Thursday, May 03, 2012
Binding a joy
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
This verse of William Blake is never far from me, internalised, imprinted upon my unconscious, and a work in progress. There is joy in being alive; breathing fresh air; having an intact functioning body; being usually not oppressed by worry and misfortune; being in community with my own species and with all of Nature, I mean the rest of Nature, for I am of a piece with it, a fully-working part of a continuum, a functioning whole. My nature is to touch joy and cherish it, take it to my bosom. Still, it’s not enough. There is the urge to capture and preserve this joy, to share it, to find words to preserve its form and colour for posterity. As if it wasn’t going to last, as if I should store up the surplus grain in case of lean years to come; in case somehow there is a shortage of this joy. Well, everyone thinks there is a shortage. The evidence is everywhere, like a drought; interspersed with the odd flash flood.
I’m pretty sure that when Blake wrote the words, he too was struggling with the meaning of what he said. As a poet, he wanted to take that joy, both its presence and its absence, and fix it, bottle it, like essential oils fixed within a perfume. That’s what poets do. And if ever a poet glimpsed eternity’s sunrise, and said which way to look for it, and felt the pain of what stands in the way, in the heart of men, in society, in the cheapening of humanity brought by the industrial revolution—William B was in that number.
How do you bind to yourself a joy? We all know the materialistic ways: the sweat of your brow, the cunning of your brain accumulated into money and property. We give thanks for these, for human life is fragile. We know all the traps. But I like to give those lines the most literal reading possible. When I try to capture the image of a butterfly or bird, the moment I expose my camera lens in its direction, it flies off. The photo above was an exception. Insects are sluggish in cool weather. This one wanted to rest its wings on the brick wall, was very reluctant to move. But why would I want to photograph these winged creatures anyway? I can get any number of such pictures on the Net. Maybe it’s a displacement of the hunting instinct. Is this “binding to yourself a joy”?
I do normally take a camera when I go on a walking trip, but most important is a voice recorder, so I can capture as best I can any sensation, feeling or thought. It’s so difficult, though. The sum total of all the inputs, the complete specification of my sense of now, comes all jumbled together in a second; and it cannot be held static and coded into words, because the next second something else happens. Why do I want to codify it into words anyhow? Well, words are more versatile, quicker and easier to learn than painting in water-colours for example. The camera never even captures what I see with these two eyes. All it does is jog the memory, like one’s soliloquy into a voice recorder. That little device is useful for birdsong, too. They’re all souvenirs, little reminders of the atmosphere to take away, and write about, and leave as illegible scrawls in my notebook, abandoned.
I guess what I’m talking about is an important part of the poet’s skill-set. Wordsworth wrote about it in quite a technical fashion: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity”. Perhaps he returned from his outings in the Lake District with little mementoes, such as a freshly picked wildflower: “A violet by a mossy stone, Half hidden from the eye, Fair as a star, when only one Is shining in the sky”. Or he would take along a notebook and pen: not easy, for the fountain-pen had not been invented, and even the steel nib was scarcely known. Perhaps he used a pencil. Graphite was first discovered in the Lake District. I found a link here to a poem he scratched with a slate pencil on a stone: STRANGER! this hillock of mis-shapen stones Is not a Ruin spared or made by time, Nor, as perchance thou rashly deem'st,
etc etc; but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his normal modus operandi.
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. He did in fact die in a foreign field, aged 27, of an infected mosquito bite, and was buried in an olive grove on his way to fight in Gallipoli, in 1915.
Two years earlier, he took a trip to Canada and saw the Niagara Falls, writing about them in letters sent to the Westminster Gazette, from which I wrest the following excerpt:
Sit close down by it, and you see a fragment of the torrent against the sky, mottled, steely, and foaming, leaping onward in far-flung criss-cross strands of water. Perpetually the eye is on the point of descrying a pattern in this weaving, and perpetually it is cheated by change. In one place part of the flood plunges over a ledge a few feet high and a quarter of a mile or so long, in a uniform and stable curve. It gives an impression of almost military concerted movement, grown suddenly out of confusion. But it is swiftly lost again in the multitudinous tossing merriment. Here and there a rock close to the surface is marked by a white wave that faces backwards and seems to be rushing madly up-stream, but is really stationary in the headlong charge. But for these signs of reluctance, the waters seem to fling themselves on with some foreknowledge of their fate, in an ever wilder frenzy. But it is no Maeterlinckian prescience. They prove, rather, that Greek belief that the great crashes are preceded by a louder merriment and a wilder gaiety. Leaping in the sunlight, careless, entwining, clamorously joyful, the waves riot on towards the verge.
But there they change. As they turn to the sheer descent, the white and blue and slate color, in the heart of the Canadian Falls at least, blend and deepen to a rich, wonderful, luminous green. On the edge of disaster the river seems to gather herself, to pause, to lift a head noble in ruin, and then, with a slow grandeur, to plunge into the eternal thunder and white chaos below. Where the stream runs shallower it is a kind of violet color, but both violet and green fray and frill to white as they fall. The mass of water, striking some ever-hidden base of rock, leaps up the whole two hundred feet again in pinnacles and domes of spray. The spray falls back into the lower river once more; all but a little that fines to foam and white mist, which drifts in layers along the air, graining it, and wanders out on the wind over the trees and gardens and houses, and so vanishes.
When I read the piece, it first made me desire to see the Falls for myself. But then, such was the excellence of his description, just under 2000 words, that it had precisely the opposite effect. I didn’t want to see them at all! For if I did, I’m sure I’d come away with less than he witnessed, feel less than the way his words moved me, from beyond the grave.
And that’s the kind of writing that I envy, that’s what puts me in awe. How he managed to reconstruct the experience. And Fernando Pessoa—coming back to him at last after the botched attempt of my previous post—says that it’s a tricky business to make his reader feel what he felt. If you try to say straight what you feel, if you try to achieve a “close fit” between your experience and your description, you won’t get it across. Your own inner experience is so unique to you, that no one else could feel what you feel in the same terms. So you have to convey it by some analogy or metaphor that your reader will comfortably recognize. As he’s fond of saying, the only way to tell the truth is to lie.
Hats off to Rupert Brooke, he wasn’t just a pretty face; and Wordsworth, and Blake, all the dead poets. And what about you and me?
Posted by Vincent at 11:23 pm