Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. St John 12. 24.
Now the green blade risethfrom the buried grain,Wheat that in dark earth many dayshas lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain, Thinking that never he would wake again. Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:Loveis come again like wheat that springeth green.
Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,He that for three days in the grave had lain. Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen: Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain, Thy touch can call us back to life again;Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
J.M.C. Crum 1872-1958
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:
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.)
The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything: the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.
Matthew Arnold. Introduction to the first volume of The Hundred Greatest Men 1880 .
As you see this passage by the famous Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold was written 140 years ago. How well does it stand today?
Two large prophetic claims are made. Religion is in decline and poetry- at least “if it is worthy of its high destinies”- has the potential to take its place.
I imagine whereas the prophecy on religion- Arnold is speaking as a member of the Church of England- will meet with some agreement, given the decline in church attendance in recent decades, the positive claim for poetry will be treated with some astonishment. If the claims of religion as the supreme truth are held to be in doubt it is surely because science not poetry has taken its place as the socially regarded supreme arbiter of what is true and what is false.
Matthew Arnold believed both in the “high seriousness” of poetry and the importance of religion. His doubts about religion, even though church attendance in his age and succeeding ages up to the 1950’s remained comparatively high, is based on the rise of scepticism in intellectuals brought about, particularly, by the impact of Darwinism which suggested an evolution of humanity that appeared to set it at odds with the generally accepted Creation story in Genesis; taken as factual description that is and not positively as myth. This, came on top of a climate philosophical scepticism, induced by such as David Hume- from the eighteenth century-for instance , with respect to miracles. Lives of Jesus by writers like Schleiemacher (1832) and Renan( 1863)- translated by George Eliot, the great novelist,- stressed his human qualities and downplayed the possibility of miracles or supernatural powers. Such delimitation has continued of course into our times in which various quests for the historical Jesus have been pursued. Here what Arnold has to say of the fact failing religion given the prominence of scientific reasoning and scepticism throughout society may well seem spot on.
But the consequent rise of poetry! Surely here Arnold is being unrealistic? Actually for many years no!. Matthew Arnold was not an “ivory-tower” critic; ; he worked for over thirty years as a school inspector working to advance the use of great literature in the school curriculum at the crucial stage when education had become compulsory for all children by law. Largely through his inspiration English poetry was seen as a vital element for newly educated children to be introduced to what was best in the language. To teach a child from the slums Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” , for instance, was important for getting a child to love a poem. In his Report for 1880 Arnold writes:
Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty and of truth in alliance together, it suggests, however indirectly, high and noble principles in action, and it inspires the emotion so helpful in making principles operative.
The language is very much Victorian , to an extent, that in our sceptical age might seem over-exalted. But then Arnold’s sentiments are culturally complentary to the spiritual emphasis St Paul makes in the Letter to the Philippians
Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, or if there be any praise, think on these things.
Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. Ch4.8
Paul’s verses are part of our culture, inevitably, because when a faith comes to be written down and translated it takes its place within the language’s culture. But how well they fit with Arnold’s expression of the value of poetry! Through reading or hearing poetry one absorbs its values and this is an important part of one’s education relating to the development of who one is. For Arnold’s perceived great poetry would share Paul’s emphasis on virtue as righteousness and beauty.
Arnold’s influence on the development of education was immense. While, inevitably, practice would vary from school to to school it was in general a part of the school’s responsibility to encourage people to know good poetry and to learn passages by heart. The idea continued right into the fifties and early sixties as I myself can report, when it was taken for granted that at secondary level, a variety of Shakespeare’s plays would be read and in poetry we would work through poets from “A Pageant of English Verse”; it was considered essential to give pupils the opportunity to experience a range of great poetry in English.
A future post will seek to show that Arnold’s sense of the significance of the “fact” is not so clear as he believes. But here I want again to point out that Arnold’s prophecy expressed in this quotation is not borne out by an age markedly less religious (I refer to North America and the West) but also less given to Arnold’s high estimate of poetry and very much more prone to an exaggerated identification of truth with science and objectively verifiable fact.
So what then are we to make of Arnold’s judgement that “the strongest part of our religion is its unconscious poetry”? See the follow-up posts.
IT is Christmas tree purchase time once again-unless that is you are one of those wise people who has nurtured one from a previous year which you can continue to use, or unless you are one of those who for a variety of reasons- economical. practical, ecological- prefer not to buy.
It was fitting, then, to come across the following Eliot poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” in his “Collected Poems”. It cannot be claimed it is one of his best poems, and following, as it does in the Ariel series, the wonderful “Marina” which is, it is all too easy to overlook.
Yet I suggest what Eliot discusses is worth pursuing.
The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
There are several attitudes towards Christmas
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish-which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only decoration, but an angel,
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By eightieth meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall also be a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
It is not great poetry. It is rhythmically flat, no more than elegantly expressed rational discourse. As in the elderly Wordsworth, Eliot when he loses poetic force, without the driving impulsion of emotion creating and guiding the rhythm, the verse sounds prosaic.
That said, the poem has its interest. It appears to be Eliot’s last, written a few months before his death. It shows the unromantic Eliot holding on to that very Romantic emphasis on wonder that that great movement added to our understanding.
The child wonders at the Christmas tree;
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder.
Just as Wordsworth holds on to the wonder of the rainbow in the sky and prays to maintain that wonder :
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die.
so Eliot sees the importance of childhood wonder as informing our later life up to death
In Eliot’s poem the wonder then becomes associated, for the soul nearing death, with fear: the fear here referring us back to the fear felt by the shepherds visited by the angels (“Fear not: for behold, I bring tidings of great joy” )
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul.
The fear of death, of the judgement death brings on a life approaching it, is mitigated by the accumulated wonder and gratitude developed through a lifetime of the celebration of God’s great gift, as remembered every Christmas.
Let us then, whatever our age, as we look at our Christmas tree and value the Christmas stories, seek sustenance from and nurture within us that sense of accumulated wonder.
I will never forget the effect of reading John Donne for the first time.
Donne (1572-1631) may have lived three hundred and more years before but he speaks with a living force on love and sex, and to me, a distinctly naive nineteen year old second year university student with little experience of what is called life, his poetry had and continues to have, startling immediacy.
Songs and Sonnets provides an astonishing range of love poetry from sensuous to playful, from platonic to loving and it does so with a direct urgency of voice that makes the poems vitally alive.
You just need to look at some of the opening stanzas :
I wonder , by my troth, what thou, and I Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then But sucked on country pleasures childishly Or snorted we in the seven sleepers' den? 'Twas so; but this all pleasures fancies be. If ever any beauty I did see Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
( “Did” and “got”; two of the most common verbs in English speech, but hardly poetic sounding; has ever a poet given them more force than here? Consider the power the enjambment gives to “Did”. Again look at “weaned”, “sucked”,” “snorted”:all strongly physical Anglo-Saxon, Old English verbs considered too unpoetic in times where more euphemistic words would have might have been preferred).
Busy old fool ,unruly sun, Why dost thou thus Through windows and through curtains call on us?Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run? Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide Late school boys and sour prentices Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride Call country ants to harvest offices: Love, all alike, no season knows or clime, Nor hours, days , months which are the rags of time.
(Notice the shocking scorn with which the sun, regarded traditionally as splendid, often in Elizabethan times aggrandised by classical references to Phoebus or Apollo. There is a wide view of society that suggests the wide sweep of Jacobean drama; the influence of Shakespeare is hinted at by – “Late school boys and sour prentices” which reminds one of the Seven Ages of Man speech In “As You Like It” -and the dismissive “country ants to harvest offices” suggests the royal indifference of say, a Richard ii.).
For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love, Or chide my palsy or my gout,
My five grey hairs, or ruined fortune flout ,With wealthyour state, your minds with arts improve Take you a course, get you a place, Observe his honour or his GraceOr the King's real, or his stamped face, Contemplate; what you will, approve, So you will let me love.
(The influence of the dramatic voice speaking forth is presented here; it is as if the the voice is arguing against the restraining influence of friends, from out of the midst of conversation as if it is an excerpt from a play of voices. Notice , here, and throughout the three examples the command of rhythm that makes the verse flow.).
John Donne (along with other so-called Metaphysical poets) was a shaping influence on T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Eliot saw his poetry, as showing a combination of intellect, wit and feeling at play and it was this combination he sought to recapture in his own verse. John Donne was central to his idea of the “dissociation of sensibility” which shall be discussed in a future post.
F.R. Leavis in his revaluation of English poetry makes Donne central in the “line of wit” and demonstrates how Donne’s language follows the rhythms of the the “speaking voice”: “the subtleties of Donne’s use of the speaking voice and spoken language are inexhaustible ….The art has evident affinities with Shakespeare’s”.
It is little wonder I was so startled by John Donne when I first read him. Reading and appreciating Eliot and Leavis inevitably involved regarding John Donne highly. There is of course much more to Donne than can be attempted in this post; as well as “Songs and Sonnets” he created satires and significant religious poetry. He is a poet I shall come back to.
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:
Calmwas 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 todeck 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 croppedfull 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?
In the 1920’s D. H. Lawrence wrote the following clever poem. It may not be one of his best but it is witty and challenging, probably more to us now than when it was written. There used to be a conception of something called “liberal education” which was very different from education as vocational training or as developing skills or preparing us for the “real world”- which is separate from the world discerned from what is often mockingly dismissed as the “Ivory Tower”.
Liberal education was to do with the “enlargement” ( Newman’s word) of the mind and its cultivation because that cultivation, in itself, is a good both for the individual but also for Society which, for its good, needs not only people who are well trained but people who are deeply conscious and widely read.
What does our society really think university education is for.? The orthodox view of government these days appears to that universities are tied to the economy, a good investment designed to make us all better off. That is conception that Robinson and Maskell discern and expose in their New Idea of the University (Haven Books 2001) contrasting it with Newman’s idea of the university providing a liberal education.
You will see then, when you read it, why the poem is prescient.
NOTTINGHAM’S NEW UNIVERSITY
In Nottingham that dismal town
where I went to school and college,
they've built a new university
for a new dispensation of knowledge.
Built it most grandly and cakeily
out of the noble loot
derived from the shrewd cash-chemistry
by good Sir Jesse Boot.
Little I thought, when I was a lad
and turned my modest penny,
over on Boot's Cash Chemist's counter,
that Jesse by turning many
millions of similar of honest pence
over, would make a pile
that would rise at last and blossom out
in grand and cakey style
into a university
where smart men would dispense
doses of smart cash-chemistry
in language of common-sense!
That future Nottingham lads would be
that Nottingham lights would rise and say
-By Boots I am M.A.
From this I learn, though I knew it before
that culture has her roots
in the deep dung of cash, and lore
is a last offshoot of Boots.
D. H. Lawrence Pansies
D.H. Lawrence Pansies 1929
Sir Jesse Boot was born in Nottingham in 1850. After his father’s death he helped his mother run the family shop selling herbal remedies. The shop did well, business multiplied and Boots shops appeared all over the country from 1900 with the branding “Chemists to the Nation”.
Cardinal Newman “The Idea of the University” 1852
What do you understand by the phrase “Liberal education”?
University education can teach us in the “language of common sense”, develop our use of a specialised language or seek to provide “enlargement of the mind”? Discuss the aim of our education.
Should there be a distinction between vocational training and education?
What do you make of the meaning of the final stanza?
Is the poem snobbish? Is it fair to Sir Jesse Boot or is Lawrence’s target still relevant?
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.
The following poem gives a wonderful sense of the mysterious vitality of the story of Christ’s first sign or miracle from the Gospel of St John.
THE STEWARD’S TALE”
We did not usually run out of wine;My chief, a stern man, took his stewardship So very earnestly. There had been, You might say, an administrative slip.This was, you understand, a marriage feast Of consequence. The guests had come from far And wide. I startled when I saw the last Drops slowly draining from my serving jar.Word of the shortage had not got around; The chief knew nothing. How could I tell him? Then the voice of one who knew his own mind Bade me fill up six pitchers to the brim.I turned to see a young man standing there, One of the guests, quiet, knowing, benign. Do as I bid he said, and have no fear. You bring me water I will give you wine.Strange to say I did not hesitate, though Even at this time it seemed absurd. Those pitchers were so heavy it took two To lift them. I obeyed without a word.It was with trepidation that I took A sample for approval to the chief. He sipped, nodded and with a puzzled look, Sent me away. Imagine my relief.Later, as the feast progressed, I heard Him laugh and chat, politely tease the groom Uncannily an atmosphere of shared Peace almost of blessing had filled the room.I often wondered about that young man, When I left Cana for another place, Another life. Until today, watching Them unfix the Nazarene from the cross, I recognised at once his gentle face.
Chrsitopher Morgan in this poem (in the short collection Stalking the A4 The Brynmill Press 2009) is presented by critic Ian Robinson as one of the few contemporary poets whose work continues to “haunt” him
. “He is the best practitioner of English verse I have read in our time. Especially in the twenty first century it is not faint praise to call a writer a supreme master of the iambic pentameter and Morgan’s fluency in other forms is amazing.”
The Marriage of Cana in St John’s gospel is one of the great tales of the gospel. Rich meaning is distilled through Jesus’ direction leading to the transformation of water to wine.
The steward’s predicament here gives another perspective: the telling the tale from another imagined angle, through a dramatic monologue of one who has no previous knowledge of the man Jesus, so giving a fresh view on the power of his influence in creating an atmosphere of “shared Peace, almost of blessing” through the room. Behind this feeling is the cryptic and powerful prediction the Lord has made: “You bring me water I will give you wine“.
The steward speaks in exact, measured terms as one seeking to describe the events simply for a hearer. The precise account and the sure poetic use of enjambement (last Drops), the surprise of the single word active verb for “startled” (it is usually in passive voice) enables us to focus on the steward’s predicament. The introduction of Jesus is striking: first by unexpected voice-he is heard before he is seen- “ the voice of one who knew his own mind“- and then his appearance “quiet, knowing, benign” confirming the authority of voice when the steward is at a loss as to how to break the news. The decisive command is intriguingly reinforced by the fine chime of “wine” with “benign”.
The immediate effect within the poem is witnessed by the steward, in trepidation as he watches the master of the feast imbibe that drink he knows was poured out water. His relief at his master’s reaction is developed into wonder by the transformation wrought in the room.
This is beautifully wrought poetry. The steward’s wonder is prepared for by “uncannily”. As we return to the word we realise it is a stretched four syllable word drawing out the sense of the steward’s feeling as he sees the transformation gradually taking place. Note how the enjambement throws the emphasis on the keyword “Peace”( rhythmically elongated) . We are seeing the room through the steward’s eyes. His additional “almost of blessing” reminds us this is the voice of one who does not know Jesus, trying to find the right word and lighting on the powerful word “blessing” with its strong religious implications (of grace, of revelation) to describe the effects of his action.
That could have ended the poem but there is an additional five line stanza bringing us up to date linking the forgoing story with the crucified Jesus. The one who brought blessing and new life, the one whose “cup” he invited his disciples to drink as his blood at the Last Supper, is the one whose potential is declared in that opening miracle of John’s gospel.
The poem is thus an inspired re-telling of the first sign the inspired gospel writer, John brings of one who continues to have the power to transform.