An Approach to The White Stones by J.H. Prynne
This piece is 28,000 words or about sixty printed pages long.
Das bist du ganz in deiner Schönheit apocalyptica
— ‘Kolomb’, Friedrich Hölderlin: Poems and Fragments, dual text, translated by Michael Hamburger, Third edition, Anvil, 1984, pp598-599.
That is wholly you in your beauty apocalyptica
— ‘Columb’/ ‘Columbus’ [Hamburger translates the title as ‘Colombo’ (and ‘der Schiffer/ Kolombus’ as ‘the mariner/ Colombo’), but the primary reference of the neologism is to the explorer. Kevin Nolan suggests a subliminal invocation of the dove of peace (and of the Holy Spirit).
I intend to take a literal approach to The White Stones (Grosseteste Press, 1969), attempting to construct it in the critical imagination by making use of the white stones of the title. Nigel Wheale cites Revelation 2:17 as one source of the image (‘Expense: J.H. Prynne’s The White Stones’, Grosseteste Review No. 12, edited by Tim Longville, Wirksworth, 1979, p104):
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
I take ‘He that hath an ear’ to be the ‘ephebe’, the ‘young citizen of poetry’, in the sense of the Greek term defined by Harold Bloom (The Anxiety of Influence, OUP, 1973, p10) and derived from Wallace Stevens (‘Begin, ephebe...’, Notes toward a Supreme Fiction). The poet-as-listener, the prospective poet, is distinct, in Revelation and in Bloom’s typology alike, from ‘him that overcometh’. The cabbalah, from which Bloom derives some of his tropes, itself signifies ‘tradition’ or ‘that which is received’. The ‘hidden manna’ is the traditional image of the bread of heaven (John 6:31: ‘Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat’), interpreted by St Paul as ‘spiritual meat’ that symbolises ‘Christ’ (I Corinthians 10:3-4). In the late fragment entitled ‘Kolomb’, an Apocalyptic rhapsody on poetic individuation, Hölderlin makes a dramatic allusion to ‘Manna und Himmelsbrod’ (pp596-597):
Die Erde zornig und eilte, wahrend daβ sie schrien
Aptly, perhaps, ‘Manna’ = ‘What is it?’ in Hebrew. As compared with that of the ‘manna’, however, it is the significance of the ‘white stone’ which remains ‘hidden’ or occult. I shall consider the various interpretations suggested by Biblical scholarship. Initially, however, I take it to be a token of individuation, given to ‘him that overcometh’ in the struggle with his precursors: the ‘strong poet’ (p8 and passim), whose originality is such as to constitute a ‘new name written, which no man knoweth’, yet at the same time to inherit and fulfil his precursors’ own tropes, as Christ gave ‘new’ meaning (both interpreter and interpretation) to those of the prophets. And Christ’s own tropes are subject to the same transumptive power. St John the Divine’s image of the gift of a stone is a paradoxical renewal of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?’ (Matthew 7:9).
Each one drawn in
The invocation of a sealed significance, to be disclosed to those with ears to hear, and only to them, is as explicit as in Revelation, in which Prynne’s poetry is steeped. The ‘promise recalled’ suggests another collocation of bread and stone (Psalm 105:40-42):
The people asked, and he brought quails, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven. He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river. For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham his servant.
The phrase ‘unlocks the white stone’ is grammatically as well as symbolically ambiguous: the stone might be interpreted either as contents or container. In the Psalm (as in Exodus 17:6), the water is locked within the rock until released by divine intervention. The same collocation of bread and stone occurs in ‘Die a Millionaire (pronounced “diamonds in the air”)’ (Kitchen Poems, Cape Goliard, 1968; Poems, pp13-16), together with ‘the water of life’ (Revelation 22:17: ‘whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely’):
... society is ‘predictably’ as we know ‘in
The ‘bread’ of ‘heaven’ is directly from Psalm 105. The ‘springs’ and the ‘well’ allude to the source of the Apocalyptic ‘water of life’ in the gospel of St John the Evangelist: ‘the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life’ (J4:14); and the ‘garment’ is the bardic or ‘priestly robe’ (‘He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life’, R3:5), in which Wordsworth is ‘cloth’d’ at a prophetic moment in The Prelude (Book I 52-67):
to the open fields I told
The same collocation of bread and stone occurs in the climactic lyric of ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ (XXXIII 6-12):
Here is the bread of time to come,
Bloom makes reference throughout his study to the ‘apocalyptic quality’ of Stevens’s poetry (Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Cornell University Press, 1977, p286), interpreting ‘Saint John and the Backache’ as a watershed (p298):
Saint John is the Transcendental element in Stevens himself, the apocalyptic impulse that he has dismissed for so long but that will begin to break in upon his reveries in An Ordinary Evening in New Haven and The Rock and then will dominate the poems composed from 1952 through 1955.
However, he makes no mention of Revelation in the context of ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ (p135):
Introjecting the bread of time to come, the poet surrenders the present with the sombre knowledge of an absence in reality: ‘Here is its actual stone’, which is also the necessity of forgetting by day, except in the making of poetry. But this is no longer the playing of the guitar that opened the poem. No shearsman, no patcher can will those negative moments which give us the green of the imagined pine, the blue of the imagined jay. ‘Imagined’ here has a transumptive freshness. We are very near to the ‘ever-early candour’ of Notes and to the celebration of that candor as ‘an elixir, an excitation, a pure power’.
So ‘the bread of time to come’ and ‘the actual stone’ do not partake of the ‘transumptive freshness’ of ‘pure power’. In delimiting them as antithetical tropes to the pine and blue-jay, Bloom might have cited Steven’s explicit option for the ‘the lion in the lute/ Before the lion locked in stone’; and the ‘wrangling of two dreams’, which recalls his beautiful rhetorical question, clear in its preference for the waking dream: ‘Of the two dreams, who would prefer/ The one obscured by sleep?’ Bloom’s elliptical sentence appears either to introject ‘bread’ out of the equation or to equate bread and stone as images of ‘absence’, of benighted ‘day’ and ‘actual... night’, as opposed to their ‘imagined’ antitheses. Similarly, in response to Satan’s first temptation, ‘If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread’ (Matthew 4:3), Christ declines to differentiate, introducing instead a contrast between material image and spiritual ‘word’: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’.
‘Sleep realised’ is a beautiful image of the dream which is not ‘Obscured by sleep’; and, in Prynne’s poetry, the many allotropes of ‘the white stone’ include crystals, sapphires, pearls and diamonds. In St John the Divine’s transumption of Satan’s imagery, ‘bread’ and ‘stones’ become tropes of the ‘word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God’, ‘the bread of time to come’, ‘its actual stone’.
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.
In Jacket No. 20, following Veronica Forrest-Thomson, I read ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ (Brass, 1971; Poems, pp175-179) in terms of the mysterious entities who appear in an italicised but unattributed quotation, itself derived from Psalm 19:
... always Fresh,
If Christ has fulfilled these ancient tropes of the sun, he has won the race as well as the bride, and St John has lost both. ‘Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?’ (1 Corinthians 9:24). It is, then, hard to read the phrase ‘he that hath the bride’ (J3:29) with a sense of unmitigated ‘joy’. As an expression of generous jealousy, however, it is both beautiful and psychologically acute; as true to Bloom’s ‘family romance’ (p8) as any of his own ‘darker truths’ (p6).
I know you find great joy in the great
The analogy between the tuition of the eighteenth-century flautist and the relationship between poets is made explicit at the outset (‘The First Lesson’, p222):
It is best I sit
The ambiguous phrases ‘on the other side’ and ‘in your own time’ imply the atemporality and uncanniness of poetic influence, yet Graham’s most revered contemporary was also a close friend and drinking companion. In The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham (Carcanet, 1999, p9), Michael and Margaret Snow make the point that Graham ‘always freely acknowledged the influence’ of Dylan Thomas; and in an interview with John Haffenden, dating from 1979, he goes even farther: ‘I’m not claiming the same magnitude. I’d met my match’ (‘I Would Say I Was a Happy Man’, Poetry Review Vol. 76 No. 1/2, 1986, p70). According to Sven Berlin, Graham exulted in Thomas’s poetry. Two consecutive letters to John Minton, about ‘Listen. Put on Morning’ (Collected Poems, pp48-49), convey the quality of Graham’s elation (24/4/45 and ‘30/4/45?’, The Nightfisherman, pp37-41):
I’ve just finished the loveliest poem to me I’ve made. It begins like this [transcribes all 45 lines!]... Well there you are I seem to have typed it all...
In the words of the following poem, Graham presents a ‘constellation/ Of united hearts... Crowded in a gesture/ Of homesickness’ (‘The Hill of Intrusion’, p50). In context, ‘W.B.’ is clearly Blake, but both the initials and ‘Willie’ suggest Yeats, whose symbolic herons rival his swans; whilst ‘Loneheron’ recalls The Idylls of the King, in which ‘the lone hern forgets his melancholy,/ Lets down his other leg, and stretching dreams/ Of goodly supper in the distant pool’ (‘Gareth and Lynette’; Tennyson, like Yeats, uses the obsolete word ‘hern[e]’) and The Lady of the Lake (‘She hovers o’er the hollow way,/ And flutters wide her mantle gray,/ As the lone heron spreads his wing,/ By twilight, o’er a haunted spring’). For ‘Dylant’, who was so devoted to herons that they still came looking for him after his death, it is invariably a ‘Loneheron’ on the ‘heron/ Priested shore’ (‘Poem in October’, Collected Poems 1934-1952, p102). Yet the hieratic trope has another dimension. Margaret Snow suggests, convincingly, that it might be an image of the poet himself, bringing the folk-musical round of family and fellow-artists full circle (letter to J.K.; it is doubtful whether Graham would have known either Patrick Heron or Peter Lanyon at this date). ‘Bill Brewer’ of ‘Widecombe Fair’ is another analogue of ‘Graham’; and as ‘Willie’, a name by which he was known to friends, he is in the middle, too. Other references are to ‘the two Roberts’, Colquhoun and MacBryde, Peggy Jean Epstein, Nessie Dunsmuir and two of her brothers, Willie and Davie, who appear, alongside their ‘sister Mary’, in ‘Listen. Put on Morning’:
And hear the playropes caa
The poet’s unique ‘voice’ is a distillation of those of his ‘listeners’, who include his friends and family (‘my father and mother’ appear in the previous poem, ‘Since All My Steps Taken’, p47), as well as those whose voices he has ‘inherited’ from ‘books’. Of all his contemporaries, Graham is one of the least afflicted by Oedipal anxiety, itself allegedly the hallmark of the ‘strong’ poet. Insistent on the need for originality, he is also exemplary in his ecstatic response, his loyalty and his generosity to his precursors. His informal composite self-image as, simultaneously, an artist known by his surname, a son and companion known by his Christian name, a correspondent known by a single initial, an heir to the folk tradition and an isolated, predatory bird, in the midst of an extended family of influences, makes a beautiful and significant rejoinder to Bloom (p30):
Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.
Divested of its patrilineal connotations, the elation of influence has been given classic expression by Gerry and the Pacemakers (‘How Do You Do It?’, M. Murray, Columbia, 1963; cited by Denise Riley, ‘Introduction’ to Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970-91, Macmillan, 1992, p4):
How do you do what you do to me?
Graham’s delight in having produced something which sounds ‘like someone else’s good poem’ — Yesss! I can do it! I can do what they do to me! — is unchronicled in Bloom’s genealogies. Whilst the joyful infatuation of the lover remains one-sided, it cannot be ‘fulfilled’, yet elation is not conditional on fulfilment. Like the sun, the ephebe ‘rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race’. There may be rivalry even in mutual love, as between citizens and within families, but Bloom’s de-idealisation denies reciprocity: ‘Poets as poets... fight to the end to have their initial chance alone’ (p8). For Bloom, ‘healthy rivalry’ is an oxymoron.
This intense lyricism... may well promote in the viewer a profound admiring satisfaction – and perhaps also a sense, in certain busy minds, of anguish: that is to say, are we going to be allowed to enjoy an intensely lyricised satisfaction in this manner, at this already late stage in the history of paint, without being made to pay for it in some hidden way that is actually extremely costly?
Prynne’s explicit invocation of the anxiety of the ‘latecomer’ (Anxiety of Influence, p8) is balanced by the sense of ‘a fulfilled connection’ with the artistic precursor, expressed in startlingly textual terms:
And yet this glowing image, even despite such potential anxiety in the viewer, offers to us at first glance a clear authority, intensely pleasurable and strong with the presence of its own controlled pleasure; the authority is so extremely different from much other of de Kooning’s work, even at this period, because of the extraordinarily powerful lacuna in the central part of the picture; that vacancy is composed and partly overwritten by the cadastral framing and shaping which surrounds it, so stationed in order to allow the contemplative mind to write itself into a plenitude and to feel some connection, perhaps a fulfilled connection, there.
According to Bloom, ‘strong poets make [poetic] history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves’ (p5). Prynne experiences the ‘imaginative space’ at the heart of the ‘strong’ precursor’s own work as an ‘extraordinarily powerful lacuna’, even, potentially, as repressive (‘authority’) and ruinous (‘cadastral’), yet its paradoxical taxation is such as ‘to allow the contemplative mind to write itself into a plenitude’. Far from being a ‘solitude that asks and promises nothing’, such self-fulfilment is at the same time a ‘fulfilled connection’ with the precursor (‘this my joy is therefore fulfilled’, J3:29), a ‘plenitude’ which the later poet can ‘enter and be there as well’.
St John the Divine speaks to anyone who will listen. Yet even those with ears to hear may remain perplexed. A candid response to Revelation by an Edwardian exegete strikes me as equally applicable to Prynne (C. Anderson Scott, ‘Editor’s Introduction’, Revelation, The New Century Bible, OUP, nd: c 1902, p5):
there are... elements which give rise to perplexity in varying degrees, amounting in some cases to despair of comprehending them or harmonising them with the rest of the book... These things appear to impose upon the reader the alternative of either forcing upon them an interpretation of his own, or laying them aside as incomprehensible.
No reader of Prynne is likely to offer a confident interpretation of his writing as a whole, or even (with exceptions) of any given sequence or poem. Take ‘The Kirghiz Disasters’ (Brass; Poems, pp155-158), an Apocalyptic sonnet sequence typified by the entertaining couplet in which ‘the captain orders the sight/ of land to be erased from the log, as well he might’ — a rhyming allegory of wilful if not perverse recalcitrance. Yet the ‘credal echoes’ in this ‘reckless theophany’ of a poem run into double figures (‘Easter’, ‘grace’, ‘the three persons’, ‘Hell’, ‘zealots’, ‘Jerome’, ‘heavenly’, ‘redeemed’...). The point of departure for a consideration of Prynne’s poetry is a series of interpretations by a number of critics that are cumulatively — at times brilliantly — illuminating. Many of these are by Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge (R&K), whose own ‘pragmatism’ I particularly admire (Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne, Liverpool University Press, 1995, p4). Others are by David Trotter, Steve Clark, Andrew Duncan and contributors to a number of little magazines (Grosseteste Review; fragmente; Parataxis; The Gig). R&K adopt the hypothesis that ‘Prynne’s poetry is so difficult because it is committed to a notion of the public sphere which is extraordinarily rigorous — and potentially democratic’ (p2). I intend to explore a different and in many respects an intensely private ‘sphere’, but also to conduct negotations with the ‘middle ground’ (p13 and passim) delineated by their readings.
Insofar as the medium is the message, the message is that this is a poet who knows his way around ‘the public sphere’ of our complex political and intellectual world. ‘[I]ntelligence’ is itself thematic; and, as is often the case in Prynne’s writing, several phrases bear, or have come to bear, technical meanings in various disciplines, including those relating to the differences between human ‘intelligence’ and that of animals and machines. I have again made unscrupulous use of Google, a search-engine which is heavily weighted towards recent texts, many of which appear simultaneously (or exclusively) on the net as a matter of course. There is no intention, in citing texts which postdate a given poem, to impute occult powers to its author (necessarily!), but rather to demonstrate the range and contemporaneity of Prynne’s writing; and to illustrate the usage of such phrases as also bear a technical sense in 2004.
Collins advances a meta-view of humans and intelligent machines in which the latter are deemed important constituents in the social body, but, lacking social fluency, are not conversant participants, let alone active promoters of this body... Although the work of Collins et al is innovative, there is a certain amount of familiarity in its humanism... Actor-network theory, whether by its symmetrical treatment of humans and machines or its emphasis on process and complex hybrids, represents a radical departure from humanism. In evaluating these diverse approaches, computer ethicists also will have to evaluate the importance of humanism to their own work.
Similarly, the phrase ‘social intelligence’ (p38) is a standard term in discussion of the intelligence of primates and other animals, but has also been deployed by ‘computer ethicists’ (‘Social Intelligence as Norm Adaptation’, Magnus Boman and Harko Verhagen, Socially Situated Intelligence, edited by B. Edmonds and K. Dautenhahn, University of Zurich, 1998, pp17-24):
Machine learning is the core of artificial intelligence... Successful inductive rules for agent behaviour are typically based on machine guesses, the quality of which are measured in terms of precise real numbers representing utility... We propose that intelligent agent action be studied with respect to a social space... The learning of new norms, and the strife of each agent to act in keeping with the norms of the coalitions of which it is a member constitutes social intelligence.
These terms place ‘Airport Poem’ securely in the ‘public sphere’. However, the dialectic between ‘public’ and private spheres is clearly enacted in the transition from the public concourse of a civil ‘Airport’ to the psychogeography of ‘the heart’. It is true that the word ‘social’ occurs three times; but the word ‘heart’ occurs four times, and in the conclusion the word ‘flight’ (which in any case carries more metaphorical freight than almost any other single analogy with human experience, including intimations of immortality), discards most of its connotations of contemporaneity and high-technology, moving ‘back, into/ the remotest/ past’:
Which makes the thinning sorrow of flight
The ‘flight’ of ‘the heart’ becomes that of an angel; and the reader has already encountered ‘the elect angels’ (1 Timothy 5:21) in ‘The Numbers’, which opens both Prynne’s collected volumes (Kitchen Poems; Poems, Allardyce Barnett, 1982; Poems, 1999, pp10-12). The simultaneous ‘journey’ across the ‘desert’ becomes that of a pilgrim (whose ‘celestial/ progress, across the sky’ begins in ‘Sketch for a Financial Theory of the Self’, Kitchen Poems; Poems pp19-20). The word ‘news’ carries connotations of the gospel, and the ‘person’ of Christ, the incarnation of ‘love’. The repetition of the word ‘back’ identifies ‘the remotest past’ with ‘where we are’, and the ‘stop undreamed of’ with the Apocalyptic present of ‘love’ (rather than with an unscheduled ‘stop’ at an international airport).
Olson appears to have been most influential in legitimating poetry, once again, as a medium of communication that can make itself compelling by following closely the turns of thought in an argument of explicitly rhetorical intent.
Von Hallberg draws a startling distinction between, on the one hand, most of ‘the poets associated with Black Mountain College’ whom ‘Olson is often thought to have influenced’ and, on the other, ‘three poets — LeRoi Jones, Edward Dorn, and J.H. Prynne — who seem to have learned much from Olson about poetry as a medium of rhetorical communication’; accordingly, he numbers Prynne amongst ‘poets like Olson whose work is devoted more to thought and communication than to perception and expression’ (p209). I intend to reexamine this relationship, but am happy to side with von Hallberg against Don Paterson (‘Baffled by modern verse? Read on...’, Observer Review, 28/7/01, p16):
Okay, first the turkeys... J.H. Prynne, for whom the accidental formulation of a simple expository sentence that could be understood by a reader of average intelligence would, I assume, cause him to hang himself from shame, is the principle [sic] culprit.
R&K acknowledge that ‘This is writing at its most intransigent’, often apparently ‘stranded’ in ‘self-isolating elitism’ (p2); and devote their first chapter to ‘the difficulties set for reading by seemingly alienating devices’ (pviii). However, they repudiate the position, inspired by Theodor Adorno and adopted by a number of contemporary critics, ‘which sees virtual unreadability as the only way of resisting commodification’ (p1) and ‘read on, beyond the sense of impasse’ (p2). I would generalise this response into the principle that there is simply no such thing as an unrecuperable text — least of all the programmatically unreadable.
Essential to such a text is the shock with which it forcibly interrupts communication. The harsh light of unintelligibility that such a work turns toward the reader renders the usual intelligibility suspect as being shallow, habitual, reified — in short, pre-artistic.
Exposed to negative dialectics, ‘even the most authentic works take on in retrospect a pre-artistic, somewhat informational quality’ (p99). Hegel’s insistence that ‘the work’s effects on the contemplative recipient are contingent’ has ‘destroyed subjectivist views that still stood firm for Hegel and that govern his method naively, such as the view that the aesthetic object is intelligible in principle’ (p96). Adept at citing the naïve but recuperable Hegel against Heidegger, Heidegger against himself and Hölderlin against both, Adorno is an intriguing and highly quotable writer. He is, at the same time, a caricaturist, in particular of the ‘view’ attributed to Hegel (p96):
I do not want to try to make Helms intelligible... but merely to discuss some presuppositions./ / I am aware that by doing so I expose Helms’ work and my own stance on it to the triumphant scorn of all the right-thinking people who are already approaching, armed with the intention of waxing indignant about how this asks too much even of progressive and open-minded people. I can imagine what satisfaction some will find in inferring from my words that I have not understood it either.
My intention is not ‘to try to make [Prynne] intelligible’, but to interpret some of his most beautiful (and some of his most dismaying) poetry. Far from ‘waxing indignant’, or objecting that it ‘asks [nearly] too much’, I find, on the contrary, that its ‘intelligibility’ is of the ‘usual’ poetic kind, both in communicating before it is understood and in opening up for the ‘open-minded’ reader. It is not my perception that Prynne exposes the poetry of his precursors as ‘pre-artistic’, ‘shallow, habitual’ or ‘reified’ — Blake? Wordsworth? Hölderlin? Eliot? Thomas? Celan? — but that, in the achievement of individuation, he extends the tradition into the present of his own writing, as the poets of each generation continue to do. His poetry is no more the acme of dialectical evolution than it is the culmination of the ‘decline’ perceived by Bloom (p10):
The great poets of the English Renaissance are not matched by their Enlightened descendants, and the whole tradition of the post-Enlightenment, which is Romanticism, shows a further decline in its Modernist and post-Modernist heirs.
Its weakest link — that Romanticism ‘shows a... decline’ from the Enlightenment — is neatly elided, but no refinement of the graph will save this argument. ‘[A]rt never improves’ (‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, The Sacred Wood, 1920; Methuen, 1960, p51). Nor hath it declined. Twentieth-century poetry in English holds its own in comparison with that of any previous epoch, not excluding the Renaissance; and Prynne holds his own amongst the major postwar British modernists. His poetry — in Hopkins’s phrase, ‘beautiful to individuation’ (‘Introduction’, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poetry and Prose, edited by W.H. Gardner, Penguin, 1953, pxv) — belongs with that of Graham, Philip Larkin, Burns Singer and Roy Fisher. At best, its ‘light’ — often but by no means always ‘harsh’ — outshines any conceivable product of programmatic ‘unintelligibility’.
Helms aims at nothing less than breaking out of the monologue interieur... The eccentric features in Helms’s experiments, the ones in which, as always in art, one can see the differentia specifica of his approach, are a result of that. He is something like a parody of a seventeenth-century poeta doctus, the poetic antithesis of the imago of the poet as one who hearkens to the source — an image that has since degenerated into fraud. He expects knowledge of the linguistic components and elements of reality he employs and encodes. Such works have always been explicated through commentary, and this one too is designed for commentary, like the German Baroque dramas to which the learned Silesians appended their scholia.
Suddenly the individuating ‘differentia’, Aristotelian equivalent of Bloom’s clinamen (p14), becomes intelligible and acquires a purpose; the poet ‘encodes’ so that his work may be ‘explicated’ by ‘commentary’. Prynne might indeed, without that hint of a sneer, be described as ‘something like... a seventeenth century poeta doctus’ — less of ‘a parody’ because anything but the ‘antithesis’ of ‘one who hearkens to the source’ (‘He that hath an ear...’). Despite Adorno’s dubious binary, it is clear that Prynne is equally absorbed in ‘the source’ — in several senses of the supposedly degenerate ‘image’ — as in contemporary arts and technologies. Nevertheless, his own most explicit statement about his poetry endorses Adorno’s point about ‘the linguistic components and elements of reality he employs and encodes’ (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.
How, then, can the same work ‘establish relations... with the world’ and be ‘designed for commentary’, yet also be programmatic in its ‘unintelligibility’? It is chiefly in its curious idealism that Adorno’s ‘psychoanalytic’ theory differs from Bloom’s (p106):
In psychoanalytic terms, expression and construction would belong together in the emancipated work of art like the ego and the unconscious. Where id is, there ego shall be, says modern art along with Freud. But the ego cannot be healed of its cardinal sin, the blind, self-devouring domination of nature that recapitulates the state of nature forever, by subjecting internal nature, the id, to itself as well. The ego can only be healed by becoming reconciled with the unconscious, knowingly and freely following where it leads. Just as the true human being would not be the one who suppressed his drives but rather the one who looked them in the eye and fulfilled them without doing them violence and without subjecting himself to their power, so today the true work of art would have to adopt a stance on freedom and necessity that can serve as a model... Helms’ intention is not far from this... something like a Joyce come into his own, self-conscious, consistent, and fully organised... Helms would be the last to claim that he had surpassed Joyce or, as the popular but revolting word has it, ‘overcome’ him... matters do not proceed in so antagonistic a fashion.
Where the precursor is, there I shall (also) be, says the true poet, internalising the precursor’s style and fulfilling it in overcoming his own subjection to its power. The ‘popular but revolting word’ may legitimately be applied to the process, not because it is necessarily or intrinsically ‘antagonistic’, but because the achievement of individuation involves progression beyond the precursor. What is ‘overcome’ is not the precursor or his poetry, but their ‘power’ over the ephebe. Helms is not ‘a Joyce come into his own’; it is Helms who has ‘come into his own’ in his struggle with Joyce. St John the Baptist’s formula might be reformulated as follows: ‘My power over him must decrease as his own power increases’. It is, again, a family romance, as compatible with the opposite of antagonism — with love — as the relationships within a family.
Adorno’s own rhetoric of the non plus is so powerfully terminal, even apocalyptic — or perhaps rather ‘gnostic’ in the sense of Harold Bloom’s deft aphorism that gnosticism ensues upon failed apocalyptic as apocalyptic ensues upon failed prophecy.
Adorno, however, dismisses ‘genetic method’ by relegating ‘so-called influences’ to the merely circumstantial ‘conditions under which literary works were created’ (‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’, Notes to Literature: Volume 2, p112), but his idealising tropes — ‘the true human being’; ‘the true work of art’ — beg most of the important questions (compare ‘our true place’ and ‘our true fate’, ‘Of Sanguine Fire’, p177). If the ego is characterised by ‘blind, self-devouring domination’, how is it to be reconciled with the ‘drives’ — also, by definition, blind — of ‘the unconscious’? How, for pity’s sake, is it to look them in the eye? And what the blazes has ‘cardinal sin’ got to do with it at all?
By breaking off communication, by being closed in its own way, the hermetic work of art puts an end to the closed quality that earlier works bestowed on their subject matter without having it fully themselves. The hermetic work, however, forms within itself the discontinuity that is the discontinuity between the world and the work. The broken medium that does not fuse expression and meaning, does not integrate the one with the other by sacrificing it but instead derives them both to unreconciled difference, becomes the bearer of the substance of what is broken and distant from meaning. The rupture, which the work does not bridge, but rather, lovingly and hopefully, makes the agent of its form, remains the figure of a substance that transcends it. It expresses meaning through its ascetic stance toward meaning.
This transcendent ‘figure’ is less a trope or even a ‘stance’ than an incarnation of the Logos, ‘lovingly and hopefully’ reconciling ‘substance’ and ‘meaning’ — implicitly, flesh and spirit — ‘not ... by sacrificing it’ but by sacrificing itself, ‘the bearer of the substance of what is broken’, the Word which took on flesh. The concept of transcendence is smuggled into an allegory of redemption. Detranscendentalised, the argument reduces to ‘the fallacy of imitative form’ (Yvor Winters; cf. Forrest-Thomson, Poetic artifice: A theory of twentieth-century poetry, Manchester University Press, 1978, p39): the ‘broken medium’ expresses the brokenness of reality. There is room in Adorno’s system for transcendental self-sacrifice but none for any concept of disinterestedness.
The doctrine of incarnation has an inherent appeal to poetic thought because it promises to resolve the two basic forms of contradiction bred by a sense of the ironic distance between concepts and world. Incarnation is first of all the union of flesh and spirit, the coming of a principle of divine order in the otherwise chaotic war between the ungoverned flesh and the harsh letter of the old law... Second, it is the intersection of time and timelessness, a way of altering the arbitrary orders of human law and human words so that they become more suited to the divine Word or Order, which understands the complexities of the flesh and natural flux.
At any rate, Jameson got the message. In Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature, he manifests identical ‘Presuppositions’, making the startling claim that ‘in Germany the dialectic somehow speaks in its own name’ (Princeton University Press, 1971, pxii). ‘To give a little of the feeling of this sense of the movement of reality as a logos’ (pxii) in Adorno’s writing, he explicitly invokes the concept of incarnation (p8):
What happens is rather that for a fleeting instant we catch a glimpse of a unified world, of a universe in which discontinuous realities are nonetheless somehow implicated with each other and intertwined... while there flashes across the natural dimension itself a kind of transfiguration... Thus the mind incarnates itself in order to know reality, and in return finds itself in a place of heightened intelligibility...
Jameson celebrates ‘the triumph of Adorno over Heideggerian existence-philosophy’ (pxii), endorsing Adorno’s objections to ‘the subjective idealism of Heideggerian existentialism, a kind of ahistorical historicity, a mystique of anxiety, death, and individual destiny without any genuine content’ (p56). His own aesthetic of the ‘glimpse’ and the ‘fleeting instant’ is reminiscent of nothing so much as the highly ‘subjective’ aestheticist ‘epiphany’, beloved of Stephen Dedalus; and, to judge by this devotional prose, the ‘genuine content’ of Adorno’s negative dialectics includes a solid substratum of Pauline Judaeo-Christianity.
According to Scott, the ‘white stone’ of Revelation is ‘not a common stone, but a pebble such as was used for counting or for voting by ballot’, with ‘a surface large and flat enough to receive an inscription’ (p144). He interprets the ‘symbol’ as essentially parodic, in the spirit of the sarcastic ‘counsel’, in the letter to Laodicea, ‘renowned for the beautiful glossy black wool of its sheep’ (p155), to ‘buy of me... white garments... that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest’ (R3:18). The intended target of the ‘white stone’ is the ‘popular superstition’ of Gnosticism, in which, ‘early in the second century’, ‘Jewish and Hellenic thought were mingling’ (pp144-145):
That explanation seems the best which finds the origin of the symbol in the sphere of popular superstition. Among the later Jews, especially, great and mysterious power had for long been ascribed to secret names, the knowledge or pronouncement of which secured the opening of closed portals, the discovery of hid treasure, or the co-operation of supernatural powers. One special application of such names of power was to obtain entrance for the ascending soul through the successive gates which were supposed to bar its way to the highest heaven... To one holding such ideas, a white stone with a secret name upon it would signify an amulet inscribed with a formula or name of power by which he could secure salvation or entrance into heaven. To this... the Apocalypse gives a Christian interpretation. The white stone is just the pebble or tile or plaque on which a name could conveniently be inscribed. The promised gift of Christ is the new name, which here, as elsewhere in the Bible, stands for a new character... Our Lord once more clothes his own great gift in the forms ‘understanded of the people’, thereby contrasting the false with the true. Did others speak of symbols giving them a right to enter heaven? He would give to him that overcometh a surer symbol for a truer heaven.
I appreciate the dig at Laodicean wool, very much in the spirit of Kitchen Poems (compare ‘the water of life/ is all in bottles & ready for invoice’, ‘Die a Millionaire’; R22:17), but it seems to me reductive to interpret the ‘white stone’ in the same fashion. Its prospective recipients, the members of ‘the church of Pergamum’, had already been exposed to ‘peculiar difficulty and danger’ (p142): ‘thou holdest fast my name, and didst not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed amongst you’ (R2:13). The steadfastness of ‘him that overcometh’ in the face of martyrdom would be curiously — and superfluously — rewarded by ‘a new character’.
What they claimed to ‘know’ consisted of a myth about the creation of the world as the result of a pre-cosmic disaster which accounted for the present misery of man’s lot, and about the way in which the elect may be redeemed. In the elect, they believed, there was a divine spark that had become imprisoned in matter and had lost its memory of its true, heavenly home... The present material world the Gnostics regarded as utterly alien to God and to goodness, and as therefore the creation of inferior powers... The world was in the iron control of evil powers... and after death the elect soul would be faced by a perilous journey through the planetary spheres back to its heavenly home. Much time was therefore devoted to learning the correct magic passwords and the most potent amulets...
‘The Numbers’, in which the word ‘elect’ occurs no less than six times, and ‘Star Damage at Home’, which features ‘the white stone’ in a context of ‘cosmic disaster’, are amongst the poems I intend to read in this light in a later instalment of this essay.
And I saw the heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God.
There is an obvious parallel between R2:17 and this vision of the ‘Logos’, ‘the specifically Johannine description of Him that was “from the beginning”, used in reference to a person only here and in John 1’ (Scott, p276), in which the evangelist’s use of the language of Gnosticism has been illustrated by Bultmann. White is the colour of purity, but also of victory and triumph, appropriate to ‘him that overcometh’ — this phrase does not occur in R19, but reinforces the analogy with the victorious white horseman. In this context, however, Scott is at pains to refute the implied identity between the ‘new name’ and the ‘Logos’, ignoring the implications of ‘many crowns’ and making a brave attempt to distinguish between the two occurrences, in consecutive verses, of the word ‘name’ in R19:12-13 (p276):
The first passage illustrates the importance and significance of the ‘name’, the second its belonging to Christ. This name, therefore, is not that to be mentioned in the next verse, but another, a ‘name of power’, which is indeed ‘not known’...
Thus Scott finds himself arguing for a Gnostic interpretation of the ‘new name’, in order to argue against the imputation of heresy in the identification of the recipient of the ‘white stone’ with the ‘Logos’. I find this special-pleading difficult to credit. Despite its immediate disclosure, it seems entirely reasonable to identify the unknown ‘name’, in both contexts, with the ‘Logos’, the ultimate amulet.
Was it connected with (1) the white stone or pebble used by jurors to signify acquittal; (2) a stone tablet which served as a pass to secure entry into an assembly or a banquet; (3) precious stones which were said by tradition to have been gathered by the Israelites along with the manna; or (4) the Urim and Thummim, the stones of which were also inscribed with names?
The first is also considered by Wheale, who cites a commentary on the text and glosses the white stones of Prynne’s title as ‘tokens of chosenness, the poems held as signs of decision, with as little as possible of what is sanctimonious attaching to them’ (p104). The judicial interpretation is supported by The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Living Bible Vol. 14: Epistles; Revelation, edited by Edward P. Blair (San Francisco Productions, 1967, p76):
The mystic ‘white stone’ enumerated among the other objects passed on to the church at Pergamon is a sign of acquittal. A stone (psephos in Greek, also used for mosaic stones) was used for voting by the judges of the Athenian courts... To vote with a white stone meant acquittal, while a black stone stood for condemnation. The legendary origin of the trial goes back to Orestes... in the Areopagus... As the votes were evenly divided, Pallas-Athene, who favoured him, threw in a white stone (the calculus Minervae) and thus got him acquitted.
Hence ‘psephology’, etymologically ‘the study of stones’. This interpretation seems more compatible with Scott’s own than he concedes: in both Revelation and Greek myth, a token of favour is given by an immortal figure to a courageous mortal in imminent danger of condemnation by his own community.
These two words usually occur together... Although both are plural in form, they seem to refer to single objects that functioned as sacred lots and may have had the form of dice, pebbles or sticks. Another possibility is that they were two stones, one white and the other black... What is clear is that they were associated with the priestly office and were used when people came to seek divine consultation. Apparently, therefore, it was thought possible for the high priest and the Levites to give a divine oracle with the help of the Urim and Thummim... these lots fell into disuse when the monarchy was established.
In the First Temple, the holy of holies ‘contained the ark of the covenant and two winged figures (cherubim)’; in the Second Temple, however, the holy of holies was ‘empty except for a sacred stone’ and separated from the nave by a ‘veil of Babylonian tapestry’ (‘Temple’, William Sanford LaSor, The Oxford Companion, pp731-734). It is this ‘veil’ which is ‘rent’ at the climax of the crucifixion (Luke 23:45: ‘And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst’).
Strong were our Syres; and as they Fought they Writ,
Dryden’s stanzas are the cornerstone of The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (Harvard, 1970) by Walter Jackson Bate, whose seminal study of ‘the anxiety of influence’ is acknowledged as such by Bloom (p8). The third line cited is a memorable conflation of Genesis 6:4 (‘There were giants in the earth in those days’) and Matthew 24:38 (‘the days that were before the flood’). If John Donne is any sample, however, the ‘Gyant Race’ was itself prey to the anxiety of influence: ‘We’are scarce our Fathers shadowes cast at noone’ (‘An Anatomie of the World: The First Anniversary’, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, edited by John Hayward, Nonesuch, 1929, p200).
Now day arose, the Golden Sun his mighty Race began, Refreshing the Cold earth with beaming Joy.
The poet’s premises are those of abject mortality: weakness, fear and impotent desire. The ephebe aspires to emulate the ‘Sun’, but suffers instead the torments of ‘Envy’ (p668):
Envy hath a serpent’s head of fearful bulk, hissing with hundred tongues; her pois’nous breath breeds Satire, foul contagion, from which none are free... Most Black and loathsom through the land it Runs, Rolling with furious Noise; but at the last it settles in a lake called Oblivion. ’Tis at this River’s fount where ev’ry mortal’s Cup is Mix’t. My cup is fill’d with Envy’s Rankest Draught... However sweet, ’tis Envy that Inspires my Song. Prickt by the fame of others how I mount, and my complaints are Sweeter than their Joys; but O, could I at Envy Shake my hands, my notes should Rise to meet the New born Day.
Blake’s ‘cup runneth over’ (Psalm 23), but only with ‘Envy’ of ‘the fame of others’, in particular that of Milton, from whose might he shelters in Ossianic prose-poetry (which is nevertheless over-reliant on trotting pentameters: ‘Most Black and loathsom through the land it runs’). By imaginative logic, ‘Oblivion’ is both the cause and the effect of ‘Envy’: ‘Envy’ breeds ‘Oblivion’, since it predisposes the poet towards Augustan ‘Satire’, which does not, in Blake’s view, make for immortality; whilst ‘Oblivion’, the state in which the ephebe finds himself at the outset, as well as his all-too-probable destiny, breeds ‘Envy’ of the true — immortal — poets. This is as powerful an expression of the anxiety of influence as any adduced by Bloom. Yet Milton, Blake’s greatest poem, is the quintessential expression of the elation of influence.
The ‘urim’ contained in Aaron’s breastplate (Exodus 28:30)... identified by many alchemical theorists... with the philosopher’s stone itself. The (lunar) thummim could transform base metals to silver, but the (solar) urim could transform them to gold... In the Christian alchemical tradition, the philosopher’s stone was regarded as a symbol of Christ’s regenerating grace...
Christ appears later ‘in celestial panoply all armed/ Of radiant urim, work divinely wrought’ (VI 760-761): ‘The one true alchemist, he wears the stone that in Fludd’s philosophy mediates between God and the material world’ (Fowler, p347). For Donne, by contrast, the ‘oraculous gems’ symbolise the law as a lottery, and as a fount of pernicious mystification: ‘Thou had’st much, and lawes Urim and Thummim trie/ Thou wouldst for more’ (‘Satyre V’, p137).
The ‘hidden manna’ and the ‘white stone’ are united as both representing high-priestly privileges... If any should eat of ‘the hidden manna’, who but the High Priest, who alone had entrance into the Holy Place where it was laid up? If any should have knowledge of what was graven upon the Urim, who but the same High Priest, in whose keeping it was, and who was bound by his very office to consult it? The mystery of what was written there, shut to every other, would be open to him.
As further evidence that Prynne’s imagination actually works along these lines, consider his response to Blood Flow by Anthony Barnett, in a letter dated 11/9/72 (The Poetry of Anthony Barnett, edited by Michael Grant, Allardyce Book/ Grille, 1993, p157):
Many sentiments stirred just below the threshold of acknowledgement, and how much the word is loved. Your tender regard is more celestial and abandoned than mine, but I recognise the fellow-feeling and I salute it... I think that you begin to Speak with Tongues... there is a steady note of being-there (Dasein) in each perfected token of speech. It is restorative, and has converted the mania of my own present exhaustion into another thing... Please excuse the paper*... not that Chance does not sometimes speak to those who listen. [*The verso is a photographic copy of ‘The Unquiet Grave’...]
The combination of liminality (‘threshold’), Johannine piety (‘the word is loved’), eschatology (‘celestial and abandoned’), pentecostal enthusiasm (‘Speak with Tongues’, Acts 10:46), deference to Heidegger (‘being-there (Dasein)’), Gnosticism (‘each perfected token’), extremity (‘mania’), divination (‘Chance’), allusion to Revelation (‘those who listen’ = ‘they that hear’, R1:3) and intimations of (im)mortality (‘The Unquiet Grave’) is a revealing cross-section of Prynne’s Weltanschauung.
Apocalyptic is the successor of prophecy... at once the continuation of prophecy, and sharply distinguished from it. The prophet speaks directly to the people; the apocalyptist writes in solitude what men may read in public... The prophet speaks what God the Lord has spoken; what he speaks is afterwards committed to writing. The apocalyptist writes, describing what God the Lord has given him to see. The prophet is a speaker, an orator, a preacher. The apocalyptist is a seer, a ponderer of what he has seen, a student of what those before him have written.
Prynne’s erudition — the density and range of allusion to ‘what those before him have written’ — and his constant preoccupation with the medium and practice of writing are manifest. Borrowing a phrase from ‘To Helen Keller’ by Donald Davie (‘Los Angeles Poems’, 1968-9, Collected Poems 1950-70, Routledge and Kegan Paul, p217), Steve Clark has described Prynne as ‘the most/ literary person ever was’ (‘Prynne and the Movement’, Jacket No. 23). Davie himself once described him, according to Porter, as ‘the cleverest man in Cambridge’ (Observer). In ‘First Notes on Daylight’ (p69), Prynne acknowledges his own inveterate literariness with a sardonic image of a shamanistic ‘student’ (or librarian) in Projective dreamtime: ‘The open/ fields we cross, we carry ourselves by ritual/ observance, even sleeping in the library’ (compare the ‘open fields’ to which Wordsworth ‘told/ A prophecy’, ‘cloth’d in priestly robe’). Similarly, in ‘The Kirghiz Disasters’, [Jeremy] Prynne is disguised as (St) ‘Jerome’ (c340-420), compiler of the Vulgate, ‘usually represented as an aged man in a cardinal’s dress, writing or studying’ (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Centenary Edition, E Cobham Brewer, revised by Ivor H. Evans, Cassell, 1970, p586).
The Stumbling Block has made itself of carbon paper, sucking the increasingly obsolescent material from offices at the centre of the city. It is compressed to become a pivot; diamond-hard. The compacted density smoulders in the deep night blue of its waxy, slippery layers... In this manifestation the block is almost organic, a writhing tank of cellular activity, straining between two poles:/ The expansion of its darkness, winged by the buzzing particles, wants to unfold into the voracious speed of the stars; an explosive gleaming tracery to re-map the heavens, to disappear through power into silence.
The idea of a ‘banquet’ is compatible with Melville’s assertion that ‘whiteness has been made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day’ (Moby Dick, Chapter 42, Everyman’s Millenium Library, p207; noted by Dorward). Prynne is almost certain to have been aware of this passage from Olson’s great book, and an ecstatic sense of The White Stones complements the sense of victory. ‘The Wound, Day and Night’ (p64) celebrates a ‘supremely happy’ intuition of ‘the whole order set in this, the/ proper guise, of a song’ — an intuition happily expressed in an allusion to Lucretius. The collocation of ‘the day’ with ‘the white stone’ in ‘Star Damage at Home’ suggests an allusion, on one level, to the Latin tag which Melville may have had in mind, though, like Prynne, he is also likely to have known his Pliny at first hand: ‘O diem — repetam enim — laetum notandumque mihi candidissimo calculo’ (internet; cf. the Vulgate: ‘calculum candidum’, R2:17). Betty Radice uses an equivalent idiom: ‘This has been a happy day for me... a real red-letter day’ (‘To Maximus’ [of all names!], The Letters of the Younger Pliny, Penguin, 1963, pp163-164), but William Melmoth’s less idiomatic phrase is nearer the original trope: ‘It was a day... which I shall ever distinguish with the fairest mark’. Coincidence extends to a generous expression of the elation of influencing (p164):
What could be happier for our country than for two such distinguished young men to make their name and reputation in eloquence? What more could I desire than to be chosen to lead them on the right road? I pray the gods that I shall always be so happy, and you can bear me witness that I hope all who think me worth imitating may prove better men than I.
An explanation of a variant idiom, ‘albo lapillo notare diem’ (‘to mark the day with a white stone’), links Scott’s first and second (rejected) interpretations (Nil Desperandum: A Dictionary of Latin Tags and Useful Phrases, Eugene Ehrlich, BCA, 1992, p35):
For the Romans, white was the symbol of happiness, black of misfortune. Thus, in a trial a vote for acquittal was cast with a white stone, for condemnation a black one; a happy day was marked with a white stone, an unhappy day with a black one. The latter procedure was this: at the end of each day, a Roman — according to Pliny the Younger, this superstitious practice dated back to the Thracians — would judge whether the day had been happy or unhappy. Once decided, the Roman would drop a pebble of the appropriate colour into an urn, so at the end of the month he could empty the urn and be able to look back over the month past.
The ‘superstitious’ Roman or Thracian may have intended not only ‘to look back over the month past’, but also, perhaps, to resurrect its most auspicious days, a suggestion of beneficent magic reinforced by the connotations of the ‘urn’ in which the stones were placed. The pain and difficulty of Prynne’s Apocalyptic modernism has borne the weight of commentary, and rightly so, but the ecstatic intensity of his inspiration should not be lost to sight. It would be hard to overstate the contrast between the Apocalypticism of early Christianity and the contented stoicism of one of its persecutors, in ‘Rome at the turn of the first century, when the uneasy years of Domitian were followed by what Gibbon called “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous”‘ (‘Introduction’, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, p26, footnote reference to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 3). Pliny, for his part, explicitly denies the premise of the laudator temporis acti: ‘It is not true that the world is too tired and exhausted to produce anything worth praising’ (p28). His preoccupation with immortality is equally robust: ‘Since we are denied a long life, let us leave something to bear witness that at least we have lived... “Rivalry is good” when friends stimulate each other by mutual encouragement to desire immortal fame’ (‘To Caninius Rufus’, p92; quotation from Hesiod’s Works and Days). It would be too much to expect Prynne to endorse the view that early-twenty-first-century England deserves Gibbon’s praise of Rome under the Antonines, but The White Stones — unlike the ‘white stone’ of Revelation or of ‘Star Damage at Home’ — is, after all, a plural. The primary referent of Prynne’s title may well be the white stones of happiness pouring out of a Roman urn at the end of a particularly happy month.
For Celan, as in Revelation, white stones are an image of renewal by a ‘new name’:
(‘The bright/ stones ride through the air, bright/ white, the light-/ bringers’, John Felstiner, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, W W Norton, 2001, p177). (Compare the subtitle of ‘Die a Millionaire’: ‘(pronounced “diamonds in the air”)’. The stones are compared to roses which open and float towards ‘du meine Leise’ (‘you, my gentle one’), a composite of the poet himself, the beloved other, everyone (or Everyman) and no one:
ich seh dich, du pflückst sie mit meinem
(‘I see you, you pluck them with my/ new, my/ Everyman’s hands, you place them/ in Once-Again-Brightness, which no one/ need weep for nor name.’) ‘Rose is a rose is a rose’, perhaps the most conventional of all tropes, but even ‘die geringen/ Heckenrosen’ (‘slender/ dog roses’) may be restored to ‘Abermals-Helle’, an image of the repristination of language (‘geringen’ can mean ‘small’ or ‘slight’, with a suggestion of insignificance: ‘Geringenschatzung’ = ‘contempt’). Like Prynne, Celan is always likely to have the Shakespearean collocation in mind (though Shakespeare is free of the implication that conventionality contaminates): ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet’ (Romeo and Juliet II ii 43-44). The reimagined rose is everyone’s and no one’s, ‘die/ Niemandsrose’ (‘Psalm’, p156), nameless but in no need of a name, which may, as in the play, represent an arbitrary or dangerous supplement. Yet, like Juliet’s speech, ‘Die hellen/ Steine’ is also an outspoken expression of love, in Celan’s case for Gisèle de Lestrange, whom he had married in 1952. Dating from the ‘spring and summer of 1961’ (Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, Felstiner, p179), the poem is a simple, celebratory paradox of flowering stones, and, as a possible source of Prynne’s title, perfectly compatible with the Roman image of the white stones of joy.
Felstiner records a draft line, which originally followed ‘The stone in the air’: ‘The shining of the stone, the extinguishing’ (cited in English only, p106). It is hard to miss the Biblical connotations of ‘die Finsternis’ and ‘das Wort’, amidst which ‘The shining of the stone’ has the occult intensity of a Gnostic ‘word of power’.
The recognition of irony as the definitive modern tone is found in the influential critical writing of I.A. Richards, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks and F.R. Leavis, and throughout the post-war years. Yet, in the broader perspective of European modernism irony is by no means an all pervasive feature... European modernism had little influence on the development of poetry in England... Yet, if we characterise Surrealism and the type of writing out of which it grew as ‘visionary’ modernism (in contrast with the ‘ironic’ Anglo-American modernism) we can see the poetry of [George] Barker, Thomas and [David] Gascoyne as being in that stream.
Tolley’s argument is remarkably compatible with the views on ‘“Modernism” in German Poetry’ expressed by Prynne (Cambridge Review, 9/ 3/ 63, pp331–332):
We have perhaps grown too used to the idea that... it was the Anglo-American revolutionary initiative that consolidated the European importance of ‘modernism’. In this view there is of course room for some credit to the French symbolistes... But there is less room for real comprehension of Mallarmé or Valery, and neither Paul Eluard nor René Char can be said to come into the picture at all. The view I have alluded to has even less room for the poets of modern Germany. Rilke is fitfully included, though in a peculiarly English way, but neither Georg Heym nor Georg Trakl have really registered with the non-specialist English reader.
Tolley makes no mention of Celan, but for Prynne his ‘very distinguished and exacting work’ is crucial, in particular ‘his notable recent collection Sprachgitter (1959)’ (p337):
Celan has published four volumes in the last fifteen years, and the tendency has been towards an increasingly rigorous and lapidary abstraction: Yvan Goll’s dream world informed by a Mallarméan geometry of the spirit... Celan adopts Mallarmé’s primary stratagem of purity, to set off the images that evolve from his thinly-populated poetic universe. His ‘Kreutzmetapher’, or combination of terms from different levels of discourse and abstraction, deploys a curious sense of imaginative dimensions almost empty of content; as [Clemens] Heselhaus observes, his phenomena are less significant than the relations that obtain between them.
Celan’s ‘combination of terms from different levels of discourse’ is clearly related to Prynne’s own ‘layers of shifted but recognisable usage’; like Prynne, ‘Celan consciously incorporated in his poems information from dictionaries, encyclopedias, technical manuals, and innumerable literary sources’ (Colin, pxxviii). However, Prynne is mistaken in his view that Expressionism is ‘a line of development which in the native English tradition had no parallel’ (p333). of which poetry is an 'Unendlichsprechung' ['eternalisation' (Waldrop); 'endless iteration' (Trotter)]. Duncan is right to place Celan in the same ‘stream’ as the British Apocalyptics (Secrets of Nature, forthcoming, Salt, 2004):
A historical placing of the NR [New Romantic] group is bound to note their affinities to other poets of the 1940s... such as Paul Celan, Johannes Poethen [1928-2001], and Nelly Sachs [1891-1970]... The explanation is non-exotic; certain Expressionist poets were adapting the sensuous and grandiose style of parts of the Bible (some of them were Jewish, some Christian); and the circumstances of the 1940s encouraged poets to speak like priests, because the events of mass death and mass mourning asked for elevated speech... We can see the NRs as an attempt to refound poetry with Revelation as the dominant and normative model, with generative textual strands like Roman urban elegy, the ethics of everyday behaviour, and civics belittled and cast into disfavour.
The ‘generative textual strands... belittled and cast into disfavour’ by ‘the New Romantic group’ are precisely those revalued at its expense by the Movement. Prynne’s affinities with Movement poetics and criticism — and for that matter with Pliny the Younger — remain significant despite his supposedly decisive break with Movement poetics. Nevertheless, Duncan’s account seems to me to be entirely valid.
Green as mould is the house of oblivion.
Compare a stanza from ‘Europe: 1939’ by J.F. Hendry (The White Horseman: Prose and Verse of the New Apocalypse, edited by Hendry and Henry Treece, Routledge, 1941, p62):
Thunder and the blood shout fight to the head in a dream;
Or a stanza from ‘Poem in Time of Famine: For Elizabeth’ by Peter Wells (The Crown and the Sickle, edited by Hendry and Treece, Staples, 1944, pp69-70; reprinted in Poems, One Time Press, 1997, unpaginated):
You now with a green nettle nestling in your hair,
Morgan’s judgment is distorted by doublethink, but the affinities he condemns are genuine. The conclusion to be drawn is not that we should be suspicious of Celan, but that we should rethink our conception of the Apocalypse.
The subliminal phrase, ‘born to... the... purple’, denotes ‘a son born to a sovereign after his accession’, deriving from ‘Porphyrogenitus’, ‘an epithet of the Byzantine emperors born while their father was reigning... the term refers to the purple room used by the empress for her accouchement’ (Brewer, p852). To ‘re-enter the small house’ might then signify a return to ‘the purple room’, on one level an image of the womb, but also an antechamber to immortality. Johansson might have found further support in St John’s gospel: ‘For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatever disease he had’ (5:4). Donne alludes to the same verse in ‘Biathanatos’, his disquisition on suicide: ‘I thought, that as in the poole of Bethsaida, there was no health till the water was troubled, so the best way to find the truth in this matter, was to debate and vexe it’ (p422). Prynne’s allusion to Celan’s suicide by drowning, ‘the water is not quiet’, suggests that, by entering the troubled water, he has been ‘made whole of whatever disease he had’, namely the ‘mortality’ [‘Sterblichkeit’] of which poetry is an ‘Unendlichsprechung’ [‘eternalisation’ (Waldrop); ‘endless iteration’ (Trotter)].
He leadeth me beside the still waters... Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil... Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies... and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The bitterness is reinforced by the blasphemous parody of The Lord’s Prayer: ‘Give us this love of murder and/ sacred boredom’ (‘Give us this day our daily bread’). In ‘Tubingen, Jänner’, Celan pays tribute to Hölderlin, making a half-concealed allusion — ‘er dürfte,/ spräch er von dieser/ Zeit...’ (‘he could,/ if he spoke of this/ time...’, Felstiner, p159) — to the famous question from ‘Brot und Wein’ (‘Bread and Wine’): ‘wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?’ (‘what is the use of poets at a time of dearth?’, Hamburger, p111). Several of Prynne’s poems lament our own ‘dürftiger Zeit’ — and Hölderlin’s complaint that ‘Wir leben in dem Dichterklima nicht’ (‘this is not the climate for poets’, Constantine, Hölderlin, OUP, 1988, p151) is echoed in his startling reference to ‘exile in the suburbs of Babylon, where we all now reside’ (‘J H Prynne/ Drew Milne: Some Letters’, Parataxis No 5, 1993, 21/ 3/ 93, p58). Scott notes that ‘The apocalypses have been called... “Tracts for Bad Times”... specially addressed to a generation which discovered a cruel contradiction between its faith and its experience’ (p27); i.e. tracts for ‘dürftiger Zeit’. Uncoincidentally, ‘Brot und Wein’ is amongst the classic statements of the theme of belatedness: ‘Aber Freund! wir kommen zu spät’ (‘But, my friend, we come too late’, p111). Scott attributes the dearth of prophecy in the period preceding the Apocalyptic moment to a similar phenomenon (p24):
The belief... that mysterious phenomena of this kind were simply impossible in Judaism after the close of the Canon is only a prejudice. Rather does the sudden reappearance of a like phenomenon in the New Testament period... acquaint us that these spiritual phenomena have never quite died out in Judaism. They were only driven into a corner by the weight of the Canon.
Hölderlin is, as he confides in a letter to Schiller, amongst the acutest sufferers from the anxiety of influence, ‘driven into a corner by the weight’ of the canon of German poetry: ‘ich zuweilen in geheimem Kampfe mit Ihrem Genius bin’ (‘I am sometimes in a secret struggle with your genius’, Constantine, p169). Celan, too, was prey to the anxiety of influence, as Colin suggests, despite herself, in a sharp discussion of his alleged plagiarism: ‘the overestimation of Celan’s “anxiety of influence” is so ingrained in Celan criticism that even Wiedemann-Wolf... claims that the publication of Weißglas’s early poem “Er” in 1970 may have contributed to his suicide in the same year’ (p42).
Christ, in Hölderlin’s heretical view of him, is the god who closes the festival of the Daylight Age and ushers in the dark. Hölderlin wrestled with the figure of Christ until his poetic world collapsed.
He planned, at one point, to edit a journal ‘to be called Iduna, after the Nordic goddess who held the apples of eternal life’ (p106). Again, remote as all this may seem from contemporary poetics, Prynne’s early sequence, ‘Voll Verdienst’ (pp33-36), takes its title from Hölderlin’s ‘In lieblicher Blaue’ (‘In lovely blueness’), reminiscent of the prophetic figure ‘Im blauen Wamms’ (‘In a blue doublet’) of ‘Kolomb’, from which I take my own:
Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch, wohnet der Mensch auf dieser Erde.
Cited by Johansson (p36), who reports the lack of any apparent connection with Prynne, this alarming rhapsody expresses the anxiety of immortality in the most poignant and desperate terms: ‘Nämlich wie Herkules mit Gott zu streiten, das ist Leiden. Und die Unsterblichkeit im Neide dieses Lebens, diese zu teilen, ist ein Leiden auch’ (‘For to fight with God, like Hercules, that is an affliction. And immortality amidst the envy of this life, to share in that, is an affliction too’, Hamburger, p248).
Trotter’s seminal account of Cambridge poetry as ‘transcursive writing’ is theorised in relation to the work of John Wilkinson and Rod Mengham (‘Matter for Thought: The New Poetries’, PN Review Vol. 5 No. 3, 1978, pp37-38):
The text is not so much discursive as transcursive; it doesn’t contain meaning, but rather branches out across the ‘place’ (centre stage) where we expect truth and coherence to show themselves simultaneously... transcursive writing releases the devices of semantic relation from their subservience to an antecedent and transcendent consciousness in order to rediscover them as matter for thought... the body stands revealed as a machine for the production and processing (re-production) of libidinal flows, a system of discharges and severances which is the world... For at one level language and body are systems ‘operating on’ the same fuel: desire... The conventional definition of desire and its objects in terms of a mechanics of solids is exceeded by a release of fluids which are only held up in order that they may produce further suffusions, which never halt at an object... The text is a delirious body, a system of severances (line-endings, grammatical ‘faults’, puns) which themselves... produce further flows... the ‘I’ is rocked between the lateral investments which always carry it elsewhere and the cuts which interrupt those transfers...
My argument is that the hydraulics of this extraordinary account are reminiscent of no one so much as Thomas. Compare the following paragraph by R&K (p27):
As he makes such sheer departures from the pastoral space of ordinary, integrated perception, his attention focuses on the surfaces and frontiers of physical human identity, on windows, orifices, points of inlet and outlet. Mouths, pores, wounds, throats: these are the narrowed apertures into which our exchange with the world is channelled and concentrated. Ritual devices which outline or constrict these channels recur in the poems: rings, crowns, necklaces. Thresholds similarly abound: doors, edges, gates, rims and folds. Food constitutes us as it passes through. Freezing temperatures, snow and fire mark the boundaries within which we can live without our material particles becoming either too inert or too agitated for our life.
‘Prynne’s poetry approaches closer to these edges and frontiers than perhaps any other’ (p27), with the unspecified but obvious exception of Thomas (‘Before I Knocked’, p8):
My throat knew thirst before the structure
The famous ‘green fuse’ is just one of the innumerable ‘narrowed apertures’ with which Thomas’s poetry is riddled (‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, p9). Compare ‘The seed-at-zero’ (p42):
Through the rampart of the sky
For his part, Celan was intensely alive to contemporary English poetry. His own Apocalyptic sympathies are noted by Colin, according to whom he was influenced by ‘Thomas’s idea of poetic images as bearing the seeds of their own destruction’ (p99).
A poem by myself needs a host of images, because its centre is a host of images. I make one image, — though ‘make’ is not the word, I let, perhaps, an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual & critical forces I possess — let it breed another; let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict. Each image holds within it the seed of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time.
Thomas’s blueprint for these ideas was probably D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse (Methuen, 1931, p54), primary precursor text of the Apocalypse:
To get at the Apocalypse we have to appreciate the mental working of the pagan thinker or poet — pagan thinkers were necessarily poets — who starts with an image, sets the image in motion, allows it to achieve a certain course or circuit of its own, and then takes up another image.
The intimacy between Apocalyptic and transcursive poetry on the theoretical level is mirrored in practice. To begin with, compare these lines by Wilkinson (The Nile, Equipage, 1992, unpaginated) with ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ by Thomas (p62):
Unfeeling, moving hand...
The following lines, also from The Nile, are a distillation of several Thomas poems:
How far the cry, squat behind my dust veil unsplintered.
Similarly, take Mengham’s ‘Glossy Matter’, as cited by Trotter (p38; collected in Unsung: New and Selected Poems, Salt, 2001, pp42-43, lines double-spaced):
All the way from a faltering embrace
There is a clear affinity with ‘Altarwise by Owl-Light’ by Thomas (p74). In particular, ‘come unstuck the stopper of vein’, ‘Pluck, cock, my sea eye’ and ‘Lop, love, my forked tongue’ are almost interchangeable tropes. Thomas’s image of ‘medusa’s scripture’ is as richly enigmatic as Büchner’s and Celan’s ‘Medusa-head’, the cornerstone of Trotter’s argument (to which I shall return):
Cartoon of slashes on the tide-traced crater,
The ironic images of human flesh in Apocalyptic extremity — ‘butter slumps in the last struggle’; ‘blew from the wax’s tower/ The fats of midnight’ — are paralleled in Prynne’s ‘Thinking of You’ (p171) — ‘the old fat in the can ... Divinity rises to/ no higher reason ... the rancid power of the continuum’.
... singing and dying along the shore
Compare Singer’s ‘The Least of Elegies’, in memory of Thomas: ‘The pitiable body lay on a flat slab... The belly bulged a bit beneath the white/ Sheet into which his red flesh had been rolled’ (p152). There is a reprise of ‘singing and dying’ in the ‘star-burst’ of the second stanza, a visionary expression of the Apocalyptic ‘compulsion’ to ‘live for ever’, in literal defiance of the ‘Cherubims’ placed ‘at the east of the garden of Eden’ after Adam’s expulsion (Genesis 3:24), ‘lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ (G3:22):
To follow through long-glow deportment newly eases
This poem asks to be read as an image-complex rather than as a narrative, but as an image-complex — even, schematically, as a narrative — it is highly recuperable. The drama takes place between the ‘long glow’ of sunset and the ‘red glow’ of ‘daybreak’, and follows the fortunes of the Gnostic ‘spark’. The oxymoronic ‘gripped undulation’ suggests the marmoreal petrifaction of a wave at the ‘salt margin’ of the sea; whilst the last two lines allegorise the image of a pilot ejecting from mortality. The several senses of ‘legation’ include the mission or dwelling of a Papal legate (a ‘double pontiff’ appears in stanza 6); ‘mass’ denotes the Christian service; ‘cloud mass’ suggests the iconography of heaven and ‘not yet known’ an Apocalyptic insistence on the hermetic ‘name’.
Men in the kindling candletime of salt’s
As in ‘The Hill of Names’ — ‘the kindling candletime of salt’s/ Dark choirs’ (compare Thomas’s phrase, ‘the salt was singing’, p74); ‘The moon like a burnt offering of light’; ‘time’s axles melt’; ‘a temple round corners’ — surreal images of Apocalypse proliferate in For the Monogram. An incomplete inventory might include the following:
Caius to Apocalypse
Graham’s own Apocalyptic poetry (never disowned, to his eternal credit) can sound uncannily like Prynne (‘Three Poems of Drowning’, Collected Poems, pp71-73):
So wandered, bowed into a new affection to inhabit,
As R&K note, ‘Thresholds... abound’: compare Graham’s ‘white threshold’ with Prynne’s ‘salt margin’; both recall Celan’s Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold, 1955), published in the same year as The Nightfishing (and, for that matter, The Less Deceived). As might be expected, Prynne can sound as much like Graham as vice versa. The following lines from ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’ might have occurred in the title poem of Malcolm Mooney’s Land (Faber, 1970; Collected Poems, pp143-147):
In breath he could speak out into the northern
In fact, they almost did:
From wherever it is I urge these words
The affinities between Cambridge poetry and the later Graham are acknowledged (most elegantly by the choice of ‘Implements in Their Places’ #59, itself an ironic assertion of ‘my name’, for the cover of Poets on Writing), but several of the lyrics from Into the Day (1972) might actually have appeared in Cage Without Grievance (1942):
Blood fails the ear, trips the bird’s
Compare ‘As If in an Instant Parapets of Plants’:
This lyrical contrivance feeds the grain
Peter Riley’s response to Singer acknowledges the relationship with Prynne, whilst stressing the formal limitations of Apocalyptic poetry (letter to J.K., 4/6/89):
I think he’s terribly important in the development of a certain way of writing poetry in the last forty years, because he kept some kind of flame alive in the late fifties which links Graham and Prynne, without himself ever taking the full risk implied in his poeisis. I don’t know what the early influences on him were but he seems to step straight in in 1957 alongside Graham, in the best of Still and All, with just that same wonderful poise of saying, a wide breath with cutting simplicity of address in a dignified linear continuity, and the ability to draw that out to extended sequences — indeed I find with him the longer the better: short poems tend to be posed. But that was all; he arrived there and stayed, some kind of plunge he never took.
In the same vein, Duncan contrasts Apocalyptic poetry unfavourably with contemporary avant garde poetry, with immediate reference to Maggie O’Sullivan (Secrets of Nature):
The failure of the Apocalyptic or Neo-Romantic poetry of the 1940s was, it seems to me, due to their moderation: their flights of imagination are nailed down by orthodox diction and metrical formalism. Staidness of language stifled the energies yearningly invoked. Even mythographically, they failed to break out of the Christian framework. Twenty years were to pass before an effective solution was found to these problems. The appeal of that group was their passion and the visionary state from which they wrote; their language contradicted these claims at every step. They must have thought that this losing strategy was ‘passion contained with discipline and skill’. In fact such extreme states of mind could only be captured by co-ordinating all aspects of the linguistic object: metrical, syntactic, logical, lexical.
In support of his argument, Duncan cites a review of Migrant Press pamphlets by Denise Levertov, who appeared in Apocalyptic magazines and anthologies such as Poetry Quarterly and New Road as early as the mid-forties (as Denise Levertoff), before her emigration to America. ‘An English Event’ (Kulchur, 1962) is indeed a classic statement:
After the wave of poetic activity in the 1940s which Kenneth Rexroth documented definitively in his anthology New British Poets (New Directions 1948), English poetry, for reasons I have never quite understood (having left England by that time) — psychological reasons, sociological reasons, a failure of nerve? — lapsed into a New Conservatism. The bright stars in this firmament have been duller, if possible, than their American counterparts... What became of the energy of the forties?
As Duncan observes, this article helped to set the terms of reference for the reception and criticism of Cambridge poetry, as it evolved from what Eric Mottram has described as the British Poetry Revival and other 1960s phenomena (Secrets of Nature). In particular, Levertov’s enthusiastic response to the virtually unknown Roy Fisher is admirable. Her answers to her own questions are themselves questionable, but do bear thinking about:
I have already said I don’t know why it was succeeded by a New Conservatism; but this is not the same question. Many of the 40s poets seem to have dropped right out of sight. Others gave their attention more and more to fiction, or popped up years later with autobiographical books, or became known as critics. Many of those who continued to publish poetry did not develop. One cause, I think, may have been (aside from all the unknown individual pressures or lacks of needful pressures) that the concern of the New Romantics had been predominantly with an expansion of content, of sensibility, without much interest in form. The impetus of feeling alone was not enough to carry them forward beyond a certain point, lacking a devotion to language itself, a questioning of ways and means, a will to ‘Make it New’. A new recognition of the irrational... was stifled by the conventional forms into which — with uninfluential exceptions — it was cast...
The substance of Levertov’s and Duncan’s explanations of the failure of Apocalypse, as they perceive it, and of Riley’s response to Singer, is that they stopped crucially if not cravenly short of such formal advances. According to their reading, the Apocalyptics were thrown at around the close of the decade, having failed to realise that ‘The barriers separating dream from reality, the irrational from the rational, are down; limitations are non-existent; existence is everywhere, awake or asleep’ (Secrets of Nature). Yet this is just what the Apocalyptics did realise: ‘The barriers of the light are down,/ All but the briskest riders thrown’ (Thomas, ‘When Once the Twilight Locks No Longer’, p5). For all the brilliance of their analyses, none of these critics recognises the power of the poetry produced in the Apocalyptic style throughout the 1950s, by contributing Apocalyptics, including Dorian Cooke, Hendry, Tom Scott and Vernon Watkins, but also by a dozen poets as diverse as Barker, Thomas Blackburn, Fisher, Gascoyne, Graham, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, David Jones, Patrick Kavanagh, Levertov herself, Sylvia Plath and Singer. Its ‘moderation’ and failure as compared with the poetry of the 1960s are critical hallucinations. The Apocalypse constitutes as important a resource for the Cambridge School as the Black Mountain; and the very different exploitations and developments of ‘conventional forms’ by Apocalyptic poets look much more interesting and fruitful in 2004 than they did in 1962.
Dylan Thomas’ soaring popularity was a positive hindrance: he was too idiosyncratic to be an influence, and imitations could not compete with the original. Moreover, his tragic gift for showmanship began to get on the nerves of reserved Anglo-Saxons. It has been too little understood that Thomas came directly out of the tradition of chapel enthusiasm — ecstasy, the hwyl.
Graham, Singer and Fisher, to name three, responded to something in Thomas very different from ‘hwyl’ (which is not a dismissal of ‘hwyl’ itself, incidentally). Fisher’s own testimony is unequivocal (letter to J.K., 1/ 6/ 98):
What is interesting... is that it was reading Thomas that enabled me to start. It was like one of those astronomical events where a body is struck by another and kicked out of its familiar orbit into a new one, by way of a violent wobble. I came across The Burning Baby, then read, along with the gang of surrealist and neo-romantic things I was hunting out, the first two collections of poems and The Map of Love. It was simply the spectacle of something apparently quite primal (allowing for the obvious tropes and tricks), a sort of linguistic/ imaginative magma, unsuspected innards, the breaking of taboos one hadn’t known existed, that shook up my innocence. That was all. I’ve not returned to those Thomas texts for years, but they remain an extraordinary phenomenon which won’t quite factorise out into the visible elements — Welsh, the Bible, drink, testosterone and so forth — there’s still something that resists explanation, however difficult it may be to find a place for it.
Another recollection by Fisher confirms that it came naturally both to describe Graham ‘as an Apocalyptic’ and still to be using the term in ‘the late 1940s’ (interview with Peter Robinson, April–June 1998):
In the late 1940s I was reading him with interest as an Apocalyptic (I was one of the bedraggled band of fans who couldn’t see why all that was so ridiculed) and kept an eye as far as The Nightfishing. When I realised that he’d survived, developed and remained productive I gave myself a memo to catch up on him, but have still not done so.
It is thus a biographical fact that Fisher was a young Apocalyptic in the late 1940s. It is ironic that he should have got all he needed by 1955, the supposed date of Graham’s Apocalyptic detoxification and for most enthusiasts the terminus a quo.
‘The stone which the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner’: Psalms 118: 22. On this principle, it is worth retrieving one of the rejected white stones, in order to place it in its Apocalyptic context. ‘East-South-East’ is one of five ‘Uncollected Poems’ printed immediately after the collection (p137):
Reminiscent of ‘die hell-/ weißen, die Licht-/ bringer’ and Adorno’s transcendent ‘figure’, ‘the Shining One’ might have stepped straight out of Revelation (1:13-16):
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
‘That rushing sound’ has connotations of ‘the sound of many waters’; in Ezekiel, source of the phrase, ‘Son of man’ (passim), the word occurs in a similar context: ‘Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing’ (E3:12). In Ezekiel’s vision, ‘the likeness of the glory of the Lord’ is simultaneously ‘as the appearance of a man’ and as ‘the appearance of fire’, with ‘brightness round about’ (E1:27).
The talk they had with the Shining Ones was about the glory of the place; who told them that the beauty and glory of it was inexpressible. There, said they, is ‘Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect’ (Hebrews 12:22-24). You are going now, said they, to the paradise of God, wherein you shall see the tree of life, and eat of the never-fading fruits thereof: and when you come there you shall have white robes given you, and your walk and talk shall be every day with the King, even all the days of eternity (R2:7; 3:4-5; 22:5).
The Pilgrim’s Progress is an extreme expression of the immortalitarianism of seventeenth-century puritanism (p30):
There we shall be with seraphims and cherubims, creatures that will dazzle your eyes to look on them (Isaiah 6:2; I Thessalonians 4:16-17)... In a word, there we shall see the elders with their golden crowns (R4:4); there we shall see the holy virgins with their golden harps (R16:1-5); there we shall see men that, by the world, were cut in pieces, burned in flames, eaten of beasts, drowned in the seas, for the love they bare to the Lord of all the place, all well, and clothed with immortality as with a garment (R4:4, 14:1-5; John 12:25; II Corinthians 5:2-4).
Bunyan’s ‘golden crowns’ are a plural conflation of the ‘crowns of gold’ (R4:4; cf. ‘many crowns, R19:12) and the singular ‘golden crown’ (R14:14); similarly, his final phrase is a combination of Revelation (‘clothed in white raiment’, R4:4; ‘the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot’, R1:13) and II Corinthians 5:2-4 (‘earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven... that mortality might be swallowed up of life’). The text supplies the first two references, but not the third, despite Bunyan’s preference, in this context, for ‘garment’. The text from St John’s gospel is a quintessential expression of anti-humanistic puritanism: ‘He who loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal’. R&K refer to Christian’s habit of walking ‘solitary in the fields’ (p84; The Pilgrim’s Progress, p27) in their reading of ‘Royal Fern’, in which relationships within a family are also at stake: ‘How can you love me in dream, always walking from field to field’ (p160). In Christiana’s dream, she sees ‘her husband in a place of bliss among many immortals’ (p187). Her own summons from ‘the Master’ refers to ‘clothes of immortality’; and, in parting from her children, she ‘was glad... that they had kept their garments so white’ (p313). Prynne’s vision of a ‘shining road’ and of ‘the years & their raiment kept out/ and folded’ appears to be intimately related to the beautiful climax of ‘Part Two’.
Poor Swedenborg’s writings are but the linen clothes folded up, neatly put aside by Blake, who does not need the coverings of death to shield his passionate body from apocalyptic light.
The account of the two angels in the same chapter of Luke’s gospel is the source of Bunyan’s ‘Shining Men’, and therefore the indirect source of Prynne’s ‘Shining One’: ‘And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments’ (Luke 24:4). It is, of course, of Christ’s resurrection and immortality that the angels have to tell: ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen’ (Luke 24:5-6).
Hark! whence that rushing sound?
The ‘Daemon of the World’, whose chariot is modelled on Ezekiel’s, is another avatar of ‘the Shining One’, never more dazzling than in Shelley’s vision of redeemed humanity:
Him, still from hope to hope the bliss pursuing,
Shelley’s sentence duplicates the Latinate syntax of Satan’s fall in Paradise Lost (‘Him headlong flaming...’), in a magnificent transumption comparable only to Blake’s Milton; whilst the following vision of the peaceable kingdom rivals the climax of Jerusalem:
All things are void of terror: man has lost
For all their terrorlessness, what is striking about Shelley’s ‘all-subduing energies’ is their recourse as of right to the language of power. The irony of transumption is deepened by a positive capability of which tropes such as ‘sceptre’ and ‘dominion’ are the spontaneous expression. How could the poet who wrote the six most subversive words in the language — ‘Ye are many, they are few’ — have been described (by Matthew Arnold) as an ‘ineffectual angel’? Shelley’s powers involve him, like Thomas, Graham, Singer and Prynne, in an intellectual struggle with mortality itself.
He went like one that was all the while treading on forbidden ground, and could by no means think himself safe till again he was got into the way which he left.
Christ is ‘the way’ incarnate (John 14:6): ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’. There is a suggestion, in the word ‘twisted’, of having missed ‘the way’, perhaps at ‘By-path Meadow’, where Christian persuades Hopeful to take ‘a path’ that lay ‘along by the wayside’: ‘Then was his fellow silent, as mistrusting that he had led him out of the way’ (p125). Despite this hint, it is hard to imagine that ‘the path’ — or even any of the ‘unmatched paths’ — leads to Doubting Castle and Giant Despair with his ‘grievous crab-tree cudgel’. The setting of ‘East-South-East’ sounds more like Beulah, where pilgrims ‘may stay & receive wine’:
Now I saw in my dream, that by this time the pilgrims were got over the Enchanted Ground, and entering into the country of Beulah... In this country the sun shineth night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death... Here they were within sight of the City they were going to: also here met them some of the inhabitants thereof; for in this land the Shining Ones commonly walked, because it was upon the borders of heaven... Here they had no want of corn and wine; for in this place they met with abundance of what they had sought for in all their pilgrimages.
Or ‘the house Beautiful’, where Christiana, Mercy and the four children pass ‘a most beautiful and painless night’ (‘Now, when Mercy was in bed, she could not sleep for joy’, p215); then ‘tarry a while’, as Christian also had (p216):
Then Innocent the damsel took them... and brought them to the bath... So when they came in, they looked fairer a deal than when they went out to the washing... the Interpreter took them and looked upon them, and said unto them, ‘Fair as the moon’... Then said the Interpreter again to the damsel that waited upon these women, Go into the vestry and fetch out garments for these people. So she went and fetched out white raiment, and laid it down before him; so he commanded them to put it on.
Blake was known to ‘his disciples’ as ‘the Interpreter’ (Kathleen Raine (Blake and Tradition: Volume 1, Princeton University Press, 1968, pxxv). What follows in The Pilgrim’s Progress is a dialogue between Christiana and Great-heart (p218); but Prynne asserts categorically that ‘No/ conversation or investment followed’. This is consistent with the elision of the feminine, despite Bunyan’s insistence that women ‘are highly favoured, and show by these things that they are sharers with us in the grace of life’ (p270). I shall return to this aspect of Prynne’s writing in consideration of other poems.
This only differs from Blake’s Beulah in one important feature, that his is a ‘moony’ land of night, love, and sleep... Blake’s Shining Ones create Beulah as a refuge for emanations, who are female; and Beulah is a feminine world, designed for creatures who, alone, could not bear the strenuous activity of Eden.
The source of Beulah is a passage in Isaiah which is closely related to Psalm 19 (62:3-5):
Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God.
Dating from Blake’s ‘feminist’ period, the protagonist of Thel is pointedly described (by herself, in lamenting her mortality) as ‘this shining woman’ (p98):
But Thel delights in these no more because I fade away;
In context, I find some of the least Biblical lines of ‘East-South-East’ to be amongst the most Apocalyptic: ‘It was a most/ beautiful and painless night’. Compare R20:4: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’. This is in harmony with the ‘songs/ in the night under no affliction’ and ‘the negligence and still passion’ of ‘Moon Poem’ (pp53-54), which represent a greater amplitude (‘open to both east and west)’ and a diffusion ‘beyond’ the ‘steady flow of change’. Yet Prynne’s intimations of immortality are perhaps strongest in this Wordsworthian line, with its solemn superlative. The ‘Shining One’ is ‘Apparelled in celestial light’ (‘Ode on the Intimations of Immortality...’), yet the poem is an antithetical rejoinder to Wordsworth, a refutation of the premise of the ‘Ode’: ‘That there hath passed away a glory from the earth’.
There is nothing to save, now all is lost,
Lawrence’s epiphany in destitution is itself succinct, but Prynne’s elision of its redemptive grammar (‘nothing to save... but’) and poignant Wordsworthian diction subjects it to a startling askesis, defined by Bloom as ‘a self-curtailment which seeks transformation at the expense of narrowing the creative circumference of precursor and ephebe alike... a revisionary ratio that concludes on the border of solipsism’ (pp119-123). Yet Prynne’s relationship with ‘the Shining One’, his saviour, composite precursor and antithetical self, is incompatible with Bloom’s account of the ‘process’ (pp118-122):
The final product of the process of poetic askesis is the formation of an imaginative equivalent of the superego, a fully developed poetic will, harsher than conscience... in his purgatorial askesis the strong poet knows only himself and the Other he must at last destroy, his precursor, who may well (by now) be an imaginary or composite figure... askesis is the contest proper, the match-to-the-death with the dead.
‘I met there the Shining One’: alone, the speaker encounters a lone ‘figure’, albeit a composite ‘One’. At the close of the poem, however, it is ‘we’ who ‘shine’.
... More spanned with angels ride
The ‘protagonist’ of ‘A Winter’s Tale’ derives from the same verses of Revelation as ‘East-South-East’:
Once when the world turned old
The ‘firelit island’ is simultaneously the pastoral land of the Shakespearean title and ‘the isle that is called Patmos’. The duplication of St John the Divine’s simile — ‘white like wool’ (R1:14)/ ‘white as wool’ — is reinforced by another significant series of lexical parallels with Revelation: ‘flame of fire’; ‘unrolled/ The scrolls of fire’ (R6:14: ‘And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together’); ‘food’ (R7:17: ‘For the Lamb ... shall feed them’); ‘the world turned old/ on a star’ (R8:10: ‘there fell a great star from heaven’; R12:9: ‘Satan, which deceiveth the whole world’); ‘winged’ (R4:8); ‘faith’ (R13:10); ‘pure’ (R21:21). I could have sworn there was a ‘dung hill’ in Revelation (cf. Daniel 2:5), but there is so much ‘filthiness’ and so many ‘foul’, ‘unclean’ and ‘noisome’ ‘abominations’ that ‘a bottomless pit’ is required instead. In the 130 lines of ‘A Winter’s Tale’, the countless parallels include ‘tribes’ (R7:5); ‘graves’ (R11:9); ‘bride’ (R18:23); ‘harp’ (R5:8); ‘trumpets’ (R9:14); ‘horses’ (R19:14); ‘paradise’ (R2:7); and a bizarre transposition: ‘The woman-breasted and the heaven-headed/ Bird’ (R17:3 ‘the woman, and... the beast which carrieth her, which hath the seven heads’). ‘East-South-East’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ both place an Apocalyptic ‘figure’ in a pastoral setting evoked in realistic detail, though Thomas’s ‘milkmaids... in their clogs’, ‘minstrels’ and Shakespearean title evoke an immemorial Britain rather than a contemporary England. The truly ‘strange’ image of being ‘Struck into/ birth’ by ‘lightning’ which is paradoxically ‘slow’ is paralleled in Thomas’s ‘On the Marriage of a Virgin’: ‘the moment of a miracle is unending lightning’: lightning as Apocalyptic way of life.
The veiling luminance of light scattered...
The exact allusion, together with ‘insistent’ for ‘incessant’ rain, suggests that for Crozier, of ‘Andrew T.K. Crozier/ & Co Ltd Builders and/ Contractors Phone 824’, ‘East-South-East’ did indeed become ‘the headstone of the corner’.
The C&R Construction Company
Nevertheless, Crozier’s deepest poetic affinity is with Prynne. It’s not that far, as Crozier flies, from the ‘Sidcup By-Pass’ to ‘eternity’ — and since Jerusalem lies east-south-east of Hitchin, ‘the A 602’ (heading east-south-east by Little Wymondley and across the A1(M) to Stevenage, where it becomes a primary route, passing through Knebworth on its way to a junction with the A10 near Ware) will take you part of the way.
So the fiat parks by the kerb.
Crozier’s speaker is switching off the ‘landing light’, Prynne’s protagonist his car engine, but each is also reversing the original act of creation. The ‘fiat’ is at once a diminutive family car and God’s creative ‘Word’ (‘Fiat lux’ = ‘Let there be light’, Genesis 1:3). ‘Royal Fern’ has been discussed by R&K, in one of their most illuminating analyses (pp77-102). Surely, though, there is an obvious precedent for such an Apocalyptic pun as Prynne’s ‘fiat’? William York Tindall notes the Joycean pun on ‘Jordan’ in ‘Before I Knocked’ (Collected Poems, p7; A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas, Thames and Hudson, 1962, p46). And doesn’t this poem sound like Thomas?
By the beads you sleep, laden with scrip.
The ‘snow blind twilight’ of ‘A Winter’s Tale’ (p119) comes to mind, together with the figure who ‘wept from the crest of grief’ (p120).
In Prynne’s most Hölderlinian poem, ‘Schönheit apocalyptica’ is expressed in the estranging but beautiful image of a ‘shining/ stone’ (‘Moon Poem’, pp53-54):
I know there is more than the mere wish to
In ‘Heidegger and theology’, John D. Caputo outlines the shape of Heidegger’s later thought in the language and imagery of ‘Moon Poem’ (The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, edited by Charles B. Guignon, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p282):
The original word implies not so much whiteness as pure brightness... In 19:8, where purity is expressed by ‘clean’, brightness by ‘white’, the original word is not the same as here, but... a word equivalent to ‘bright’; and this shews that our translators used the word ‘white’ for ‘shining’.
The reference to Hölderlin’s ‘Nachtgesänge’, ‘songs in the night under no affliction’, is also a direct quotation from the Book of Job: ‘God my maker, who giveth songs in the night’ (35:10). It might be glossed as ‘Night Songs’, but not, like Hölderlin’s, afflicted by anguish and madness: ‘Wohl ist das Herz wach, doch mir zürnt, mich/ Hemmt die erstaunende Nacht nun immer’ (‘Indeed, the heart is awake, but I rage and always now astonishing night constricts me’, ‘Chiron’, ‘Nachtgesänge’, Hamburger, p231). Compare Prynne’s own ‘Night Song’ (p119); and his antithetical Day Light Songs (1968; Poems, pp25-31). For Hölderlin, ‘night’ is an allegorical nightmare from which there can be no awakening (cited by Judith Halden-Sullivan, The Topology of Being: The Poetics of Charles Olson, Peter Lang, 1991, p3):
Not only have the gods and the god fled, but the divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history. The time of the world’s night is the destitute time, because it becomes ever more destitute. It has already grown so destitute, it can no longer discern the default of God as a default.
Holderlin anticipates — or inspires — Nietszche’s own ‘Night-Song’, in which ‘the shining ones’ have a starring role (Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book For All And None XXI):
Oh, the silence of all shining ones!
Hölderlin’s destitution in ‘Nachtgesänge’ contrasts with the celebratory collocation of ‘shining’ and ‘negligence’ in ‘Moon Poem’, reminiscent of ‘East-South-East’: ‘we also/ / shine in our neglect’. There is a deeper relationship, however, with ‘Brot und Wein’, Hölderlin’s own moon poem, of which the first strophe was independently published under the title of ‘Die Nacht’ (Constantine, p200). From its tranquil opening to the ‘still passion’ of its conclusion, ‘Brot und Wein’ has the amplitude and solemnity of ‘Moon Poem’, sharing its preoccupation with spiritual dwelling, ‘gifts’ (‘Gaben’), ‘the grace which is open’ (‘das offene’), the ‘wish to wander at large’ (‘Drum an den Isthmos komm!’), celestial and sublunary ‘rise and fall’ (‘hinunter, hinauf’) and ‘the unceasing image of hope’ (‘die hoffende Seele der Menschen’). There is a suggestion of Hölderlinian classicism in the phrase ‘open to both east and west’, © the Cretan Tourist Board; whilst ‘shining/ stone’ is a literal translation of ‘marmaros’, Greek for ‘marble’.
O more than Moon,
Like ‘the white stone’ of Revelation, the ‘more than Moon’ of Prynne’s ‘shining/ stone’ confers ‘Immortality’.
Jacket 24 — November 2003
This material is copyright © James Keery
and Jacket magazine 2003