Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill framed his valedictory lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry earlier this month with a discussion of Charles Williams’s 1930 book, Poetry at Present – a fascinating choice because, to me at least, this is the weakest of Williams’s three critical books. Nonetheless Hill managed to fasten on a brief passage about the nature of poetry which he then used as a standard for judging poems, and applied it to the work of Larkin, Edward Thomas and others.
I was delighted – and not merely because he recognised Williams’s brilliant critical acumen, which has been overlooked for so long – but also because he raised doubts about the quality of several of Larkin’s poems, as I have done recently (though with reference to different Larkin poems) in the journal PN Review, in a discussion of James Booth’s recent biography. I’m sure Larkin is currently overrated, good though some of his poems are, and it’s encouraging to find Hill taking the same view.
The lecture is well worth listening to: it winds around and you may think he is rambling, but in fact it all turns out to be very cogent, and his final point is impressive and even devastating. After coming back to Williams, and the perceptive quotation from which he began, Hill quotes the choreographer Mark Morris as saying ‘I’m not interested in self-expression but in expressiveness’. He’s absolutely right.
If you’d like to listen to a podcast of the lecture, just click on this link (from the Oxford English Faculty page) here.
Today I must pay tribute to my dear friend and teacher, Lance Cousins, who died in Oxford on 14 March.
Lance Cousins (foreground) with his teacher, Nai Boonman (behind)
Lance was the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. A Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, he was an unforgettable character and a constant source of amazement, amusement, wisdom and inspiration. Think of Gandalf in a green jumper with a mug of coffee in his hand and you will have some idea.
I first met Lance when I joined the Manchester University Buddhist Society in 1975, soon after arriving to work at the University. I had noticed him before I knew who he was: a quiet, bearded chap who came into the senior common room looking very alert and moving quietly: there was something cat-like in the way he padded about.
Once I joined the Society I realised that he was its motivator: he had taught Charles Shaw, who was my own first teacher in meditation, and Lance himself came to all the Society’s weekly talks by visiting speakers, and afterwards would join in fascinating discussions which ranged far and wide, on all kinds of things, philosophical and personal. He was ready with apposite, amusingly-expressed advice for anyone who had a problem but he could also quote from the ancient texts.
He also became the focus of a group of friendly academics who would spend hours in the Common Room debating everything in the world over coffee: a group of true philosophers that tended to include Harry Lesser, John Kane, Philip Alexander, Tony James, Norman Calder and others. The flow of ideas, questions, knowledge and humour was marvellous.
Over the years that followed I came to know Lance as an incomparable teacher. The meditation he taught, the stimulus of his teaching, and the example of his presence completely changed my life and gave it a new focus.
He was mainly a teacher of Samatha, a traditional method of meditation using the in-and-out breath as an object, which he had learned from his own Thai teacher, Nai Boonman. But he was far from limiting himself to ‘Buddhism by the Book’: he’d been trained in the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky tradition; he was an expert astrologer who drew up a birth chart for me and many others; he knew a great deal about the Kabbala and encouraged his meditation students to learn about that as well. He was also very well-read, and could discuss almost any author in English literature and, of course, most fantasy and science fiction of which he read a great deal (and I believe wrote some himself).
In due course, as well as supporting and stimulating the Manchester University Buddhist Society, Lance was the main mover in establishing the Samatha Centre (later the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation) in Chorlton, and then, with other senior teachers and Trustees, the national Samatha Centre, Greenstreete, in the Welsh Borders.
At the same time he ran study groups of Buddhist texts either at his house or at the Centre, and these meetings, often going on until well after midnight, were endlessly illuminating. Lance had a fresh, humorous and profound angle on everything, and he would also listen carefully and give full attention to what others had to say. In fact he insisted that others had their say! Of course we didn’t always agree, and at times I found him infuriating! All part of the fun and the learning process.
He moved to Oxford some twenty years ago and after that I saw less of him but whenever I visited we would have long and happy chats about all sorts of things, and I would always get wise insight into whatever problem, difficulty or stage of life I might be going through. Lance’s kindness and learning increased over the years and somehow he seemed to grow older, not just physically, but in wisdom as well. It was as if he’d started off six years older than me but ended twenty-six years older. Spiritually I have to say that he was my father. I will never meet anyone like him, and it is daunting to realise that now he is gone and we must do what we can to go on with the work, or some aspect of it, without him.
There are no words to express my gratitude and I know hundreds of others feel the same.
I was just taking a copy of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold off the shelf in Blackwell’s the other day – determined to read all of John le Carré’s Smiley books in sequence – when I had a better idea.
Why not go right to the roots of the genre, and read W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories? I’d often heard that this was where realistic spy fiction started, and here was the place to find out. So I went upstairs to where they keep the pre-1960 fiction, and found when I was after: the Vintage paperback of Maugham’s 1928 story collection, Ashenden.
“Maugham facing camera” by Tucker Collection – New York Public Library Archives. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Maugham was employed by the British secret service in Switzerland and elsewhere during the First World War, so he knew what he was writing about. The stories have, in an intriguing and gently realistic period setting, all the things we’ve grown used to from le Carré’s novels: double agents, betrayals, mistakes, blackmail, cold-blooded murder (sometimes of what turns out to have been the wrong person), and a spymaster known only by an initial: Ashenden takes his orders from a military intelligence officer known as ‘R’.
Not all the stories are full of suspense. Some are gently humorous; some leave lots of loose ends, or twist off into directions completely unforeseen, which all fits perfectly with the quietly insane world of espionage, where nobody is what they seem and nobody is quite sure where things are going or whether actions are wise or foolish.
The final story in the book contains a wonderfully convincing account of Russia in October and November 1917 at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution: no heroics, no grand scene-painting, just food shortages, confusion, soldiers shooting at random on the streets, and Ashenden accepting that whatever he was supposed to be doing in Moscow is now totally irrelevant and the best he can hope for is a coded message telling him to return home before the borders are closed.
It struck me that there might be a good book to be written about that time in Russia when Arthur Ransome, Hugh Walpole, John Reed and (if the story is from experience, as it appears) Maugham himself were all in Russia, working for Press and/or Intelligence and helplessly caught up in revolutionary chaos. Maybe someone out there would like to write it?
And while we’re digressing, as I read Ashenden I couldn’t help finding something about the style and approach a little familar. I realised that I was being reminded of Borges’s story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’. I wouldn’t mind betting that Borges had read Maugham’s stories and was using them as a model – though of course his tale is far more fantastic.
Anyway, if you like spy fiction and want a good, intelligent but undemanding, fascinating and well-written period-piece, I can’t recommend anything better than Ashenden. I’m delighted to make his acquaintance.
A poetic drama by Charles Williams lost for a century has just been published for the first time, edited by Sørina Higgins. I’m delighted, because The Chapel of the Thorn really is a neglected gem.
Written around 1914, the play, set in the early middle ages, portrays a three-cornered struggle amongst the Church, the Mystic and the Pagan – three forces which were powerful in the early psychology of Charles Williams himself.
Williams would go on to become a successful author of spiritual thrillers – All Hallows’ Eve and The Place of the Lion famous among them; a major poet of the Arthurian mythos; an influential Anglican theologian; and a central member of the Inklings, the group of Oxford writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom were his close friends in the late 1930s and during World War 2. But this play was written much earlier, when he was just setting out as a writer.
The Chapel of the Thorn concerns the struggle for possession of a thorn from Christ’s crown and the chapel where it is housed. The chapel, with its relic the thorn, is guarded by a solitary priest, Joachim, and his young acolyte, Michael. The play depicts a battle between mysticism, represented by Joachim; the Church, represented by the local Abbot, Innocent; and paganism, in the form of Amael, a bard and high priest of the old gods.
Untrustworthy Abbot Innocent wants to wall in the chapel, and take the thorn so it will draw pilgrims to his abbey. Idealistic Joachim, the mystic, believing only in the value of direct communion with God and lacking respect for the church hierarchy, wants to keep the thorn at his humble chapel, and has the local villagers’ promise that they will fight to keep the chapel independent. What Joachim does not know is that the villagers are concerned only because the chapel has been built over the tomb of Druhild, a pagan hero who, they believe, will one day rise from the dead. For their Christianity is only superficial. Their values are represented by Amael, the pagan priest and bard.
The Chapel of the Thorn contains some magnificent verse, and to me its crowning achievement is the vivid imaginative portrayal of the pagan Amael. Here’s a clip of the book launch which includes performance of some of the play’s fine poetry:
Amael represents a heroic and brutal world, and he speaks much of the play’s best poetry. He admits that he has performed human sacrifice:
Twice hath my hand lain over mortal eyes,
While, with the incantation of the Fire,
I struck forth human blood upon the stone!
But he can also be modest:
I am a little dust
Blown from the ruined temples of the gods
And troubled by the feet of the white Christ
When he goes through the land.
He wants to lure away Michael, young acolyte of the Christian mystic Joachim, to join him as a pagan wanderer. He asks:
Is it time in youth
To wait upon white altars? Hark, the gods
Sing at their feasting, not as hermits sing!
We servants of the gods have heard their song,
And some of us are mad with their delight,
And some are lords of ships and raids and fire,
And some have crept into the black bear’s den
With a torch and a spear and slain him: but we all
Are heroes, princes, champions!
The play’s poetry, and its rich, conflicted blend of Christianity and Paganism, shows many of the elements and dynamics which would eventually shape Charles Williams’s major Arthurian poems, written some twenty years later.
For anyone interested in Williams, or in the depiction of mysticism and paganism in the early twentieth century, The Chapel of the Thorn is essential reading. Sørina Higgins’s elegantly-produced edition includes an essay by David Llewellyn Dodds, and a Preface based on material from my forthcoming biography of Williams, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, due later in 2015, which will give the full biographical context of the play and its composition, and suggest why it was abandoned.
The poet, critic and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite is writing a new life of Coleridge. It’s going to be called Mariner, and it will focus on Coleridge’s inner life – his spiritual quest. Malcolm’s idea is that Coleridge prefigured the pattern of his future life in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and the book will take its shape from the poem. A brilliant idea, I think.
Malcolm Guite on the shore of Ullswater: October 2014
There have been excellent lives of Coleridge before – Richard Holmes’s wonderful and readable two-volume biography, and Molly Lefebure’s books on Coleridge’s opium addiction and his family – but none of them has really been deeply interested in Coleridge’s religious life and ideas. Yet this aspect of life was, for Coleridge himself, the most important of all, and it conditioned everything else.
In October I spent a few days exploring the Lakes with Malcolm, visiting some of Coleridge’s haunts; and this post is going to be an unashamed flashback because I’m recalling that time, and want to put some of the pictures from it on my blog. So here we go.
Aira Force waterfalls – maybe the most spoectacular torrent in the Lakes
Malcolm and I met at Penrith rail station and went south along the shores of Ullswater to Aira Force with its amazing multilevelled waterfalls. We explored the network of footpaths that wind up into the woodland around the falls. We also relaxed on the shores of Ullswater, where Malcolm – though not I – ventured into the water for a paddle.
We went on to Keswick, where we stayed at the Queen’s Hotel – only realising after we checked in that this was where the John Hatfield, the conman who posed as an aristocrat and seduced the famous Maid of Buttermere, had also stayed, in 1802.
We visited Greta Hall, where Coleridge lived from 1800 to 1803 – not usually open to the public, though you can rent self-catering accommodation there, – see www.gretahall.net – and it has the most amazingly interesting and beautiful house with wonderful views over the Vale of Derwentwater. Profound thanks to Jeronime, who welcomed us there and told us all about the house’s history.
Greta Hall, Keswick
Malcolm, a keen waterman, insisted we go out in a boat on Derwentwater, and generously did all the rowing, so I was able to enjoy the views and the fresh air without effort.
We stayed the next night at How Foot Lodge, my favourite hotel in Grasmere, and visited the Wordsworth Trust, taking a tour of Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, including the Jerwood Centre, where Jeff Cowton, the Curator, had with enormous generosity arranged to have a number of Coleridge manuscripts out for Malcolm to examine, as well as one of the several fine portrait drawings the Trust owns.
Bravely, Malcolm prepares to paddle in Ullswater!
From there we went on to Rydal Mount, Wordsworth’s home in his later years, and wandered around the gardens as well as exploring the house: not quite as dramatically atmospheric as Dove Cottage, but a fine, comfortable Victorian family home, with Wordsworth’s study right up in an attic looking south towards Windermere.
Altogether a wonderful few days in what was, I think, the last spell of fine golden autumn weather during 2014. Very good to look back on from a bleak chilly January; and of course on the other hand I am now looking forward to Malcolm’s book about Coleridge which, from what I know of Malcolm’s work, will be beautifully readable and also very profound.