From Culbone Wood – in Xanadu (extract)
This is a long prose poem in the voice of a late 18th century poet who the previous afternoon had composed Kubla Khan. The whole work, which is entirely non-biographical, will be published by Shearsman Books, winter 2011/12.
I have sat here in the parlour idly an hour following supper. And alone with the fire that indistinctly clicks and tinkles to the left of my chair, I became possessed, and none too pleasantly, with an intuition of the presence of another in the highbacked chair that had been pushed, since last I sat here, into the remotest shadows of the room.
When I gazed through the half light, I could make out a figure of my stature and my build. The hair (washed and brushed) was dark as mine is, while the face resembled mine in both complexion and in contour. What startled me, too, was that this person who uncannily resembled me was dressed not as I now in my white rustic smock but in the garments I had worn on my arrival at the farm: the difference being that the britches I had ruined with my incontinent evacuations were fresh, as though laundered and reconstituted, while the coat, which had been torn by brambles and squeezed from shape by exercise in sun and rain, was methodically mended.
The brisk appearance of this second person sorted ill, however, with his posture. This was languorous but awake; at ease and yet attentive: and as I stretched my head forward to catch a better view, he responded with companionable acknowledgement: a courtesy I found heartening and yet eerie and disturbing.
I looked down and away, then through the window to the edges of the coomb over which I could descry in dusky outline a few of the sheep that had been driven that afternoon from the farmyard. Retracting my gaze, I surveyed the room and enumerated the objects which had become familiar to me. The wood pile; the poker, tongs and brushes; the table where I had sat with my papers; the Bible in its jacket of hardy Devonshire neat’s leather. The homeliness of this environment offered solace. When finally I looked back towards the corner where I had perceived that languid but robust figure, there he still was: seated in the contemplative idleness I had taught myself to practise without too much impatience, and smiling with apparent rapture into the twilight.
As though waiting for me to act, to address him, to introduce myself, to sing, recite poetry, to remark on the weather, on my farmhouse supper or the state of the rural economy, I sat frozen and incapable. And yet on the other hand, he waited – it became clear to me – for nothing at all. Here, in this being, was a self-containment so absolute and so contentedly complete that my own uncertain presence (the vacillation of my attention, divided as it had become between a fixation on what I had begun to perceive as an adaptation of my own presence and my ‘own’, or other preoccupations) was of no consequence to him at all.
Privacy and absorption radiated from this person or image. And as the initial shaking I had experienced dropped in intensity to an approximate synchrony with the beating of my heart and the stark horripilations of my scalp and forearms layered themselves back into the skin, my fright was translated to a quieter feeling. Unburdened, finally, of the embarrassment of delusion, I too now sat at ease in silent companionship, as though contracted in an esteem that this Doppelganger (as I identified it now) evoked.
For here, while the vision lasted, I confidently now knew, was a better-developed self, a self-integrated soul who sought nothing further than the tranquillity that the evening offered, and who responded to the time with a benign repose which was at odds, and sharply, with the nervous dissatisfaction that my own constant and restless fidgeting beginnings had evinced by the minute through that evening.
But how was it, I wondered, that I should find myself represented by this two-entity person: here, just now and not in the past when I have before both suffered and enjoyed so various an experience of life in its psychic and supernatural character?
I observe in retrospect that it was I, in whose self-invisible identity I then dwelt, who looked out upon him, and not he (as subjectively I might have experienced that other as myself) who gazed back at me, who was the agent of cognition and of seing and who recorded the occurrence.
He clearly saw me and no doubt registered impressions or an opinion. But whereas I controlled the faculties of sensation and of thought which I can still recollect, what he may have seen remains – if this existed – wholly inaccessible.
This better-man-than-I stays therefore a phantasm. Nonetheless, I have gained. Albeit uncanny, the experience was to become both not unpleasing and, in the following way, instructive. For I have learned this thing: that the condition of being bound as a single entity to one place and body, is not, as I before assumed – absolute. What the imagination allows us (volitionally or not) if we cultivate the possibility, is an apparently reliable experience of self-separation without this effecting a disintegration of the faculties.
This is important in so far as I am morally responsible for being here and not in Xanadu or even in Weimar! I am, afterall, an Englishman with a family and other social accountabilities. My Sehnsucht for otherness of landscape and climate is a condition of the imagination which must be left to create whatever worlds of ‘one entire and perfect chrysolite’ it may contrive in parallel to the muddy confusion of a Somersetshire present. I must be content with this doubleness and enjoy, to their full, the abstractions which are made possible by what might be described as a spiritualisation of a reserved mental existence.
One further thought. The figure I observed enjoyed the elegant self-possession of a gentleman; a fellow who had been schooled and who might pass for a churchman, a scholar, a member of some learned profession; one for whom self-doubt (if he should entertain such) might effortlessly be subordinated to the diversion of what interested his mind.
Note, however, that I who thus observed, was dressed in a farmer’s smock, and that to him who observed me, I was no doubt a simple fellow whose accomplishments extended to the management of sheep. Here I was, therefore, a cartoon (as Gilray might have reduced my double character) of self-assured gentleman and displaced shepherd.
And here too was a simple truth which every poet before me must have encountered: that the practice of poesy implies both the development of what (for better or worse) we may call a cultivated intellect (any individual may achieve this). And also the simplicity of the shepherd, who has nothing to do but gape at landscape, watch his woolly charges, speak with authority to his dog and, not least (as he blows his nail) sing. Heaven bless that musician. If there is something we may not learn from him, it may not be worth knowing. May God take me closer to that condition and let this smock grow hourly closer to my gentlemanly habit!
In the peace engendered or inspired by this vision of two better selves, I slept. And so, no doubt, my Doppelganger left. But here’s the curiosity. For during this sleep I dreamed a quasi-repetition of my poem, enacted in a new idiom, not under the influence of an opiate, but on the contrary, as though it had wandered through the drunken memory of a peasant and transmitted with the rude vigour of a Somerset pot-house ballad.
Yea. I stood, in my dream, at the counter of an inn (translated strangely from one where I had passed an hour on my journey hither), my elbow sleeve soaking up the cider from its surface, when suddenly an old father, so heavily grey-bearded that his face had become all but indistinguishable from the sheep that were his livelihood, struck the stone flags with his crook and piped up in a snarling monotone with what initially appeared to be a ballad of the neighbourhood.
The company went quiet, although not entirely, and thus the stanzas, struggling from his whiskers in the all but opaque dialect of the region, emerged to the mutter of fellow drinkers and the clatter of their cups as they raised them and let them fall.
And this, to my astonishment, was the ballad with which the old shepherd addressed his companions. It was a refraction, a reconstitution, and indeed perhaps a satirical parody of my own unpublished poem, so lately composed that the ink was scarcely set on the page and the dust and crusts were not yet fallen from its blottings and erasures. And here, in rugged, stumbling iambs and in still more ragged dactyls, as though caught like greasy sheep’s wool in a thorn hedge, was an ale house song, which was set to a tune – I laughed in amazement – on which generally was carried the commonest bawdry: those excrements of poetry that drop from the mouths – although more likely from their nether regions – of drunken clowns and country yokels:
Now harken t’ me and gather ye near
And I’ll zing ye a story ye nivver before did hear.
A girt king a’ wuz, so moighty an’ bold
He had kingdoms a-plenty and mountins o’ gold!
Kublai Khan wuz ‘is toitle an’ much ‘e did own:
All the cittiz of Choina did bow t’ ‘iz throne!
Now this Khubla did build a girt palace so foin.
It lay hoigh in the moun’ains an’ this were ‘iz desoin:
‘Twer cool there i’ the summer, zo that Kubla moight play
With ‘z ladies so lizzum an’ fair, noight an’ day!
Thoze ladies was many and smoilin’ they looked
On thir Maister and loved ‘im as ‘is zupper they cooked.
Now this palace ‘twas built in meadows and grounds
Where Kubla did hunt with ‘iz horses and hounds.
There was rivers an’ waterfalls, deep quarries and streams
Where the sun never shoined nor the moon never shed ‘er beams.
Now when summer were over and Kubla grew so cool,
He took shelter in the city, end o’ August as a rule.
An’ when it was toime, he would summon ‘iz men,
Saying, ‘Now is th’ moment to go t’ war agen!’
When ‘e’ ‘ad said this they shouted and cried out so loud.
An’ they cloimbed on thir horses and to battle they go’ed.
This Kubla ‘iz captains a nice bit o’ gold each did give ‘em
When from far distant countries more ladies they fetched ‘im.
An’ one of theze ladies Oi did see with my eyes.
She was weepin’ and hollerin’ roight up t’ the skies.
She stood on a bridge an’ she sung as she did cry
And on a Jews-harp or a guitar she did play.
Alas! as I transcribed the song I was summoned off on business. I recall nothing further.
Another dream. That I was travelling, perhaps with Marco Polo or Friar Rubeck, in the wastes of Asia, and passing through the terrible and spirit haunted Taklamakan desert:
Before long, I too drank in the soft, moist wind, and as the sun began to sink behind its north-western shoulder, we saw firelight, then figures moving slowly between the outlines of a stand of trees which stood presumably at the margin of the oasis which we were now fast approaching.
Anxious to gain camp before the sun set entirely, I urged our leading horses into a gallop, which painfully and bravely they contrived for a scant furlong. This, however, proved sufficient. And just as the final rays of sunlight withdrew across the plain, we achieved the oasis and the scent of water was turned to gratifying actuality. How, otherwise, we would have survived the night I hesitate to conjecture. But now horses and men, both, lowered their heads into the dark, warm, brackish marsh water. And while our beasts snorted between draughts of this all too savoury liquor, we lay down near them on our bellies, and then on our backs, satisfied but entirely disgusted, spitting up the after-flavour and finally indulging our worn-out bodies with their first moments – after three days’ unbroken travel – of inaction.
From open silence of the upland into the enclosed hush of a stand of birches – their foliage bright yellow – through which the stream courses with a secretive continuity.
The Grove of Nemi: where the priest-king stalks with drawn sword round the tree whose branch, with its gold leaves, gleams and rattles.
An insane combat for the priesthood ensues. The poet enters and joins the struggle. He cries out in sublime hexameters and perishes.
The path narrows to a thread between the brambles, ferns and rowan saplings. In places it is wholly taken over by a new, fresh moss. I sit down to rest and listen the unidentifiable mewings and cluckings of solitary birds – as though they too had wandered confused into this green and brown darkness and were expiring for light.
An upturned tree where its roots have snapped off short: the base stuffed almost entirely with a rubble of shaley fragments and dead leaves, not its own, that have filtered down on the wreckage. How consoling, when I reach into my pocket for a quill to describe this, to find a branch of fern that has somehow become stuck there.
Rocks and tree have achieved their perfected condition. The horse and the stag likewise. The question, in comparison, that mankind raises may not so easily be answered.
Objectively speaking, one may be subject to the registration of an insult or be the victim of neglect or scorn. But one might also achieve a condition in which these are not subjectively experienced: but instead viewed as the expression of the psychological apparatus that binds envy or hatred to some object it must feed on in order, itself, to survive. Those in active and complete possession of this insight enjoy a freedom that others less fortunate (I include my poor self here) achieve only at the point of death. Extinction is of course the great freedom. To be disencumbered of one’s self is the sublime liberation.
The odour of wood smoke: domesticity, seclusion, the comfort, of an evening, of a fireside supper; then sleep by the hearth in an environment of familiar people and objects. All this I divine vaguely as I pass a row of little houses whose inhabitants are invisible to me. And yet what secret miseries may be concealed here.
A fine working dog, properly fed and trained to the working or recreational society of man, is an extension and even an expression of our happiness. Racing intelligently and with apparent joy among the flock along the coomb, the sheep dog is a veritable embodiment of the orderly deployment of useful energy. How we strain to reward our dogs adequately with an acknowledgement of our appreciation! But we can never truly know the extent to which we communicate with them.
Walking home last evening surrounded at knee height by a foaming tide of ewes and yearlings, I was moved mostly by the restless and officious discipline of our two canine lieutenants that coursed among their charges, now circling and interweaving with them, now running back to chivvy forward a straggler, now leaping vertically with a strict authorative yelp, now standing guard with one flank while its partner came rhythmically into view with a secondary stream that fed the main current: all this achieved with indefatigable verve at a whistle or a short word from the presiding shepherd. And what is their reward? There is none at all. Given a good home, they would eat and exercise whether or not they herded sheep. No. Their joy is in their work, which they accomplish for its own sake.
I will not say that this must be the case with poetry. What I know, however, is that the world – the poet’s universal master – will not pat my head, still less scratch behind my ear for my efforts. Nor will it feed me. Shall I, nonetheless, still laugh and fetch for it – from the spring of the Muses?
To arrive at Xanadu one must travel through a great deal of very chilly mud or hot and stony desert. Then on arrival one finds that it is a paradise presided over by a tyrant. Was this (latter, east of Eden) our First Parents’ experience?
I have come to here to indulge myself in the impersonal life of imagination. A pursuit which I hope is not invalidated by the gratification I derive from the exercise.
In pursuit of poetic truth, one may create a monster of oneself to achieve even an approximation of what one might have intended. The nature of that monster lies in its composite identity, the parts of which are disparate and sometimes grotesquely incongruous. The celebrated biform, for example, that was the issue of Pasiphae’s infatuation with a bull and which became the presiding spirit of the labyrinth. A writer’s own labyrinthine person contains several of such bizarre manifestations. They are accretions of the diverse energies that adapt to one another in the twilight of his interior and of whose confluence he is often (most likely) unaware. I have seen a model of Cellini’s Perseus whose hand is plunged in that thick bed of snakes which crowns the Medusa. Perseus exerts a muscular, determined grasp. But unlike him, we can neither deracinate nor exterminate that interfusion of mental vipers. This is because they have nested in our brains, where (having once hatched in the nourishing and warm heart’s egg) they have grown upward. Palpable, perhaps, but indiscernible without some burnished and externalising mirror.
There is too much poetry and music. But it is important that each generation maintains its presence. This is a motive for our participation in one or other of the arts. How far we succeed or produce anything of worth that posterity will cherish is another question. And while most of us attempt only the lower slopes of Parnassus (for if we are not modest we are easily fatigued), it is imperative that we strive ad altiora. Given that we are, at the best, with our limited talents, a competitive fraternity, it is surprising perhaps that there are not more great poets. For it is no doubt possible for a writer of even moderate ability – given time, application and a degree of inspirational good fortune – to surpass himself.
I suspect, on the other hand, that there exists within the working of destiny a law that determines a limit on apotheosis. Take the last two centuries only. We resort to Donne, Milton and Pope for the exceptional rarity of their genius. What if good writers such as Crashaw, Prior, Rochester and Thompson had attained comparable heights? How crowded would our empyrean have become. We could scarcely breathe for the proliferation of genius!
To produce even moderately good poetry should lie within the nature of friendly commerce. It is a wholesome act to proffer to one’s friend, to a bookseller and eventually to the public, the produce of one’s labour. I learned something of this when I was coming through —– and stopped in the market to buy lettuce and radishes. It was a hearty transaction. The gardener’s hand – that had raised this produce – trading it with amicable liberality as though to say by implication: I have made this for you (my penny appearing alien in his upturned hand) ! So, I suggest, when I vounteer a sonnet, I would rather be saying ‘This lettuce is what I mean. Let these radishes speak for me.’
Do I relish the melancholy in which, for the most part, I dwell when I am not writing – when every breath might, if I passed it with greater articulation across the larynx, become an inconsolable sigh? Why is this condition not unpleasant?
First, because it represents an enclosure in which I am, as it were, fortified or defended in a condition which has an identity so complete that I may define it with the large, firm brush strokes of a studio painter. Here, in contradistinction to the nebulosity of common experience, in which one senses neither this nor that particular affect, one may claim fraternal relations with darkness – and while this experience may have a flattened or depressing character, its very unified monumentality provides a security in what otherwise has become mere flux or dissipation.
For a longer extract see http://www.bowwowshop.org.uk/