“And daffodils that come before the swallow dares”: welcome the daffodils of Spring.


How Shakespeare interpenetrates English literature- not just the verse but the literature as a whole! Too readily we take his genius for granted. The comment comes as I see the arrival of daffodils that perhaps above all, for us in Britain betokens after harsh winter the spring and the idea of renewal.

The Winter’s Tale is a wonderful late Shakespeare play, for it brings together in the one package, tragedy and spiritual restoration both a reminder of the tragic period (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear) and the post-tragic period of the last plays ( eg. Pericles, The Tempest). In its first half King Leontes in the middle course of life destroys an apparently happy married life when he is seized by an irrational jealousy which leads to the imprisonment of his wife, the death of his young son and the abandonment of his baby daughter; yet Shakespeare is not content to let the play end there. Reconciliation, restoration, rebirth is possible beyond irrational destruction; as shown in the second half of the play.

For in exchange for the claustrophobia of a court seized by madness we are introduced to a world of pastoral. Perdita , the lost child, comes forth to offer us a new beginning when she acclaims the flowers of spring, especially those that come first:

                                               O Prosperina
For the flowers, that (frighted) thou let'st fall
From Dis's waggon: daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty.


Shakespeare emphasises the bold splendour of the flowers standing out against the all too frequent “winds of March”. Later Wordsworth would take these same flowers and reflects again upon the flowers’ beauty and the hold of that beauty upon our minds.

It is a wonderful poem which should be known in all primary schools:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake , beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: 
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed- and gazed- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon the inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
and then  my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


When I say Shakespeare interpenetrates English literature I do not necessarily mean Wordsworth here was influenced in his poetry by what Shakespeare had written on the subject. It is that it is as if Shakespeare contains the developments that occur in the poetry and the great novels and that would certainly include the great Romantic development from the late eighteenth -early nineteenth centuries.

So remembering what Shakespeare and the Romantics did for daffodils we herald the start of April.


Man lives not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imaginations may recognise elements of it, when presented in art or literature, without consciously understanding what it is that we recognise. Practically all that we can see of this body of concern is socially conditioned and culturally inherited

Northrop Frye “The Great Code The Bible and Literature”. Havest Books 1982.

We are creatures of language. In the Bible God brings order into the universe by speaking forth. He creates man as the peak of creation, in his image. In Genesis 2 God gets Adam even before the creation of Eve to name the animals. Naming distinguishes and he finds no animal that might match him or act as a companion for him.

In a sense if we take the two Biblical creation stories together God makes man to have dominion over the animals because that is made possible by his involvement in language : “He sees before and after and pines for what is not”(Shelley). He lives, that is, in a world of language and is shaped differently by that fact. More, he lives within a narrative. We know that on the commonplace everyday routine level. But according to Frye that narrative is shaped or certainly has been shaped in the western world by a Biblical framework, albeit we are frequently unconscious of its extent.

He sees that Biblical framework as myth. This may worry some readers but need not. Myth is not something opposed to the truth; instead it offers a narrative that gives our lives meaning. We do not need to believe the Genesis creation stories are actual description to recognise that it gives us that they gives us a profound understanding of who and what we are.

Of course we also live within a world shaped by scepticism and scientism which has no room for the divine but would see us as purely natural phenomena , just another species of animal. The search for a metaphysical meaning is disregarded: life is simply explained by science; which provides in itself a mythological explanation or, better, an anti- mythological picture of what we are. Taken to an extreme it is such a view that informs the cynicism of a character like Sweeney in T.S. Eliot :

Birth and copulation and death.
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth and copulation and death.
Fragment of an Agon.


While it is true that all life is deeply inter-related and we are animal in origin- the Bible makes us of dust- I like Frye’s distinction. We may, as humans be of nature but the fact- God- given in my mind- that through language we are seekers of meaning and ever have been, as evidenced by such creations as early cave paintings, means that we have life beyond the sphere of all other animals. Frye’s distinction is between being of nature, which we as humans inevitably are, but not living “in” nature “directly or nakedly like the animals” because we all ” live in a mythological universe” . This seems to me to be unanswerable. It is that mythological universe that among other things gives the lie to the reductionists who wish to see us as just another animal: birth, copulation and death are all given rituals and ceremonies shaped by a narrative, in all cultures and largely created historically for us in the West by the Bible. Reductionists reduce the significance the whole great human co-operative enterprise of language, religion, culture and art through which we become “living souls” to quote Genesis (in the King James Version) as not basic reality but as something added to reality.

Animals do not share a mythological universe. They live entirely-unless they are domesticated as pets, or within zoos- within Nature. True many of them have skills in speed , in hunting down, in finding their ways across vast distances that far exceed the natural propensities of the human being. Some have awesome means of communication, whether they be insects like ants or bees or creatures of the sea like dolphins and whales, They can appear to express joy as when birds sing territorially or crows ride the wind in joyous flight:

The birds around me hopped and played,  
Their thoughts I cannot measure- 
But the least motion which they made 
It seemed a thrill of pleasure. 

It is easy for us to delight in Nature (with a capital) as Wordsworth does here but we do so from a level of consciousness, shaped as here by poetry which makes us live in a different sphere. Among other things they do not live in the consciousness that we have of being morally accountable for their welfare.

So Frye is correct : “We do not live directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe.” We have the responsibility to be as living souls.

(PS . It is only fair to add that Ray Inkster on RAYSVIEWONLINE@ wordpress. com has a radically different take on the Genesis verse than what is argued here.)


What is the difference, if any, between writing that is spiritually inspired and writing that is imaginatively inspired?

I ask the question because to me the Luke infancy narrative ( which was probably added as a later preface to the original narrative) strikes me as a wondrous piece of literature of a depth that is both. Conservative readers of the scripture would tend to see it as directly God-inspired so that all of it is both historically and spiritually true. On the other hand -as explored in an earlier post “Inspiration: What Does It Mean to Say Writers Are Inspired?”– inspired writing is not necessarily simply Biblical or spiritual. We remember those writers who say with Blake: “though these works are mine I know they are not mine”. Perhaps both sets of writing are deeply imaginative: though the Biblical is more deliberately God-focused with an apparently definite historical background rather than being seen as simply imaginative.

There are possible difficulties, of course, with the phrase “historical background”. The problem stems from the lack of assured source material. Luke was working with material thirty or so years before the start of the ministry of Jesus. For the birth stories he would have relied on oral testimony traditions that were more distant and obscure. Moreover, for some like the encounters with Gabriel, the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth there was no one to report the details. Again how was it known what the angels declared to the shepherds? The amount of historically unconfirmed material, therefore, as well as imagined material made to fit in with Old Testament prophecies was high. But for generations of readers and hearers to whom the stories are vividly satisfying to their imaginations, the lack of precise historical evidence is neither here nor there.

For I would suggest that it is profoundly meaningful to them that:-

  • the mother of the Man, who was to be raised from the dead, is presented as a virgin (a post on the meaning of the virgin birth will follow soon).
  • that the birth of the child was of the most humble nature, not in a human residence but in a cave.
  • that the birth was greeted both by the most common( shepherds were frequently looked down upon) and the most learned, by shepherds and by Wise Men (though the story comes from Matthew, not Luke).
  • that in the background is the reign of Augustus Caesar, who stood for worldly power the alternative Son of God who has established along with Roman rule the Pax Romana under which the new religion of Jesus will spread.
  • that the birth was into a world in which power holds terrifying destructive potential as revealed in the Matthew story of Herod’s destruction of the innocents.
  • the tale kept true to Old Testament prophecies: the supposed birthplace of the Messiah at Bethlehem, the later connection with Nazareth.

Luke, that is, gained enough from oral sources to weave together a profound tale whose meanings for two millenia have been found to be inexhaustible, inspirational both imaginatively and spiritually.

Within the Infancy narratives there are some beautiful intimate touches:

For Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart in her heart”

This follows on the visit of the shepherds. Mary is storing in the depths of her mind her experiences and deeply reflecting on them. Luke’s insight here into the female mind and indeed his very dwelling upon it is astonishing.

The reader is invited by the focus on Mary to identify with her imaginatively and seek to understand her feelings.

That verse however does not stand on its own within the narrative. Consider:

“And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying , and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be”. (Luke 1:29)

Here again the reader is invited into Mary’s experience into shock and puzzlement at the angel Gabriel’s opening declaration.

Again later this time in the childhood of Jesus following the return from Jerusalem after Jesus was lost and found and after his pronouncement “Know ye not I must be about my Father’s business” Luke switches his attention to Mary once again: “but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (Luke 2:51) .

Imaginative identification includes the wonderful presentation of Elizabeth:

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:41).

There follows Elizabeth’s salutation Blessed art thou among women, the exalted tone of which leads directly to Mary’s inspired response in the speech known known as the Magnificat.

It is obvious that we as readers are not simply being given an account of what happened back then, we are being asked to read with imaginative insight, opening our minds to seek to understand what is going on in the minds of Mary and Elizabeth. The prose is of an astonishingly sustained reverential, annunciatory level that causes the reader to identify with the way in which it is crossing normal boundaries bringing together the divine and the human. The Bible as a whole does this but these stories, in particular, reflect an assurance that there is such a meeting ground.

In their intimacy, in their close identification with the two female characters, they show not only an author deeply in tune with the need to give voice to women, we are also given reading matter that invites spiritual reflection in the reader. You may have heard of the reading and prayer form of Lectio Divina a deeply contemplative form of Bible reading. It is passages like these which make a merely factual reading of the Bible inadequate; rather they require reading much more akin to that of reading poetry, necessarily imaginative.

Again in Luke’s infancy narratives speeches which could not have been passed on verbatim are used to present, again imaginatively, the thoughts and expressions of various characters from the angel Gabriel’s “Hail Mary”, Elizabeth’s acclamation of Mary, Mary’s own Magnificat beginning My soul doth magnify the Lord, the angels addressing the shepherds, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people followed by the later Hymn of Simeon-the Nunc Dimitus : Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word…….

It is little wonder that such passages, as the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimitus have been for centuries incorporated into Christian worship, that Handel used the material in addition to apt prophetic Old Testament passages for creating the unfailingly popular music of The Messiah, that the Nine Lessons and Carols still continue to draw huge congregations, and that fom medieval times the common people created joyous folk carols to celebrate and relive the the time when human and divine were brought together in a way that remains permanently meaningful.

Perhaps that is what Matthew Arnold meant when he spoke of “The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry”(see previous post). But does that dispose of what Arnold suggested was its failure to represent believable fact? I have given my case for believing not. For it is in the nature of Luke’s inspiration that the imagination meets spiritual truth within a particular historical and religious context.

For the fact is in the meaning and the meaning is the fact.

“Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes”

In his last letter, Tyndale asked that he might have “a warmer cap, for I suffer greatly from the cold… a warmer coat also for what I have is very thin: a piece of cloth with which to patch my leggings. And I also ask to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency that the commissary will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary, that I may continue with my work.”

Tyndale’s New Testament. Translated by William Tyndale in 1534. Intro. David Daniell. Yale University 1995.

William Tyndale is a hero of the Christian faith and also our language. We live in an age that complacently takes both for granted.

Let it be said clearly every school child in an English speaking country should know the name of William Tyndale.

Living in the reign of Henry VIII, he was there at the start of the Reformation. It was in 1517 Luther nailed his proclamation challenging the Pope’s authority on the church at Wittenberg. An essential angle of the Reformation was making the Bible available to the laity in their own tongues. Up to that time Latin was the official language of the church and only though Latin could Christian truth be mediated in church.

Tyndale, living in exile, did what was rigorously repressed and forbidden in England. He translated the Bible into English: the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek. Around sixteen thousand translations were smuggled in from the continent over the years. This was dangerous work and ultimately Tyndale paid the price. Found guilty of heresy by a court in the Netherlands he was strangled, demonstrating he, and his like, were to be made voiceless.

It was a vain hope. He told a cleric who challenged him: Ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost. What Tyndale started could not be held back. The voice could not be silenced.

Ultimately, after his death, his translation was allowed being incorporated in the Great Bible of 1539. It was not so much that the eyes of King Henry VIII had been opened. His marital affairs famously led to his quarrels with the Pope and he became more accepting of Protestant states in Germany so allowing English publications were more a matter of political expediency than principle especially when his chief archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who developed the English Book of Common Prayer, was in approval of the use of English in church.

It is not generally realised how much of the greatly loved Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611 is based on Tyndale’s translation: according to Tombs “80-90percent of the New Testament and a large part of the Old Testament remained Tyndale”. This version tends to give a more formal and rhetorical elaboration of Tyndale. Here is the opening verse of Genesis in Tyndale’s translation:

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water

Tyndale’s Old Testament Intro by David Daniell 1992

The Authorised Version builds on this, slightly (I think improves it ) but we can see Tyndale’s more direct, less rhetorical syle in operation:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

King James Version of the Bible.

Notice the King James Version elaborates and slightly improves phrases ( “was without form”) and it uses the paratactic form (ie sentences beginning with “And”) which helps give weight to the delivery. Some find the Tyndale’s more direct, less formal style more appealing than the Authorised Version but what cannot be denied is the predominant influence of Tyndale on it and therefore our language for four hundred years

A look at the familiarity of words and phrases brought into the language by Tyndale’s translation makes this clear. I quote from Robert Tombs:

salt of the earth, the fat of the land, the powers that be, let there be light, the spirit is willing, the apple of his eye, a law unto themselves, filthy lucre, as bald as a coot, the straight and narrow, my brother’s keeper, blessed are the peacemakers, let my people go, eat, drink and be merry, flowing with milk and honey, a stranger in a strange land, the flesh pots, thou shalt not kill, love thy neighbour as thyself.

Robert Tombs “The English and Their History” Allen Lane 2014.

Tyndale’s language working through the earlier English translations and then the Authorised Version of the Bible, meant that for four centuries his English has made a unique contribution to the language wherever it is spoken.

David Daniell in his introduction puts it well:

It is commonly said that Luther’s 1522 New Testament gave Germany a language; it ought to be said more clearly that Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament gave to English its first classic prose. Such flexibility, directness, nobility and rhythmic beauty showed what the language could do. There is a fine line from Tyndale to the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest English prose that followed: English, that is, rather than Latinised , prose. The sixteenth century began with debate about the worthiness of English. The later poets under Elizabeth and James-Shakespeare above all-showed that English was a language which could far out -reach Latin in stature but Tyndale and his successors made an English prose which was a more than worthy vehicle for the most serious matter of all.

ibid. Tyndale’s New Testament Tr. William Tyndale. 1534 Intro. David Daniell.

To forget or ignore Tyndale would be a sign that those of us who have inherited his language have forgotten where we have come from.



It’s a famous, striking and beautiful line I think! It is also a charming illustration! Charming, however, is not a critical word. It means simply you are attracted by the refrain and the illustration. What changes when we make a critical response?

But let me leave the question in the air while I give more information

The refrain is from the Elizabethan Edmund Spenser’s poem Prothalamion.

Prothalamion is word invented by the poet. It comes from two Greek words: pro -before and thalamion meaning bridal chamber. A forthcoming wedding is being celebrated: the double marriage of twin sisters is being held further downstream in the city . Here, up- river we are made conscious of the charms of Nature and two swans floating downstream represent the brides to be. There is a pastoral element to the poem and plenty of classical allusions but to me the artifice adds to the poem rather than chokes it.

The artifice is, at first, disguised by a curiously personal quality with the poet’s voice and mood introduced in the first stanza. He is pictured, in “sullen” mood needing the refreshment of Nature. However, the picture he paints is purely connected with the forthcoming wedding and here the pastoral element of the poem develops with the description of the nymphs bedecking themselves, and then the swans with flowers

The poet’s stance poet as narrator changes in the first stanza; changes from the personal to one reflecting that of the Muse. This is illustrated by refrain “Sweet Thames run softly while I sing my song” in which the narrator is supposed as Muse to have the authority to command the river while he presents his work.

As I say, this to me gives the poem a charm connected not with its realism but with a ready ( in my case-perhaps not in yours) acceptance of artifice and its skilful arrangement.

But see what you think in reading the first three stanzas:

Calm was the day, and through the trembling air  
Sweet breathing Zephyrus didst softly play 
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay 
Hot Titan's beams, which then did glister fair:              (glitter)
When I whom sullen care, 
Through discontent of my long fruitless stay 
In Prince's court, and expectation vain 
Of idle hope, which still do fly away 
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain, 
Walked forth to ease my pain 
Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems 
Was painted all with variable flowers, 
And all the meads adorned with dainty gems,
Fit to deck maidens' bowers 
And crown their paramours, 
Against the bridal day which is not long: 
Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song.

There in a meadow by the river's side, 
A flock of nymphs I chanced to espy, 
All lovely Daughters of the Flood thereby, 
With goodly greenish locks all loose untied, 
As each had been a bride, 
And each one had a little wicker basket, 
Made of  fine twigs entrailed curiously,                       (entwined)
In which they gathered flowers to fill their flasket:   (a shallow basket)
And with fine Fingers, cropped full feateously           ( dexterously)
The tender stalks on hye. 
Of every sort which in that meadow grew, 
They gathered some; the Violet pallid blue, 
The little Daisy, that at evening closes, 
The virgin Lily, and the Primrose true,
With sore of vermeil Roses, 
To deck their Bridegrooms' poesies,
 Against the Bridal day, which was not long: 
Sweet Thames run softly till  I  end my song.

With that, I saw two swans of goodly hew, 
Come softly swimming down along the lee; 
Two fairer birds I yet did never see: 
The snow which doth the top of Pindus strew, 
Did never whiter show, 
Nor Love himself when he a swan would be 
For love of Leda, whiter did appear: 
Yet Leda was they say as white as he, 
Yet not so white as these nor nothing near; 
So purely white they were, 
That even the gentle stream, the which them bare, and bade his billows spare 
To wet their silken feathers, least they might 
Soil their fair plumes with water not so fair 
And mar their beauties bright, 
That shone as light, 
Against their bridal day, which was not long: 
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.     


With Spenser’s verse we associate that strain of music that runs through English verse from Spenser himself through Milton (cf. Lycidas), Keats and Tennyson. The language has a decorative quality (Flasket, feateously, entrayled, posies, meads, maidens, paramours) as opposed to a poetry that emphasises the rhythms of the speaking voice and the physicality of the language; it reflects more the Anglo-Norman French inheritance of English rather than that of Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Spenser sometimes adopts the mode of the Old English alliterative line ( In which they gathered flowers to fill their flaskets /And with fine fingers cropped full feateously.) but the words are chosen for grace rather than for their physical immediacy.

While this I find attractive I find poetry rooted in the physical- sounding more Anglo-Saxon form of English more meaningful as an elucidation or actual enactment though words of thought.

Compare with Spenser this of John Donne, for instance, in The Hill of Truth:

                                         On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will 
Reach her, about must and about must go 
And what the hill's suddenness resists win so 
Yet strive so, that before age, death's twilight, 
Thy soul can rest, for none can work in that night.

The language is decidedly rooted in Old English. Huge, cragged (two syllables), steep, strive: note the strong physical words; note how the enjambment separating the complete verb “will Reach” enables the enactment of stretching; note the decisive words rhyme words ending lines. The language represents strength rather than grace ; focused thought rather than ornamentation; unexpectedness rather than convention .

What do you think? Do you tend towards one or the other?


So large and so significant is English as a literature that you never really lose sight of the need to learn and study more. Additionally I was brought up to suspect the idea of being just a specialist ( though specialists are obviously necessary) so I never wanted to concentrate my efforts on one period or one genre or one extension. It is a subject in which you want, even as you focus on one of its parts, to keep a sense of the whole.

That said, one feels a certain resistance to the contemporary. To keep up with the sheer volume of modern fiction is both an impossibility and from my point of view not specially desirable. One keeps ones eyes on the reviews; one looks -with decreasing hope- to hear of a new writer who will take the literature and the language-and re-direct it -as Eliot or Lawrence or Joyce did a hundred years ago.

This, however, is one of the irritations. I am surrounded by insatiable readers of the latest Booker Prize winners, or the latest young discovery (we’ve moved from Zadie Smith to Ali Smith to Sally Rooney).

Here I imagine a conversation with a young enthusiast.

Me : I’m interested in Literature too. I spent much of my life teaching it for the Open University and now I write blogs on the subject.

She: Fascinating. I’m looking forward to studying in third year. We’ve concentrated on modules on post-colonial stuff, as well as plenty on how lack of diversity and lots of racism is shown in the in the writing of the past.

Me: Anything on Chaucer or Piers Ploughman?.

She: No they have ditched all that medieval stuff as irrelevant and not sufficiently marketable.

Me: Oh no! Shakespeare?

She: Yes a lot on the Merchant of Venice and anti-semitism in the module on racism. Also Othello came in as the Moor.

Me: So you say you are finishing third year with a dissertation. What do you hope to focus on?

She: Definitely something on Sally Rooney.

Me: But she is still only in her twenties or so isn’t she?.

She: So what, she matters!. She’s the modern voice of fiction.

Me: I am afraid I read Normal People and found it dreary.

She (shocked): Dreary!

Me: Ok the main relationship , the on and off and then on relationship is sharply observed and well-done. It is very immersive as if the author is very personally involved but there is little or no attempt to set it in the perspective of another kind of reality. The novel shows a young writer hopelessly confined to the non-descript land of “anywhere”: depictions of council-house estate, school grades, the emptiness of youth culture, the nonentity of the lives of the rich, condemned because they are rich. Outside the two Connell and Marianne the family relationship is so unexplored. Connell is better with his mother; she at least gives him some moral direction. Of course there is no father and that is just taken for granted. But with Marianne it is as if the brother is a given as a bully and a weakling and the mother is contrived to be opposed to Marianne without sympathy at any point. She is only rich and mean.

She: But this is linked with the father’s abuse of her. Women have to fit in. And the brother learns from that too.

Me: Yes. it is a too easy given. It’s not really explained or developed

She: But the writer cannot include everything.

Me: Perhaps, but apart from that there is no sense of a real other Ireland, Nature, only the naive Marxist reading of spoilt comfortably-off rich and cheated poor. He offers her “The Communist Manifesto ” to read when they are at school for goodness sake. The writer is so caught up in her lived-in world and has no resources to get her beyond being miserable about things. To be so young and dreary! Young creative life shout be a kick against misery not a lament.

She: But that is the world of the young, the world they know. She writes about it and makes it art.

Me: I agree that if you want to learn about the sexual mores and the ways in which the young socialise she is an excellent source allowing for the slant she is taking. As to “art” she gives fine short impressionistic glimpses of the effects of say rain, or as she looks through a window misted by her breath. But then there are other descriptions of her taking a shower and you ask “Why is this here?” So what.

She: Is it not connected with giving a sense of the ordinary, like normal people?

Me: I don’t know. For me art is there to make significant. Too much of the description is just detached observation that does not go any where. The detached objective view, neutral.

She: It often runs as if for a film.

Me: Yes , that’s a really good observation. The narration is like the neutral eye of the camera viewing things. I say “neutral eye” but it is apparently neutral-it is still chosen. It’s like it is being prepared for the cinema or the televising it got.

She: Yes, it’s our way of seeing.

Me: But we need to go beyond our common-sense way of seeing rather than just refining it here or there with fine impressionistic glimpses and I don’t think she does that.

She: Perhaps but she is still young and it is not just dreary. There is a slow movement towards hope.

Me: Mm, I’m reminded of that quotation “The individual condition is tragic yet there is social hope. “- that might describe Rooney with her rather detached Marxism. They moan at what they call capitalism and say yes to activism but remain detached waiting for things to happen elsewhere. But if there is a vague social hope I am reminded of what F.R. Leavis said about that quotation: “Where if not in individuals is, is what is hoped for to be located?” Especially in the young and creative but I don’t get that with Rooney. Connell ends up doing Creative Writing: play around with Creative Writing while you wait for the debacle: it’s not inspiring.

She: The lovers do get themselves sorted out. Marianne overcomes her dependency on being trampled on. He gets to the point of commitment. She is freed by his belief in her.

Me: There is something there perhaps. But put the novel in the tradition. One hundred and ten years ago Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers autobiographically based discovering in himself the problem with finding a relationship with a woman that gets himself beyond the hold on him with his mother. In one relationship he and a secondary girlfriend find a kind of sexual togetherness that connects them with the Nature around them, the “wheeling peewits etc..” There is hardly any sense of Nature in this work certainly not impinging on the world of the lovers. They -or at least Marianne wants to make love in a derelict building. Ok that fits with the theme of her self-negation. But there is also a lack which Lawrence shows in his work: wonder. In The Rainbow the young farmer character looks for a woman with a kind of religious intensity. It isn’t piety it is an understanding his sexual longing belongs to his religious urge for wholeness. I don’t get that with today’s young writers. For these young writers sex is too easy in our world and has become a quagmire.

She: That’s interesting but I think she had to clear the ground first and she did that with this novel. It will be interesting to see how she will progress.

He: Well Lawrence did say after writing his autobiographical novel: ” one sheds ones sicknesses in books -repeats and presents again ones emotions to become master of them” . Then he became free to write his best stuff. Perhaps Rooney will do the same.


Eduard Von Grutzner Falstaff 1896

The affections lead us on says Wordsworth. So does language. This is what Falstaff is resisting in connection with the word “honour” . He has landed himself in a battle but, no soldier, he does not want to fight:

..honour pricks me on. Yea but what if honour prick me off when I come on ? How then? can honour set to a leg? No Or an arm? No . Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. “What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? Air-a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it no. Tis insensible then? Yea to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon- and so ends my catechism.

William Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1 1597

(NB “scutcheon” painted shield with coat of arms identifying a dead nobleman. (“Henry iv P1 Signet Classics 1963) )

For Falstaff what comes first is self-preservation. The language of honour, of military and heroic ambition means nothing. Honour is mere air. A word. The speech is a marvellous piece of deflation. In the play we have a character who lives by honour. Hotspur is genuinely heroic, he believes in honour; but he drives himself impetuously on the word to the point of madness. He is made use of by others who encourage him into a risky rebellion. Behind “honour” we still need reason. Falstaff uses reason in this speech to safeguard self; Hotspur in holding to the inspiration of the word avoids thinking.

Nevertheless we do despite Falstaff and notwithstanding Hotspur live on the inspiration of words. They are not mere air. Or if they are air they are the air that stirs us into life. “Honour” is still a great word involving our essential self-respect. So is the closely connected word “troth”.

“And thereto I give thee my troth” are the words of commitment in Cranmer’s great marriage service.


James Wheeler from Pexels

The Third realm sounds mysterious, perhaps mystical, but is simply like this.

It is English class and a group of students look at a poem, let us say this by Wordsworth.

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky,
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
  Or let me die!.
The Child is father of the man 
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety. 

It is a well focused class. The teacher reads through the poem twice with them and then they discuss it.

Here is the question: ” As they listen and discuss the poem where is the poem?”

Yes simple as that : Where is the poem?

Is it on the page in those black marks? Or written in the past is it a document that belongs to the year 1802 or whenever Wordsworth wrote it?

This does not seem satisfactory.

The poem has been recreated in experience by the reading. It is not just black marks on a page and it is made vividly present not an antiquated document from back there.

Is the poem then in the minds of the teacher and students?. Well yes , that can be said.

Is it purely subjective experience then? Perhaps, but it is a common subjective experience and yet each subjective mind no doubt has a slightly different take on the poem.

In the discussion the teacher asks questions: like why “behold” rather than “see” , “view” “observe”?. What are the connotations, the sound, the meaning, the length of “behold” that makes it appropriate Wordsworth chooses that word.

Why the three lines beginning “So was it” “So is it” “So be it”. What is being done by that format?

How does this development of past, present and future lead to the general statement: “The child is father of the man”.

What does the poignant sounding “Or let me die” suggest?

How does the finale complete the meaning of the poem?

There are loads of questions to explore.

The students seem alive to the poem and what it has to offer. One smart guy points to the opening rhythms of the opening lines “Are they not a wee bit slack the sort of emotive sound and rhythm that can easily be mocked?” You see the point. Wordsworth can be so overly simple and emotional sounding his work can often get parodied. At the same time the teacher sees this possible weakness compensated for by the strong binding rhythm of the centre of the poem.

Lots to discuss; the class remains well focused.

Where in all this interaction is the poem?

The 1802 poem is being recreated, it is a sustained following through the making of the poem making it alive again.

That is the third realm. The poem is there in the exchange of reading listening, discussing, imaginative re-reading.

It is real experience; all have been vividly involved. But the experience is not directed towards objective truth. It is not like a scientific experiment where verification happens when the liquid in the test tube turns colour. Nor is it simply subjective. The teacher is not saying “Take away your own meaning and be satisfied with that.” The focus is all on the meaning achieved by the poem.. One student might say this and you might want to interject “Yes, but..”.

It is a learning experience but you are not just looking for a definite answer to the meaning of the poem, as in the scientific experiment; objectively established. You are seeking to bring together through discussion, what T. S Eliot spoke of as the common pursuit of true judgement. You are looking to establish Wordsworth’s arguable meaning, not propose your own individual one.

The third realm: discussion in which minds meet.

Now read this quotation from F.R. Leavis:

It is in the study of literature, that one comes to recognise the nature and priority of the third realm… the realm of that which is neither merely private and personal nor public in the sense it can be brought into the laboratory or pointed to. Y ou cannot point to the poem; it is “there” only in the re-creative response of individual minds to the black marks on the page. But -a necessary faith- it is something in which minds can meet. The process in which this faith is justified is given fairly enough in the account of the nature of criticism…..The implicit form of a judgement is: This is so, isn’t it? the question is an appeal for confirmation is that the thing is so; implicitly that , though expecting, characteristically, an answer in the form, “yes,but- ” the but standing for qualifications, reserves, corrections. Here we have a diagram of the collaborative creative process in which the poem becomes established as something “out there”, of common access in what is in some sense a public world. It gives us, too, the nature of the existence of English Literature, a living whole, that can have its life only in the living present, in the creative response of individuals, who collaboratively renew and perpetuate what they participate in – a cultural community or consciousness. More it gives us the nature in general of what I have called the “third realm” to which all that makes us human belongs.

F.R. Leavis “Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow.” Richmond Lecture 1962.

This is dense and precisely focused argument. Note how the discussion of say a poem, by which it is placed as something admired (or not) is a paradigm for the way in which the idea of a literature becomes created by criticism ( Shakespeare is supreme where Ben Jonson is simply very good).- though criticism is always open to revaluation and agreement will never be universal. But also, and perhaps especially, note how the “third realm” also stands for the way in which a language is created and the way in which we belong to a particular form of the human world within that language.


I’ll come back to this!



You cannot escape it can you? That loud over-powering pulsating beat! We have gone to a bar cafe for a late Saturday lunch and all we want to do is enjoy the meal-we know the food to be good- and have a chat. But you cannot escape the noise that is pretending to be music. How is it conceived that this is something customers want? Yet it seems not to bother them. There they are all dressed up in Saturday ostentation that declares that though this is afternoon the night they are going to enjoy starts here, chattering as if to chat with that deadening beat in the background is as normal as chatting over the fence with their neighbour.

This all came to mind as I read this from Joseph Conrad’s superb novel Victory. Set on an island in the South Pacific a travelling band of musicians is doing a concert for hotel guests including the hero Heyst who has unwillingly joined the audience.

The Zangiacamo band was not making music ; it was simply murdering silence with a vulgar ferocious energy. One felt as if witnessing a deed of violence; and that impression was so strong that it seemed marvellous to see the people sitting so quietly on their chairs, drinking so calmly out of their glasses and giving no signs of distress, anger or fear. Heyst averted his gaze from the unnatural spectacle of their indifference.

Joseph Conrad Victory 1915

“Murdering silence” is a good way of putting it. The thump of the “music” is designed to dominate, to desensitise the auditors . You are not in fact “listening”: listening involves choice and you have no choice, just as you have no choice if a helicopter flies low overhead or you have to walk past as an electric drill breaking up the road. You are a victim.

So to Heyst the other guests seeming indifferent is unnatural. The word “unnatural” reminds me of a passage in D. H.Lawrence- also about so-called music: a singing class in a school in the industrial Midlands:

Standard Five girls were having a singing lesson, just finishing the la-me-do-la exercises and beginning a “sweet children’s song”. Anything more like song, spontaneous song, would be impossible to imagine: a strange bawling yell followed the outlines of a tune. It was not like savages: savages have subtle rhythms. It was not like animals: animals mean something when they yell. It was like nothing on earth and it was called singing.

D.H. Lawrence Lady mChatterly’s Lover 1928.

Murdering silence”, “vulgar, ferocious energy” a “strange bawling yell”; yet something it is assumed we should accept as normal or natural. “Unnatural”: in the Lawrence passage the “bawling” indicates a lack of sensitivity to what the song requires; in the Conrad it suggests an audience desensitised to what music might be.

Too late on that Saturday afternoon bar visit we recognised the mistake. The bar music was in fact aimed at its clientele. Its aim was to get them in the mood for an ongoing period of pleasure stretching into the small hours. Noise deadens sensitivity; it lowers inhibitions; voices are raised just to hear; drink is constantly needed to keep up the conviviality. As Conrad puts it “ferocious energy” is needed. The music helps to shape you into being a true party participator; bludgeoning the mind into acceptance of what the party demands……..

If the frantic, fervid quality of modern pleasure is unnatural the noise of its music murdering silence is integral to what it requires.


Has literature a function in the state? …. It has. And the function is not the coercing or emotionally persuading or bullying or suppressing people into the acceptance of any one set or any six set of opinions as opposed to another set or half-dozen set of opinions.

It has to do with the clarity and vigour of ” any and every” thought and opinion. It has to with maintaining the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself. Save in the rare and limited instances of inventions in the plastic arts, or in mathematics, the individual cannot think and and communicate his thoughts, the legislator cannot act effectively or frame his laws without words, and the solidity and validity of these words is in the care of the damned and despised literati. When their work goes rotten -by that I do not mean when they express indecorous thoughts- but when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten ie. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and individual thought and order goes to pot. This is a lesson of history , and a lesson not yet half learned

Ezra Pound