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James Keery

‘Schönheit Apocalyptica’:

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).

Part 1

button 1: In the Stone a New Name Written
button 2: The Harsh Light of Unintelligibility
button 3: A White Stone
button 4: The Bright Stones
button 5: Singing and Dying Along the Shore
button 6: The Shining One
button 7: A “White”, That is, a “Shining” Stone

1: ‘In the Stone a New Name Written’

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
Manna und Himmelsbrod
Mit Prophezeiungen und
Groβem Geschrei, des Gebets mit Gunst...
Und einer, als Redner
Auftrat uns als Pfarherr
Im blauen Wamms...

(‘The earth grew angry, and hurried, while they cried/ Manna and bread from Heaven/ With prophecies and/ Great outcry, of prayer with grace.../ And one as orator/ As vicar appeared to us/ In a blue doublet...’)

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).

The ‘promise’ fulfilled by Christ, ‘the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life’ (1 John 2:25), is elliptically ‘recalled’ in ‘Star Damage at Home’, in which ‘the white stone’ appears in the singular, presented not only as an enigmatic but explicitly as an hermetic trope (The White Stones; Poems, p108):

                           Each one drawn in
by promise recalled, just as the day itself
unlocks the white stone.

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
a state of ferment’ — as if that could ever turn
to wine or raise bread, from the sad shit it
is, to that crispy crunchy loaf we shall all
eat only in heaven.
                      The fact is that right
from the springs this water is no longer fit
for the stones it washes: the water of life
is all in bottles & ready for invoice. To draw
from that well we must put on some
other garment.

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
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and cloth’d in priestly robe
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem,
For holy services...

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,

Here is its actual stone. The bread
Will be our bread, the stone will be

Our bed and we shall sleep by night.
We shall forget by day, except

The moments when we choose to play
The imagined pine, the imagined jay.

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’.

Despite these connotations, however, I think Bloom is mistaken. The ‘actual stone’ of ‘The Man with a Blue Guitar’ is itself a token of poetic individuation. Stevens’s proleptic invocation of ‘the bread’ as ‘our bread’ and its attribution to ‘day’, implicit in the attribution of the ‘stone’ to ‘night’, identify it with ‘our [daily] bread’ (The Lord’s Prayer) and thus with ‘the hidden manna’. The ‘bread of time to come’ contains a further allusion to Revelation: ‘Him which is and was and which is to come’ (Revelation 1:4). ‘Here is its actual stone’ is, therefore, anything but an intimation of ‘an absence in reality’, rather an insistence on its palpable presence or actualised potential, a prophetic affirmation that ‘the time is at hand’ (R1:3): ‘This is major Stevens, prophesying the opening section of Notes’ (The Poems of Our Climate, p134). The ‘actual stone’ of ‘time to come’ is identical to the ‘white stone’, token of the ‘pure power’ and ‘ever-early candour’, not of the ‘white-robed’ candidate (L candidus, white; candidatus, candidate, OED) or ephebe, but of ‘him that overcometh’, the ‘strong poet’ of whom Stevens is Bloom’s principal exemplar (‘The Owl in the Sarcophagus’ III 13-16):

                              Sleep realised
Was the whiteness that is the ultimate intellect,
A diamond jubilance beyond the fire,

That gives its power to the wild-ringed eye.

‘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’.

Bloom gives the name apophrades to the uncanny but demonstrable phenomenon by which a poet appears to ghostwrite his precursor’s poetry, so that the earlier poet seems to have fallen under the influence of the later (pp15-16). In relation to St John the Baptist, Christ demonstrates a ratio that goes beyond even apophrades: ‘the absolute absorption of the precursor’, of which, in his absorption of Marlowe, ‘Shakespeare is the largest instance in the language’ (p11). The Baptist appears not only free of ‘the anxiety of influencing’ (p6), or being absorbed by, a greater than himself, but enraptured by the prospect: ‘this my joy is therefore fulfilled’ (John 3:29). Yet his insight into the process is expressed in Bloomian terms: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (J3:30); and his extraordinary metaphor of ‘the friend of the bridegroom’ who ‘rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice’ (J3:29) is a sublimation of intense rivalry (as postulated by several scholars). In Psalms, to which St John the Baptist alludes, the trope of the ‘bridgegroom’ occurs in a series of parallelisms, balanced by an explicitly competitive image (19:2–6):

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

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,
Vigorous and Bright, like the life and
quickness of the Morning, and rejoyce like
the Sun to run their Course —

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 intend to challenge Bloom’s ‘Viconian insistence that priority in divination is crucial for every strong poet, lest he dwindle merely into a latecomer’ (p8). The ‘anxiety of influence’ needs to be balanced by a sense of the elation of influence, implicit in the traditional trope of apprenticeship to a revered master which is repudiated by Bloom as, at best, an idealisation. It is W.S. Graham, described by Julian McLaren-Ross as ‘quite the most competitive poet I ever met’ (Memoirs of the Forties, London Magazine, 1965; Penguin, 1984, p184), who has, in ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’ (Collected Poems 1942-77, Faber, 1979, pp222-226), reimagined the idealistic relationship for the modernist poet (‘The Fourth Lesson’, p224):

I know you find great joy in the great
Composers. But now you can put your lips to
The messages and blow them into sound
And enter and be there as well. You must
Be faithful to who you are speaking from
And yet it is alright. You will be there.

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
Here where I am to speak on the other side
Of language. You, of course, in your own time
And incident (I speak in the small hours.)
Will listen from your side.

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...

It curiously repeats through my head like someone else’s good poem, especially from ‘Yes listen. It carries away’. For me it’s more memorable than any poem I’ve written. Also maybe a bit like W.B. too. And a bit like Graham Minton Robert Robert Ness Father Mother Willie Davie Billbrewer Pjean Dylant [sic] and Loneheron. Love S.

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 sister Mary in.
And hear Willie and Davie
Among bracken of Narnain
Sing in a mist heavy
With myrtle and listeners...
The centuries turn their locks
And open under the hill
Their inherited books and doors
All gathered to distil
Like happy berry pickers
One voice to talk to us.

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?
I wish I knew.
If I knew how you did it to me,
I would do it to you!

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.

I shall argue, on the contrary, that ‘the young citizen of poetry’ is engaged in a communal as well as an intrinsically competitive pursuit: ‘Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down/ Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, sometimes/ Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step’ (W.H. Auden, ‘In Praise of Limestone’, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, Faber, 1966, p239). Auden contrasts the voice of ‘a stone that responds’ (p239), the white stone of ‘a limestone landscape’ (p241), with ‘an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:/ “I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;/ That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;/ There are only the various envies, all of them sad”‘ (p240). Limestone is clearly the hero in white, Ocean the stage-villain of the piece. In my reading, despite a solipsistic streak, Prynne refuses freedom on its terms. Perhaps every poet, like the ‘jealous God’ (Exodus 20:5), is ‘jealous for my holy name’ (Ezekiel 39:25). But Ocean got it wrong: amongst ‘the various envies’, the disinterested jealousy of creativity is a kind of love.

Compare Graham’s exultation in Thomas’s poetry with Prynne’s ‘profound admiring satisfaction’ in a painting by de Kooning (‘A Discourse on Willem de Kooning’s Rosy-fingered Dawn at Louse Point’, Act 2: Beautiful Translations, Pluto Press, 1996, p38):

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’.

In Revelation, the word ‘overcometh’ is intransitive, suggesting a standard to be reached or a threshold to be crossed; a struggle with rather than against the ‘Spirit’ of the precursor. The ‘white stone’ is offered to each individual, not exclusively to one; and ‘He’ is the same kind of singular-plural as ‘ear’ (cf. R1:3: ‘they that hear)’. The anticipated victory is a collective and indeed a noble one, as in the famous anthem, ‘We shall overcome’ (C. Albert Tindley, 1901). It is perhaps never going to be the case that ‘All have won; therefore all shall have prizes’ (Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll), nor is it necessarily true, however, that only ‘one receiveth the prize’. Bloom rejects ‘the qualified Freudian optimism of sublimation’ (p8), defined as ‘the yielding up of more primordial for more refined modes of pleasure’ (p9), as perhaps in St John the Baptist’s self-abnegation. In any case, what is at stake in poetry, for both Prynne and Auden as much as for most poets in the canon, goes beyond the pleasure-principle: ‘if/ Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,/ These modifications of matter into/ Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,/ Made solely for pleasure, make a further point’ (p241). Auden’s ‘further point’, to which I shall return, concerns both ‘love’ and ‘the life to come’ (p241).

In a later section of this study, I shall consider both ‘the qualified Freudian optimism’, in its original psychological and philosophical contexts, and Jung’s conception of psychic individuation, to which Bloom’s is indebted. I shall argue that the concept of immortality is integral to both psychological projects.

2: ‘The Harsh Light of Unintelligibility’

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.

The White Stones opens with ‘Airport Poem: Ethics of Survival’ (Poems, pp38-39), which may serve as a paradigm. The title itself is a twofold gesture towards ‘the public sphere’: that of modern transport technology and that of contemporary philosophy. The word ‘social’ occurs three times in a series of deadpan, ostensibly informative predicates (‘The century roar is...’; ‘The music... is...’; ‘The desert/ is...’; ‘The heart is...’; ‘water/ is...’; ‘the cistern... is...’; ‘news is...’; ‘love is...’). The poem is perhaps intended to be taken with a pinch of salt, but there is no mistaking its air of radical chic:

                    The desert
is a social and undedicated expanse, since
what else there is counts as merest propaganda.

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.

For example, the concept of ‘social fluency’ (p38) has been deployed by the sociologist Stephen J. Lilley in analysis of a debate between ‘computer ethicists’ (‘The “Human-Machine” Schism in STS with Implications for Software Accountability, Control and Design’, internet):

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 last disjunction of the heart: that
          news is the person, and love
          the shape of his compulsion
                     in the musical phrase,
                     nearly but not
                     yet back, into
                     the remotest
Of which the heart is capable and will journey
over any desert and through the air, making
the turn and stop undreamed of:
          love is, always, the
          flight back
          to where
          we are.

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).

In this context, some of the earlier tropes acquire other connotations. The ‘music’ sounds less like a cinematic soundtrack or the muzak of a ‘departure’ lounge than the ‘music heard so deeply’ [‘far down/ in the mind’] ‘that it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts’ [‘prolonged into the latent action of the heart’] (‘Burnt Norton’ I). ‘[L]ove [is]/ the shape of his compulsion/ in the musical phrase’ might almost be an out-take from Four Quartets: cf. ‘Only by the form, the pattern,/ Can words or music reach/ The stillness... Love is itself unmoving,/ Only the cause and end of movement’ (‘Burnt Norton’ V); ‘Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning... With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this calling’ (‘Little Gidding’ V). Similarly, the ‘century roar’ might be interpreted as a totalising trope of holocaust and conflagration; the ‘desert’ as the desolation to which civilization has been reduced in the postwar peace, or a post-apocalyptic landscape consequent on the global failure of ‘Ethics of Survival’ (a short sentence in ‘The Numbers’, ‘They call it peace/ or history’, alludes to the saying, attributed by Tacitus to Caratacus, that Roman armies ‘create a desert and call it peace’, p12) . The title phrase is suggestive of ecological and anti-nuclear argument, as in ‘Ecology and environment (ethics of survival)’, the title of a contribution to a recent book on Biodiversity: Strategies for Conservation (R.R. Das, ‘Dr S.K. Agarwal Commemoration Volume’, edited by L.K. Dadhich and A.P. Sharma, New Delhi, APH, 2002).

However, as so often with Prynne’s poetry, the primary reference is theological and Revelation is a tangible presence. The phrase originates in a sermon by the American theologian, Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), younger brother of Reinhold and ‘known for his contributions to Christian ethics... and essays advancing “theocentric” theology’ (H. Richard Niebuhr Papers, Andover-Harvard Library, Harvard Divinity School). ‘Ethics of Survival’ (4/3/62) is one of a series of sermons with titles such as ‘Shape of Things to Come’ (5/6/43), ‘Consoling Thought of Divine Judgment’ (14/3/54) and ‘Hope of Glory’ (2/2/57). As Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard during 1962, Prynne might even have attended it. The context of the word ‘survival’ in Niebuhr’s thought is established by the title of another sermon: ‘The Wisdom of Survival and the Logic of the Cross’ (nd). His books include The Kingdom of God in America (1937) and The Meaning of Revelation (1941), published in the same year as the principal Apocalyptic anthology, The White Horseman. The first poem of The White Stones, then, is explicitly preoccupied with ‘survival... beyond demise’ (Unanswering Rational Shore, Object Permanence, 2001), or immortality.

One might interpret ‘the/ flight back/ to where/ we are’ as a potentially recuperative image of the middle ground between public and private spheres. Bloom’s system is opposed to any conception of the ‘middle ground’, yet at two crucial points he anticipates a recuperation by which such a position might be established. In consideration of Keats and Tennyson, he acknowledges the possibility of a ‘relative victory or at least holding of his own’ on the part of the strong poet (p12); and in questioning whether ‘Romantic vision’ might have arisen out of ‘an intensity of repression previously unmatched in the history of the imagination’, he entertains the hypothesis that it might ultimately constitute ‘an unconscious lie against the difficult human effort of holding the middle ground between instinctual existence and all morality’ (p112). I intend to argue that the unbroken romantic/ modernist tradition, which Prynne extends into the present day, has its own disturbing features, of which this ‘unconscious lie’, and the conception(s) of immortality which it subserves, are amongst the most salient.

In Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Harvard University Press, 1978), Robert von Hallberg endorses the aim to interpret Prynne’s poetry by choosing an epigraph from ‘Die a Millionaire’ (lines 1-11) to illustrate his main contention (p205):

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.

Adorno’s response to ‘FA: M’AHNIESGOW’ [sic] is a revealing example of his approach to ‘qualitatively modern works’ (‘Presuppositions’, Notes to Literature: Volume 2, edited by Rolf Tiedermann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Columbia University Press, 1992, p95). Written by Hans G. Helms, a German Jewish poet born in 1932, fa: m’ahniesgwow was issued as a ten-inch record (Dumont, Cologne, 1959). It is, I gather, ‘mainly sound poetry but with passages in Beat-style English’ (Dick Higgins):

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’.

Nevertheless, Adorno’s portrait of Helms is ironically recognisable — as Prynne:

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 and Bloom are amusingly coupled in a discussion of Fredric Jameson’s Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic (Verso, 1990) by Steven Helmling (The Success and Failure of Fredric Jameson: Writing, the Sublime, and the Dialectic of Critique, SUNY, 2001, p35):

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?

The last question is the easiest. Here is Adorno’s account of ‘hermetic’ art (p108):

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.

In Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s (Associated University Presses, Inc, 1979), Charles Altieri argues convincingly that the concept of incarnation is central to the poetics of modernism (p56):

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.

3: ‘A White Stone’

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’.

Scott is anxious to demystify the trope as ‘just’ an ordinary object. In Revelation, however, Gnosticism seems less ‘conveniently’ placed. Even a loaded account of its ‘grandiose’ doctrine confirms its relevance to a reading of Prynne (The Early Church, Henry Chadwick, Penguin, 1967, pp35-36):

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.

Scott is reluctant to consider the possibility that what appears on the white stone — ‘a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it’ — might be the Logos itself. Almost the same trope recurs in R19:11-13:

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.

Scott considers four other possible meanings of the ‘white stone’, although, in his own opinion, ‘none of them provides a convincing explanation of the new name upon the stone known only to the receiver’ (p144). Insistence on the uniqueness of ‘the new name’ is like interpreting ‘He that hath an ear’ as intended to disqualify listeners with two. In any case, as Scott acknowledges, each hypothesis ‘has its supporters of note’ (p144):

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.

As regards the second interpretation, the idea of a ‘banquet’ is compatible with the promise of ‘hidden manna’, which may be metonymically associated with the ‘white stone’, as implicitly in Exodus 16:14 (‘a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground’) and explicitly in Milton’s image of ‘pearly grain’ (Paradise Lost, V 430): ‘Iconographically, manna was represented most commonly as scattered pellets, more or less pearl-sized’ (note by Alastair Fowler, Longman Annotated English Poets, 1971, p284). Rather than being ‘gathered... along with the manna’, then, Scott’s ‘precious stones’ may be an alternative trope of the ‘hidden manna’ itself.

The ‘Urim and Thummim’, mysterious words whose ‘meaning... is not clear’, are also too hastily dismissed from the reckoning (‘Urim and Thummim’, Hendrik C. Spykerboer, Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, OUP, 1993, pp786-787):

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’).

For Dryden, the contrast between the First and Second Temples is symbolic of the relationship between contemporary Caroline poetry and that of the great Jacobeans (‘To Mr Congreve’, 1694):

Strong were our Syres; and as they Fought they Writ,
Conqu’ring with force of Arms, and dint of Wit;
Theirs was the Gyant Race, before the Flood;
And thus, when Charles Return’d, our Empire stood...
Our Age was cultivated thus at length;
But what we gain’d in skill we lost in strength.
Our Builders were, with want of Genius, curst;
The Second Temple was not like the First.

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).

Then again, Blake’s echo is a specific endorsement of Dryden’s pessimistic point. He invokes the same ‘Giants of Mighty arm, before the flood’ in his earliest and darkest allegory, ‘Then she bore Pale desire...’, written ‘before 1777’ (Blake: Complete Poetry and Prose, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, Nonesuch, 1927, p667). It is a brilliant if inchoate fragment, with an ironic allusion to Psalm 19:

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.

Satan invokes ‘Urim and Thummim, those oraculous gems’ in Paradise Regained (III 14); and, according to Fowler, the ‘Urim’ is identified by Milton with ‘that which here below/ Philosophers in vain so long have sought’ (note to Paradise Lost III 598-601, p180):

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).

According to LaSor (p733), ‘the Urim and Thummim’ were amongst the ‘five things... missing from the Second Temple’, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘sacred stone’ must have been one — presumably the more potent — of the original pair. To identify this with the ‘white stone’ of Revelation seemed to Archbishop Trench a plausible further step (cited by Rev G. Currey, Commentary on the New Testament: Acts, Epistles and Revelation, Rev William Bentham et al, SPCK, 1882, unpaginated):

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.

This letter shows the extent to which it may be accurate, rather than insulting, to describe him as ‘hermetic and priestly’ (Peter Porter, ‘Two voices for our time: Poems by J.H. Prynne; Poems of Thirty Years by Edwin Morgan’, Observer, 1982). ‘There is no reasoning with Prynne’s followers,’ according to Porter; ‘you either think him the most important poet in Britain today or you are a heretic’. An ‘arcane don’, he has ‘established an apostolic succession of Modernists devoted to the reform of poetry in English’. Dismissing ‘the idea of Prynne as Messiah’, Porter asserts that ‘he wants disciples, not readers’. I don’t find it at all difficult to take him seriously as ‘Jeremy the prophet’ (Matthew 2:17), but I write as a reader, not a disciple, uninformed about what Prynne ‘wants’ and disinclined to inquire. I find myself — and increasingly — captivated by his poetry, which makes its own demands. Much of its reputed hermeticism consists in its intimacy with unconscious and physiological processes and with the mythopoeic and palaeolithic — as well as the scientific and technical — dimensions of language, history and culture. Yet there seems to me no point in denying that the cabbalistic aspects of Bloom’s system — dispensable as they might be — are also highly compatible with the ‘arcane’, the archaic and the archiepiscopal aspects of Prynne’s poetry.

Scott draws a relevant distinction between apocalyptist and prophet (pp25-26):

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).

Considered as having ‘a surface large and flat enough to receive an inscription’, the white stone, and hence Prynne’s title, also functions as an image of the page, an insistence on the material properties of the medium, which include, besides those specified, a variable proportion of white space. As sacred stone pages, or petroglyphs, the white stones recall both the Mosaic ‘tables of stone’ (Exodus 32:15) and the ‘glyph-blocks’ of Mayan almanacs (somewhat obscurely related to ‘open field’ writing), ‘the property of a priest caste... consciously maintained as a privileged, if not secret, script’ (Steve McCaffery, ‘Charles Olson’s Art of Language: The Mayan Stratum in Projective Verse’, After Modernism: fragmente No. 4, edited by Andrew Lawson and Anthony Mellors, [Northern] Autumn/ Winter 1991, p58).

As art-objects of ‘sovereign autonomy’ (McCaffery, p56), the white stones are also reminiscent of THE STUMBLING BLOCK its INDEX (Brian Catling, Book Works, 1990; Conductors of Chaos, pp13-22), which takes its title from the letter to the church at Pergamum, source of the ‘white stone’: ‘a stumblingblock before the children of Israel’ (R2:14). In its ‘omnipotent cryptic grace’ (p21), redeemed as a symbol of Apocalyptic intransigence and potential, at once ‘compacted’ black ‘carbon paper’ and a ‘diamond’, the autotelic ‘stumblingbock’ reactivates many Gnostic words of ‘power’ (p20):

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.

4: ‘The Bright Stones’

For Celan, as in Revelation, white stones are an image of renewal by a ‘new name’:

Die hellen
Steine gehn durch die Luft, die hell-
weißen, die Licht-

(‘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
neuen, meinen
Jedermannshänden, du tust sie
ins Abermals-Helle, das niemand
zu weinen braucht noch zu nennen.

(‘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.

‘Die hellen/ Steine’ is a beautiful reprise of an earlier, grimmer collocation of stone and flower, ‘Blume’ (‘Flower’, Selected Poems, pp104-105), occasioned by the first word to be spoken, in his mother-tongue, by Eric Celan in the spring of 1957. The baby’s ‘fleur’ is immediately translated into the mother-tongue of the poet (Poet, Survivor, Jew, p105):

Der Stein.
Der Stein in der Luft, dem ich folgte.
Dein Aug, so blind wie der Stein.

Wir waren
wir schöpften die Finsternis leer, wir fanden
das Wort, das den Sommer heraufkam:

Blume — ein Blindenwort.
Dein Aug und mein Aug:
sie sorgen
für Wasser.

(‘The stone./ The stone in the air, which I followed./ Your eye, as blind as the stone./ / We were/ hands,/ we scooped the darkness empty, we found/ the word that ascended summer:/ Flower./ / Flower — a blindman’s word./ Your eye and my eye:/ they take care/ of water.’)

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’.

Genesis and St John’s gospel begin with the identical phrase, ‘In the beginning’, which introduces, in both texts, an evocation of paternal creativity. Celan’s ‘ich’ is already belated, and it is also hard to miss the darker connotations of ‘Blind’ and ‘Blindenwort’ — of the blind leading the blind. Yet the ‘darkness... on the face of the deep’, ‘without form, and void’ (G1:2), is shaped into ‘seasons’ (G1:14) by the creative ‘Word’ (J1:1): ‘Let there be light’ (G1:3). Spoken by a child, ‘das Wort’ is associated with the infant Jesus, ‘verbum infans’, by the image of following a (shining) ‘stone in the air’, i.e. a star.

The single life-giving word ‘shineth in darkness’ (J1:5). For Celan, however, the German language had gone through ‘die tausend Finsterniße todbringender Rede’ (‘the thousand darknesses of murderous speech’, ‘Ansprache anläßlich der Entgegennahme des Literaturpreises der Freien Hansestadt Bremen’, ‘Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen’, Amy Colin, Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness, Indiana University Press, 1991, pxx). Even though it had remained ‘Erreichbar, nah und unverloren blieb inmitten der Verluste’ (‘reachable, close and secure amid all the losses’, Colin, pxx), the losses — including losses to language itself — may underlie the idea of weeping and naming, perhaps even weeping to name, in ‘Die hellen/ Steine’. Yet the poem is a gentle repudiation, as well as an evocation, of grief, reminiscent of an ascending moment of Hölderlin’s ‘Brot und Wein’: ‘Tragen muß er, zuvor; nun aber nennt er sein Liebstes,/ Nun, nun müssen dafür Worte, wie Blumen enstehn’ (‘First he must suffer; but now he names his most cherished, now words for it, like flowers, must spring into life’, Hölderlin: Selected Verse, Hamburger, Penguin, 1961, p109).

Die Niemandsrose appeared in 1963; The White Stones in 1968. Celan drowned himself in 1970, and Prynne’s elegy appeared a year later. I intend to argue that both Prynne and Celan, for all their differences, might illuminatingly be considered as Apocalyptic poets, according to the following definition: poetry written from the late 1930s onwards in the mode of visionary modernism and in particular on the theme of (im)mortality. I take the term ‘“visionary” modernism’ from A.T. Tolley, who clarifies the implied contrast with ‘ironic’ modernism (The Poetry of the Forties, Manchester University Press, 1985, p33):

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.

In detecting ‘a marked falling-off in Celan’s later and posthumous volumes’, Edwin Morgan deplores what he considers ‘cheap effects’, ‘laboured incongruities’ and ‘New Apocalypse-type rhetoric’, but his citations could be paralleled from the earliest poems as well as from those of ‘the great years from 1952 to 1963’ (‘Be-Imaged Languages’, Poetry Review Vol. 79 No. 2, 1989, p24). ‘Der Sand aus den Urnen’ (p22; title poem of Celan’s first collection, 1948) might well pass in English translation as the work of an Apocalyptic poet (‘Sand from the Urns’, Paul Celan: Selected Poems, Hamburger, Anvil, 1988; Penguin, 1990, p43):

Green as mould is the house of oblivion.
Before each of the blowing gates your beheaded minstrel turns blue.
For you he beats his drum made of moss and of harsh pubic hair;
With a festering toe in the sand he traces your eyebrow.
Longer he draws it than ever it was, and the red of your lip.
You fill up the urns here and nourish your heart.

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;
Rat seed and strangle harvests in the burning shadows
Where our arteries of wire shroud weed for squinting limbs
And a lopped head, held up like a heart, crushed root and bloody
Brandishes strands of flesh, the fruit of a coughing womb.

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,
wandering with shallow, hollow feet over stones I cannot comb:
in your eye light like steeples striking gaunt with the hunger of your bell’s
and the wolf roars famine where the war’s axle twists in the mire
and the spas of oil heap on your starred, seven-compassed eye.

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.

Celan, for his part, might quite conceivably have joined the many refugee poets of Central and Eastern Europe who made common cause with the Apocalyptics (cf. ‘Burns Singer and Fitzrovia’, J.K., Eratica No. 1, edited by Simon Jenner, 2001, pp171-176). His absence from the Apocalyptic magazines of the 1940s is, at times, almost palpable. In 1945, Wrey Gardiner’s Grey Walls Press published New Road No. 3, a 200-page hardback book subtitled Directions in European Art and Letters and edited by Fred Marnau, a young Czech refugee who wrote in German (translated by Ernst Sigler) and a contributor to the third Apocalyptic anthology, The Crown and the Sickle. Marnau produced an admirable issue. A British contingent of Alex Comfort and John Bayliss, editors of New Road Nos. 1-2, Read, Ruthven Todd, David Wright, Nicholas Moore and Denise Levertoff [sic] appears alongside Czech contemporaries (including Jaroslav Seifert and Franticek Halas) and the illustrious dead of several European nations, including Trakl and Stefan George. In ‘The Song of Lazarus’ (pp11-19; reprinted in The Signal to Engage, Routledge, 1946), Comfort, another contributor to The Crown and the Sickle, commemorates the Jewish dead with something of the dark irony of ‘Todesfuge’, which would not have been out of place (published in 1948, it had been written by 1945).

Prynne’s affinity with Celan is acknowledged; not, however, his affinities with Thomas or the Apocalypse, unless you count the ‘Acknowledgements’ to Ralph Maud’s edition of Thomas’s notebooks (Poet in the Making, Dent, 1968), in which Prynne is duly thanked for services rendered. Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that the titles of The White Stones — ‘totem, white whale, magic mass’ of the Cambridge School (Longville, Grosseteste: A Descriptive Catalogue 1966-75) — and of The White Horseman — equally fetishistic, ‘with its plum coloured cloth covers and green spine’ (Derek Stanford, Inside the Forties, 1977, p82) — are drawn from the same well. Like the first, The New Apocalypse (Fortune, 1940) and the third, The Crown and the Sickle (R14:14), the crucial second Apocalyptic anthology takes its title directly from Revelation (R19:11-14).

In my reading, Cambridge poetry reopens communications with, and is influenced directly by, the visionary modernism of the Apocalypse. Asked by Kelvin Corcoran whether or not there was or had ever been a Cambridge School, Peter Riley’s very denial — ‘Well, there was, and wasn’t, and there isn’t’ (‘Spitewinter Provocations’, Reality Studios No. 8, edited by Ken Edwards, p3) — is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to Revelation: ‘the beast that was, and is not, and shall come’ (17:11). Neglect of Apocalyptic poetry is consistent with the total eclipse of the theme of ‘immortality’. Yet its significance to Prynne, Celan, Thomas — to all the poets of ‘visionary modernism’, not excluding Eliot and Pound — would be hard to overstate.

Both Prynne and Celan may be said to have aimed, in Duncan’s phrase, ‘to refound poetry with Revelation as the dominant and normative model’. Celan inscribed Michael Hamburger’s copy of Die Niemandsrose with an insistence that his poetry was ‘Ganz und gar nicht hermetisch’ (‘Absolutely not hermetic’, Paul Celan: Selected Poems, ‘Introduction’, p27); echoed in an equally emphatic enjoinder: ‘Glauben Sie mir — jedes Wort ist mit direktem Wirklichkeitsbezug geschrieben’ (‘Believe me — each word has been written with direct reference to reality’, Colin, pxxiii). Yet there can be no doubt about its cabbalistic and Apocalyptic aspects. Birgitta Johansson cites the allusion to Revelation 10:10 (‘And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it up’) in ‘Todtnauberg’, ‘the title of which refers to Heidegger’s hut... in the Black Forest’ (The Engineering of Being: An Ontological Approach to J.H. Prynne, Umea University Press, 1997, p57): ‘eß ich das Buch/ mit allen/ Insignien’ (‘I eat the book/ with all its/ insignia’). In ‘Largo’, another poem concerned with Heidegger, featuring ‘uber-/ sterbens-/ groß’ (‘more-than-/ death-/ sized’) and ‘Zeit-/ lose’ (‘timeless’) protagonists, ‘Celan appears to be referring to a hope in the after-life’ (p59).

Johansson interprets Prynne’s elegy, ‘Es Lebe der König (for Paul Celan, 1920-1970)’, as a conferral of ‘immortality through naming’ (p151), a deployment of the term as elegiac gesture, but her argument is well supported, with reference to the ‘connotations’ of the colour white, including ‘innocence, purity, and hope of immortality through poetry’ (not to mention victory). The connotations of the colour purple are also to the point:

                     If you
are born to peaks in the wire, purple layers in the
glass format...

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)].

I take these terms from ‘The Meridian’ (‘Der Meridien’), a speech delivered by Celan ‘on the occasion of receiving the Georg Büchner Prize’, Darmstadt, 22/ 10/ 60, Paul Celan: Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, Carcanet, 1986, p52), following Trotter, who explores the relationship between Prynne’s elegy and Büchner’s Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death), from which the title is a quotation. Trotter’s nihilistic reading both of the elegy and of the speech are incompatible with my own, but his brilliant triangulation between Büchner, Celan and Prynne will require extended consideration at a later stage in my argument.

In the meantime, the voice of nihilism must at least be acknowledged. As against the images of immortality, ‘the small house’ is clearly also an image of the grave; and, more specifically, ‘the technical house’ denotes the Nazi concentration camp in which Celan’s parents were murdered: ‘you walk in the shade of the technical house’. The echo of ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ is one of a series of allusions to Psalm 23, amongst the bitterest in Prynne’s poetry:

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).

Like ‘many of his contemporaries’ at ‘the turning of the century amid revolution and wars’, Hölderlin was ‘prone’ to ‘chiliastic thinking’ (p69), his Christian faith unmistakably both Gnostic and Bloomian (p71):

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.

(‘Full of acquirements, but poetically man dwells on this earth’, Hamburger, p246).

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).

5: ‘Singing and Dying Along the Shore’

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
Of skin and vein around the well
Where words and water make a mixture
Unfailing till the blood runs foul;
My heart knew love, my belly hunger;
I smelt the maggot in my stool.

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
Shall the star-flanked seed be riddled,
Manna for the rumbling ground,
Quickening for the riddled sea...

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).

Thomas’s analogous ‘idea’ is a more abstract account of his own practice than Trotter’s (letter to Treece, 23/3/38, The Collected Letters, edited by Paul Ferris, Dent, 1985, p281):

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...
Though fierce jets of refusing scythe
through an administered world, such hands
deliver on target... hand,
feel free.

The following lines, also from The Nile, are a distillation of several Thomas poems:

How far the cry, squat behind my dust veil unsplintered.
            Vague this cry,
unfaithful to its colours,
turns the choking sky and crosses it through...

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

come unstuck the stopper of vein. Under so much

the slogan of meaning what with a sensitive porous sheet

is shivering. Sparkle of beach sweepings. One by one the droopy stars

lotion scattered in the palm. Carving into that

butter slumps in the last struggle for a hint of

unfailing the barley flops in the flowering steppe is more


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,
He in a book of water tallow-eyed
By lava’s light split through the oyster vowels
And burned sea silence on a wick of words.
Pluck, cock, my sea eye, said medusa’s scripture,
Lop, love, my fork tongue, said the pin-hilled nettle;
And love plucked out the stinging siren’s eye,
Old cock from nowheres lopped the minstrel tongue
Till tallow I blew from the wax’s tower
The fats of midnight when the salt was singing...

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’.

They are also paralleled in For the Monogram (1997), the latest collection in Poems (pp417-431). The ‘flagrant unction’ on which Prynne appears momentarily to be ‘cutting back’ (p422), reminiscent of Burns Singer’s sardonic image of ‘eternity’s extreme unction’ (‘Against the Grain’, Collected Poems, Carcanet, 2001, p79), is by no means an exclusively parodic option (despite the closing phrase, reminiscent of Thomas’s ‘Cartoon of slashes’: ‘chalking the egg yolk cartoon’, p431). Nor is this sequence altogether ‘strident and hermetic’ (p422), as Prynne appears to suggest. The opening stanza alludes to Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ (‘Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea’) and implicitly, at ‘three days/ notice’, to his resurrection (p418):

            ... singing and dying along the shore
of the loud-roaring season: he’ll position his
best eye at the planet boy too little, in three days
notice of man too fat.

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
    a step-up bond for the break, the scheme of a pure
sensible outline: they were poorer then hovering in
    undue compulsion. Acceptance flumen goes over,
flares up to order salt margin by a crass horizon
    in gripped undulation live for ever. Or revise now
this vitreous floating star at dusk, a spark seeming
    and sinking tints walking in silent patched-up
collateral delay. More than ever saving a grace,
    singing and dying to frequent and haunt the river
from its own wreck in shadow play they too are
    hunted down in plate-sunk detachment, star-burst
or cluster pointing, dearest agile daybreak. Strip
    the slope-order back to a red glow now piercing
each other’s view, flicking the escape lever as yet
    contriving legation in cloud mass not yet known.

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’.

Comparison might be made with ‘The Hill of Names’ (pp31-32), Singer’s tribute to Graham. It is a hyperbolical transumption of Keats’s image of oblivion, indebted equally to Graham (compare ‘Men Sign the Sea’, Collected Poems, p69, and ‘The Hill of Intrusion’, pp49-50) and to Thomas. The ‘new name’ (R2:17) is at once ‘writ in water’ (cf. Donne’s ‘Elegie XV’: ‘The Expostulation’: ‘Are vowes so cheape with women… that they are writ in water,/ And blowne away with winde?’) and inscribed in a ‘temple’ built ‘with our blood’, to the accompaniment of an Apocalyptic ‘star-burst’:

Men in the kindling candletime of salt’s
Dark choirs or schools of light, altars or vaults,
          Engrave their rote of names
          On hills of wet white flames
Foretold by ritual cunningly one night
The moon like a burnt offering of light...

The hill of names no one name ever wrote
Tumbles for worship of another note.
          We see it buoyed for praise
          Across the field of clays.
We build it with our blood but feel it rise
Through colder depths we cannot realise...

Let sad devotions nor no casement choir
Trouble him now. Let the lucky catch fire,
          Trade tinder particles
          With these new flaming seas
Until time’s axles melt and mankind turns
Into a temple round corners where everything burns.

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:

‘In green/ flash scraping ionic burn?’ (p418); ‘Floating star’ (p418); ‘long-glow deportment’ (p419); ‘flumen goes over,/ flares up’ (p419); ‘this vitreous floating star at dusk’ (p419); ‘haunt the river/ from its own wreck’ (p419); ‘star-burst’ (p419); ‘a red glow’ (p419); ‘cloud mass not yet known’ (p419); ‘count to null’ (p420); ‘a bright blue light flashing/ over the exit plaque’ (p420); ‘jewel/ furnace craquelure’ (p421); ‘ruby emission fringe gates’ (p421; ‘the twelve gates were twelve pearls’, R21:21); ‘crushing across the temple/ ridge’ (p422); ‘burial clouds’ (p422); ‘sub-anvil/ strokes evenly trading life blows, condign too strong’ (p422); ‘crux departure (p423); ‘sliding fury’ (p423); ‘passover rack’ (p423); ‘did clamour avail its slotted crown’ (p423); ‘double pontiff hilted dab in/ severance’ (p423); ‘ripping the nail bank’ (p423); ‘panic defies behest’ (p423); ‘world animation come out to flay’ (p424; an attack on the Disney Corporation?); ‘hot white dis-/ persion’ (p424); ‘silver salt brisance’ (p424; ‘briser’ is French for ‘break, smash’; OED cites OE ‘brysan’, ‘to crush, break’, root of the obsolete adjective ‘brisel’ = ‘brittle’); ‘Stars fading to clement destroyed fixture’ (p424); ‘whitened detaching,/ brain peeler now set on coals’ (p424); ‘vivid failed bruise, baleful/ to scale and burning’ (p424; ‘bruise’ also from ‘brysan’); ‘scarlet out... long and easy/ bleed pastime’ (p424); ‘a bone stricture/ flaunted out’ (p424); ‘orphans in ultra wrong/ unit time set’ (p425); ‘either dies young or lives (almost)/ for ever’ (p425); ‘broken air’ (p425); ‘moving flood in a pure scheme they have but themselves alone’ (p425; ‘to blame’ implied); ‘ever hopeless profusion scattered grandly on/ sea-bed’ (p425); ‘orphan fragments’ (p425); ‘slurry pits/ assembled in florid hot parlance’ (p426); ‘the finish line-up’ (p426); ‘process each destruction’ (p426); ‘pressed candles require a first fire’ (p426); ‘space trial bondage’ (p426); ‘the figure/ in throat clay famished’ (p427); ‘burned faces/ arms and bodies charred’ (p427); ‘flaring like naphtha prints’ (p427); ‘shatter later integument’ (p427); ‘fierce pitches afflicted in canopic/ fit’ (p427); ‘the jaw’s lexis at lip tugging fury’ (p428); ‘livid/ face of a captured city centre’ (p428); ‘setting no mercy alight’ (p428); ‘dark pyro clasping’ (p428); ‘a rain/ of ruin from the air’ (p428); ‘explosive lenses’ (p429); ‘shadows in concrete/ out to the nth generation’ (p429); ‘myrrh and black smoke swirling’ (p430); ‘Gilead to Nablus high and dry’ (p430); ‘how they/ bleed, distal cuts raging in the street’ (p430); ‘rational/ cruelty’ (p430); ‘blind beasts all in hot glory turbid/ and groaning’ (p430); ‘vast madder clouds that/ roll across the sky’ (p430); ‘clinical denouement sunk far past its frolic’ (p430); ‘herbs of grace/ that swerve under the blade pass’ (p431); ‘implosion jarring blips across/ the tilted umbral cone’ (p431); ‘adopt strike point rip barrens’ (p431); ‘the sea streaked red with flickering lights’ (p431); ‘transient blue/ arcs floating and framed at suture lines’ (p431); ‘the arrays lie packed in a dark light’ (p431; cf. Milton’s ‘Darkness visible’).

A lost (or ‘found’) Apocalyptic poem might be reconstructed from a number of these tropes (with alterations only to punctuation and lineation):

Caius to Apocalypse

      ‘I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell
      and of death’

                         — Revelation 1:18

Double pontiff, all in hot glory, groaning,
Did clamour avail its slotted crown?
Pressed candles require a first fire,
Hot white dispersion, setting no mercy alight,
Fierce pitches afflicted in a bone stricture.
Livid face, now set on coals,
The jaw’s lexis at lip tugging fury,
Rational cruelty, framed at suture lines.
Explosive lenses jarring scarlet out,
Hopeless profusion, transient blue arcs!

This vitreous floating star at dusk
Flares up from its own wreck,
Vast madder clouds that roll across the sky,
Crushing across the temple ridge,
Burial clouds, baleful to scale and burning —
How they bleed! A rain of ruin from the air,
The sea streaked red with flickering lights,
Ruby emission, furnace craquelure,
Gilead to Nablus, high and dry.
A merciful injunction, crux departure.

Stars fading, scattered grandly on sea-bed,
Sunk far past its clinical denouement.
The arrays lie packed in a dark light,
Flaring like naphtha prints. Broken air,
Burned faces, arms and bodies charred,
Panic defies behest — blind beasts
That swerve under the blade,
Myrrh and black smoke swirling, distal cuts
Raging in the street of a captured city,
Shadows in concrete out to the nth generation.

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,
You’ll likely wake white as salt and lean from the sill
Heavy with shoulder-perching waves of the flocking sea
To ask me down under the fighting. Far over early
This morning’s wide sea you speak at the white threshold...

Now left, I’m to wear my lifesave slow in air,
Ark set on the crowd maintaining the hideout heart
And loud uneven seas. My ships fill mercifully
At last done down to nothing but locked into under
The grave-mounded sea kept under with a stone.

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
air and the phrasing curved from his mouth
and nose, into the cold mountain levels. It
was the professed Apollo, free of the festive line,
          powdered with light snow.

In fact, they almost did:

From wherever it is I urge these words
To find their subtle vents, the northern dazzle
Of silence cranes to watch...
          He puffed the powdered light
          Up on to this page...
          The real unabstract snow.

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
fear of bright blue. Touching that
halcyon cycle we were rested in ease...

close to the wall. Blood then barred
from the brain, sun in the sky, what’s
lost is the hour spoken by heart.

Compare ‘As If in an Instant Parapets of Plants’:

This lyrical contrivance feeds the grain
That feeds not you nor astragal
Crisscross on air to perch a bird.
But nourishes the nest enclosed
Three ways by bone and one by blood.

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.

Levertov goes wrong in underestimating, if not slighting, the influence of Thomas:

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.

6: ‘The Shining One’

‘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):


And so it is the figure, gleaming on the path,
the person who shines in the torrents of fresh
rain. That rushing sound is already lifted
as if being carried over, taken so slowly that

          the rate is birth. Struck into
          birth, into lightning and so
          slow the touch not at all wild.

The slowness is what’s strange, as if the
washing were a coin ready for the soul,
the shining road just a surface to years,
to the years & their raiment kept out

          and folded. The light pleating
          the rain. Coming from Hitchin
          the way twisted under some

trees & I met there the Shining One. No
conversation or investment followed, the
rain was incessant; there was a completely
steady flow of change. The damp was ionised,

          with charges slipping down quite
          unmatched paths, it was a most
          beautiful and painless night.

And there is nothing to rescue, where the figure
may stay & receive wine with the blood of a white
hind, on the A 602 and the shelter of
the journey. Nothing to save, we shine, we also

          shine in our neglect.

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.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.

‘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 ‘torrents of fresh/ rain’ suggest English rather than Palestinian weather, in ironic contrast to St John the Divine’s image of ‘the sun’ which ‘shineth in his strength’ (with a further allusion to Psalm 19), but the poem has ‘no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it’ (R21:23) — ‘lighten’ as in ‘illuminate’ but also as in ‘lightning(s)’ (R4:5 and passim). In Revelation, where ‘the voice of many waters’ is paired with that ‘of a great thunder’ to describe ‘a voice from heaven’ (14:2), the image is less of a river in spate or of the sea, implicit in Revelation 1:15, than of torrential rain as in ‘East-South-East’. Although ungendered, ‘the Shining One’ seems as unequivocally male as the ‘Son of man’ (and the ‘white hind’). The mysterious ‘birth’ is imagined in terms of the sacraments of baptism and communion, administered by a male priest. There is also, however, a pre-Christian, Ancient British strain in the poem, since, by means of the quotation from The Chronicle of the Early Britons (‘In his left hand he held a vessel filled with wine. And in his right hand was a horn that was filled with the blood of a white hind’), the ‘priest’ who administers the sacrament of baptism is identified with one of the protagonists of Prynne’s poetry, the Druidic shaman.

There is an extensive series of lexical parallels with Revelation: ‘East’ (R21:13: ‘On the east three gates’); ‘South’ (R21:13: ‘on the south three gates’); ‘birth’ (R12:2: ‘travailing in birth’); ‘lifted’ (R10:5: ‘the angel... lifted up his hand’); ‘washing’ (R1:5: ‘washed us from our sins’); ‘soul’ (R6:9: ‘the souls of them that were slain’; R16:3: ‘every living soul died in the sea’); ‘blood’ (R1:5 and passim); ‘wine’ (R6:6: ‘the oil and the wine’; R14:8: ‘the wine of the wrath of her fornication’); ‘receive’ (R5:12: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom’); ‘raiment’ (R3:5: ‘He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment’ and passim); ‘light’/ ‘shines’ (R18:23: ‘the light of a candle shall shine no more’ and passim); ‘way (R16:12: ‘the way of the kings of the east’); ‘trees’ (R2:7: ‘the tree of life’); ‘white’ (passim); ‘save’ (R12:10: ‘Now is come salvation’); ‘Coming’ (synopsis: ‘the coming of Christ’; R1:7: ‘Behold, he cometh with clouds’); ‘night’ (R8:12: ‘the day shone not... and the night likewise’ and passim); ‘Struck’ (R9:5: ‘the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man’); ‘years’ (R20:4: ‘they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years’); ‘rain’ (‘the power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy’); ‘Nothing’ (R3:17: ‘I am rich... and have need of nothing’) and ‘carried’ (R12:15: ‘carried away of the flood’). Several of these parallels are inconsequential, but cumulatively they are significant. They are strongly reinforced by the italicisation of the word ‘were’, a subtle typographical allusion to the Biblical practice of italicising words which do not appear in the original, often parts of the verb ‘to be’, as, precisely, in R1:14: ‘his eyes were as a flame of fire’ (emphasis of ‘were’, as opposed to ‘slowness’, would make no more sense in ‘East-South-East’ than in Revelation).

The word ‘raiment’ is specifically Biblical, as in Revelation 3:5: ‘He that overcometh shall be clothed in white raiment’. The word ‘investment’ is not, but both its primary meaning and connotations are: ‘Invest I.1: To clothe, robe, or envelop (a person) in or with a garment or article of clothing’; ‘Investment 1: The act of putting clothes or vestments on; concr. Clothing; robes, vestments. Also fig’ (OED). The primary figurative meaning of ‘investment’ is cited as OED 3 ‘= Investiture’: ‘The action of investing or fact of being invested with an office, right, or attribute; endowment’. The images of investment, pain (‘painless night’), ‘rescue’ and salvation (‘nothing to save’) are all in the negative, but it is a photographic or electrical negativity; their ‘charges’ are equal to those of a positive image such as that of the ‘white hind’.

The immediate source of the phrase, ‘the Shining One’, is not, however, Revelation. It is Bunyan (and, indirectly, both Isaiah and Luke’s gospels). In The Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘a Shining One’ and ‘the Shining Ones’ are pronominal forms of ‘the Shining Men’ (there are no ‘Shining Women’), Bunyan’s usual periphrasis for angels (The Pilgrim’s Progress, Collins, 1979, p170):

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’.

The ‘raiment folded and kept out’ is also reminiscent of ‘the linen clothes laid by themselves’ outside Jesus’s sepulchre (Luke 24:12). It seems to have been partly the orderliness of the way in which the graveclothes were left that struck the disciples, but they are not specifically ‘folded’ in the Bible, as they are in Blake’s strange image of Swedenborg as ‘the angel sitting at the tomb’: ‘his writings are the linen clothes folded up’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 3, p105). Bloom makes the essential point (Blake’s Apocalypse, p76):

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).

The ‘rushing sound’ has a parallel in Blake’s ‘Fair Elenor’: ‘A rushing sound, and the feet/ Of one that fled approaches... “My lord was like a star in the highest heavens,/ Drawn down to earth by spells and wickedness”‘ (pp7-8). Compare Luke 10:18: ‘And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven’; and Isaiah 14:12: ‘How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning’, where the Hebrew phrase heylel ben shachar is translated by Stanley Brice Frost as ‘Shining One, Son of the Dawn’ (Old Testament Apocalyptic: Its Origin and Growth, Epworth Press, 1952, p26). More suggestively, Shelley uses the exact phrase in ‘The Daemon of the World’ (lines 48-55):

Hark! whence that rushing sound?
‘Tis like a wondrous strain that sweeps
Around a lonely ruin
When west winds sigh and evening waves respond
In whispers from the shore...
Floating on waves of music and of light,
The chariot of the Daemon of the World
Descends in silent power...

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,
Which from the exhaustless lore of human weal
Dawns on the virtuous mind, the thoughts that rise
In time-destroying infiniteness gift
With self-enshrined eternity, that mocks
The unprevailing hoariness of age,
And man, once fleeting o’er the transient scene
Swift as an unremembered vision, stands
Immortal upon earth...

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
His desolating privilege, and stands
An equal amidst equals: happiness
And science dawn though late upon the earth...
Whilst mind unfettered o’er the earth extends
Its all-subduing energies, and wields
The sceptre of a vast dominion there.

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.

Prynne not only echoes Bunyan but follows in his footsteps: ‘Coming from Hitchin/ the way twisted under some/ trees & I met there the Shining One’. A traveller ‘from Hitchin’ along ‘the A 602’ is heading towards Stevenage, but might well have started out from Bunyan’s home town. Only ten or twelve miles south-east (south-south-east, as it happens) of Bedford, Hitchin itself is well within range of his preaching, which ‘reached to the border of the adjoining counties and even to London’ (‘John Bunyan’, Hugh Ross Williamson, The Pilgrim’s Progress, p6). ‘The way’ is Bunyan’s central metaphor (p40):

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.

Blake’s ‘Beulah’ is a combination of ‘the country of Beulah’ and ‘the house Beautiful’, in which the feminine aspect is predominant. Citing Bunyan’s description, Stevenson attributes the ‘Shining Ones’ directly to Blake (note on ‘Beulah’, p541), though the literal phrase occurs nowhere in his poetry:

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.
Though shalt no more be called Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.
For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.

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;
And all shall say, ‘Without a use this shining woman liv’d,
Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?’

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’.

In the same vein, the gnomic conclusion might be interpreted as a distillation of a poem by Lawrence entitled ‘Nothing to Save’ (The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, edited by V. De Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts, Heinemann, 1964; Penguin, 1977, p658):

There is nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart
like the eye of a violet.

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’.

Amongst the closest analogues of ‘East-South-East’ are a number of poems by Thomas. ‘Poem On His Birthday’ epitomises The Pilgrim’s Progress in a single line (‘Dark is a way and light is a place’), whilst ‘mansouled’ and ‘shining men’ are direct allusions (the city of ‘Mansoul’ falls under the power of the tyrant Diabolus in The Holy War):

    ... More spanned with angels ride
The mansouled fiery islands! Oh,
    Holier then their eyes,
And my shining men no more alone
    As I sail out to die.

The ‘protagonist’ of ‘A Winter’s Tale’ derives from the same verses of Revelation as ‘East-South-East’:

          Once when the world turned old
On a star of faith pure as the drifting bread,
As the food and flames of the snow, a man unrolled
The scrolls of fire that burned in his heart and head,
Torn and alone in a farm house in a fold

          Of fields. And burning then
In his firelit island ringed by the winged snow
And dung hills white as wool and the hen
Roosts sleeping chill till the flame of the cock crow ...

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.

Prynne’s ‘figure’ might be the Archangel Gabriel, but, if so, annunciation is a metaphor for poetic inspiration, a poem ‘Struck’ as in minted like a ‘coin’. As contrasted with, say, ‘Die a Millionaire’ or ‘A New Tax on the Counter-Earth’, the series of monetary terms — ‘the figure’, ‘the rate’, ‘Struck’, ‘a coin’, ‘investment’, ‘steady flow’, ‘change’, ‘charges’, ‘to save’ — appears ironic only in the sense that they symbolise value of a higher than financial kind, as in Christ’s reply to the Pharisees who ‘brought unto him a penny’ (Matthew 22:19): ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (M22:21). They provide ironic ballast for a visionary poem without entangling it, as the Pharisees tried to ‘entangle’ Christ (M22:15), in the complexities of (post-)imperial finance.

Andrew Crozier picks up on the beautiful image of ‘light pleating/ the rain’ in his 1975 Great Works collection, in which suggestively solemn images of light are folded into poems of realistic and domestic detail, namely Pleats (unpaginated):

The veiling luminance of light scattered...

bringing Young’s Special... down the
Sidcup By-Pass...

Lightly fading home to eternity
deep blue sky and darker clouds...

The landing light through our bedroom door
fixes your posture. I create darkness
and enter closing the door behind me...

Rarely able to sense the pregnancy of cosmos
these days I make a number of local compacts...
clouds mantle the world’s radiance...

          False Spring
was my muse for all this refusal of damage
as the heart rises in unlooked for sunlight...

the blinds flap at the open window
light pleating through on the floor

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’.

It is true that Olson’s presence is diffused throughout All Where Each Is (Allardyce Barnett, 1985), the title itself taken from ‘The Distances’ (‘O love who places all where each is...’, The Archaeologist of Morning, Cape Goliard, 1970, unpaginated; noted in The Gig). ‘What Spokes, And To What Hub?’ (p23) begins with a light-hearted glance at Olson’s ‘beloved/ City’ from Gloucester, England: ‘There are many parts I have not been to, but start/ from Gloucester, coming from Fishguard that morning...’. It is not for nothing that Crozier is name-checked alongside Prynne in The Maximus Poems (edited by George Butterick, University of California Press, 1983), of which ‘Letter 5’ amusingly anticipates Pleats (I.21):

The C&R Construction Company
had hired us Gloucester help
because the contract read “local”...

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.

‘I create darkness’ is another example of Crozier’s flair for Apocalyptic ‘pregnancy’, with another analogue in a poem by Prynne, namely ‘Royal Fern’ (Brass; Poems, p160):

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

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.
How can you love me in dream,
always walking from field to field.
You sleep on, seeded by snowy drift.

In strings it bales from the crest ...
Tears streamed down his unlined face,
Damping his shirt. Sleep glows
in its beads, staring the wing blind.

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).

‘Royal Fern’ closes with the single-word sentence, ‘Amass’ an enigmatic substitution for ‘Amen’, with its own liturgical connotations; and ‘scrip’ is from the same word-hoard as ‘raiment’. It occurs in Matthew, Mark and Luke; and when David ‘chose five smooth stones out of the brook’, he ‘put them in a shepherd’s bag, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand’ (I Samuel 17:40). Jones conflates the hero of a Welsh folk song and Revelation in his reference to ‘David of the White Stone’ (In Parenthesis, Part 3, p43 and note). The word ‘scrip’ is also only a single letter short of ‘script’, which might suggest an inscription, perhaps on ‘the beads’? The ‘key’ in the fourth stanza, associated with ‘old fears’ and ‘the pain to come’, and presumably used to ‘switch off’ the Fiat, performs a simultaneous reversal of the ‘Alpha and Omega’ (R1:8) of the Bible, Genesis (1:1-3) and Revelation: ‘I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death’ (1:18). ‘Royal Fern’ might be interpreted, in part, as a complex response to the ‘monumental argument’ of ‘After the Funeral’, with its triumphant image of resurrection: ‘And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill’ (p88). I shall argue that the complexity of this image of immortality is integral both to Brass as a collection and to the development of Prynne’s conception.

7: ‘A “White”, That is, a “Shining” Stone’

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
wander at large, since the wish itself diffuses
beyond this and will never end: these are songs
in the night under no affliction, knowing that
          the wish is gift to the
          spirit, is where we may
          dwell as we would
go over and over within the life of the heart
and the grace which is open to both east and west.
These are psalms for the harp and the shining
stone: the negligence and still passion of night.

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):

Thinking is a gift or grace, an event that overtakes us, an address visited upon us. The role of human beings is not, however, one of utter passivity but one of co-operation with and remaining ‘open’ to being’s advent. The work that man can do is not to will but to not-will, to prepare a clearing and opening in which being may come. This is not quietism but asceticism, the hard work of a kind of poverty of spirit.

The ‘event’ suggested by this invocation is the ‘advent’, in a ‘clearing’ of the night sky, of ‘the shining/ stone’ of ‘being’. Moon and stars are amongst the many connotations of The White Stones; the ‘white stone’ of Revelation is itself associated with ‘stars’ (R2:1: ‘he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand’). In fact, one solution, as in an Anglo-Saxon riddle, of ‘the day itself/ unlocks the white stone’ (‘drawn in’ suggesting the onset of night), might be: the rising moon. In ‘Night’s Fall Unlocks the Dirge of the Sea’ (Collected Poems, p70), Graham sounds a remarkably similar note. If ‘the shining/ stone’ is the moon, however, it is also, like the ‘lunar thummim’, or the ‘“shining” stone’ of Revelation, a deliberately autonomous and enigmatic image.

In his commentary on Revelation 2:17, Currey identifies the two epithets: ‘a “white”, that is, a “shining” stone’ (unpaginated). In his commentary on 1:14, he explains why:

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!
Many suns circle in desert space: to all that is dark do they speak with their light — but to me they are silent.
Oh, this is the hostility of light to the shining one: unpityingly doth it pursue its course.

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’.

The subtext is, of course, primarily Hebraic, but to some extent Hölderlinian even in this. The Biblical word ‘affliction’ alludes to Job’s tribulations (30:16: ‘the days of affliction have taken hold upon me’; and passim); and, in particular, to Psalm 107, a song of ‘thanks’ (107:1) for ‘the lovingkindness of the Lord’ (43) on behalf of those ‘in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction’ (10), ‘gathered... from the east and from the west’ (3). The psalm refers also to ‘trouble’ and ‘distresses’, and to those who ‘wandered in the wilderness’ and ‘found no city to dwell in’ (4); for Prynne and Hölderlin, by contrast, to ‘wander’ and to ‘dwell’ are complementary, not opposed, as in the Second Book of Kings (6:2: ‘Let us go, we pray you, to the Jordan, and take there every man a beam, and let us make us a place there, where we may dwell’), in which Elisha is petitioned by the nomadic ‘sons of the prophets’, who find that ‘the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us’ (6:1). There are other lexical parallels with Psalm 107: ‘heart’ (12); ‘calm’ (29); ‘waves’ (29); ‘quiet’ (30); ‘desire(d)’ (30); and several other psalmodic words: ‘rise and fall’; ‘hope’; ‘grace’; ‘silent’; ‘spirit’; ‘harp’; ‘passion’; ‘still’, etc. Mindful both of ‘Whoso is wise’ (43) and of those ‘at their wit’s end’ (27), Psalm 107 itself epitomises that sublunary ‘rise and fall’ (26: ‘They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths’) in which Prynne, like Hölderlin, is ‘bound’.

However, ‘Moon Poem’ is also strongly demarcated from ‘Brot und Wein’. The measure of the clinamen is the difference between ‘the ether’ and ‘Vater Äther’: for all its Biblical imagery and diction, Prynne allows ‘no trace of devoutness’ to determine the ‘culmination’ of his vision. In Heidegger’s terms, Prynne declines to lament ‘the default of God as a default’. There is a striking askesis in relation to Hölderlin’s moon, which rises amidst mountains, fountains, flowers, bells and stars; by contrast, Prynne’s moonstone is a companionless entity. Neither the ‘harp’ nor ‘the image of snow’, itself antithetical to Hölderlin’s fragrant, warm and melodious evening after a busy day, are properties of the ‘night’, which is bereft, for most of the poem, even of moonlight: ‘it really is dark’. Despite the initial image of ‘the rise and fall’, the ‘wide personal vacancy’ is more suggestive of a moonless night than of a risen but ‘unseen’ moon, whilst the idea that ‘all the wishes’ would ‘sprinkle out’, and the recognition of plural ‘signs’, would be more compatible with stars, were these not equally conspicuous by their absence.

Having emptied Hölderlin’s poem of its atmospheric images, Prynne reconstructs it out of moral abstractions, articulating a Fichtean ‘modesty about conduct in/ the most ethical sense’, preoccupied in particular with two related concepts. Firstly, the concept of ‘extension’, near or exact synonyms of which occur in every other line: ‘flow’; ‘expanse’; ‘dilating’; ‘spreads’; ‘diffusion’; ‘extends’; ‘further’; ‘disperse’; ‘expand’; ‘extent’; ‘beyond’; ‘extension’, ‘sprinkle out’, ‘prolonged’; ‘wander at large’; ‘diffuses’; ‘beyond’; ‘over and over’; ‘open to both east and west’, etc. Prynne identifies with the ‘pastoral desire’ of the ‘young prophets’ to whom Elisha gives ‘leave... to enlarge their dwellings’ (synopsis to II Kings 2). Secondly, the concept of ‘patience’, etymologically cognate with ‘passion’, its apparent opposite, and, again, distributed throughout: ‘quiet’; ‘learning’; ‘steady’; ‘silent’; ‘no trace of devoutness’; ‘gradual’; ‘no revolution’; ‘slow change’; ‘not a moral excitement’; ‘continuing patience’; ‘delay’; ‘level’; ‘quiet’; ‘unceasing’; ‘hope’; ‘calm’; ‘modesty’; ‘habit’; ‘community of wish’; ‘pastoral desire’, etc.

Yet there is, after all, a devout Gnostic heresy at work: in the contrast between, on the one hand, ‘the compact modern home’, locus of the ‘mercantile notion(s)’ of estate agents (cf. Baltimore Style Magazine, September-October 2002: ‘it was hard for Adelaide Rackemann, who had lived for nearly four decades in a house built in the 1880s, to imagine a compact modern home — especially one without interior walls’), and, on the other, the ‘community of wish’, sprinkled over ‘the steppe’, an elliptical invocation of the nomadic Scythian shaman, analogous to the ‘wine-priests’ (‘des Weingotts heilige Priester’) of ‘Brot und Wein’ (and, subliminally, of ‘East-South-East’). The ‘still passion’ is reminiscent not only of Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness’ but also of the ‘passion’ of Hölderlin’s Dionysian Christ, whose ‘pastoral desire’ is fulfilled in shamanic ritual. Despite the ruminant tautology, then, despite the deceptive ‘modesty’, Prynne’s insistence that there is ‘more’ at stake here than ‘than mere wish to wander at large’ is an understatement. The assertion that ‘the wish itself... will never end’ is an antithetical reply to a famous admonition by Sir Thomas Browne: ‘In vain do individuals hope for Immortality, or any patent for oblivion, in preservations below the Moon’ (‘Urn-Burial’, p152). The poem is also an antithetical mirror-image of the last stanza of Donne’s own moon poem, ‘A Valediction: Of Weeping’, with its analogous pattern of indentations and insistent imagery of death:

          O more than Moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea, what it may do too soon;
          Let not the wind
          Example find,
To do me more harm, than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
Whoe’er sighs most, is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death.

Like ‘the white stone’ of Revelation, the ‘more than Moon’ of Prynne’s ‘shining/ stone’ confers ‘Immortality’.

In this instalment of my study, I have explored interrelations between Prynne’s writing and the Book of Revelation, the romantic-modernist tradition and the Apocalypse of the 1940s. At this point, I intend to begin again by considering the significance of the white stones at each stage of his career. In the next instalment, I shall consider his earlier publications, including his first collection, Force of Circumstance (Routledge, 1962), and the important philosophical statement, ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ (Prospect No. 5, edited by Tony Ward, 1961, pp26-30). I shall argue that many of Prynne’s characteristic themes are implicated in the development of his most brilliant image.

Jacket 24 — November 2003  Contents page
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