of Grace, the nature of purgatory and the Bradwardine problem. To do otherwise would be fundamentally dishonest. I’m also tempted to liven things up by including some psychopathology with regard to class background and childhood but this would only be to create a quite spurious frisson.

There is also the fact that I think it is one of the very best things to be written in the last forty years yet I don’t agree with either its centrasl ‘point’ which seems stupidly naive or its level of self-admiration. How do I include these concerns without going into enormous detail about arguments that are quite preipheral to my enjoyement of the work?

In conclusion, any thoughts on the above would be most welcome as would any views on the direction that Arduity should now take, bearing in mind that this has been about presenting an alternative to the academy rather than a supplement to it.


J H Prynne from the front, a reader’s report

alan thomas, lake & wells #2 2006

The Archive of the Now has a recording of Prynne reading ‘Refuse Collection’ with an introduction in which some Important Points are made. For the Prynne completists, the excellent Prynne bibliography states that this was recorded in December 2006 at the University of Sussex. The Important Points seem at first to be at variance with equally Important Points elsewhere and this was going to an incisive analysis of these inconsistencies. On a second and third listening however these turn out to be less obvious. What does seem to be important is the notion of authority with regard to the poem and the importance/centrality of what the reader makes of the material. He also says that he doesn’t believe in poets or poetry but that he does believe in poems.

He makes the reasonably obvious point that authorship does not entail authority over a piece of work and that poets will usually talk about how a poem is put together rather than the thing itself- they are speaking from the back of the poem whereas readers speak from the front and it is this speaking that counts.

I have a few issues with this, looking at and thinking about how a particular poem came to be done can enhance and inform a reading from the front and can also be deeply disenchanting. I’ll try and give a couple of readerly examples- initially I was very, very impressed by the ambition and verve of ‘Stress Position’ by Keston Sutherland. One of the many reasons for this was the inclusion of Black Beauty, the fictional horse, in the ‘plot’ and for this not to seem strange. Another piece of brilliance is the lyrical description of male rape by a group of soldiers. I now know where both of these came from because I’ve discussed them with Keston. Neither of these insights help with my understanding of the poem but they do provide context and this context might be another part of the picture of how poems ‘fit’ (or not) into our respective lives and worlds.

I’m not sure that this is to disagree with Prynne’s stance but I feel that he might be missing out on the provision of context. This can have unforeseen consequences, my intense admiration for ‘The Four Quartets’ was destroyed by reading about the process of composition and looking at the drafts. On the other hand Celan’s notes for the Meridian address have challenged and enhanced the ways that I think about poetry at a very deep level.

I can’t claim that what follows is a pristine and pure view of the poems from the front because I have read a lot of Prynne’s prose on the doing of poetry and his analyses of the work of others but what I can do is provide an honest account of what ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ look like from this particular ‘front’.


Readings from the front don’t occur by themselves and this is especially the case with complex poetry so this needs to begin with a brief account of what led me to pay attention to Prynne. I bought the first Collected because Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair came on to Radio 4 to say how good Prynne was. Like many others I made a real effort with some of the poems and then gave up. About five years later I started to pay attention to Geoffrey Hill and found to my surprise that I enjoyed the process. At this point ego kicked in and I felt that if I could get to grips with Hill then I could engage with Prynne. The first problem in this encounter is the charge of charlatanry and whether or not this stuff is a gigantic lifelong hoax. This suspicion has been largely overcome but traces can still come to the surface (see below).

Once I was ‘over’ the charlatan hurdle it became clear that this material demands (as with Celan) years of attention and that this could become quite obsessive because it never feels complete. I know that this can be applied to most serious work but I feel that these two are particularly demanding and rewarding over the very long term in a way that other poets aren’t.

The other facet that became apparent was/is the paucity of helpful material to assist with engagement. in fact I have used these pages to rant and despair at some of the excluding and elitist stuff that the academy insists on churning out about Prynne. I now accept that there are notable exceptions but at the time I felt (ego again) that I could try my hand at writing usefully about this material. Over the last three years I’ve found that I really enjoy writing about poetry, I find that I love finding different ways to say different things about this stuff and my ongoing engagement with Prynne (and others) increases my confidence in the validity/integrity of what I think.


I recall the day that this arrived (along with ‘Stress Position’ and ‘The Unconditional’) in the post from Barque Press. The cover looks and feels cheap and is green. Each page contains six quatrains and appears to be a poem in its right. The subject matter at least in part relates to the recent civil war in Ulster and to the hunger strike in particular but there are also many other things referred to. Each poem looks like a series of statements that don’t make any kind of sense as if a relentless disordering is taking place. If I am allowed a look from the side then I would observe that ‘Streak’ is more austere than the rest of Prynne’s work in terms of the relative shortage of reader-friendly footholds but that this should not imply an equivalent level of difficulty- I find ‘The Oval Window’ and ‘Triodes’ much more baffling.

I have an interest in the debate about the nature of the Tudor presence in Ireland and whether or not this can be said to be imperial, I also have some residual guilt for not being involved in the politics of the ‘Troubles’ as they were occurring. This focus (if that’s what it is) is much more challenging and absorbing for me than stating the obvious about fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan especially when the horrors of Ulster are being airbrushed out of our collective memories in a very deliberate way.

One of my more obvious problems is that I don’t apply enough rigour when thinking about readerly authority but this does have a number of advantages in that the only status that I can claim is that I have read something which has prodded me into trying to write something honest and heartfelt about it. So, I don’t think that this particular reader has anything definitive or significant to say, the hope is rather that others will be encouraged to read the same work and that some will want to write about their experience of it but this still isn’t about authority but simply taking the poem into the world. I think I also need to say that I’m never entirely clear whether I believe in belief so I can’t relate to or properly agree with belief in the poem.

The first thing to be said about ‘Streak~~~Willing’ is that there is a marked contrast between the sparse format/language use and the complex cavalcade of things that might be being said. These only slowly become apparent and really do require the reader to think/listen in different ways at once. Cutting across (through) the sequence there are necks, sames and hungers, key parts of each poem are made ambiguous and there are some parts that are surreal in their excess of bafflement (‘steep-side / per macro run by dozen oh warship guage silent / elated regimen’). There are also moments when things are said that carry enormous precision and make other ways of saying these things appear useless.

Because of the verbal austerity then a front only reading involves thinking about other meanings and possible homophones, it also involves thinking about the relationships that are set up within the sequence rather than with individual poems and this involves getting a reasonable overview of all 12 poems. This isn’t easy as there doesn’t seem to be an order of events or a sequence of ideas so my current approach is to try and sketch in elements as they become apparent. It is this activity that I know will keep me busy for several years to come.

Kazoo Dreamboats

I think that most of us are still in readerly shock over this, there is a picture on the front of a wooden or cane car which was drawn in Angola in 1936. There is a list of ‘reference cues’, extracts from these works are placed directly into the text which appears to be in prose.

The view from the front indicates that some of this may be more readily accessible and some of it appears to be quite witty. Their are a wide range of explicitly stated poetic tropes, conceits and devices and obvious references to not so obvious things. At this early stage of our acquaintance/encounter, I’m not having problems working out what is being said but much more in figuring out the cognitive sense or thrust of the message(s). The use of many sources and the absence of apparent connection between most of them is beginning to engage my small brain and I’ve even felt the need to make a start on ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ which is a good thing although I don’t think I’ve got the stomach for Mao in 1937 on contradiction.

The view from the front also states that, once the initial shock has been overcome, paying attention requires less of a cognitive shift than ‘Streak’ even if it does appear to collide head-on with 40+ years of material which was itself designed to collide with what most of us think of as poetry….


I can provide a readerly from the front account of most poems because most poems don’t challenge me. The material that is challenging benefits from context, it helps me as a reader to know Geoffrey Hill’s view of Pound and Yeats, to be aware of what Celan might have meant by ‘encounter’ just as it is useful to know that Prynne doesn’t attach enormous significance to meaning. The other thing that I need to note is that none of us are innocent readers and I am less innocent than most because I read with a view to writing about what I come across and, as an occasional doer of poetry, to see if there are any ideas or conceits that I can usefully steal.

Back in the Garden with Andrew Marvell’s soul and the colour green

This is going to appear more than a little disjointed but there is (trust me) some method in the confusion that follows. I’ve been re-reading Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and trying to follow Nigel Smith’s logic with regard to a Neoplatonic reading of the sequence and giving further consideration to Bruce R Smith’s gloriously ambitious ‘The Key of Green, Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture’ in order to try and get this particular poem a bit clearer in my head.

There are a number of things that I think need to be established before getting into the specifics:

  1. the middle of the 17th century is very far removed from and foreign to the early part of the twentieth century, the religious groups of the Interegnum and beyond were not the Taliban, John Evelyn was not our first ecologist regardless of what Simon Schama might say;
  2. the appearance of the word ‘soul’ in a poem does not automatically imply the presence of all things Plotinus hovering benignly (or otherwise) over the text;
  3. poetic influence, especially from one poet to another, is hugely complicated and should not be treated as a simple ‘given’;
  4. Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ may not be a single poem but a sequence of nine self-contained and coherent poems grouped around a single theme just as Hill’s Oraclau has Wales and the Welsh as its unifying link;
  5. work on the development of gardens and the place of the garden in the 17th century mindset / cultural landscape is only now beginning to produce results and these currently cover a very broad range of perspectives;
  6. as with ‘soul’, the use of the word ‘green’ should not be automatically be taken to refer to all things natural and wholesome.

I feel that I can now turn to the poem and start with what Nigel Smith has to say about the Neoplatonic basis for the poem/sequence- “In effect, M. transfers the metaphors of Neoplatonism from the cosmic to the human scale, almost parodying Neoplatonic language: Should not abide unchanged when it produces: it is moved and so brings forth an image. It looks to its source and is filled, and going forth to another opposed movement generates its own image, which is sensation and the principle growth in plants…. The part before this, which is immediately dependent upon Intellect, leaves Intellect alone, abiding in itself.'” The quote is from Book III of the Enneads and Smith refers us to the first 6 line of stanza / poem VI:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

To back up his claim, Smith quotes at some length from Nathaniel Culverwel’s ‘An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature’ and concludes with “Again, the broad patterns of thought M.’s thought are evident.” It so happens that I know a little of Plotinus and the Neoplatonic thread in English verse and it is this sort of opportunistic reading that really doesn’t do attentive readers any favours. Before proceeding with this I think I need to say that Nigel Smith’s work on Marvell (especially in the Longman Collected) is a model of what scholarship should be about- it’s just that here he does overreach himself. If we treat ‘The Garden’ as a single poem then it is clear that it is saying a number of quite different things and that these things are not easily compressed into one particular school of thought. We might also want to suggest that the poem deliberately resists a single, unified reading. This is not a radical insight about Marvell, people have been complaining about the unresolvable ambiguity in his work since 1681. The quest for a single coherent meaning or viewpoint is very attractive, some time ago I posted something on this blog which proposed to make complete sense of ‘An Horation Ode’ purely on the strength of its closing lines.

Before going on to the next stanza / poem, I’d like to draw attention to Smith’s “In effect” and “almost” in the above quote which might just indicate that he knows that he’s on a slippery slope.

We now turn to the next stanza which brings us to Edmund Spenser and the soul:

Here at the fountain's sliding foot
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There it like a bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs it sliver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Smith states that Spenser’s ‘Hymne to Heavenly Beautie’ is the source for the third and fourth lines and cites most of stanza 4 of that poem. However, the Yale edition of Spenser’s shorter poems is of the view that this sense of ascent is a reflection of Plato rather than Plotinus. Smith also quotes Alistair Fowler’s view that Boethius, Jeremy Taylor and George Herbert are also sources. I don’t have access to the 2003 Times Literary Supplement article that this is taken from but, as a general rule of thumb, anything that Fowler says must be correct because he is better than anyone else and writes with superb elan and authority.

Coincidentally, I know nothing of Boethius but I am now in possession of Prynne’s ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ which includes Boethius in its ‘Reference Cues’ list so I may have to read this before I get to the rest. I don’t wish to minimise the various threads that Marvell may be making use of here but I think my point is that influence isn’t just about mimesis or imitation, the strongest type of influence is that which gives the influenced permission to act or create in a certain way. For example, Pound gave Charles Olson permission to write a very long poem about many apparently disparate things just as James Joyce gave David Jones permission to write about the thought patterns of troops in WWI.

In this way Spenser gives permission to Herbert and they both give permission in turn to Marvell to write about the soul in a way that may contain elements of the Neoplatonic whilst not embracing the whole philosophy. It is eminently possible, for example, to draw a parallel between Ficino on the One and the structure of Book I of the Faerie Queen but that doesn’t mean that Spenser is putting forward a specifically Neoplatonic position.

With regard to green, this occurs twice in the poem / sequence, in addition to the above, stanza / poem 3 begins with this-

Nor red nor white was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees, their mistress' name
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

When I last wrote about this, I observed that green could be read in a number of different ways. Bruce R Smith has these-

  • leaves, especially bay leaves, especially bay leaves wound around a
    poet’s brow,
  • greenwood, greensward, greenhouse,
  • the village green,
  • verdigris, litharge of lead (PbO), and quicksilver “ground with the pisse of a yong childe” to make an emerald-green dye,
  • the suit of “flaming greene like an Emerald” that St. George is supposed to have worn when, en route to England, he stopped off in Egypt and was crowned king there,
  • a table covering for conducting legal business (the Board of Greencloth,
  • the green baize of the House of Commons), playing card games, and shooting pool,
  • green phantasms in “Perspective-Houses,” where, according to Francis Bacon, the inhabitants of New Atlantis produce “all Colourations of Light. All Delusions and Deceits of the Sight, in Figures, Magnitudes,
    Motions, Colours: All Demonstrations of Shadows,”
  • greenhead and greenhorn,
  • “the greene-ey’d Monster,” and
  • “Good is as visible as greene.”

Smith contiues with- “The last of these greens is John Donne’s in “Communitie,” a poem printed with Donne’s amorous verse in 1633. Donne’s speaker begins with the commonly held proposition that we must love good and hate ill. But what about “things indifferent”? These we have to “prove” or try out, “As wee shall fi nde our fancy bent.” Take women. Nature made them neither good nor bad, so we must use them all: “If they were good it would be seene, / Good is as visible as greene, / And to all eyes it selfe betrayes.” Green is so visible, it turns out, not just because it is everywhere to be seen in greenwood and greensward or because the speaker is a greenhead full of youthful desire but because women are green goods, pieces of ripening fruit that the speaker can devour one after another.”

I’ve quoted the above at length because I want to make a more general point about the occasional need to accept that we don’t actually know and will never know what certain things mean or refer to and that this is especially the case with Marvell. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to celebrate this multiplicity than contributing to sterile and unresolvable debates over precise intention and meaning….