Robinson Jeffers

jeffers image

 

I’ll have much more to say on this site about the poet who coined the word Inhumanism, a vision of uncentring humanity from the scheme of things. His poetry is beautiful, often violent, misanthropic yet tender, and deeply spiritual. In the poem Night below, he writes:

And I and my people, we are willing to love the four-score years
Heartily; but as a sailor loves the sea, when the helm is for harbor.

The harbour is death, of course, extinction. Much of the writing we shall be exploring centres upon the meaning of death, of our inevitable end. (For Jeffers, there is absolutely no fear, no protest: it is home after the long voyage of life). The trope of ships at sea, we shall see, is very prevalent in so much literature.

You can jump here to read many of Jeffers’ poems, but Night is a good introduction.

Night

Robinson Jeffers

The ebb slips from the rock, the sunken
Tide-rocks lift streaming shoulders
Out of the slack, the slow west
Sombering its torch; a ship’s light
Shows faintly, far out,
Over the weight of the prone ocean
On the low cloud.

Over the dark mountain, over the dark pinewood,
Down the long dark valley along the shrunken river,
Returns the splendor without rays, the shining of shadow,
Peace-bringer, the matrix of all shining and quieter of shining.
Where the shore widens on the bay she opens dark wings
And the ocean accepts her glory. O soul worshipful of her
You like the ocean have grave depths where she dwells always,
And the film of waves above that takes the sun takes also
Her, with more love. The sun-lovers have a blond favorite,
A father of lights and noises, wars, weeping and laughter,
Hot labor, lust and delight and the other blemishes. Quietness
Flows from her deeper fountain; and he will die; and she is
immortal.

Far off from here the slender
Flocks of the mountain forest
Move among stems like towers
Of the old redwoods to the stream,
No twig crackling; dip shy
Wild muzzles into the mountain water
Among the dark ferns.
O passionately at peace you being secure will pardon
The blasphemies of glowworms, the lamp in my tower, the
fretfulness
Of cities, the cressets of the planets, the pride of the stars.
This August night in a rift of cloud Antares reddens,
The great one, the ancient torch, a lord among lost children,
The earth’s orbit doubled would not girdle his greatness, one fire
Globed, out of grasp of the mind enormous; but to you O Night
What? Not a spark? What flicker of a spark in the faint far
glimmer
Of a lost fire dying in the desert, dim coals of a sand-pit the
Bedouins
Wandered from at dawn . . . Ah singing prayer to what gulfs
tempted
Suddenly are you more lost? To us the near-hand mountain
Be a measure of height, the tide-worn cliff at the sea-gate a
measure of continuance.

The tide, moving the night’s
Vastness with lonely voices,
Turns, the deep dark-shining
Pacific leans on the land,
Feeling his cold strength
To the outmost margins: you Night will resume
The stars in your time.

O passionately at peace when will that tide draw shoreward?
Truly the spouting fountains of light, Antares, Arcturus,
Tire of their flow, they sing one song but they think silence.
The striding winter giant Orion shines, and dreams darkness.
And life, the flicker of men and moths and the wolf on the hill,
Though furious for continuance, passionately feeding, passionately
Remaking itself upon its mates, remembers deep inward
The calm mother, the quietness of the womb and the egg,
The primal and the latter silences: dear Night it is memory
Prophesies, prophecy that remembers, the charm of the dark.
And I and my people, we are willing to love the four-score years
Heartily; but as a sailor loves the sea, when the helm is for harbor.
Have men’s minds changed,
Or the rock hidden in the deep of the waters of the soul
Broken the surface? A few centuries
Gone by, was none dared not to people
The darkness beyond the stars with harps and habitations.
But now, dear is the truth. Life is grown sweeter and lonelier,
And death is no evil.

The History of the Human Spirit

hermann-hesse

“If anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.”

Head over to Brain Pickings for more from Hermann Hesse and other writers on the value of reading. You’ll find, I’m sure, that Brain Pickings is a marvellous site to return to. Sign up to the weekly newsletter.

We’ll look at Hesse soon.

 

Mountains of the Mind

The environment has not only inspired many writers – Wordsworth being an obvious example – but been, to them, an essential part of their being, something which goes beyond, transcends the dull and ordinary world. Some of the best writing on the human spirit is found in nature writing, travel writing, writing that focuses on extreme battles with elements – and specifically, here, mountaineering. The first is by Robert Macfarlane (and it is worth following the link here to read about him):

“Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.”

Mountains of the Mind

There are two things to be said here. Firstly, I’ll be looking at a wide range of literature such as this, stuff that may not often find its way into literary circles. Secondly, I’ll be picking up on the point raised by Macfarlane about human-centredness – particularly with reference to the ‘Inhumanist’ poet Robinson Jeffers

Related to Jeffers is the literary and artistic Dark Mountain Project which shares many of the poet’s themes – a deep spirituality and a deep despair of what has been made of life and the planet’.

I’ll also be exploring the emerging interest in psychogeography, a relatively recent neologism but with older roots: how place and mind, affect, spirit interact. The obvious starting place (for me) is with W.G.Sebald.

There is quite a lot compressed into this post which aims to show how one aspect of the blog will develop (and, of course, there is little point trying to demarcate precise classifications of writing; much overlaps). To end, another quote, this time from a mountaineer, Anatoli Boukreev:

“I wanted to achieve something essential in life, something that is not measured by money or position in society… The mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambitions to achieve. They are my cathedrals, the houses of my religion… In the mountains I attempt to understand my life. They are the way I practice my religion. In the mountains I celebrate creation, on each journey I am reborn.”

 

The Sea of Faith

Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, is a great example of why poems should be read aloud. Its music – rhythm and melody – flows with a melancholic strain and a yearning for love between us that survives above all else. I’m reminded of the atheist, cynic and brilliant poet, Philip Larkin, whose Arundel Tomb below makes an interesting contrast – or comparison.

The phrase in Arnold’s Poem, The Sea of Faith, became the title of a television series presented by theologian Don Cupitt (available on youtube). By the end of the 1980s, The Sea of Faith Network had begun which is open to believers of any faith or none, its central theme being that all religion is a human creation. Its quarterly magazine is £15 a year and regularly includes art, poetry and creativity as its subject matter.

Dover Beach

 

by Matthew Arnold

 

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

 

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

An Arundel Tomb

 

by Philip Larkin

 

Side by side, their faces blurred,

The earl and countess lie in stone,

Their proper habits vaguely shown

As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,

And that faint hint of the absurd—

The little dogs under their feet.

 

Such plainness of the pre-baroque

Hardly involves the eye, until

It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still

Clasped empty in the other; and

One sees, with a sharp tender shock,

His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

 

They would not think to lie so long.

Such faithfulness in effigy

Was just a detail friends would see:

A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace

Thrown off in helping to prolong

The Latin names around the base.

 

They would not guess how early in

Their supine stationary voyage

The air would change to soundless damage,

Turn the old tenantry away;

How soon succeeding eyes begin

To look, not read. Rigidly they

 

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths

Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light

Each summer thronged the glass. A bright

Litter of birdcalls strewed the same

Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths

The endless altered people came,

 

Washing at their identity.

Now, helpless in the hollow of

An unarmorial age, a trough

Of smoke in slow suspended skeins

Above their scrap of history,

Only an attitude remains:

 

Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

by Wallace Stevens

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

 

II

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

 

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

 

IV

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.

 

V

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

 

VI

Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.

 

VII

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?

 

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

 

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

 

X

At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.

 

XI

He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.

 

XII

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.

 

XIII

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

 

R.S.Thomas

RS-THOMAS

Click here for a good article about R.S.Thomas.

Here’s a poem of his. After delivering a service, he contemplates the silence and emptiness of the Church. The cross is ‘untenanted’: there is an absence. For Thomas, the absence, the emptiness, the cold stone, the darkness are ‘testing his faith’, a faith which perhaps he feels is always tested, and something deeper than words.

In Church

by R. S. Thomas

 

 

Often I try

To analyse the quality

Of its silences. Is this where God hides

From my searching? I have stopped to listen,

After the few people have gone,

To the air recomposing itself

For vigil. It has waited

like this

Since the stones grouped themselves about it.

These are the hard ribs

Of a body that our prayers have failed

To animate. Shadows advance

From their corners to take possession

Of places the light held

For an hour. The bats resume

Their business.

The uneasiness of the pews

Ceases. There is no other sound

In the darkness but the sound of a man

Breathing, testing his faith

On emptiness, nailing his questions

One by one to an untenanted cross.

 

The Tree of Life

Watched for the second time last night, and will watch again, this stupendous film. A vast meditation on the limits and infinite possibilities of human existence, suffering and meaning, joy and despair. It’s a beautiful example of cinema at the limits of its powers, blending words, drama, visuals and a stunning soundtrack.

I’ll include references to movies where I think that they are directly connected with literature. There are many references in the film, a main one being that it begins with and continues to explore the Book of Job. By the way, for me, I find Job pretty profound but also, if looked at appropriately, very funny – humour of the absurdist kind.

Casaubon in Middlemarch

"George Eliot at 30" by François D'Albert Durade
“George Eliot at 30” by François D’Albert Durade

Often described as the greatest English novel, George Eliot’s Middlemarch is certainly one of my own favourites. Eliot’s real name was Mary Evans: she used a male pen name to increase her chance of publication. An agnostic and humanist, Eliot understood well the importance of the spiritual life but found only a lack of spirit in much of the Christianity of her time. In this excerpt we are told of Edward Casaubon who has married Dorothea, the novel’s central character. He is engaged with writing a book, The Key to All Mythologies, which he thinks will explain to mankind the meaning of everything. Eliot has a light, ironic touch in her writing which shows up many of the follies and hypocricies of society.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

excerpt from Chapter 29

… Mr Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us. He had done nothing exceptional in marrying — nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets. It had occurred to him that he must not any longer defer his intention of matrimony, and he had reflected that in taking a wife, a man of good position should expect and carefully choose a blooming young lady — the younger the better, because more educable and submissive — of a rank equal to his own, of religious principles, virtuous disposition, and good understanding. On such a young lady he would make handsome settlements, and he would neglect no arrangement for her happiness: in return, he should receive family pleasures and leave behind him that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required of a man — to the sonneteers of the sixteenth century. Times had altered since then, and no sonneteer had insisted on Mr Casaubon’s leaving a copy of himself; moreover, he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key; but he had always intended to acquit himself by marriage, and the sense that he was fast leaving the years behind him, that the world was getting dimmer and that he felt lonely, was a reason to him for losing no more time in overtaking domestic delights before they too were left behind by the years.

And when he had seen Dorothea be believed that he had found even more than he demanded: she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, an aid which Mr Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.) Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed. A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful. Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in presenting her with Mr Casaubon was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy. As if a man could choose not only his wife but his wife’s husband! Or as if he were bound to provide charms for his posterity in his own person! – When Dorothea accepted him with effusion, that was only natural; and Mr Casaubon believed that his happiness was going to begin.

He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity. And Mr Casaubon had many scruples: he was capable of a severe self-restraint; he was resolute in being a man of honour according to the code; he would be unimpeachable by any recognized opinion. In conduct these ends had been attained; but the difficulty of making his Key to all Mythologies unimpeachable weighed like lead upon his mind; and the pamphlets — or “Parerga” as he called them — by which he tested his public and deposited small monumental records of his march, were far from having been seen in all their significance. He suspected the Archdeacon of not having read them; he was in painful doubt as to what was really thought of them by the leading minds of Brasenose, and bitterly convinced that his old acquaintance Carp had been the writer of that depreciatory recension which was kept locked in a small drawer of Mr Casaubon’s desk, and also in a dark closet of his verbal memory. These were heavy impressions to struggle against, and brought that melancholy embitterment which is the consequence of all excessive claim: even his religious faith wavered with his wavering trust in his own authorship, and the consolations of the Christian hope in immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten Key to all Mythologies. For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr Casaubon’s uneasiness. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control. To this mental estate mapped out a quarter of a century before, to sensibilities thus fenced in, Mr Casaubon had thought of annexing happiness with a lovely young bride; but even before marriage, as we have seen, he found himself under a new depression in the conciousness that the new bliss was not blissful to him. Inclination yearned back to its old, easier custom. And the deeper he went in domesticity the more did the sense of acquitting himself and acting with propriety predominate over any other satisfaction. Marriage, like religion and erudition, nay, like authorship itself, was fated to become an outward requirement, and Edward Casaubon was bent on fulfilling unimpeachably all requirements.

Wild Geese

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

 

 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things