"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)

"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Monday, 10 April 2017

Edward Thomas and 'The Other'

On the 100th Anniversary of Edward Thomas's death, 
it seems worth re-publishing this post from a few years ago:

Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas' poem 'The Other' is often taken by critics as an internal debate between the poet and himself. This, of course, is true in the sense that the poem is a literary production in which that debate is articulated. But I want to consider if we can also take it as enacting a debate with something outside himself. Not that there was another human being going before him or from whom he needed to escape, as the poem's conceit would have it, but in the sense that - apart from the psychotic dimension of split personality - we are all in a relationship with another version of ourself who has an existence in another way of perceiving the world and therefore in another dimension of the world itself.

'The Other' was one of Edward Thomas' earliest poems. His period of life as a practising poet was short, growing out of his career as a writer of prose and cut short by his death in the First World War. The 110 lines of the poem develop the idea that another, looking just like the poet, has preceded him in inns and such places, or that the figure accompanies him on his many long walking expeditions. Set alongside this idea is the perception of two worlds of experience:

" ..... I had come
To an end of the forest, and because
Here was both road and inn, the sum
Of what's not forest. "

Identified at the inn as someone who has been there already, he is fearful:

"I travelled fast, in the hopes I should
Outrun that other. What to do
When caught, I planned not. I pursued
To prove the likeness, and, if true,
To watch until myself I knew."

The 'other man' was introduced by Thomas in an earlier prose work In Pursuit of Spring. The title's 'pursuit' is interesting in suggesting the idea that something elusive is being sought. The 'other' here is someone he keeps catching a glimpse of on his journey until he meets him in a public bar. Though not fully worked out in the prose work, the 'other man' seems to correlate with the 'other thing', that which Thomas is pursuing, but also that which he must escape to find it. Or has the poem has it:

"I sought then in solitude.
The wind had fallen with the night; as still
The roads lay in the ploughland rude,
Dark and naked, on the hill.

Listening to the last sounds of the day fade into night, he is alone:

" ..... I stood serene,
And with a solemn quiet mirth,
An old inhabitant of earth.

Has he escaped 'the Other' or found him and become one with him, in his whole, integrated, self?

But the poem does not end there. Such "moments of everlastingness" are brief. Back in the "tap room din" the other man is asking for him again, accusing him of following in his footsteps:

" ..... What had I got to say?
I said nothing. I slipped away."

The poem ends as it began, with the poet stealing out of a wood to the light of an inn and acknowledging that the pursuit will go on until each of them cease to be. Like many of Thomas' poems about paths which lead to inconclusive ends, this does not resolve the matter, but leaves the mystery of it as a pregnant reality. The quest goes on. But what is different here is that it is not the mundane self seeking a deeper significance, but the reverse of this as the one who holds the key to that significance is constantly drawn back to the tap room and the company of one who is content to be there, but is haunted by the other man who knows a different reality.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Form & Meaning

Looking through an old notebook I came across this quotation from Northrop Frye:

All around us is a society which demands that we adjust or come to terms with it, and what that society presents to us is a social mythology. Advertising propaganda, the speeches of politicians, popular books and magazines, the clich├ęs of rumour, all have their own kinds of pastoral myths, quest myths, hero myths, sacrificial myths, and nothing will drive these shoddy constructs out of our minds except the genuine forms of the same thing.

                                                      (from The Stubborn Structure )

I can see why that appealed to me then, and if it is true of his time, before the Internet, 'fake news' and the extended cult of phony 'celebrity', how much more so now? And yet ... I wonder about the implications here for the separation of form from meaning. For Frye, serious literature embodied these myths in deep and significant structures of meaning but popular cultural artefacts could do no more than gesture towards them. Such a position would be difficult to maintain today and it would be viewed as 'elitist'. But what strikes me as more contentious is the proposal that a 'form' - say a structural expression of an archetypal pattern - might be more or less significant, that is more or less meaningful as a 'sign' - depending on the particular medium of expression. Surely it is better to say that the real thing may be embodied in the form of an expression whether that form be a folk tale, a poem, a novel, a play, a popular drama, or a film. Is it not the skill with which these forms are manipulated in each medium that enhances or deepens our appreciation of the sign and so its significance but that it remains there as a perceptible presence however it is expressed?

That is, we do need, as Frye asserts, to be able to distinguish the quality of different literary products , but we cannot do so by consigning categories of expression to the status of 'worthy' or 'unworthy'. The gods that these myths give form to are ubiquitous, and will be present in whatever cultural forms we make for them according to the skill of the shaper to provide for their appearance rather than the medium through which it is expressed.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Winds of the Island of Britain

Wind blowing in from the East:   

a plaintive pleading.

Wind tacking round to the North:  

a cold encounter.

Wind blowing in from the West:

wildly trumpeting.

Wind wafting warmth from the South:

gets no welcome here.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Winter Trees

The black outlines of bare trees,
Barren boles, stark against
Yellow light of yesterday's snow.
The cloud-veiled sky covering
A shorn world starved of shadow.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Aberystwyth for Refugees

 The Anti-Trump / Pro-refugee event on Aberystwyth sea front.

  AberAid ~>
has raised thousands of pounds to support refugees.
 The positive response to anti-Trumpism!

Monday, 23 January 2017


  I recently came across a suggestion in a book review that we are now living in a ‘post-sovereignty world’*. The point was being made to describe the development by the Scottish National Party from what the reviewer characterises as a nationalism of ‘ethnic excess’ to one based on ‘interdependence, sovereignty-pooling and the EU’. By comparison, the reviewer suggests, the UK Independence Party is still stuck in the past and an outdated attachment to the sovereignty of the nation state. The statement certainly describes the progressive nature of nationalist politics in Scotland and Wales by comparison with England. But I wonder about that ‘post-sovereignty world’. With the rampant re-assertion of the idea of the sovereign state in America, and with growing attachment to the idea across Europe, it is worth considering what the idea of sovereignty involves.

It is essentially about the validation of power and its attendant mythology generally seeks to tell a story that justifies this. In earlier societies the ritual adoption of power was linked to religious and cultural affiliations and to the land itself rather than the institutional formulation of a state. So a leader would ‘marry’ the land in the shape of a Goddess. In an early Irish tale the ruler Conn is taken into an Otherworld dwelling to be given a drink from the Cup of Sovereignty by a woman who is referred to as ‘The Sovereignty of Ireland’ and returns to his own hall with the cup as a symbol of his right to rule. In the countries of medieval Europe that symbol became the Crown, worn by monarchs who reigned as representatives of God on Earth. Although the idea of sovereignty in the institution of the nation state is essentially secular, it retains elements of these earlier religious ideas in its developmental history and in the retention of monarchs in some states and the secular equivalent of presidents in others. The religious roots of the idea of sovereignty as delegated divine power are still alive outside of the western democracies as recent events in the Middle East graphically testify.

But if the western liberal democracies have left these religious justifications behind them, where does the justification of sovereignty come from? To some extent it is traditional and still rooted in those older ideas which retain some of their power to compel the loyalties of citizens. More recently the driving force of such states has been capitalist economics and the binding mythology has been that of ‘The Market’. But Capital, - and The Market - has driven globalisation with a logic which has left the idea of the nation state behind. The response to that has been either to see larger political and economic groupings such as the European Union as expressions of the needs of globalised capital to operate more efficiently, or to see them as necessary regulatory mechanisms to check the excesses of capital on a scale that can be effective in a way that the nation state alone cannot be. Arguably both of these views are valid.

So where does sovereignty now lie? If the answer is that it lies with Capital and its mythology is that of the global market, it is also true that this is a sovereignty that does not command the allegiance of all who participate in the societies in which it operates. The ties of sovereign loyalties are complex in such societies and, understandably, responses are confused and not always coherent. Attachments to the nation state remain as people try to hold on to tokens of belonging. But there are are also attachments to the idea of humanity as a common cause and of the Earth as a common home. These too make valid demands on our sovereign loyalties. What can we distil from this? Certainly the progressive rather than regressive nationalisms of Scotland and Wales can return us to an attachment to the land we live on, and the cultures we inhabit, without binding us to institutions that do not serve our needs. But I doubt if we can characterise this as a ‘post-sovereignty world’.

Sovereignty, and the mythology that sustains it, needs to be understood, engaged with, and imaginatively transformed if we are to take ownership of our sense of belonging both to the imagined space of our land and the wider world with which it interacts and by which it is sustained. We need the resources both to challenge the forces which command our allegiance to unacceptable powers and to develop alternative versions of sovereign allegiance to powers that are wielded on our behalf, for our common benefit and which are accountable to our common will. ‘Post Sovereignty’ describes what we are not. We need a ‘Present Sovereignty' that tells us who we are and exercises power in a way that acknowledges our responsibility for the world we inhabit and for for the life with which we share it.

*Review by Colin Kidd of of The Marches by Rory Stewart in London Review of Books 39:2 Jan 2017

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


John Keats, writing to his brothers in 1817, introduced the term ‘negative capability’ to describe a condition wherein a writer “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. This has always been for me a touchstone, not only for writing but also for living. I have also regarded some of the words of S. T. Coleridge, similarly, as points of departure for my thought. But Keats meant his words as a rejoinder to writers such as the older Coleridge who was distracted from the pursuit of writing as an instinctual activity - as in poems such as ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’ - by an interest in idealist philosophy and literary theory.

Both of those poems, like those of Keats, are of course worked up into a form, unlike, perhaps, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ which might be cited as an example of visionary experience untrammelled by any “reaching after fact and reason”. But Coleridge regarded this as an unfinished fragment and had to find an excuse for publishing it many years after it was written. His “abstruser musings” in the realm of literary theory also led to the distinction he made between ‘Fancy’ and ‘Imagination’, the latter being the facility by which we see through those mysteries, which we are are negatively capable of inhabiting, to the process of creation : so the negative becomes a positive and the unconscious capability produces a consciously shaped artefact.

Consider Keats’ ‘Ode to Psyche’. He says in the poem that he “wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly” until he came across Eros and Psyche “In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof / Of leaves ….” and then decided to become Psyche’s priest. This could be taken as a template for the transition from an unconscious state of perception to the conscious decision to follow the impulse to engage in an act of imaginative creation. In a letter of 1819 referring to the composition of this poem, Keats says that “Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius” (the author of the story of Eros and Psyche, written in the 2nd century c.e.). She begins the story as a mortal but is immortalised at the end of it, though too late in history to become established in the Roman pantheon. Keats adds that “I am more orthodox than to let a heathen Goddess be so neglected” and so begins the Ode : “O Goddess hear …”.

‘Psyche’ can mean ‘Mind’, ‘Soul’ or in the terminology of Jungian psychology, ‘Anima’. This is a puzzling range of definitions if we are “reaching after fact and reason”, but in the context of the story, and of the poem, they are wedded in Psyche’s desire to know who is her secret lover, in her embodiment of the yearned for other, and as the object of eros, and so the beloved of Eros. If the gods are experienced in spite of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” and take form “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, they are imaginatively constructed in our stories about them, as here, by finding them in a mind that already knows them and gives them form.

Coleridge defined the imaginative faculty, “the prime agent of all human perception”, as the power that shapes such stories. Although the emphasis is different, and although Keats had little time for such theorising, his finding a place for Psyche “ In some untrodden region of my mind” is not so far from a realisation of Coleridge’s definition. Keats composed long poems apparently effortlessly. But he died at the age of 26. Coleridge lived to the palindromically older age of 62, in spite of his opium habit, and struggled to compose verse in his later years. Would Keats have continued to write with effortless fluency had he lived longer? Would we think of Coleridge differently if we only had 'The Ancient Mariner', 'Kubla Khan' and the first part of 'Christabel' to go by? Perhaps. But in bringing together Psyche as ‘Mind’ and Psyche as ‘Soul’ he was surely as much her priest as Keats for whom Psyche as 'Soul' was prominently Psyche as ‘Anima’.