Culbone Wood Journal V – Melancholy Interlude
I have touched on the Khan’s appetite and his predeliction for young women. But would it not be a fallacy to assume that Kubilai’s joys and sorrows were greater, in proportion to his power and stature, than are those of Everyman? When the Khan shed tears, did these create oceans? When Kubilai laughed, did China shake with him? Certes, he lived his final years in sorrow. And following the death of his chief wife Chabi, he indulged in such feats of eating and swilling, that like some Oriental Henry Tudor, he blew up to an uncontrollable colossus. (1) Appetite, besides, has subtler identity. ‘Tis greed, saith the Buddha, as Phags pa lama frequently advised him, that attaches us to suffering. When thou wantest nothing, only then shalt thou be happy!
In respect to his appetite and the distribution of his person, it may be noted that (according to Marco) the Great Khan fathered some twenty-two male children by his four married wives and twenty-five sons by his concubines.
‘Was that his meagre total?’ a blow-fly sang that followed Kubilai through his palace chambers and spawned its own kind in the mixed blood it had supped off and then perished gladly.
Postlude on Seraglios
On women in seraglios, Montesquieu provides these biting commentaries. Recall that from Paris, the Persian Uzbec writes, in the Lettres Persanes, to his latest new wife that were she with him on this escapade to Europe, she would sigh for le serail, ‘that sweet retreat where she finds innocence and security’:
Oui, Roxane, si vous étiez ici, vous vous sentiriez outragée dans l’affreuse ignominie où votre sexe est descendu; vous fuiriez ces abominables lieux, et vous soupireriez pour cette douce retraite, où vous trouvez l’innocence, où vous êtes sûre de vous-même, où nul péril ne vous fait trembler, où enfin vous pouvez m’aimer sans craindre de perdre jamais l’amour que vous me devez.(2)
But Montesquieu’s bite snaps in two directions. In one, to the French who are by implication happy to enjoy, without le serail, the freedom of a moral degeneracy. Second, it addresses an imaginary Persia, where a woman may be imprisoned in the service of her innocence and purity: virtues which are in the husbands’ power, in that any deviation from a concentration of her co-monogony will be punished – through the agency of a eunuch whose remaining pleasure is to chastise – by polygonous male spouses.
What the seraglio offers, writes Uzbec, is the freedom for a woman to devote herself, in competition with her fellows, to the cultivation of her charms. This is an exercise which ironically reflects back on Paris, where women, in their freedom, are compelled precisely to the same exercise:
Quand vous relevez l’éclat de votre teint par les plus belles couleurs; quand vous vous parfumez tout le corps des essences les plus précieuses; quand vous vous parez de vos plus beaux habits; quand vous cherchez à vous distinguer de vos compagnes par les grâces de la danse et par la douceur de votre chant; que vous combattez gracieusement avec elles de charmes, de douceur et d’enjouement, je ne puis pas m’imaginer que vous ayez d’autre objet que celui de me plaire; et quand je vous vois rougir modestement, que vos regards cherchent les miens, que vous vous insinuez dans mon cœur par des paroles douces et flatteuses, je ne saurois, Roxane, douter de votre amour.(3)
Oh, the deadly gentleness of that jailer, whose own wheedling deceives him that what he thus seductively imposes lies in the interest of her he binds to slavery! This on the assumption that the constraints thereby inflicted act to reduce the entirety of his victim’s person into the simplicityof a devotion. Here is a studyby Montesquieu of many another association. Make our subordinates secure in their dependence, and they will love us for, and remain enchanted by, their servitude!
A further self-deception of that amiable Persian lies in his insistence on his good wife’s purity. Now this Roxana is his second and new consort. Women are thus collected, requisitioned and maintained in a condition which is exclusive to the exercise of the will of an individual who has authority over them. All the wives must be equally ‘pure’. But in so being kept, they are, under the pretext of religious sanction which has been devised entirely by men the victims of a marital bordello.
In parallel and by contrast, Great Kubilai contrived a household which brazenly flaunted the device of impurity. With results that were, no doubt, more or less identical to those which have been imagined by M. Montesquieu.
I’ve stamped, above, italics on one sentence in the French from that Persian resident in Paris, and I shall return, in that connection, to what those women to whom he refers, may have been constrained into singing.
But might it not, meanwhile, be averred that our lives, man and woman, consist largely of a Singspiel such as The Abduction from the Seraglio, which lately I saw performed in Germany, where the prose of social intercourse is interrupted at heightened moments of sentiment by lyrical airs and instrumental interludes? In which connection I concur with Amadeus Mozart who has said, in connection to his little oriental masterpiece, that ‘the poetry in an opera must altogether be an obedient daughter of the music’.
Here, obedienceis what the imagination brings to what is naturally high in character. Even in the composition of a non-operatic poetry, it is music, whether metrical or vocalic, which of necessity comes first. Sense coalesces around harmonies. But the Daughters of Mnemosonewepoets serve are less interested in our little thoughts and stories than in the melody of what we get and then transform from their Musical inspiration. And while Zeus may be seduced by smells of meat, what they and the janissary Apollo (who was never a eunuch!) require is a subtler variety of ascension.
One step further. We speak, in all this, of women singing. As if this – I include our own genteel ladies – were adjunct merely to men’s grosser satisfaction – the parlour song as prologue to an advantageous hymeneal. (Yet can a man not claim to sing? Aye. Let him crack his cheeks andfill his bellows.)
But of that ghostly woman and her haunting of me. The voice, which in its flight would raise that dome again, once, in my own throat, confidently fluttered. ‘Twas hers and it was mine. Two-sexed, twinned vocalically, we accomplished an ascension. I sired that lady, mothered, brothered and contained her presence. She lives in me still – veiled, arcane being – O patience! germinate this entity – femina abscondita – who waits for her release again at Culbone – from my knotty entrails.
On the subject of envy. The word cynosure suggests itself. Just as Belinda in Pope’s Rape is the focus of admiring eyes, while we apprehend the jealousy whose flame glints hard green in the heart of every other dancer, so the Khan epitomises everything that’s precious and transcends the half-humanity of all who are not him.
And while he can not be himself except as Emperor of All Possible Occasions, the Great Khan’s is a detestable perfection, inspiring fear and envy from all classes and perhaps most particularly from those who best know him. Every good, as comprehended in his dispensation, is subsumed to his appropriation. And given that he lacks nothing, his incorporate completeness proclaims the deficient humanity of those others whose existence is a pre-requisite to his elevation. For what would the greatness of the One be, without subordination of the Many?
Any excellence in the general, indeed, that might occur in the vicinity of this insatiable overweening, is sucked out from its source and husbanded exclusively to his oneness. The envy generated by the Great Khan’s advantages is in this way mirrored and projected by the Emperor ipse. He may not be jealous of himself per se: but his envy of those who could, in spite of relative misfortune, be equal to him in some way, is unappeasable. Some of these upstarts he will certainly assassinate. Others he will simply obliterate by means, or through the mere example of, his own sublimation.
With what I most enjoy contented least. (I, too, have ‘Sonnet 29-sans-sestet-sickness’!) Shakespeare’s most remote ancestors had not yet been conceived in the midland counties when the Great Khan struggled in Cathay with the sentiment so complete in its expression here.
I am transported by the transformations of a line which is at once perfect in iambic regularity and ideal in its vernacular straightforwardness: the singularity of which
character lies in the development of its syllabic variation.
First in this line, arrive divergent clinging and unclasping movements of alliterative effects: two insubstantial w’s enclosed by a feebly whispered ‘i’ and a scarcely more declaratory ‘a’ breathed forth without a referent and in abstraction: the instability of whose sighs are then peggeddown with the attempted but uncertain perpendicularity – asthough in the erection of a Roman capital – of ‘I’.
These sounds are at once followed by the assonantal marriage (‘most enjoy’) of two o’swith the separating plainness of this bread-like ‘-en’ whose work it is to neutralise the over-ripe fullness of the dominating vowels: as though that wind-harrow’d, solitary and emaciated first person pronoun had, for a moment, in imagination, gloated on a self-possession: this reinforced by the initially deceptive and penultimate ‘contented’, whose unlikely projection, by the line-end, of a positive affect or resolution, is starved off by a thinly hissing sibilant in ‘least’ and the drying east wind of its middle ea diphthong.
Important to note here the separation of enjoy and contented which unequally balance on either side of that great caesura, whose space, which opens following the first three iambs, suggests a melancholy lifetime of dissociation, uncertain self-assurance, dissatisfaction and a fissure in the self to which only the cold gape of paper could give adequate expression.
Is this not a music which spells out, literally, with alphabetic characters, self-distaste, distrust and self-contempt? Imagine the Great Kubilai leaning forward in his self-division across three or four centuries to a future page of English, and muttering in Tartar, this most apposite pentameter, of whose truth about irrreconciliation, he was doubtless an extreme exemplar!
I’ve been sitting at a stream’s edge and the current tries to make away with my reflection. Still, according as the light that filters through the beeches which surround the stone on which I’m seated, my image – fragmentary, incoherent – stays nonetheless here: a half-truth, albeit, in this patchwork of the sun and darkness. At Culbone Wood, a poor fool in the shadow studied his reflection as fissiparated in great nature’s motley.
So I am reminded of the Great Khan’s uncertainties, whose artifice recalls an actor’s performance. The actor stands away from the curtain and the audience absorbs a variegation of his partial, previous self and that part in a drama that he is assuming. These, like the intersections of his costume, interpenetrate. He is incorrigably pied as are the jester and the wagtail and the chequer’d shade of ‘The Allegro’. And yet he is reduced – from the complication of a life outside the theatre which he can never wholly abandon – to the simplicity of the part, out from which, in due course, he must disrobe.
Undressed from this jacket, the actor, as such, grows by degrees invisible and non-existent. To be in not to be is his condition. And so long as he is in the theatre, these antithetic variants are in shadowy relation or – even as regards his body – in the equipoise of an interrogative. The mind of the player, as he struts and frets, contains nothing however of more substance than the language he has memorised for a performance. There is only his mask. And even that is a vapour of the text he is exhaling. His grease-paint and beard are the grosser formations of the identical illusion.
But that each person in the audience has less challengable a character is likewise perhaps an error. My own self, in some ways, is a puppet got up in comparable, absorbant tiring, which takes on the complexion of the environment in which it has settled. As it lights on one thing, so it takes its cast. That bird I watch hurrying from one stone to another negotiates the stream far more prettily than I do in transition between roles and costume.
I have sat for this hour on a boulder, twiddling a switch of bracken, and while perhaps I’ve absorbed something of its superficial strata, the stillness I’ve been seeking in its deeper stone eludes me. The Khan was no stranger to these self-divisions.
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
Another word on this sonnet where I have so tortuously entangled Great Kubilai’s person. Just this: that within the declarative plainness of the opening two lines, a pattern of perfected beauty in its assonantal values lies, as follows, in a natural and unforced distribution:
e i i a i o u a e i
i a a o e ee i ou a a
Now here is a modest paradigm of writing and an object lesson in withheld ostentation! For while every vowel is deployed in its short or long value, these numbers are neither coloured nor emphatic. And yet what subtle shapes and shades are suggested in their disingenuously artless and apparently impromtu scatter.
Note how the first three syllables are short and scarcely accented and how trippingly they lead to the long ‘a’ of disgrace, which in itself tips over from the unstressed ‘dis’ to a heavier fall on the monosyllable ‘grace’ – which condition in relation to the grace of heaven is denied by its prefix, despite the apparent weakness of that antecedent syllable. This short ‘i’ in 'dis'- is followed after ‘grace’ by its equivalent in ‘in’ and this leads to swollen resonance of ‘o’ which suggests a (pagan) opposite to ‘grace’ in the person of the (goddess) Fortune.
In line 1's last two syllables, we find the short ‘e’ of ‘men’ crescendo to the outburst (a vocalic blast!) of eyes, in which visualised scorn, that the poet imagines has turned on his failure, have become entire persons. This followed by enjambment, for ironic contrast, with the long ‘i’ in line 2 of the pronoun ‘I’, whose vertical initiality is compromised at once by the falling motion of the a a o in ‘all alone’, whose own isolated hollow is succeeded by the feeble music of ‘beweep’ with its short/long descent to the pathos of ee, which ironically again introduces a large new variation of the i in ‘my’.
Striving, striving constantly for a mode of being that lies beyond an ordinary accomplishment. This, I would guess, is the motive for my preoccupation with Great Kubilai, who is an epitome of the man who has been satisfied with nothing but what is beyond him.
In the same way, we will ourselves to become monsters of some achievement or other. For myself, the experience may be compared to an ache in the head: not of the sort that may be lulled with poppy, but a throbbing which could be appeased only through the activity of its expulsion – of the sort which resembles a birth, an explosive vulcanism, the exhibition of some densely textured, fervid and climactic polychromatism beyond which mind and body are become superfluous and of which the world requires nothing further.
This inchoate pulsation exists or is generatated in the intelligence as an organic imaginative latency: just as earth contains beneath its upper and containing structures the chthonic absymal lakes of melted rock which are fed by the stream of hot Phlegethon's tributory currents, so in the brain lies a pain-infested quasi-subterranean, lacustrine embedment of compulsions which give no peace until it is out – in howsoever gaudily a flamboyant impulse.
In the case of Great Kubilai, swollen as he was in his later years , we may remember that he ingested half of Asia. And while Falstaff, by contrast, ate and drank for joy – erupting into bawdry, jests and acts of crime which we interpret, on account of their waggery, with indulgence; and Gargantua and Pentagruel consumed because they were so constituted of a great earth, that they must always rival it in condition and bombast; we may suppose that it was, setting aside the integrity of his bereavement, on account of an impassioned greed and self-consuming ambition that the Great Khan must gobble up kingdoms.
That he could never be sated was evidenced in later years by his two insane attacks on Japan: which pointless assaults, as though the weather gods revolted at his insolence were thrown back violently. On these catastrophes the old tragedians might well shake their beards. Here was no nobility dragged down by a hamartia, but an hundred thousand hapless warriors and mercenaries, macerated and dismembered, twice, in small ships flung by kamikaze winds against sharp rocks and thereafter fought over by invading tribes of shark that knew nothing of Great Kubilai – who meantime fidgeted and twitched in his paradise gardens and bellowed his commands to gardeners and sewers.
In pursuit of poetic truth, one may create a monster of oneself to achieve even an approximation of what one might have intended. The nature of that monster lies in its composite identity, the parts of which are disparate and sometimes grotesquely incongruous: the celebrated biform, for example, that was the issue of Pasiphae’s infatuation with a bull and which became the presiding spirit of the labyrinth. A writer’s own labyrinthine person contains several such manifestations. They are accretions of the diverse energies that adapt to one another in the twilight of his interior and of whose confluence he is often, most likely, unaware.
I have seen a model of Cellini’s Perseus whose hand is plunged in that thick bed of snakes which crowns the Medusa. Perseus exerts a muscular, determined grasp. But unlike him, we can neither deracinate nor exterminate that interfusion of mental vipers. This is because they have nested in our brains, where, having once hatched in the nourishing and warm heart’s egg, they have grown upward. Palpable, perhaps, but indiscernible without some externalising mirror of the sort that Perseus held up to the Gorgon with his burnished shield – and then struck her head off as, for the first time, perhaps, she saw herself – preserving the reflection for Cellini’s copy!
There is too much poetry. But it is, on the other hand, important that each generation maintains that art’s contemporaneity. This is one motive for our participation. How far we succeed or produce anything that posterity will cherish is another question. And while most of us attempt only the lower slopes of Parnassus – for if we are not modest, we are easily fatigued – it is imperative that we strive ad altiora. Given that we are, at the best, with our limited talents, a fraternity of competitors, it is surprising, perhaps, that there are not more great ones. For it is no doubt possible for a writer of even moderate ability – given time, application and a degree of inspirational good fortune – to surpass himself.
I suspect, on the other hand, that there exists within the working of destiny a law that determines a limit to apotheosis. Take the last two centuries only. We resort to Donne, Milton and Pope for the genius of their accomplishment. But what if good writers such as Prior, Crashaw, Rochester and Thompson had attained comparable heights? How crowded would our empyrean have become – and we could scarcely breathe for the proliferation of their exhalations! As for my ambition, would it not be a kindness to the future if I limited my numbers? This Fragment hangs about me like Great Kubilai’s gold pendant. It swings on my heart, which gratefully stirs it with a temperate percussion. For myself and for posterity, what need further music?
To produce even a moderately good verses should lie within the nature of friendly commerce. It is, in this connection, a wholesome act to proffer to one’s friend and to the public, the produce of his honest labour. I learned something of this when I stopped at Lynton to buy radishes and lettuce.
This was hearty transaction, as though, in response to my penny in the gardener’s palm, the earth grains where I’d sowed my coin proclaimed:
‘We write these, our gardens.’ To which, my poetry would most aptly respond:
‘This lettuce is what I mean. Let these radishes speak for me.’
Do I relish the melancholy in which, for the most part, I dwell when I am not writing - when every breath might, if I passed it across the larynx, become an inconsolable groan? And why is this condition not entirely unpleasant?
First, because it represents an enclosure in which I am, as it were, fortified into a condition which has an identity so complete that I may define it with the large, firm brush strokes of the portraitist who encloses his subject with a contextualising furniture of shadow. Here, in contradistinction to the paler nebulosity of other common experience, in which one senses neither this nor that particular affect, one may claim fraternal relations with darkness – and while this experience may have a flattened or depressing character, its very unifying monumentality provides a security in what otherwise has become mere flux or dissipation.
Imagine, for example, turning the first pages of Tristram Shandy – that great masterpiece – to view casually, not least, the comedy, at once joyous and asthmatic, of its punctuation markings. Till one reaches, from that hail storm, Chapter XII, whose opaque slab, that celebrated, standing headstone, marks the ianua mortis to good Yorick’s Exit. How peacefully defined such mortuary blackness!
But idle further through these pages and witness the persistence, the insistence of the prattle which meanders here, now there, in detours, divisions, divagations and excursions, just as our own lives pitter-patter sideways, back and forward, and then back again! How much better, so I negatively dream, to stand for ever in that petrified and Stygian marshland - Cocyti stagna alta...Stygiamque paludem – than live uncertainly within the perforated shade of this, that or the other quiddity, and the mortal sentence of loquacious quibbling!
The poet and the farmer – who co-exist within a parallel irresolution. When to plough, when sow and to harvest? When take up your pen? When judge it is time to clear it from the table to make way for the soup pot?
What is it they share, but an urge to propagate, to make - some thing of nourishment? Both lose themselves in work which, because it is essential to their living and in some degree to that of others, they do not stop to question. While the farmer will lie in a grave which rises somewhere in the neighbourhood of the furrow he has ploughed, the poet will be interred between lines within which gapes the abyss of what has been unsaid. He has lived, already, conscious of it or not, with the presence of that want.
And while the writer’s posterity lies in a mute scattering of characters, the farmer’s children joyfully heap ripe wheat against their winters.
Just as the lark rises from sullen earth and must return to it having inscribed its song for a while upon the abstraction of heaven, so the melancholy ground we inhabit is the anti-muse from which we make our lame or broken-winged ascents and which magnetically draws us back having achieved its purpose in inspiring us into opposition to it.
In the conversation between the poet and the world, a metaphoric bridge of significations composed of often mutually discordant elements is extended. Not one single truth may be observed to make its crossing here but it is obscured and rendered inscrutable by the very medium that made its going over possible.
Little that is said or written pertains to the meaning which had its origin at the moment of conception. We experience only the artefacture of the means by which a transit or a passagehas been created. Herein lies a connection between two points: the first which stands before the moment of articulation, the second, which follows it – and so it is said and done or written.
In the meantime, what we witness is an indecipherable music, as if produced by a gorgeous, indistinctly apprehended and extrinsic being, whose beauty consists of falsifications raised to the condition of an exquisitely construed phantasm. Important here to remember that Ariel must, after relatively brief service to the tyrant who rescued and then enslaved him, have his freedom.
Thenceforth he will sing wherever he chooses and for the most part beyond our hearing. Caliban, who adored this music, will forever roam the island in silence. And we, poor creatures, must amble beside him scratching our heads in an equal quandry.
Considering again the Gorgon’s head Cellini modelled. I would say that when a sculptor cuts stone away from the form he is determined to reveal, that by the same token, he builds into it the emergency of his conception and that this is what becomes expressed. All beauty comes forward from some previously unidentifiable and opaque quintessence and what we see, which has been brought to the surface, is informed by an interior modelling without whose presence, the surface (of nothing!) will slip away, revealing the emptiness from which it was unwisely dared. Any form that has properly been achieved thus arrives from two interiors: that of some material – oak, stone or the flux of language – and of the maker’s imagination. Thus it is that what gets done, be it sculpture or poetry, comes alive from behind. And those who contemplate it from the outside are animated in harmony with both the projected and discoveredcentre. Such a work then finds its place within the viewer’s innigkeit, his inner person, where in the complexity of a meditation, it may serially, and for ever, be recovered.
In the process of composition: the illusion of addressing the world.
At the moment of publication: the reality of sinking into obscurity.
With reference to what one has published – the notices one may have received – the society one inhabits – the number of copies of a book that have circulated – the antecedents and contemporaries with whom one has made a connection – such are the questions preoccupying those for whom literary lifeis a means of affiliation or advancement.
What happens in a poem or a novel, and the manner in which it is written, retain significance only in so far as these relate to the age, what a critic has written about them, how far the work has been distributed and what developments may be expected from it. Who, further, will be in receipt of that writer’s next submission? What great emolument might it command and how far will that compare to what he has received before, and the amount that others may get from the same literary houses?
All this may be of historical interest. But the histories of such affairs are become a substitute for the experience from which writing emerges. And by degrees it overtakes literature as a great cloud descends across the detail of what one has been observing in the open sunlight. And therefore, given all such factors that are peripheral to creative life, and on account of economic, biographical and anecdotal preoccupations that attach to any work’s appearance, it progressively grows more difficult to separate these phenomena from the realm of experience through which a writer’s imagination leads us.
A work of imagination, in this way, becomes th’ event or the phenomenon of coming out, both of which push into the foreground, while the nature of the work itself, in style and matter, lose what integrity they may have enjoyed before the character of a book evolved, into a question of its standing in the world as a public occurrence.
A writer who gets caught up in such preoccupations loses control of the experiences which inspire his work and he becomes a figure. Such a position is a phenomenon of the present age and its dangers are not difficult to see as, for example, a successful writer’s mode of expression becomes embedded in an ever quickening production of what his public has in mind for him.
A first lesson to draw from this is that the writer must, above all things, become detached from the expectation of an effect. If an audience is believed to exist, let it first be among the Muses – which are the angels which hesitate over our presumption of an encroachment on their sacred, and therefore dangerous, precincts. Only in solitude and obscurity may questions of importance that will outlast him present themselves: for a mind that remains disengaged from ambition (and thus receptive because undistracted by the ‘thing’which success renders that which had previously been alive) is for ever fresh and will perform its gymnastic imaginative undertakings with spontaneity.
Success, for any such person, becomes a misfortune whose illusory glamour reveals itself generally too late. To retreat, for one who has tasted fame, generates bitterness where otherwise it might have constituted the occasion for an advance towards further originality. Better not write than to be the toy of fashion. And best not to read, if the effect of that pastime is to encourage in the future work of a writer the equivalent of a new top hat or bonnet.
It is not often that I resort to the Bible. But given this crisis – and not having my Aeneid whereI have on occasion indulged, with light-hearted superstition, in Sortes Virgilianae – I opened the great volume that dominates the parlour: and lo! I laid my finger on this re-animating passage:
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes. For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left. Isaiah 54:2
How unfortunate that the surrounding verses (‘he was wounded for our transgressions’) have anachronistically been deformed to a messianic supposition. Let such poetry reach us naked of whatever hope gave it occasion, and of the religiose impulse that gave form to the metaphor in which lies the compound of its energy!
Yea, and though I walk through the valley of the shadow of an ontological
de-rangement, I will lengthen my cords. And henceforth, indeed, break forth!
Bitter prospect of winter. Already I hear crows’ wings strike the oak leaf, hard with hurrying, metallic clatter.
Tomorrow we shall eat our final lettuce. Relish while we can, these glassy stems that scream against the teeth and pass through the throat the succulence into which they degenerate with such spontaneous elasticity!
I look out on the months and see, on brown horizons, dirty turnip infinitely stretching.
I am preoccupied, nay, tortured, as though by a perpetual thirst, with the knowledge of my unameliorable ignorance. This latter, in truth, is all I confidently may know. And yet when I learn some new thing, whatever particle of knowledge this may represent, far from slaking the desert which encroaches on my person, it is displaced by the invasion of an increased dryness.
My consolation? ‘Que sais-je?’ – Montaigne’s medallion, whose inscription I will carve into the flesh of my brain, oscillating as this does between poetic vaunting and a self-annihilation. Is it possible, perhaps, this targe once acknowledged, to keep company with the things of this world in their separation, each of which – be they rude farm utensils or philosophic propositions – represents some parcel of companioned nothingness and knowledge (both) which otherwise exist in a hierarchical relation?
The confidence to go on, nor fail in courage, and to express with sincerity those things that fill the mind and have touched the heart – but the modesty, also, to acknowledge the limitations of an anticipated desideratum. The first demands valour: that the heart will enbolden the mind to brave the minutiae of its doubt, to the extent, even, of confronting despair with its sword – the heart’s sword! - whetted.
The second takes us to a condition, as we sit with what we have thought or written, of an appalled solitude. Gone is that struggle in whose fervour we blazed our composition and we are confronted, in the supervening blankness, with what we imagined to have been a trophy. Ah, how spoils have darkened in that after-moment! And yet in our modesty, we must not, once again, surrender to doubt, to the conquest of which we owe the very existence of what lies before us on some homely table now.
The silence, of which there are many conditions, in which these unspoken, but often mortal, encounters happen, is in itself frightening in its putative echo – which will for ever go on through those spaces which are the future. These are some which have lately touched me:
There is the silence of self-rebuke. The silence of reproach, its twin. The silence of self-mockery. The silence following repudiation. The silence of indifference as the moment of anticipation passes. The silence of perfunctory, half-hearted judgment. The silence of entirely nothing.
I’m reminded, in connection with this last, of an inscription on the map of Tartaria in the great Atlas by Ortelius, his folio XLVII. Some way between Samarcand and Karakorum lies the Desertum Lop. Ortelius marks these empty, unpigmented spaces as SOLITUDINES VASTAE. There is consolation in reading such words in an old map book, for those confidently slanting capitals with their exuberant interlacings, contribute to my suspicion that in my solitude I am not alone: the inanimate world shares it. See! It is in a respectable old atlas. I shall kneel with it on my shoulder.
There is the theatrical materiality of struggle. And there is the aether of contemplation. In an intermediate place lies the workshop or smithy in which an amalgamation of these hemispheres is beaten into the part-contemplative wholeness of an artefact – a painting, a song, a sonnet even. And in the transport or translation that occurs between such regions, lies the resolution of experience in all its aspects of working – melancholy, albeit rapturous.
Not all experience, however. For those categories are too variable to define, and no state is absolute in its character, and very little – whether in the phenomenal world or within the fluxes of our thoughts and feelings – may be characterised with a secure definition. Never have I felt more strongly the diaphanous and insubstantial motility of the external world and the kinesis of its unstable representation as is thrown, in shadows, on the back wall of the mind – overwhelmed as this already has been by the in-flow which, since my infancy, has been continuous. Poetry must both challenge by manoeuvre and incorporate this inexhaustible movement of events, things, ideation, affect until we are in ownership of them. This venture, itself, changes with the content of its pursuit. And we shall for ever be busy, when, meditatively, we are least active.
(1) To abbreviate this speculation, I would aver that the grief of a bereaved mother, is no greater nor less than that which Kubilai Khan experienced. Othello ranted and Hamlet’s own thought stabbed him. Macbeth was drawn into the infernal crater. Falstaff babbled and then entered the great silence. Cleopatra fed the serpent. I suffer, in their measure, for them. But that girl who laid the fire this morning will know, one day, the asp’s tooth, and no less than our heroes. I pity Kubilai’s losses. But no more than that of his countless subjects. Besides, they ate nothing rich enough to swell their ankles, and so gout did not touch them!
(2) Yes, Roxana, were you here, you would feel yourself outraged at the dreadful ignominy in which your sex is plunged; you would fly from this abominable land, sighing for that sweet retreat, where you find innocence and self-security, where no danger makes you afraid; where, in short, you can love me, without fear of ever losing that love which it is your duty to feel for me.
(3) When you heighten the brilliance of your complexion with the loveliest colour, when you perfume your whole body with the most precious essences, when you clothe yourself in your most beautiful garments, when you seek to distinguish yourself from your companions by your gracefulness in the dance, and the sweetness of your song, as you gently dispute with them in beauty, in tenderness, in vivacity, I cannot imagine that you have any other aim than to please me; and, when I see you blushing modestly as your eyes seek mine, as you wind yourself into my heart with soft and flattering words, I cannot, Roxana, suspect your love.
Copyright © Tom Lowesnstein, 2012