Thursday, 27 December 2012

Awkward Reverence -- The Little World of Philip Larkin

Philip Harvey
First published in the ANZTLA Newsletter

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a large round man with a round bald head and large oblong spectacles. He is about one of the most well-known English poets of the reign of Elizabeth II, and although not as accomplished as the most well-known poet under Elizabeth I, will be in the anthologies as long as English poetry survives. He was a member of a writing circle in the 1950s called the Movement. Its literary values, agenda even, is put well in a letter of the time: “For my part I feel we have got the method right – plain language, absence of posturings, sense of proportion, humour, abandonment of the dithyrambic ideal – and are waiting for the matter: a fuller and more sensitive response to life as it appears from day to day, and not only on Mediterranean holidays financed by the British Council.”1 This has sometimes been called kitchen sink literature. Philip Larkin’s other job was as a librarian.

Larkin was in personal dispute throughout his life about his own career choice. He ends one poem with the blunt warning “Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap.”2 Not a view one would expect from an authoritative university librarian. Not a good opener for a reference class. When we read the preceding lines though, we see why such a person could get so cranky. Life starts well,

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

But the experiences of life fill him with a disillusion that literature cannot equal:

Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar.

This is an elegant reiteration of the proverb, or even perhaps cliché, that life teaches you everything you need to know, who needs books: truth is stranger than fiction. This struggle, both with the worth of literature and with his own public employment, finds expression in many of Larkin’s perfectly cadenced poems and can, like so much poetry, be sourced to hidden sufferings. One of the poems most popular with English readers begins,

Why should I let the toad work
   Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
   And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
   With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
   That’s out of proportion.

It’s hard to believe that ‘Toads’ 3 was published when Larkin was 32, with most of his working life still before him. Somehow though he must have found solutions to “the toad”, or found solace in work, as he proceeded to have a successful career as University Librarian of the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull. In a letter later in his life, Larkin wrote that when he took over responsibility for running the Library in 1955 it was “a nice little Shetland pony,” which under his guidance had turned into “a frightful Grand National winner.”4 A steadier, hopeful acclamation of the value of librarianship can be sensed behind the words of this short poem, ‘New eyes each year’5, written in the year before his death. It gains added depth when we know that he died in harness.

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new ones, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.

The Australian poet Peter Porter once described himself as an agnostic Anglican. There are a host of such people and they would make up a large percentage of what Bishop John Spong calls the Church Alumni Society. Philip Larkin’s work displays several of the characteristics of an agnostic Anglican. Like Porter, for example, a favourite pastime was to spend his holidays visiting English country churches. Once he passed by a church on his bicycle, commemorated in that famous poem and school exercise, ‘Church Going’. 6 It is worth observing that this is a personal visit and that the whole poem is missing what most of us would think of as essential to a church, the people who attend.

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

The poet plays a dichotomous role, as one who questions the purpose of this church, only then to find reasons of his own that are much more than “tasteless Common Sense” 7 or sentiment. On the one hand he asks, was it worth stopping for, only to answer himself

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for …

His feeling about being there moves from uncertainty and unease (“Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence …”) slowly toward a reconciliation with his doubts (“But superstition, like belief, must die…”), before he comes to acknowledge that

               …though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

What makes him change? “Awkward reverence” holds the clue, for he learns that such reverence is possible and a reality, even though it has to be said in a mildly irreverent way – by removing cycle-clips thus, he mimics the act of bowing or genuflection to the altar familiar within the Catholic traditions of the church. What changes him, or converts him even? The presence and silence of the church itself and all of those who have used it, including the “many dead” who “lie around.” Then too, his own need, his own potential for acceptance rather than denial,

Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in …

The poem says much about the ambivalent attitudes so many English people, not to mention people in general, have toward churches and church. Doubt, questioning, questing and some sign of hope are described as a process in the verses of ‘Church Going’.

Another very direct handling of the subject of religion is the poem ‘Water’ 8:

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

What would you do if you “were called in to construct a religion”? At first glance Larkin’s assignment seems a puzzling, even eccentric game. But if we are prepared to take him seriously then first we must acknowledge that water is the source of all life as we know it. Belief, in fact certainty, in water is to be affirmed, especially in a country like Australia where it’s presence has become a matter for restrictions and futures. How can we have meaning, or begin to make meaning, without water?

Judaism employs water everywhere in its scripture, most unforgettably in its creation myth at the start of Genesis. And the Christian religion inherits the understanding of water as maker and life-giver. Indeed, the sign of water is the definition of a Christian and even though verse three might even sound comic on first reading, it is a fair description of how baptism is often performed. ‘Water’ sets us thinking about religion. It also makes us wonder about the poet. After all, Larkin is setting up a rational discourse on the subject, while we know from ‘Church Going’ that he would be quite sceptical about holy wells, river gods, and other aqueous manifestations of the divine. When, in the final verse, he raises his glass to the east “where any-angled light would congregate endlessly,” it instantly reminds us of Larkin’s hard rationalist philosophy. It mocks religious symbolic action while simultaneously celebrating existence through such action. The poem remains unsettling, maybe because of the very impersonal nature of the religion espoused. Another Australian poet, Bruce Beaver, puts it well in his poetic attack 9 on Larkin and the Movement:

Nothing was ever intended to be
extraordinary. The exceptional automatically
is suspect. Anything that can’t be measured
weighed and completely self-satisfiedly
categorised as useful in a wholly
functional fashion is out. So are you.

For all the celebration of beauty and small pleasures that we find in his poetry, Philip Larkin himself seems to have been a difficult and even disagreeable individual. Private correspondence is where we find a person at their best and worst, unbuttoned if not actually unwashed; Larkin in this respect is full of the philistine opinions and anti-intellectual attitudes of a Little Englander. His letters, and his biographies to seem extent, disabuse us of any romantic image of the poet-librarian.

Each of the thin volumes published in Larkin’s lifetime is packed with background knowledge, proving Samuel Johnson’s saying, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” 10 Larkin’s output dwindles as he gets older. Some readers have explained this in terms of his work, that library commitments made it harder and harder to find time to write and read; we all know a librarian somewhere who no longer has time to read, they’re so busy with books. Larkin’s slowing up can be traced to problems in his own life, but there are also mundane explanations to consider, such as he had nothing more to say, or that he couldn’t be bothered. As happens so often with artists who are highly popular in their own lifetime, the demand of the fans far exceeds the interests or abilities of their idols.

Larkin was largely a social poet, his themes the mistakes people make, and human fallibility generally. His worldview was formed by the experience of wartime England and the resulting hard-eyed realism of austerity England. Samuel Johnson also said that literature helps us better to enjoy life, or better to endure it, a position that Larkin probably shared to judge by his passion for it in the Letters. A rounded reader, Larkin identifies “the priest and the doctor” as prerequisite in his poem ‘Days’. 11 Their presence in this poem can be interpreted as the reader wishes and some see them as grave forebodings or impractical interferences in the real business of life. A more generous interpretation would argue that their mention is quite essential for Larkin, that their presence here is necessary, unavoidable, meaningful, and even salvific:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but in days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.


  1. Selected letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, ed. by Anthony Thwaite, Letter to Robert Conquest, 28 May 1955, p. 242.
  2. ‘A study of reading habits’, in Collected poems (CP), Philip Larkin, ed. with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite. Marvell Press & Faber and Faber, 1990, p. 131.
  3. ‘Toads’, CP, p. 89.
  4. Quoted by Anthony Thwaite in the Introduction to CP, p. xviii.
  5. ‘New eyes each year’, CP, p. 212.
  6. ‘Church going’, CP, p. 97.
  7. Beaver, Bruce, ‘On re-reading Amis, Wain & Larkin’, in The long game and other poems, University of Queensland Press, 2005, p. 91.
  8. ‘Water’, CP, p. 93.
  9. Beaver, Bruce, op. cit., p. 92.
  10. Johnson, Samuel, quoted in Boswell’s Life, 1775.
  11. ‘Days’, CP, p. 67.

Underground Cathedrals

Review by Philip Harvey first published in Tin Tean in 2012
Underground Cathedrals, by Mark Patrick Hederman OSB (Columba Press ISBN 978-1-85607-695-1, published 2010)

One of the major historical changes in Ireland over the past twenty years has been the withdrawal of popular involvement in the dominant Roman Catholic Church. This is not just disillusion with the Church but angry rejection of its place as a leading institution of Irish life, brought about distinctively but not solely by the clergy sex abuse scandals and episcopal failure to deal meaningfully with these outrages. There is an ongoing sea change, with a need to review its causes and reconsider the future. An impressive aspect of this book by the Abbot of Glenstal Abbey is its primary concern with the people of Ireland and the shape of their future, rather than with the woes of the Church.

Using the image of the cathedral to explain Christian history, Mark Patrick Hederman defines normative Catholicism as coming from two main sources: St Augustine’s teachings, symbolised by the Romanesque cathedral, and St Thomas Aquinas, symbolised in the complete worldview expressed in Gothic cathedrals. Although both theologians developed systems that were open-ended, the Church adopted their work as definitive for Catholic doctrine, with a resulting rigidity that gave little scope for new ideas and discoveries, a rigidity by the way not found in the spirit of enquiry displayed by the saints themselves. Hederman shows how something was bound to give way. In one sweeping chapter he explains what happened to poverty, chastity, and obedience when addressed respectively by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. The Church’s own self-restricting positions, as dictated by Augustine and Aquinas, had turned these affirmative virtues into rule-bound negations of life. Nor did the Church have the imaginative language or flexibility to engage with our changing knowledge of the universal, the social, or the personal.

Such Catholicism was bound to be restrictive in such an isolated nation. Hederman writes, “From the very beginning of our history as a newly formed independent twentieth century state in Ireland, our mental architecture was consciously designed and implemented. National identity was expressed in symbols representing our Celtic heritage, the Gaelic language, and the Roman Catholic religion. These received state and ecclesiastical support. The questionable authenticity of this cluster of symbols has much to do with our current problems.” Hederman is harsh in his description of the construction after 1949 of Galway Cathedral. Dedicated in 1965, it was “an object lesson in insularity,” and “a gloomy monument … to our refusal to emerge from the tomb of medieval Christianity.” The Second Vatican Council, which ended in the same year, produced documents on liturgy that “rendered the shape, style, arrangement and settings of such buildings obsolete and anachronistic,” while across Europe churches in new styles were being built with virtuosity and great theological awareness. This cathedral image is pivotal in his discussion, as it symbolises the unquestioned and unquestioning authority once enjoyed by the Church in Irish society, but also the inertia and even stagnation that can follow from such an overriding role. It also informs his thinking on the sensitive subject of the Ryan Report, where he argues that the power to act on abuse was impossible while for decades no one would have been allowed to say anything against a priest, let alone question his integrity. For Hederman, the Church fulfilled the role of “removing from the people their freedom and responsibility for working out their own salvation, reducing them to infantilism and treating them like children.”

The Abbot has been a champion of artistic expression. He is important, in my view, for being the first reader of James Joyce inside Ireland to treat that literary master as fulfilling a religious vision of existence, i.e. explaining that satire of Catholicism does not make you an anti-religious or non-religious writer. It is Joyce who celebrated the human body, in contrast to the hatred of the body expressed by the Church, such that the Abbot calls it Manichean. So it is not surprising that Hederman’s appeal to the Spirit, his solution to the impasse of the current Church crisis, and the problems of Irish identity, is through learning from artists, writers, and poets. That is the central argument of this book, that “myopically cloistered Ireland” must become open to the Spirit as revealed through these explorers of the imagination. Interestingly, in this respect he offers the same advice given by Enda McDonagh when that moral theologian spoke at the Irish Studies Conference at Newman College in  Melbourne some years ago on the subject ‘Faith and the Cure of Poetry’. Both men are looking outside the church for those expressions whereby we may discern the activity of the Spirit.

As well as praising contemporary artists who dare to expose the difficult nature of Ireland today, or who attempt to present possibilities for the future, Hederman also identifies older artists who have become prophets recognised in their own country. Louis Le Brocquy, for example, an artist vilified by the Dublin establishment in the 1950s, he says is “revealing the divine face which is the fundamental reality of who we are at our most creative and at our most personal.” Brian Friel, that proclaimer and revealer in the underground cathedral known as the theatre, produces “life-support machines” that may engender religious experience. Hederman even quotes Friel, who discovered that “this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness.” Then Seamus Heaney, whom Hederman says is “developing an alphabet of metaphysical archaeology and a vocabulary to help us adapt to ‘being in depth’.” The Abbot is realistic in saying that prophets before now have not been received in their own country, pointing to Yeats, Joyce and all who spoke in their generation of a more human religion and a more open Ireland, only to have their main message ignored by the majority. But Hederman praises and enables, getting us to see hope in a time of despair, for certainly he knows he belongs inside a church that is in permanent crisis mode. This book comes out of that understanding, informed though by a love both of church of the Irish nation.

If questions must be asked of the Abbot’s arguments, they go back to first principles. There is, for example, no doubt that any church lacking an understanding and proclamation of the Gospel is not going to last long and cannot really be called a church. Missing through most of his discussion is any mention of Scripture, making one wonder just how removed Irish Catholics have become from the foundation of the written faith. Maybe, and not just maybe, it is time for the Abbot and others to start developing an Irish liberation theology. Beggars can’t be choosers, as those Latin Americans knew who went back to their Bibles and began applying the stories to their own conditions when adopting liberation theology practice. The Irish Church finds itself in a not dissimilar position, where those who remain do not trust hierarchies and crave the living sources that created a Celtic Church in the first place. Visiting Lough Derg is a good start and Hederman has an inspiring chapter on how modern writers (Carleton, McCarthy, Devlin, Kavanagh, Heaney) have used the famous pilgrimage site of Station Island as the place to reconnect with their Ireland, past and present. But without individual discovery of the Scripture it is impossible properly to understand the sacraments, let alone the deeper religious meanings of our artists. Basic ecclesial communities deserve to be the subject of his next writings.

Listening to the people should be a first requirement of a priest and Mark Patrick Hederman is leading by example in this respect. He also understands better than most that art and its making are signs of the spirit, a view strangely out of fashion in the relativistic postmodern art world itself but not with those who look at human expression to explain meaning and existence. Yet it has to be asked how art in all its forms can alone change people’s sensibilities for the better or make them more charitable towards others. There is too an implication here that expressions of the Spirit in Irish art are certain good not only for finding a national future, but a future inside the Church. Catholicism at its best has always gone to artists to explain faith and the whole book is written with this attitude, this sensibility in mind, but I ask if Hederman is not at times unconsciously equating the affirmative pursuits of Roman Catholicism in this regard with Irish national aspirations and hopes, in ways that replicate the same error he is accusing 20th century Ireland of having committed.

Still, the Abbot wants his reader to open her mind, to interpret her dreams. He wants the reader to get in touch with his feminine side, to become aware of his unspoken desires to destroy that which speaks to his reality and to his hopes. He is writing not just to those still in the church, but very especially to those who have left. He is in pursuit of what is called in the three-page poem that opens the book, ‘The Truth of Poetry’, a poem written on the 3rd of February 2009 and handed to the Abbot by one Michael D. Higgins. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

If I start on the Classics I shall never get to History

Philip Harvey

This is the eighth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

A Poem by Yüan Mei (1716–1797)

Everything else in life is easy to break with;
Only my books are hard to leave behind.
I want to go through them all again,
But the days hurry by, and there is not time.
If I start on the Classics I shall never get to history;
If I read philosophy, literature goes by the board.
I look back at the time when I purchased them—
Thousands of dollars, I never worried about the price.
If passages were missing, the pains I took to supply them,
And to fill out sets that were incomplete!
Of the finest texts many are copied by hand;
The toil of which fell to my office clerks.
Day and night I lived with them in intimacy.
I numbered their volumes and marked them with yellow and red.
How many branches of wax-candle light,
How many drops of weary heart’s blood!
My sons and grandsons know nothing of this;
Perhaps the book-worms could tell their own tale.
Today I have had a great tidy-up,
And feel I have done everything I was born to do….
It is good to know that the people in the books
Are waiting lined up in the Land of the Dead.
In a little while I shall meet them face to face
And never again need to look at what they wrote!

The translator of this Chinese poem is Arthur Waley (1889-1966), the Englishman who did more to bring Chinese and Japanese literature into English than anyone else in the 20th century. The lucid logic of the poem speaks for itself. Commentary is superfluous.

One student of Arthur Waley later in his life was the Japanese scholar Carmen Blacker, who wrote of Waley’s domestic situation in 1962: “To add to his anxieties he had been told that by the following year he must leave the flat where he had lived for forty years because London University intended to appropriate that entire side of Gordon Square. In face of the difficulties of moving his library and of the almost certain prospect that his right hand would never write again, he had decided to give up Oriental studies altogether.”

This picture of Arthur Waley at the end of his life has about it details of weight and import that belong in one of the great Chinese works he spent his life translating into English. We ponder the painful move from familiar surroundings that comes at an age when life should be more settled. We are presented with his health conditions, in particular the hand that produced such books as the first English versions of Monkey, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Secret History of the Mongols and who knows what else, a hand now incapacitated. And our eye alights upon the word ‘library’. In this one word we are left to imagine what kind of library, what kind of books, constituted the private reading world of a scholar like Arthur Waley.

Waley’s book on Zen Buddhism was published in 1922, five years before Dr D. T. Suzuki’s first books in English, so maybe the earliest treatment of Zen in any Western language. Zen is such a basic component of contemporary religious language, we forget that it is a 20th century concept to the English-speaking world. Arthur Waley has been described as representing “a junior, exotic branch of the now historical Bloomsbury group.” (David Hawkes) He worked many years in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, then around 1930 seems to have decided that his life would be spent most productively in dedicated translation of Asian classical works. So determined was he on this path, and on rejection of an academic existence, that later in life he refused many honours, including the Chair in Chinese at Cambridge University, remarking of that prospect, “I would rather be dead.” Life, for Arthur Waley, was to be found elsewhere.

The editor of the Penguin Classic series mid-century, J. M. Cohen, called Waley a re-creative rather than an imitative poet. An imitative translator tries to get the exact meter and rhyme of the original, while a re-creative translator in an “interpretive artist”, something we see whether in Waley’s versions of the Japanese Noh Plays, Chinese Tao poems, or the Buddhist Tripitaka. Waley is praised for catching the right tone of the work in hand. For him, free translation is necessary for transmitting the poetic quality of a work. We see this, for example, in his translation of the voluminous medieval novel The Tale of Genji, where the main value is literary, not literal, “where any pedantically ‘accurate’ translation will vitiate their character in a far more damaging way – by making them unreadable.” (Ivan Morris) Waley is one of the main people responsible in the last century for turning the literatures of China and Japan from “the preserve of specialists and of dabblers in quaint exotica”, into “part of the main stream of intelligent reading in the West.” (Ivan Morris again)

Strangely, he never visited Asia, despite many invitations; theories for this include “he did not choose to destroy his visionary images of Japan and China.” (Peter Quennell) When we stand back from Arthur Waley’s achievement we see that it is the result of an exceptional ability to live imaginatively in places not his own and remote in time. We see too that this could only happen within a world of books. I am talking not about a nostalgic belief in books and their contents, not about a collector’s enclave of special editions and market prices, but about a vital, practical use of books for ends that widen everyone’s perceptions and knowledge, that connect West with East, that go down to the roots of language where one nation may recognise another nation. His library provided the poet-translator with the means whereby one person may meet another across continents, borders, and centuries. Like the books in the poem of Yüan Mei, the library of Arthur Waley mentioned by Carmen Blacker is a working collection, a slowly accumulated memory bank there to serve the solid working years of a real scholar. And like Yüan Mei’s collection, we wonder where all those extraordinary books went upon the death of their owner.

All quotes in this essay, including the poem itself, are found in Madly Singing in the Mountains : an Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley, edited with a preface by Ivan Morris. (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1970)  

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Matrix Poems of St John of the Cross

Philip Harvey
[Morning Tea in the 21st Century at the Carmelite Library]

Even though the Portuguese were the first Europeans to import tea from Asia, in the 16th century, it is unlikely that Saint John of the Cross would ever have drunk tea. Nor would he have had the pleasure of coffee, which doesn’t start entering Europe from the Middle East until about a century after his death.

John of the Cross would have known about biscuits, which were already a common food in the Middle Ages. Cake is at least as old as the Romans, and Shakespeare, who is a generation after John of the Cross, has Sir Toby Belch ask the Puritan Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Sugar may have been known to John of the Cross, but it was a luxury item even after Christopher Columbus had brought it back from the Americas in the previous generation. The first record of chocolate being shipped from America is 1585, Veracruz to Seville, six years before John’s death, so he may just may have consumed chocolate.

In other words, morning tea would not only have been a cultural curiosity to John and all other Spaniards, and the English too actually, it would have been an impossibility.

This is not just a glib way of opening a morning tea discussion about Saint John of the Cross. Our ways of eating and drinking are qualitatively different and more sophisticated than those of people in the 16th century. We can take that for granted. We live at the other end of the globalisation era that erupted during the lifetime of John of the Cross, that period when the nations of Europe first started competing for claims over the lands they were discovering worldwide. The Spanish Armada disaster occurred in 1588, three years before his death, though we can assume from what we know of John that this event was not at the front of his mind at the time.

The culinary world of John of the Cross was Mediterranean. He did not experience tea or coffee. The three main liquids drunk by Spaniards at that time were the same they had been for centuries: water, wine, and milk. These three beverages, but water and wine in particular, are central in the poetic imagery of John of the Cross. Similarly, although biscuits and cake would have been nice, the staple food of Spain was bread. Everyone ate bread and it is a main element in his poetry, as well. Bread, wine and water were the poor and absolute essentials of a Mediterranean meal, which is why Christ used them in the formalising of the Last Supper. He didn’t use rich foodstuffs but the basics, the food anyone could get their hands on. And so it was still in John’s time, and so today. They are eucharistic because they are the essentials.

I also mentioned Columbus just before. One of the seminal dates in Spanish history is, of course, 1492 when, simultaneously, Spain bumped into America, and at home engaged in a full-scale program of “religious cleansing”. All Muslims, or moriscos, were driven out of the new united kingdom of Spain, and the Jews had the choice of conversion to Christianity, or leaving. This unhappy situation led to the forced conversion of many Spanish Jews, or Sephardim, soon known as conversos. This is extremely important to our appreciation of the first and second generation of new Christians in Spain, because so many of them took to the new religion with all the over-the-top enthusiasm of the recent convert. Many of the great Carmelite mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, as well as many of the first men in the upstart order known by the bizarre name of the Society of Jesus, came from families that were conversos. They were Jews, they were Jewish Christians. They were kosher, according to the Spanish Rule, and they were mad keen to missionize the entire world opening up before the imperial power of Spain.

Before we turn to some poems, I will also draw your attention to the fact that we are surrounded by hundreds of printed books. When the poet John was born the printed books had been in existence for under one hundred years, which is about the period of time for us today since the introduction of radio. The printed book was the marvellous invention that had helped transform European cultural life and was one of the crucial media forms that brought on the Reformation of the Western Church. John himself would have lived in a world in which manuscripts and the spoken word were still very much the norm and this is worth keeping in mind when we listen to his poems because they are only secondarily being composed for general distribution, if at all. Most of the poems John wrote were composed as educational lessons for spiritual direction. Their message was emotional and intellectual at once, and there to be memorised. The last thing on John’s mind was that these poems be submitted to a learned periodical or loaded on his website. Indeed, essential to an appreciation of this handful of lyrical poems is that they were composed for a particular religious purpose. They were composed to be recited and repeated. When we read John we are in rooms and cloisters and gardens where human voices are communicating these marvellous experiences and possibilities.

[En una noche oscura]

One of the first things we notice about the words of ‘En una noche oscura’ is that they seem to be about a secret assignation at night between two lovers. Assuming that John is the speaker and the lover is male, a modern reader readily concludes that we have here an early example of Spanish gay verse. We read the poem this way because of our own readerly habits. We live in a post-Romantic and post-Freudian world, post-Wildean in fact, which means we read the poem as an erotic love poem directed at one individual, the object of human desire. Some would even say, how else are we meant to read the poem?

Whether or not John was gay, and this is a question that today vexes some scholars and readers, is actually beside the point. The poet is using a convention of the first person subject, that is when he says ‘I’ he means you and me, whoever the person is reading the poem. We identify with the ‘I’ of the poem. Our assumption that it has to be John is a mere assumption of modern reading practice, where we wish to believe that the poem is autobiographical, an insight into this person’s personal experience of passionate love, a confession of erotic desire and fulfilment. When we listen to Patti Smith’s version of ‘Because the Night’, for example, which I happen to believe is inspired by the poetry of John of the Cross, we know that we are hearing a piece of profane not sacred song lyric. But in the poem of the ‘dark night’ (‘noche oscura’) John has taken an established form of love poetry and converted it into a poem about the individual’s relationship to God.  

This desire for God is what John is concerned about. He is offering the possibility of a place we can be when we have overcome earthly desire, which is not a denial of that earthly desire or its reality, only that for him true love is with God.

This upturning of our own readerly expectations is further confronted when we must consider that John wrote these poems for the use of female novices in the convent, young women preparing to enter into profession. In other words the reader (‘I’ in the poem) is a woman seeking our her lover in the night. Furthermore, the lover is the epitome of all love, the God of her pure desire and wonder.

[Oh llama de amor viva]

The surviving poems of John of the Cross amount to about twenty or so individual works. This is a minimal number of poems for someone regarded as one of the greatest Spanish poets and formative for Spanish literature and Spanish sensibility. Shakespeare, for example wrote at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, several long poems and who knows what else. Twenty poems?

Everything comes into perspective however when we start reading all the words that he put together as commentary to these poems. Here, to start with, are some of his words of explanation for the single line that goes ‘Las profundas cavernas del sentido’:

The caverns are the powers of the soul, memory, understanding, and will, and their depth is commensurate with their capacity for great good, because nothing less than the infinite can fill them. What they suffer when they are empty, shows in some measure the greatness of their delight when they are full of God; for contraries are known by contraries. In the first place, it is to be remembered that these caverns are not conscious of their extreme emptiness when they are not purified and cleansed from all affection for created things. In this life every trifle that enters them is enough to perplex them, to render them insensible to their loss, and unable to recognise the infinite good which is wanting, or their own capacity for it. It is assuredly a most wonderful thing how, notwithstanding their capacity for infinite good, a mere trifle perplexes them, so that they cannot become the recipients of that for which they are intended, till they are completely emptied. [III, 20]

And a little way along these words on the same the line:

Great, then, is the capacity of these caverns, because that which they are capable of containing is great and infinite, that is, God. Thus their capacity is in a certain sense infinite, their hunger and thirst infinite also, and their languishing and their pain, in their way, infinite. So when the soul is suffering this pain, though the pain be not so keen as in the other world, it seems to be a vivid image of that pain, because the soul is in a measure prepared to receive that which fills it, the privation of which is the greatest pain. Nevertheless the suffering belongs to another condition, for it abides in the depth of the will’s love; but in this life love does not alleviate the pain, because the greater it is the greater the soul’s impatience for the fruition of God, for which it hopes continually with intense desire. [III, 23]

When we find that this simple poem of four stanzas has an entire book of meanings attached to it, we start to comprehend that John is working at a level of spiritual involvement (and literary focus) that is remarkable and fully formed and like something from another place. His longest poem, The Spiritual Canticle, a reading of the Song of Songs in which the Beloved is Christ, likewise has a full-scale commentary which the nuns (and we today) have to read in order to understand what John is actually wanting to say. There is nothing remotely like this in English literature. English poets do not spend entire books giving us an explanation of each line of their poems, nor would we expect them to. We are used to literary criticism, the excessive effort of interpreting what the poet might mean and why, but that is simply addenda to the real stuff, much of it at odds with the possible intentions of the poet.

So what is going on here?

The poems were composed when John was thrown into prison by the Carmelites in Toledo. After his escape he went to live with the sisters in a town some distance from Toledo and it was they who requested of their spiritual director John an elucidation of the beautiful poems he recited. He then started writing out the background thinking, if you like, that made these poems possible. He wished to train them to be spiritual directors, in turn. Our English words are hopelessly unsatisfactory in trying to explain what John’s poetry is actually doing, so I try to describe them in these different ways:

  1. The poems are keys to his mystical thinking, as expressed in the long texts that are really the full expression of his way of living life and of coming closer to God.
  2. The poems are a shorthand for the big messages there in the process of change he identifies in the commentaries. They live dependent on one another, each enriching the other through repeated reading.
  3. The poems are mnemonics, memory games that the nuns would have used to remind themselves of the deeper spiritual significance. Each line triggers its own associations, so they could memorise the poems and thus recall each step in the process of ascetic improvement and growth.
  4. The poems are abstracts of the thesis that follows at much greater length.
  5. The poems are the wound or trauma out of which then comes the analysis, spread out over years.   
  6. The poems are a matrix out of which derive the whole mass of networked practices, that may be used as a manual for spiritual directors, or as elucidation for anyone of the affective spiritual life.
  7. The poems are the mustard seed that turns into the most practical, health-giving and beautiful tree.
In the first poem we heard about the ‘dark night’. When I was younger and first heard of John of the Cross, this ‘dark night of the soul’ was something of a turn-off. It sounded like the journey of some gothic gloomster intent on making everything as awful as possible. I was young, for it is only by reading John that we find that his ‘dark night’ is actually the place of creative growth. The word ‘oscura’, from which we get obscure and obscured, suggests instantly to a Spanish reader not only the dark but also something that, though hidden, is available and is there; it does not really mean as his translator Roy Campbell would have it, gloomy. It is only by going through the ‘dark night’, only by leaving everything open to faith, that other and miraculous things start happening. So that, just as the lover seeks out the lover in the ‘dark night’ and is not happy until completely at one, ‘face to face with Love’s own grace’, so in this next poem it is in the night that the mystery of being is revealed. 

[Que bien se yo la fonte]

The conclusion of this poem reminds us of the elemental world of John of the Cross that we met at the start: water, bread, wine. Seamus Heaney, in his version of the poem in his collection ‘Station Island’ translates the critical word ‘fonte’ as ‘fountain’, reminding us of splashing sounds in the nights of Spanish gardens. ‘Fonte’ reminds us of font, the pool or basin where we are baptised, baptism being the single first sign of being a Christian. For any reader of Romance languages, however, ‘fonte’ also means the place of origin of the spring water, the first source of being. In other words, what we mean by the word God. There is no doubt that all of these meanings are at work in John’s single word ‘fonte’. This meaning deepens when we hear the translator Kathleen Jones’s background briefing to this poem.

“In sixteenth-century Spain, fountains were usually to be found in palaces, and it is not likely that there was a fountain within earshot of St John’s miserable cell in the priory of the Calced Carmelites in Toledo.
“The priory was built into the walls of the city, which stands on a rock, all but encircled by the River Tagus. St John’s cell had a small window on to a walkway with a bigger one, and a sheer drop to the rushing waters below. The sound of the water was a constant reminder of the eternal grace of God, and the consciousness of God’s presence made a terrible situation not only bearable, but inspiring.
“He must have spent many hours alone in the dark, listening to the sound of the river, and the repeated refrain tells its own story. The water flows freely, he is a captive; yet he has his own source of freedom. The River of Life comes from God. It is the origin of all origins. The currents are the activities of the Church; and the two combine in the Sacrament, the Bread of Life. At least his captors did not deny him that.”

The Dark Night itself is the time of reaching to meet God coming to the lover. It is a creative place, the place where the overcoming or living through of desires and temptations and failures will, with persistence and intention, be the opening up to God and union with God. This is the ultimate desire of the person involved in living through the Dark Night. The Dark Night is not a place of hostility and evil, though these things may have to be dealt with. Peter Tyler talks about the late nights in Avila and elsewhere in Spain being the time when clarity and awareness are found in peace and silence. The darkest hour is just before sunrise, but is also the softest, quietest, most tranquil time of the night. I liken the Dark Night of John to the stifling warm nights in Melbourne that are followed by the cool change when we open all the windows of our house: God is like the cool change, that which comes after waiting and hoping and living in faith.

This is another way of describing God, but neither is God the cool change nor the cool change, God. God is the cool change blowing through us and transforming us, but if we say he is the cool change we have already missed the message. All of these things, words, images, music, artworks, ideas, are helpful in coming to union with God, but once they get in the way or become the object itself, they are unhelpful and must be put aside. This is the meaning of John’s description of the way to the summit of Mount Carmel being nada, nada, nada. Nothing must get in the way of the ecstatic union with God, not the role of the spiritual director, not useful analogies like the cool change, not any analogy or dogma, nothing, nothing, nothing.

[Paper given at a morning tea in the Carmelite Library by the librarian Philip Harvey on the feast day of St John of the Cross, Friday the 14th of December, as part of the program of the Carmelite Centre, Middle Park]

Some sources:
The Living Flame of Love, by St. John of the Cross, translated by David Lewis, 1912.
A New Companion to Hispanic Mysticism, edited by Hilaire Kallendorf, 2010 
The Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell, 1951
The Poems of Saint John of the Cross, translated by Willis Barnstone, 1968
The Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Kathleen Jones, 1993
St John of the Cross, by Peter Tyler, 2010
Station Island, by Seamus Heaney, 1984 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Les Murray Visits the Carmelite Library

very fine time with les murray friday morning in the carmelite library, as fortune would have it les was in melbourne to speak to haplax in the evening, so his chauffeuse donna ward transported les over to middle park at 9.30 for a late breakfast of irish breakfast tea and passionfruit cakes from the south melbourne market, les plans to talk at the carmelite centre next year thus this opportunity to get a feel for the place, the calm room that is the carmelite library of spirituality, yes his catholicism is well-known to his readers, part of his escape or rejection of his presbyterian upbringing, still an unexplored part of his work actually, but his catholicism also an exploration of the history that is everywhere about us and of the god that forgives while he asks us to learn forgiveness, one of the hardest challenges for any of us in this life, les said he writes poems now that try to handle forgiving things in his past, I remarked unheard that that is the jesus thing, one of the hardest things you can do, les talked this morning about his scots ancestors and how even today the murrays don’t give christmas presents, a handkerchief or something, which is given to someone else at the next birthday, he was being serious I think, coming from an anglican vicarage world myself where christmas pudding can be an explanation of life itself this murray parsimony is mighty weird and maybe catholicism was a cure and a way forward for him, he is incredibly sensory, he seemed quite comfortable in the serene surrounds of the library, great conversation and he really does listen to what everyone is saying, I actually relate to his way of relating, he doesn’t bother with prefaces, it’s straight on with whatever comes next to his mind, les talked about archbishop mannix, said he wanted to write something sometime on mannix, seeing as how he was in melbourne  at the moment, and how mannix had saved hundreds of lives maybe by acting against conscription in the great war, I told les that the carmelite hall itself where we sat over morning tea was dedicated by mannix and the stone block with goldleaf was in the front of the building proving he’d dedicated the building in 1918, but les had already noticed the bluestone block with the goldleaf, and I remarked how the hall predated the church (our lady of mount carmel) because when mannix came to middle park he said to the carmelites they had to decide what kind of style of building they wanted, make up your minds, our lady being several styles in one roman-byzantine & romanesque & victorian gothic & maybe australian italianate and it was thus in the twenties they constructed a new church which is what we see today on the corner of richardson and wright streets, victoria was discussed, I said that in the last census, les knew it was late last year and told us promptly, they made an analysis of giving to public charities and on a ratio the most charitable place was the very same middle park, so it was good to be sitting in the most charitable place in australia, but I asked what was the second most charitable place in victoria, and les guessed very very close he said bairnsdale maybe, and I said hmmm close in fact lakes entrance, and he agreed lakes entrance was a friendly place to be, said his favourite victorian town was mildura, it’s also great to hear him talking so openly about autism, my understanding of autism is that ultimately only one person can say a person is autistic and that is the person themselves, they have to self-diagnose, as I understand it, others can find ways of making them see that there are social problems but only they can get to the point of identifying it, that’s why les rehearsed a series of characteristics of his that he recognises as typical of the spectrum, this is very healthy behaviour from les, I believe, it is self-curative which is why it’s worth listening to him say it, he needs to say it and we need to hear it, it makes lots of things more understandable about les and his difficulties and his poetry, and anyway what does it all mean? autism, he talked about his son alexander who displays what is called iliasm which apparently is the verbal trait of talking in collective pronouns about one’s own personal actions, les said with joy that alexander was an iliast, a word he had just invented, I observed how close it was to iliad, les got onto all sorts of stuff, he wanted to know all about carmelites of course and how many were there and there was a new translation of john of the cross in recent years that he found okay, he also liked the penguin version of a few years back and I said that in reading john recently I particularly liked roy campbell’s versions, we agreed that campbell is about the best, that he gets closer to the spanish lyricism than other translators, the visit was to introduce him to middle park in anticipation of his two sessions with us at the carmelite centre early next year, an evening session for ‘poetry for the soul’ and a next morning session where people are invited to come along and read poems and les and the rest of us talk about the poems, it’s going to be terrific and I already worry about too many people cramming into the  o’connor-pilkington rooms at middle park, we talked about previous sessions of poetry for the soul including the last one on james k baxter and the american poet still with us mary oliver, les was interested in oliver so I reached down the collected poems from the shelf, he read some quietly over his cup of tea, coming to the early one-word judgement ‘soft’ but that he needed to read more, even ‘soft’ is open to interpretation, childhood is an amazing time, when I listen to things les says that I find a bit tricky (he talked about a poem on the cattle history of australia, for example, which I find needs more questions being asked) I see that he is reworking some very fundamental truths of his own upbringing that he not only will not betray but in fact wishes to laud to the skies, he certainly lives an incredibly close-up world of the mind, everything is ticking over so any word can be picked up and turned into new or amazing information, inside an hour we covered the catastrophe of the thirty years war, bach’s church in leipzig where les himself once attended communion, how cameras have become omnipresent and even on the farm people come up the drive and take pictures of him, the glory of libraries for those craving knowledge himself included, any turn in the conversation touched off thoughts informed by remarkable knowledge, that seemed as though the main thought in his mind at the time, readymade but of course the result of years of hard-won thought experience, but soon I had to return to the library work and les and donna had an appointment uptown at the university, as one would expect, we breathed the cool air of friday morning coming off port phillip bay, then donna and les were in the car and off to the next destination

composed freely the following evening by philip harvey

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Bibliographical Heritage of Religious Institutes

Philip Harvey
One of the Special Projects of the Carmelite Library is the Bibliographical Heritage of Religious Institutes. The project was initiated several years ago by certain far-seeing Carmelites, with profound results for all of those concerned about our literary, spiritual and religious heritage. One of these men is Paul Chandler O.Carm., Librarian of the Carmelite Library for many years. Here in colour are Paul Chandler’s original words of explanation:  

For generations Catholic religious congregations of priests, brothers and nuns have played an important part in the cultural, educational, spiritual and social life of the entire Australian community, in areas as diverse as education, social welfare, health care, and overseas aid. Today many of these congregations are in decline and experiencing changes which, among other consequences, are having a drastic impact on the nation’s bibliographical heritage. Many communities have relocated from large institutions to smaller and more domestic housing, and already many unique and long-established libraries have been lost or irretrievably dispersed. 

Through our project “Bibliographical Heritage of Religious Institutes the Carmelite Library is making an urgent effort to provide a repository for books representing the historic traditions of religious congregations. We are convinced that these are of significance not only for their theological and religious content, but also from many other perspectives of broad interest in the community: for example, the history of education, of women and of children, and the sociology of particular spiritual, cultural, and religious outlooks and customs. 

Clearly the Carmelites wish to create a reference collection and research resource for matters relating to religious congregations and their influence in Australian church and society. While we may call this project a donations drive, it is much more than that, as the Library serves as the research home for this kind of literature. Much of this material is unique, or not available in other university or theological libraries. The Library is saving the literature from loss and giving it a second life.

The Bibliographical Heritage of Religious Institutes is growing into an essential resource for study, a national resource.  With time there will soon be nowhere else that holds this kind of material.

In the past twelve months the Carmelite Library has received substantial collections under the aegis of this project from the Ursuline Sisters (Armidale, NSW), the Loreto Sisters (Toorak, Victoria), and the Blessed Sacrament Fathers (Melbourne, Victoria).  In previous years we have received special collections from the Sisters of Mercy, the Presentation Sisters, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Brigidine Sisters, the Faithful Companions of Jesus, the Society of the Sacred Mission (Anglican), the Pallottine Fathers, and the Society of Jesus.

We welcome enquiries about this project at the contacts listed across the way to the right on this blogspot.