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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Seeing the first light

By the Babe Unborn

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

G.K. Chesterton

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This poem is one of those which shows that Chesterton had a wonderful gift for seeing things from different points of view ; through different eyes ; and with different minds.  He had an acute understanding human nature.  Even his more adventurous speculations have the ring of truth about them which make us feel that, even if they are not quite true, they ought to be.  They are like the sympathetic wishes of a child, as yet un-wearied by experience.

Here he looks at the world through the inner eyes of a yet-to-be-born child.

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It’s  interesting how marriage can change a young man’s mind for the better, and sometimes to his complete surprise.  It is as if a thousand thoughts, neglected and unspoken in the careless days of bachelorhood, silently combine in wonderful ways to produce new understandings of the world ; which then make themselves known step by step.

This process, of unconscious thinking, has a name given by psychologists : they call it latent learning.  Of course, psychologists, being of a cautious disposition, presume that all the unconscious knowledge we have has been previously learned at a younger age, from the time of birth ; there are few now who are so bold as to presume that individuals might have knowledge that they brought with them into this world, or knowledge that they might have acquired directly mind from mind.

These thoughts were going through my mind recently as I was re-reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a book I first read when our first daughter was on her way into the world.  For reasons I could not have been fully aware of, I began to take an interest in what was to me a somewhat alien world – the world of myth and legend, of allegory and fable.  And, to my surprise, through that master story-teller I discovered the importance of these genres ; and their essential truths.  Much more was to follow in the coming years.

Most people now know, I think, that Tolkien wrote his great book in order to fill a gap ; a gap so obvious that no-one seemed to have noticed it ; or, if they had noticed it, they felt unable or unwilling to fill it.  What was missing was a truly Anglo-Saxon grand myth.  True, there was Beowulf, but however fine that was, it made but a small contribution to our heritage and was of limited scope.

On my first reading these aims of Tolkien quickly drifted far from my mind.  That was because I was so enchanted by the story, so drawn in to the adventure, that I forgot completely the wider aims of the author.  And that was just it ought to have been ; for no successful story was ever written merely to be an exemplar of a  genre ; a mere literary exercise.

And who can doubt the success of The Lord of the Rings?  And who can doubt the essential and eternal truths it first embodies and then expresses?  Who does not, at some point and to some extent, identify with each and every character in the tale?  Whether you be woman or man, you will sympathise with Eowyn in her dilemmas.  Also with Aragorn in his dangers and toils ; with Gandalf in his mighty hopes and fears.  And we can even identify with Sauron in his striving for mastery over all things both living and unliving.  And who needs reminding of hobbits?

In myth there is a hidden power.  It is the power to stir those obscured thoughts that come to the light of consciousness only when stimulated by some mysterious power that is latent in the very words we use.  If myth were mere fantasy then our rational minds would dismiss it on first sight, and by this stage of our evolution, myth would simply not exist.  But, although a myth may contain elements of fantasy, it is not those elements which stick in our minds and touch our hearts.  And that is why true myths are ageless and enduring.  That is why they adhere to our language.  That is why all successful novels are based on traditional myths.  That is why myths appear and reappear in all our arts and sciences.

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Bright the World

Bright the World

You asked me where the light, that springs anew
Each lovely morning of the world, is born.
But ready answer had I none to view ;
My mind so misted, thoughtless and forlorn
That I was sightless to the inner ‘scape
Where sense and reason meet to make a blend
Of that which cannot else be given shape.
How oft do our inquiries sadly end !
And yet necessity impels us all
To seek illumination at its source ;
It’s been so ever since our shameful fall,
When destiny near lost its holy course.
Had insight been in darkness left, unfurled,
How seek the Love and Mind that brights the world?

 Jamie MacNab 19 September 2011

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Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold… The realm of the fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things : all manner of beasts and birds are found there ; shoreless seas and stars uncounted ; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril ; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (Tolkien)

JRR Tolkien was, by common consent, a master in the telling of tales. Also he was a leading expert on the history of the mediaeval English ; of Middle Earth, in fact. For what is The Shire, if not a rendering of mediaeval, essentially Saxon, England as it ought to have been – peaceful, joyful, gently prosperous and merrymaking ; a place where people (despite their petty squabbling) minded their own business and worked for the common weal and their own modest gains?

But The Shire is not Faerie ; at least, not to the hobbits. Faerie is to be found outside The Shire ; not far, but outside, nevertheless. And there in the old forest, to meet Tom Bombadil and Goldberry is to be in Faerie. Note that to meet Tom on one of his many visits to the inns and homes in The Shire is not to see him as of the Other World ; he is quite ordinary (if eccentric) on these visits.

No, to meet the real Tom Bombadil, you must enter his realm. And it is not enough merely to pass through the tunnel at Buckland and into the old forest ; nor is it enough merely to row or paddle up the Withywindle where it flows into the Brandywine river. Even to meet the white swan or the blue kingfisher is not enough ; and merely sheltering under the weeping fronds of the willow is insufficient. To meet the real Tom, to enter Faerie, you must be invited – even if you do not know that you have been invited.

And, once in Faerie, one must be careful in thought, word and deed ; for things are only rarely what they seem to be.

Old and young

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It goes without saying that war is never pleasant, and yet history from the earliest times and in all places is very largely the story of wars.  Such is the testimony to the nature of Man.  It is a wonder that the more-or-less peaceful civilisations ever got off the ground.

And yet they did get going and they even flourished to produce wonderful works in all the arts – building, literature and music – to name only three.  But it seems to me that all civilisations have been martial, even when refined ; and their soldiers were looking two ways : outwardly to deter foreign aggression : inwardly to deter dissent.  Just as amidst life there is death, so amidst peace there is armed force.  Much can be written about why this was so ; and much also about the periods of exception.

Given the polarity that exists in Man’s nature – the willingness to fight and the desire for peace, it is perhaps not surprising that poets and playwrights have tried to capture the dilemma.  And not only capture it, but to tame it, not least in the imagination.  Thus it is that we have some wonderful literature to meditate upon.  And it seems to me that the best came out of those violent times of wild kings and ambitious princes – the Middle Ages.

Here’s a piece by Chaucer in which he maintains the tradition of encouraging people to think always of talking themselves up towards becoming more peaceful, honourable and honest with themselves.  Literature like this must have acted as a continual persuasion which, over many centuries, did lead to the general improvement in us.  This kind of writing is far from unique in those days.

As Saint Augustine said, “To become the person you want to be, you must first pretend to be that person.”

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthynesse.
At Alisaundre he was whan it was wonne.
Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in Pruce ;
In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce,
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.

Geoffrey Chaucer

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Possibly one of the most poignant poems ever written in English.  It is one of those meditations where archaisms, such as thee and thine, are indispensable ; without them, the sheer intimacy evaporates and the thoughts become mere platitudes – as in so many modern poems.  Here the poet is doing her job, as did her great predecessors.  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth ( to name only a few) rescued many fine words from oblivion and breathed new life into them ; and they are with us today.

Remembrance

COLD in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Sever’d at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart for ever, ever more?

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers
From those brown hills have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lighten’d up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But when the days of golden dreams had perish’d,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy;
Then did I learn how existence could be cherish’d,
Strengthen’d and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Wean’d my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

Emily Bronte

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When I was a lad Kenneth McKellar was well on the road to fame and fortune ; he even appeared on the B&W television.  I have to say that at that time I did not think too highly of him, but only because is voice seemed unsuited to folk songs.  Teenagers expect rustic songs to be, well, rustic ; rough around the edges at least.  But McKellar’s voice was crystal-clear and his articulation faultless.  He sounded more like an opera tenor than a country swain a-coming through the rye or reeling about at Mairi’s weddin’.  I never bought even one of his discs, even when I had deserted into the RAF and could have afforded to.  He just wasn’t right for the job.

One thing I did not know about him then was that he had, indeed, trained as an opera singer.  And a personage no less great than Sir Adrian Boult (if I remember aright) had declared him to be the best singer of Handel the twentieth century had produced.  Forget your Pavarottis et al – McKellar was into the popular scene and courting the plebs long before them.  He abandoned opera only because he hated the travelling involved.

I have no wish to sound dangerous, but it was just a week or two before McKellar died that I was browsing the net for Scottish music that I came across a host of his old vinyl discs now being offered on CD.  So I invested in some.  I hope I was not being prescient.

And what a delight his singing is!  What a pleasure to listen to his masterly control of voice.  What an idiot I had been to have failed to appreciate all this when I was young.  If you go on to YouTube, I’m sure you will find some of his music and see what I mean.  If not, why not go to Amazon (as I did) and take the buying plunge.

And he was not only into Scottish songs – the English and Irish are all there, too ; and he does charming duets with Patricia Cahill, singing Ae fond kiss and This is my lovely day.  Among the delights, I found him singing that quintessentially English song, Greensleeves (which I recall learning in Primary School).  If Henry VIII really did write this, then I reckon his lost lass had a lucky escape ; if only because, in light of what we now know of Hal’s love life, some of the sentiments are … um … slightly chilling.  I mean, what was going through his mind when he wrote, “Alas my love, you do me wrong/to cast me off discourteously…”  One can hear the sharpening of axes.

Greensleeves

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Chorus:

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you’ve broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.

chorus

I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.

chorus

If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.

chorus

My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

chorus

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
But still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

chorus

Well, I will pray to God on high,
That thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.

chorus

Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.

Chorus

By Henry VIII (maybe)

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