Saturday, February 26, 2011

Poetry and Paul Valery

"Did Racine know where that inimitable voice of his came from, that delicate tracery of the inflection, that transparency of the dialogue, all the things that make him Racine, and without which he would be reduced to that not very considerable personage about whom the biographies tell us a great many things which he had in common with ten thousand other Frenchmen? The so-called lessons of literary history have little bearing on the arcana of the making of poems. Everything happens in the artist's inner sanctuary, as though the visible events of his life his life had only a superficial influence on his work. The thing that is most important—the very act of the muses—is independent of adventures, the poet's way of life, incidents, and everything that might figure in a biography. Everything that history is able to observe is insignificant.

"What is essential to the work is all the indefinable circumstances, the occult encounters, the facts that are apparent to one person alone, or so familiar to that one person that he is not even aware of them. One knows from one's own experience that these incessant and impalpable events are the solid matter of one's personality.

"All these people who create, half certain, half uncertain of their powers, feel two beings in them, one known and the other unknown, whose incessant intercourse and unexpected exchanges give birth in the end to a certain product. I do not know what I am going to do; yet my mind believes it knows itself; and I build on that knowledge, I count on it, it is what I call Myself. But I shall surprise myself; if I doubted it I should be nothing. I know that I shall be astonished by a certain thought that is going to come to me before long—and yet I ask myself for this surprise, I build on it and count on it as I count on my certainty. I hope for something unexpected which I designate. I need both my known and my unknown.

"How then are we to conceive the creator of a great work? But he is absolutely no one. How define the Self if it changes opinion and sides so often in the course of my work that the work is distorted under my hands; if each correction can bring about immense modifications; and if a thousand accidents of memory, attention, sensation that cross my mind appear, finally, in my finished work to be the essential ideas and original objects of my endeavors? And yet it is all certainly a part of me, since my weaknesses, my strength, my lazy repetitions, my manias, my darkness and my light, can aways be recognized in everything that falls from my hands.

"And so, let us give up hope of ever seeing clearly in these matters, and comfort ourselves with an image. I imagine this poet with a mind full of resource and ruse, dissembling sleep in the imaginary center of his still uncreated work, waiting to seize the moment of his power which is his prey. In the  vague depths of his eyes, all the forces of his desire and the springs of his instinct are stretched taut. There, intent on the hazards from which she chooses her nourishment, very shadowy there, in the midst of the webs and secret harps that she has made out of language—those interweaving threads, those vaguely and endlessly vibrating strings—a mysterious Arachne, huntress muse, keeps watch."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Jesus on inequality

No one seems to have known what Jesus was talking about, 2000 or some years ago, when he said, "To those who have more shall be given, but from those who have not the little they have shall be taken away." (I quote from memory.) It would be interesting to know when people began to take note. Now, at any rate, in our bright and shining plutocracy, his meaning ought to be abundantly clear.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some more poems by Thomas Hardy

The following poems were written after the death in 1912 of Hardy's first wife, Emma Gifford. 

Without Ceremony

It was your way, my dear,
To vanish without a word
When callers, friends, or kin
Had left, and I hastened in
To rejoin you, as I inferred.

And when you'd a mind to career
Off anywhere—say to town
You were all on a sudden gone
Before I had thought thereon,
Or noticed your trunks were down.

So, now that you disappear
For ever in that swift style,
Your meaning seems to me
Just as it used to be:
"Good-bye is not worth while.

The Going

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly, after the morrow's dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
      Where I could not follow
      With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

       Never to bid good-bye
       Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
       Unmoved, unknowing
       That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
       Till in darkening dankness
       The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

       You were she who abode
       By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
       And, reining nigh me,
       Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly, did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time's renewal? We might have said,
       "In this bright spring weather
       We'll visit together
Those places that once we visited."

       Well, well! All's past amend,
       Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
       That such swift fleeting
       No soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

[These last lines are not strictly true; Emma had been unwell for some time and he must have known it; he just hadn't been paying attention, that's all.]

After A Journey

Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
  Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I'm lonely, lost,
 And the unseen waters ejaculations awe me.
Where you will next be there's no knowing,
  Facing round about me everywhere,
           With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
   Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past—
   Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
   Things were not lastly as firstly well
           With us twain, you tell?
But all's closed now, despite Time's derision.

I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
   To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
   At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
   That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
           When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!

Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
   The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily;
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
   For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
   The bringing me here; nay bring me here again!
           I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Thomas Hardy as a man and a poet who noticed things

Here is a poem that Hardy could have written at almost any time during his long life, but was probably written between 1913 and 1916: Afterwards.

When the present has latched its postern behing my tremulous stay
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new spun silk, will the neighbors say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things.

You don't have to have read much of Hardy's poetry or fiction to know that he was indeed a man who noticed things, especially (perhaps) the plight of the innocent creatures whom we farm or hunt or catch in traps, or who just happen to share the space we occupy, like that hedgehog scurrying furtively across the lawn. Anyone who has read Jude The Obscure will remember the terrible scene in which Jude and Arabella butcher a pig and make a mess of it. That scene didn't have to be there; Hardy forces it upon our attention partly because he wants us to know the brutal world that Jude has entered by marrying Arabella, but also for its own sake: if you are going eat pork, you ought to know something about the life and death of the animal it comes from.

Hardy also had an eye for the plight of ordinary people, trapped in dead-end lives like a man he notices coming up Oxford Street one evening, with the sun in his eyes:

A city-clerk, with eyesight not of the best,
Who sees no escape to the very verge of his days
From the rut of Oxford Street into open ways;
And he goes along with head and eyes flagging forlorn,
Empty of interest in things, and wondering why he was born.

Hardy's poems are full of people asking that very same question.

There are also some things that, surprisingly, he didn't notice—or, if he did, chose to ignore: the modernist revolution in literature and the arts that was going on right under his nose. He seems never to have heard of Picasso or Cezanne or Matisse or Stravinsky. T. S. Eliot mentions him but he never mentions T. S. Eliot.

Hardy's indifference to modernism in the arts (if that's what it was) did not extend to modern science. In 1920, he bought and read Einstein's Relativity: The Special and General Theory. A Popular Exposition, and took it to confirm what he believed, "that neither chance nor purpose governs the universe, but necessity." Later, thinking further about relativity and space-time, he wrote in his notebook, "Relativity. That things and events always were, are, and will be" and that the people he loved are still living in the past. Which is just a little odd, coming from a man who did not believe in an after-life.

If there are any other modern poets (i.e., poets of the early 20th century) who took the trouble to read up on Relativity, I don't know who they are.