Jacket 20 — December 2002   |   # 20  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |



James Keery

‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and the Levels of Artifice:

Veronica Forrest-Thomson on J H Prynne

This piece is 23,000 words or about fifty printed pages long.

1: ‘Sheer Indecipherability’

According to Veronica Forrest-Thomson, in a trademark throwaway line, ‘the study of poetry is the most garrulous study that exists’ (Poetic artifice: a theory of twentieth-century poetry, Manchester University Press, 1978, p1), but she can match Ezra Pound for succinct implication:

Mr Cook speaks of the ‘sheer indecipherability’ of ‘L’Art, 1910’ because the images operate in ways that he does not expect – because, shall I say, he lacks the concept of the disconnected image-complex.
            L’Art, 1910
     Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
     Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes.
It is, of course, crucial to good health as well as to good poetry that only the eyes should feast.

So much for ‘indecipherability’ (p73)! Yet, as regards the exemplary text in her brilliant ‘study’, Forrest-Thomson is herself insistent on it. Her ‘example’, in both senses, is ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ by J H Prynne (Brass, 1971; Poems, Bloodaxe, 1999, pp175-179), considered in two separate sections of Poetic artifice. In Chapter 5, she cites and discusses no less than 60 lines. In Chapter 2, however, she deals just with the opening stanza, as ‘one extreme of irrational obscurity’ (p47):

Swift as a face rolled away like
        pastry, turned up the stairwell oh
cough now room for two &
        faced with bodily attachments:
evidence hovers like biotic soup, all
        transposable, all like. The pastry
face takes the name Pie (crust folded
        like wings over the angelic sub-
strate, all so like pasties they
        hover again), is younger by a
specific aim. From upstairs the
        face crossed by banisters
counterclaims in re Outwash, it
        foils downward, round the newel,
to a fierce vacancy guarded
        on legal & moral grounds which
run to the limits of perfect zeal.

Although this stanza is not ‘beyond meaning and rationality altogether’, since it ‘works industriously with meaning and other levels of artifice’, it is beyond ‘rational obscurity’, in which ‘appropriate information resolves difficulties and creates a logical structure’ (p47). On the contrary, Prynne’s lines are ‘tendentiously obscure’ (p48):

They resist the reader by making him work; they positively repel him by implying that no amount of arcane knowledge will help him to produce an interpretation, that however hard he tries he will not get away with (or through) these lines into a non-poetic realm. He will have to recognise that he is stuck with the lines on the page, that these words have a meaning but not an extended reference to the world outside... In other words, Prynne uses his obscurity in order to promote a good naturalisation which works, as I shall attempt to show, in terms of suspended levels of poetic organisation.

‘Naturalisation’ is the process by which details are arranged or forced into an interpretation: ‘good naturalisation’ stays within the poem, respecting and negotiating its ‘suspended levels; ‘bad naturalisation’ makes ‘an unseemly rush from words to world’ (page xi). This phrase, also used by Jonathan Culler, to whom Forrest-Thomson was married, is, I take it, a variation on a ‘comment’ by Sigurd Burckhardt (1916-66), cited in Artifice of Absorption by Charles Bernstein (Paper Air 4:1, edited by Gil Ott, 1987, p32):

poetry’s goal... is to drive “a wedge
between words and their meanings, lessen as
much as possible their designatory force and thereby
inhibit our all too ready flight from them to
the things they point to”...

Forrest-Thomson is cited on the first page as well as in the title of Bernstein’s poem and his notes pay tribute to the ‘uncompromising, fierce and passionate self-seriousness’ of her ‘enormously moving’ work. Bernstein challenges her designation of ‘the non-lexical,/ or more accurately, extralexical/ strata of the poem as “nonsemantic”’, on the valid grounds that ‘there is no fixed/ threshold at which noise becomes phonically/ significant’; naturally, however, he endorses her wish ‘to cede as little as possible to the conventional/ semantic arena’ (p9). Bernstein’s argument itself deserves a detailed (if not a garrulous) response, but my intention is, contrariwise, to bring ‘as [much] as possible’ of Prynne’s poetry into this ‘arena’. In avoiding the ‘rush from words to world’, Forrest-Thomson is in ‘unseemly’ haste to declare the road closed:

Levels do not mesh to produce a thematic interpretation which leads out into statements about scenes or events, and if one were to attempt a critical reading in these terms one could only conclude, as did a reviewer in the Cambridge Review, that the poem is obscure and that only one eighth of it is interpretable.// We must, then, have recourse to the levels of Artifice. And first of all, since the poem is tendentiously obscure and discontinuous with ordinary language, we must situate ourselves on the scale of irrelevance, which means that there will be no thematic synthesis internal or external and any naturalisation will be tentative and suspended.

I intend to challenge several of Forrest-Thomson’s assertions about ‘Of Sanguine Fire’; then, with ‘recourse to the levels of Artifice’, to deepen and extend her own interpretation; and finally, by means of a ‘thematic synthesis’, to situate her metaphysical ‘theory of twentieth-century poetry’. A theory which generates empirical discoveries compels respect: Forrest-Thomson’s account of ‘Prynne’s work’ – and of Ashbery’s, its American equal – as ‘the most important in English poetry since Eliot’ would have encountered incredulity in 1975, but is almost orthodoxy today (p142). Her isolation of the ‘disconnected image-complex’ deserves the Nobel Prize, in my opinion! Nevertheless, she fails to take account of the ‘Law of Intelligibility’, which states that there is no such thing as an indecipherable poem. At any rate, one that is ‘tendentiously obscure’ makes a good test case – so let’s go for five eighths and see where it gets us!


2: ‘Rejoyce like the Sun’

Forrest-Thomson begins with an excellent spot (pp48-49):

The opening is a parody of the beginning of Shelley’s ‘The Triumph of Life’:
            Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
            Of glory and of good, the Sun sprang forth.
The allusion prepares the reader for the use of literary allusion found, for instance, in ‘The Waste Land’. This is to be Prynne’s ‘Triumph of Life’; and, knowing what we do of Shelley’s poem, we shall not expect it to be optimistic... But what do we get? ‘pastry, turned up the stairwell, oh’.

Well, in answer to Shelley’s trope, ‘the Sun sprang forth’, what we also get, towards the end of the poem, is an extended, interrupted, unattributed quotation in which unidentified plural antecedents ‘rejoyce like/ the Sun to run their Course’, with a parallel allusion to Psalm 19 (2-6):

The heavens declare the glory of God... In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

The ‘extralexical’ echo of ‘the glory of God’ and the common image of an eager and athletic sun suggest that Shelley, too, is alluding to the Psalm (his deletion of ‘God’ in favour of ‘good’ is characteristic). In Chapter 5, Forrest-Thomson refers, again and again, to ‘the italicised description of angelic essences’ (p145). It may very well be that the source text is ‘concerned with angels’ (p145), but she makes no mention of it and my guess is that she is guessing – or indulging in ‘bad naturalisation’! I’m sure that more ‘arcane knowledge’ than I’ve managed to acquire would significantly increase my figure, but insofar as we are ‘stuck with the lines on the page’, the guess is misleading (even if correct). It is true that the word ‘angelic’ occurs four times in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’: ‘angelic sub-/strate’; ‘angelic/ protraction’; ‘an-/gelic evidence’; and ‘angelic sweat’. Yet these phrases have, at best, only a tangential relation to ‘the lines in italics’:

                                          Our true fate
              is post-alpine, our true place bounded by
small mountain ringlets:

                            who have therefore no weight or load upon
                            their Faculties, nothing to dead or slacken
                             the Spring of their Nature, no Concupiscence
                             to darken their Understandings, or to pervert
                             their Wills, no Indisposition, Languor or
                             Weariness occasioned through crazy and
                             sickly Vehicles
                                                     wait for it, Pie
conceives a whiff of apple, even short crust, wait for
             it, like one bold face too many, pyloric mill
racing, yet Outwash runs on for the cloud –

                                                          but are always Fresh,
                            Vigorous and Bright, like the life and
                            quickness of the Morning, and rejoyce like
                            the Sun to run their Course

Contrast, in particular, the fourth in the series, the only one which comes after the quotation. Beings which ‘are always Fresh’ are unlikely to ‘sweat’, especially whilst they bear ‘no weight or load’. It is, of course, a calculated oxymoron, but strongly suggests that the mysterious entities are something other than sinless angels. I shall postpone an alternative interpretation of this crucial passage in order to follow the course of Forrest-Thomson’s argument to its conclusion. It was in doing so that I arrived at my own ‘internal synthesis’, whilst also making unscrupulous use of Google.


3: ‘The Name Pie’

Forrest-Thomson’s analysis continues with a more open question (p48):

Is Prynne making fun of the reader? Evidently not, for the poem runs to four full pages and contains much that is sincerely clima[c]tic in its author’s work as [a] whole: meditation on the nature of evidence from the physical world, for example, and on the problems of equating knowledge with love.

Yet the poem also contains much apparent ‘absurdity’ (p49):

The next three lines with their ‘all/ transposable, all like’ offer a statement which questions the validity of any comparison, make plain the absurdity of trying to differentiate scenes and characters. And when ‘The pastry face’ between words and the world takes the name Pie, it is obvious that no attempt is to be made to produce an analogue of ‘reality’.

It seems highly likely that ‘the names “Pie” and “Outwash”’ were ‘chosen on the principle of annoying the reader’ (p50). For Forrest-Thomson, ‘the name Pie’ confirms ‘the first indication’, ‘the ‘pause after “pastry”, ‘that we are getting something very strange indeed’ (p49) – perhaps, she might have argued, a ‘Printers’ pie’, or ‘mass of confused type’! It’s the last point that is far from ‘obvious’ to me. I think ‘an analogue of “reality”’ is just what Pie is. As well as a nursery rhyme figure out of his depth – ‘Georgie-Porgy Pudding-and-Pie’; or perhaps the fleet-footed fugitive from the biscuit-tin: ‘Run, run, as fast as you can,/ You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!’ – he stands for the physical substance of ‘bodily’ existence, the clay baked into flesh; and, at the same time, for the Greek letter ‘Π’, symbolic of purely abstract ‘“reality”’.

And so with ‘the juxtaposition of poetry and physical life’ (pp48-49):

Does the poet want to juxtapose the world of literature with the ‘real’ contemporary world and thus cast doubt on the value of both...? No, again, for no one thinks of the world of the kitchen as a microcosm of the great globe itself; pastry would not be adequate for this function.

One of Prynne’s own collections is entitled Kitchen Poems (‘If you can’t stand the heat...’), ‘a microcosm’ of the psychogeography of English ‘society’ circa 1968, if not of ‘the great globe’. As for baking, sample ‘Die a Millionaire’:

... society is ‘predictably’ as we know ‘in
a state of ferment’ – as if that could ever turn
to wine or raise bread, from the sad shit it
is, to that crispy crunchy loaf we shall all
eat only in heaven.

Admittedly, ‘wine’ and ‘bread’ have the symbolic prestige of the sacrament, but ‘pastry’ and ‘soup’ are just as ‘adequate for this function’ as ‘that crispy crunchy loaf’. The calculated anti-poetry of ‘shit it/ is’ is just the kind of ‘combination of sounds’ on ‘the formal level’ (p49) that Forrest-Thomson values so highly, but the ‘juxtaposition’ in ‘Die a Millionaire is urgent: ‘The first essential is to take knowledge/ back to the springs... To draw/ from that well we must put on some/ other garment’. The ‘water of life’ (Revelation 22:17) and the white ‘garment’ of the redeemer (1:13) create an Apocalyptic context for the ‘springs’ of poetic inspiration.

In this microcosmic kitchen, then, the ‘pastry’ (in the form of dough) is ‘rolled’ and baked into a ‘pastry face’, which ‘takes the name Pie’, its ‘crust folded... over... like pasties’. We are more likely to think of Simple Simon than to take this curious ‘Pie-man’ seriously, at this stage – but, whimsical as it is, there is no mistaking the allegorical ‘sub-/strate’.

In ‘The Trade in Bathos’, Keston Sutherland illuminates one aspect of Prynne’s procedures by inverting the strictures of Pope on his contemporaries (talk delivered at the University of London, Birkbeck, 29/11/00, and available in Jacket 15):

Bathos is commonly thought to mean ‘the reduction of the sublime to the ridiculous’... for example [Pope] ridicules [Blackmore’s] description... of God... as a baker. But also he recommends... that to achieve bathos poets ought to make their language more difficult or obscure; that they should write about valueless or repulsive objects, what he calls ‘the Dregs of Nature’; that they should introduce ‘Technical Terms’ to the lexicon of poetry, searching among the tiniest details of mechanical arts and science for an esoteric vocabulary... and that in general the natural and social environment of the writer should be represented in such a way that it is difficult to recognize, or such that it appears denatured and offensive to common sense.

Sutherland has one eye on Prynne, but still, this is almost a recipe for ‘Of Sanguine Fire’! The ignominious trope is not, of course, a Blackmore oddity. Despite her dismissal of A Vision, Forrest-Thomson may have noted its occurrence in ‘The Phases of the Moon’:


Robartes:

... Deformed beyond deformity, unformed,
Insipid as the dough before it is baked,
They change their bodies at a word.


Aherne:

And then?


Robartes:

When all the dough has been so kneaded up
That it can take what form cook Nature fancies,
The first thin crescent is wheeled round once more.

The first OED citation of ‘substrate’, as late as 1810, is from Coleridge (Literary Remains, 1838, III 379): ‘The substrate or causa invisibilis may be the noumenon, or actuality, das Ding in sich, of Christ’s actuality, as well as the Ding in sich of which the sensation, bread, is the appearance’. So is the second (1817, Biographia Literaria I iv 138): ‘This again is no way conceivable, but by assuming as a postulate, that both are ab initio, identical and coinherent: that intelligence and being are reciprocally each other’s Substrate’. Between the ‘esoteric’ jargon of ‘angelic essences’ and the ‘bodily’ actuality of the sacramental ‘bread’, Coleridge’s usage epitomises a poem which can also accommodate the bathos of Blackmore, the irony of Pope and the occultism of Yeats.


4: ‘The Angelic Substrate’

Before a final series of quick-fire questions, designed to show ‘how absurd’ it is to ask them, Forrest-Thomson makes a point which is refutable from within the stanza (p49):

‘Turned up the stairwell’ gives us our first glimpse of a particular scene in the ‘outside’ world while we know that we will never be allowed more than a glimpse (surely we know that!)...

Not only do we not ‘know’ this, but we’re conducted on a guided tour! Shortly ‘after our glimpse of the stairwell’, we are given another, this time ‘upstairs’, then one of the ‘banisters’ and finally (in this stanza) one of ‘the newel’. It is an inside rather than ‘the “outside” world’, but nonetheless ‘a particular scene’. It is also possible, from within this stanza, to suggest why we are given an inventory of the sections of a staircase.

I find it hard to resist the cumulative suggestions of Milton’s Satan, whose headlong fall ‘Sheer o’er the crystal battlements’ (actually Mulciber’s: Paradise Lost I 742) is pathetically reduced to a tumble ‘Sheer o’er the crystal [banisters]’, ‘round the newel’ and ‘downward’ to earth – or Hell – with a bump. ‘Outwash’ is the ‘angelic’ antagonist, consigned ‘to a fierce vacancy guarded/ on legal & moral grounds’ with ‘perfect zeal’. Like Satan, he is ‘foiled with loss/ Irreparable’ (II 330), his ‘counterclaims’ (‘contrary to his high will’, I 161) a complete washout. Pie is therefore, on one level, Adam, father of ‘some new race called Man’ (II 348), created with the ‘specific aim’ of foiling Satan (‘That with reiterated crimes he might/ Heap on himself damnation’, I 214-5). An echo of Blake’s Milton, with which Prynne’s poetry (and especially Brass) is continuously interrelated, may be called in evidence here, for Milton identifies with Satan – ‘I in my Selfhood am that Satan’ – before taking a blind header into ‘the Sea of Time & Space’:

Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift ...

Satan and Adam are specifically paired in Milton, as the ‘limits’ beyond which Albion cannot fall (the clearest definition appears in The Four Zoas):

And first he found the limit of opacity, & named it Satan
In Albion’s bosom (for in every human bosom these limits stand).
And next he found the limit of contraction, & named it Adam...

W H Stevenson illuminates this strange exercise in Cartesian damage-limitation (p349n):

According to Descartes there were three fundamental elements; the light-giving (e.g. the sun), the translucent (the ether) and the opaque (e.g. the earth). Blake takes light to be the imaginative power. Hence the opaque is Ulro, Satanic. The limit of translucence is the border between the lesser element which can let light pass, and the dark, dead element which repels light... There is, in the same mercy, a limit of contraction fixed, and he cannot shrink his faculties below that limit.

So the ‘limits of perfect zeal’ provide ‘grounds’ in ‘fierce vacancy’ for the ‘angelic sub-/strate’; and the staircase symbolises the ‘stairway to heaven’, with winged angels ‘ascending and descending’ (Genesis 28:12), as in Francis Thompson’s ‘In No Strange Land’, itself a variation on Blake’s vision of the ‘Fourfold Spiritual London Eternal’:

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry – and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross.

Compare ‘the proleptic comfort/ of taxis in Euston Station’ with Thompson’s London railway station ‘traffic’ and his own proleptically comforting rhyme on ‘ladder’. As an allegory of the fall of Lucifer, ‘a spirit hastening to his task’ of inglorious villainy, the third sentence reinforces the parody of Shelley’s invocation of ‘the Sun’. The conjecture may be supported by reference to the source of ‘the scooped-out place’, a Bushman tale of ‘The Lynx, the Hyena and the Morning Star’ discovered by Sir Laurens van der Post in ‘some learned journal in the Cape’ then ‘retold in The Heart of the Hunter’ in 1961 (‘Witness to a Last Will of Man’, Testament to the Bushmen, 1984):

Fitting an arrow to his bow, and spear in hand... the Morning Star descends swiftly to the earth, his eyes full of the fire of a just anger. The violence of his approach sends the hyena rushing from the hut in great panic. Swerving to avoid the spear of the Morning Star, its hind leg catches on the coals of the fire which were burning as usual on the scooped-out place in front of the hut. The hyena was burned so badly that it was condemned to the lopsided walk that it still has to this day.

And thanks to Google, it is also possible to identify the ‘sub-/strate’ Prynne has in mind:

Luciferases are enzymes that emit light. The luciferase from the North American firefly releases green light during the oxidation of its chemical substrate, luciferin.

This beautiful pun, by which an ‘arcane’ and hidden word is made to emit a continuous glow of meaning, confirms the presence of Lucifer, bringing intriguing complexities into play. ‘Orthodox theology tells us that in the eternal world the fires of hell have heat without light, and that heaven is a blaze of golden light, the question of heat being slurred over’ (Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, Princeton University Press, 1947, p196); ‘fierce vacancy’ corresponds to Milton’s ‘darkness visible’, yet with Luciferin it is just the opposite:

Bioluminescence is the emission of light without heat by living organisms. The phenomenon occurs in glow-worms and fireflies, bacteria and fungi, and in many deep-sea fish (among others); in animals it may serve as a means of protection (e.g. by disguising the shape of a fish) or species recognition or it may provide mating signals. Bioluminescence may be continuous (e.g. in bacteria) or intermittent (e.g. in fireflies).

Archbishop Secker (d 1768) refers precisely to ‘bioluminescence’:

John the Baptist was ‘a burning and shining light’. To shine is not enough, a glow-worm will do so: to burn is not enough, a firebrand will do so. Light without heat does but little good; and heat without light does much harm. Give me these Christians who are burning lamps, as well as shining lights.

Yet, ‘pace Secker’, one implication is of a redeemed Lucifer, the Morning Star, emitting transcendent ‘light without heat’ and endowed once again with the ‘quickness of the Morning’. Another is of the biochemistry of ‘living light’ (Macbeth II iv 9):

Bacterial luciferase catalyzes the oxidation of reduced flavin mononucleotide (FMNH2) and a long chain aldehyde to yield FMN, the corresponding acid, H2O and light.

Luciferin is thus a ‘microcosm’ of the interface between mechanistic, vitalist, mythopoeic and religious interpretations of reality. Stars become ‘living organisms’ and bacteria create light like ‘the Spirit of God’, moving ‘upon the face’ of the H2O (Genesis 1:1-3):

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

One of these images occurs, in the singular, in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’:

                  See
says Pie in chant the
wagtails, sedge warbler,
they fly just under
the curve of love, they
skim the face
of the water likeness
evading with the
quickness of
the morning the
bounded condition
of name.

In context, then, the word ‘likeness’ recalls the creation of Adam; and ‘the/ bounded condition/ of name’ the naming of the beasts (Genesis 1:26, 2:19):

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air... and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

In Eden, Adam’s naming is non-negotiable: whatsoever he called them, that was that. In Prynne’s cosmos, by contrast, ‘the fowl of the air’ evade ‘the/ bounded condition/ of name’ and, by implication, human ‘dominion’, just as his tropes, according to Forrest-Thomson, ‘elude any attempt to give them a theme’ (p48). Flying ‘just under/ the curve of love’ (safe under its benign protection, or, alternatively, ‘evading’ the sweep of its radar), ‘the/ wagtails and sedge warbler’ are associated, by the repetition of ‘quickness of the Morning’, with those who ‘rejoyce like/ the Sun to run their course’. Are the ‘angelic essences’, then, birds – or are birds another of their symbolic aspects?

Forrest-Thomson notes the echo, but calls the named birds ‘unknown protagonists’, whilst continuing to call the unknown protagonists ‘angels’ (p50):

As the poem moves to its climax the theme is summed up in a series of short lines which describe the unknown protagonists as like the angels in:// evading with the/ quickness of/ the morning the/ bounded condition/ of name.

The theme in question is ‘distrust in either the physical world or the world of other languages’, but in both cases the evasion (of the ‘weight’ of ‘Concupiscence’ or of subjection to mankind) is free, spontaneous and joyful, nothing to do with ‘distrust’. However, Forrest-Thomson also asserts that the poem is, amongst other things, a ‘meditation on the nature of evidence from the physical world’. At this stage, therefore, I can point to our agreement on this central theme, if not to approval in principle for ‘an extended reference to the world’ of biochemistry.


5: ‘Lipids Drop to No Purpose’

The winged entities which populate the poem include ‘evidence’ which ‘hovers’, prompting Forrest-Thomson’s punning answer to her own question: ‘Evidently not’. To press her point, I think the ‘sardonic glimmer’ in the closing stanza refers to a specific kind of ‘evidence from the physical world’, namely the use of luciferin as ‘a reporter’:

The glow is widely used as an assay for luciferase expression. Luciferase is particularly useful as a ‘reporter’, because low-light cameras can detect bioluminescence, in real time and with high sensitivity, in living cells and organisms. Luciferase gene fusions provide a ‘window’ on to the mechanisms that regulate the activity of specific genes.

The enigmatic assertion that ‘Lipids drop to no purpose’ is a succinct epitome of the mechanist argument against an articulate rearguard of vitalists who insist on teleological explanations and on the existence of processes not amenable to ‘bioluminescent assay’:

The Luciferase Monitoring Kit employs enhanced constant light technology to improve the sensitivity, dynamic range and convenience of the standard luciferase assay, based on the measurement of a stable light level produced as a catalysed reaction. A spectro-photometer capable of a percent transmission readout is used for the determination.

No spectrophotometer can produce a ‘transmission readout’ for ‘levels’ of ‘love’, nor is its ‘curve’ susceptible to ‘measurement’ by a ‘Monitoring Kit’, whatever its ‘sensitivity’. Outwash’s laconic interjection is the typical mechanistic response to vitalist mysticism:

            Eyewash says Outwash and means
love for it, helpless in sardonic glimmer,
            peering for the small window, the
‘evidence’. Steam rises off the water sur-
            face, minute shifting of levels.
Lipids drop to no purpose, like too much,
            they allude to what could be
younger still. Planets stream across
            the fields and in at the three doors.

Pie’s invitation to ‘See’ with a visionary eye meets a ‘sardonic’ rebuff from Outwash, ‘peering’ at mechanistic ‘“evidence”’, such as rising ‘Steam’ or dropping ‘Lipids’:

Biological molecules that are insoluble in aqueous solutions and soluble in organic solvents are classified as lipids. Lipids provide material for respiration and energy production, and serve as vitamins, hormones and structural components of biological membranes. The lipids most often present in the diet include fats and oils.

On one level, then, Outwash is monitoring the ‘minute shifting of levels’ in living cells, through the ‘small window’ of a luminometric instrument which detects the ‘glimmer’ of catalysed luciferase (‘SEM Operational Instructions’):

The following are set as standard operational procedures for the Carl Zeiss DSM 960 Scanning Electron Microscope... 1st, push the ‘Small Window ’ button (center button on the left vertical row of buttons in the Scanning Speed box).

As it happens, ‘the small window’ also has a technical meaning in astronomy:

About half of the photons in the converging beams of the X-ray telescopes that feed the MOS instruments are diffracted by sets of reflection gratings, and are then focused onto the RGS detectors... the Charge Transfer Inefficiency correction for the small window (SW) mode of the PN camera is less well calibrated below 0.7 keV...

Blake’s dismissal of sophisticated optical instruments arises from a vitalist conception of immortality, with which, as I shall argue, Prynne has profound sympathy:

The Microscope knows not of this nor the Telescope: they alter
The ratio of the Spectator’s Organs but leave Objects untouch’d.
For every Space larger than a red Globule of Man’s blood
Is visionary, and is created by the Hammer of Los:
And every Space smaller than a Globule of Man’s blood opens
Into Eternity of which this vegetable Earth is but a shadow.
The red Globule is the unwearied Sun by Los created
To measure Time and Space to mortal Men every morning.

The ‘unwearied Sun’ is that of Psalm 19, analogue of the mysterious entities who suffer ‘no Indisposition, Languor or /Weariness and ‘rejoyce like / the Sun to run their Course’.

Like ‘Lipids’, the ‘water of life’ is itself crucial to the process of metabolism, as a solvent in which chemical reactions can occur:

Phospholipids, along with proteins, are the essential components of all cell membranes. They contain both a polar region, which is readily soluble in water, and a non-polar region, which is insoluble... so they can form thin layers on the surface of water in a bilayer structure. Individual molecules can move about from side to side quite freely within their own layers, so that the configuration is a ‘fluid’ rather than a static one.

The entities which ‘skim the face/ of the water’, free ‘to move about from side to side’ in a ‘fluid’ medium, but ‘evading’ its power as a solvent, might therefore be said to share a property of phospholipids and of the ‘bilayer structure’ of all cell membranes. ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ is awash with fluids, including ‘blood’, ‘sweat’ and tears (‘Eyewash’), which ‘gurgle/ like the honey Outwash expected to/ run busily with the milk’. Outwash’s reference to ‘that spinal fluid’ extends both his image of the ‘head’ as ‘an organ’ and his insult (‘you’re some/ what gone in the head’), since one of the functions of the cerebrospinal fluid is to collect waste products produced by the brain. The ‘custard’ is for ‘pudding’ or dessert (poured over ‘short crust’ ‘apple’-‘Pie’), after the earlier courses of ‘soup’ and ‘pasties’, served with ‘wine’. More to the point, the vitalist sense of ‘the universe of fluid force’, of ‘our kinship to the vital universe, to the tree and the living rock’ (The Spirit of Romance), derived by Pound from Alfred North Whitehead, is, as Hugh Kenner has shown, a key to the ideology of modernism.

Forrest-Thomson’s ‘unknown protagonists’ are the culmination of an overlapping series of more than twenty biochemical or physiological tropes:

                visceral lightness... glacial helix...
                          a blind fuck...
                          Pancreas strikes hard
            into the valley floor. The adrenal cortex
cannot fail... more organs of a strictly
            theoretic cast; wine runs in his head like
     stellar juice...
                        the lip of my fear... Draw off
           a sample of that spinal fluid...
                     pyloric mill...
And still the sensual race soaks up
             the issue... a softened cutaneous
             layer... in the thoracic cavity...
                                                                blood
                                                                               between two
                                         faces the slight
                                                                               salt...
The patient swelling of transposable parts
            like an incomplete theory of merely
physical decay. Gangrene in the evidential
             footings... pervaded with female oestrus ...

It is around another group of lipids that a number of these images cohere:


Unlike other groups of lipids, steroids have a molecular structure which contains rings of atoms. These substances may act as hormones or vitamins. Some examples are...

  • bile acids: in the form of bile salts, they help in emulsifying fats during digestion
  • corticosteroids: hormones manufactured in the cortex of the adrenal gland
  • oestrogens: reproductive hormones in female mammals

The word ‘oestrus’ usually denotes the ‘sexual heat of animals’, but, in conjunction with ‘adrenal cortex’, ‘Pancreas’ and ‘pyloric mill’, a function of the pyloric sphincter at the base of the stomach, which is controlled by a secretion (or ‘issue’) from the pancreas (along with pancreatic ‘juice’), there are strong connotations of the hormone oestrogen. ‘Gangrene’, often of the ‘foot[ings]’, is a symptom of advanced diabetes, a deficiency of insulin from the ‘Pancreas’ resulting in excess ‘blood’ glucose, which in turn results in abnormal loss of ‘salt’ and ‘water’.

Again, in conjunction with ‘thoracic cavity’ and ‘visceral lightness’, and despite its deceptive proximity to the ‘Pancreas’, ‘the valley floor’ has physiological connotations:

The size of the thoracic cavity is constantly varying during life with the movements of the ribs and diaphragm, and with the degree of distention of the abdominal viscera... From the highest point on each side the floor of thorax slopes suddenly downward and backward to the costal and vertebral attachments of the diaphragm ...

As a trope, rather than a physiological process, movement from the ‘Pancreas’ towards ‘the thoracic cavity’ would be ‘outwards and upwards’ in the opposite direction to the ‘downward’ slope of ‘the valley floor’. The same trope of accelerated physiological function occurs in the phrase, ‘pyloric mill racing’, with a pun on ‘pyloric mill’ and ‘mill-race’, the fast-flowing current that drives a mill-wheel. The physiological topography (simultaneously ‘stellar’ and mountainous) recalls that of Blake’s Milton, shot on location in the bowels and alimentary canal (‘Bowlahoola’ and ‘Allamanda’), ‘on England’s mountains green’ and in ‘a universe of starry majesty’.

The phrase ‘transposable parts’ has a semi-technical meaning in Gestalt psychology, eminently compatible with anti-mechanist vitalism (‘Humans have adapted to become wholes-perceiving creatures [with] a tolerance for transposable parts...’); as a strictly technical term, however, it derives, again, from biochemistry (‘Alex Wong ’97 Jumps Into the Future of Genetics’, Sarah R Loebman, 2000):

In 1983, the Royal Swedish Academy recognized... Barbara McClintock for her twenty years of work identifying the existence of ‘jumping genes’ – movable elements within a cell’s DNA. Originally scorned for her belief in such transposable parts, McClintock is now known to have made one of the discoveries of the century... a transposable element may be considered a parasite that survives by replicating itself seemingly at random.

Subject to ‘random’ process, these ‘jumping genes’ function in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ as a mechanistic foil for the ‘angelic essences’ and ‘unknown protagonists’. Darwinism itself, from a vitalist perspective, is ‘an incomplete theory of merely/ physical decay’, since it leaves room for no conception of transcendence or of immortality. By the same token, the more extreme trope of ‘Gangrene in the evidential/ footings’ might refer to the virulent neo-Darwinism which has culminated in the idea of The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976), the title itself a trope of original sin. Such a diagnosis of spiritual gangrene in mortified flesh is one of the doctrinal bases, or ‘footings’, of Christianity. Ironically, in recent years, ‘transposable parts’ or ‘transposons’ have been morally as well as scientifically rehabilitated (Loebman):

Wong believes that transposons do not just randomly jump... but have a pattern to their appearance... If his hypothesis is correct, then, in theory, transposons could be harnessed to function much like viral vectors do, ‘cutting and pasting’ information into the cell’s DNA... In an era where more and more diseases are found to be genetically linked, the use of transposons to cut out predisposition has tremendous potential.

6: ‘Biotic Soup’

The ‘water sur-/ face’ in the last stanza is also, like ‘the face/ of the water’ in the previous passage and ‘the face of the waters’ in Genesis (1:2), a trope of the ‘biotic soup’ which ‘hovers’ in the first stanza. Hovering soup is certainly one of those bizarre tropes or ‘obvious discontinuities’ (p74) which ought to be acknowledged as such, but it is, nevertheless, possible to construe or ‘naturalise’ it. To begin with, ‘biotic soup’, or, more usually, ‘pre-biotic soup’, is another of the ‘Technical Terms’ recommended by Pope:

The pre-biotic soup is the mixture of chemicals in the oceans of the early earth, in which, according to neo-Darwinism, organic life arose by means of random chemical reactions. There are competing theories as to the prevailing atmospheric and oceanic conditions, but in most cases the reactions involved are reproducible in laboratory conditions.

Prynne’s trope might therefore be interpreted as a mysterious reversal of Genesis, where it is ‘the Spirit of God’ which moves or ‘hovers’ over the primeval ‘waters’ (in which lipids were a crucial ingredient). The allusion ‘to what could be younger still’, in the context of streaming ‘Planets’, reinforces the suggestion of the origins of life on earth.

The ‘biotic soup’ is an image of the threshold between organic and inorganic substance, one of Prynne’s most insistent themes. This has been demonstrated in a study which throws more light on Prynne than anything else I’ve read (Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge, Nearly Too Much, Liverpool University Press, 1995). These writers interpret the pun on ‘fiat’ in ‘Royal Fern’ as a bathetic ‘juxtaposition of poetry and physical life’:

So the fiat parks by the kerb.
We hear him switch off, he is
dreaming of the void. In time,
soup for the father in open green.

The ‘fiat’ is at once a diminutive family car and God’s creative ‘Word’ (‘Fiat lux’ = ‘Let there be light’, Genesis 1:3); whilst the pun on ‘soup’ is identical. On the one hand, organic life was created by God ‘the father’, and exists ‘In time’, as contrasted with the timeless ‘void’; on the other, having arrived home, switched off his car engine and had a moment to himself, ‘the father’ may expect, ‘In time’, to sit down to an evening meal.

The ‘pre-biotic soup’ is also a focus of intense controversy between mechanists and the vitalists. In ‘The Origin of Life: Did Life Arise in a Primordial Soup?’ (address delivered at St Albans, New Zealand, 12/3/00), Rob Yule gives a lucid account of the famous ‘Miller-Urey’ experiment, suggested by Harold Urey and carried out by Stanley Miller in 1950. This is followed, however, by a sustained attack, not only on the experiment itself but on its theoretical scenario, beginning with the familiar pun on ‘cook Nature’:

For a couple of decades after Miller, making life looked a cinch, as easy as following a recipe in a cookbook. ‘Pre-biotic Soup. Place ammonia, methane and hydrogen in glass vessel, boil and stir slowly, zap occasionally by immersing electric beater.’

Listing ‘many problems with Miller’s scenario’, Yule proceeds to attack the foundational idea, ‘often blithely assumed’, that ‘the combination of time plus chance’ could ever account for the ‘spontaneous synthesis of chemicals in a primordial soup’. He cites a statement of faith in ‘random processes’ by ‘Nobel prize-winning biologist George Wald (Scientific American, 1954), then ‘a rare retraction’, in 1979, by the same journal:

Since that date, to the best of my knowledge, no leading scientific journal... has accepted for publication any article based on the premise that life occurred by chance. Even for the simplest life forms this is now acknowledged to be an impossibility.

Scientific American itself may be cited to the contrary (‘The Origin of Life on the Earth’, Leslie E Orgel, October 1994, pp77):

Darwin... posited in the final paragraph of The Origin of Species that ‘the Creator’ originally breathed life ‘into a few forms or into one’... In private correspondence, however, he suggested life could have arisen through chemistry, ‘in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present’... 20th century... research has aimed... to elucidate how, without supernatural intervention, spontaneous interaction of the relatively simple molecules dissolved in the lakes or oceans of the prebiotic world could have yielded life’s last common ancestor.

The ‘sedge warbler’ is invariably to be found in the vicinity of a ‘warm little pond’.


7: ‘Eyewash says Outwash’

Dawkins’s neo-Darwinism is notorious: ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’ (‘Preface to 1976 edition’, The Selfish Gene, ppvii). In a subsequent edition, he develops the startling paradox of blind programming (‘Preface to 1989 edition’, ppx-xi):

The selfish gene theory is... in fact a logical outgrowth of orthodox neo-Darwinism, but expressed as a novel image. Rather than focus on the individual organism, it takes a gene’s-eye view of nature. It is a different way of seeing, not a different theory... If you push novelty of language and metaphor far enough, you can end up with a new way of seeing. And a new way of seeing... can in its own right make a new contribution to science... The gene’s-eye view of Darwinism is implicit in the writings of R A Fisher and the other great pioneers of neo-Darwinism... but was made explicit by W D Hamilton and G C Williams in the sixties. For me their insight had a visionary quality.

From a writer who exults in the detection of circularity and self-contradiction, it would be hard to find a more ironic statement of the mechanist argument, rising through the levels of metaphor from ‘gene’s-eye view’ to ‘a different way of seeing’ to ‘insight’ to ‘visionary quality’. ‘If you push... metaphor far enough’, it comes full circle, a paradox expressed by Jacques Monod in a Blakean aphorism (Chance and Necessity): ‘a truly blind process can result in anything, even vision’. Brilliant as this is, it is dangerously double-edged. Given the centrality of vision to the vitalist-mechanist debate, ‘Eyewash’ was a slyly chosen expression. George C Williams, one of the precursors cited by Dawkins, traces the argument from vision to its source in Natural Theology by William Paley (Plan & Purpose in Nature, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1996, p9):

Observe a new-born child first lifting up its eyelids. What does the opening of the curtain discover? The anterior part of two pellucid globes, which, when they come to be examined, are found to be constructed on strict optical principles; the self-same principles upon which we ourselves construct optical instruments...

Williams is ‘entirely in agreement with Paley’s description of the structure and regulatory capabilities of the human eye’, but not with his argument from biological ‘design’ (pp11-12):

For Paley, a Christian clergyman, there must be an eyemaker, the omniscient creator... Unfortunately for this aspect of Paley’s reasoning, not all features of the human eye make functional sense... some eye features are not merely arbitrary but clearly dysfunctional...

Williams speculates on ‘Paley’s reaction’ to the claim that ‘mundane processes’ are sufficient to have accomplished both the miracles and the bungles of ‘living nature’ (p14). Yule is a creationist like Paley – but he scores at least one direct hit. Poetic artifice includes an analysis of Sonnet 94 and elegant elucidations of Empson’s poetic use of mathematical operations, so it is likely that Forrest-Thomson would have appreciated the demolition of a particularly irritating ‘notion’:

Stephen Hawking, in his Brief History of Time (1988), repeats a notion first popularised by Thomas Huxley: ‘It is a bit like the well-known hordes of monkeys hammering away on typewriters – most of what they write will be garbage, but very occasionally by pure chance they will type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets’... [Gerald Schroeder] took a Shakespearean sonnet [Sonnet 18], ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, which ends with the appropriate lines

            So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
            So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

He counted the number of letters in this sonnet... Assuming that the monkeys always hit the keys, and ignoring the spaces between the words, Schroeder calculated that the chance of randomly typing the 488 letters to produce just this one sonnet is 1 in [10 to the power of 690] seconds ... Since the Big Bang, 15 billion years ago, there have been only [10 to the power of 18] seconds.

The theory of evolution from a pre-biotic soup might well commend itself to Outwash, in view of his robust dismissal of ‘the curve of love’ and the ‘unknown protagonists’, but ‘evidence hovers’ suggests an open-minded weighing of the arguments. ‘Pie speaks’, too, however, and his forthright ‘precultural eulogy’ is a contribution to the debate:

I’m buggered he
says if I care I
don’t give a four
penny damn or
a blind fuck where
soever ...

A ‘blind fuck’ is a crude synecdoche for the theory of evolution, in which the process of reproduction is, indeed, in Monod’s unequivocal word, ‘blind’; by the same token, ‘a four/ penny damn’ might be a synecdoche for Christian doctrine. Intriguingly, the phrase is used by James Lovelock, discoverer of the ozone-depleting effects of CFS and author of Gaia A new look at life on Earth (Oxford University Press, 1979), to express a relevant and highly controversial opinion (‘The science and politics of Gaia’, Phil Shannon):

Some environmentalists are uneasy with Gaia theory because of Lovelock’s view that... ‘Gaia’/ Earth can withstand the worst we can do to ‘her’/ it... Nuclear war is of some concern – ‘we might be seriously affected’ – but ‘unicellular life’ would not even notice; ‘Gaia would not care a fourpenny damn ’.

Another of Prynne’s tropes lends itself to a figure of speech in a similar context:

Someone once compared the Earth to a living tree. Like Earth, its vital epithelium is a thin outer layer that covers a much thicker, inner core... We may reverse our cancerous growth, redesign our cities, nutrition and industries. If so, our collective identity may revert from toxic mildew to vital cutaneous layer on the Earth’s living flesh.

A few lines later, a ‘chastened’ Pie speaks three stanzas, the first of which anticipates, in a more unequivocally anthropomorphic image, the final lines of the poem:

the path runs out to
the lip of my fear, for
you; the planets bow
their heads at every door.

With alarming consistency, this expression of a vitalist conception of the universe provokes the first of Outwash’s insulting rejoinders. In her finest passage of close reading, Forrest-Thomson herself commits ‘the absurdity of trying to differentiate scenes and characters’ (p49), in the light of a ‘thematic synopsis’ based on this trope (p145):

Discursive imagery is characteristic of the more abstract passages while empirical imagery appears most frequently in the narrative. Not just the italicised description of angelic essences but also the preparation for this beginning ‘the planets bow/ their heads at every door’ is discursive and therefore apt to be taken as a thematic synopsis of the poem’s subject. Balance is maintained between this type of imagery and empirical imagery in the constant alternation between the two. The italicised description of angelic essences is followed immediately by ‘wait for it, Pie/ conceives a whiff of apple, even short crust’. Thus, whenever the reader wishes to say this poem is about an ideal world of imaginative freedom from physical interference with perception, the physical world is brought in again so that we know that however the ideal world exists it must be part of the real everyday world. Yet this world also is presented in abstract aspect through the allegorical figures of Pie and Outwash; they inhabit a familiar world of apple-pies, stairwells, taxis, but they are not themselves entirely part of this world. Each of them sums up a complex idea of how the physical world may appear in a poem. Pie stands for the disillusioned imagination facing its own inadequacies while Outwash stresses rather the robust physical world asserting its independence.

My indebtedness to this passage is obvious, I expect. In its structure and in many of its terms, I think it’s spectacularly right. Not about Pie, though. In conjuring up a ‘disillusioned imagination facing its own inadequacies’, Forrest-Thomson sells herself short to just the extent that she fails to complete her reading of Prynne’s poem. Similarly, the distinction between ‘discursive’ and ‘narrative’, ‘abstract’ and ‘empirical’, holds only for ‘the italicised description’: in the other passage cited as an example, what could be less ‘discursive’ than ‘the planets bow their heads’? They exist in a mystical world, in which anthropomorphic and religious conceptions of the ‘soul’ are as ‘empirical’ as a ‘lump’ of dough and as literal as ‘the letter D ’. As Prynne is clearly aware, the word ‘mass’, the empirical ‘body of matter’ itself, derives from the Greek words ‘maza’, ‘a barley cake’, and ‘masso’, ‘to knead into a lump ’.

The main thematic statement, is, in my opinion, the most important sentence in the book, though it goes against the grain for Forrest-Thomson: ‘however the ideal world exists it must be part of the real everyday world’. Poetic artifice is characterised by an urgently personal commitment to aestheticism, evident, even as it is decisively relinquished, in the expression of ‘what the reader wishes to say’. The first chapter carries an epigraph from Hegel in which ‘Even animals... despair of this reality altogether’ (p18); and a safety warning that ‘Naturalisation... runs the risk both of failing to fictionalise external contexts thus invoked and of leaving the reader stranded in the world and the language he already knows’ (p33). This reveals an Eliotic intensity of desire to be rescued from the familiar ‘world of emotions, objects, and states of affairs’ (p18). At one point, Forrest-Thomson even refers to ‘the safe and separate planet of Artifice’ (p161), which must be in a different solar system to the ‘Planets’ which ‘stream across the fields and in at the three doors’. This is the vitalist cosmos to which Pie belongs and against which the ‘robust’ Outwash asserts his ‘independence’ by insisting on a purely mechanistic view.


8: ‘In re Outwash’

The many connotations of ‘the name Pie’ are balanced by those of the name ‘Outwash’. The metonymic association with ‘Eyewash’ suggests a further play on ‘pi’, Victorian school slang for ‘pious’. In Outwash’s outspoken terms, Pie’s ‘eulogy’ of ‘the planets’ is nothing but ‘pi jaw’, a tedious excess of ‘moral precept’; and the ‘perfect zeal’ of Lucifer’s archangelic guards would qualify for similar contempt. The phrase ‘perfect zeal’ reappears, in quotation marks, towards the end of the poem, in what might be interpreted as another of Outwash’s sneers.

However, the quotation marks also make sense as another ‘external’ reference’, to a novel which, like Blake’s Milton, supplies several tropes and a direct quotation to ‘A New Tax on the Counter-Earth’, also from Brass and in many respects a companion poem. In The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope, it is ‘the privilege and the duty of the Duke’ to replace ‘the Marquess of Mount Fidgett’ as a ‘Knight of the Garter’:

If the truth be spoken... he had been a man of sin. The duty of keeping together the family property he had performed with a perfect zeal... however base might be the gullies into which his wealth descended, he never spent more than he had to spend... The man who had just died had perhaps been as selfish and sensual a brute as had ever disgraced humanity... A feeling had... begun to prevail that the highest personal offer in the gift of the Crown should not be bestowed upon a man... who did indeed seem to deserve every punishment which a human or divine wrath could inflict.

There is urbane but obvious irony in the ‘perfect zeal’ of a reprobate who had ‘descended’ into the ‘sensual’ depths of ‘sin’ and ‘who did indeed seem to deserve’ damnation by ‘divine wrath’. The image-complex of Trollope’s prose dovetails with the allegory of the fall of Lucifer, by whose temptation ‘disgraced humanity’, unwisely ‘preoccupied with the female’ and chafing ‘under the/ limits of “perfect zeal”’, was ‘pervaded with female oestrus’ by ‘divine wrath’. There would indeed seem to be a contrast between ‘female oestrus’ and ‘the curve of love’, the latter recuperable (in a potentially misogynistic narrative) as a trope of recovered innocence. The same ironies and associations cluster round the intrinsically mythopoeic phrase, ‘the/ perfect earth’: ‘Isaiah... reports the words of Lucifer, the mightiest Angel God created, who was His regent on the perfect Earth of Genesis... before his fall’; ‘God created Man out of the Goodness of His heart... to enjoy the Perfect Earth that He had created’.

The name ‘Outwash’ has its own strong connotations of rejection and expulsion, but the word happens to be one of a total of no less than thirty ‘Technical Terms’ in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’, signifying, in Pope’s exact phrase, ‘the Dregs of Nature’:

The extent of glaciation may be seen from outwash plain sediments, which can be over 50m thick. Large quantities of glacier meltwater deposited various kinds of material, the most important of which is called outwash (advance or recessional), consisting mostly of sands and gravels. A significant part of the total glacier debris, outwash is hydrodynamically sorted into layers of material, as opposed to till, which consists of deposits laid down by the direct action of glacial ice and demonstrates no stratification.

Hence, perhaps, the curious allegory in the middle of the poem:

                                                                  all the
              mountain peaks sail by in handy likeness
and pride & passion & moral precept/ gurgle
              like the honey Outwash expected to run
run busily with the milk.

The odd verb, ‘sail by’, denotes both the movement of the glaciers and the copious quantities of meltwater flowing from them, like the bow-waves of a ship, or gurgling like bathwater down the plug. The ‘milk’ and ‘honey’ of the Promised Land suggest, by metonymy, the Edenic, prelapsarian and ‘precultural’ qualities of the hypothetical ‘perfect earth’, though ‘pride & passion & moral precept’ have the air of ‘counterclaims’, perhaps on ‘legal & moral grounds’? It is Pie, after all, who belongs in Paradise. The allegorical point might be reinforced by the fact that Outwash is formed by a mechanistic process, ‘hydrodynamically sorted into layers of material’, strictly according to the laws of geology. Pie, by contrast, is formed by a teleological process, according to the ‘purpose’ of a human or divine ‘baker’ or creator.

As a geological technicality, Outwash belongs to yet another extensive series of tropes in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’, including a number deposited by Google: ‘a 150 m muddy sequence (probably generated by plumes of glacial outwash )’; ‘Landforms are predominantly of late Pleistocene origin and include end moraines, valley trains, outwash plains... and bogs... restricted deposits of Holocene alluvium also occur’. The ‘Quaternary Pie de Palo’, ‘the San Andreas pie ’ and (my favourite) ‘a flat pie-zometric field ’ were amongst the suggestive collocations, any of which might conceivably have germinated the strange pairing. Altogether, there are at least twenty tropes: ‘crust’; ‘sub-/ strate’; ‘Outwash’; ‘dyke’ (‘Geol: fissure in stratum filled with deposited matter’, OED); ‘mud’; ‘earth’; ‘glacial’; ‘scooped-out place’; ‘alluvium’; ‘mountain peaks’; ‘valley floor’; ‘post-alpine’; ‘verge’; ‘layer’; ‘ground’; ‘cavity’; ‘melted down’; ‘water sur-/ face’; ‘levels’; ‘stream’. The word ‘post-alpine’ denotes a specific geological region, ‘the post-Alpine tensional molasse zone of the Swiss plain’, but also has a general significance: ‘Geologically and petrologically the rocks of Greece can be divided into pre-Alpine, Alpine and post-Alpine formations’; so it is possible to write, for example, of ‘Venezuela’s unique post alpine environment’. In the latter sense – as in ‘post-alpine volcanic rocks and Neogene marine and lacustrine deposits’ – ‘post-alpine’ has some of the same connotations as ‘outwash’. As for those ‘small mountain ringlets’, I think they hold the key to ‘our true fate’.


9: ‘The House of Mercury’

There is, however, another significant aspect of Pie and Outwash. According to William Lilly (1602-81), ‘the most successful and influential astrologer of 17th century England’, whose ‘almanacs and pamphlets had a tangible effect on public opinion’, Gemini is ‘an aerial, hot, moyst, sanguine, Diurnal, common or double-bodied human Sign; the diurnall house of Mercury of the aery triplicity’ (‘The Nature, Description, and Diseases signified by Gemini’, Christian Astrology, 1647, reprinted by Regulus, 1985, pp94-95). If the ‘Sanguine Fire’ of the title refers to the star sign of Gemini, it follows that ‘Outwash and Pie’ in ‘the house of Mercury’ are twins, ‘conjoined in likeness’, despite ‘the difference in age’, Pie being the ‘younger’ of the two (one twin is, invariably, the ‘younger’, if only by a few moments). Their insulting remarks, as they ‘face across the/ table’, are the bickering of sibling rivalry. The word ‘table’, like the words ‘face’, ‘conjoined’, ‘fortitude’ and ‘likeness’ itself, is also an astrological term; whilst ‘the letter D’ is a another direct quotation from Christian Astrology:

The Planets may be strong another manner of way, viz accidentally; as when direct, swift in motion... &c or in Conjunction with certain notable fixed Stars... Here followeth a table of Essential Dignities... Every planet hath two signs for his house, except Sol and Luna, they but one apiece... Mercury, Gemini and Virgo... The one of these houses is called diurnal, noted in the second column by the letter D. The other is nocturnal, noted by the letter N... These twelve signs are divided into four triplicities... If any planet be in his Decanate, Decurie or Face, as... Mercury in the first ten degrees of Taurus, he is then allowed one essential dignity... The exact way of judicature in Astrology is... by knowing the strength, fortitude or debility of the Planets...

This accounts for the first and third of the three lines in the litany of the planets:

At fortitude they sing in unison
At appetite they knead into a lump
At protraction they shine like the letter D

Another possible source of the second is an alchemical rhapsody by Jacob Boehme (The Signature of All Things, 1621, translated by William Law, p27):

an earthly property of water arises from the dark essentiality... Thus it begets out of its property in the impression a mist, smoaky steam, or vapour... and its essence is dismayed or dies, and falls downwards... according as it was wrapt and driven together in the creation into a lump, as we plainly see.

Boehme pairs Lucifer and Adam as ‘diurnal’ antagonists: ‘Thus the life prevails over the death, the good over evil; and on the contrary, the evil over the good, as came to pass in Lucifer and Adam, and still daily comes to pass’ (p92). His true protagonist, however, is Mercury itself, and the title of his eighth chapter, ‘Of the Fiery Sulphureous Seething of the Earth... Also of the Separation of the Several Kinds of Creatures’, is reminiscent of Prynne’s title and themes (p76). Chapter 10 begins with a hymn to Mercury (pp108-109):

He introduced the holy Mercury in the flame, viz in the fiery love with the desire of the divine essentiality... into the expressed word, viz into the mercurial fire-soul... and became again that same image of God... He took only that same Mercury which he had breathed into Adam for an image, and formed into a creature... He did with love introduce again the light of the eternal sun into the human property, that he might tincture the wrath of the enkindled Mercury in the human property, and inflame it with love, that... the divine understanding, might appear again and be manifest.

Contemporary astrology attributes ‘quickness’ itself to Mercury (aka quicksilver ):

Mercury... revolves closest to the sun, and so is quickened by the fiery illumination of that star. In its quickness, Mercury allows a nimble-witted person to view a subject from a multitude of angles, often shifting perspective with bewildering rapidity.

Lilly’s account of Mercury is, as it happens, intriguingly applicable to Prynne:

Being well dignified, he represents a man of a subtle and political brain, intellect, and cogitation; an excellent disputant or logician... sharp and witty, learning almost anything without a teacher; ambitious of being exquisite in every science, desirous naturally of travel and seeing foreign parts; a man of an unwearied fancy, curious in the search of any occult knowledge; able by his own genius to produce wonders; given to divination and the more secret knowledge... Vulgarly he denotes one of an high stature and straight, thin, spare body, an high forehead and somewhat narrow, long face...

The ‘table’ might also refer to the Smaragdine Table of Hermes Trismegistus, the litany of alchemical principles inscribed in Phoenician characters on a tablet of emerald (and invoked by Blake). Its concern with ‘the fortitude of all fortitude’, with creation, with ascending and descending ‘from the earth to heaven’, with the ‘perfection’ of the ‘world’ (or ‘the perfect earth’), with the elements of ‘earth’ and ‘fire’, with dialectical movement and with ‘the Sun’ as the origin of the ‘one Being’ is mirrored by ‘Of Sanguine Fire’.

The collocation in the poem of ‘fierce’, ‘zeal’, ‘angry’, ‘sensual’, ‘lust’, ‘blood’, ‘love’, ‘intensely’, ‘heat’, ‘warm’ and ‘hot’ are all compatible with ‘the Complexion sanguine ’, typical of Gemini, according to Lilly. These images suggest summer, but it is ‘The Vernal, or Spring Quarter... sanguine, hot and moist ’, which ‘contains the first three Signs, viz Aries, Taurus, Gemini’: sure enough, the only seasonal reference in the poem is to ‘the Spring of their Nature’ (and there are other vernal images).

Astrological ‘twins’ and ‘triplicities’ characterise the poem (the only other numbers specified are ‘zero’ and ‘four’). Dualities include ‘room for two’, ‘legal & moral grounds’, ‘Outwash and Pie’, ‘mud & zeal’, ‘rise or fall’, ‘equipolar’, ‘honey’ and ‘milk’ and ‘blood/ between two/ faces’; triads include the abstractions, ‘angelic/ protraction, fortitude, appetite’ and ‘pride & passion & moral precept’, ‘the three/ garments’, ‘three stairs’ and ‘the three doors’. Gemini ‘governs the west’, which may account for ‘the western hemisphere’. The ‘stellar’ and astrological tropes include the parody of Shelley’s image of the sun, ‘the house of Mercury’, the way the twins ‘loop over... in the glimmer of evening’ as their ‘lightness... fades/ so swiftly’, their ‘equipolar’ song’ and ‘an-/ gelic evidence’, Outwash’s ‘sardonic glimmer’ and the ‘Planets’ which ‘stream... in at the three doors’. In addition, like ‘the angelic sub-/ strate’, ‘stellar juice’ encodes a specific reference: to Betelgeuse, ‘pronounced Bet-el-jooze but sometimes corrupted to BEETLE-juice... from the Arabic for “house of the twins ”, apparently because of the adjacent constellation of Gemini’ (Skywatching: the Ultimate Guide to the Universe, David Levy, HarperCollins/ The Nature Company, 1994, p194). Even the moon is subliminally present, for ‘the/ frail pinnace’ is from ‘Gloucester Moors’ by William Vaughan Moody:

These summer clouds she sets for sail,
The sun is her masthead light,
She tows the moon like a pinnace frail
Where her phosphor wake churns bright.

In ‘The Egyptian Maid’, Wordsworth, too, compares the ‘full orb’ of the moon to a ‘Pinnace bright’; and the image of ‘love’s pinnace’ in Donne’s similarly entitled ‘Of Aire and Angels’ may also lie behind Prynne’s trope.

In the astrological world of the poem, two ‘Planets’ are ‘conjoined’:

A Conjunction, Coition, Synod or Congress (for some use all these words) is, when two planets are in one and the same degree and minute of a sign... Conjunctions are good or bad, as the planets in Conjunction are friends or enemies to one another.

So which is the other? Saturn, perhaps, paired with Mercury in the ‘aery triplicity’? Gemini has its ‘opposing sign’, too, namely Sagittarius. Sadly, my ‘arcane knowledge’ runs out at this point (I’d love to know Prynne’s Star Time and ascendant!). In the same speculative vein, the title of the poem might be construed as a reference to Lilly’s ‘Astrological Hieroglyph’, by which, in 1651, he ‘successfully foretold the Great Fire of London of September, 1666’ (Francis X King, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fortune Telling, Hamlyn, 1999, p12). It ‘shows ‘the “Heavenly Twins” – Gemini, the zodiacal sign traditionally believed to rule London – suspended upside down over flames which men were unsuccessfully trying to extinguish’. Significantly, the only proper name in the poem – besides those of Mercury and the twin protagonists – is ‘Euston’. Prynne is strongly associated with Cambridge, but his native city is London.

Perhaps the most remarkable correlations are with a dubious astrological website. This writer expounds ‘the relation between Gemini and Masonry’ in the belief that ‘the great White Lodge on Sirius is the spiritual prototype of the great White Lodge on Earth’, but his account of ‘the resolution of duality into a fluid synthesis’ via the ‘polar opposites’ of the zodiac is disconcertingly close to ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ (‘Gemini, the Twins’):

Gemini... is one of the paramount zodiacal signs in that it is the major symbol of duality in the zodiac. It is the constellation Gemini and its inherent second ray influence which control every one of the pairs of opposites in the Great Wheel. Gemini, therefore, forms with each of the pairs of opposites in the Zodiac a third factor, powerfully influencing the other two constellations [in] great zodiacal triangles... This sign is sometimes called the ‘constellation of the resolution of duality into a fluid synthesis ’. Governing as it does all the pairs of opposites in the zodiac, it preserves the magnetic interplay between them, keeping them fluid in their relations, in order eventually to facilitate their transmutation into unity, for the two must finally become the One. It should be remembered that... the twelve zodiacal... opposites must become the blended six, and this is brought about by the fusion in consciousness of the polar opposites... Because the Ray of Love-Wisdom, the second ray, pours through Gemini it becomes apparent how true is the occult teaching that love underlies the entire universe. God is love, we are assured, and this statement is both an exoteric and an esoteric truth.

With the final ‘esoteric truth’, compare the second of Prynne’s two reviews of Charles Olson (‘On Maximus Poems IV, V & VI’, Serious Iron; cited by Birgitta Johansson, The Engineering of Being: An Ontological Approach to J H Prynne, Umea University Press, 1997, p106), in which ‘love’ is given explicitly astrological significance:

There is this immense controversy now about how they knew over those immense periods of time that there were cyclic repetitions in the movements of the heavenly bodies. They didn’t know. They just wanted it... And if you read it, and if you hear it, then you also want it. Then you also have the particular condition of transpiring through the noble arc, from the land to the shore, from the shore to the sea, from the sea to the ocean, from the ocean to the void to the horizontal curve, which is love.

This review finds Prynne in unguarded mood, invoking ‘that steady vibrancy of the singular curvature which is equivalent to what was anciently called nobility’ and making the startling declarations that ‘I believe utterly that it is man’s destiny to bring love to the Universe’ and ‘to fulfil the Universe’s potential for love’; and that the ‘First Mover was certainly love’ (Johansson, p89). This mystical image of ‘love’ as a ‘horizontal curve’ is a geometrical equivalent of ‘the Ray of Love-Wisdom’ which ‘pours through Gemini’ and of the ‘curve of love’ in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’. It is also a trope of the Einsteinian theory of the ‘curvature’ of space-time.


10: ‘The Song is Equipolar’

Forrest-Thomson is brilliant on the use of the Principle of Duality and differential coefficients in Empson’s ‘Letter V’, ‘the Einsteinian version of the famous compass analogy’ in Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’: ‘This place’s curvature precludes its end’ (p92). However, she makes no reference to the series of mathematical tropes in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’, in addition, that is, to astrological numerology, various dualities and triplicities, and words with subsidiary connotations – ‘limits’, ‘protraction’, ‘loop’, ‘helix’, etc. The ‘Three Doors Paradox’, for example, is a gameshow scenario in which the probability of making a correct choice between two identical locked doors is, counterintuitively, proved not to be 50%, but 2/3:1/3:

Alf appears on a gameshow and is shown three doors. Behind one door, he is told, is a car. Behind each of the other two doors is a goat. Alf is asked to choose a door and he does so. The gameshow host then opens one of the remaining two doors to reveal a goat. Alf is asked whether he wants stick with his originally chosen door or switch to the other unopened door. His prize is whatever lies behind his final choice of door. Assuming Alf wants to win the car, should he switch?

The answer is that Alf should switch. If he sticks, he will win if his first choice hid the car (probability 1/3). If he switches, he will win if his first choice hid a goat (probability 2/3). This ‘paradox’ is interesting because of the vehement insistence it induces in otherwise intelligent people that it makes no difference whether Alf swaps or not... One approach is to postulate a... variation of the game with 1000 doors and 999 goats. Alf picks a door and the host flings open 998 of the remaining 999 doors revealing goats. The 99.9% chance of the unpicked and unopened door hiding the car is sometimes enough to dent 50-50 convictions.

The primary meaning may be mystical, but paradoxical triplicity is very much in the spirit of the poem.

The term ‘bounded condition’ has a range of meanings in pure and applied mathematics. Engineering applications of multiply-connected three-dimensional geometry involve a technological analogue of ‘lipid bilayers’ and of Forrest-Thomson’s requirement that the ‘levels’ of a poem should ‘mesh to produce a thematic interpretation’ (J Tausch, ‘Rapid Solution of Stokes Flow using Multiscale Galerkin BEM’):

Traditionally, integral formulations of this problem were based on the hydrodynamical double-layer operator, but more recently, the single-layer operator has received a great deal of interest in engineering applications... the system can be preconditioned to have a bounded condition as the mesh is refined.

Solution of parallel differential equations in multigrid algebra involves a ‘multilevel... system’ with ‘degrees of freedom’: ‘For strongly elliptic problems the standard BPX or MDS-Method results in a preconditioned system with asymptotically bounded condition number’ (Marc Alexander Schweitzer and Stephen Kapek). In the negative, the term is central to Hawking’s model of reality, as expounded by Robert Koons: ‘if we use a mathematical technique known as “imaginary time”, we can model space-time as a smooth, uneventful surface, with the Big Bang as the North Pole and the Big Crunch as the South Pole... the universe had an ‘unbounded condition ’, in other words, there is no origin to time’ (Doxa: Arguments for the Existence of God). Prynne’s trope anticipates Hawking, whilst repudiating Hobbes: ‘What Hobbes wants instead is a bounded condition of freedom that he calls civil freedom’ (‘Hobbes and the Limits of Freedom’, David van Mill, University of Western Australia, October 2000).

The term ‘equipolar’ is purely mathematical, though even in its strictest sense it has a tendency to generate biochemical metaphors, as in the calculation of ‘extinction times of varying and random environment branching processes’, reminiscent of mechanist theories of evolution: ‘Galton-Watson trees with the same polar sets are denoted equipolar by Pemantle and Peres (1994)’ (‘Sharpness of second moment criteria for branching and tree-indexed processes’, Robin Pemantle, University of Wisconsin-Madison).

In the field of cyberoptics, Gestalt psychology has been exploited for mechanist purposes (supposing such things exist). The points made by Williams against Paley include the observation that three eyes would have been preferable to two, especially if the third allowed rear-vision (p12). In 1991, the ‘Industrial’ prize ‘sponsored by Computer Recognition Systems Ltd’ was won by a paper entitled ‘Equipolar geometry for trinocular active range sensors’ (Blake, McGowen, Lo and Konask).

The term is also central to Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Promorphology’, to which, again, the threshold between organic life and inorganic matter is crucial (‘Promorphology’ website):

in his time it was believed that organismic bodies would never yield to a mathematical description... It was held that organisms were fundamentally different from non-living things... Promorphology tries to uncover... hidden symmetries, by means of geometrically idealizing... the shapes (forms) of organisms. And in succeeding he could show that the forms of organisms were mathematically describable after all. All this was part of Haeckel’s effort to close the gap between the non-living and living world.

Promorphology aims to represent any symmetry by the pole of an imaginary axis. The more complex the species, the more arbitrary the results appear, but the system works:

When we inspect a human body morphologically, we can indicate three axes... one of the three axes, namely the one that goes from left to right, is homopolar (equipolar ), while the other two axes are heteropolar... These findings can now be expressed by means of a simple geometric figure, namely by means of one half of a Rhombic Pyramid.

Finally, a website about the ‘Mythical Polar Self’ plaits several strands of the poem into a tangle of uroboric nonsense (‘Transition from Group-Ego to Polar Self: Magic vs Myth’):

The actual emergence of an individual ego is a ‘spiritual mutation’ analogous to the emergence of life from non-life. In the non-living world, all interactions are ‘equipolar ’, e.g. energy lost by one object always is equal to the energy gained by some other objects... Emergence of life is the transition to non-equal polarities ... Thus, I refer to this new spiritual mutation as the emergence of a Polar self... a paradox represented by Uroboros – a snake eating its tail... there are aspects of life, e.g., animal consciousness, that cannot be explained by positivistic science... The uroboric, polar self... emerged as a result of creative individuation... [It] expresses itself paradoxically in the form of metaphors organized into myths... describing paradoxical polar interactions... life implies death but metaphorically speaking death implies life...

The term ‘counterpass’ also has a mathematical as well as an ‘erotic’ meaning: ‘A 2-dimensional component ff of a special polyhedron has a counterpass if its boundary @ff passes along some edge of SP in both directions’. In psychophysics, ‘ions traveling opposite to the plasma current’ are described as ‘counterpassing’ (an illustration ‘shows a counterpassing 100 keV deuteron heated to 2 MeV’). These contexts may seem remote from the probable source of the phrase, but in The Spirit of Romance, Pound plaits mathematics, poetry, The Divine Comedy and The Bhagavad Gita into ‘il contrapasso’ itself (pp14, 127; cited in ‘The Mathematical Transcendental’):

Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles, spheres, and the like, but equations for human emotions. If one have a mind which inclines to magic rather than to science, one will prefer to speak of these equations as spells or incantations...

To the trained mathematician the cryptic a2+b2=c2 expresses:

  • 1st. A series of abstract numbers in a certain relation to each other.
  • 2nd. A relation between certain abstract numbers.
  • 3rd. The relative dimensions of a figure; in this case a triangle.
  • 4th. The idea or ideal of a circle.
Thus [Dante’s] Commedia is, in the literal sense, a description of Dante’s vision of a journey through the realms inhabited by the spirits of men after death; in a further sense it is a journey of Dante’s intelligence through states of mind wherein dwell all sorts of and conditions of men before death; beyond this, Dante or Dante’s intelligence may come to mean ‘everyman’ or ‘Mankind’, whereat his journey becomes a symbol of mankind’s struggle upward out of ignorance into the clear light of philosophy. In the second sense I give here, the journey is Dante’s own mental and spiritual development. In a fourth sense, the Commedia is an expression of the laws of eternal justice; ‘il contrapasso’, the counterpass, as Bertran calls it or the law of Karma, if we are to use an Oriental term.

The source of Pound’s inspiration was Principia Mathematica (1910), co-authored, with Bertrand Russell, by Whitehead, who restates the perennial Pythagorean belief that ‘All is number’ with reference to another pre-Socratic (Process and Reality): ‘Mathematic physics translates the saying of Heraclitus, “All things flow”, into its own language. It then becomes, “All things are vectors”’. Eliot, too, considered Whitehead’s work to be ‘of inestimable value to culture’ (cited in ‘The Mathematical Transcendental’). I shall argue that it underlies a conception of ‘reality’ common to Prynne and Forrest-Thomson.


11: ‘Like You, Like Me’

Acknowledging that ‘Prynne’s obscurity, while apparently irrational and discontinuous, has a good deal of rational obscurity in it also’ (p50), Forrest-Thomson follows her demonstration of his ‘wilful obscurantism’ (p49) with an approach to a solution (p50):

The clue lies in the fact that the obscurity is wilful: ‘a fierce vacancy’, as line 15 has it. Since language has appropriated the non-verbal world and distorted it to suit the requirements of society, Prynne is engaged in restoring language to the condition of reality in its pre-mediated state... Prynne’s obscurity is an attempt to make language real again for the poet and reader... by making poetry again an area where even the despised ‘great thoughts’ may fittingly dwell.

The question begged by this forthright statement receives an equally bold answer (p50):

He says that our knowledge of the physical world is uncertain but that we are constrained by it more than we know.

I intend to venture my own statement of ‘Prynne’s great thought on life’ (p146), but first to look again at Forrest-Thomson’s close reading, splicing together, where necessary, the two sections of Poetic artifice devoted to ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ (pp47-51, 142-146). One promising line of argument concerns the dialectical oscillation between ‘alienation’ and ‘give and take’, ‘with reference to’ (‘in re’) ‘the physical world’ (pp50, 144):

‘From upstairs the/ face counterclaims in re Outwash’, and one of the meanings of ‘in re’ is ‘with reference to things’; the legal and moral senses of the phrase are brought out in the contrast between the implied human and the ‘angelic sub-/ strate’ and both are contrasted with the alienation from the body imposed by legal and moral superstructures and incarnated in the pomposity of ‘bodily attachments’... ‘in re’ and ‘all like’... have the effect of making any future occurrence of ‘like’ in the poem – and there are many – reflect the theme of distrust in either the physical world or the world of other languages... But the use of Pie and the symbolic landscape to develop through the conjunction of theme and image-complex can make us aware of a deeper coherence holding the poem together. And this is also true of the use of ‘I’m buggered’, ‘don’t give a blind fuck’: these phrases are held together with the ‘last precultural eulogy’; both appear in a controlled verse line... Thus a degree of internal thematic synthesis can be reached, focussed on the word ‘like’. This appears and disappears in various incarnations. ‘Like you[,] like me’ is the equation of love and knowledge; this is lifted to another level of abstraction in ‘(like evidence, off again)’ which reflects the constant give and take between the body and the physical world, action and language, which is allegorised by the introduction of the passage descriptive of angels.

The ‘introduction of... angels’ seems to me to allegorise something altogether more exalted than that, but the theme of ‘legal and moral superstructures’ is certainly important. The phrase ‘bodily attachments’ is most familiar in a different context: ‘the aspirant must dedicate himself to freeing the soul from all sense phenomena and bodily attachments’ (Anwar Shaikh, ‘Buddhist Mysticism’; as, I gather, in dubious translation, Krishna reproaches Arjuna for ‘basing all your feelings on these outer bodily attachments and relationships’. It is also, however, a specifically legal ‘pomposity’: ‘This year, SB 1662 was passed, allowing the entry of writs of bodily attachments (civil warrants) in the Florida Crime Information Center’. Besides ‘legal & moral grounds’ and ‘legal guardianship’, the phrase ‘evidential footings’ is also legalese: ‘as under the Civil Evidence Act (1968), contradictory statements by the same person should confront one another on the same evidential footing’. I agree, too, that there is a strong sense of ‘alienation’ in this series of tropes, most obvious in the diagnosis of ‘Gangrene’ in the last.

The choice of ‘the word “like”’ to focus ‘a degree of internal thematic synthesis’ strikes me as rather more arbitrary, but, again, worth pursuing. ‘Like you, like me’ is a cheesy, semi-proverbial expression of ‘warm likeness/ melted down’: ‘Jesus was BORN!... It means that Jesus is a REAL human being – like you, like me. And that’s great’. It is can also readily imply holistic interrelations: ‘A lake is, first and foremost, a living thing. Like you, like me, like the birds and like the flowers’; ‘Caregivers are so much more than that phrase implies. They are like you, like me... a part of the whole’. Similarly, the throwaway remark, ‘life’s like that’, alludes to the Reader’s Digest feature entitled ‘Life’s Like That’, which consists of heart-warmingly amusing anecdotes. The phrase is a variation on another cliché, ‘that’s life’, itself the name of a quirky, feelgood television magazine fronted by Esther Rantzen. In response to all such saccharinity, listen to Canadian girlband, Kittie: ‘I look into the mirror/ The whore is all I see/ Like you, like me...’ (‘The Knife is on the Table’, Spit). Prynne is, of course, ‘a real ironist’ (‘From End to End’, Poems, p62), but to some extent, at least, both phrases are in earnest.

So, in a sense, is the strange ‘eulogy’, despite the obvious incongruity of that ‘controlled verse line’: ‘precultural eulogy: I’m buggered he’! Peter C Blum argues that ‘Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of “the face of the Other” involves an ethical mandate that is presumably transcultural or, in his terms, “precultural ”’; in other words, that ‘the face has a meaning that is not culturally relative, though it is always encountered within some particular culture’ (‘Overcoming Relativism? Levinas’s Return to Platonism’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 28/1/91, p117). It is, naturally, ‘the face of the [o]ther’ that each sees as ‘Outwash and Pie face across the/ table’; and ‘the faces’ that ‘are/ conjoined in likeness, made of that an-/ gelic evidence’ have Platonic connotations. So, more facetiously, do the hovering ideal ‘pasties’ which are ‘all so like’ the ‘pastry/ face’ named ‘Pie’; and there is no mistaking the parodic intent (enjambement mimics the intonation of the music-hall catch-phrase: ‘wait for it... wait for/ it’!) in ‘one bold face too many’ – especially since there are five more! Unusually, it is the theological concept that takes the satirical impact; as a technical term, on the other hand, its point is irresistibly thematic (Jack Kelso, ‘Biocultural Evolution’, The Human Animal, A Biocultural Approach):

Australopithecus is the taxonomic name for the Precultural hominids... The Precultural Stage begins roughly 8m years ago and ends roughly 2.5m years ago... Without the ability to symbol our Precultural ancestors relied entirely upon their biological resources – guile, cunning, curiosity, playfulness, alertness, ready ability to learn from experience, ability to communicate, well developed neocortical skills...

Amongst troops of apes, sexual dynamics revolve around ‘estrus females ’, as contrasted with the ‘[c]ontinuous capacity for sexual arousal in females, multiple dependent young per childbearing female, and long term pair bonding between males and females’ in Australopithecine communities (Kelso). Pie’s insouciant profanity can therefore be located on the evolutionary scale between the ‘biotic’ and the ‘angelic’, at a point just below ‘the equation of love and knowledge’ in the Garden of Eden (the fall of the ‘precultural’ innocent) and just above the ‘animal soul’. The last trope is noted by Forrest-Thomson, but only as one in a kaleidoscopic spiral of ‘devices’ (pp143-144):

Traditional devices assert themselves in the symbolic ‘Pie’ and ‘Outwash’ and in the allusions to the land flowing with milk and honey. Allegory asserts itself in the landscape of mountains and staircase and in the contrast between ‘angelic’, ‘disposition’ [sic: emend to: ‘an-/ gelic... Disposition’?] and the ‘animal soul’. The traditional role of the poet is invoked by the reference to Virgil’s descent into hell, ‘cannot fail to grab for the willow wand’, which in turn brings in ‘The Golden Bough and All That’... The mountains, the stairwell, and sexuality are related to the more general theme of abstract versus particular; and this in its turn is related to the differing aspects of the problem of knowledge through language... The abrupt colloquialism of Pie’s ‘I’m buggered’ speech contrasts with the lines in italics about the angels and both contrast with the narrative of ‘Pie is/ chastened, grows more organs of a strictly theoretic cast’.

The allusion to The Aeneid is another excellent spot, but if The Golden Bough is allowed, why not Thomism, Buddhism, ornithology, pharmacology, maths, physics and bio-chemistry? The suggested ‘contrast’ is productive only of high-level generalities, such as the ‘theme of abstract versus particular’, yet the ‘narrative’ about Pie is worth attempting to narrate: as he ‘grows more organs’, in the ‘last’ stages of physiological evolution towards homo sapiens, so, at the same time, he evolves the ‘Cultural’, ‘theoretic’ capacity to produce a cosmology, in which ‘the planets bow/ their heads at every door’ and ‘the three/ garments of the animal soul’ are worn by the tribal shaman. Then again, those garments have an exact source in Hassidic mysticism (‘Likutei Amarim’):

when a person actively fulfils all the precepts... then the totality of the 613 ‘organs’ of his soul are clothed in the 613 commandments of the Torah... we are dressing our soul within the holy Will and thereby uniting to our Creator, blood and organs... That is to say, the three ‘garments’ of the animal soul, namely, thought, speech and act... do not prevail... Only the three garments of the divine soul... are implemented in the body...

These are, indeed, ‘organs of a strictly/ theoretic cast’, all 613 of them, the great majority name-checked in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’! There may be a pun on ‘caste’ and the ‘Five Precepts’ of Buddhism, whilst the ‘handy likeness’ of the ‘moral precept’ suggests a sarcastic response to Diderot: ‘There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it’. In Jerusalem, Albion’s ‘garments’ are similarly identified with his ‘blood and organs’: ‘They take off his vesture whole with their Knives of flint,/ But they cut asunder his inner garments, searching with/ Their cruel fingers for his heart’. ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ follows the fortunes of the ‘Vital Force’ that animates these ‘organs’:

The sanguine humour is the principal humour of the blood which embodies the other three humours: the choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic within it. In a state of health these humours are indistinguishable. Jupiter, ruling the sanguine humour from its seat in the liver, is responsible for maintaining the even temper of the humours, thereby facilitating the harmonious flow of Vital Force.

The ‘animal soul’ also bears a technical sense in ‘Postcultural’ philosophy, implicating most of the themes of the poem (Robert M Young, ‘Animal Soul’, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, Macmillan, 1967, Vol 1, pp122-27):

The concept of the animal soul did not give rise to any serious problems until the seventeenth century, when Cartesian dualism brought out distinctions which had been latent in the dominant Aristotelian tradition... Descartes’s doctrine that animals are pure machines, while men are machines with minds, was in part a compromise... In man, however, the mind could also direct the course of the fluid (‘animal spirits’) which controls movements... Descartes excluded explanation by purpose... Yet mechanistic explanation was remarkably unsuccessful in accounting for biological phenomena... without postulating some intermediate substance or special vital force... A... solution was to accord sensation and an inferior degree of reason to animals but to deny them an immortal soul... degrees of mentality could be ascribed to creatures at different levels of the ‘scale of beings’ ...

Prynne’s uncanny ability to layer allusions is nowhere more evident than in this amazing poem, but the more its innumerable images circulate and recombine, the more the idea of vitalism seems to gather momentum. ‘Lipids drop to no purpose, like too much’: this is indeed a startlingly lucid assertion of mechanistic doctrine, according to which there is no such thing as ‘purpose’ at all, or, alternatively, from the point of view of metaphysical determinism, ‘too much’, but no scope for individual freedom or choice. Yet it is vitalism which has the last word: ‘Planets stream across/ the fields and in at the three doors’.

The ‘three doors’ are the Buddhist equivalent of the ‘three garments’, according to a website which preaches ‘the discipline of the three doors... represented by the body, speech and mind’. This idea is elaborated by Alice Bailey and Djwal Khul into the esoteric doctrine of ‘The Three Doors of Shamballa’ (‘The Rays and the Initiations’):

When the initiate has passed through the three doors... the entire scheme of evolution and of... the One in Whom he lives and moves and has his being becomes clear to him... certain ‘Eternal Spirits’... from the constellation which... forms a triangle with our Sun and Sirius... are of greater... advancement... The full expression of perfect Light , occultly understood, is the engrossing life-purpose of our planetary Logos...

And, perhaps, of Prynne’s poetry. The idea of ‘Eternal Spirits’ might readily be dismissed by most contemporary readers – but hardly by either Prynne or Forrest-Thomson.


12: ‘The Artifice of Eternity’

Poetic artifice is, as its subtitle declares, A theory of twentieth-century poetry. The words of the title phrase are variously (un)capitalised: poetic artifice on spine and cover; Poetic artifice on title page; significantly, ‘Artifice’, as well as ‘artifice’, throughout the text. The ‘Preface’ refers in lower-case to ‘poetic artifice’ (pix), but ‘Naturalisation’ is defined as ‘an attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language... by making Artifice appear natural’ (pxi); and the set is neatly completed by the phrase ‘one of the central problems of poetic Artifice’ (pxiv). The capitalisation signals a metaphysical dimension to Forrest-Thomson’s ambitious ‘project’ (pix).

In her quotation from Eliot’s ‘Whispers of Immortality’, the pronoun can be read as self-inclusive: ‘I think that “our metaphysics” is this new technique of disconnected imagery which is the doom of fate of the twentieth-century poet’ (p86). Despite the inclusion, in the ‘Preface’, of Yeats’s amongst ‘certain names... conspicuous by their absence’ (pxiv), it is with two of his most notorious tropes that Forrest-Thomson constructs the perorations to her introduction and first chapter. Her references to ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (‘how difficult it is... to attain the artifice of eternity through language’, p17) and to ‘Easter 1916’ (‘language and the world may be changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born’, p36) are unmistakable. Her deepest theme – common to her Renaissance, Romantic and Modernist precursors – is expressed at the outset in the Horatian tropes of poetic immortality (‘Exegi monumentum aere perennius’; ‘I have built a monument more durable than bronze’) and sacred ascent (‘dum Capitolium scandet... pontifex’; ‘as long as the high priest climbs the Capitoline’), drily contrasted with Dante’s Inferno (p1):

if we want to grasp the process whereby works might out-last bronze and ascend to the Capitoline hill, we must first descend to the inferno of detailed analysis. To begin the journey with the greatest and most time-conscious of English poets seems, then, only just.

The ‘persona’ in Pound’s last poem (at least ‘by date of sanctioned publication’) is ‘Horace, the text Odes III.30’ (Kenner, The Pound Era, Faber, 1972, p548):

This monument will outlast metal and I made it
More durable than the king’s seat, higher than pyramids..
Bits of me, many bits, will dodge all funeral...

‘“Many bits” for “non omnis moriar”... is Pound, not Horace, remembering his many years’ cunning attention to details’ (Kenner, p548); but ‘many/ Bits of me’ (for ‘multaque pars mei’, not ‘non omnis moriar’) is Horace. At any rate, the Horatian preoccupation with personal immortality is precisely the point. Forrest-Thomson endorses a rhetorical expression, by Geoffrey Hartman, of the same Horatian and Yeatsian tropes (p114):

How do we ground art in history without denying its autonomy, its aristocratic resistance to the tooth of time? Is it not a monument, rather than a document; and monument, moreover, of the soul’s magnificence, and so richly solipsistic or playful edifice?

She glosses her own phrase, ‘the eternal claim of Artifice’, with Shakespeare’s variation on Horace (p107): ‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments[/ O]f princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme’; and gives an occult account of ‘poetry’s duty’: ‘To build the city of Dioce/ whose terraces are the colour of stars’ (‘Canto LXXIV’). She weaves a cento from Four Quartets into her own sentences (‘a pattern that is new in every moment’; ‘our eagerness to rehearse its thought and theory’; ‘we have not to do with the man who suffers but with the mind which creates’; etc), culminating in the assertion that ‘Eliot has veritably placed himself among the dead and is demonstrably musing: “I had not thought death had undone so many” ways of writing’ (p77). For Forrest-Thomson, Eliot has veritably placed himself amongst the immortals. His own preoccupation, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and throughout his work, is with the way in which a poet’s ‘ancestors, the dead poets, assert their immortality’ (The Sacred Wood, p48).

As ‘incarnated’ in his poetry, Eliot is ‘the type case of the poet as metaphysician/ metaphysicist’ (p77), an example Forrest-Thomson is unceremoniously determined to follow: ‘My system may have looked as if I were saying that one may write only about writing, but I have tried to insist that in so doing one is writing about a great many other things as well’ (p114). Perhaps the boldest assertion in a fearless book is also a performative fulfilment of its own presumption: ‘Eliot is right to say that we can only learn to get the better of words for the thing we no longer wish to say, though the statement should be qualified by noting that the way in which we no longer wish to say it is absorbed in the new way, and hence we say a new thing’ (p131).

Prynne’s own preoccupation with immortality has been constant throughout his writing-lifetime, and is still evident in his most recent productions, such as Unanswering Rational Shore (2001):

                               Steroid upgrade therapy
arouses braggart hopes on a charade of distinction,

to engrave profound mottoes of survival next time
on the eyeball itself. With a swirl intact, grafted
there if you can get the lid off, scooping up extras
to raise the stake beyond demise.

To ‘raise the stake beyond demise’ is to play for the highest stake of all, ‘survival... beyond demise’, or immortality. These are indeed ‘braggart hopes’, but, beneath the mockery of ‘profound mottoes’ and ‘steroid upgrade therapy’, the earnestness is undiminished (‘Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform’, The White Stones, 1969):

                                           With such
patience maybe we can listen to the rain
without always thinking about rain, we
trifle with rhyme and again is the
sound of immortality. We think we have
it & we must, for the sacred resides in this;
once more falling into the hour of my birth, going
down the hill and then in at the back door.

Forrest-Thomson’s analysis of Sonnet 94 participates in a language-game with, in particular, three of her most significant precursors, Pound, Empson and Prynne. Pound ‘marked the 500th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth by recording “They that have power to hurt and will do none”’ (The Pound Era, p560). Empson subjects the sonnet to close reading in Some Versions of Pastoral. The closest and most intriguing relationship, however, is with a text published only in 2001. In They That Haue Powre To Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets, 94 (privately published, Cambridge), Prynne devotes 86 pages of small print to a single sonnet. It is an exhaustively scholarly production, in which constant ‘external reference’ is made both to theology and to speech-act theory, yet Prynne is prepared to risk a spectacular ‘bad naturalisation’ in order to make his crucial point about immortality:

a deep underlying theme of the sonnet and indeed of the sequence is that dispute over loyalty, change, transience within time and the pathos of beauty’s moment, either this way or that, is all by necessity vain: only stone is durable, endures, neither sweet nor sour, chaste nor corrupt. Such ultimate irony by reserved shadow is not auricular because within the poem’s discourse it is never overtly uttered.

Prynne makes no mention of Forrest-Thomson’s analysis, yet, uncannily, both poets’ texts are shadowed by their respective precursors: each other. Her own ‘internal Naturalisation’ is even bolder than his (p17):

Meaning gives us ‘odi et amo’, and the deployment of sound in the image-complexes takes up the thematic synthesis of ‘I love and am jealous of your good qualities though I think they are really bad’ and gives it an internal application: ‘my good qualities as poet are better than yours as beloved, as witness this skilful sonnet’.

(To follow suit, I think the ‘summer’s flower’ = Jonathan Culler: ‘my good qualities as poet-critic are better than yours as critic-beloved, as witness both my books’.) In her interpretation of ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ – with reference to Culler – Forrest-Thomson again lays the stress on the immortality of the ‘poetic “I”’ (pp35-36):

The ‘I’ which ascends... is, of course, the author whose artifice takes place in the same de-temporalised present as the ascent... a mythical figure which the poem itself aims to create and which can only exist within the realm of artifice. As soon as it re-enters time... it is subject to irony: ‘I shall have, doubtless, a boom after my funeral...’

The ‘mythical figure’, ‘born’, in his ‘terrible beauty’, of ‘the poem itself’, is the immortal poet. The ‘de-temporalised’ zone into which it ‘ascends’, immune ‘to irony’, and from which it ‘re-enters time’ at its peril, is ‘the realm of artifice’ = ‘the artifice of eternity’.

So what if Brass had been called Bronze instead?

There’s precious little difference, after all. In ‘Brass or Bronze?’ (The Artilleryman Magazine), Bill Anderson points out that, as a rule, ‘brass cannon’ simply aren’t: ‘All surviving antique cannon of a copper-based alloy are in fact ‘“bronze”’. He cites an authority on Round Shot and Rammers (Harold L Peterson, Bonanza Books, 1969):

In almost all the contemporary [18th and early 19th centuries] references the term used is brass. Bronze is almost never mentioned. Yet the alloy itself sometimes consisted only of copper and tin, which would make it bronze according to a modern definition.

Urizen’s ‘book/ Of eternal brass’ is a brilliant parody of the Horatian trope, but despite the power of this attack, Blake is as committed to immortality as any poet who ever lived. The contents of ‘his brazen book’ – both Urizen’s and Blake’s own – are revitalised in the uncompromising Brass, which will, quite literally, ‘out-last bronze’ (Poetic artifice, p1).


13: ‘Jacob’s Ladder’

It is ironic that interpretation of the first stanza – and of the whole poem – might well begin with the terms employed to allege its unintelligibility: ‘levels’, ‘limitation’, ‘extended reference’, ‘scale’ and ‘synthesis’ are all integral to its image-complex. The words ‘limits’, ‘extent’ and ‘levels’, as well as ‘layer’, ‘conjoined’ and ‘unison’, all actually occur in the poem. Forrest-Thomson cites none of these, but suggests that a ‘thematic synthesis’ might be ‘focussed on the word “like”’. Limiting the choice to the words of the poem, I suggest ‘stairs’ instead, together with her own concepts of ‘the scale of Artifice’ (p157) and ‘the ladder of relations’ (p55):

Having first moved into an external world and the experiences it was thought to contain, we are now led back into the poem where we begin, as it were, to climb the ladder of relations that leads back to an internal thematic synthesis

One of most illuminating examples in the book is a wonderful ‘little poem’ by Max Jacob (p133):

Comme un bâteau naufragé est le poète âgé
ainsi qu’un dahlia le poème étagé
Dahlia! dahlia! que Dalila lia.


      [Like a shipwrecked boat is the aged poet
      As a dahlia is the layered poem
      Dahlia! Dahlia! which Delilah binds.]

After some mockery of ‘Mr Gerald Kamber’, whose ‘bad Naturalisation... short-circuits the non-semantic’, Forrest-Thomson gives a deft account of how the ‘interaction between a similarity in meaning and a similarity in form is made into a link to bind the poem together’ (pp133-134):

The second line shows that the poem is self-reflexive; it is layered like the petals of a flower... Moreover, not only is the poem self-reflexive in using traditional comparisons to absorb external contexts, not only does it take this a step further in saying that a poem is layered like a flower, but it also uses the form of this particular flower to take a new leap in the third line. ‘Dahlia’ is linked to Dalila’ because both contain ‘lia’ (linked)... Thus Jacob’s ‘little poem’ shows the build-up of levels common to all poetry...

A poem is ‘layered like the petals of flower’, but also like the storeys of a building (‘la deuxième étage’ = ‘the second floor’). So, as well as the horizontal overlapping of ‘petals’, ‘le poème étagé’ suggests vertical ascent (as ‘build-up of levels’ implies). Ascent up what, exactly? Well, what else? Storeys are ‘linked’ by ‘stairs’ – like the rungs of ‘Jacob’s ladder’! In fact, as Denise Levertov puts it, ‘The stairway is not/ a thing of gleaming strands/ a radiant evanescence... It is of stone’ (‘The Jacob’s Ladder’): ‘the term usually translated “ladder” actually suggests some sort of stairway and was more likely a stone ramp leading up to the top of a ziggurat... a symbol of man’s efforts to plod his way up to God’. This is the sense in which the word is used by Walter Hilton, whose fourteenth century treatise The Ladder of Perfection is not, but might easily have been, the source of the italicised quotation in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’:

They that speak of this fire of love know not well what it is; save this I can tell that it is neither any bodily thing nor felt by any sense of the body. A soul may feel it in prayer or in devotion, which soul is in the body... nevertheless the fire of love is not bodily, for it is only in the spiritual desire of the soul.

Created in the image and likeness of God, fallen humanity may regain the lost ‘likeness’, or ‘conformity to God’s character disclosed in Christ’, by ascending the ladder of perfection. The human soul is a created trinity, reflecting the ‘uncreated Trinity’ in its three faculties: ‘memory/ awareness; understanding/ reason; will/ love’ (Elizabeth G Melillo, 2000); compare ‘the three/ garments of the animal soul’. Curiously, the source of the phrase ‘slender likeness’ is a piece of uncharacteristically mystical epistemology by Voltaire (Sottises des Deux Parts II, pp88-89):

There must be something within us which produces our thoughts. Something very subtle; it is a breath; it is fire ; it is ether; it is quintessence; it is a slender likeness ; it is an intellection; it is a number; it is harmony...

One of the more elliptical allusions in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ conceals a ‘stair’ which is also, exactly, a ‘ladder’. The enigmatic injunction, ‘Be trusty’, is spoken by Romeo to Juliet’s Nurse (Romeo and Juliet II v 184-189):

Within this hour my man shall be with thee
And bring thee cords made like a tackled stair,
Which to the high topgallant of my joy
Must be my convoy in the secret night.
Farewell, be trusty, and I'll quit thy pains;
Farewell. Commend me to thy mistress.

The ‘high topgallant’ is ‘the platform on the mast from which the topgallant sail was handled, reached by a rope-ladder from the deck’ (Brian Gibbons, Arden Shakespeare). The oblique allusion to the ‘tackled stair’ (cf. the Nurse’s direct reference to ‘a ladder by the which your love/ Must climb a bird’s nest’ = ‘the crow’s nest) is a deft reinforcement.

The word ‘stairs’ occurs twice, deep into the poem, but the image-complex to which it belongs, that of ‘the house of Mercury’, is sustained throughout, from the second line (‘stairwell’) to the final word (‘doors’). After the inventory in the first stanza, the series continues with ‘the table’, ‘the house’ itself, ‘doorways’, ‘the stairwell’, a ‘floor’, a ‘path’, ‘every door’, ‘the stairwell’ again, ‘three stairs’, ‘treads’, ‘lintel’, ‘the stairs’, ‘the stairwell’ a third time, ‘the female zoning/ of the house’, ‘footings’, ‘the small window’ and ‘the three doors’. The centre of activity, throughout the poem, is the staircase. Since ‘the house of Mercury’ is in the sky, its symbolic meaning must hinge on movement ‘upwards’ and ‘downward’ between the ‘levels’ of the poem.

The negligible discrepancy between these two adverbs – the letter ‘s’ – is a salutary reminder that nothing in Prynne’s poetry is ever quite so simple: the complete phrase is, after all, ‘outwards and upwards’. The number and diversity of prepositions employed represent movement, literally, all over the place. The series includes ‘over’, ‘under’, ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘on’, ‘off’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘through’, ‘past’, ‘round’, ‘between’, ‘by’, ‘across’, ‘for’, ‘into’ and ‘at’, several combined with the most frequent verb, ‘runs’: ‘run to the limits’, ‘run busily with the milk’, ‘runs in his head’, ‘runs out to/ the lip’, ‘runs on for the cloud’, ‘run their course’. To press the point in Forrest-Thomson’s own vein, the word ‘race’ is a metonymic (‘Swift as a face’) and phonetic (rhyming) link between ‘runs’ and the most frequent word (noun + verb): ‘faced with’, ‘The pastry/ face’, ‘the/ face crossed’, ‘face across’, ‘face out’, ‘face down’, ‘the faces are/ conjoined’, ‘Let’s face it’, ‘one bold face’, ‘slides his face’, ‘between two/ faces’, ‘the face/ of the water’, ‘the water sur-/ face’. The constant ‘rise and fall’ is balanced by lateral movement ‘across’, for the ‘extent’ of ‘our true place’ is almost as important as its altitude. In her final paragraph on the poem, which reveals the rhetorical if not ‘wilful’ quality of her incomprehension, Forrest-Thomson captures this mercuriality, whilst rightly stressing movement ‘upwards’ (p146):

‘Of Sanguine Fire’ is as much beyond the disconnected image-complex, beyond mere irrationality, as Four Quartets is beyond ‘The Waste Land’. In fact when approached from the standards of Artifice it must be classed as a very rational poem; rational, of course, in its deployment of poetic logic and absorption even of good Naturalisation... using all the resources of past and present Artifice to make poetry again capable of powerful order and powerful thought. But it does not make even this the end of poetry, for its end is — as it always is — in its beginning. The image-complex both leads the other levels up to a thematic synthesis (Prynne’s great thought on life) and forces the thematic synthesis to take account of the non-semantic levels so that it is an internal synthesis where all is movement, and where the sheer beauty of the formal pattern may make a powerful contribution... to Artifice and its future.

This account is clearly compatible with Eliot’s conception of ‘autotelic’ art, adumbrated in The Sacred Wood and expressed in the celebrated trope from ‘East Coker’: ‘In my end is my beginning’; and, more subtly, with the ‘concept of the “objective correlative”’, interpreted by Forrest-Thomson as ‘a direct transposition into poetics of the ideas expressed in his Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F H Bradley’ (p75):

Eliot contrasts science (objective knowledge and expression of things in themselves as it was then considered to be, at least by Pound) whose aim is ‘to reduce reality to one type of object, and the ultimate type of object I should suppose to be points in mathematical relation’, with those activities such as metaphysics, history and literary studies which involve a ‘transformation of object type’.

What is implied in Forrest-Thomson’s quotation from Bradley, as cited by Eliot, is not only a ‘transformation’, but a metaphysical – and paradoxical – hierarchy ‘of object type’, in which the ‘primary qualities’ find themselves at the bottom of the scale (p75):

The Nature studied by the observer and by the poet and painter is, in all its sensible and emotional fullness, a very real Nature. It is in most respects more real than the strict object of physical science. For Nature, as the world where real essence lies in primary qualities, has not a high degree of reality and truth.

Forrest-Thomson’s own philosophical interests were in post-structuralism, linguistics and, particularly, the later work of Wittgenstein, in which her poetry is steeped. Her criticism is both warier and more reckless. The direct discussion of several propositions from Philosophical Investigations remains scrupulously within the relativistic ‘limits’ of Wittgenstein’s ‘world’ (pp20-21); yet the famous line from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ – is reformulated with a true idealist’s disregard for ‘limits’: ‘When language is re-imagined the world expands with it’ (p20). These contemporary approaches are all modes of lateral thinking, but Forrest-Thomson’s thinking is, as I have argued, instinctively transcendent. Where it would have taken her is anybody’s guess. As it stands, her ‘system’ is a brilliant mosaic of allusions. Whereof one cannot speak, thereat one must fling an outrageous trope from a modernist masterpiece! (Cf. the closing sentence of the Tractatus; and Poetic artifice, p1, opening sentence).

Yet the quotation from Bradley is compatible both with Forrest-Thomson’s own discrimination of ‘levels’ leading up ‘the ladder of relations’ to a ‘great thought’ and with the organising image of the staircase in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’. Wittgensteinian ‘language-games’ are intrinsically non-hierarchical; so are ‘points in mathematical relation’, especially if everything is reducible to the same terms. There was, however, another way out of Principia Mathematica. As well as various ideologies of vitalist process, Whitehead’s metaphysics sponsored a philosophical project which came to fruition in Cambridge in the 1960s, though its roots were in the Apocalyptic 1940s. Arriving from Hungary in 1933, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) found himself very much at home amongst the now neglected protagonists of Christian modernism:

In 1944, Polanyi met J H Oldham, when Oldham, editor of the Christian News Letter, sought to reprint part of a Polanyi essay of interest... one of Oldham’s important activities was convening discussion groups composed of British intellectuals interested in Christianity and contemporary culture and politics. The Moot, Oldham's most famous group, was formed in 1939 or 1940... Polanyi participated in... the Moot and its successors, for about sixteen years; these sessions included... important religious and literary intellectuals such as T S Eliot, John Middleton Murry, and Hendrick Kraemer.

Polanyi’s insistence on the tacit coefficient of all explicit knowledge is combined with a theory of emergent levels of reality which is remarkably compatible with Forrest-Thomson’s theory of the ‘levels of Artifice’; and, at the same time, with the vitalist Weltanschauung of Prynne’s poetry. It has its origins in the highly empirical introspection of a chemist and crystallographer, yet returns, in essence, to Bradleyan idealism (Duke Lectures, microfilm, Pacific School of Religion, 1964, No 4, pp4-5; cited in The Knower and the Known, Marjorie Grene, Faber, 1966, pp219-220):

The structural kinship between knowing a person and discovering a problem, and the alignment of both with our knowing of a cobblestone, call attention to the greater depth of a person and a problem, as compared with the lesser profundity of a cobblestone... minds and problems possess a deeper reality than cobblestones, although cobblestones are admittedly more real in the sense of being more tangible. And since I regard the significance of a thing as more important than its tangibility, I shall say that minds and problems are more real than cobblestones.

This meets the most outspoken challenge to idealism head-on, whilst also reclaiming the voice of plain reason from Cartesian mechanism, which culminated in the logical positivism of Polanyi’s own day. Dr Johnson’s famous response to Berkeley’s metaphysics was to aim a sharp kick at a stone – ‘I refute it thus!’ – so it is both poetic justice and shrewd tactics to kick off with ‘cobblestones’.

As elucidated by Grene (pp223-224), ‘the scale of forms turns out to be a spiral’, an intriguing analogue of Forrest-Thomson’s paradoxical ‘ladder of relations’, to climb which is to ‘arrive where one started’ (‘East Coker’), ‘for its end is... in its beginning’:

in the light of Polanyi’s criterion, we can see how and why our scale of forms turns out to be a spiral, in which we return at a new level to the point from which we set out. We found the recognition of pattern common to all acts of knowing... But when the knower is engaged in the business of knowing living things, further, the object of his knowledge itself is... a comprehensive entity. Not only the process of knowing, but the thing known consists of an organic whole whose parts have their meaning, and their existence as parts, through their bearing on the whole... The relation on a series of levels between form and matter does indeed parallel closely the relation between higher and lower levels of organisation characteristic of... objects of aesthetic recognition...

In one sense, vitalism has the last word, yet from another point of view the structure of the poem is itself a ‘glacial helix’, which attains its maximum altitude only to return again to its beginning in a progressive ‘spiral’, ‘in which we return at a new level to the point from which we set out’. In this interpretation, the ‘Course’ of the poem is a constant ‘loop’, on the model of Finnegans Wake: ‘Planets stream across/ the fields’, ‘in at the three doors’ and ‘up the stairwell’! The Joycean ‘sensual race’ is continuous with the vital cosmic ‘stream’; and irreconcilable contraries – the ‘quickness of the Morning’ and ‘deep narcosis’; ‘no Concupiscence’ and ‘unmannerly lust’ – impel the progression ‘in synergic coils... through/ the house of Mercury’.

Those ‘synergic coils’ are an image of the double helix, as Dawkins’s punning chapter-title, ‘Immortal Coils’ (The Selfish Gene, p21); whilst the portmanteau word ‘synergy’, fusing ‘synthesis’ and ‘energy’, was coined by another hero of The Pound Era (p231):

Transcendentalism was aware of its own affinities with the Far East; and Transcendentalism’s other affinities are with Whitehead and Darwin and Frazer, and Gestaltists and field physicists, and the synergism of Buckminster Fuller: with the coherent effort of 150 years to rectify Newton’s machine by exploring hierarchic interdependences... detecting wholes greater than the sum of parts, organisms not systems, growth not accretion: process and change and resemblance and continuity.

So what about ‘the fields’? According to biologist Rupert Sheldrake, those same ‘field physicists’ might have an answer (The Rebirth of Nature, pp103, 106):

Modern mathematical cosmology is in fact a strange theoretical hybrid between the paradigms of eternity and evolution. It retains the Pythagorean or Platonic assumption so beloved of mathematicians, the notion that everything is governed by an eternal realm of mathematical order, transcending space and time. Yet it opens up a great evolutionary vision of all nature, and in so doing throws its own foundations into question. If all nature evolves, why should the laws of nature not evolve as well?... Plotinus... thought of the cosmic soul as the source of all souls within it: ‘... From the one Soul proceed a multiplicity of different souls’. Modern unified field theories can be paraphrased in a parallel manner: ‘There is both the one Field and many fields. From the one Field proceed a multiplicity of different fields’.

Sheldrake is the protagonist of one of Prynne’s most entertaining productions.


14: ‘The Hierarchy of Morphogenetic Sophistication’

It is in ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts’ that Prynne shows most of his hand. Like The Island in the Moon, Blake’s self-indulgent satire on his own intellectual circle, this parody of contemporary Cambridge situates without confining its author (p236):

1st April 1972...

Well, Dr Cypress, I think I must first take issue with your assumption about ‘higher’ plants; though I say it myself there are many quite lowly organisms which shew an advanced range of cytokinetic procedures.

Oh indeed yes, Professor Lichen and perhaps the term was unfortunate, I only meant to suggest –

And that’s exactly my point, Dr Cypress: ‘suggestion’ is no part of proper taxonomy. The metaphor of relative elevation in the hierarchy of morphogenetic sophistication is all too crudely suggestive. And though of course I respect your own scr-r-rupulous objectivity there are all too many today who confuse height above ground with innate developmental superiority.

My dear Quondam I must reassure you that no reflection of any kind –

The theory of a ‘hierarchy of morphogenetic sophistication’ was very much in the air in 1972. The objection by Professor Quondam Lichen (compare ‘Quid the Cynic’) to heightism against lichens on the part of trees is a parody of the views of a contemporary circle which included Sheldrake. Like Prynne, a Cambridge academic and former Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard, Sheldrake pays tribute to this circle in his first book, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Blond and Briggs, 1981, p14):

My interest in these problems was stimulated through my association, dating from 1966, with a group of scientists and philosophers engaged in the exploration of areas between science, philosophy and religion. This group, called the Epiphany Philosophers, provided many opportunities for discussions at seminars and informal meetings in Cambridge, and during stays on the Norfolk coast...

The group cohered around the journal Theoria to Theory, edited by Dorothy Emmet, and the philosophical positions of Whitehead and Polanyi. The ‘friends’ whose contributions are acknowledged in A New Science of Life (p14) include, besides several members of the group, ‘Mr Jeremy Prynne’ (p15). The compliment of a name-check is duly returned in ‘Transcripts’, in which Sheldrake’s conception of ‘morphic resonance’ is indulgently parodied as Professor Lichen delivers ‘a paper on “Palaemnemonic Resonances”’ (p234). Alongside sentences that might be quotations from A New Science of Life, moments of pure spoof and authentic references to ‘Sheldrake and Northcote (New Phytol., 1968)’ and ‘J. exp. Bot., 1971, p738)’, occur parodic allusions to ‘the Cambridge-based Bioparallax Research Station’ (p239), Whitehead and ‘reified layers’ (p237):

Touching lightly for support on Process and Reality Dr Gale was somewhat sceptical about cellular interface models in pre-Minkowski format, producing reified layers and truly monastic concepts of membrane and closure.

The point of the dig at ‘truly monastic concepts’ is that, as their name suggests, the Epiphany Philosophers were committed Christians. The flavour of Theoria to Theory may be suggested by a serial contribution entitled ‘Theism as a Scientific Hypothesis’, in which Margaret Masterman (1910-1986), ironically a pioneer of computerised or ‘mechanical’ translation, attempted, ‘in all seriousness’, to interpret the mystical insights of George Boole in his own mathematical language (Vol 1, 1-4, 1966-67). In the third instalment, ‘Icon of the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity: seen as an 8-element Boolean Lattice’ (Vol 1, 3rd Quarter, April 1967, pp 240-46), Masterman constructs mathematical formulae for the Holy Trinity which conform to the Athanasian Creed:

If we develop this vehicle, we find that we can now think quite a number of mathematical thoughts which are analogous to thoughts which theologians have thought of the Trinity... God can be conceived in His unknowable Essence, G, as well as in any of His Personae, F, S, or P. When He is conceived in His Essence, we shall say that F join G = G, and that He is being conceived in the aspect of His supremum. When He is conceived as F, i.e. in His Persona as the Father, we shall say that F meet G = F, and that He is being conceived in the aspect of His infimum. But, since F join G = G and F meet G = F, therefore G >= F; so there are not two Gods, but only two aspects of one God...

Boole had anticipated the manoeuvre in reverse with ‘a sonnet to the Number Three’! Another associate was Marjorie Grene, an American philospher who devoted her life to the exposition of Polanyi’s epistemology, within ‘the cosmology of Whitehead’. This provided, in her judgement, ‘a conceptual framework ready to hand, truly founded on the priority of process’ (The Knower and the Known, p244). She writes with a Blakean sense of vocation and at times in Blakean terms (p228):

To put finally to rest ourNewtonian delusions, to renew our conception of nature as living, and so to see ourselves once more as living beings in a world of living beings, still constitutes the major task of philosophy in the twentieth century. It is far from accomplished; the rise of a ‘new mechanical philosophy’, founded on biochemistry and cybernetics, makes the task not only more difficult, but more urgent.

Those ‘Newtonian delusions’ are an exact conflation of Blake’s ‘delusions of Ulro’ and ‘Newtonian phantasm’! Grene cites an intriguing piece of wishful thinking by R G Collingwood, another (critical) follower of Whitehead, dating from the mid-1930s: ‘I think it fair to say that the conception of vital process as distinct from mechanical or chemical change has come to stay, and has revolutionised our conception of nature’ (p227). The revolution may have been abortive in philosophy, but not in literature. The ‘conception of vital process’ is one of the foundational truths of modernism.

Grene expresses the theory of emergent levels in anti-Cartesian terms (pp241-243):

What I am asking... is that as philosophers we take seriously the routine admission – granted in one breath by biological writers but rescinded in the next – that there are levels of organisation of real entities... we need... to articulate an analytical pluralism, a metaphysic which will allow us to acknowledge the existence of a rich variety of realities, not all of which need exist in... spatio-temporal separateness... Not only in extension, but in intensity, in depth of being, the world has more to say to us, in a greater degree of types of discourse, than our Cartesian imprisonment has allowed us to believe.

Her proselytisation on behalf of Polanyi’s theory made one spectacular conversion. The Knower and the Known is enthusiastically endorsed as no less than a ‘classic’ by F R Leavis, who found her stringent vitalism irresistibly appealing (Nor Shall My Sword). Like Grene, like Eliot and Pound – not to mention Wallace Stevens, W C Williams, the Objectivists and Olson – Sheldrake takes his bearings from Whitehead, whose unimpeachable post-idealist credentials authenticate a vitalist conception of immortality which is somewhat more sophisticated but little less mystical than Tennyson’s.

The vitalist essence of Sheldrake’s theory was explicitly attacked in roundly mechanistic terms by Professor Lewis Wolpert (The Guardian, 11/1/84; cited by Sheldrake, p238):

Sheldrake’s views are just those of an updated Vitalist, mystical and useless as ever. The core idea is that the nature of living organisms can never be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. It is singularly bizarre that Vitalism should be revived at present, when molecular biology is being ever more successful. That it should be so welcomed must reflect a deep and genuine need in many people for mystical explanations that leave the soul intact and make our mortality more tolerable. Like religious beliefs, these have nothing to do with science.

In his own clearest statement, Sheldrake draws together almost every theme in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ (‘Maybe Angels: A Confluence of Imagination and Rational Inquiry: An Interview with Rupert Sheldrake’, Hal Blacker, 1996):

Right from the beginning, since my book A New Science of Life was published, my aim has been to try to find a wider picture or paradigm for science that is not constricted to an inanimate, mechanistic view of things... The big bang theory gives a picture of the origin of the universe in a small, undifferentiated, primal unity. The universe then expands and grows, and new forms and structures appear within it. This is more like a developing organism than like a machine... The old idea of the earth as dead has given way to Gaia, the idea of the living earth. The old idea of the universe as purposeless has been replaced by a new physics... of things being drawn towards ends or goals... and now we see that the whole cosmos is in creative evolution. Well, if the universe is alive... if planets are alive, are they conscious?... This, from the point of view of science, is a ridiculous idea... But there is in the Christian tradition, in the Jewish tradition and in all traditions, the idea of many beings with greater levels of consciousness than our own. In the Western traditions they are called angels. So, in my book with Matthew Fox, The Physics of Angels, our aim was to explore... what relevance that might have in the context of new cosmology... If one thinks of a divine consciousness embracing all things, and... human consciousness here, the traditional view is that there are many, many other levels and kinds of consciousness in between.

Incidentally, Sheldrake isn’t joking – they really did write a book called The Physics of Angels (HarperCollins, 1996). It contains the priceless information that the word ‘hierarchy’ was invented by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite to describe nothing less than The Celestial Hierarchies of angels (p31). In the same vein, Masterman derives the neo-Whiteheadian principle of degrees of reality from her ‘theistic informational model’:

If we substitute the dual of the lattice for the lattice... then, while the whole dynamic patterning remains the same, since the lattice is self-dual, we get an icon of what it looks like to our eyes. For first we see the Energies, the manifestations of God; then, proceeding further we see, on the one hand, the divine springs of natural creation, and, on the other, the divine springs of the Church, i.e. of man ‘as he shall be’. Proceeding further yet, we glimpse the Personae; and beyond that again, apprehension comes to an end in the unknowable Essence of God. And, as we go further and further, the state of information grows greater; i.e. everything becomes not less, but more, real...

As if to clinch the point, A New Science of Life was duly praised in Theology (Vol 85, 1982) by Professor Mary Hesse (p221):

Sheldrake’s hypothesis has potentialities for the description of a sequence of system-levels even, perhaps, reaching up to the perennial religious problem of how to express God’s providential dealings with the world.

Prynne’s most explicit statement about his own poetry discriminates ‘layers’ of ‘usage’ within a common ‘world’, but is non-committal on the question of a hierarchy (letter to Peter Riley, 15/9/85, cited, as epigraph, in Riley’s Reader, privately published, 1992; and in ‘Prefatory Note’, J H Prynne: A Bibliography, Nate Dorward, 1/8/01):

It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader’s own position within this world.

This cagey statement begs the question of the purpose of establishing such ‘relations’ with ‘the reader’s own position’. However, the concept of ‘position within [the] world’ can be explored further, through the implications of the cognate concept of ‘the female zoning of the house’, a phrase which conflates several senses of ‘zoning’.

Firstly, the ‘female zone’ is a technical term in botany. Its metonymic association with ‘female oestrus’, the zoological equivalent of ‘inflorescence’, is strengthened by the intervention of insects in pollination: ‘Once the insects have entered the spathe, they proceed downwards (or just drop) to the female zone where they can deposit pollen on the female flowers that they carried in from visiting another inflorescence’. There is a flower called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, cousin to the familiar phlox; whilst Thompson saw angels in the insects underfoot: ‘Turn but a stone and start a wing’ (‘In No Strange Land’).

Secondly, as regards the ‘zoning’ of ‘the house of Mercury’, both the analysis of astronomical data and the astrophysical evolution and explosion of model supernovae involve ‘stellar zoning’: ‘The star is assumed to be made of spherical shells, like an onion. This is sometimes called a “zoning ” of the model... The equations are now solved for each layer of the star’ (‘On the Progenitors of Collapsars’, Alexander Heger and Stan Woosley). The ‘astral zone’ is familiar from popular astrology: ‘The astral zone is a testing ground to prepare you for true seeing which begins on the plane of the mind and then goes on to higher spiritual levels ’ (Joseph J. Dewey, ‘The Art of Seeing’, 22/3/99) – nicely sent up by a parodist of Robert W Service: ‘Were you ever alone in the Astral Zone, where apparitions wail,/ And all space bleeds, ’til your whole life reads like the Book of the Dead, in braille?’ (Lord Buckley, ‘The Shooting of Dan’s Guru’).

Thirdly, the phrase bears a literal meaning in planning legislation (‘Council Watch’, Jenny Staff Johnson, 24/12/99, Austin Chronicle): ‘Council ruled for the church, casting a 7-0 vote to deny historic zoning of the house’. Fourthly, and most significantly, it bears a different literal meaning in architectural design (‘The Architecture of Movement As Movement Against Architecture’, Patrik Schumacher):

This ‘topography’ of movement deterritorialises – potentially – the hierarchical structure of the family as well as the related rigidity of the functional zoning of the house... The inescapable identification and labelling of the standard territories like ‘living room’, ‘master bedroom’... remain subject to the destabilising forces of movement and subjectivity... The spiral-house remains an unhomely bundle of open questions, born from wilfulness, lust and an urge for freedom.

‘Zaha Hadid’s design (1991) of a villa for The Hague (‘Spiral in the box’)’, to which Schumacher refers, sounds like a Constructivist realisation of ‘the house of Mercury’:

This given volume is conceived as an indivisible continuum. Any form of division into levels or cells is suspended... Everything seems to be shot through with movement... The spiral is the means by which the whole three-dimensional field of the volume remains open and continuous... Endless design variations bear witness to the indeterminacy of the morphology, within limiting parameters like maximum incline, smoothness of curves etc.... A dynamic of inhabitation is thus suggested that... further enhances the fluidity of the relational play.

Schumacher presents the ‘alternative tradition’ of anti-‘Cartesian’ architecture, of which Constructivism is a later manifestation, as ‘part of the movement towards 1968’, invoking the French situationists and psychogeographers with whom Prynne has strong affinities:

How does the dance define itself and its space without Cartesian grid?... The perception of space becomes ‘subjective’ as deviation from the objective order of space. Time becomes ‘subjective’ as deformation of the objective relations established by mechanically produced time... In the case of Debord the political dimension is absolutely self-conscious and explicit, and his movement becomes part of the movement towards 1968. The same applies to the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari... a political critique... of a rigid, hierarchical and ‘territorialising’ order is put forward in the form of a quasi-geometry. Deleuze and Guattari are sketching open, flexible and fluid anti-architectures, permanently moving in and out of shifting networks of relation.

Schumacher’s account of the ‘spirit’ which ‘haunts the Villas of Adolph Loos’ is equally applicable to ‘Of Sanguine Fire’:

Spatial sequences merging across the shifting levels prevent fixed identities from taking root anywhere. Communism would move through such spaces, if the exterior would not have been secured architecturally as a discrete, hermetic unit. Such a conception of space as generated by spontaneous movement entails an understanding of Being and Dwelling at its point of disappearance.

These ‘shifting networks of relation’ and ‘shifting levels’ are, after all, more compatible with Prynne’s ‘own aspiration... to establish relations... with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage’ than with the ‘fixed identities’ of a specific reader(ship). In Prynne’s writing, as in Forrest-Thomson’s, the ‘hierarchical structure’ of ‘functional zoning’ is in continuous tension with the ‘spontaneous movement’ of ‘curve’, ‘loop’, ‘helix’ and ‘synergic coils’. ‘Steam rises’ and ‘Lipids drop’ in a mechanistic ‘rise and fall’, as against the spiritual indeterminacy of the ‘erotic counterpass’. Perhaps, if ‘the/ song is equipolar’, these ‘counterclaims’ are undecidable. Yet the architectural structure of the poem itself might be called in ‘evidence’ on behalf of a ‘hierarchy of morphogenetic sophistication’ as expressed in the image of the ‘stairs’ in ‘the house of Mercury’. Cut-and-pasted onto one long page, the poem presents a regular pattern of indentations (alternate lines indented by about one tab), with intermittent sequences of between three and eleven equally indented lines, all double-spaced bar the italicised quotation. The single major exception to this regularity is a helical swirl of very short lines around the word ‘stairwell’, which approaches the direct mimesis of concrete poetry. So, as we ascend The Ladder of Perfection, scala naturae or ‘hierarchy of morphogenetic sophistication’, what is it that we encounter or become?


15: ‘The Spring of their Nature’

The more I read ‘Of Sanguine Fire’, the more it seems to hinge on the mysterious entities whom Forrest-Thomson calls ‘the angels’ (p145). At the risk of labouring the point, this is a perfect example of premature naturalisation, in the face of the studied inspecificity of the quotation. It begins with a relative clause, the antecedent of which is neither quoted nor identified by the rest of the sentence, which may or may not be completed by the dash after ‘Course’. I would love to know its source, but as a reader I am clearly not intended to; at any rate the information is not vouchsafed. Whatever the original antecedent, its suppression serves deliberately to raise the question of its identity, or rather of an intriguing range of possibilities. Forrest-Thomson closes a question that – within the poem, which is where she insists we should stay – Prynne is careful to leave open. I have no intention of staying within the poem, but I do think it is necessary to postpone ‘the rush from words to world’. The antecedent may be withheld, but we are, after all, given copious information about these entities. They have ‘no weight or load upon/ their Faculties’, but they do have ‘Faculties’; also a ‘Nature’, ‘Understandings’, ‘Wills’ and ‘Vehicles’. They ‘run their Course’. It strikes me first that these beings are embodied.

The negative attributes are even more specific, sufficing to define a familiar rhetorical figure in the Christian theological tradition: that of fallen humanity; of human ‘Nature’ subject to original sin. The key word here is ‘Concupiscence’, defined by one homilist as ‘The propensity of human nature to actual sin as a result of the original sin, which darkened our intellects and weakened our wills ’. According to Augustine, ‘Concupiscence is the guilt of original sin’; and, after considering objections to the Thomist doctrine, Aquinas concurs: ‘original sin is ascribed to concupiscence, as being the chief passion, and as including all the others’. Despite this generality, OED defines ‘Concupiscence’, firstly, as ‘Sexual appetite ’; and only secondly as ‘desire for worldly things (New Testament)’. The two senses are readily conflated, as by another homilist: ‘Carnal affections, the love of the world, and the indulgence of the flesh... darken their understandings ’. The word ‘appetite’ recurs in the poem, but there is also an allusion to Shakespearean ‘lust in action’ (Sonnet 29), in the person of Angelo, who swears ‘by the affection that now guides me most’ to torture Claudio to death, should Isabella continue to refuse his demands (Measure for Measure II iv 158-163):

                                              I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite...
By yielding up thy body to my will...

In ‘Hymn 128: Corrupt nature from Adam’ by Isaac Watts, ‘race’ has a different sense, in a direct reference to the fall:

Now we are born a sensual race,
To sinful joys inclined;
Reason has lost its native place,
And flesh enslaves the mind.

If fallen humanity is what these mysterious beings are not, what are they? There are two further internal lines of inquiry. Firstly, the Biblical tropes, transposed into the plural. There are no angels in Psalm 19. There is, rather, an intensely humanised cosmos, of which the fullest expression is the ‘language’ of inspired poetry (1-5):

The heavens declare the glory of God... Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

The speaker is David, the archetypal Hebraic poet, who praises God for preserving him in uprightness, strength and innocence; and saving him from ‘secret faults’, ‘presumptuous sins’ and ‘the great transgression’. The diurnal rhythms of the cosmos find expression in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, whilst its majesty is imagined as a ‘line’ of ‘words’ extending ‘to the end of the world’. No ‘unseemly rush from words to world’ here – rather another fulfilment-by-inversion of the Wittgensteinian insistence that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world’. The beautiful image of the ‘bridegroom’ is a redemption of sexuality and an image, again, of embodied humanity. The mysterious beings seem to me to be completely in harmony, not only with the figure of the ‘strong man’, but with the image-complex of the whole magnificent psalm.

Secondly, the relative pronoun has an antecedent in the poem, albeit divided from it by a colon. It is, literally, ‘small mountain ringlets’, or, slightly less grammatically, the ‘we’ whose ‘true fate’ is ‘bounded by’ or associated with them. Dewy Ringlets, Mountain Ringlets and Small Mountain Ringlets are distinct species (it was news to me) of high altitude butterflies. To be ‘bounded by’ butterflies is in itself a paradox, for it would be hard to imagine freer creatures, which is why the butterfly is a traditional image, as in the myth of Psyche, of the beautiful, joyful, aspiring and immortal soul. Winged like angels, these creatures are nevertheless symbolic of human not ‘angelic essences’.

The butterflies by which we are ironically ‘bounded’ recall the birds which evade ‘the bounded condition/ of name’; and which curiously ‘chant’, as if singing hymns or psalms. They are lyrically introduced into the poem by Pie, whose metonymic relationship with pied ‘wagtails’ is not fortuitous. ‘Pie’ is also an archaic form of ‘magpie’: ‘It is probably from the black and white... bird that the name “pie” or “pye” (Latin pica) was given to the ordinal’, the ‘table’ of movable feasts in the church calendar.

The evidence seems to me to be cumulative that Pie is an archetype of the mysterious beings. He is the unfallen Adam, the pre-cultural hominid whose entry into language (‘Pie speaks... a last/ precultural eulogy’) is synonymous, not with the fall into the Kristevan symbolic, but rather with ‘our true fate’, the individuation of humankind (D H Lawrence, ‘Foreword’ to Women in Love):

Let us hesitate no longer to announce that the sensual passions and mysteries are equally sacred with the spiritual mysteries and passions. Who would deny it any more? The only thing unbearable is the degradation, the prostitution of the living mysteries in us. Let man only approach his own self with a deep respect, even reverence for all that the creative soul, the God-mystery within us, puts forth. Then we shall be sound and free... The creative, spontaneous soul sends forth its promptings of desire and aspiration in us. These promptings are our true fate, which it is our business to fulfil.

It is true that Pie’s outburst seems worthier of the Angelic Upstarts than the state of innocence, but its profanity, drawn from the same well as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is redeemed by its insouciance and spontaneity, as in ‘the expression, “As pert as a Pye”’: ‘The word “pert” is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “bold or impudent in speech or behavior; saucy; forward”’, as befits the comment, with reference to Pie, on ‘one bold face too many’. It is, of course, Lawrentian vitalism that Leavis celebrates as ‘the living principle’ (The Living Principle, Chatto and Windus, 1975). The ironically unspecified ‘specific aim’ is reminiscent of Whitehead’s ‘great philosophic truth’, as cited by Grene (Modes of Thought; The Knower and the Known, p97):

All ultimate reasons are in terms of aim at value. A dead nature aims at nothing.

This, in my opinion, is a more plausible sentence-summary of ‘Prynne’s great thought on life’. A direct refutation of the mechanistic orthodoxy that ‘Lipids drop to no purpose’, it goes with the grain of the poem. The allegory of vitalist indwelling finds expression in a phrasal parallel to ‘our true fate’, a reminted cliché used, almost invariably, in a mystical, vitalist or cosmic sense (or in all three at once), as in the following sample by Google: ‘Molecular biology... is a revolution in thought just as profound as that of cosmology, which revealed to us our true place in the Universe, or that of evolutionary biology, which revealed our true place among living things’; ‘Our Dharma is our true place in the cosmic process’; ‘As we individually and collectively try to discern our true place in the celestial scheme of things, we find ourselves in a universe that is expanding’; ‘Thus the feeling of human littleness gave way to a sense of our true place in the creation which God has made: a little lower than the angels, but high above all non-human forms of life’. The ‘house of Mercury, where they dwell ’ is, literally, ‘our true place’.

The ‘Vigorous and Bright’ creatures are not (or not primarily) angels, but rather incarnations of the strong poet. Whatever they might have in common, ‘angelic essences’ (p145) are not incarnate or embodied. Despite this disgreement, however, my account is only a slight extension of Forrest-Thomson’s own definition of poetry (pp129-130):

From the point of view of Artifice every poem as such is an incarnation of Artifice.

Like the sun, the poet ‘rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race’. For Bloom, ‘healthy rivalry’ is an oxymoron, but Psalm 19 gives a perfect expression of it. In the physiology of humours, the word ‘sanguine’ is synonymous with health. The mysterious entities are Lawrentian ‘spontaneous soul(s)’, archetypes of the ‘Divine Human Imagination’ and, at the same time, of ‘the Emanation of the Giant Albion’, depicted as a butterfly in the unearthly frontispiece to Jerusalem. Yet they are also incarnations of ‘bright beaming Urizen’ (‘swift flew the king of light’) and of a redeemed Lucifer, the Shining One. As Satan, Outwash is the timebound Newtonian or Urizenic mechanist, subject to ‘the delusions of Ulro’, whilst Pie is Los, ‘a very Shelleyan being’ (Blake’s Apocalypse, p333). Forrest-Thomson’s irony comes full circle: as an alternative title to ‘Of Sanguine Fire’, ‘The Triumph of Life’ is a serious contender.



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