“I have only once encountered pure evil in a person”: Auden on Yeats

Auden’s “In Memory of W B Yeats” is a great tribute poem, especially the closing lines:

Follow, poet, follow right

To the bottom of the night,

With your unconstraining voice

Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Reading the poem, one may or may not be surprised to read of Auden’s ambivalence about Yeats, in this fascinating talk by Mike Douse to the Yeats Society in Sligo:

I sum up the complex and often contradictory nature of Auden’s perception of Yeats in the term, ‘vehement ambiguity’. This is an extreme example of a love/hate relationship, a more intense variety of the equivocal and fluctuating interactions that often exist between artists. WH’s feelings towards WB were complex, confusing, and contradictory. The elegy, which we shall shortly focus upon, contrasts sharply with many of WH’s expressed opinions of WB, such as: “Yeats spent the first part of his life as a minor poet, and the second part writing major poems about what it had been like to be a minor poet”; or his considered view that the version of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse edited by Yeats was “the most deplorable volume ever issued”; or, even more pointedly, “I have only once encountered pure evil in a person, and that was when I met Yeats”.

And yet Auden praised Yeats as the saviour of English lyric poetry and noted in a 1948 essay entitled ‘Yeats as an Example’ that he “… accepted the modern necessity of having to make a lonely and deliberate choice of the principles and presuppositions in terms of which [he made] sense of his experience.” Auden assigned Yeats the high praise of having written “some of the most beautiful poetry” of modern times. In that article he credited Yeats with transforming the occasional poem in English from an official performance of impersonal virtuosity, such as Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington,” into a serious reflective poem having at once personal and public interest; and he identified Yeats’s elegy for Robert Gregory as “something new and important in the history of English poetry…”.

But as the thirties wore on, Auden’s admiration for Yeats as poet was tempered by his dislike for his perception of Yeats’s fondness for the trappings of aristocracy and his flirtation with O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. In the second half of his life Auden developed an almost obsessive fear of the danger of Yeats’s kind of outlook, and much of the story of Auden’s development as a poet after 1940 is also the story of his struggle to exorcise the persistent spirit of Yeats: his hardening of the conviction that the greatest threats to individual freedom in the modern world were a direct legacy of the Romantic outlook upon which Yeats prided himself.

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“The World Is Everything That Is The Case” – a sentence analysed by Jeff Dolven

From The Paris Review:

In our new eight-part series, Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven will take apart and put back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence every week. Tom Toro will illustrate each sentence Dolven chooses.

The first sentence is the opening sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “The World Is Everything That is the Case” (which I was more familiar with as “the world is all that is the case”:

Nonetheless, embarking on what will be a set of eight meditations on the sentence—what it is, what it can be for or about—I’ll propose one purpose that all sentences have in common. The purpose of a sentence is to end. If this is a property of all sentences, any ought to do for an example, but here is one particularly determined to be done with itself:

1 The world is everything that is the case.

It comes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as translated from German into English by C. K. Ogden in 1922. Beginning, as it does, with a capital letter (let’s ignore the number for the moment), and ending with a period, it advertises its own completeness. The completeness is grammatical: there is a subject and a verb, the minimum conditions, then a predicate nominative, and then a simple relative clause. It is also complete rhetorically, with the double “is” almost suggesting a palindrome, folding neatly in the middle. You could just about read it backward as well as forward. That wouldn’t be a good idea logically, but it asserts a certain self-containedness, a certain autonomy, which a sentence is supposed to have.

Autonomy: says who? Aristotle, for one, in his Rhetoric, where he says that a sentence is a complete thought. The definition has been repeated often since, by philosophers and English teachers, though really it only pushes the question back into the darkness of the mind. What is a complete thought? Why should a thought be complete? Why should a sentence mirror that completeness? Surely it is possible to imagine speech as a continuous self-narration, flowing through everybody’s works and days as a song for the stream of consciousness. Might that song not be truer to mental life? In a world without sentences, we could talk to one another in fluent duets, like they do in operas, or even interlock our words like gamelan players. Might not that world be a happier world to live in? We might kiss continuously, too, long, soundness embraces mouth to mouth, without the constant suction-punctuation of each discrete detachment, all those little betrayals to repair.

Versions of Alcman’s “Sleep”

At First Known When Lost, Stephen Pentz collects some versions of fragmentary lines by the Spartan lyric poem Alcman. This fragment was used by Edgar Allan Poe for the epigraph of his story Silence: A Fable.

Here are the selections from First Known When Lost:

The mountain-summits sleep, glens, cliffs and caves,
Are silent — all the black earth’s reptile brood —
The bees — the wild beasts of the mountain wood;
In depths beneath the dark red ocean’s waves
Its monsters rest, whilst wrapt in bower and spray
Each bird is hush’d that stretch’d its pinions to the day.

Alcman (translated by Thomas Campbell), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995). The poem was originally published in 1821 in The New Monthly Magazine.

Night

The far peaks sleep, the great ravines,
The foot-hills, and the streams.
Asleep are trees, and hivèd bees,
The mountain beasts, and all that dark earth teems,
The glooming seas, the monsters in their deeps:
And every bird, its wide wings folded, sleeps.

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938). Wade-Gery added the title “Night” to the fragment.

The mountain-tops are asleep, and the mountain-gorges,
Ravine and promontory:
Green leaves, every kind of creeping things
On the breast of the dark earth, sleep:
Creatures wild in the forest, wandering bees,
Great sea-monsters under the purple sea’s
Dark bosom, birds of the air with all their wings
Folded, all sleep.

Alcman (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge University Press 1907).

Vesper

Now sleep the mountain-summits, sleep the glens,
The peaks, the torrent-beds; all things that creep
On the dark earth lie resting in their dens;
Quiet are the mountain-creatures, quiet the bees,
The monsters hidden in the purple seas;
And birds, the swift of wing,
Sit slumbering.

Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951). Lucas added the title “Vesper.”

I found another version on the Poetry Foundation site
:

A Version of Alcman’s (fl. 630 BCE) “Sleep” poem . . .
BY JOHN KINSELLA
Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs and crawlers fed by the dark earth;
Dormant are wild animals and that tribe of bees
And monsters out of the sea’s dark syntax;
Dormant are clans of birds with wings that envelop.

The Campbell translation seems to be the dominant one on the internet, but there is this whose provenance I am trying to track down:

Slumbering are the mountains, crest and chasm,
Ravine and precipice,
And every creeping thing on the earth’s dark breast,
Beasts in their forest lairs and the tribes of the bees,
And monsters within the depths of the purple seas:
Slumbering too are the birds
Their swift wings laid to rest.

(UPDATE – it is a translation by R C Trevelyan from The Bride of Dionysus, A Music Drama, And Other Poems

If you followed the link to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Silence” you would note that the epigraph is worded slightly differently to any of these versions (well, only the Campbell could possible have been used by Poe)

The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags and caves are silent

I cannot trace the rest of this translation, perhaps Poe’s own?

Alcman (sometimes transliterated as Alkman) is known only from fragments – this page collects these fragments. These particular lines come from Apollonius’ Homeric Lexicon:

Apollonius Homeric Lexicon :
Some writers give the name of beast to lions, leopards, wolves, and all similar animals, that of creeping-thing generically to the various kinds of snakes, that of monster to cetaceans such as whales; which is the distinction made by Alcman in the lines:

Alseep lie mountain-top and mountain-gully, shoulder also and ravine; the creeping-things that come from the dark earth, the beasts whose lying is upon the hillside, the generation of the bees, the monsters in the depths of the purple brine, all lie asleep, and with them, the tribes of the winged birds.

Finally, a few years ago the poet Sherod Santos published his own translations of Ancient Greek Lyric poetry, evidently a rather loose one from the poet of view of the text. This attracted the opprobium of the critic Gary WIlis and a defence by Rosanna Warren. From Warren’s defence:

Occasionally, Santos’s delight in the poems, coupled with his lack of feel for Greek, can lead to inflated phrasing. It is an effect of generosity, of ebullience, and it overruns the economy essential to Greek lyric beauty. Yet in most of these cases Santos has not betrayed the originals so much as amplified them in his imagination. So in Alcman’s fragment about the sleeping creatures of the night, Santos expands the landscape to include “the low scrub thickets and the riverine glades” and several other features absent from the original, and concludes in a lush line of summation (“all are asleep in the depthless conjuring of that sound”), whereas Alcman ended simply with the long-winged birds. Why begrudge the modern poet his riff? It has its own beauty, and Alcman’s birds survive.

Warren goes on to write:

It is not as if Sappho & Co. had fared so very well in the classicizing centuries. Each era imposes its own poetic conventions and inventions upon the classics. Sappho’s first appearance in English, in 1652 in John Hall’s version of her famous “Phainetai moi” (“He seems to me equal to the gods”), traded in all the clinical specificities of the Greek for sausage links of clichés (“sweet languors to my ravish’d heart”) far worse than Santos’s occasional indulgences. And if one traces the history of that poem in English, one finds betrayal after betrayal.

Santos is not a classicist. He does not know Greek. But his poems plucked from the Greek Anthology have more vitality, strength, and delicacy than a good number of so-called original works that cram the pages of our magazines these days. Why not be grateful?

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

From James Common’s blog, an extract from a fascinating sounding book whose themes seem to chime with my own interests. I particularly found this passage resonant:

‘Silence’ is a fascinating word. At a very simple level it can be taken to mean the absence of sound, or at least the absence of noise that is intrusive or irritating. But this is misleading. Silence is not an absence of sound but as Sara Maitland puts it in her Book of Silence, it is a ‘positive presence… Perhaps it is a real, actual thing’. It is rather more difficult to say just what it is that is present.

Certainly, as I sat on the grass above Craigaig Bay, I was reaching outward with my listening as if seeking to touch something elusive and fragile: the call of the birds, the whisper of the wind; maybe even the trace of the now-absent sounds of those people who once lived here. Maybe I was reaching into the gaps between the sounds, to hear that which was occluded. Sometimes I felt I was also trying to reach behind those present and past sounds to a sense of an underlying cosmic silence, maybe to what the ancient ones called the music of the spheres.

But the silence was also about me. It was about a certain quality of mind and attention. Sara Maitland describes ‘an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space’. This ‘rich space’ certainly is one that is stilled, relatively emptied of internal chatter and self-absorption. But it is nevertheless awake, alert, full of imaginative response to my surroundings.

“Why do you go sailing on your own?” people often ask me. I usually reply that the presence of other humans seems to demand conversation, and however attractive that is, it fills the rich space of internal quiet and overwhelms the possibility of opening to the underlying silence of the world.

So while silence is a positive space, it is a space that opens only when ‘I’ am no longer filling it. By ‘I’, I mean in particular my self-importance and self-concern, my attachment to my own purposes, all of which create a deafening internal ‘noise’. Silence, in the extended, positive sense of the word, seems to arise when external ‘quiet’—the absence of intrusive noise—meets an internal quietude. This meeting is a delicate place: the external quiet may be unexpectedly disrupted, as my encounter with the helicopters suggests; my quietude is continually threatened by egoic concerns. This is the kind of silence prized, according to Barry Lopez, by the Tukano Indians of Brazil when they speak in praise of ‘The Quiet’: a ‘realm of life that could not be sensed until one overcame the damage done to perception by long exposure to inescapable noise.

James Common

If, like me, you are an avid consumer of natural history based literature, you will surely love the below extract from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace – An ecological pilgrimage. The book is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author in his small yacht, Coral, from the south of England and round the west coast of Ireland, to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage: the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth, and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence and of fragility.


Out of the church and through the creaking gate I chose the pathway that led high over the centre of the island and, I hoped, toward my original destination. After climbing through muddy woodland to the open hilltops I looked down…

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Appreciating nature in the 6th Century: From “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius

It is sometimes argued that an argument often made that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial societies. It is implied that nature is something that intellectuals and city folk appreciate – not people living in times where survival is more of a struggle.

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One contra example is the nature poetry of the Irish monks which Flann O’Brien wrote about for his MA Thesis. Another seems to be this passage from Boethius (obviously an elite source, but nevertheless a contra example to the idea that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial society alone:

Perhaps, again, you find pleasure in the beauty of the countryside. Creation is indeed very beautiful, and the countryside a beautiful part of creation. In the same way we are sometimes delighted by the appearance of the sea when it’s very calm and look up with wonder at the sky, the stars, the moon and the sun.

(trans. Victor Watts

The passage in the context of The Consolation of Philosophy implies that these are common sentiments of the time. It goes on to somewhat throw cold water on consolation from the natural world:

However, not one of these has anything to do with you, and you daren’t take credit for the splendour of any of them. The fact that flowers blossom in spring confers no distinction on you, and the swelling fullness of the autumn harvest is no work of yours. You are, in fact, enraptured with empty joys, embracing blessings that are alien to you as if they were your own. I ask you, why? For Fortune can never make yours what Nature has made alien to you. Of course the fruits of the land are appointed as food for living beings; but if you wish only to satisfy your needs – and that is all Nature requires – there is no need to seek an excess from Fortune. Nature is content with few and little: if you try to press superfluous additions upon what is sufficient for Nature, your bounty will become sickening if not harmful.

Of course, quite aprat from responding to this passage int he context of the book and of the philosophy fo the time, one could ask whether “nature is content with few and little” is in fact a reasonable reason to give for deriving consolation from it.

boethius
Via Philosophers.co.uk

‘British Army Gothic and Innocent Landscapes’ : The Troubles in Photographs (review of”The Maze”, Donovan Wylie, Nthposition, 2004)

‘British Army Gothic and Innocent Landscapes’ : The Troubles in Photographs (review of”The Maze”, Donovan Wylie, Nthposition, 2004)

(Nthposition seems to be no longer live, so the text is recovered from this blog and photos from Wylie’s book are reproduced here.)

“The Maze”
by Seamus Sweeney
Nth Position Book Reviews

Review of:
The Maze
Donovan Wylie
Granta, 2004

Prisons often have strangely poetic names. Think of Strangeways in Manchester or Parchman in Mississippi, think of Sing Sing or Spandau. Even Wormwood Scrubs has an evocative ring – the juxtaposition of the Book of Revelations book Wormwood and an image of the mundane labour of scrubbing. Some prisons display reverse nominative determination – Mountjoy in Dublin is anything but joyful. But no prison that I know of has as apt a name as The Maze near Belfast.

I had always assumed “The Maze” was so called because it was literally a maze, a medieval sounding fortress-prison. In fact, the townland on which the prison was built was known as “An Má” – the plain – as Gaeilge, which became “The Maze” over time. Yet the Maze is exactly that. Like something out of a Borges story, the building is deliberately designed to baffle and confuse. Entering the world of Donovan Wylie’s photographs is to enter a world of “steriles” and “inertias” – open spaces, the former a stone surfaced space designed to immobilise the prisoners, the latter a void running immediately along the wall of the prison designed to detect any movements near the seventeen-foot high perimeter wall. It’s a world of roads that are almost all cul-de-sacs, where any one point in the prison looks exactly the same as sundry other points.

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Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. H-Block 5. Excercise Yard B. 2003 photo by Donovan Wylie via http://we-make-money-not-art.com/donovan_wylie_vision_as_power/

The Maze, from the evidence of Wylie’s photographs, was and is a prime example of a distinctive architecture those familiar with the Northern Ireland landscape will instantly recognise. The watchtowers, many now dismantled but many still present across the landscape, the courthouses and police stations surrounded by high walls and enmeshed in barbed wire – British Army Gothic, it could be called. For many who didn’t have to actually live there (and, I suspect, not a few of those who did) the apparatus of militarisation gave driving through the North a certain frisson of excitement. It was part of what made Northern Ireland distinct, and for this Free Stater, part of the sense of the place not being the same as Galway or Cork. There was a certain heaviness in the air, palpable at the sight of one of these inscrutable structures. Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism that Northern Ireland was as British as her constituency Finchley was widely ridiculed, but to call it as Irish as Spiddal or Mullingar betrays an even tinnier ear to the unique atmosphere of the Six Counties/Ulster/Northern Ireland.

As that last splurge of strokes indicates, it’s almost impossible to write about the wider topic of Northern Ireland for any length without betraying yourself – I use the word “betraying” judiciously. One’s allegiances are revealed in the very terms used to describe the Troubles/conflict/armed struggle/security situation. Even the attempt to be linguistically neutral will probably alienate both sides more than anything else.

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Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. Inertia Stage 2. 2003 Photo by Donovan Wylie via http://we-make-money-not-art.com/donovan_wylie_vision_as_power/

Dr Louise Purbrick, Senior Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, provides a clear-sighted essay on the photographs that manages, on the whole, to avoid the partisan traps language sets for the unwary (although – here’s the inevitable “although”) her account of the start of the “Troubles” is a bit simplistic. Like a lot of penological literature, there’s a strange void in Purbrick’s essay – no mention of what the prisoners had actually done to end up in jail. One almost feels a deus ex machina has deposited them there.

Purbrick is strong on the history of the Maze, and the thinking in prison construction and design that underlay its conception. The Maze was built in 1976, beside the existing internment camp of Long Kesh. The paradox was that to enforce the end of special category status for paramilitary prisoners, a special prison had to be used. The Maze was unique in British prisons in that it was a complete maximum security institution – elsewhere in the UK, the policy of ‘dispersal’, incarcerating high security prisoners in Special Security Units scattered throughout the prison system, had been in place since the Sixties and continues to be. Housing prisoners in separate cells, as opposed to the dormitories of Long Kesh, was expected to break up group loyalties.

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Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. Chapel, Phase 3. 2003. Photo by Donovan Wylie via We Make Money Not Art site (see link above)

The H-blocks which became part of the iconography of the Troubles were prefabricated concrete units whose shape was dictated by economy rather than any aspiration to symbolise anything. The advent of prefabrication in prison architecture could even be seen as part of the International Modernist glorification of functionality over traditional ideals of form. If Le Corbusier felt a house was a machine for living in, prefabricated prisons were machines for incarcerating people in. Built by the Royal Engineers, the Maze is British Army Gothic Triumphant – Wylie describes how the walls initially appear entirely grey, such is the volume of barbed wire around them.

The Hunger Strikes of the early Eighties (there were two major ones, the second during which Bobby Sands and ten others died, and a less well known strike in 1980) and the dirty protests, as well as creating a potent Republican martyrology and searing the H-block into Irish consciousness, ultimately ended the debate on special status. Purbrick cites the Chief Inspector of Prisons during this later phase in the conflict that “there is no point in pretending that it is a normal prison.”

Wylie’s photographs both gain and lose something for being taken when the Maze was unoccupied. There’s an eerie, JG Ballardian atmosphere to the photos of vast institutional structures now disused. There is little difference between the inertias and steriles, and indeed navigating the photographs becomes disorientating – have I been here before, one asks, even while turning the pages. This is a hint of the derealisation that the Maze itself must have provoked.

The pictures of now-empty cells, their flowery curtains the one hint of lively colour in the book, again strike one largely with their sameness. But how much of this is the sameness of institutional buildings – from hospitals to schools to barracks back to prisons – anywhere? How much of our reaction to these photos is their presumed context – was this cell wall covered in excrement, did a hunger striker lie on this bed? In these images, life is drained out- but is it because the prison is empty or because of the nature of the building itself?

The images are reminiscent of David Farrell’s Innocent Landcapes (published in book form in 2001). In 1999, after the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims’ Remains) Bill was passed in the Commons declaring an amnesty to help the identification and location of the remains of those “disappeared” during the Troubles, six locations were identified where eight people had been buried after being murdered by the IRA. Their fate and the location of their bodies had been unknown to their families since the Seventies. Farrell’s photographs were pastoral landscapes, with the unmistakable signs of a forensic search for a body discreetly in the middle distance, like a shepherd in a Poussin painting. Hannah Arendt’s thinking on the banality of evil are often discussed, but Wylie and Farrell portray the banality of much else that we think of with fear and trembling – the banal reality of maximum security and of murder and hidden burial respectively. Wylie and Farrell complement each other in other ways – Wylie portrays the architectural embodiment of the state’s forceful authority, while Farrell shows us the smiling hills where the IRA forcefully asserted its authority. (edit in 2017 – Farrell continued his project beyond the time this review was written, see here)

innocentlandscapes
Image from Innocent Landscapes, David Farrell, via http://www.galleryofphotography.ie/innocent-landscapes-by-david-farrell-010101-010201/

The Maze now lies empty, closed since October 2003. A public process of consultation is ongoing as to its fate – the interested can visit the site at New Future for the Maze. Predictably, there is a sectarian edge to the various proposals – museum, suburban centre, stadium – for its future. Wylie’s photographs may be closest we will get to simply leaving the Maze intact, neither the burden of interpretative centres with a no doubt contentious interpretation nor the simple erasure of history, but simply leaving it as it is.

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Innocent Landscapes, Resumed search, Oristown, March, 2011 from http://source.ie/blog/?p=1659

“Something terrifying and majestic at the same time” – From “Broken April’, Ismail Kadare

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Without the knocking at the door, everything would be so different that at times he was afraid to think of it, and he consoled himself with the notion that perhaps it had to happen this way, and that if life outside the whirlpool of blood might perhaps be more peaceful, by the same token it would be even more dull and meaningless. He tried to call to mind families that were not involved in the blood feud, and he found no special signs of happiness in them. It even seemed to him that, sheltered from danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that. Whereas clans that were in the blood feud lived in a different order of days and seasons, accompanied as it were by an inner tremor; the people were more handsome, and the young men were in favour with the women. Even the two nuns who had first passed, when they had seen the black ribbon sewn to his sleeve that meant he was searching for his death or that his death was searching for him, and looked at him strangely. But that was not the important things; what was happening within him was the important thing. Something terrifying and majestic at the same time. He could not have explained it. He felt that his heart had leaped from this chest, and, opened up in that way, he was vulnerable, sensitive to everything, so that he might rejoice in anything, be cast down by anything, small or large, a butterfly, a leaf, boundless snow, or the depression rain falling on that very day. But all that – and the sky itself might fall down upon him – his heart endured, and could endure even more.