Posts Tagged ‘Wordsworth’

A sentimental post to start the year

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

There comes a time in middle age when the Ghosts of one’s Christmases Past begin to outnumber even the most optimistic of estimates of the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. Since I have long passed that tipping point, and the weight of Christmases Past lies so heavily in the balance, I trust I may be excused for focusing on the former rather than on the latter. And as I do so, it is hard not to feel, as Wordsworth did, that there has indeed passed away a glory from the world. Now, before I am accused of sentimentality – as is usually the case when I try to speak of such matters – let me expand a little.

Something has changed – something is very different now from what it had been in our childhood years, and the difference, as any smug commentator will tell you, is in what has changed in ourselves rather than in the outside world. Wordsworth – never the sentimentalist despite ignorant claims to the contrary – recognized this. The innocent brightness of a new-born day, he knew, is lovely yet. There’s no point asking where is fled that visionary gleam: it’s still there – we just can’t perceive it any more, and that’s all. It’s the way things are: no point lamenting the inevitable. But Wordsworth himself, though determined to find strength in what remains, could not help lamenting. We cannot, after all, stop feeling things merely because “there’s no point to it”.

One of the most touching of these laments is the poem “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, written in the darkest days of 1915, when he was an old man of seventy-five years, and when Europe, as if justifying the prophetic pessimism he had expressed in his novels years earlier, was in the process of tearing itself apart. In this wonderfully touching poem, Hardy looks back on childhood innocence and naivety; but the poem is not really about either: it is about one’s longing for a time when such innocence and naivety had been possible. There may not be any point to such longing, but we feel a great many things that have no point to them. That such longing is futile does not make it ridiculous, but, rather, imbues it with a profound sadness.

I find a similar lament in a piece that is often regarded merely as candy-coated decorative fluff – in the score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It is, of course, a perennial Christmas favourite, to be wheeled out every year along with the crackers, the Christmas tree, the mince pies, and the Dickens; and few, I think, will deny its charm. But what frequently is denied is its profundity. Tchaikovsky himself, we are told, considered the subject matter to be too light, and although, being a consummate professional, he gave it his finest craftsmanship, what he withheld was his artistry. It is merely decorative, merely a bit of fluff.

I have never been able to reconcile myself to this view, as I find the music genuinely and very deeply moving. I can’t deny that it is full of music that is decorative; neither can I deny that its subject – a Christmas Party, a child’s subsequent entry into a world of fairy tales, and her journey to the Kingdom of Sweets – is very slight, even, perhaps, trivial. But I was very interested to read recently this excellent piece by music critic Gavin Plumley, in which he argues that The Nutcracker is a piece that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s initial feelings about the nature of his commission, he argues, the composition of the piece was taken very seriously indeed, and not merely in terms of craftsmanship.

Although it’s always dangerous relating a work of art to the artist’s biography, it was good to have confirmation of what seems to me obvious from the music – that, far from being decorative fluff, it is a serious and deeply felt work, and a response to an emotionally shattering event (the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister). As Plumley puts it, “The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested”. But what exactly those “larger questions” are is not obvious, and different listeners will have different views on this.

To me, these larger questions are not about mortality: Tchaikovsky kept that for his 6th symphony, a work that, for me, in many ways complements The Nutcracker. Neither is The Nutcracker, as is often suggested, about Clara’s progress from childhood to womanhood: true, the nutcracker become a handsome prince, but I can detect no eroticism in the music, nor any indication of Clara’s sexual awakening. Indeed, she and the Nutcracker Prince go to the Kingdom of Sweets, which hardly suggests leaving childhood behind. These are not what I see in this piece, although what I do see seems difficult to articulate.

One thing that never ceases to strike me about the score (the full score, that is, and not the series of bleeding chunks that form the suite) is a sense of tenderness, a sense of yearning, and a profound melancholy that seems quite at odds with its alleged light-hearted fluffiness. Is there anything in all music that is more tender or yearning than that beautiful passage at the start of the forest scene towards the end of Act One? Or what about the passionate longing in the Act Two pas de deux? (“How is it possible to make so much just out of a simple descending scale?” Britten had wondered.) The underlying seriousness of passages such as this bleeds, as it were, into the rest of the score, infusing even the most joyous of numbers, the most seemingly uncomplicated of childlike dances, with a sense of something more deeply felt – something more deeply interfused, as Wordsworth might have said.

The Nutcracker depicts childhood innocence and naivety, but, as with Hardy’s poem, these are not, for me at least, its central themes: at the centre of this piece there is, I think, our adult longing for childhood innocence and naivety. And this longing, Tchaikovsky knew as well as did Wordsworth or Hardy, is futile: no matter how fervently we may long, we can never return to our childhood state. Indeed, this state of blissful innocence may never really have existed in the first place. But that does not prevent us from longing for it. It is this sense of futility of such longing that infuses this otherwise joyous music with so profound an underlying sense of sadness: I find it almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. Longing for something that can never be attained is a familiar Romantic trope: in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, this longing was for erotic fulfilment; here, it is for a childhood that is for ever gone.

That, at least, is how it seems to me. Underlying the joyous festivities of The Nutcracker (for it is indeed joyous), I seem to hear a lament similar to what I find in so much of Wordworth’s poetry, or in Hardy’s “The Oxen”.

Tchaikovsky’s next great masterpiece, his last, was his 6th symphony – an unblinking stare into the face of death itself, and among the most shattering of any works of art, in any medium. If The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s Song of Innocence (albeit innocence seen from the perspective of experience), his 6th symphony is his Song of Experience. They are two very different works of, for me, comparable artistic stature. While one looks back at the Christmases Past, evoking its joys but imbuing these same joys with the profound sadness for that which is lost, the other looks heroically and unflinchingly at what is Yet to Come. As another poet put it, we look before and after, and pine for what is not.

Happy New Year, everyone!

“There Was a Boy” by William Wordsworth

Some time ago, deciding that I needed to write more about poetry in this blog (though not quite certain how to go about it), I started a series that I called, rather foolishly, “Poem of the Month”. The intentions were good: I really had meant to write about a poem each month. However, since that first Poem of the Month back in April, I have been most remiss on the matter. I suppose this blog is too freewheeling in nature – I tend to write about whatever takes my fancy, really – for any regular series such as this to be viable. However, I don’t want to give up on the idea altogether. So “The Poem of the Month” continues – as long as it is understood that it does not imply that I’ll be writing about a poem every month.

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There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander! many a time,
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone,
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake;
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.—And they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call,—with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din! And, when there came a pause
Of silence such as baffled his best skill:
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

This boy was taken from his mates, and died
In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.
Pre-eminent in beauty is the vale
Where he was born and bred: the churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village-school;
And through that churchyard when my way has led
On summer-evenings, I believe that there
A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute—looking at the grave in which he lies!

Wordsworth’s blank verse is based on underlying iambic pentameters, as is the blank verse of the two other undisputed masters of the form in English – Shakespeare and Milton. But Wordsworth sounds very unlike either: his tone is almost invariably conversational. While Shakespeare’s blank verse has an irresistible dramatic impulse (hardly surprising, given that it occurs in his dramas); and while Milton’s blank verse is grand and sonorous; Wordsworth’s blank verse seems to give the impression that he is sitting next to us, not orating grandly, but conversing – conversing in a voice that is gentle, quiet, but firm. This conversational effect is achieved partly through his avoidance of words not generally used in everyday speech (although when he does from time to time break this rule and introduces words such as “vicissitude” or “diurnal”, the effect can be electric); and also through a simulation of the kind of thing we tend to do in conversation – drifting off from one subject to another, parenthetical comments leading on to other matters so that the original subject is forgotten, and so on.

Consider, for instance, the sonnet “Surprised by Joy”, Wordsworth’s infinitely touching lament for his dead daughter. The opening line strikingly tells us that he has come across an unexpected joy, but almost as soon as he starts to tell us about this, another thought – that his daughter, with whom he had instinctively wished to share this joy, is no longer there – overtakes it. The rest of the sonnet is about his loss: whatever joy it was that is referred to in the first line is now seemingly forgotten. Only seemingly, of course: a poem, especially a poem as tightly knit as a sonnet must be, cannot be as rambling as our conversation often is. But in simulating this rambling that is typical of conversation, Wordsworth gives us the impression of conversation. And he also, vitally, I think, uses this conversational mode to leave certain things unsaid. He leaves unsaid what this “joy” is that is mentioned in the opening line; however, the word “joy”, so strikingly introduced, resonates in our mind even as we go on to read of the most inconsolable grief. And the impression is conveyed of a certain joy that is present even in the midst of heartbreak – a joy that cannot be spoken about directly because our language is not designed to communicate directly matters so intangible.

Much of greatest poetry does seem to me to communicate various matters that language, as commonly used, is not designed to communicate. The poet uses any feature of language he can – sounds, sonorities, syntax, and rhythm; imagery and symbolism; and so on – to communicate these various matters. Wordsworth adds to this armoury things that are mentioned as if in passing before being seemingly forgotten, but allowing these passing references to colour the rest in the reader’s mind.

This particular poem, “There Was a Boy”, appeared in the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, and later, in an expanded form (the form given above), in the 1805 edition. It was later incorporated into the posthumously published 1850 text of The Prelude (V, 364, et seq.) but it seems to me more effective as a standalone fragment, purely because its fragmentary nature itself communicates something important. The tone, as so often with Wordsworth, is conversational, and the opening line gives the impression that we are coming in in the middle of a conversation, and that much has already been said to which we have not been privy.

There was a boy…

It’s almost as if Wordsworth is giving a specific example of a general principle. This general principle he has presumably been discussing earlier, but that was before we had started listening, and so, we don’t know what it is. We are only allowed to hear this specific example, of this boy who had once been (and who presumably is no more), and from this specific example, we must try to infer as best we can the general principle that it illustrates.

Immediately after these first four words, Wordsworth seems to drift off for a while, addressing not us, but nature itself:

…. ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander!

And then, in the next few lines, Wordsworth describes how this boy, in the evening, would mimic the hooting of the owls, encouraging them to answer him. Whatever the general principle was that Wordsworth might have been talking about before the poem starts, it is the specific that he details, lingering lovingly on each specific point. The vocabulary used is almost without exception the vocabulary we would use in everyday conversation, with the occasional word thrown in, such as “interwoven”, reminding us that, for all its everyday speech, this is, after all, a poem. No, not “thrown in”: carefully placed. But the conversational tone gives the impression of its just being “thrown in”.

The word “interwoven” seems important to me. It is used here to describe the boy’s fingers as he makes the sound of the owls, but it has, I think, other associations. It reminds me of the similar word “interfused”, that Wordsworth used so unforgettably in the “Tintern Abbey” poem, written at roughly the same time as this one:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused…

The boy, in mimicking the sound of nature, becomes interwoven with it; and nature itself seems interwoven with something else. This sense of interweaving becomes clearer in the following lines; for once the noise of the birds dies down, there follows “a silence that baffles his best skill”. “Baffle” of course has multiple meanings – to frustrate; to impede progress; and various other shades of meaning in between. All of these must be considered. The boy is “baffled” – he is perplexed by this silence; and at the same time, this silence impedes his skill in mimicking the owls, for it contains within it something that is greater – something, perhaps, “more deeply interfused”. For it isn’t complete silence. As the boy listens to this silence, he perceives in it “with a gentle shock of mild surprise … the voice of the mountain torrents”. And, moving from the aural to the visual, the “visible scene would enter unawares into his mind”. Nature itself invades the boy’s being, with “all its solemn imagery”. But if Nature itself is an image of something else, Wordsworth is again silent on what it is an image of.

The “voice of the mountain torrents” has now entered into the “heart” of the boy; and now, the “visible scene” is received into the bosom … not of the boy, as may be expected, but of the “steady lake”:

…. received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

The boy is at this stage so much part of the Nature around him, there is no reason to distinguish any more between them.

But what is received into the bosom of the steady lake is startling – so startling, indeed, that it seems to me to lie at the very heart of this poem:

…and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

“Uncertain heaven”. What does Wordsworth mean by this? That we are uncertain whether or not the scene described really is heaven? Or that we know this to be heaven, but are uncertain about the nature of what we experience here? This ambiguity lies at the very heart of this remarkable poem, but Wordsworth, having dropped his hints, moves on. As we generally tend to do in conversation.

In many ways, this poem seems to me a sort of expanded sonnet. In a regular sonnet, the last six lines tend to give us a somewhat different perspective on what we had read in the first eight: we get something similar here – the last, shorter section of the poem giving us a different perspective on what we have read so far. Wordsworth had shown us the boy when he had been alive; but, as the past tense used in the opening line had told us, that boy is no more. And he is no more not because he has grown up and become an adult, but because he is dead. He died, Wordsworth tells us quite directly, before his twelfth birthday, and is buried in a churchyard that “hangs” on a slope above the village school. The verb used here is interesting, as it has been used strikingly in the earlier section in the poem:

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening…

He had “hung” listening to the silence, and had allowed himself to become part of the Nature that was around him. Now, he “hangs” again, in death; and in death, as in life, he is become a part of, and at one with, Nature, with the “rocks and stones and trees”.

The last four lines are almost prosaic: these lines could very easily be used in conversation. But what we have read so far imparts to these lines a tremendous depth of feeling:

And through that churchyard when my way has led
On summer-evenings, I believe that there
A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute—looking at the grave in which he lies!

So great is the discrepancy here between the everyday nature of these words and the intensity of feeling communicated by them, it is hard to imagine anything more laconic and understated. And more Wordsworth will not say – presumably because more cannot be said: language is after all limited in what it can directly express. Beyond what Wordsworth has already said, he is “mute”, as mute as he is by the boy’s grave. But enough has been said to allow us a glimpse of something – something that the poet may have been talking about before we joined his conversation.

Three steps to heaven

1. Take a holiday in the Lake District in northern England. Even at the height of summer, one can find solitary places where you can take in some of the most spirit-stirring of landscapes. Take in as much of this as you can, while trying to remember various bits and pieces of Wordsworth.

I don’t really know this region too well, but it’s like a bit of the Scottish Highlands – which I know a bit better – transplanted across the border. 

2. Come home, settle into your armchair, and reacquaint yourself with those half-remembered lines from Wordsworth. Experience again that sense of the eternal suffusing the real.

That last line should be by Wordsworth, but it isn’t. It comes from a limerick that rather neatly summarises Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”:

In childhood ’tis easy to feel
Th’eternal suffusing the real,
    But as the beholder
    Grows steadily older
It doesn’t seem such a big deal.

3. To maintain this elevated frame of mind, listen to a good recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Pour yourself a good glass of whisky while you’re at it.

The music of Beethoven, born coincidentally in the same year as Wordsworth, often makes me feel the same way that Wordsworth’s poetry does. I prefer not to go further down this route, as I have not the first idea how to describe these feelings.

The Pastoral Symphony does seem to me particularly Wordsworthian in feel. There are many fine recordings of it. For the record, I listened to the recording featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. 

And the whisky I poured myself was a rather fine bottling of Bruichladdich.

And there you have it: three steps to heaven.

Well, it worked for me.

I won’t bore you with all my holiday snaps, but here are a few of Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. the bearded chap you see in one of them is me.

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I’ll be back to my more usual posts once I’ve got back out of the holiday frame of mind.

My Ideal Bookshelf

It’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit.

There is a book, and, inevitably, a website, called “My Ideal Bookshelf”. In this book, various celebrities are asked to list up to twelve books that are particularly important to them for various reasons. Now, as I like to think I am something of a celebrity myself, I was a bit miffed at not being asked to contribute to this. Sure, we lesser mortals are invited to contribute our ideal bookshelves to the website mentioned above, but I am loftily ignoring this: it’s celebrity or nothing for me!

Fair enough, nothing it is…

If you are thinking that this is an excuse for yet another dreary list, you’d be perfectly correct. But as I say, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit!

Here’s my ideal bookshelf:

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The reasoning behind the choices of most of the titles is self-explanatory. First of all – going from left to right – comes the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was eleven when my parents took me to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West, then only in his 40s, played Lear on the bare stage of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Obviously, at that age, I took in but a fraction of it, but I was so excited by what I had seen, that I remember I could not get to sleep that night. That Christmas, I asked my parents for the Complete Works. There are at least a dozen or so of these plays that remain a constant presence in my mind. To celebrate – if “celebrate” is indeed the word I am looking for – my 50th year, I read through all these plays, in the order (as far as can be ascertained) in which they had been written. And I try to read at least one play each month. Life without these works would be unimaginable.

Then comes Rabindranath Tagore. Someone asked me once whether, given my obviously Bengali name, I knew the works of Tagore. Some of it, I replied: he wrote prolifically for decades, and I certainly haven’t ploughed through it all. Did I like his work? Well, I replied, as an educated Bengali, I don’t really have an option. His songs were probably the first music I ever heard; that extravagantly bearded visage was as familiar to me in my earliest childhood years as were pictures of my own family. Later in life, it did, I admit, come as a surprise to discover that, despite all the idolatry – which for many years put me off – his works actually are rather good. Extraordinarily good, indeed. Despite translations (which I am not qualified to judge, as they are not intended for me), the true extent of his literary greatness will be accessible only to native speakers. And for those native speakers who have come under his spell (and it is hard not to), a volume of Tagore’s poems is virtually a mandatory choice on the Ideal Bookshelf. But which volume? Even restricting oneself to poetry, his vast output cannot be contained in a single volume. After much thought, I chose Geetbitan, a collection of all his song lyrics. Literally thousands of them, covering just about every shade and nuance of human feeling imaginable. Tagore was among the greatest of songwriters (he composed the melodies as well as writing the words), and even when you don’t have the tune running round your head when reading them, these exquisite lyrics stand up perfectly well as poetry. There aren’t many song lyrics that do that.

Then comes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I won’t write about here as there is already a fairly long and recent series of posts in this blog about this extraordinary novel. And speaking of extraordinary novels, there’s also Dickens’ Bleak House: I won’t write about this either, as I have done so only quite recently. Tolstoy and Dickens are the two novelists whose works mean most to me personally.

Next, I have chosen the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. I have always wondered why it is I so dislike fantasy literature, find myself bored by science fiction, and yet enjoy the unreality of a creepy ghost story. Not any type of ghost story, though: the ones I like are the ones in which the solidity of the real world is very strongly projected, so that that the intrusion of the irrational, when it appears, is transgressive. The sort of story, indeed, of which M. R. James was the master. Why do I enjoy these stories so much? Well, let’s not go too deeply into self-psychoanalysis: that sort of thing is bound to be a load of simplistic tripe anyway. But the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James remains a constantly on my bedside table.

Piled on top of these books in my picture are six paperback volumes of the major plays of Ibsen, in the translations by Michael Meyer. Yes, I know, it’s cheating: they’re six volumes. But each volume is so indispensible that I couldn’t leave any of them out. And in any case, these volumes could easily be stitched up together into a single large volume.

I came to Ibsen in my twenties, and was fascinated by the strange world he created. He is known primarily as a “social dramatist” – i.e. as a dramatist who dealt mainly with social issues. That is indeed how I used to think of him myself. But reading his plays, I found myself transported into the deepest and most mysterious regions of the mind itself: worlds opened up that were new to me, and which fascinated me. I still probably don’t understand what many of them are about, but, perhaps for that very reason, they continue to fascinate.

Then come two more novels – Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I read again some two years ago, and on which I have written a series of posts on this blog) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The latter is widely considered a sort of High Altar of Modernism, and has a reputation of being excessively difficult: that’s rather unfortunate, since, quite apart from anything else, it’s about as fun as any book I have read. I can still dip into it and read passages purely for enjoyment. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, I have rather a difficult relationship with. I first encountered his works as a teenager, and was overwhelmed: the impact these novels had on me was almost visceral. But as I became older, doubts started to creep in: Are these novels not merely hysterical? Aren’t they unstructured, rambling, undisciplined? Was not my love of these novels merely a consequence of my teenage immaturity? And yet … and yet, scenes and themes and characters and images from these novels remained seared into my mind when other novels, apparently much better-written, had vanished without much trace. These novels, in other words, left behind the strongest of aftertastes. So I started, rather guiltily I suppose, to re-enter Dostoyevsky’s world. And I realised that these novels have to be taken on their own terms, and that there is no other novel that is even remotely comparable. Yes, I still frequently find myself wondering what the hell certain passages are about; I still find myself shaking my head at other times and thinking this won’t do. But that excitement I had experienced as a teenager remains. And I’m not sure why,

I suppose if I love Tolstoy because his vision of the world I find enriching; if I like Dickens because I love entering into that idiosyncratic fictional world of his; then I love Dostoyevsky because I enjoy having a fight with him. And I have had some good fights with him, and have come away from them bloodied but invigorated. Dostoyevsky’s novels are exploratory rather than declamatory, and, as with the plays of Ibsen, they explore regions that, had it not been for these works, would have been completely closed to me.

Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the picture above, these appear in a lavish three-volume set (a birthday present from my wife on my 50th birthday); but since they can also be found contained in a single volume, I’m claiming this as one choice. I still have vivid memories of checking out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Bishopbriggs Public Library when I was about 12 or so, and it was love at first sight; and this love hasn’t flagged since. These stories have been a constant companion to me for many, many years now, and, as with the ghost stories of M. R. James, have become the best of old friends, and lifelong companions. I tried in this post to explain why I love these stories, but I think I gave up after a while: there are certain things that resist explanation.

I finish with two volumes of poetry – by Yeats, and by Wordsworth – sandwiching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It strikes me writing this post that a great many of the books that mean most to me reach back into my late childhood, and my teenage years: I suppose those are the years during which my literary taste was formed. And I certainly remember watching on television, aged twelve, the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier in one of his legendary roles. I was mesmerised. That play has a hold on me still that I cannot explain: even other plays by Eugene O’Neill don’t resonate with me the way this one does. Once again, I am not sure I understand why.

And, of course, I want some poetry on by ideal shelf. I already have the song lyrics of Tagore, and the plays and poems of Shakespeare; add to these Wordsworth and Yeats, and I think that would keep me happy. As I explained in an earlier post, I like Wordsworth’s tone of voice – civilised and eloquent, the voice of someone conversing with me rather than of someone declaiming to me. But with that conversational tone, he can depict emotions and states of mind that seem transcendent, and contain intimations of immortality. Yes, we all know that we wrote much, especially in his advanced years, that was mediocre and worse; but we should judge each writer by their best, and the best of Wordworth – “Tintern Abbey”, “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, “The Solitary Reaper”, the 1805 text of The Prelude, some of the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, etc. etc. – would quite easily fill a good-sized volume. And despite their apparent plainness of diction, they affect me more than I think I can explain.

I do not write much about poetry on this blog, and that is mainly because I am not sure how to write about it. Poetry tends to affect me like music: I know what it makes me feel, but am not sure why. I suppose the only way to write about poetry is to provide close analysis of the rhythms, the sounds, the imagery, etc. – but there are many who can do that sort of thing far better than I possibly could. I did try to write about some poems by Yeats once on this blog, but I’ll not provide a link to it: it wasn’t, shall we say, among my best posts on here. So I will restrict myself here to giving some rough impressions of what Yeats’ poetry makes me feel. There’s the early stuff, of course – the “Celtic twilight” poem: these are products of the fag-end of Romanticism, with their alluring sensuality and the infectious folk rhythms. But even here, those rhythms aren’t always what one would expect from folk poetry: they are considerably knottier; and the themes became increasingly complex and ambiguous, the mythology more arcane. And it is fascinating tracing the development of Yeats’ poetic style as it moves almost seamlessly from a youthful Romanticism into a personal and very passionate form of modernism. For the older Yeats got, the more passionate he became. “Give me an old man’s frenzy,” he says at one point; and there is indeed a sort of frenzy in his poetry, a passionate striving and longing for he knows not what. Perhaps he remained a Romantic after all.

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Well, that’s it folks – that’s my pre-Christmas indulgence done with. Now, the real indulgence starts: I already have bottles of malt whisky and Armagnac lined up for a most convivial and alcoholic festive season, and am looking forward to two idyllic weeks with the family.

And with my books, of course!

On joy: a scene from “Anna Karenina”

When Levin had gone to Moscow to propose to Kitty, he had met her at the ice rink. He had tried “not to look at her for too long at a time, as one avoids looking at the sun”. But, as with the sun, “he saw her without looking at her”.

But Levin was rejected. Returning to his farm, he had tried to forget about her by throwing himself into his work. And he thinks he has succeeded. A simple life of toil on the land. Perhaps he might even marry a peasant woman. And the hurt he had received would be forgotten. But even as he thinks about such things, after a night spent out in the open, in the early hours of the morning, a carriage passes by. And inside the carriage is her.

Bright and thoughtful, filled with a refined and complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she was looking beyond him at the glowing dawn.

Just as the vision was about to disappear, her truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him, and a look of surprise and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other such eyes in the world. There was no other being in the world able to focus for him the whole world and the meaning of life.

Levin looks up at the sky which, that last night he had spent in the open, had seemed to him somehow sympathetic to his thoughts. But now, it seems different:

There, in that inaccessible height, a mysterious change had by now taken place … Over half the sky was spread a carpet of fleecy clouds growing gradually smaller and smaller. The sky turned pale blue, became brighter and answered his questioning glance always with the same tenderness and the same remoteness.

And Levin realises that living a simple life of toil, married to a peasant woman, however good and virtuous, is not for him: it is she he loves.

***

Of the many passages of Anna Karenina that have haunted my mind since my most recent reading, this one particularly haunts me. What I think particularly strikes me about it is that the sight of Kitty awakens in Levin a sense of joy, and also, at the same time, re-opens his wound, sharpens the pain.

And the two emotions do not, I think, contradict each other. We tend to think of joy nowadays as but as an excess of pleasure; we think the difference between the two is but a difference in degree, and label both with that banal and vapid coinage “feelgood”. But joy, true joy, is, as Tolstoy reminds us, something quite different: it is something that can strike us even as it causes pain. After all, one of the most heartfelt expressions of grief in the English language opens with the words “Surprised by joy”.

For Wordsworth too knew of the complexities of joy:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

A joy can bring pain, and it can also disturb. Not much of the “feelgood” here. And it can take us also by surprise. In his sonnet “Surprised by joy”, Wordsworth does not tell us what had occasioned his joy – merely that he was “surprised” by it. And when he had turned instinctively to share his joy with his daughter, he remembered what he had known all along: the joy could not be shared with her, for she was dead. It is not her he had forgotten: far from it – she had been continually present in his mind. What he had momentarily forgotten was her absence from the real world.

Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his most famous poems, also meditates on this: if one is absent from this world, but present in one’s mind, then in what sense, if any, does she, can she, exist?

You are not before the eye,
You have made your home in the midst of the eye itself.
[Translated with startling inadequacy by myself]

And from here to the closing lines, the poem soars with a sense of ecstasy – with a sense sublime of something more deeply interfused. (And this I will not attempt to translate: the sounds and rhythms Tagore uses to communicate this ecstasy are not available in English, and to fall short would, to my mind, be to misrepresent it.) The joy that is depicted in the closing section of this poem does not wipe out the pain, nor even mitigate it: but it is a joy nonetheless. And similarly with Wordsworth’s sonnet: it is significant that this almost unbearably poignant expression of grief and pain is introduced with an evocation not of gloom or of despair, but of joy.

In our modern times, we tend not to believe in the concept of transcendence: if the material word is the only world there is, then there can be nothing to transcend to, and all feelings, all emotions, are either merely “feelbad” or “feelgood”: “feelgood” is what we should all strive for, as this, after all, is the sole purpose of living; and “feelbad” is what you take anti-depressants to ward off. This is perhaps why I come away from so many modern novels with the sense that I have witnessed merely small, insignificant people experiencing small, insignificant feelings. But with Tolstoy, I feel I am in a much bigger world. No other writer, I think, has depicted the physical surfaces of our lives so meticulously; but Tolstoy depicts also a sense of transcendence, even though we can but vaguely know what those regions may be that we are transcending to. He depicts that sense sublime of something that is more deeply interfused – something that refuses to be pinned down, but which we cannot ignore without diminishing ourselves. It is in that sense of joy we feel even as we grieve, even as we feel pain – even as we are disturbed. It is certainly what Levin feels when he unexpectedly catches sight of Kitty in the carriage.

[All passages quoted from Anna Karenina are taken from the translation by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, published by Oneworld classics]

The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (it was composed shortly after recovery from illness, and in the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…

Why read?

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,
Why all this toil and trouble?
Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you’ll grow double.

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow,
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Why is Willie Wordsworth telling us in a book not to read books?

Why read? What’s the point? Let us leave aside textbooks, which we need to pass our exams and get good jobs. Let us also leave aside books of non-fiction – international politics, molecular biology, ancient history, that sort of thing – books from which we may learn things: it is generally agreed that knowledge is a good thing – although, even here, there are dissenters: Charles Clarke, a former Secretary of Education (my italics), publicly questioned while in office the point of learning about a subject such as medieval history. I hate to think what the erudite Mr Clarke may have to say about learning such matters as literature, or art history, or music. Let us focus on literature. Why study it? What is there to study, after all? Why even bother reading it?

I mean, of course, all that arty-farty stuff. All that Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Proust – that stuff we don’t really like, apparently, but pretend to because we are posers. What’s the point? It’s not as if it makes anyone a better person: as we all know, many high-ranking Nazis were tremendously well cultured, and reading Ulysses certainly won’t make anyone more likely to help a blind person across the road. And it’s not going to make anyone richer either. As Mr Clarke so perspicaciously noted, pursuit of what is usually termed “High Culture” ain’t going to contribute to the economy.

This puts those of us who love literature – who, indeed, feel it an indispensable part of our lives – on the defensive. We enjoy it, we say weakly. And as soon as we say this, we open ourselves to a second onslaught. Oh, you enjoy it, do you? Jolly good! So why do you expect us to subsidise your enjoyment? I am not sure how this debate progresses in other countries, but in Britain, at any rate, this is the point when class comes into it, even – or, perhaps, especially – from those with solidly middle-class backgrounds: why should we working people subsidise your middle class enjoyments? Why do you expect us working classes to subsidise your operas and your classical music concerts and your Royal Bloody Shakespeare Companies? At this point, one can either become aggressive oneself in response (as I tend to do); or one may simply hide for cover. But one realises that even though good answers exist – as I think they do in such cases – these answers are complex and subtle, and cannot be expressed when the “debate” comprises of no more than merely an angry exchange of prefabricated soundbites. Which – let us face it – is the standard of virtually all that passes for debate on the net.

So let us try to move away from the volleys of angry soundbites, and consider this matter with a bit more care. Let us, for the moment, restrict ourselves to literature; and, even there, let us restrict ourselves to what we may term “imaginative literature” – i.e. poetry, drama, fiction – the sort of thing often denounced as a waste of time or, at best, a mere diversion or an entertainment, and considered of no greater value than any other type of diversion or entertainment. Why read these books? The answer may not be easy, but the question, however tentatively, however uncertainly, needs to be addressed.

For me, the greatest literary artists are those whose visions pierce beyond the surface of things – the “pasteboard masks”, as Ahab calls them:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?

The greatest of literary artists see things beyond the surface, and, furthermore, have the skill to communicate something of what they see. This doesn’t often make for easy reading, or even for comfortable reading, or, indeed, for any kind of reading at all that can reasonably be classed as “entertainment”. But it can make for rewarding reading. Such works are rewarding because by giving the reader glimpses beyond the pasteboard masks, beyond what is merely visible on the surface, they open up areas of thought and of feeling that would otherwise have been inaccessible.

Of course, not every reader will respond equally to every writer’s vision. For instance, I find myself responding keenly to the artistic vision of a Tolstoy or a Dickens, and also, increasingly, despite grave reservations and for reasons I find difficult to articulate, to Dostoyevsky; I find myself utterly in thrall to the dramas of Shakespeare and the poetry of Tagore; Wordsworth, Ibsen, Yeats, Chekhov, Greek tragedy, Eliot’s Middlemarch and Joyce’s Ulysses, and many, many others, are all, I find, very close to me. On the other hand, I find it hard to feel much for Austen except a somewhat grudging admiration from a respectful and decorous distance; I have ambivalent feelings about Hardy; D. H. Lawrence I simply do not understand; and the works of Woolf, I am sorry to say, I find merely tedious. Everyone will have their own lists of what they find themselves responding to or not responding to – inevitably so, as we all have different personalities, and different perceptions, the differences often subtle and nuanced. And, as we grow and develop over time, what we respond to can change even as we change as people; sometimes, what we read may even be the agents of this change. But one has, I think, to trust each other’s judgement (and I mean judgement, and not merely unthinking opinion, of which there is no shortage), and accept that something may be of great value, even if one cannot immediately see that value for oneself. This is why discussion on such matters is so important: without discussion, without exchanging our thoughts and perceptions with each other, and refining our own thoughts and our perceptions in the process, we may well become imprisoned within the limitations of our own minds. The internet should, in theory, be the ideal platform for such exchanges, instead of the vapid exchange of soundbites it all too frequently is.

If all this makes the reading of literature sound very difficult – well, it is. Let us not pretend otherwise. Let us not pretend that the masterpieces of Tolstoy or of Dickens are merely stories to be lightly enjoyed, much as one might enjoy, say, airport thrillers. Let us not pretend that it’s all simply “entertainment”: it isn’t.

Does it follow, then, that the likes of Tolstoy or Dickens are somehow superior to “mere entertainment”? No, I don’t think so. In the first place, I wouldn’t attach the adjective “mere” to the word “entertainment”. Dickens himself started his literary career as a “mere” entertainer, and, even in his most artistically sophisticated works, he never forgot the importance of “mere” entertainment: art and entertainment are not necessarily incompatible. But they can be, and we must allow for that. And if any reader, out of personal choice, prefers “mere” entertainment to profundity of vision, then that is an entirely valid choice to make. But the other choice is valid also.

However, it is hardly a matter of one or the other: a lover of Middlemarch may well enjoy rousing adventure stories, and the lover of hard-boiled detective thrillers may thrill also to the depth of insight of a Gustave Flaubert. Sometimes, the same work can serve several different purposes simultaneously: a work such as Pride and Prejudice can delight those who look merely upon the surface, and can also reward those who peer beneath. Whatever boundary there is between artistry and entertainment is porous to such a degree that the boundary itself should not, perhaps, be insisted upon. But it doesn’t follow that all books should be judged solely or even primarily on their ability to entertain; and neither does it follow that books that entertain should be privileged above those that don’t, but which, nonetheless, have riches of a different sort to offer.

For if the entertainment value of a book is privileged above other aspects; or if, as is sometimes the case, the very validity of these other aspects is denied; then we inevitably, I think, end up sidelining serious literature away from the mainstream. This is because those books that set out to do more than merely divert are often difficult books, and require effort from the reader. Reading, after all, is not a passive activity: where the content is complex, or intricate, or profound, the reader has to make what is often an immense effort to engage with it. But if that which requires effort and that which doesn’t are deemed to be of comparable value, then there is no reason, and certainly no incentive, for anyone to tackle books of the former category in preference to the latter; or, should they do so, give books of the former category the attention and the effort they demand. I fear we may have already arrived at such a state.

But let us hope my fears are unjustified: after all, the barbarians were always thought be at the gates. But in answer to the question “Why read serious literature?” we should, instead of offering the weak reply “it entertains”, be vociferous in proclaiming that imaginative literature, at its best, is capable of enriching our lives, and that we have developed means so sophisticated to make our lives richer is among the defining marks of our civilisation itself. As Wordsworth himself no doubt knew, reading his poetry in the seclusion of one’s study can be every bit as enriching as experiencing at first hand the evening sun’s “freshening lustre mellow”.