The men of sorrows do their stint,
whose golgothas are the moon’s trenches,
the sun’s blear flare over the salient.
‘That’ll be the life; / No God any more’ – or so the hypothetical ante-Larkin of ‘High Windows’ (1967) is made to suspect. Even skimmers will have understood that the poems preceding ‘High Windows’ speak as little of a believer as they do of a poet with a definite-article kind of life. Even skimmers – because it was the distinction of Larkin’s written persona to suffer deceptions with enough disobligingness to relay ‘the incessant recital / Intoned by reality’, and what characterises the ‘reality’ of Larkin is the absence of its God.
If secularism isn’t made in science’s image, it bears the impress of what science has come to know.1 But, scientists agree, science will not deliver to it giftwrapped a doctrinal parcel comprehending the reasons of life, or any definitive metaphysics or ethics such as philosophy has proffered and dismantled to proffer once more. Not only, then, is it unadvisable to presume that poetry has a native claim to secularism (while much scripture is poetry), it’s not likely, unless one counts the negation of religion itself, that secularism contains anything of metaphysical or ethical consequence that is solid enough to claim at all. When secularism does hold a portable doctrine, it tends to be that of its advocates’ culture, with which it will engage in reciprocal instruction but which cannot determine it – much as the secularism of tens Britain is attended by without entailing the liberal humanism of Nick Clegg. Rather than constructing its own metaphysical or ethical machinery, secularism has made subtractions with the indifferent completism of a perfectionist. It has vetoed intimations of destiny and applications to certainty, it has cancelled speciesist privilege and supra-human meanings, it has freed eternity of its politic humility and has suppressed the visions both of a subsuming universal self and of a volitant soul. It has made things – so it follows – personal. There is no life-procedure to be generalised out of these subtractions and sold in multiples of ten or in bulk as a consensus. The corollaries of secularism must be received by individuals who abhor and accept them in various private configurations of dismay.
For poetry (without God) plenty remains to justify. But in the shade of secularism poetry has not shirked its obligation to criticise present life. Just as it was religion, it has been good at undergoing secularism in representative ways: this is one thing Don Paterson has done for those of his 21st-century readers who account for his success. To inform the appreciation of his shortcomings and his peculiarities which I want to give, I will consider two precedents – each a single poem – from the 20th and 19th centuries: Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’ (more expansively) and that anthologists’ staple, ‘Dover Beach’.
This is Arnold’s ending:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In the stanza before, Arnold has his quotable thought about faith’s retreat – his ‘No God any more’ thought – which prepares the poem for its secular flinch, its ‘Ah’ stanza. To vulgarise: when the roar of the girdling sea of faith has dwindled to breath, there’s nothing for it but to yield to the fortifying hold of a lover. Or that is what the stanza commences in hoping – the hope’s force is that of a resorting-to, of ‘of necessity’ and perhaps of ‘faute de mieux’. But directly to its syntax and by what follows the hope is compromised. ‘True to’, a stutter already, is split across the line to intimate a checking, a gulp: even this necessary resort has not proved a refuge. And though it may be a chimera of usage prescriptivism I had understood that the correct phrase in speaking of two people – Arnold, that is, and the ‘you’ invited to ‘Come to the window’ – was ‘each other’.2 Had Arnold sympathised with the grammarians’ reasoning, he could not I think have adopted their usage, since the resulting lines would have been rhythmically null.
In this short phrase, as throughout the stanza, the words are arranged so that their sounds-together counterpoint questioningly their literal sense. Over the break of ‘true / To’ flickers a perpetual ambivalence of emphasis which ‘each other’ would only neutralise. It issues from the semantic ambivalence of ‘let’ and completes itself in the versification of ‘true […] another!’ Even though phonetics is a science, this can’t be scientific; but I want to try to explain. The difference at issue is one of relative pitch between ‘true / To one another’ where ‘true’ is high and ‘-noth-’ relatively low and ‘true …’ where ‘true’ is low and ‘-noth-’ is relatively high (and risen to on approach). The difference in sense is between, for the first intonation (and sense of ‘let’), a brave ‘undertaking-to’ coupled with the urging of whomever is addressed – the ‘love’, the reader? – to join the speaker in that, and for the second a muted plea which anticipates its own disappointment. Counting in favour of one hearing is the coercive zest of the exclamation mark; of the other, the unassumingness of the lowercase ‘for’. But to win that argument would be to disarm the poem. The work of these lines, insofar as they incorporate tidings of the futility and defeat of hope into hope’s expression, is to foreshadow the work of the rest, which admit apprehensions of fear of stranding even as they proclaim their accession to a conclusive certainty.
Before the stanza’s first hingeing punctuation mark, there are two vowels whose recurrence thereafter is significant. The whole thing (being poetry and good) in fact uses vowel repetition in a calculated way: this vowel has been remembered, it wills we should sense, at just the point where it might have been mislaid, so it would would it not be wise to take heed of what ensues – this promises to be a great occasion in the poem and perhaps in your life. By no means does every recurring vowel bear a semantic load. But the vowels of ‘Ah’ and ‘true’ do – if a light one – because their recurrences coincide more frequently with loadbearing words in the literal path of the verse. To an extent it’s possible to distinguish suggestive from incidental repetitions.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In almost every line Arnold drops one repeating pair, some of which seem independent of their counterparts further afield (‘love […] us’ and ‘one another’ from ‘struggle’; ‘lie […] like’ from ‘neither […] light’), and some of which partake in patterns of resonance which dictate that they should allude to foregoing vowels (‘darkling’, ‘alarms’ and ‘armies’ plumb ‘Ah’; ‘seems’/‘dreams’ are revived in ‘really […] peace’). The picture is complicated more if as we should we allow that diphthongs partake in assonances severally, so that accruing to ‘Swept’ is not only ‘let’ but ‘help […] pain’ and ‘plain’ amongst others, and so that ‘Ah’ and ‘dreams’ (etc) are audible in every /aɪ/ word from ‘lie’ to ‘by night.’ The stanza’s main pattern originates though in ‘true’, and attests strikingly to the contention that vowel recurrences can bear loads of significance: ‘beautiful’, ‘new’, ‘certitude’ and ‘confused’ all perpetuate the sound of that perched adjective. Even here, I permit, my contention is highly deniable; it may be the very act of looking closely and long which transfers contingencies of the observer to his perceptions of what he observes. But to say the sounds of the six lines before the semicolon usher us to then gather in the great concluding three should not by now stir confusion. The sound of
And we are here as on a darkling plain
is one of recognition. Three of its vowels at once take up patterns of resonance: ‘we’ and ‘here’ extend the line that came to ‘peace’ from ‘seems’, ‘darkling’ recalls the first word of the stanza (perhaps from syllables ago a muffled ‘are’, too), and ‘plain’ extends the series that ran through ‘various’ from ‘let’ to ‘help’, as well of course as rhyming and as inaugurating the local assonance of ‘-kling’, ‘with’ and ‘ignorant’ (‘darkened plain’ doesn’t tremble).
Those are vowel patterns, but in the line recognition is sounded by means moreover of pitch and rhythm. The line is the poem’s last regular one, and importantly comma-free – on the way to it, the anaphoric cascade of ‘So’ and ‘Nor’ had been jammed with commas, which only the untrustworthy ‘To lie…’ had been spared. Regular, it enjambs unforeseeably into an irregular final couplet which includes one line that is a syllable long – adding to its first substitution ‘Swept with’ the pyrrhicising nonstress ‘and’ – and one that is a syllable short, cramming ‘ignorant’ against ‘armies’ in a way that sets in relief that dark alarming word. Of the seven monosyllables that precede ‘darkling’, two are long and rhyme, while in the quick ‘as on a’ the vowel of ‘on’, which occurs nowhere else in the stanza, hardly tolerates the stress of the pentametric frame. Instead, the diphthong in ‘here’ (with its ghost of a second syllable) almost lifts ‘as’ out of the schwa to broach the memory of ‘And’, and steepens the gradient of ‘as on’, which scarcely in any case reaches a summit, lending the short words the force of a girding or a run-up the runner copped out of. The heroic line sputters, impressing on us all the more vitally the long open syllable ‘dar-’ as resonant with the hazard of a perception it was unmanning to have.
Arnold’s is one of the illustrious endings of English poetry. I would argue that sound creates it. But sound is the animating element of a method that would yield nothing were it reduced to sound alone. I have said that the words are arranged so that their sounds-together counterpoint questioningly their literal sense: this is diversely true of what follows the exlamation mark. In ‘And we…’ literal sense is itself in question and dissolves into its own (potential) constituents. The deepening resonance of recurring vowels deepens there in a lunge, and the resonant pattern becomes a supporting structure while the poem’s metre turns irregular, and at this moment the poem announces its desolate recognition in words that are delicately ambiguous. The ambiguity sits in ‘here as’ (‘the world’ is brought not ‘before us’ but really ‘here’) and I can illustrate it by rewriting Arnold’s line – for there is a difference, is there not, between ‘We here are as on’ and ‘We are “here as on a darkling plain”’? In the second the ‘here’ is ‘as on a darkling plain’ and in the first just ‘we’ are; in the first too, the shadow collaboration of ‘we’ and ‘Swept’ (we, rather than or as well as the ‘plain’, are ‘Swept confused with alarms’, as well as or rather than the ‘plain’) is nearer in the foreground. The different constructions evoke different configurations of the dismay of helplessness and fors}ib.x y0MG% of which the true line commits to, hesitating forever over whether the speaker and his ‘love’ are stuck, or lost, or stuck lost. The words as Arnold arranges them will not consent to any interpretive coup de grace that settles the matter for good: they mean to go with the grain of ‘true / To’ in evoking a fine inconclusion that is fine not least because it is inconclusion about (‘we are here’!) a conclusion. All aspects of this poem’s technique conspire to make it embody at the same time a hunger for certainty in something as a fear that the certainty should be like an inevitability – like that of confused alarm and dark ignorance.
It remains to bring out exactly what – beyond its secularism – connects the last stanza of ‘Dover Beach’ to Don Paterson and to ‘High Windows’. Much of what I mean by associating these poems should become and be made evident in the sections that are dedicated to them. But there is something about the end of Arnold’s ending (or that its ambiguity licenses) which I think expresses the secular impetus more urgently than, say, ‘Hath really’ and its listy disillusion. Suppose that one inaugural apprehension of secularism is the godless night sky; when the astronomical supplants the celestial view in an open mind, cold wonders far outdoing the domestic ones of religious contemplation and submission ensue. There isn’t – we then feel – the time to contemplate every dead thing there. But Arnold does with poetry what NASA did with technology: he takes his and our alienation from the unthinkable gulfs of space, and by making the void see reverses that alienation, alienating it (seeing) from us; and returns it here as a new alienation whose final embodiment – recall that you can only look at the picture of earth here on earth – ratifies a conversion or reconstitution of its terms whereby they entail the frightening vacuousness that we are alienated from is our fellow man. At the end of ‘Dover Beach’ (to cannibalise Auden): altogether elsewhere, vast armies clash by night, not silently because we with our loves hear their alarms, and because ‘altogether elsewhere’ is where we together must move.
Larkin’s short Collected is full of emptiness. ‘Absences’ – ‘Such attics cleared of me!’ – is only the plainest of these. I want to turn to the source of the quotation I began with, so here in full is Larkin’s own celebrated ending (in fact one of a haul):
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Almost all the sounds in this four-and-a-half line sentence seem to obtain a precisely-posed complement before the stop. But it would be less unusual than cruel of me to re-enact at tenth-speed every audible effect. The lines’ density in this extent outmeasures that of Arnold’s ending – certain prodigious words and phrases like ‘sun-comprehending’ (and perhaps ‘birds’ in the previous stanza) taken in their auditory context read like choices that are accounted for as impressively by the demands of sound as by the particulars of the rapture unfolded here – but I want to argue that, owing to the way the lines seize on the readiest corollary of secularism in the process of baulking at the difficult ones they must feel to want to evade, beside ‘Dover Beach’ they come up short; however it’s a manoeuvre that Larkin stoops to so rarely that I entertain an alternative understanding the lines which goes a way to redressing it. But first –
I read the line ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night’ as irregular and compacted. Larkin here orchestrates a series of compressions of stress which are (depending on his punctuation) like tense bunchings or deep breaths; but I’m unwilling to call them ‘irregular’ without more confidence about the time signature of the poem, or that there is one. The last two lines do revert to a five-beat numerical regularity that is more common in the poem than not; without asserting the iamb they assert instead the poem’s prosodic variousness. What I believe we encounter in the finale is Larkin letting the formality of form go in return for a mimesis of the motion of thought which involves the significant play of stresses, or bunches against breaths. Compare in position the spondaic bunches ‘words comes’, ‘high wind-’, ‘sun-com-’ and ‘deep blue air’ with the breaths ‘-ly / Rather’, ‘glass, / And,’, the two pauses in the last line – and observe ‘shows / Nothing’, a decisive moment where by wily enjambement the categories of bunch and breath collapse into each other. Hear in addition the reappearance in ‘Nothing’ of ‘comes’ and ‘sun-’, in ‘Nowhere’ of ‘-ows’, ‘shows’ and ‘air’ and the continuance of ‘-where’ in ‘endless’ with its continuance of ‘-hending’ (in the stanza Larkin is preoccupied by alveolar consonants, ds, ns and ts) – key vowels introduced, as in Arnold’s ending, at careful length. These knots of stress perform little bubblings of expectation whose popping is timed so that it isn’t just a popping but in concert with the sense and a conversion that shows the sentence’s expectations not just unmet but void, and shows how we may be freed not just into what we expected but of expectation and its conditions themselves.
The phrase ‘in concert with the sense’ was an evasion made in the cause of getting on with things: in truth there is an elusiveness about these lines which justifies the comparison with ‘Dover Beach’ (‘And we are here…’). In the swell of the ending small anomalies emerge and are swept up. A simplistic interpretation of them could claim they bespoke the distinct requirements of aesthetics trumping the obligation of literal coherence; but, if we were generous, we would allow that they were what ‘poetic licence’ licenses and makes possible. Each ‘anomaly’ is a lapse or slip brought about in the act of compression where the need to fit meanings into resonant patterns governed by rules becomes the inevitability of making meanings out of this act given that language under high determining pressure does not ‘gather’ like the ooze of Hopkins’ oil but diffuses. So we have little cause to object that the ‘thought’ to which ‘Rather than words’ conveys us occupies a further twenty-two, that in those words the ‘air’ that is beyond the windows’ glass is ‘nowhere’ (as it is ‘blue’ yet ‘nothing’) and that the ‘air’, which is the sky, is called ‘endless’, when as climatologists have been at pains to remind us it ends about sixty miles up, where it gives way to a more truly endless colourlessness (when he wrote the line ‘Above us only sky’ John Lennon made the same consolatory omission).
One benefit of nonprofessionalism I would have hoped would be that I could call these ‘anomalies’ telling without knowing quite what they tell. In fact, I prefer to use the occasion of criticism to discover exactly what it is I don’t know than to expound what I do. (Eliot, in ‘East Coker’: ‘And what you do not know is the only thing you know’.) With that in mind we might again go over the stanzas which introduce this ending and observe their sweaty spitefulness and their bitterness and read ‘shows / Nothing’ with a fittingly petulant tone (‘Nothing’!), or observe their broaching of atheism (‘No God’) and their broaching-by-implication of death (the spondee ‘long slide’) and hear a deep plangency in the linebreak. We might consider the readings by which we can be unkind or kind to Larkin’s poem. The way to be kind is I think to let him be complicated: if we acknowledge that the needs religion has customarily met don’t evaporate with its refusal, and still less if the refuser hasn’t taken part in the fun his or other generations are having (‘he’s fucking her’), then we are able to use the thought from ‘Church Going’ which comes in the words, ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here; […] And that much never can be obsolete’ almost as a theme by which to interpret the anomalies of the later poem. In this account the glass of Larkin’s windows (they are high perhaps or perhaps not as if those of a church) is pointedly rather ‘sun-comprehending’ than God-comprehending, and that is somewhat less a relief because the sun is a simpler thing to comprehend than because at times comprehending can feel to men and women a singularly human thing to do and Larkin is lonely insofar as he has had it with his own singularity and wants to feel the sun comprehended everywhere. The thought tends to Larkin’s consolation and is a consolation objectified in resonant language so that readers too may be released from the clenching ironies of ‘And thought’ (‘That’ll be the life’: it wasn’t the life) and ‘happiness, endlessly’ into ‘comes the thought’ and ‘and is endless’ (which restore to the words their plainer meanings), and may find their own reprieve from the clench of specific selfhood in the endless-looking deep air.
The opening for the kindness I have proposed to do to Larkin arrives with the decision about what to make of the feat in his poem that has elicited from me words like ‘relief’, ‘release’ and ‘reprieve’, and whether to consent to the word ‘escape’ accompanying them and altering their tone. The two last lines permit as though by accident ‘air’ to take possession of ‘nowhere’ which then says as well ‘no air’ and charges the transcendence3 with a countercurrent of fright; we let Larkin be complicated if we let him intend this but it is not obvious that the accident is less effective if it is accidental. Just as I rewrote Arnold the better to map his ambiguities I should point out that for Larkin ‘sun-comprehending’ is a letter off ‘un-comprehending’ and that the atmosphere’s ‘air’ shows ‘Nothing […] is endless’ (we have transcended ‘paradise’ to reach another desolate stifling attic), but the misreadings are strained and hardly suffice as evidence. The ending of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ has a comparable transcendentness that you can plump for and run with (the gravestone of Maeve Brennan did so) if you pass over the brace of almosts in the penultimate line. What the last line says is not what the poem says will survive of us. According to the poem it’s a ‘sweet commissioned grace / Thrown off’, a ‘stone fidelity / They hardly meant’ (this is almost true, or probably untrue, for what does Larkin know of what they meant?), but the line says it is love and what with its tidy deliberate sonority, and after that declarative colon, we are able to feel the poem says this too – even that it’s been its message. Finally though the line is ironic and well aware that being proven almost true is different from being proven true or false only: aware that it describes not the misconstruing of a faithful love by a debased present but the projection by a savvy twentieth-century man of modern marriage’s amicable lovelessness back into a heraldic age, and that it re-enacts without committing to but with credible passion the debased present’s sentimentalising of a ‘grace’ that was ‘hardly meant’ into a blazoned lie of love.
The clever ambivalence of hE(ALuEel Tomb’ means there is no call to be kind to Larkin when we read it, it is too clever: clever enough that we can easily see that ‘is no air’ isn’t cut from the same cloth – which should incline us to expect that the redemptive accidents of that ending will be swamped in the wave of its transcendence and which for reasons I will explain urges on us a reading that is unkind to Larkin. This reading has to do with the nature in poetry of transcendence and with the word ‘escape’. There is a popular theory to rationalise the human fondness for visions of apocalypse and mass death which supposes they manifest a wish to be reprieved from the terrible personalness of one’s own death by its subsumption under the death of a collective (there’s nothing to miss in nothingness, it supposes we apprehend, should everyone go at once). If in Larkin’s poem the sticky sweatiness of his envy of free bloody kids and their fucking is palpable,4 so is – and not easily distinguishably – a regret which proceeds from the searching affront of time and chance which is that time chances through us all, and whose substance for Larkin may be grasped in a contrived juxtaposition of the cliché ‘to have lost out’ with the word ‘irrevocably’ in his remark on what the forms of Emily Dickinson represent: ‘a life gone irrevocably wrong’. On the last page of On Chesil Beach, the voices of narrator and character join irreducibly to editorialise a theme: ‘This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.’ But McEwan refrains from stating whether it should be found a damnation or a deliverance that we, or the original narrators in our heads, to whom the real courses of our lives are visible and changed ones imaginable, are necessarily ignorant of every course but the real one which flowed from what was done. We are ignorant, but here ‘but to think is to be full of sorrow’ and we possess these taunting prodigious imaginations owing to which we are haunted not precisely by nostalgia for courses we didn’t follow but by a feeling for which there ought to be a better term than ‘counterfactual nostalgia’; an older word than ‘lostopportunitiness’; and to which the closest natural phrase might be ‘galled regret’. Larkin wrote ‘Annus Mirabilis’, whose narrator is numbly aware that he was just too late to the ‘unlosable game’ which he lost thereby, five months after ‘High Windows’: in parentheses which ironise the pain of an unrepeatable lifetime, its repeated ‘for me’ suggests the tremendous personalness of having lost or missed opportunities that won’t foreseeably recur in one’s course, though in this version of the feeling they are others’ opportunities which didn’t occur but almost did. When Celan writes to Ingeborg Bachmann that ‘Nothing is repeatable; our time, our lifetime, halts only once, and it is terrible to know when and for how long’, we needn’t blame ‘halts’ on the translator if we permit ‘how long’ paradoxically to register all coming time. I think ‘High Windows’ agrees that ‘it is terrible to know’, and there is much we don’t know about ‘High Windows’ – whether for instance its bondless ‘paradise’ is conceived of as something that wasn’t unavailable to the speaker but which he was ill-prepared to ascend to or as the privilege only of ‘everyone [then] young’, not him ‘And his lot’; whether indeed that ‘paradise’ is found illusory even for the ‘kids’ and their lot. The speaker knows that, if it is terrible to know regret, it is terrible to look at and see things that are here. Without any Arnoldian distress, he commences the poem in alienation from his fellow men and women, yet in his ending like Arnold he transforms the astronomical view in metaphor to fix a thinking self (or an earth of selves) in an endless nowhere. His ‘Altogether elsewhere’ is the nowhere we are amidst. With the poem’s last word he remains there: the poem ends, and he is still ‘beyond’, in the deep empty sky where his thinking self has become insignificant, and has been relieved as abruptly of the specific burden of envy and regret as of the total privacy and meaningfulness of death – this self remains there where it has escaped the sheer consequence of contingency for ‘one man once’.5
In his italics, Orwell said – if I may liberate this from its context – ‘the essential evil is to think in terms of escape.’ An unkind reading of ‘High Windows’ will judge that the poem thinks an escape that falls venially short of evil but constitutes a failure of courage, because the endless air on which it settles its thoughts is not a liveable but a mental context, and the positive end of alienation is to do as Arnold did and move from the perplexed gaze outwards to remember the projected gaze from the air on the ‘mote of dust’ it sees, and on which it is felt, singularly. In this reading, by the alienation left incomplete with his conclusion Larkin cancels the vertigo of the responsibility of a life lived once and instead shows himself hypnotised by the magnitude of that which is not life. The dilemma might be shown in terms of social exchange, for as individual readers it is ours to decide whether – like in the poems where he satisfies his spite by rubbing in our faces desperate universals (‘then fear’), and choreographs the vindication of that spite by peddling universal invective (‘first boredom’) – whether in ‘High Windows’ Larkin foists on us an absolute of nothing, which does life the disservice of evading it, to induce us to share his derelict escape, or instead makes a gift to his readers of memorable relief: for what causes, against the secular clarities which when we confront them leave us aghast and to which even unshockable Larkin here wasn’t equal, could be juster than solidarity and mutual assistance? Somewhat as our societies so direly need illusions to operate well that they operate by means of illusions which become actual in that capacity, as individuals we live happier by illusions than without (in Wittgenstein’s Nachlass he writes: ‘Go on, believe! It does no harm’) and when at the mercy of a ‘darkling plain’ from which we cannot rise. The mind is a terrible master. The world is a terrible master.
There is a variety of quandary in argument which crops up when you are trying to reason about something you have only one example of. In reasoning about things like the universe, and the subjectivity of the thing reasoning, conclusions from what may be perfectly valid premises, as soon as they are thought to be true, can alter the context of the premises so that they no longer entail the conclusion. If we argue validly from conditions in this universe that it is a simulation, we bring another universe into being by the mere validity of our conclusion; but our argument, in that event, is vulnerable to the disqualifying objection that premises which are true of this universe are by no means necessarily true of the other, especially given that it is different in kind, being real. How can we argue other universes into being using facts evident in this one, when the one thing we should be sure we can be least sure of is that others, which are not ours, would be like ours? These universes’ condition is, at best, that of argumentative quantities, their existence contingent on certain properties of this universe, such as its logic (there needn’t necessarily be a meta-universal logic: do we know there is a meta-human logic? Could we?), and intrinsically dependent on what they are supposed to be intrinsically distinct from. I wouldn’t like to live in one.
A similar quandary besets arguments about solipsism. Arguing about solipsism, we have to adopt an attitude of ambivalence about our true state. Is this experience all there is, or are there other minds in a universe I do not constitute? Most and perhaps all of us know what we think about this. But there can be no argument to prove the latter hypothesis, which is unfortunate, because we are quite wedded to it. (Perhaps this fact bespeaks the general futility of arguments.) There can be no such argument because, the moment you draw a conclusion, you must accept that you have used the premises of either a solipsistic or non-solipsistic world to conclude that you either are or are in a solipsistic or non-solipsistic world.
Consider the senses. If solipsism is true, the solipsistic ‘mind’, or the universe which it is, contains another mind (which is me), and its senses perceiving an external world, inside it. The solipsistic mind cannot merely be my experience, or awareness, because I experience things I don’t experience how I experience, and I’m aware of things I’m not aware of how I’m aware of. I wasn’t aware I was creating the book The Temptation to Exist when I read it and marvelled at it. I wasn’t aware I was creating the French I encountered – unintelligible to me – when I paged through Cioran’s Oeuvres, or indeed that I was creating Cioran’s appearance as his ageing is documented by the book’s many photographic portraits – or indeed the texture of the book in the hands I was imagining felt it. What can it mean, anyway, to say, ‘This interiority is imaginary?’ If solipsism is true, it contains an interiority interior to it, yet everything is interior to it, so it has no interior, like the non-solipsistic universe. And for this interiority under solipsism to conceive of solipsism, it has to conceive of itself as such an interiority; the mind under solipsism cannot be identical with that interiority, which is what that interiority conceives of as a mind, because solipsism cannot be true of it and not the senses which are not identical with it. To this extent, solipsism cannot be true of minds as I, an instinctive non-solipsist, conceive of them: it entails a world totally different from the one it ostensibly is.
If I want to use the world of my experience to make a case for solipsism’s being true, I must employ premises which the conclusion they are supposed to entail entails couldn’t possibly have validly entailed any other conclusion: once I have completed and perfected my argument, they are – of necessity – true only of either a solipsistic or a non-solipsistic world. Worse, because solipsism if true entails another kind of world than I experience, I must resign myself to using premises within my experience to try to demonstrate that I inhabit a world they couldn’t not be true of but which my experience of my mind suggests is fundamentally unlike the non-solipsistic – in fact sub-solipsistic – world which it appears to that mind I experience, so which they may well not be true of, if it’s true they can’t not be.
Apparently there is a book called The Joy of Secularism and in reviewing it not in an essay called ‘The Joylessness of Joy’ but in one called ‘Is That All There Is?’ James Wood had an interesting comment on reductionism:
Secular explanations of the world (modern physics, astronomy, evolution) have not made the world less wondrous, and have not undermined the validity or the authority of our wonderment. Taking pleasure in the flight of a bird is not undermined by knowing a lot more than our ancestors did about how that bird evolved, and about how it works: on the contrary. The contemporary discourses that trouble [Charles] Taylor seek to explain not the world but our minds. What happens when, say, neuroscience “explains” that our wonderment is merely an evolutionarily determined product of certain processes in our brain? Isn’t the strong evaluation that may sponsor such wonderment undermined by a mechanistic surrogate? Altruism, for instance, may involve strong evaluation: we admire it as something larger than ourselves, and those who don’t share our admiration of it seem inadequate, or worse. But where are we left when evolutionary biology tries to reduce the strong evaluation we make about altruism by claiming that, like all animal behavior, it is just a contrivance that benefits our selfish genes?
Wood presents, with his ‘merely’ and his ‘just’, a position he later rejects in a way that fails to dispel their power. Paraphrasing an argument of Frans de Waal’s which evidently comforts him, he allows that if you want to un-reduce something (like sex) which has been reduced to (or by) an evolutionary explanation, you may simply say that while it isn’t caused by evolution evolution still explains it, because evolution is why certain other causes cause it. The inverted commas with which he distances himself from ‘explains’ flag an uncertainty which betrays itself more materially in the discrepancy between the idea of evolution’s causing ‘certain processes’ whose effect is the phenomenon of wonderment and the idea of such an explanation as a ‘surrogate’ for wonderment. The first idea represents a concession to reductionism; the description of the idea as a ‘surrogate’ for wonderment is an implication of the error, and sets it in relief. The reduction is not in that idea – the idea that wonderment is an effect of certain processes which are effects of evolution. The reduction is in the reduction of wonderment to an effect of a unitary cause we can see and name and understand. Pascal wrote:
From a distance a town is a town, and countryside countryside, but as you get closer there are houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grass, ants, ants’ legs, to infinity. They are all included in the word ‘countryside’.
Already therefore you have the problem that evolution ought too to be reducible. It has its causes in physics, for example—rather as the promulgation of reductive explanations for human behaviour could constitute a field of study for its own evolutionary psychologist. All of this, remember, traces back to a ‘Big Bang’ we don’t understand. The fact of the infinite reducibility or expansibility of causation – of its detail – is constantly pressing us to collapse our accounts of causation for this or that effect into admissions of identity. For ‘our wonderment is merely…’ is merely an explanation, and it’s on its very claim to have reduced which is founded its claim to have explained. The relation implied (wonderment to processes) and the relation Wood assumes is one of substitution: ‘certain processes’ – not just in explaining it but to explain it – replace the phenomenon of wonderment so the two cannot coexist, like the imperative to better the fortunes of our genes replaces the disposition selflessly to help others. If the relation were conceived instead as one of simultaneity it is uncertain whether the sense of having an explanation would remain intact but it would at least be clearer that it isn’t our opinion of wonderment that should be lowered: our opinion of the ‘processes’ should be enhanced. Wonderment is wonderment, not its explanation, and if you believe it has only been explained if one effect of one cause has replaced wonderment, what you want is an explanation for whatever evolution can be seen to cause, for the sake of which you want to define wonderment only as what it can be explained as. Cioran defined and refused the reductive prejudice:
Thought which liberates itself from all prejudice disintegrates, imitating the scattered incoherence of the very things it would apprehend. With “fluid” ideas we spread ourselves over reality, we espouse it; we do not explicate it.
With us, it always degenerates into binaries! We’re happy to reckon with a question about the world if we can conceive of it as a choice between a thing – on the one hand – and on the other another thing which excludes that. If ‘our wonderment is’, it either is or it isn’t, and if the thing we decide our wonderment is isn’t the wonderment we in fact experience, the wonderment we experience is fake. But why can’t we say, ‘One kind of wonderment we experience is’, or – differently – ‘One reason we experience wonderment is’, or – differently – ‘One thing the experience of wonderment is is’? No: for us, what we think wonderment is caused by, wonderment must become.
Traditional ways of thinking about solipsism depend on reductions of their own. I have argued that they take a picture of the self derived from a picture of the world which assumes the self is not the world – a picture tending to correspond to the scientistic reduction of self to brain – and ask whether we can know that that self isn’t all there is. But of course, on the assumption that it isn’t all there is, the picture of the self as brain is a profoundly reductive one. In a nonsolipsistic world such as I behave as though I inhabit I am not a brain. I am my brain and its existence in the world, its ‘emergence’ and – most vital – its causability. Trying to describe what I am in contradistinction to the idea that I am my brain will commit me to grievous inelegances, inelegances which may be mistaken for unclarities.6 A brain is at once its materiality and the phenomena of its materiality and the phenomenon of those phenomena and of its materiality in the body in the world. Trying to assimilate this to an account of solipsism, whatever your ideas about what or where that world is, you cannot elide the phenomenology of having senses. The distinction between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ is contingent on the distinction between (if solipsism is true) being this dream and having or perceiving it – not vice versa. Because I don’t experience being but having this dream, under solipsism the world of the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’ remains intact and coherent: it would be incoherent to call the ‘not-I’ illusory because it can’t be any more illusory than the thing that’s having the illusions. (One inauspicious gift of the nonsolipsistic world is this tendency to think of the self as a locus or a kernal within the body rather than as an ‘emergent’ field of causability which is its totality and has no centre.) The solipsistic distinction is better expressed in terms of causability. In neither world do I really know everything that causes the dream I have. But under solipsism what causes the not-I which I experience is unknowable – suffice it to say I am in a different place than I think. The condition of not knowing where I am would seem to define the place. In a nonsolipsistic world, though, what causes the not-I which I experience corresponds occasionally to what I experience as causing the not-I which I experience.
Which is all to say: solipsism is something it is, in fact, impossible to be blunt, plainspoken or straight-talking about, and honest about, in the same breath. It’s just not that kind of topic. Metaphysics isn’t. And metaphysics and solipsism are what it’s characteristic of Don Paterson to be blunt about.
Most of Paterson’s poems enter a tradition which it’s enlightening to call ‘the English quibbling lyric’. It’s difficult to know whether the necessary thing to say about this tradition is that poems which belong to it aspire to a condition of literalness or that their favourite pastime is strategically to break with this literalness to find what it’s giving short shrift to. The best clue to whether this tradition claims a poem is when the poem accommodates a lot of irritable reaching and not much mystery, even if mystery is the matter in hand. (Verse being verse, the irritability will be in the syntax – first to betray the struggle to reconcile fact and reason with the a-logic of phonaesthetics.) The normal practice of this tradition is to provide for the reader little literal stories – or arguments, since arguments are a kind of story – which make paraphrasable sense within the confines of a rigid and usually preconceived form. It’s this preference for form and so for the specific kind of aesthetic effectiveness its orderliness commands, as powerful as it is nonrational – it typically prescribes for example certain acoustic constants or non-negotiables around which the sense has to work – which makes poems of the tradition prone to deteriorate into poems from its ignominious and constant counterpart, its Mr Hyde: the tradition of the English paltering lyric. For instance, you can tell by how much paltering there is in Auden how committed a perpetrator of the quibbling lyric he was. But you’re really stuck – and this Paterson proves – if you want to attempt the quibbling lyric, and you want to honour its inclination to the preconceived form and to emulate its customary attitude of literal-minded and not-suffering-fools-gladly bluffness, but you want as well to address themes that are as resistant to the reductions of the literal as those of secular metaphysics after God and after we sent a telescope into space.
Paterson’s treatment of those themes, however, can’t be considered merely in the light of the quibbling lyric. A second tradition guides his hand. Among the clues to it are the reference to Zurbarán in ‘Phantom’, the way in which he uses the word ‘nothing’, and this aphorism:
Sometimes I am aware of just wittering on in Cioran’s name, his shade, like those talentless spirit-channels of Chopin and Liszt … no one has any need to point this out to me.
Little known in Britain, Cioran is one of the great philosophers of the last century (although he disclaimed the vocation with categorical contempt, the word is unavoidable), and one of the greatest aphorists in the Western canon. Despite this, he has a shtick. His shtick is to write with the greatest conviction in the truth of what he’s writing this moment, and with no conviction in truth. To this extent, he can contradict himself, but it’s impossible to criticise him for it. He doubted especially his doubt. Cioran’s influence on Paterson’s poetry isn’t all that palpable. But the Zurbarán painting which stars in ‘Phantom’ appears too in Tears and Saints (1937). And see ‘The Swing’:
I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between to skies to brush
her feet upon the ground
This ‘nothing’ is ‘the child’ that was ‘barely here’, ‘the child that would not come / of what we knew had two more days / before we sent it home’ – a foetus or conceivably a newborn destined never to leave the hospital. From the same poem:
I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
And in the heinous ‘The Day’ an alien couple consider what ‘signs’ the people of our star ‘might exchange’
to say even in this nothingness I found you;
I was lucky in the timing of my birth.
(Let’s be Ricks for a stolen moment and say that ‘nothingness’ gives birth to ‘lucky’, ‘timing’, ‘birth’.) Paterson’s use of the word ‘nothing’ in these examples irresistibly suggests the way in Cioran’s writing the word takes corporeal shape and is asked to embody the burden of the news gathered during his endeavours in ‘lucid’ introspection. Negatives are made positive in grammar because the positive, for the writer, is negative. In eliciting from me the response ‘But only in this “nothingness” could you have found her’, Paterson’s nothings elicit just the sort of response Cioran’s do. I turn pedantic; I turn grudging; I cite Prynne – ‘not all is void’. I begin to interpret what I might have let pass as inevitable corollaries of the difficulty of summoning metaphysical apprehensions into language as lapses and sloppinesses, and to suspect that it was out of prosodic convenience that something which was characterised at first as not a child, but as ‘what we knew had two more days / before […]’, became a ‘child’ which if ‘barely’ here was nonetheless ‘here’. (Later in the book: ‘We come from nothing and return to it.’)
It is in prevarications like this that the discrepancies between the Paterson of Rain and the thought of Cioran show themselves decisive. For the objection Cioran merits is a mild one: when I called him ‘great’, I didn’t not mean it. Paterson has carried over some of Cioran’s idiosyncrasies, or his tics, without allowing for the fact that, outside the contexts in which they’re seen to work so compellingly, they’re liable to acquire different properties and to demonstrate different powers. There’s a very specific dissimilarity which has had this effect in Rain and it has to do with Paterson’s and the English quibbling lyric’s tone. It concerns his blokeishness, his bluffness, his bluntness which is crucially distinct from the simplicity of Frost – albeit that, particularly in Rain, Frost is one of his models. Wittering on in Cioran’s shade, retaining his calculated philosophical irresponsibility and his deliberate metaphysical caprice, adapting the more biddable aspects of his premeditatedly ad hoc disillusion, Paterson substitutes a certain tone of arid bluffness for what manifests itself in Cioran as a low incessant pulse of terror, and Paterson converts what in Cioran is an irreducible structure of doubt and a doubt which is profound enough – an alienation thoroughgoing enough – to leave the doubter persistently unable to credit his own birth into one more barroom scheme, and exchanges that comfortlessness which in fact accounts for and warrants Cioran’s indulgences for an ‘I’ll tell it to you straight’ act which is apt to give the impression of a poet on good because intimate terms with the world, of one above all who knows the score and of one who nurtures what Celan calls – if I may liberate this from its context – ‘a scrap of comfort: the / strutting Nothingness’ – and all in a move that usefully at the same time yields a compact doctrine fit for conveyance in verse.
I called ‘The Day’ ‘heinous’, a little briskly.
‘I only meant – there’s no more we traverse
than the space between us. The sun up there’s no farther.
We’re each of us a separate universe.
‘We talk, make love, we sleep in the same bed –
but no matter what we do, you can’t be me.
We only dream this place up in one head.’ […]
‘[…] it’s why we have this crap
of souls and gods and ghosts and afterlives.
Not to … bridge eternity. Just the gap’ –
she measures it – ‘from here to here.’
Here a spokeswoman outlines for Paterson a sort of solipsism that’s of a piece with one he expresses at a number of points in Rain. I don’t quite know what to say about this.7 It’s like a speech written by Richard Curtis, but without his rigour. I can’t bring myself to rag on it, so I’ll just make some comparisons. In ‘Bathysphere’ (a less evident failure) Paterson’s device to depict for us a shocked awareness that – even to shock us into an awareness that – This is all really real and There’s nothing ordinary about this at all is a literal device, a contraption, a deep-sea ‘pressure sphere’ like the one that saw the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960. A Paterson-esque character hangs around in one for a bit and when he gets out he sees …
I saw my own mind surge into the world
and close it all inside one human tear;
I saw how every man-made thing will turn
its lonely face up to us like a child’s;
among other things. Paterson is very keen on how human objects (like shoes) would seem absurd to some nonhuman observer; perhaps to some future race of crawling dolphins or hyperintelligent birds conducting their own palaeontological researches. And he’s right and astute on man’s instrumentalising gaze. ‘The Error’ is excellent but it should have been an aphorism:
His [man’s] world is just the glare
of the world’s utility
returned by his eye-beam.
Note that reductive ‘just’, like Wood’s. According to Paterson, we have ‘self-reflecting’ minds, and our ‘element’ is our ‘dream’. I wonder what world it is we use things in: utility’s or the dream’s. But – the solipsism aside – his ‘utility’ point is good. I loved how Frozen Planet repeatedly in a sense choked when it came to the Antarctic interior – the heatless void’s own little piece of the biosphere. And then – oh look – it’ OK: there’s a hi-tech hut right in the middle, for doing science. With things that disconcert us, if we can use them, even for making knowledge – it seems we feel – we can domesticate them. (In the 20th century for example we tried to use death, by means of killing, to inaugurate utopia.) It’s tempting to say that science’s whole project of inquiry is bent on converting the world into facts and concepts of manifold application. After 1969, the Moon lost some of its uncanniness. Not all, though, and many are intent on mining it.
In ‘Parallax’, the Patersonian solipsism is at its least qualified.
I knew I was encircled by
the blindspot of its [the moon’s] look
Because the long pole of my gaze
was all that made it turn
I was the only thing on earth
the moon could not discern
‘[G]aze’, ‘eye-beam’, and in ‘Bathysphere’, ‘I know what I saw’ – these amount to a motif of sorts. If a tree falls in a wood, and nobody sees it fall… Paterson’s idiosyncratic concept of solipsism emerges in Rain as a dogma more pinched, and less subtle, than a fundamentalist’s. But did the solipsism, in this pinched form, precede the poetry, or does it come across as pinched and stale and crude because the poetry was its occasion – the occasion for the metaphysics and the solipsism it comprehends? ‘Motive’, on the facing page, is a better poem.
Something hurries on its course
outside every human head
and no one knows its shape or force
but the unborn and the dead;
so for all that we are one machine
ploughing through the sea and gale
I know your impulse and design
no better than the keel the sail
The fourth here is a weak line (don’t say you know what the dead know, just to seal a quatrain). But the emphasis on no one knowing is welcome. If the incidental problem with this kind of solipsism is that, for a doctrine set out with so unmisgiving an absolutism, and a doctrine simultaneously so bleak in its implications, Paterson just doesn’t seem troubled enough by it, then the fundamental problem is that he doesn’t follow it through. Accompanying his ostensible confidence about our solipsistic condition is a smug and opinionated confidence about everything else which is silently inconsistent with the ideas that ‘“We only dream this place up in one head”’, that our ‘world is just the glare / of the world’s utility’ and that we have ‘self-reflecting’ minds. Following Paterson, we might indeed contend that his metaphysics is ‘just the glare’ of metaphysics’ utility for poetry.
That little motif – of eyes and looking and seeing – springs I think from a passage in ‘Phantom’ spoken by the void, in the voice of Michael Donaghy. In ‘Bathysphere’, remember, ‘mind’ surges and closes:
Your eye is no eye but an exit wound.
Mind has fired through you into the world
the way a hired thug might unload his gun
through the silk-lined pocket of his overcoat. […]
If only you had known the storm [of unbeing of the dying world] was you.
‘“We’re each of us a separate universe. / […] We only dream this place up in one head.”’ There’s a sidling movement towards a rationalised consolation, here. If we’re each of us a separate universe, there’s nothing and nowhere not to be when we’re dead. If the dying world is me, it dies with me, and there’s nowhere for me to be dead in. To Paterson’s credit however the movement is arrested, and at the end of this section (vi) of ‘Phantom’ he produces a variation on the ‘Death’ stanza of Eliot’s ‘Marina’ which stands as the best passage in the book. There he finds the disconsolation which should reasonably attend the concept of solipsism he professes.
Mind fires through us into the world, or surges into it. The ‘glare’ of the world’s utility is returned to us, and becomes our world. At the same time, we are the storm of the world’s unbeing. We dream up the separate universes we are.
Compare this from ‘The Circle’:
our will and nature’s are the same;
we are its living word […],
its fourteen-billion-year-old song
inscribed in both our right and wrong
and the last lines in the book, from ‘Rain’:
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters
and none of this, none of this matters.
(At the end of ‘Motive’, the speaker’s ‘love’ is ‘fire-born’. I suppose, literally speaking, even water is star-dust.) These sentiments wouldn’t seem to align particularly well with the solipsism I’ve been trying to quote to illustrate. It’s superfluous even to call this inconsistency, I think. In these excerpts Paterson’s solipsism comes full circle and transforms into a hammy panpsychism which seems to imagine, ‘If I’m a universe, well, the universe is me!’ It’s not that they’re in diametric conflict with Paterson’s other metaphysical statements, but there’s one poem in Rain they do contradict fairly directly: they go against the whole drift of ‘The Rain at Sea’. In that poem, a speaker, watching a ‘small cloud’ over the sea at Montrose, addresses a dead person who can be identified plausibly as the girl of ‘The Swing’:
It was an awful creeping shame.
Nothing on earth was ever less
concern of mine than that caress [of the sky by the sea],
if such a human word would do
for what I saw […].
How did I blunder into here?
There would be all hell to pay.
Isn’t Paterson wondering how he blundered into himself, or into a universe he dreamed up? Well, no. Say instead that the complexities of a psychological truth which Paterson takes here as his matter are manifesting themselves in the poetry as incoherences. So in ‘The Rain at Sea’ he is at a loss, and feels he has blundered into the world, and it hardly feels like he is either its son or its living word. (Or he is dismayed by the inutility of the small cloud.) And it is irritating to find him opposing the ‘human’ to the sea and cloud’s ‘strange / intimate far-off exchange’ when he’ll be calling himself, pages later, the rain’s ‘son’. It is irritating to find no testament in the book to any recognition that if, impressed with the alienness of the non-human world, you resort to a solipsism of this type, that solipsism, if true or if unconditionally believed, will render that alienness your responsibility and concern, and solve nothing. It is irritating to find the confoundedness of this poem, and to find that stricken sense of the anomalousness of being in ‘this place’ which is understandable and quite warranted in the light of the metaphysics Paterson conveys elsewhere, stifled and overruled by the barren knowingness of the other poems that are precisely where that metaphysics is conveyed. It is true, and not in itself irritating, that Paterson’s metaphysics in Rain is at once blunt – or say ‘forcefully expressed’ – and incoherent. Nobody’s metaphysics is really coherent.8 But it would be more than irritating to find that it was incoherent not because Paterson believed it – although we don’t tend to believe in things we recognise to be incoherent, the fact that we can believe in them means that finally they must be – but because he didn’t, modifying it lyric by quibbling lyric for the sake of the aesthetic advantage of a straight-shooting shit-eating pose with its hyperboles and its terse nuancelessness and its arbitrary right to orderliness.
When Hill (in a context I’ve misplaced) called Larkin ‘pawky’ I had to look the word up. Since I had no idiomatic feel for the word, the dictionary did little to assist with what Hill meant by it. But reading Rain I felt I understood how it might be applied. The bulk of ‘Phantom’ (v):
We are ourselves the void in contemplation.
We are its only nerve and hand and eye.
There is something vast and distant and enthroned
with which you are one and continuous,
staring through your mind, […]
we have no human name for its regard.
Your thought is the bright shadow that it makes
as it plays across the objects of the earth
or such icons of them as your mind has forged.
The book in sunlight or the tree in rain
bursts at its touch into a blaze of signs.
But when the mind rests and the dark light stills,
[…] the open book
[will] turn runic and unreadable again,
and if a word then rises to our lips
we speak it on behalf of everything.
Only nerve and eye? Invidious anthropocentrism! Paterson forgets the terrestrial dolphins, he forgets the birds. (And what of the ‘hairless’ aliens of ‘The Day’? They even had hands.) In Rain Paterson is only intermittently guilty of that metaphysical opportunism which implies that, in order to perform the liberations from the literal that are the vocation of poetry in this overlit age, the poet must make his liberating effects proceed from literal beginnings among whose premises there’s an equivocation which licenses them. But I’ll gladly accuse him of the cultivation of a bluffly straight-talking manner in respect of questions which just won’t stand it. The line before ‘We are ourselves’ is: ‘This is wrong [ie we don’t feel the void contemplating us], but who could bear the truth.’ The affectation of this tone in poems which adopt a range of discrepant positions indeed suggests to me that a sense that, as I wrote above, he knows the score, that he’s got the world’s number, carries for Paterson something of the consoling power which those palteringly-earned climactic liftings-off into the numinous had for – and have in – Larkin. There’s a moment of authoritative insight in Orwell’s essay on Tolstoy on Shakespeare:
For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics […] surely that proves you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.
Does Paterson feel at some level that having embraced a creed free from the ordinary dirtiness of religion proves that he is in the right – or at least that just being right is his consolation for not assenting to or for his inability to wallow in that dirt? (The Donaghy of ‘Phantom’ is made to say to him: ‘Avoid the fancy lies’.) In this section of ‘Phantom’ he comes closest to a reconciliation of the solipsism of ‘The Day’ and ‘The Error’ (and others) with the quasi-panpsychism of ‘The Circle’ with the chastened estrangement of ‘The Rain at Sea’, and comes closest to really evincing the kind of knowledge fit to console us in the possessing – in a teachable form and in one adapted for the metaphysical bullying his bluff blunt tone is always ready to sanction. He comes close, but an ‘almost’ implies a ‘not’:
Your thought is the bright shadow that it makes
as it plays across the objects of the earth
or such icons of them as your mind has forged.
Although we rose up from the falling waters, we’d had only a questionably adequate ‘human word’ for the sight of a cloud raining into the sea. For the regard of the void ‘staring / like a black sun’ – the void which we are ‘in contemplation’ – we have no ‘human name’. No human name – except in the next poem it’s ‘Mind’ that fires through us ‘into the world’, and in ‘The Bathysphere’, ‘my own mind’ which surges into it, and in this poem when ‘the mind’ rests – he means, I think, ‘in meditation’ – the ‘man-made things’ which books are become ‘unreadable’, losing their ‘utility’ (‘The Error’). Look again, too, at that third line: ‘or such icons of them as your mind has forged.’ Is this the ‘bullshit’ he has Donaghy invoke in ‘Phantom’’s last poem (‘I can’t keep this bullshit up’)? Or is it ‘the truth’ which we cannot bear? That little stammer of an ‘or’ is the sign of a deliberate equivocation in the making. As clearly as any other, this line indicates that Paterson knows his metaphysics don’t make as much sense or make sense as plainly as his theory of poetry requires him to maintain. It’s as though he suddenly remembers – with ‘your mind’ – the lineaments of the form of solipsism he’d espoused elsewhere in Rain, and notices that it isn’t frictionlessly reconcilable with the idea that ‘We are ourselves the void in contemplation’ (etc), but patches together a half-intelligible solution and leaves it for the relevant judges to disregard on their way to procuring for him another predictable laurel.
In Rain, then, the essential tension is between what it’s the effect of its contradictions together to say and what it’s the poet’s policy to represent as plainly understandable and as things the poet well understands. Some remarks from Paterson’s ‘Appendix’ to his version of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus prove apposite here:
If a poem has no plain sense, however – i.e. no paraphrasable content – and its merits exist purely in its music, its ‘vibe’ and its pattern of tongue-specific connotation – it cannot be translated other than through an act of faith. No one has agreed an exchange rate. The results might be terrific, but their ‘fidelity’ is totally unverifiable. (Here one might think of a poet like Paul Celan. […] Perversely, […] when it comes to those very poets hailed as working at the sophisticated limits of language, translators are often forced back to the piecemeal business of ticking off the words again.)
One might think that Paterson might name his targets with a little less timorousness. Paterson is at pains here – I think – to isolate ‘those very poets hailed as working at the sophisticated limits of language’ and ‘those very poets’ who write poems which have ‘no plain sense […] i.e. no paraphrasable content’, because he has throughout his career been at pains to distinguish himself from them, turning his salaried inability to see that it was precisely because Celan was working at the limits of sense that he had to work at the ‘limits of language’ into a body of poetry which endeavours to work at the ‘limits of sense’ on which it has aesthetic designs deliberately without working at the limits of language. Indeed, the content of Rain is only paraphrasable if one condescends to work at ‘those very’ limits. But it isn’t senseless to try. Because, as Shakespeare saw in Hamlet, the pre-eminent corollary of consciousness is consciousness of death (thus to be more conscious, like Hamlet, is to be made more mad), Paterson in ‘Phantom’ hypostasises consciousness, so that it appears in that poem and therefore those in Rain which it inflects both coextensive and not coextensive with our minds, which (by virtue of it or not) are and are not as separate from the world as it is, and which (by virtue of it or not) are both coextensive and not coextensive with death. If you want to save the appearances you must save the contradictions, and when the contradictions are paraphrased into plainness this is what Rain’s content looks like. Careful readers will be liable to mistake – and hardly culpable in mistaking – a book which bullshits you because it doesn’t want to be mistaken for a book that’s bullshitting you for, well, a book of bullshit.
Because we have neither hereditary nor direct knowledge of death
It is the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun
Interesting to realise, this essay has encountered three poets – at work in the century and a half between the retirement of British belief in the 19th century and its senescence in the 21st – engaging the question of what there is for a poet to deal in, now, and found them dealing determinedly in metaphysics, and finding that the subject of metaphysics is only death – than which ‘nothing more terrible’ except perhaps that one can be conscious of death and still fail to live. In all the instants of a life, absolute significance and absolute insignificance coinhere. The only unannihilable thing is nothing. With death, it’s the never-going-to-exist-again-ness, I think. It’s the farcical extent of the time in which you don’t live. This is – these decades are – the only time in which you are you. People have applied to it all the resources of illusion and denial, but there’s no thought, no formula, no nostrum, no distraction, no regimen, no faith and no dream that will conquer the terror of that. (‘Nothing more true’.) Death counts as metaphysics’ one incursion into the existence hedged and defended by an ‘ordinariness’ working as a shield against all real things which, because of death, we want to live. Pascal knew: in proportion as they really think about it, which is what happens more consistently when you enact the Enlightenment’s privileging of the instant’s scepticism over the aeon’s prejudice, people have trouble keeping it together in the path of death. Indeed, the fact that people have trouble keeping it together in the path of death is why we have religion, which is, if taken seriously, a way of taking it so seriously you decline really to think about it. The poetry of Larkin and Paterson, metaphysically prone but captive to rationalism, would have benefited from the consideration that religion is the art we made out of metaphysics. With their not allowing this, it seems dispiritingly likely to have been their lot simply to reconceive religion in a famished form whose primary vocation is to provide pretexts by way of a sterilely, nominally secular art for the meeting of needs and the production of consolations which religions meet and produce without embarrassment and as though constituted to that end. One might think that Paterson’s ‘void’ in ‘Phantom’ is quite a lot like God, its regard not equivalent but apologetically analogous to God’s love. E. M. Cioran – a genius where both of these poets are just talents – spoke of ‘modern man’ abandoning himself ‘to despair as if to drinking or dancing’. If he has so abandoned himself, must he abandon poetry in this way too? Does none of that matter?
1 As in this complementary post on Emmy the Great, I use the word ‘secularism’ in a loose way, in constrained preference to ‘humanism’ – not to signify the doctrine of the separation of church and state, or ‘The doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life’ (OED).
2 Auden meant ‘We must love one another or die’ without vocative force; while ‘us’ doesn’t inevitably mean the speaker and his ‘love’, accommodating this ambiguity would on the whole reinforce my case.
3 For this word I thank John Updike, whose argument that ‘the drama of [Larkin’s] greatest poems hinges on the breaking of his crust and attaining a generous, deep-breathing self-transcendence’ reached me first through Rachel Cooke’s paraphrase: ‘the drama of his greatest poems hinges on the breaking of Larkin’s crustiness, his prejudices, followed by “a generous, deep-breathing self-transcendence”; in other words, that the work has everything to do with life, and also nothing at all.’ While Cooke’s addition and its inept repurposing of Borges weakens the point, with ‘nothing’ it confirms the recollection of ‘High Windows’ incipient in Updike’s ‘deep-’. The possibility of a generous self-transcendence turns out to be a crux in my appreciation of that poem: the transcendence Larkin stages there is a baulking, I argue, but what it baulks at is only horror, and written in memorable words it forms a constant gift to those who are incapable for any useful period of an Epicurean calm – like Updike, who was very afraid of death, and others of the best of us.
4 I want to say that death is by the second stanza on the poem’s mind already, but ‘everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly’ is too interesting to simplify like that. In this poem as often the comedy does not subsist only in the evanescences of jokes but to say bleak things. The quoted words are wryly overstated to make forceful the speaker’s sense that life has cheated him and the ache of his grievances. If the slide is merely ‘long’, to descend it ‘endlessly’ may be to descend it again and again, and if happiness lies at its end Larkin (with ‘endlessly’) is not saying that ‘Everyone old’ necessarily believes the young land there; apprehensible in the words is the deflation of having come. But their main ambiguity would just as well indicate a slide that is a ‘slide to happiness’ which only ‘everyone young’ goes down as the ‘long slide’ (perhaps of life) which for them leads to happiness: entertaining for a moment the first construction we might (especially if the narrator speaks freely-indirectly for Larkin) register the sense of the blessing of contraception’s having made these ‘young’ somehow deathless, but with the admission of a second perspective this dissolves and ‘everyone’ begins to look generations forward and at the linebreak the old speaker seems suddenly to recall his ‘only end’.
5 For the way the vast opacity of contingency equates to the vast obduracy of fate for Larkin, see ‘Triple Time’: ‘the past, / A valley cropped by fat neglected chances / That we insensately forbore to fleece’; ‘Ambulances’: ‘what cohered in it [something nearly at an end] across / The years, the unique random blend / Of families and fashions’; ‘Dockery and Son’: ‘What something hidden from us chose’; ‘Reference Back’: ‘just as though / By acting differently we could have kept it so’; ‘Send No Money’: ‘watch the hail / Of occurrence clobber life out / To a shape no one sees’, ‘the blows of what happened to happen’; ‘How Distant’: ‘The huge decisions printed out by feet / Inventing where they tread’; ‘The Life with a Hole in it’: ‘Life is an immobile, locked / Three-handed struggle between / Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse) / The unbeatable slow machine / That brings what you’ll get’; etc!
6 What truly isolates us from the world (and fires anxieties about solipsism) may be the lived discrepancy between that illusory awareness of the possibility of comprehending it and a functional ignorance of it. We do have this sort of basic sense that it’s within us to understand ourselves and understand things. Or insofar as we do, this sense is what we leave it to the moment of our death to really realise we were wrong about.
7 Not to mention, I’m pretty strongly inclined to think – going really by the history of this species – that it wouldn’t turn out well if we encountered extrasolar life with technology good enough to get here in the first place. You don’t invest so much and come so far – and it is far – to say hello. Happily there is a key consideration the kind of exobiological optimism exhibited in ‘The Day’ overlooks. The male half of the couple in that poem says: ‘It’s the size that’s all wrong here. The emptiness.’ But the ‘size’ of the universe is a function of its age. It represents the fathomless duration of the time that’s passed since its hidden beginning. So why would it be, given all the fathomless duration of the past, and all the fathomless duration of the future, that ‘another town’, containing life ‘as like ourselves as makes no odds’, should coincide with the few vanishing centuries of our hydrocarbonic prime? (And what would it mean to say it coincided: is there really a galactic ‘today’, or a cosmological present? The concept of a universal present, I think, just reinstates God: all presents are observers’, and the necessary observer for a universal present is a universal being.) At any rate, I decidedly favour the ‘rare earth hypothesis’.
8 It’s interesting to compare the ways two differently Christian modernists, Eliot and Hill, treat metaphysics. It can seem to a reader that these poets’ religiousness has made them metaphysical. But of course it’s at least as true that it’s their metaphysical fixation – as I’ve formulated it, their death-hauntedness – that’s made them religious, or more cerebrally so. Four Quartets is a philosophical poem of uncommon explicitness. In its rhythmical, lineated prose, Eliot lays his metaphysics bare – down even to his philosophy of time. Hill by contrast tends to be at his least intelligible when he gets round to metaphysics; except we learn he dreads death. (I’ve always thought that this digression – ‘Light is this instant, far-seeing / into itself, its own / signature on things that recognize / salvation’ – scuppers section CXXI of The Triumph of Love, which could have stood among its best.) In the essay ‘Dividing Legacies’, published in Agenda in 1996 and first collected in Style and Faith (2003), and in a 2001 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture, Hill rounded on Four Quartets precisely for its explicitness and prosiness, which he represents as impoverishment: ‘the language of Four Quartets […] is language that has suffered impoverishment.’ It is true that it’s at least part of his grievance that he understands the quality which I read as explicitness and he reads as impoverishment to expose the Quartets to a fateful convertibility to Anglican emphases and purposes which it was its responsibility not merely not to endorse but to preclude the possibility of its being seen to endorse. I’m in no sense competent to gauge to what extent Eliot’s poem reflects or flatters ‘Anglican’ prejudice, though I can say that for a religionless reader who is usually alerted to the proximity of Christianity by a reflex of involuntary aversion, it’s a great deal more metaphysically compelling than, say, The Orchards of Syon.