Saturday, 8 February 2020

#41: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

A wet February

 Fill the cup

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:

Omar Khayyam's celebration of wine, nature, birds, love and the passing moment is called for after dry January, and I usually read it after having a dry month. This year I learnt the first seven stanzas by heart, which also mention January, or thereabouts:

Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
    Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

I wonder what these last two lines mean – those long-gone mortal heroes now reabsorbed into earth? It could also be the thoughtful soul bringing those people alive through their imaginations; 'Jesus from the Ground suspires' perhaps being the effect of concentrated meditation. Maybe it's gently satirising those who believe in immortality.

Iram and Jamshyd
The next stanza continues:

Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
    But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.

Jamshyd was an Iranian mythical figure whose cup was filled with elixir of immortality and was used in scrying (using a substance, here a liquid, to make out messages from the beyond). Iram is a Persian city which might or might not have existed. However, the 'ancient Ruby' certainly does.
And then the rest of the seventh stanza brings us up to the present:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
    The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly --- and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Frost at Midnight

In this last line it is as if the poet has suddenly seen or thought of something, made a link in his mind even as he is writing. And this calls us out of the poem, at least temporarily. This reminds me of the first lines of Coleridge's Frost at Midnight:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.

There is also a moment of fellowship with the reader – look! Listen! But not just to the poem – also to what is outside it.

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Monday, 6 January 2020

#40: Depth in literature

What is depth in literature?
Sfio Cracho/

In his Desert Island Discs interview, co-founder of disco group Chic, Nile Rodgers, said that every song he writes has a DHM – a deep hidden meaning. This is a ‘core truth’ which may differ to the apparent meaning of the song. On a similar topic, someone on a recent Radio 3 classical music programme thought that what gives a composition staying power, so that you return to it time after time, is intellectual content.

What is depth in literature?
So what makes a poem or novel deep? I’m not sure you can define depth as an abstraction — such a definition will inevitably be less attractive and complex than the process of finding and exploring those depths in particular pieces. It’s easier to say what it does than what it is, and easier again if we take an example. So here we go.
The Wye Valley    
Matthew Dixon/

Depth in action
Here are a couple of lines of poetry I’ve been returning to in my mind recently, from Wordsworth’s Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, where he returns to a beloved landscape near the river Wye:

                                                Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild;

What strikes me this time about that second line is the thinking process it reveals. Why repeat ‘hedge-rows’? Or why not cut them all together and say: ‘Once again I see/little lines of sportive wood…’? Because you need to start from something you know — the hedge-rows, the common acknowledged way of describing something, then realise it’s inadequate (‘hardly hedge-rows’), then progress beyond. Perhaps too he is seeing it differently now, on revisiting it, and the former vocabulary is not enough. This seems to mirror a natural way of moving forward in the way you describe and understand something — start with what something is not, and try to progress from there.
And as so often in Wordsworth’s poetry, this thought process is part of the poetry – it’s not something that is discarded once the finished product is settled on. The process of composition is part of the poetry too.
But why break the second line there? Why not:

These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines of sportive wood
Run wild;

Because the wood escapes from the ‘line’ to the next, just as it escapes the edge of the field, and needs to be the subject, the moving force of the next line. And of course, those ‘lines’ are lines of poetry, which are less restrained here, a little wilder than they would be with a tighter form. And can you feel the determined unpunctuated rush of the wood in Wordsworth’s lines?
I had never thought before how breaking the line somehow adds energy, tension, a little suspense.

This is depth for me. It often seems to involve thinking about form as well as content (the ‘lines’ of poetry, and the way the lines are broken). It enables you to use the writing yourself, to think with — it is more than a product for you to say ‘that’s great’ and walk on. And here I am left with something I can move on with (why does breaking a line add energy?).

Kataryna Mostova/

How do we swim in depth?
So, is there a DHM (deep hidden meaning) in this poem? Deep, yes; hidden, I’m not sure. It’s more a case of approaching the deeper layers through the upper ones; they all contribute to understanding it and you don’t leave the most apparent meaning behind when delving deeper. Not only that, but studying a poem in this way increases pleasure in it — it comes from the same place as the reasons you like it. So this is different from deconstructing literature, a process which aims to challenge or undermine the most obvious, ‘surface’ meaning. In contrast, I would argue that my reading works with the poem’s preoccupations — repetitions and variations in the way we remember, for example — rather than against them.
And what about the music commentator’s view that depth implies intellectual content? Yes, but not only that. You don’t leave behind the emotional and depart into the realms of the intellect; in fact, I’m not sure you can have intellectual understanding that lasts without an emotional component.

Can you have comic depth?
But aren’t we getting a bit too intense? Must depth always be serious? I think it is likely to be. However, there are books I reread fairly often — which have staying power for me — which I would not describe as deep. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, for example. These are comic, and doesn’t comedy warn us about overthinking, short-circuit literary analysis (or any extended thinking process), encourage us to move on? 

The DHM in Le Freak’.
Well, let’s take Rodgers seriously and try to find the DHM in ‘Le Freak’, his first choice for the island. In the interview he said this was a perfect example of a DHM, where childlike song rhymes ‘have to have a secondary if not tertiary meaning’. Here’s the first verse:

Have you heard about the new dance craze?
Listen to us, I'm sure you'll be amazed
Big fun to be had by everyone
It's up to you, it surely can be done
Young and old are doing it, I'm told
Just one try, and you too will be sold
It's called Le Freak! They're doing it night and day
Allow us, we'll show you the way

Secondary meaning? Breaking free of everyday constraints (Wordsworth’s ‘the heavy and the weary weight/of all this unintelligible world’)? Not being afraid to be different?

Nile Rodgers performing with Chic