Monthly Archives: June 2016

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.