Two poems, one old, one new

I’m putting these two short poems together, one from 2017, the other 1859, because their subject is similar, but also for the way both use a kind of openness to usher in a shock of grief.

The first is by John Levett, a Norfolk poet, from his sixth collection A Song About You (2017), the second by William Barnes, from nineteenth-century rural Dorset, written in his representation of his dialect. At the end I’ve written a few sparse notes to help you past the strangeness of the words. Please stick with it despite the obstacles of age and dialect because the impact comes at the end. One way through is to read it slowly aloud and try to copy the sounds.

I rediscovered my copy of the Levett book, unopened since 2017, hanging up in a canvas bag in the cupboard under the stairs, and was casually turning the pages when suddenly this poem reminded me of the feeling in Barnes’ ‘Turnstile’. It was startling to find how alive a connection an absence can make.

A Death in the Family

Behind our daughter’s back you catch
my eye to let me know the worst
but glass haphazardly reflects
your mouth, your hands waved in reverse
as, laughing at our game, she starts
to gesture, mimicking your sense.
It’s joy not grief that stops our hearts
then breaks them with its accidents.

The Turnstile

Ah! sad wer we as we did peäce
The wold church road, wi’ downcast feäce,
The while the bells, that mwoaned so deep
Above our child a-left asleep,
Wer now a-zingen all alive
Wi’ t’other bells to meäke the vive.
But up at woone pleäce we come by,
T’wer hard to keep woone’s two eyes dry
On Steän-cliff road, ’ithin the drong,
Up where as v’ok do pass along,
The turnen stile, a-painted white,
Do sheen by day an’ show by night.
Vor always there, as we did goo
To church, thik stile did let us drough,
Wi’ spreaden earms that wheel’d to guide
Us each in turn to tother zide.
An’ vu’st ov all the train he took
My wife, wi’ winsome gait an’ look;
An’ then zent on my little maid,
A-skippen onward, overjaÿ’d
To reach ageän the pleäce o’pride,
Her comely mother’s left han’ zide.
An’ then, a-wheelen roun’, he took
On me, ’ithin his third white nook.
An’ in the fourth, a sheäken wild,
He zent us on our giddy child.
But eesterday he guided slow
My downcast Jenny, full o’ woe,
An’ then my little maid in black,
A-walken softly on her track;
An’ after he’d a turn’d ageän,
To let me goo along the leäne,
He had noo little bwoy to vill
His last white eärms, an they stood still.

Barnes’ son John had died in 1839. ‘Wold’ is old; ‘vive’ is five; ‘drong’ is a Dorset word for a narrow alleyway; ‘v’ok’ is folk; ‘drough’ is through’; ‘eesterday’ is yesterday. This youtube reading may help:

Winter Holiday, Arthur Ransome

Now December is looming it’s surely time for a re-read of Winter Holiday. I didn’t read Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books at the age you’re supposed to read them, but I’m making up for it now. I love all twelve books—pure comfort reading—but Winter Holiday is probably my favourite or at any rate my equal favourite along with Great Northern? (The question mark is part of the title, not my clumsy typing). There’s no sailing in Winter Holiday; instead the children and young teens have set themselves the project of reaching the ‘North Pole’ by ice, and (a little shockingly on a first read) we begin at one remove from the familiar characters, the Swallows and Amazons, in the company of two newcomers, Dorothea and Dick Callum (The Two Ds). They are town children staying in the Lakes while their parents are away working on an archaeological dig.

But Ransome’s characterisations are always good and, in addition to the facets the new characters add in themselves, Dorothea in particular gives more depth to the texture of the narrative. You’re no longer as reader the only one staring into the amazing world of Nancy and the others. Dorothea is in the same position, a girl on the outside, fluently making up stories in her head but at the same time anxiously drawn to the adventures she sees the Swallows and Amazons living, and sensitively aware of the difficulties of joining in. In the first book of the series, the Swallows (John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker) met the Amazons (Nancy and Peggy Blackett) in robust equality and formed their friendship out of a battle. The Two Ds are less worldly, not so rough and ready—a polite, romantic girl and a bespectacled boy—and so the story becomes partly one about acceptance.

On the first morning of their holiday, the Ds watch the Swallows and Amazons from afar (simplified in their eyes to big girls and boys, and small, red caps and white caps) as they row to an island that we recognise as Wild Cat Island where they proceed to practice signalling. Seeing the six at home in the place changes Dorothea’s mood from one of happy exploration to a feeling of exclusion. Instantly a story starts in her head about a stranded brother and sister eating their last morsel in the wilderness. But scientifically minded Dick has a different relationship to the unknown.

‘What’s the good of thinking about them?’ said Dorothea. ‘They might as well be in some different world.’

Dick started so sharply that he almost dropped his telescope. ‘Why not? Why not?’ he said. ‘All the better. Just wait till dark and we can try signalling to Mars […] Of course they may not see it. And even if they do see it they may not understand. A different world. That makes it all the more like signalling to Mars.’

Dick is not like his sister anxious to be accepted by the others. He’s always absorbed by his preoccupations, whether geology, astronomy or ornithology. His focus is absolute. He often doesn’t even hear when he’s spoken to or takes a time of bewildered readjustment to emerge into the present. We learn that he can seem rude or abrupt through not comprehending that others aren’t as fascinated by his subjects as he is. Dorothea touchingly understands and defends him. A lot of her anxiety about being accepted is on Dick’s behalf, even while he is oblivious to those concerns.

Winter Holiday was published in 1933, meaning a diagnosis of Asperger’s was not possible because the diagnosis didn’t exist. It wasn’t until 1944 that autism was clinically described, Asperger’s the following year, so this is (or may be) Ransome’s fresh and direct observation of a way of being that at the time had no name and no formal delineation. That Dick is an Aspie is, of course, pure conjecture and entirely unverifiable. He strikes me as an Aspie (as for that matter does Mr Dixon, the silent farmer with whom Dick establishes a friendship) but it’s somewhere between poignant and exciting to find a possible in-the-wild account that is just in advance of the medical description.

In any case, I love the fact that the studious boy is in time fully integrated into the exuberant group (and Dorothea too, despite her concern). His ideas act as a fuel to others, as Dorothea muses:

You never knew with Dick. He always seemed to be bothering about birds, or stars, or engines, or fossils and things like that. He never was able to make up stories like those that came so easily to her, and yet, sometimes, in some queer way of his own, he seemed to hit on things that made stories and real life come closer together than usual.

Ransome’s stories have a different dynamic to those children’s books where a fantasy world of monsters, myth or magic is inhabited by deliberately ordinary characters. I’m thinking of Hogwarts here. In Ransome’s books, the children themselves are responsible for the imaginative transformation of their world. Of course, they are fortunate to have the English Lakes (or the Norfolk Broads in some books) as backdrop, and their absent or carefree parents are an asset too. But it’s the collective imagination of the group, driven by the rambunctious Nancy, that creates the adventures they live, whether they’re currently pirates, Arctic explorers, gold miners or Picts.

Here’s a quick example of something that happens so constantly it almost becomes invisible. The plan to reach the North Pole (actually the other end of Lake Windermere) needs a setting of wilderness but instead when they reach the ice they find adults have also rushed to the frozen lake, ‘They nearly turned back when they first saw the crowds […] The ice round the steamer pier and out beyond Long Island was black with skaters.’ It takes a few moments for one of the children to come up with the invention that rescues the expedition:

People were going about selling roasted chestnuts. Everywhere in the bay were skaters, flying along arm-in-arm, or singly, or turning in circles, figure-skating or dancing.

Never mind,’ Dorothea heard Titty say, ‘we can count them seals.’

It was the only thing to do. Unless they were to count all these hurrying, laughing, shouting, grown-up skaters as seals or walruses, or something like that, it would be impossible to make much of an Arctic out of the crowded ice.

It’s so simple and automatic but this matter-of-fact inventiveness is the key joy of the books, and the thing that stops them from just being tales about middle-class kids with sailing boats. As a contemporary reviewer of Swallows and Amazons (1930), Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, ‘The story of their adventures on a little island in the middle of an English lake is thrilling just because it is not fabulous […] It is make-believe such as all children have indulged in: even children who have not been so fortunate as to have a lake and a boat and an island but only a backyard amongst the semis of Suburbia.’) It’s imagination not as solitary but out in the open, spoken out loud, open to development, and energetic. Once planted, the suggestion grows so that before long the annoying adults actually add realism to the scene. Peggy takes up, and backdates, the idea: ‘The seals’ll just hang about the Eskimo settlements. They always do.’

I like the subtle way you feel the idea engage through the medium of Dorothea’s attention, ‘“Never mind,” Dorothea heard Titty say…’ There’s a little bump of surprise in that for Dorothea. Her own method would have been to begin a new story to accommodate her feelings about the blow to their plans. The Swallows and Amazons method instead adapts to keep the plan right on track.

I don’t want to give the plot away. There’s a plague, some subterfuge, a desperate rescue mission (two of these), and a near-death experience. I love the episode with the cragfast sheep (or Polar Bear) and the way it shows the distinctive characters of the Two Ds. Dick is incredibly brave and silences his fears by science, and it goes through my heart when Dorothea interprets the hammering she hears at night as the men making a coffin for the sheep. Spoiler at the foot of the blog. The book is more tightly structured than some of the others in the series, held together largely by the children’s semaphore, their use of Morse and signalling. Their messaging works brilliantly but it also provides the point of confusion that sets in motion the final dramatic dash for the North. In the last chapters, imaginary adventure becomes real danger and, as a result, ‘a million times better’, as Nancy exultantly claims.

If this blog survives my laziness, I’m slowly and intermittently going to review each and every one of these books. (You’ll be lucky if I don’t do them all twice.)

Promised Spoiler: the sheep survives

The Challenge of Simple Things

She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love;
A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the eye! –
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be, 
But she is in her grave, and, oh! 
The difference to me!

(William Wordsworth, She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways)

When I am most alive I can read this poem, which means that I often can’t read it at all. All that is left then is the memory of what it was like to understand it, a memory with no sense of what the poem really was. Then the ‘blank misgivings’ come and the poem seems to have nothing in it. This poem is representative of something that I have often come across in my own reading and in other readers of literature too, and that is the difficulty of reading what seems a simple poem. The obvious, particularly when given in a regular rhythm and rhyme, is often insurmountable. You either get it, or you don’t. And if you don’t get it, the apparent simplicity of the poems convinces you that there is nothing there. You stop reading and move on in search of more immediate complexity. 

This is what I do remember of the poem. 

At the heart of it (beginning in the second stanza but more strongly in the third) there is a big upheaval of meaning. It comes as the poet suddenly understands what it is that he is saying or where his meaning has brought him. It is the unpremeditated nature of this discovery of feeling for Wordsworth which gives the poem its centre and pivot. Of course when he started, he knew he was writing about Lucy and her death, but in the process of writing something else happened. He began with the relative importance of Lucy to him and other men; he ends with the absolute importance of Lucy for him, and this banishes all thought of comparison. The very status of the words changes so that at the end they are no longer collected or relative, instead they work unguardedly and plainly, in trust.

It is something to do with margins, a moment of transformation like that which happens in Magic Eye pictures when the eye just begins to catch the picture behind the surface patterns. A fracturing line, always a little out of view, starts before the wholesale visualisation, at a time when the attempt could go either way – at the point when you could see (say) an eagle driving from the sky, or else fall back into the patterns of wallpaper. There is no critical method because the parts will not lead to the whole. You have to get the whole, wholly, first of all, or there will be nothing. 

This is what happens in stanza 2: ‘A violet by a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye!’ At first you read ‘A violet by a mossy stone’ and see the flower in contrast, over-weighted by the larger stone. The stone is a marker, a mnemonic. So the poet looking for the violet on another day might find it sooner if he looks first for the stone. But the next line pulls away this sense of locating (‘by’) and turns it into concealment: ‘By a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye’. The stone is both evidence and concealment. And it gets worse. You read the stone as concealing the violet and this is the stronger meaning, but maybe it is the stone itself which is half-hidden from the eye, so the mnemonic itself is partially occluded. 

The impulse here belongs not with the separate elements or the distinct phases of their arrangement, but rather with the reorientations of view: this is the Magic Eye effect. The internal rhyme of ‘by’ – ‘Half-hidden from the eye’ gives an odd feeling of purpose, as if the inward act of recognition were being performed by the elements depicted as external. 

I can’t say if I’ve said what I mean, and even now it looks at once too complicated and yet not agile enough to say what has happened. The lines momentarily draw to a depth beyond the immediate, and in so doing they involve the reader in the mechanism of the poetic effect. This is the odd thing, that the poem which is markedly static (to do with place and memory) has most effect in movement, an effect that happens, unanticipated, suggesting a liveliness, a quality of change and force where none had been expected. This makes it poignant when we later find that ‘she is in her grave’. Then the marker stone gains a more sombre bearing, bringing to mind a headstone. 

The first stanza is the hardest to read because it offers so little difficulty. It opens like a ballad, telling the tale of a lost love. ‘She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways / Beside the springs of Dove’. ‘She’ is familiar, as if it could be no other she, despite the disuse of ‘untrodden ways’. ‘Ways’ too is a deeply familiar word, speaking of habit. This shows up clearly through thinking of the alternatives. He could have written ‘untrodden wastes’ and kept the rhyme nearly intact, or ‘untrodden hills’ or ‘paths’. ‘Paths’ would indeed be the closest semantic replacement, but had he written ‘paths’ something would have been lost. A path has physical presence (it is the track across the hill), but a ‘way’ is less than that physically – a possible or remembered route, a trace of the going. ‘Untrodden ways’ is a phrase which describes the poet’s memory as much as an actual landscape. Another word that is odd is ‘among’: ‘She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways’. It is striking in the midst of these untrodden ways. The paths are falling into neglect, and out of thought, so that it is deft and disturbing that Wordsworth seeks to clarify the ground between them. ‘Between’ would have had a different effect again, would make the reader more aware of the paths as defining lines. But ‘among’ is more than a situating word – it places her at the same time as admitting she could be busy or idle anywhere round here. This is where the first faintest flash of the poem comes, as the poet makes us realise the integrity and intimacy of a life beyond trace. 

Nevertheless it is the isolation of the girl that dominates the next lines. ‘A Maid whom there were none to praise / And very few to love.’ That he puts it this way around is strange. Love, the greater and the deeper state is surprisingly more often achieved than the lesser ‘praise’. Remoteness has deprived the girl of all but a few admirers but tacitly Wordsworth approves the priorities of isolation, its seriousness and its slowness. The distance between ‘none to praise’ and ‘very few to love’ opens up like the momentary flash of ‘among’ to suggest the nature of life for Lucy. 

The second stanza is confident: ‘A violet by a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye! – / Fair as a star when only one / Is shining in the sky’. It focuses on single elements, ‘a violet’, ‘a mossy stone’, ‘the eye’, ‘a star’, offering a crisp sense of definition and place. It is striking that in this brief poem there is so much topographical detail suggesting that a primary purpose of the poem is to guide. (Who? Where?) The violet by the stone and the star are signals set in a context of vacancy or hiddenness, so that the deprivation of view is part of their impact. 

Wordsworth risks misinterpretation. In each case the fragile, fleeting quality that the markers represent (beauty, shyness, isolation) is rivalled by the bare persistence of the signal. The apparent backhandedness of the compliment, ‘fair as a star when only one / Is shining in the sky’ does not mean that the star could not survive comparison. Rather the poet says ‘one / Is shining’; it shines like a beacon when all the others have failed to appear. Even though it is the only one, it is the finest of them all. This indomitability is evident too in the way that the whole scene inverts and shifts in stanza 2, moving from ground to sky, and from night to day while concentrating on the one individuality. The whole scene rotates about the point in an upheaval that the poem conveys with an extraordinary calm. The particularity of the terms within each context is thus thrown across a wider canvas, where the arrangements of violet and stone, or the chance of timing (‘when only one / Is shining…’) are correspondingly minute. Yet together they span a vast swirl of the horizon. The simple words and the offered sense of guidance are thus oddly queasy in effect. It is as if the poetry were naming the price of such security and the price is recklessly great. The price of security is turmoil. 

So there is a brief glimpse of the poem’s significance in the second stanza but it is in the third that it comes most strongly. The tone is more sober, more thoughtful, as if the poet is trying to make something plain to himself, ‘She lived unknown, and few could know…’ with a wondering cumbersomeness that contrasts with the stark chaos-daring confidence of the second stanza. But it is what comes next that changes everything:

She lived unknown, and few could know 
When Lucy ceased to be,  
But she is in her grave, and, oh!  
The difference to me!

It is a fundamental transformation. At first the poet concerned himself with external things (the violet, the star, the girl), but finally he is only aware of his own being. Suddenly, the poem gets an inward shock as though the death of Lucy (the poet’s sudden sharp sense of it) shocks him into presence. In stanza 1 he was there by implication only, in ‘untrodden’, ‘few’. He was barely more evident in the second stanza, glimpsed through his perceptions: ‘Half-hidden from the eye’. It is only in the final lines that he turns up in person. All the others fall away leaving only Lucy (named for the first time) and ‘me’. 

The balance of perspective, the pivot of the poem, is suddenly changed. ‘Oh’ becomes like the violet or the star before a new steady point at the centre of the universe, the absorbing, unshiftable idea around which all else will turn. It is more than the shift between day and night, ground and sky; between those two phases the sense of upheaval was left unremarked. Here the sense of disturbance is rife. Look at the word ‘difference’. How are we to compare that with the earlier words that gave expression to Lucy’s influence on those around her: to ‘know’, to ‘praise’, to ‘love’? Difference is too new perhaps to have a better name. 

What, if pressed to be explicit, would Wordsworth have said he meant by ‘difference’ – grief, loss, anguish, confusion, blankness, shock…? Yes, probably it would be a selection of these with a few additions. And when in time the emotion had grown older the varying states and waves of feeling would become more clear. But now, whatever it is, he can only call it (strongly, inadequately) ‘difference’. The word is as unwritten as ‘oh!’ and barely more developed. The thing that it is important to grasp here is that ‘difference’ does not describe a new balance or status quo established in the place of the old certainty. Rather it describes the active effect of change, the wholesale reorientation. The early sprig-like prettiness of the poem gives way to an absolute usurpation of idea, as the poem of sentiment turns to the issue of a man’s soul and his place in the universe. 

It troubles me when I can’t read this poem or persuade anyone to agree that there is greatness in it. But why should it matter? If it presents a simple face and nothing more, what is lost? In part the answer for me is personal. If there appears to be nothing in it then I have forgotten what I cannot recall. But the question is connected as well to the general question of how we read. An event must take place in the reader if the reading is to have effect. Without this event there is only the effort to untangle words and meanings, wondering all the time ‘why bother?’ If the event does take place then the poem starts to give itself. This is true (in the ideal) of all books and poems but it is most true of Wordsworth’s poetry, it seems to me, where the wholesale effect of recognition is vital, to convert words on the page from relative importance to full idea or feeling. 

On the face of it this is bleak. If a poem remains blank before your attention, then there is no arguing your way into it. You cannot by any effort of your own make that recognition happen. But I want to argue (plead) that it is possible to instil the mood or prepare the conditions in which that recognition is more likely to come. In proportion as they are great, poets write in trust, and this too is the way to read – with an open mind, vulnerably. In the Lucy poem, when the thought of her death breaks on him for real, that moment has the strongest effect: ‘But she is in her grave, and oh! / The difference to me!’ The tender and small word ‘her grave’ is the one that betrays him. This is ‘her’ place now. She no longer dwells among th’ untrodden ways. 

Why I am blogging

My head is a muddle of excited reactions to the books I’ve been reading recently to still my fears of the climate emergency and to redirect energy to positive ends. Jason Hickel, Antonio Damasio, Jeremy Lent, Fritjof Capra, George Monbiot, Eric Holthaus. That’s where I’ve been. It’s a crash course in planetary survival. I’m not a scientist but the clarity of the systems theory writers in particular feels curiously energising and useful.

It feels like getting my feet properly on the ground.

So I wanted a blog to explore this stuff in a purposeful way but also to put this new (for me) questioning alongside the literary fiction and poetry that have always been a source of nourishment and simple pleasure.

I don’t believe there is escapism in reading, not even if you’ve picked up a many-times-read children’s book for the comfort of it. You may read to get away from a troubling thought—and reading really is a great release—but frequently the old preoccupations are waiting for you in the story in a transmuted form. What the fictional world does is to give enough good forgetfulness and distance from yourself for the ‘stuff’ to emerge with a cleaner energy.

There you are then: my dual purpose is to rely both on the precision of the climate scientists and the leaps of creative forgetfulness you get with stories and poetry. No contradiction there at all!