Castaway Martyn Crucefix chooses poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edward Thomas and Rainer Maria Rilke to take to his desert island and discusses father-son relationships, Edward Thomas’s Modernism, and Rilke’s tribute to Hölderlin
On a desert island, before thoughts of poetry – my father might have said – you need an axe, a hammer, some nails. Let’s assume them. Some source of food and drink too. So – the physical creature survives. Thoughts at ease might then begin to turn to the difficulties as much as the tenderness of relationships (that of father and son perhaps), to hopes that any individual passing through the world may find it homely, may be at home within it, with Nature. But the acids of self-consciousness swiftly dissolve such comforting hopes. As the reach of intelligence grows, we find dissatisfaction with what merely rises before it: there’s no more than this? Even staring into the sun through the island palm trees, is there not a darkness visible (the phrase is Milton’s) that yet has an allure, poses a challenge, even an inspiration to probe beyond the ‘world as it appears’? Will something – some thing – rise to meet our seeking? Is there wisdom in seeking? Not sure how much of this Dad would have felt worthy of articulation, but it lays down a path to my 3 chosen poems …
Picture a young father in 1798, watching his sleeping child. The winter beyond the cottage window is freezing. The father thinks of his own past, foreseeing for his son a bright future. The house and its other occupants are asleep. Nothing moves except the thin, sooty film that has accumulated on the fire grate, fluttering in the heat. He knows it as a stranger, and superstition (he says) regards it as a harbinger of an arrival, some coming good. The past is ever present and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (for it is he!) remembers seeing “that fluttering stranger” in a fireplace at Christ’s Hospital boarding school in London, where it gave rise to thoughts of his own family, his Devon birthplace, even hopes of a visit from “Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved”. On my desert island, ‘Frost at Midnight’ will act as my own stranger, provoking reveries of my old home in the West Country, my childhood.
And of the nearer past too: my own children, their prospects, beset as they will be by war, political corruption, environmental damage. Poor Coleridge. Though he was “reared / In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars”, he planned to raise his own child, Hartley, in the then-fashionable style of natural, laissez faire: “thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores”. The Rousseauistic doctrine found education and civilisation to blame for social and personal woes. So Hartley was to grow up undisciplined, free to find his true, happy self (as his ‘pent’ father never could).
On my desert island, ‘Frost at Midnight’ will act as my own stranger, provoking reveries of my old home in the West Country, my childhood
But I always read this poem – even kicking back on my island – with a sobering sense of what Hartley’s future really proved to be. By the age of five he was asking his Dad what it would be like if there were Nothing? He’d been thinking of it all day. At 10, the boy warranted a stiff letter from his father warning him against stealing food, snatching, standing in half-open doorways. At 15, the boy seemed “a little spoilt” (his mother’s words); at 18, he’d grown solitary and restless, the local girls called him the Black Dwarf. At 23, he secured a Probationary Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. Coleridge must have reasonably concluded that the boy had perhaps not been harmed by his peculiar brand of absentee fathering, the difficult marriage of his parents, his father’s often public financial, literary, and opium-related humiliations. But a year later, the Fellowship was not renewed: Hartley was accused of “sottishness, a love of low company, and general inattention to the College rules”. His father’s hopes lay in ruins.
Richard Holmes, in his wonderful biography of STC, describes the poet’s life as full of contrasting “black storms and glittering sunlit spells”. In the poem, the frost performs “its secret ministry”. The domestic scene is sealed off from the cold, but perhaps, in the long run, also sealed off from its blessings. ‘Frost at Midnight’ itself remains optimistic: “all seasons shall be sweet to thee”, though my reading of it is shadowed and thereby enriched by what followed. Here’s the poem, read by Richard Burton, with accompanying text.
Edward Thomas loved one of the places I have always loved. In his In Pursuit of Spring, a 1914 prose travelogue from London to (Coleridge’s) Quantock Hills, he stayed just outside Trowbridge, Wiltshire, where I grew up 50 years later. His invented alter ego, the ‘Other Man’, insists he visit the idyllic bridge over the River Frome at Tellisford, “a ruined flock-mill and a ruined ancient house”. (Here’s a recent blog I posted about a poem I wrote about Tellisford). As they talk, the Other Man disparages notebooks as used by writers: “he said they blinded him to nearly everything … he could never afterwards reproduce the great effects of Nature”. Thomas’s poem, ‘The Glory’, evokes something of this quandary. It begins with his evocation of the “glory of the beauty of the morning”: the cuckoo calling, the blackbird, the white clouds above. It’s a scene Coleridge would have responded to as a Romantic, yet there is immediately a Coleridgean warning note sounded. The natural world draws Thomas on to a “sublime vacancy / Of sky and meadow and forest and my own heart”. Is this vacancy a space into which to grow? Or an ultimate emptiness without meaning? The ‘glory’ invites the poet yet leaves him scorning “all I can ever do, all I can be”. This is Thomas’s emergent Modernism.
Thomas does succeed in evoking the glory of the natural world … yet his final phrase – “I cannot bite the day to the core” – is suggestive of failure and the reader is left with a shimmering, uneasiness, an uncertainty …
Much of the rest of the poem consists of questions. Should he seek? Can he be content? What is beauty? Happiness? Is his mood “Glad, weary, or both?” Is he even thinking of Coleridge’s poem in using the word ‘pent’ – again, imprisoned – in the final lines? Thomas does succeed in evoking the glory of the natural world (like Hardy he notices the little things: “the pale dust pitted with small dark [rain] drops”), yet his final phrase – “I cannot bite the day to the core” – is suggestive of failure and the reader is left with a shimmering, uneasiness, an uncertainty, characteristic of what Edna Longley calls “Thomas’s relativistic dialectics about perception”. This is the world travelled by the modern consciousness, even marooned on a desert island. Here is my reading of Thomas’s poem.
And this idea is something Rainer Maria Rilke understood well enough. There is plenty of Rilke that I’d like to take to the island – he has been a huge presence and, I guess, influence, for many years now in my work as translator. But his poem ‘To Hölderlin’, written in 1914, the same year Thomas travelled through the West Country, is the one I choose here, as a tribute also to the work of Friedrich Hölderlin whose hymnic style, fusing Greek myth and Romantic mysticism, drew admirers including Nietzsche, Hesse, Trakl, Benjamin and Celan. (Here is a video of David Constantine talking about Hölderlin.) In his epistolary novel, Hyperion (1797/9), Hölderlin regards reflection (‘Urteil’) as a curse, cutting him off from an unthinking sense of oneness with the world. On the one hand, we desire the freedom to be above our lives, to shape them, yet on the other we long to feel at home in our world, to be in it at the cost of our liberty. With one eye on the Revolution in France, Hölderlin thought our pursuit of freedom, at the expense of our sense of unity with the world, leads to a deracinated fanaticism that harms both ourselves and the world. Yet to be sunk deeply in the world is to face an existence without liberty and self-determination, a form of passivity verging on idiocy. Hölderlin’s originality lies in his view of human life as endlessly dynamic, these two impulses held in tension, the self, pulled in contrary directions with absolutely no anticipation of resolution (something Thomas would have been sympathetic to, had he known Hölderlin’s poetry).
On the one hand, we desire the freedom to be above our lives, to shape them, yet on the other we long to feel at home in our world, to be in it at the cost of our liberty
Those familiar with Rilke’s work will recognise much of this. After the flood of the New Poems (1907;1908), he published little until the dam burst in 1921 to produce the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. In the interim, Rilke learned much from Hölderlin’s abrupt style, his winding, fractured or abbreviated syntax. ‘To Hölderlin’ praises him and sets out a programme for Rilke himself. This is my own translation (which will appear next year in Change Your Life: Rilke’s Essential Poems (Pushkin Press):
To linger, even amongst what is most familiar,
is not given to us; from images fulfilled,
the spirit rushes abruptly to those yet to be filled:
there are no lakes until eternity. Here, falling
is the best we do. From the mastered emotion,
flung down into the yet-to-be-guessed-at, then on.
For Rilke, Hölderlin’s is a “roaming spirit, most shifting”. Others may write “lukewarm poems” that try too hard to dwell in moments of stability, but Hölderlin moves “like the moon. And below, brightening, darkening, / your nightscape, that hallowed, startled landscape / you feel in leave-taking”. We are always saying goodbye. For Rilke, “No one ever / surrendered it more nobly, gave it back to the whole / so intact, less marred by need” than Hölderlin. As the ninth Duino Elegy will put it, 7 years later:
[…] truly because being here is so much – because
everything in this fleeting world seems to need us,
calls to us strangely. Us – the most fleeting of all.
Just once for each thing. Once and no more.
And we too, just once. And never again. Yet to have been
this once, and so utterly, even if only once,
our having been on this earth can never be undone.
Island or no island … our given task is to achieve an acceptance, to be strong enough to trust in what is ‘earthly’, to learn from the ‘provisional’, although the ‘core’ will always elude us, and there’s no telling what lies in wait for us or our children.