Little we know of verse here

In the summer-house of the Cornish king
I kneeled to Mark at a banqueting,
I saw the hand of the queen Iseult;
down her arm a ruddy bold
fired the tinder of my brain
to measure the shape of man again;
I heard the king say: ‘Little we know
of verse here; let the stranger show
a trick of the Persian music-craft.’
Iseult smiled and Tristram laughed.
Her arm exposed on the board, between
Mark and Tristram sat the queen,
but neither Mark nor Tristram sought
the passion of substantial thought,
neither Mark not Tristram heard
the accent of the antique word.
Only the uncrossed Saracen
sang amid the heavy Cornish men;
only, a folly amid fighting lords,
I caught her arm in a mesh of chords,
and the speech of Moslem Ispahan
swung the hazels of Lateran.

From The Coming of Palomides, in Taliessin Through Logres, by Charles Williams

Looking for wisdom in poetry

This short passage from Lewis is absolutely brilliant. It explains why so much contemporary literary criticism is crap. That 500 page thesis on “Transgender Identity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets”? How about “Dante: Animal Rights Activist”. Also related to this is why in high school you had to read Cider House Rules but not Milton. And that’s just the tip of the iceburg really. This helps explain all kinds of things!

I think we demand of a great poem something that can be called Wisdom. We wish, after reading it to understand things in general, or at least some things, better than we did before. Wisdom by itself does not make a great poem or even a poem at all: and the value of a poem is by no means in the direct ration to its wisdom. But the demand for wisdom remains. It is indeed so strong that critics to whom the obvious content of an old poet is mere ‘theological rubbish’ usually find it necessary to convince themselves that he had some profound wisdom of quite a different kind, some ‘real subject’ which no generation till our own ever suspected. The whole biographical bias of modern (or recent) criticism is possibly due to the desire to find wisdom in poems whereof the obvious meaning has ceased to appear wise. If Heaven and Hell, gods and heroes, the innocence of Imogen and the horrors of conscience in Macbeth, seem to man ‘rubbish’, then his last resource for restoring importance to the texts is to suppose that the poet is revealing the secrets of his own heart. The demand that to read great verse should be to grow in wisdom has not really altered.

-C.S. Lewis, Williams and the Arthuriad, p.190

On rereading William’s Taliessin (this time with a guide!)

For my second journey into the mind of Charles Williams, I chose his Arthurian poetry cycle, which includes Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. Williams worked hard on these poems. All accounts say that he viewed them as his greatest achievement. Turning out novels and other books for some profit was always getting in the way of his accomplishing this task. In fact, death put a stop to it before he could finish the cycle with a third volume.

And so, I started to read. It was slow going. I only understood about 10% of what was going on. I almost quit…

Then, I discovered The Figure of Arthur, a concise history of Arthurian legend, written by Williams and published (in part) after his death by C.S. Lewis. This was immensely helpful, for now many of the names and places mentioned in his verse took on a history. The book also includes extensive notes and literary criticism from C.S. Lewis on the poems themselves. He admits that in some ways, they aren’t very good. But he praises them for other qualities that I hadn’t considered (perhaps more on that later). With Lewis to guide me through the cycle, it suddenly became much more interesting. The words on the page transformed right before my eyes! That is to say, suddenly the poem didn’t suck anymore.

Lewis explains that a lot of the best writing out there has prerequisites to reading it with understanding. That is why studying the classics is so valuable. However, you have to draw the line somewhere:

[concerning T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land], if you have never read Dante or Shakespeare certain things in that poem will be obscure to you. But then, frankly, we ought to have rad Dante and Shakespeare; or at lest the poet has a right to address only those who have done so. And if the only result of a first reading of The Waste Land were to send you to Dante and Shakespeare, your time and money have been very well spent. Similarly in Williams. He assumes that you know the Bible, Malory, and Wordsworth pretty well, and that you have t least some knowledge of Milton, Dante, Gibbon, the Mabinogion, and Church history. Difficulties of this sort are wholly legitimate. But there are border-line cases.

When Mr. Eliot assumes that you know Miss Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, or Williams that you know Heracleitus as quoted by W.B. Yeats – or still more when the one assumes a knowledge of the Tarot pack and the other of the Sephirotic Tree – the difficulties are becoming less obviously legitamate. We have not indeed, reached the frontiers of vicious Privatism. The things referred to are accessible: the poet may be innocently mistaken about the extent to which they are – still more about the extent to which they ought to be – matters of common knowledge among educated people.

-C.S. Lewis, Williams and the Arthuriad, Conclusions p. 189

So I read something, and found it boring and confusing. But I wasn’t conviced is was the author’s fault. It had a hint of something more there, if only I could put my finger on it. So I spent a few days studying the background, then returned to it. What a difference!

The entire cycle really is pretty slow going. I don’t think I’ll end up carefully reading through the whole thing right now. There are other things I’d rather explore. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find the extra effort worth it!

Our meddling intellect

The poet Wordsworth get’s a lot of love from Owen Barfield. He is probably quoted and admired more than anyone frequently than anyone else I’ve seen so far in his writings.

…but perhaps the most brilliant, even epigrammatic, expression which has ever been given to the everlasting war between the unconscious, because creative, vital principle and the conscious, because destructive, calculating principle, is contained in four lines from a little peom of Wordsworth’s…

-Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Reader p. 42)

Here is that peom Barfield is talking about, with the pertinent verse in bold. (It’s a good one!)

The Tables Turned
by William Wordsworth

Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you’ll grow double.
Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble. . . .

Books! ’tis a dull and endless trifle:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it. . . .

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art,
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Metaphor changes language

This is one of the more lucid passages I discovered reading Owen Barfield:

Now apart from the actual invention of new words (an art in which many poets have excelled), the principal means by which this creation of meaning is achieved is – as has already been pointd out – metaphor. But it must be remembered that ANY specifically NEW use of a word or phrase is really a metaphor, since it attempts to arouse cognition of the unknown by suggestion from the known. I will take an example: the painter’s expression “point of view” was a metaphor the first time it was used with a psychological content. This content is today one of its accepted meanings – indeed, it is the most familiar one – but it could only have become so AFTER passing, explicity or implicityl, through the earlier stage of metaphor. In other words, either Coleridge or somebody else either said or thought (I am of course putting it a little crudely) ‘X is to the mind what “point of view” is to an observer of landscape’. And in so doing he enriched the content of the expression “point of view” just as Shakespeare enriched the content of ‘balm’ (and of ‘sleep’, too) when he called sleep the ‘balm of hurt minds’ (‘sleep is to hurt minds what balm is to hurt bodies’). Reflection will show that the ‘new’ use of an epithet – that is to say, its application to a substantive with which it has not hitherto been coupled – is also a concealed metaphor.

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: The Making of Meaning, (Reader p.20)

Barfield goes on to explain in quite some detail how the word “ruin” evolved (via metaphor) to mean several different things over the course of history. This stuff is interesting, but Podictionary makes it more fun!

Good poetry -> “A felt change of consciousness”

This, from the introduction to the Owen Barfield reader:

Both as a writer and a thinker Barfield grounds his thought in language and literature. It is the subject of his earliest writing and remains throughout his career the seedbed from which his thinking grows. It was during his Oxford years that he realized that he had “very sharp” experiences in reading poetry and as a result began pondering intensely the nature of these experiences. He determined that they lay in “a felt change of consciousness” brought about by the way in which the language of poetry alters our awareness and ultimately our knowledge. This led to a concentrated study of the development of language and the nature of poetic diction. Such study led in turn to his interest in the nature of imagination,of meaning, of perception, and of the evolution of consciousness.

I find this very interesting. He read some poetry that he really liked one day and it stuck in his head. Now, most of us do this all the time. We hear some music we like, we read a story we love as a child, maybe we are accosted by something we see in a movie. And then we go on with life, maybe seeking out more things like it on occasion.

Barfield stopped and said, OK, there is something magical about this poetry. Why? Why the heck does it affect me in some strange way? He decided to dig deep into psychology and linguistics to come up with some kind of coherent answer.

Tolkien and Lewis were delighted to find they had the same peciliar feeling, when, as young men, they read the Matthew Arnold poem on the death of the norse god Balder. Later, when they read Barfield, they both declared, “Yes! That’s it. This explains what was going on.” His work and theories helped steer their own writing the rest of their lives.


Hunger (by Billy Collins)

The fox you lug over your shoulder
in a dark sack
has cut a hole with a knife
and escaped

The sudden lightness makes you think
you are stronger
as you walk back to your small cottage
through a forest that covers the world.

Photo credit

Finding a different word

Today, a client who I built a video-on-demand server farm for said that we need to call our “video” service something else because every time he talks about it in meeting full of old school faculty and administrators, they keep thinking he is talking about VHS tapes, despite the whole context of his presentation being about education over the internet. There isn’t much I can do about this of course, but I told him I’d dust off my Roget’s Thesaurus.

Billy Collins wrote a poem about this odd sort of reference book.


It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundred of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed, and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.

Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by find shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
asterognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble wit their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.

Photo credit

A poem for travel and exploration

I would be traveling to far of lands right now…If I wasn’t stuck at the fogged out airport with a cancelled flight. In the meantime, here is some Billy Collins for ya:


All of Paris must have been away on holiday
when Pascal said that men are not happy
because they are incapable of staying in their rooms.

It is the kind of thought that belongs in a room,
sealed off from the vanities of the world,
polished roadsters, breasts, hunting lodges,
all letdowns in the end.

But imagine Columbus examining the wallpaper,
Magellan straightening up the dresser,
Lindbergh rearranging some magazines on a table.

Not to mention the need for everyday explorations,
the wandering we do, randomly as ants,
when we rove through woods without direction
or allow the diagram of a foreign city to lead us
through long afternoons on unpronounceable streets.

Then we are like children in playgrounds
who are discovering the art of running in circles
as if they were scribbling on the earth with their bodies.

We die only when we run out of footprints.
Then the biographers move in to retrace our paths,
enclosing them in tall mazes of lumber
to make our lives seem more complex, more arduous,
to make our leaving the room seem heroic.

The beginning of sadness

This excellent comment on growing up by Billy Collins:

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
and mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bead and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk in a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees, I bleed.