Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
Monday, 29 December 2008
Sunday, 28 December 2008
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Fen is the key, here: or more specifically, the Fens, Cromwell's birthplace. Wordsworth is inflecting his 1802 contemporary world via Commonwealth England, such that each illuminate the other. Coeval with Milton's sublimity is Cromwell's political occlusion, violence and selfishness ('we are selfish men'). Wordsworth begs Milton to raise us up; Cromwell, famously, knew that 'no one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.'
And where is this poem going? It follows a very curious and roundabout trajectory, almost as if denying the implied Milton stream-line straight to the sea it purports to valorize; as if formally mimicking the Cromwellian stagnant fen watersit purports to deprecate. The motion is something like: Milton, I wish you were alive right now. England in 1802 has stagnated. The church, the army and the world of literature ('altar, sword, and pen,) not to mention the domestic arrangements of the better-off ('Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower') have lost their 'ancient English' happiness.
OK. But isn't that a weird quartet? Church, Army, Literary world and Stately Homes. The third term is justified, I suppose, by the fact of Wordsworth and Milton both being poets; but the fourth is not by Wordsworth himself being fairly well-to-do. More, neither the 'Church' nor the New Model Army of Milton (and Cromwell) is hardly in either case the 'ancient English' iteration.
The octet concludes with the confession of selfishness, and the request that Milton give us the altitude of 'manners, virtue, freedom, power': another very odd quartet, a set of values that seems to go out of its way not to map onto the previous set of conceptual locations. But perhaps that mismatch is the point; a subtle dislocation. Because the sestet that follows has nothing to do with the octet, replacing a call for direct action with a rather diffuse peroration to Milton's starriness. 'Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart' articulates muddle: it is unfortunately ambiguous between 'you, Milton, dwelt apart from humanity' ... in which case why call on him, as the octet does, to engage and improve humanity? ... and 'your soul dwelt apart from you, Milton' which would imply schizophrenia. 'Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea' is more interesting, implying as it seems to that Milton lies beyond (a sort of Lacanian Real) the tortuous, fen-blocked river-line of poetry; as a wished for direction. But the last triplet, linked with a wholly illogical 'so', rams a completely other Milton, tramping 'life's common way' and happily stooping to 'the lowliest duties.' It doesn't match the lofty and removed Milton of earlier. Plus, calling a man so eikonoklasteically associated with the regicide 'majestic' just looks clumsy, even crass.
The complex and suggestively dislocated awkwardness here can be mistaken, if you screw up your eyes and don't look too closely, for a simpler, more banal poem: 'Milton was lofty but did not lack the common touch; his poetry, and his model, should inspire the compacent stagnation of contemporary England'. But I don't think that's what's going on in this sonnet. A better way of reading its tangles is to see it as a specific riff upon a specific sonnet of Miltonic starry-uplifting praise:
Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud,
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way has ploughed
And on the neck of crowned fortune proud
Has reared God’s trophies, and his work pursued,
While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbrued,
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
And Worcester’s laureate wreath. Yet much remains
To conquer still; peace hath her victories
No less renowned than war: new foes arise,
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains:
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw.
This is a poem that forces through obstacles (Cromwell ploughing resistless through clouds and detractions); a poem whose stream flows uninterruptedly on, although soaked red with Scottish blood. A poem that knows that the end of war is no reason to stop making war. In the face of such sublimely brutal directness, with its slipstream of human blood and misery, which poet in all conscience would not want to artculate a more circumspect, checked-and-balanced fenny poem?
Saturday, 27 December 2008
Friday, 26 December 2008
Thursday, 25 December 2008
'I saw the new moon late yestreen
Wi' the auld moon in her arm;
And if we gang to sea, master,
I fear we'll come to harm.'
This is what Coleridge quotes at the beginning of 'Dejection, an Ode':
Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear my Master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.
That's Coleridge, I think, quoting from memory and 'improving' upon the original; for although there are various versions of the original poem there aren't any, I think, quite a leaden as this. But the question is: were Fairport quoting some alternate original version, or did they just make it up?
But 'the new moon in the old moon's arms': Wikipedia has an entry on the phrase that takes us to the earthshine. It doesn't make sense, though: a new moon is (to quote the Great Infallible again) 'when the Moon is not visible to the naked eye.' To speak of seeing a new moon would be like speaking of seeing an invisible man. But why 'in her hair'? In what sense? Possible meanings: the old English for a February moon is 'wolf moon'. 'Hair' (as the OED points out) is used astronomically of the rays of the sun, of comets' tails etc ('yet shall the aged sun shed forth his hair', Marlowe and Nashe's Dido, 1594). This latter makes more sense to me: moonshine, in the sense of lunar crepuscular rays, are a function of atmospheric interference in observation, and more likely to happen when the air is disturbed, as before a storm. The same cannot be said of earthlight.
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
Witt: Do you ever feel lonely?Of course it is otherness that provokes loneliness: it is the presence of other people (for example, people who don't know us or care about us) or the thought of other people -- these are what make us feel lonely. Loneliness is dissolved equally well by being surrounded by people who care about us; or by a perfection of solitude.
Welsh: Only around people.
Tuesday, 23 December 2008
Oliver Cromwell's signature, of course. It's an interesting thing. I don't know enough about paleography to say whether his habit of writing his lower-case 'e's as epsilons (more time consuming, but perhaps more classical) was widespread; but that line through his terminal two 'l's is a regular-enough feature of 17th century handwriting. That, nevertheless, does give his name something of the look of 'Cromwitt'. Since a 'crom' (or 'cromb') is an old English word for 'hook', or 'crook' (or sometimes 'talon') that means he's signing his name with a classic Villain's monkier: Oliver Crookwit'. It's almost Dickensian.
Monday, 22 December 2008
Sunday, 21 December 2008
According to Wikipedia 'Hölderlin suffered great loneliness, and often spent his time playing the piano, drawing, reading, writing, and enjoyed travelling when he had the chance ... [he] was plagued by money worries, having to accept a small allowance from his mother.' If ever a person were justified in booming 'get a job, idiot' across the gulf of time ... having to accept the allowance? Did she put a fucking gun in his ear?
Saturday, 20 December 2008
This isn't quite right, and I don't think it's only pedantry to point it out. We don't (as fish do over the seabed) fly. Trees aren't (as seaweed is) massed clots of fluid pennants and ribbons, or olivegreen bubblewrap trailing flexibly in the air. Better to say 'under the sky we are the starfish and the trees are the coral'. Better in several ways.
Friday, 19 December 2008
Perhaps to be a consolation, but
It is the opposite of consolation.
In fact it means a sort of pollution;
It means contamination of my grief
By the density of others' suffering.
The brute truth of emotional pain
Is the same truth of the physical:
Its eclipse of everything but itself,
Itself, and the person it's grounded in.
Only the well can properly empathise.
Only the dead are free from selfishness.
Thursday, 18 December 2008
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
It can be hard to shake the sense that the (from certain perspectives) heresy of Mormonism is precisely the heresy of Babel: the notion that man and God are of equal stature. This makes it hard to follow the logic of the shift from sentence to sentence in this Bloomian passage:
Nowhere is Joseph’s genius so American as when he declares that God organized us and our world but did not create either, since we are as early and as original as he is. Emerson shrewdly anticipated David Brion Davis in finding Mormonism to be the last expression of Puritanism.The superficial similarities (the strict daily rules, the centrality of lived faith and so on) are surely not so striking as the differences: that Puritanism is posited upon the gulf between God and man, the lighting of a flame of righteousness in the heart of men to signal the divine; whereas in Mormonism there is no gulf: man and God turn out to be the same thing. Puritanism a faith of soul besieged by body; Mormonism a faith founded upon an understanding of the immanent sacredness of the human form.
Monday, 15 December 2008
Plenty of ways of living when your heart has heated:
Dig out some shadows, sit under the sealing trees;
Ice on your chest. Keep the sun’s touch off.
In the early months of the year, in times when the dawn is,
The exhalation of the fields rises as breath in the chill
Or steam in the sauna, water shocked by one hot stone.
Sunday, 14 December 2008
Saturday, 13 December 2008
From Nabokov's story ‘Wingbeat’: ‘With a glint of her skis Isabel disappeared behind the bend of a snowbank, and when Kern, ashamed, of his awkward movements, overtook her in a soft hollow amid silver-frosted boughs, she wiggled her fingers in the air, stamped her skis and was off again. Kern stood for a time among the violet shadows, and suddenly felt a whiff of the familiar terror of silence. The lacework branches in the enamel-like air had the chill of a terrifying fairy tale.’
Fairy tales delight her; their chill, their ingenuity, the way they are always burgeoning with swift violence.
Friday, 12 December 2008
His bootlace tongue;
The way he throws his legs
That stationary trot
As the starved sand
Made insane by the sun
Bites the soles of his feet.
All that tongue work, and nothing to say
Lizard? All that supple dancing
And no mate to impress?
You and I, lizard. You and I.
Thursday, 11 December 2008
But perhaps it is worth taking him at his word.
Psychosis is a kind of mental clutter; and psychotic beliefs a way of sorting or arranging the mess so as to make it less distressing, to give the impression of an assertion of self-control. Modernist architecture, the obsessive-compulsive erasure of ornament, the severity of neoclassical and later architectural lines, is, similarly, a mode of sorting or arranging the collective psychosis of an increasingly gnarly, tumorous and psychotic society.
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
So, the opening 'yesterday' falls away, at its end; but then recalling his former happiness ('all my troubles seemed so far away') the melody rises, to fall back down ('now they look as though they're here to stay'): down ('oh I') on the snag of his own misery but, a qualified rise ('believe') followed by a new inflection of the title subject: not the actuality of yesterday, but his belief in yesterday: the rising melody-line on the second yesterday inverts and contrasts the actuality of misery with the hopefulness entailed by belief.
Monday, 8 December 2008
It does trouble me, actually, how sensible Saint-Just was: he did nothing by half-measures, but followed the logic of his principles to their blood-stained end. 'One does not make revolutions by halves,' he famously said. It is clearly a dangerous political and ethical policy, given the deathly places it leads, but there's a part of me that thinks: yes. If you're going to do a thing, then do it properly. This, I would say, is the residue of my Protestantism (the culture in which I was raised). Indeed, it approaches one sort of a definition of Protestantism, that it reacts against the human accomodations of Catholicism by saying: if you're going to have a relationship with God then do it properly. The problem is that this doesn't fit very well with how people actually are in the world. It's a very serious problem.
Sunday, 7 December 2008
I could write an entire Fear and Trembling style book about this image (a painting from c.1500, apparently). This is the baptism of the legendary first king of France, Clovis I, who reined from the last decades of the 5th century until his death in 511. He converted to Christianity in the starting point for the tradition of Catholic France ruled by a Catholic monarch. This image, in other words, is a mythic point of origin. The king embraces Christianity, and sets the nation on its Catholic road: except that he embraces Christianity inside an already completed medieval Christian Cathedral. According to the logic of the image, the structures of Catholicism are already there, prefabricated; the tree already fully grown and waiting only to have the acorn symbolically and ritualistically embedded at its root. This inversion is enormously eloquent of the logic of the incarnation itself: the world made by God, this fantastically ornate structure, that is nevertheless void, waiting for the entrance of Christ thousands (no, billions) of years later: the owner-occupier and architect turning up to make his house on the spot on which his house is already completely built.
Saturday, 6 December 2008
Friday, 5 December 2008
Thursday, 4 December 2008
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Superman, Superman and Superman!
Thinketh, he dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon!
His heart is his weak spot, the organ
upon which kryptonite has most purchase.
Superman's blood is packed with corpuscles
each blood cell is superpowerful:
undying blood, flowing faster than a train
propelled by a heartbeat pulsar-quick.
Now he sits in the lunar quiet. No need for air:
his lungs work and superwork, but not
to transfer oxygen to the superbloodstream.
His red-blood-cells aren't haemoglobin-red.
They're red as Martian weed is red, as red giants are.
His blood red-shifts as it flies streaming past us
(he has taken a kryptoknife and cut into his arm)
a snaking line of red, shallow-curled in an S.