A Serious Character

Humphrey Carpenter’s long biography on Pound is indeed thorough. Most of the way through I think he knows how to handle Pound, and that is no small feat. It has to be ironic a lot of the time (I’d guess he picked up the idea from Eliot’s correspondence), but without forgetting which parts are serious. The rough bit in the biography is the whole stay in the bughouse. I wish it had not been done chronologically and had been executed more briskly. One understands how it sapped and finished old Ez.

Carpenter is good on his insights, and a thorough chap. His one grand opus remaining to me is the one on the Inklings which I shall get my hands on I trust before the month is out.

This reading of biographies is often a mixed thing. I did Blake not long ago and Ackroyd did a really good job of unsentimentally evoking the pathos of Blake’s latter days. It ended with beautiful lament, and Blake singing from the bed of his poverty. With Carpenter’s Pound it is something similar the sadness of the ending, but mostly unredeemed by any brightness. Not unmingled, then, I say, is the experience one has in reading biographies. Makes one reflect.

I did Ackroyd’s Eliot between the two and that was another thing: the unhappiness of most his life bursts into a happy ending which goes on with serenity to the grave. Give me an ending like Eliot’s, though Blake’s was beautiful. Pound’s, alas, was not.

Good Sport in Book X

And so Sir Launcelot smote down Sir Dinadan, and made his men to unarm him, and so brought him to the queen and the haut prince, and they laughed at Dinadan so sore that they might not stand. Well, said Sir Dinadan, yet have I no shame, for the old shrew, Sir Launcelot, smote me down.

-Chapter XLVII

Well, said Launcelot, make good watch ever: God forbid that ever we meet but if it be at a dish of meat. Then laughed the queen and the haut prince, that they might not sit at their table; thus they made great joy till on the morn, and then they heard mass, and blew to field.

-Chapter XLVIII

CHAPTER XLIX Of the seventh battle, and how Sir Launcelot, being disguised like a maid, smote down Sir Dinadan.

Wherein is found:

And always Sir Dinadan looked up thereas Sir Launcelot was, and then he saw one sit in the stead of Sir Launcelot, armed. But when Dinadan saw a manner of a damosel he dread perils that it was Sir Launcelot disguised, but Sir Launcelot came on him so fast that he smote him over his horse’s croup; and then with great scorns they gat Sir Dinadan into the forest there beside, and there they dispoiled him unto his shirt, and put upon him a woman’s garment, and so brought him into the field: and so they blew unto lodging. And every knight went and unarmed them. Then was Sir Dinadan brought in among them all. And when Queen Guenever saw Sir Dinadan brought so among them all, then she laughed that she fell down, and so did all that there were.

–Sir T. Malory

Depths of Feeling

O God, Thou knowest my foolishness,
and my sins are not hid from Thee.
Lord, Thou knowest all my desire,
and my groaning is not hid from Thee.
Let not them that trust in Thee,
O Lord God of hosts,
be ashamed for my cause;
let not those that seek Thee be confounded
through me,
O Lord God of Israel.

from Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions.

This is an expression that runs deep, so deep it is remarkable in its humility. And it is humbling to be faced with such humility.

It comes at the end of the Confession section of his Wednesday prayers. I have found, after reading through these for years now, that his Wednesday prayers are still the ones that most make me pause. This section here is one of many, and I have found that not only do the expressions run deep: the source of his expressions runs deep.

Remarkable—and intriguing—is that what I have is a translation from the original Greek. What is remarkable is how much of the phrasing of Scripture is present in his text. How is it in the original? I don’t know how to put my finger on it exactly, but there is a seamlessness of diction and feeling that wells out of the most ancient sources of our religion and runs through this translation with such crystal purity, one is tempted to think the original really must have been a translation from the English that Newman ingeniously recovered.

What is orthopathy? This is orthopathy; Andrewes’ expression is right feeling. And the great virtue of Andrewes’ is how close he weds it, how he connects is back to that supreme expression of English language orthopathy, the King James Version, a version not only wedded to our literary culture and crucial to it, it is a work lives very close to the genius of our language (that is at least what I take Richard Mitchell to mean when he says it is one of God’s three gifts to the English language).

What is language for? Correct expression, you might say. There is a distinction between feeling and expression, but there should be no division. These are like the two natures of Christ, and should be joined forever without confusion, without change, inseparable and indivisible.

In much of this little book, I think this distinction without division holds.
My Barfield buddy JS Allen put up something that made me think of this neglected essay (I wrote it a while back and never posted it because I didn’t think there was a lot of shared appreciation for the KJV among my readers). It can look a bit narcissistic to link to something linking back to me, but . . . well, don’t look at it that way. The way he compares the NIV and the KJV is very good, and all of it goes around in the end to Dandelionend, which is not a bad place to start.

“In dreams begins responsibility” — William Butler Yeats

Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Advice on reading Beowulf:

When I was reading it I tried to imagine myself as an old Saxon thane sitting in my hall of a winter’s night, with the wolves & storm outside and the old fellow singing his story. In this way you get the atmosphere of terror that runs through it—the horror of the old barbarous days when the land was all forests and when you though that a demon might come to your house any night & carry you off. The description of Grendel stalking up from his ‘fen and fastness’ thrilled me. Besides, I loved the simplicity of the old life it represents: it comes as a relief to get away from all complications about characters & ‘problems’ to a time when hunting, fighting, eating, drinking & loving were all a man had to think of it. And lastly, always remember it’s a translation which spoils most things.

—Letter to Arthur Greeves, 1 November 1926

There is something with the insight of study behind it also, Tolkien’s “The Monsters and The Critics” which anybody trying to appreciate Beowulf ought to take into consideration. It does at a scholarly level something of what Lewis did by instinct and love of literature (and study, of course, but not the specialized kind Tolkien brings to it; at this time Lewis was preparing to try to enter university) in his paragraph above: try to put it in something of its original context and look at is as something to be enjoyed, not as an academic problem to be solved. He makes plain that it is work requiring above all, imagination.

The Autobiography of Edwin Muir

One of the great incongruities about Edwin Muir is that you first form the idea he was a very gentle person and then he tells you about all his violent dreams. Of course, if you’ve read his poetry, you’ve been exposed to his dreams. He was one of those interesting people who remember their dreams and seem to have very coherent ones (I envy that). But having read the poetry and afterward read how directly some of it came from his dreams, one is still surprised.

Perhaps it really isn’t an incongruity that he should dream all his violence and live a sad, beautiful and wise life. Perhaps he isn’t giving us the real story, though that is doubtful if T.S. Eliot’s remarks on the man are anything to go by. Muir became a Christian later in life—of some sort, he isn’t specific about it but definitely not a Calvinist—though not before he had been a socialist, and really heavy into psychoanalysis, besides the revivalism of his early life (they got a pretty good dose of that in all the islands surrounding England back in his day: see The Book of Ebenezer LePage). The psychoanalysis played a very important part in his life and his poetry, which perhaps allowed him to focus on his dreams.

He was into psychoanalysis to recover memories, to deal with his troubles, to find a myth to give sense and meaning to the disordered world to which he was violently and abruptly exposed. It is compelling to consider whether mankind has a faculty of collective memories, one that even includes the memories of animals, and perhaps more.

As you read you realize. He puts it together for you with the simplicity of clarity and a calm insight that is moving. It is like reading the book of Ruth sometimes, or the prose of William Butler Yeats. He took the chaos with which he was presented, the lack of education and wrestled with it patiently all his life, step by step in a way that—at least to me—explains above all the success of his gentleness.

I really enjoy Muir’s poetry, and have benefitted from his translations of Kafka (there’s another chap coming to grips with modernity by means of myth). Reading his autobiography has ordered and explained it for me, not in a direct or didactic way, but by suggestion, gently. Here is a poem of his:

The Good Man in Hell

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell’s little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?

One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.

—Edwin Muir

The Image of the City

Realism of language is perhaps the theme of Charles Williams. I am no scholar of Williams, but I’ve been reading around a bit, and while I’d hesitate to make a definite statement, I would venture a hypothesis; that is that whatever else he wrote about, what seems foremost in Williams is the fullness of the cosmos as perceived in the scope and riches of his language.

There is a flat and barely referential use of language in the mouth of living speakers and in literature which can be called a sort of being dead: a death of language. It is like a picture taken by an amateur photographer, like the sound of popular music, like a bag of ordinary chips. This death is when something is not alive with suggestions of what lies beyond, of greater possibilities. Language is dead when rather than suggesting, it seems to be withering, meaning less, comprehending less, touching less of the real world.

No painting is great that does not somehow spiritually transcend its necessary frame, no music is great that doesn’t have something of the march of meaning, no cooking is great that comes without some kind of hint beyond nourishment of the affirmation of the life it nourishes. And in the same way, in his use of language Williams was alive with suggestions and greater possibilities.

The Image of the City is a collection of essays (this is a good time to go looking for Williams’ non-fiction). These essays are valuable because Williams was a difficult, an intelligent, a skilled and a Christian thinker. He is worth understanding simply because of the kind of person he was. He was a rarity in an age that increasingly looks golden compared to ours. To great minds he was a stimulus: to Sayers to translate and study Dante, to Lewis in his thinking on Milton, and even to Eliot in his observation of Integrity.

And as he was a stimulus to better minds than ours, he can be a stimulus to us. He was an apologist for Milton in an age of much confusion about Milton—and his friends in the university got him a position lecturing on English letters. He had a way with lines of poetry, with poetic concerns, and not only suggests interesting things, but provides for us a necessary and welcome point of view. He has a way of opening up the poets to you, of appreciating. We need the criticism of appreciation. He was, when it comes to literature, not shackled by conventions void of insight and the spirit of the age, but liberated by an ardent love, and has the power of helping you to see through his gaze, and of making you want.

He knew how to communicate matters of the heart, and this is in large part due to his command of English prose—the fact that language was for him something alive. He was a poet admired by poets and the lovers of poetry (Auden read his poetry, and read his prose as well; Lewis admired and studied his poetry—I wish the volume of his commentaries on Williams were still in print). But he was most successful and admired as a novelist. He also wrote complicated plays, and he wrote books and essays. His use of English, his power with it—to show and to suggest—alone make his essays valuable.

If you read him with attention, Williams will expand your mind, will set it on things wondrous and permanent, will make the world you live in deepen because of the new-perceived order. The order will provide lines, along which lines true possibilities are opened. This is the essence of insight, and the real function of language.

Vowel Your Lines

It is the vowelling of a line, far more than the bundling of the consonants that makes it sound good or bad. A thousand things have to be considered in poetry. There is the requirement that the line should be a pleasant variation from its predecessor; that the syntax should fit naturally into the space to be filled; that the stresses of the line should support the meaning; and when all these requirements are fulfilled it would be worth considering whether certain consonants or clusters of sounds which are thought cacophonous may be rearranged . . . The Anglo-Saxons seem unaware of this cacophony, yet they pay very careful attention to vowelling and many of their lines are heavily sonorous.

—Charles Williams

The Problem of the Love of Poetry in Our Age

What are the considerations for a responsible poet in our age?

Though Edwin Muir died over fifty years ago, his answer to this question, delivered in the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures of 1955-1956, is still worthwhile. The lectures were published in a book entitled The Estate of Poetry. What were the problems he, a poet and a great one, entertained and answered?

I have spoken of the enigma of the public, and the ascendancy of criticism, and science, and the effect on the imagination of a world becoming more and more a world of secondary objects. I have also tried to give an idea of the virtue of the poetic imagination, its ancient succession, and the urgent need for it in our time. Poetry in any age is contemporary. What I have tried to urge is that poetry will not truly be contemporary, or truly poetry, if it deals merely with the immediately perceived contemporary world as if it existed by itself and were isolated from all that preceded it

The enigma of the public? Much has changed since Socrates had his dialogue with Ion. Much had changed, Muir observed, since he grew up in Orkney in a world where there still existed anonymous folk poetry in daily use: poetry that was the living property of all. Wordsworth first felt keenly the loss of that public. He offered Lyrical Ballads as an antidote against the fragmentation and inattention he perceived would result from the phenomenon of the newspaper, against the impending loss of poetry. Muir knew there was no going back. In our day we’re seeing the demise of the newspaper, but the problem has become all of our culture: there is no audience for poetry. Wordsworth dealt with the problem by adjusting his diction, though as Muir pointed out, he was a bit too clever to follow his own advice exactly.

What is interesting is to consider that a hundred years later, or so, Frost and Yeats found it necessary to think about diction also, and to adjust. What they realized was similar to what worried Wordsworth: the poet needs an audience. They felt they had to speak in a common diction, in a public voice in order to be heard. Muir does not examine Frost, but he does consider Yeats, and especially Yeats change of style. Yeats at first imagined and gathered about him an audience, but in the last he changed himself and made himself a great poet thereby. Wordsworth lost his vision and petered out, Yeats came through. He gathered an audience and he stuck with his audience. He had “vast sentiments, generalizations supported by tradition,” “but also the touch of nature which makes the whole world kin.”

So, I might add, does Muir in his poetry, and that is the best part of it, from what I can tell.

The enigma of the public in our age is in finding what we have in common in a world increasingly filled with artificial, secondary objects, with people living with so much that is artificial, loving it more than what is real, loving that at the heart of which is a lie. What use is the touch of nature if the world is increasingly cyborg? I think Muir is more sanguine about the possibilities of poetry in our age than he ought to have been. Consider his opinion that free verse had arrived at a dead end and would fade away. He was partly right, the free verse of our time has been dead for fifty years or more, but it hasn’t gone away.

Another of the things that troubled Muir was the ascendancy of criticism. It was leading, he felt, to the idea that a poem existed to be explained rather than enjoyed. This, he felt, represented a threat to poetry. He appreciated the new critics, but was also critical of their contribution to this error. He felt they were capable of analyzing a poem into saying the opposite of what it meant, and he demonstrates how Cleanth Brooks does exactly this to Tennyson. It is a good corrective, and in support Muir quotes from none other than T.S. Eliot, which is brilliant.

One of the reasons traditional forms and rhyme prevail in the poetry of Edwin Muir is because he considers poetry meant for public enjoyment, not for academic inquiry. And I believe the presence of traditional forms and rhyme in the smaller poetry, the funny poetry, the curious poetry, the unassuming poetry shows that when it is considered a matter of enjoyment (not as Muir puts it, existing primarily as a problem), poetry tends to flourish in forms instead.

Which leaves still the problem of the audience, along with the question of tradition. Muir believes forms give greater possibilities for addressing the wide range of traditional themes. Traditional forms (along with the innovations in these, such as the great invention of English verse: blank verse with all is music), though he doesn’t say this, help draw poetry back into conversation with the ancient ways. I think this is implied. And the audience? Muir believes the poet will have to imagine it. Muir certainly had no great audience and labored for years having started late and improving virtually alone. Perhaps such a thing can work. It is telling, however, that that is the problem which Muir feels he must address in his lectures.

The truth is that if you believe poetry is valuable, is vital, then you are going to have to become part of the audience: critical in the sense of being able to appreciate, knowledgeable of the tradition of poetry, and with the sort of discernment to be able to sort the good from the bad. I think what Muir shows us is that we need to be concerned about being an audience more than we need to be concerned about having poets. Muir also shows how to appreciate the poets, how criticism ought to function, how to understand the comments on poetry some poets make. It is one of the best books on poetry I’ve ever read, Muir’s lectures: gentle, interesting, illuminating, worthwhile.

Hard to Fathom

I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped about a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway.

—Edwin Muir

Got it here.

The Poet Thomas Hardy

One of the criteria for good poetry is that of truth. It is the criteria for good anything, really. We recognize truth by its resonance, and we know this resonance because there is a correspondence. Truth is when something of which we are in possession corresponds to reality. Truth is a function of propositions, certainly, but in poetry the propositions are a bit more than bare statements of fact. The insight of the words, the mood, the conclusions drawn given the premises on which the poem operates (a function of its coherence) are those things in which the resonance of truth is known.

Thomas Hardy wrote good poetry. While not usually known for his poetry, since he wrote so much fiction, yet a good amount of the last years of his life was dedicated to poetry. Hardy was a master of words and he practiced a lot before becoming serious about poetry, and then he wrote a lot of poetry, much of it good. He was particularly deft at his use of meter and its effects. Of course there has to be more than meter and effects, there have to be worthwhile insights achieved by his language and the effects, and when you read Hardy you have the sense that his insights are worthwhile besides being well-made.

It therefore follows that his poetry was somehow true. But simply to say it was true is not enough: it has to be shown how it was true, and on the way I’d like to also show you something of his ability.

Let me begin with some contrasts. Unlike Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet of rapture. Hardy was never glad the way Hopkins was. Hardy was a poet of melancholy. Another contrast is that Hardy lacked Hopkins’ faith, and it is not unlikely that these two points of contrast are related.

Another contrast is that unlike Hardy, William Butler Yeats rejected the materialism of his age with a great vehemence. Yeats was melancholy like Hardy, but Hardy’s melancholy was more passive than Yeats’. He was poignantly dismayed by the implications of the materialism scientists and thinkers of his day propounded, but he did not seem able to reject them with great, romantic convulsions.

I think Hardy was unhappy because he found the positivism of his age inescapable. Owen Barfield explains the positivism of that age as a sort of dead-end of the Scientific Revolution that tinged the thinking of 19th Century, and names its leading exponent as Auguste Comte. It was a sort of absolute materialism, a naturalism that had no place for spirit or for the supernatural.

Hopkins had faith to give him a spiritual realm and the supernatural. He was happy because the world was full of the grandeur of God. Of Hopkins’ blessed hope Hardy was unaware. Yeats had his occult researches, the unassayable evidence of the supernatural and spiritual in paranormal phenomena and the mists of Ireland, things which science could not adequately explain and which Yeats observed and pursued. But Hardy could only regard these things as quaint, his sense of wonder does not seem to have been romantic.

Hardy was fascinated by the material exchange of decomposition. This is the subject of “Transformations:” “Portion of this yew/is a man my grandsire knew.” Hardy repeats this idea often in his poetry. Let me add an aside about his skill: study the meter for a while, and notice how he creates the sense of rising with the yew, and falling with the thought of the man buried under it. The emphasis of the rhyme, coming as it does after the rushing anapest, is to settle the word ‘knew’ much deeper in the voice than the word ‘yew.’ And the initial anapestic foot of the second line seems to slide down after the discovery in the first line that not trochees but iambs are afoot. Just try saying it and pitching ‘knew’ higher than ‘yew.’ You can’t do it with any dignity; the construction of the lines require we descend.

But back to the fascination.

Proud Songsters

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand new birds of twelvemonths’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.

In “Proud Songsters,” only animals make the exchange, and yet how poignant it is. Notice how deftly he turns the whole poem toward meaning with the very last word. It would not be the same if he had not used the word “rain” with all the melancholy of the sense of a weeping world. It turns the bare observation into a subtle lament. That is Hardy’s gift.

Now consider this from “Rain on a Grave.”

Soon will be growing
Green blades from her mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them –
Ay – the sweet heart of them,
Loved beyond measure
With a child’s pleasure
All her life’s round.

You see his fascination with the material exchange as his beloved becomes part of the landscape. The point is the intimacy of the transformation as his beloved becomes the sweet heart (don’t let my observation cheapen the masterful way in which he transforms those words in the poem: sweet-heart) of the daisies.

This is irrational, but it shows how the thing haunts him. He has the sense of more, of ghosts, of spirit, but seems entirely unable to find another world for them. He can’t separate matter and spirit though he seems to know something of a distinction between them. If he did not, there would be no point in writing such a poem, no poignancy in the transformation he describes.

So Hardy was haunted by ghosts he did not believe in. That is paradoxical, though it is nothing new. Bringing truth out that way is, as G. K. Chesterton more or less remarked, simply a matter of the view you take on things.

Here is a poem that explores in a different way how the ghosts haunt Thomas Hardy.

The Walk

You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way;
Surveyed around
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.

You sense there the emptiness death leaves behind. It is demonstrated peculiarly by that odd, ending blankness. He expected the unexpected and only got the expected, which he did not expect. (That which I just did is a terrible thing to do to a poem, but it has the advantage of being clear, and clearly, the poem is more.) But what he does is show how pervasive the sense of loss is, how it penetrates everywhere and the deceased now strangely haunts all the world.

Notice how he elaborates on that in this poem.

Drummer Hodge

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellation reign
His stars eternally.

Again you have the transformation, and the sense of place is fixed by the stars. And yet what Hardy writes about is the wrongness of that place, even though Hodge has been transformed into a part of the scenery. It is done by the sense of his home juxtaposed with his grave far from home. That it should be significant, that it should mean anything strange and somehow tragic is the thing that gets Hardy’s attention, and the thing he shows us.

That transformation is material, and you’re left with a sense that while Hardy could not escape the positivism of the learned of his age, he was still not able to escape the sense of spirit in the world.

The truth of Hardy is that the material world is not all, cannot be all, even if your premise is that there is nothing else. His observations would not have the poignancy they do, there would not be the tragedy or pathos he leaves as a ghost after his poem if the assumptions of materialism were not juxtaposed with his intuitions of immateriality.

A further development: a dialogue of inanimate objects.

The Two Houses

In the heart of night,
When farers were not near,
The left house said to the house on the right,
“I have marked your rise, O smart newcomer here.”

I interrupt here, and summarize. The gist of what the house on the left says to the house on the right, which has rather disparaged the house of the left’s aged appearance, is that having been full of life is better than being new.

“–Will the day come,”
Said the new one, awestruck, faint,
“When I shall lodge shades dim and dumb –
And with such spectral guests become acquaint?”

“–That will it, boy;
Such shades will people thee,
Each in his misery, irk, or joy,
And print on thee their presences as on me.”

Even inanimate objects take on their significance from a world of meaning: the impressions left to them, the memories haunting them, the immaterial riches the lives of spiritual beings leave to them. And though we don’t believe in talking houses, what they say is perfectly true. Spirit leaves its print on the material world.

The world of spirit, of qualities, has to be the realm of poetry. It is the only realm in which Hardy could have been successful laboring as a poet. Anybody, for that matter, but you see how keenly poignant it was for Thomas Hardy.

Here is a further development.

The Shadow on the Stone

I went by the Druid stone
That broods in the garden white and lone,
And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows
That at some moments fall thereon
From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,
And they shaped in my imagining
To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders
Threw there when she was gardening.

I thought her behind my back,
Yea, her I long had learned to lack,
And I said: ‘I am sure you are standing behind me,
Though how do you get into this old track?’
And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf
As a sad response; and to keep down grief
I would not turn my head to discover
That there was nothing in my belief.

Yet I wanted to look and see
That nobody stood at the back of me;
But I thought once more: ‘Nay, I’ll not unvision
A shape which, somehow, there may be.’
So I went on softly from the glade,
And left her behind me throwing her shade,
As she were indeed an apparition—
My head unturned lest my dream should fade.

Hardy even goes so far as to fear a world without ghosts! Notice, by the way, the line with the rhythmic swing, how the meter and rhythm conspire, how the consonant cluster slows you down and underscores what he’s saying. It is also a climactic poem in the train of thought I have been trying to develop, or to demonstrate; it underscores what I’m saying. It is the fear of the materialist which haunts Hardy because he knows that the most valuable things are immaterial, and he is struggling to reconcile what he believes from science with what he understands through poetic insight.

One can’t help feeling he could have used a book of two by Owen Barfield. Indeed, the evolution of consciousness, the renewed and different awareness of withinness can be seen in poems such as “On the Way” and “Romantic Day” which show how we live in a world of our own perceptions (and this is what the haunting in all his other poems implies). You see there how the spiritual world is the inside of the material world, and how our consciousness is a nexus. At the same time one is glad Hardy did not have Barfield to read, because if he’d had a solution, what would he have written about?

So this is chiefly what I enjoy about Thomas Hardy. This is the truth that makes his poetry good, which resonates: his resistance of materialism even at the point of capitulation, his grasp on truth through poetic insight warring with the cosmos of the implications of his day’s collective representations. When science was emphasizing quantity above all, he still retained and preserved for us the vital sense of quality in his peculiar way.


You can try and download a film about Barfield here, if you’d like.

Barfield wrote more fiction that just The Silver Trumpet. The Rose on the Ash-Heap, Night Operation and Eager Spring are titles one day I’d like to get for myself. The latter two are reviewed here.

I was trying to dig up some more Charles Williams on the internet (some poetry) and found more of his works are back in print, but not the poetry, it appears.

The Use of Opinion

“Do not inject opinion.”

So advise Strunk & White. It is an important thing, and one that I am thinking about nowadays as I am striving for better order in my thinking and writing. One finds oneself excluding things on the ground that they are extraneous because they are simply opinion. Strunk & White are to be consulted and used, but I couldn’t help thinking of them when I read this endorsement.

“Each succeeding volume of Mr. Powell’s Music of Time series enhances its importance. The work is dry, cool, humorous, elaborately and accurately constructed and quintessentially English. It is more realistic than A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, to which it is often compared, and much funnier.”

Few could and few can write like Evelyn Waugh. In the quotation above the first two sentences convey all the necessary information, but it is not till the third, when you get the unmistakable sense of prejudice and opinion which Waugh so adroitly handles, and here displays, that the endorsement comes alive. The endorsement would not turn one toward Powell’s book did it not contain a thinly veiled slam on Proust, French letters, France and in general—one feels—everything French ever. That flash imparts color to the whole thing. It is a bit of the malice of Waugh that comes disguised as a stroke of judgment. What it does not do is harm in any way the intelligent reader’s ideas of Proust—as if “more realistic” really meant anything and as if funnier mattered that much to the enjoyment of Proust, were not actually frivolous; though it may irritate the tedious—but it does, and at Waugh’s expense, make Powell’s Music of Time series very alluring. Why? because one Evelyn Waugh went to the trouble of saying something clever about it, implying it is no work for tedious people and that such people could go hang (or continue their researches into French literature).

It is the juxtaposition of “quintessentially English” along with the gratuitous disparaging of that magnificence of French letters that is so effective. Waugh need not have put things that way. But the injection of opinion gives the whole endorsement life. He could not have accomplished the same by simply writing: Here is an enormous and growing work which is assuredly of interest.

Not that Strunk & White can be said to object to this. Their bets, in this case, were hedged. In the case of Evelyn Waugh, his opinions did enjoy something of a brisk demand. But the question is, why? Because he knew how to use them adroitly.


“Dryden knew how to chuse the flowing and the sonorous words; to vary the pauses, and adjust the accents; to diversify the cadence, and yet preserve the smoothness of his metre.” —Samuel Johnson

Of Dryden Dr. Johnson also mentions that though before him the English language had no poetic diction, he provided one. Johnson remarks that like Caesar it may be said that Dryden found English poetry brick and left it marble. It requires further study, but it does seem to me a crucial consideration for understanding not only what comes before but also what comes afterward when Romanticism, reacting to the complacency of Classicism, seeks a bit more vitality. To understand the development of English poetry it is necessary to understand something of the mind of Dryden. It is also good to consider exactly what Johnson had in mind when he used the term Poetic Diction before too many conclusions are drawn.

Dryden, though brilliant, was lazy. Johnson observes that he was superior to all the others in his age and for that reason took no very great pains. “Such is the unevenness of his compositions, that ten lines are seldom found together without something of which the reader is ashamed.” From this I draw two lessons: the work of anybody can use rigor, and the work of everybody ought to be always examined with rigor.

On Johnson on Milton

One can see the principle of the ordering and excluding of the tyrannizing image that polarizes a culture at work in Samuel Johnson’s thinking. His thoughts on metaphysical poetry are often very just, and even when they are derogatory are frequently true, but one can’t help feeling they are often not enough, that he fails to extend to them sufficient sympathy, that he will not tolerate the kind of mind that will not expect what his expects.

In his treatment he is usually judicious, and has a form of approach that is—to use an expression borrowed from nearby—delicacy itself. He is confident because his culture is very ordered, knows exactly what it expects and how it expects it. Not because somebody has written all the rules down, but because Samuel Johnson was a man of his age and grasped how its ideals ordered the world around him.

I admire what he is doing very much, but beyond admiration I do not go. His classical culture (the classical period of the epoch whose end we are witnessing) achieved a great deal of order, certainty and power of insight, but it seems to have done it at the cost of limitation. The question of where the boundaries are to be, it seems to me, should have an answer that puts them further out.

The thought came while reading him on Milton, who comes after Cowley. He discussed metaphysical poetry in the course of Cowley’s Life, and that it leaves something to be desired is very clear, but that there is much justice done to Cowley is also clear. What he said about Milton that provoked my observation was that at the stage in which Milton was blind, in favor and comfortably situated, he undertook three labors: a Latin dictionary, a history of his country, and an epic poem.

Johnson approaches the first two failures very exactly in terms of how he structures the paragraph dealing with each: how he guides the reader into an appreciation of Milton in these endeavors. They are not the sort of thing a blind scholar can be expected to accomplish. But Johnson leaves you feeling neither that Milton was pathetic nor with any sentimental disappointment: he leaves a clear path to the epic, which, as he so excellently puts it, is something that must either succeed or fail. And in it all you can almost sense Milton’s ambition groping and then grasping the idea of Paradise Lost, that instrument of its glory.

Romanticism Comes of Age: Barfield, Rudolph Steiner & Anthroposophy

This essay is not the product of detailed and extensive reading. It would be better if it were, but that is going to come gradually. The purpose of this essay is to begin to clarify things about which I am thinking so that I can move forward both with the reading and the thinking.

1 The Book: What It Is and Barfield’s Concern
2 Anthroposophy, Christianity and Romanticism
3 Conclusion: Give Me Barfield

Continue reading “Romanticism Comes of Age: Barfield, Rudolph Steiner & Anthroposophy”

John Betjeman

Sir John Betjeman was a poet of small things and of familiar loves. Nothing great or heroic have I found there, but what is small can still be sincere and can be charged with such an intensity as shows another sort of greatness.

In loving what is familiar, Betjeman loved the Church of England. In loving the Church of England sincerely he loved Christianity. It is manifested without sentimentality or affectation. You will find many of his poems dealing with religious themes worthwhile. He loves the ringing of the bells, the stained glass windows, but through them the realities of meaning.

In loving and exposing things that were ridiculous, Betjeman’s verse can come close to seeming doggerel. I do not believe it is, for all that it is sometimes metrically ridiculous. I think it is always what it is with a purpose, and when it borders on ridiculous, it is usually for an ironic purpose. He is frequently subtle, if I have perceived him rightly.

It seems to me Betjeman was a man keenly aware of his limitations: limitations in experience, in situation, and even in his own powers. But he did not resent those limitations; they were the thing that made his art. He was also very comic, but never have I found him to be simply comic. Always there is another satisfaction, always the poem comes with an insight harvested out of reflection, however rueful.

I admire his poetry and I admire his skill with rhyme and verse and language. Let me recommend to you who love England, or who love small things and unheroic, or enjoy good verse, John Betjeman’s poetry.

The poem below is characteristic: the sense of a particular English place, the speaking of a female voice, a quiet and religious theme, the greatness of something small . . . and this curious habit of working in the number of a certain year.

Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order

With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.

In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller
Than those of summer, all their cold unload
Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa
Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road,
I put my final shilling in the meter
And only make my loneliness completer.

In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
“The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx”.
We built our orphanage. We built our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.

Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavillion
Warm in the whisper of the summer sea,
The cushioned scabious, a deep vermillion,
With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me
A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies
And so my memory of the winter dies.

Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer
And louder clang the waves along the coast.
The band packs up. The evening breeze is stronger
And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cakeshop’s tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St.John’s.

“Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising”
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.

–John Betjeman

The Poet Yeats

“The world as the imagination sees it is the durable world.” —the Poet Yeats

A distinction between the heart and the soul, the core and the personality interested Yeats, also the fading of beauty in time and the trade of beauty for wisdom. “Wisdom is bodily decrepitude,” he wrote. Contraries meeting fascinated and vacillation perplexed the poet Yeats, and more: he strove to look into the unchanging world and to find a deeper core, a depth of rest without tension and with better insight. Yeats saw many things, but he seemed to believe that to face the truth was to be troubled and unhappy for such was the nature of things, and in this he was not altogether wrong. I do not think he was resigned to it, and I think his great heart strained to find a different conclusion. In his last poetry there is a kind of despair, however. It seems to me that whatever can be said of Yeats, his great and deep unhappiness cannot be ignored. I find it one of the best things in his poetry, like the rain of Ireland which makes it green.

Nothing is worth having that you cannot really have, and there is a sense in which anything worth having deeply, anything you can really possess in an earnest way is worth having, even if it is a deep unhappiness. Better that than to have nothing. And more, for if you have a deep unhappiness, you are likely to come into the regions where wisdom is found, for wisdom is found in the house of mourning, though many seem to have forgotten that. Yeats, had unhappiness, but he had more.

What Yeats had was a desire for deep mystery because there he found substantial and permanent things. In our age it seems popular desire reaches for little more than an easy happiness, a happiness maintained through careful and deliberate ignorance, and to live in our age is to be tempted by that desire. It seems an age easily satisfied by amusements uncritically attained and one in many ways unwilling to disturb its own complacent calm. Yeats scorned happiness too cheap. Better hard-won unhappiness, better the insight of contemplated regrets than the loss of ignoring them.

Yeats was interested in secrets, in hermetic rites and symbols, in occult practices and automatic writing and contact with the world of spirits. Yeats was a poet in search of meaning, in search of certain symbols; he was without the Christian God and he seems to have been robbed of heathen faith by his troubled and indifferent times. He suggests to me a man who tried to be a pagan and did not succeed. But his great romantic heart urged him to strong incantation and by straining he taught his eyes to see more clearly than some. Yeats had his regrets, but they took him in a way of consideration and attention, of brooding and examination.

Here is a work of the poet Yeats at the height of his powers, the seventh of his Supernatural Songs:

VII. What Magic Drum?

He holds him from desire, all but stops his breathing lest
primordial Motherhood forsake his limbs, the child no longer
Drinking joy as it were milk upon his breast.

Through light-obliterating garden foliage what magic drum?
Down limb and breast or down that glimmering belly move
his mouth and sinewy tongue.
What from the forest came? What beast has licked its young?

What he can see and what he can say! What he shows us how to see and say, what poised desire and what intimations of a brooding drum. I thought some of these thoughts while going over a canal on a little bridge. I looked around and saw one like the poet Yeats, a great blue heron in the water to his thighs waiting under the grass and shadow of the bank. He waited a little, and I waited; and then, as if we had reached a mutual understanding, he left me slowly. Much the same the poetry.

I think he found—the poet Yeats—to be a heathen and love beauty is to enter the atmosphere of tragedy, and found that the cyclical epochs of heathen history are a form of despair, and like the panting carp that gasps the water he dove to probe the bottom; and we glimpse the beauty of his underwater motions.

“How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men’s hearts that we call the progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men’s heartstrings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?” — Yeats in 1900.

You feel the hope of achieving this has gone out of him in his last poems, that its last flowering comes in the Supernatural Songs, that he wanted to be pagan without succeeding in the end. He was a heart opposed to all of the machinery, a seeker not of simplicity but of mystery which is the true antithesis of machinery. Reading his wonderful, so-called critical works, one feels he is not so much criticizing as wishing, gathering the veils of twilight about him with purpose. He writes at a high tide of conviction, like T.S. Eliot in The Sacred Wood. When he says “We who care deeply about the arts . . . must baptize as well as preach,” one wonders if he did not mean to be a new St. Patrick, a St. Patrick operating in reverse. Hence his occupation with the politics of Ireland: he wanted to bring his people along and he ended up going with them, lamenting in the end, like Jeremiah to Egypt. Yeats the last heathen prophet was betrayed by the spiritus mundi slouching to Bethlehem to be born.

“Romanticism is a shortcut to the strangeness without the reality.” —T.S. Eliot.

Yeats was a romantic, a mystic, and that is why I love his poetry. I do wonder what it is Eliot meant by reality. He is so austere, almost prim, nearly fanatical in his calculations but, as usual in his judgment of his object, precise. One could wish for more of the heart and less of the contemplation in Eliot if it were not that the contemplation is what one has learned to wish for in Eliot. But what Eliot says is right in that the goal is the same and that the way you come to it matters. With Yeats you have the heart that knows the ends: he wants the insight of the strangeness, the permanence of unassailably mysterious things. Yeats is compelling for the things he sees truly, the measures he gives justly, the uncalculated and the apt—as in this observation: “But one cannot, perhaps, love or believe at all if one does not love or believe a little too much.” Whatever Yeats’ sins, they were not sins of austerity. In this lies the sincerity of all his vacillations and the power of all his chanted truth.

J. R. R. Tolkien

Tolkien resisted the idea of a biography, although he kept copies of his letters and drew up a preliminary sketch recollecting his early life. He resisted the idea of biographical investigation because he did not want his stories read as commentaries on his life, or even on his times (this last is more accurately appreciated if you add to it the adverb ‘exclusively’).

That nobody should read his works as a commentary on his life is understandable. Tolkien wanted to have literary considerations prevail because he aimed to satisfy a literary desire. His works were written with great care and with attention to provide the intelligent reader with everything needed to find the satisfaction the book achieved.

Tolkien knew something more would eventually be required by those who loved the art he made. If art is an expression of the human spirit, then a further inquiry into the circumstances of, and influences upon that human spirit are a proper expression of tribute and a continuation of the same love. In such a spirit Humphrey Carpenter wrote a biography and edited Tolkien’s letters. They ought to be highly recommended for the shelves of decent, self-respecting libraries.

One of the things Tolkien pointed out—in a draft of a letter he apparently failed to send—is that it limits the appreciation of a work of literature if the book cannot be recommended solely on the merits of what lies between the covers. If an understanding of the writer’s life is required in addition, it can hardly be considered a successful as the object of the writer’s purpose.

The notion that the text is incomplete without the shrewd investigation that seeks to show nothing so much as the condescending critic’s superior insight is intolerable and was, apparently, alive and rampant in Tolkien’s day. Tolkien wrote an essay on Beowulf with a little narrative that illustrates the blindness and suggests the futility of the approach that undermines the appreciation of the text as literature. In one deft essay Tolkien changed the approach to Beowulf, expressing the Mordor-meaninglessness of the condescending approach—that idiotically critical and not properly critical approach—and showed them a way lit by the light of a love for learning.

This love can be seen in Tolkien’s books but it comes into sharper focus once you read the story of his life and make your way through selected correspondence. He applies the rigorous methods of scholarship to his explorations of an imaginary world and he shows us the proper love of learning is a love for substantial things, that it is a love that will enrich our appreciation of the world itself, the created order.

He started with imaginary languages, because he loved beautiful languages and beautiful words. He then proceeded to produce imaginary worlds because his languages required a living history, they needed a place to develop and they needed stories in which to work. Eventually, Tolkien became entangled in the details, leaving a wealth of material behind for scholarly inquiry.

In some ways Tolkien was a ridiculous man, and you cannot avoid understanding this as you read of his life. His ridiculousness was connected with his greatness, and it is the lot of every fallen man—no matter how great—to have an inalienable smallness. It is not the case that all of us small beings achieve a measure of greatness. Tolkien’s niggling, his continual revising and rewriting and expanding, prolonged the gestation of his earliest and posthumous work: The Silmarillion. But it gave us a world so detailed that even the phases of the moon have been taken into consideration.

I was recently offered a cup of orange juice freshly reconstituted from frozen concentrate. I declined it because I was drinking something else, but also because one who has regularly drunk of the fresh squeezed orange can never have any great, irresistible desire for what is, in a way, a substitute. My uncle-in-law who grew up on a dairy farm has a lesser enthusiasm for the regular offerings of the dairy section in the grocery store. It illustrates the glory of Tolkien, that craftsman and lover of his craft: he served orange juice of the fresh squeezed oranges; all his dairy products were produced and offered, as it were, from the dairy farm he worked in and maintained with all the effort it entails.

One does not need to tour the dairy farm to love the butter and pay extra for the cheese. Certainly, the smell of manure is not something most lovers of rich milk anticipate. But it would be a strange devotee who did not have the sufficient curiosity to wonder about the smell of the cows, the instruments and processes that make the final product more desirable than the others. Surely love for milk is a love for something bovine.

Petty Villains and the Real World

I have been reading of villains: villains of pettiness. These villains are men whose soul is small. Russell Kirk admirably deals with the one in his story—a man more concerned with precision than with truth—by having the truth appear before him. I do not yet know what George Eliot will do with Casaubon, but clearly she makes him the small mind writ large. Both of these men are products of the modern age and they remind me of the antithesis which is found in fantasy.

I mentioned Neverwhere a year ago or so. In that one a man with a small soul had it enlarged so that he relinquished the modern world with all the bland comforts and securities it offered. Instead he entered a greater world, a place with greater possibilities of both wonder and terror.

Such, it seems to me, is the world of Narnia for which I longed with unutterable longing when I was in the early grades of elementary school. I think what most attracts about it is the possibility it holds, the wonder and the terror; the weight of alternatives working themselves out in consequences.

Such was the world Bilbo entered when he stepped out of the door, the world that was thrust on Frodo and his company when he received the ring and undertook a quest to win or to lose everything. They learned to live in a world of great consequences both of wonder and of terror, worlds of awe inducing sublimity, and unimaginable splendor.

And through wondering eyes I have learned an alternative to the modern age, with its relentless attempt at comfort, security, tame lions and an endless bland existence of unmitigated entertainment. It is a world to cause in a decent human being the desire for dragons and for portents. Such a world was the world St. John saw in his transports.

The problem with the Chronicles of Narnia, for all that I desired them, was that while they were true they were not real. The Lord of the Rings ends and we read the appendices with eagerness no other book draws forth. We read all we can about that world and are not satisfied; we cannot have it since it is not real, for all that it is true. Even the meager wonders and the somewhat contrived terrors of Neverwhere would be, one feels with Richard Mayhew, better than the drab existence of corporate success and petty happiness on which he turns his back. But it is not real either.

But the transports of St. John, the visions that he saw are true and real. He looked upon the real world, a world of dragons and fallen stars; he saw the Lamb with his company shining on a hill; he saw great angels announcing great things, hurling censers to earth, crying with loud voices; eagles in heaven, cataclysms on earth, the sun darkened and the moon turned all to blood. He saw all the dead and the great white throne of God.

I do not know how George Eliot will destroy her small souled man. I do know that the way Russell Kirk destroyed his was by putting him in a ghostly tale: a fantastic denial of the modern age.