Wednesday, September 29, 2010

John Clare

Finally reading Jonathan Bate's monumental biography of John Clare that is beautifully written and sets the 'peasant' poet in a richly detailed environment both natural and social.

One thing to emerge is the difference between merit immediately perceived and merit accumulated. Bate's describes a number of writers who enjoyed the flare of immediate popularity, only to fade, poets that captured the attention of the public whilst Coleridge and Wordsworth languished in the by ways, but of whom only the most specialist of scholars would now have heard (or indeed would pay any attention to: justified or no). It reminds me of Aesop's fable of the hare and the tortoise: acclaim is a fickle god.

Equally, I am struck about how the shaping of genius does not rely on genius, Clare's own reading (and reflection) was anchored in a diversity of texts, most of which have faded of view, and many of which were technical volumes concerning a host of subjects - from mathematics to herbal medicine. His reading was determined by a double availability - what was present in the small towns of rural Northamptonshire and what could be afforded by a labourer, often reduced to casual work by a combination of ill health and poetic fancy.

His was a tragic life - partly conditioned by the constrained acceptance of a genteel reading public that lauded and then faded in its interest and partly through the ravages of his ill health, most especially his latter mental instability.

Here is one of his great, late poems, written out of breakdown:

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.

And an earlier poem of acute natural and social observation...


The snow falls deep; the forest lies alone;
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close in snow-like hovel warm;
There tainted mutton wastes upon the coals,
And the half-wasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong, and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away.
Tis thus they live--a picture to the place,
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Just Weil

In between humble supplications with my begging bowl in Zurich and Geneva, I read the introduction to the Penguin anthology of Simone Weil and the first essay, 'Human Personality'.

She was a living paradox. A secular Jew who was deeply sceptical of any and all collective identities, especially this one. An atheist until one day she was 'seized' by Christ who longed to join the Catholic Church but refused it because the Church would not recognize the presence of spiritual  truth outside of itself. A gifted teacher whose pupils were permanently indebted to her even as they were likely to fail their official examinations. An intellectual who sought out a range of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs to understand in the flesh the impacts of such  (often piece) work on people: physical, emotional and spiritual. No one can read her letters from the Renault factory without recoiling at the conditions imposed, knowing that such factories remain the norm. She was a person of the tenderest empathy, feeling people's, a person's pain with a visceral rawness and yet could, on the surface, often be astonishingly rude and thoughtless!

I have always admired (with a certain fear) her intensity - never has anyone given me a more vivid impression of burning themselves up in a short life - in such a fulfilled, rather than wasted, way.

She writes beautifully of the innate sense of justice and balance she felt was at the core of what it meant to be human; and, of those forces - internal and external - that take us away from that core sense and search.

"At the bottom of the heart of every human being," she writes in 'Human Personality',"from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being."

I was reminded by this of an incident from my childhood, so vividly remembered. I was playing marbles with my (elder) brother and a cousin. In the course of the game, my cousin stole my marbles. It was so audacious and unexpected an act that I was dumbfounded and I remember looking at my aunt and my mother for restitution out of a clear and outraged sense of injustice. It was so obviously, objectively wrong - I could not cry and I did not feel 'sorry for myself'. In a moment my brother had responded by dividing his share of the marbles in two and giving me an exact half. (He could have responded differently as the older and 'mightier' of the three). My mother witnessed this, and when my aunt failed to respond, she intervened and restored the status quo (though by now all enthusiasm for the game had vanished).

To this day, I remain puzzled as to my memory's tenacity in clinging to this event so lucidly. It does feel that in this 'simple' oft repeated incident (with multiple alternate scenarios) I did step across the threshold of the 'merely' personal and touched what Weil would have seen as an 'impersonal' objective core: the sacred ground of a recognized justice that we hold to as we betray it constantly.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Past life

The past life of this blog can be found at:

Making Hay

Back from Hay with my modest purchases:

A copy of David Gascoyne's 'Selected Poems' signed (as a gift) by his wife, Judy. When T.S. Eliot was asked which English language poets he had 'missed' failed to identify as important voices (and, therefore, not published by Faber of which he was the editor). He named David Gascoyne (and Kathleen Raine). Gascoyne left school at sixteen and went to Paris where he befriended the Surrealists and became one. (His 'Short Survey of Surrealism', written when he was only eighteen, remains one of the best, insightful introductions to the movement). His early poems are full of arresting images, piled up but in ways that hinted at future patterns as he journeyed from the 'unconscious' to an explicit, if tentative, Christian existentialism. I remember sitting in the bar of Dartington Hall, talking Buber and Berdaeyev with him: his quiet, probing voice, always questioning, exploring. He was mentally frail, always sensitive to breakdown, and had a painful struggle to overcome an amphetamine addiction (used as a treatment, become a curse). Security came in late marriage to a wonderful, nurturing woman and a Royal Literature Society pension!

Snow in Europe

Out of their slumber Europeans spun
Dense dreams: appeasements, miracle, glimpsed flash
Of a new golden era; but could not restrain
The vertical white weight that fell last night
And made their continent a blank.

Hush, says the sameness of the snow
The Ural and Jura now rejoin
The furthest Arctic's desolation. All is one;
Sheer monotone: plain, mountain; country, town:
Contours and boundaries no longer show.

The warring flags hang colourless a while;
Now midnight's icy zero feigns a truce
Between the signs and seasons, and fades out
All shots and cries. But when the great thaw comes,
How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!

Christmas, 1938

A copy of 'Stanley Spencer by his brother Gilbert': a good artist on a great one - an illustrated memoir of a shared childhood, of similar influences taking different paths.

A copy of the fifteenth anniversary edition of Agenda. The best poetry magazine (in English) of the second half of the last century. This edition came after the death of the painter-poet David Jones and has the autobiographical fragments on which he was working at his death (and two essays of appreciation - on the art and the writing). Not since Blake had there been an artist who combined both vocations so completely.

A copy of 'The Way Things Are: conversations with Huston Smith'. Smith wrote the best introduction to world religions (that still sells and sells and sells). He is a lucid defender of the 'sophia perrenis' with a great turn of phrase (that has made him a periodic performer on PBS in the US)

A copy of 'Searching for the Emperor' by the Italian novelist by Roberto Pazzi. I bought this because it is a re-imagination of a failure to save the Tsar in Ekaterinburg (a period of history that has always arrested my imagination, even before I knew I would have anything to do with Russia) AND because I continue to search for a modern Italian writer to like! (With the exception of Eco's 'Name of the Rose', including Eco's subsequent novels, this has been, to date, a litany of failure)!

A copy of 'The Deer Cry Pavilion: A Sory of Westerners in Japan 1868-1905' because how the 'West' encountered, understood and failed to understand the 'East' is a continuing interest (though usually I focus on India).

And, finally, (apart from a present) something completely different a (new) CD of Poulenc.

Encountering Martin Buber

This week I re-read my first book on Martin Buber. While still at school, my interest had been stimulated by a chapter in Anne Bancrof...