Adam Bede – ‘Clear images before your gladden’d eyes’

I’ve been away; travelling the length and breadth of England – but not on holiday. It’s been an anxious and challenging time. We managed to squeeze in some moments of rest, recuperation and togetherness – some refuelling; a brief (much shortened) trip to Northumberland to pause, calm ourselves, spend a few days with my parents-in-law, breathe the consoling beauty of Alnmouth beach – and make a steadying, promised visit to Barter Books with my daughter. Then I was away to where I was needed most, whilst my husband returned westwards with the kids to hold the fort at home. I’m back now, though emotional distraction, tiredness and vital family priorities mean blogging will be difficult for a while. But, here’s a post I intended to put up on the blog a couple of weeks or so ago – before we received the news that altered our course and called me away. The post isn’t quite finished; not edited, polished or thought out as much as I’d like. But, I can’t muster up enough concentration to shape it into something better. Please accept it for what it is, an unsculpted piece of clay – but full of feeling:

I am currently reading Adam Bede – and this is how it is making me feel:

'Woman Reading' by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

‘Woman Reading’ by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

Reading George Eliot’s novel is like sunlight hovering at my fingertips – like April rays after rain, filling my vision. Eliot’s characters are populating my house. I know these people. We each draw up a chair on the rug – and swap our times of day, as familiar as if we were family. How does Eliot do it? How does she draw a character so surely, so deftly – in just a few introductory lines – sometimes just in a sentence – so that, instantly, we know them, recognise them – see the slant of their head, the lean of their shoulder against the doorframe, the foot they place on the ground; the small frown, the scratch of the head – the eyebrow knitted, the hand reaching out across the years? We can anticipate the demeanour of each of her character’s actions even before we see them leave their initial pose, or hear them speak; before first introductions are even complete.

And, strong affections are knit so swiftly into the weave of those introductions. How did Eliot make me love the Reverend Irwine almost as soon as I’d met him? The light in his face is not so much described, as felt in that sunlight of words that warms my own face as I read; illuminating too the instant, sure portrait of his mother, Mrs Irwine – our first glimpse of her resplendent, ring-laden, self-regarding mien, enough to catch the way in which ‘that stately old lady’ is a foil for herself; a two sided coin of smallness, and the impressiveness of seeming magnanimity.

From their life on the page, to the reality of our own days – each time, Eliot’s observations balance perfectly with experience. Like a well-judged, intuitive scoop of ingredients added to the recipe – they always correspond to every measurement of the truth. Her characters don’t exist in an idea, or a concept – or as a creation. They are living, breathing – solid flesh and blood. They are with you in the room. They walk beside you in the sunlight, in the rain – your feet splashing with theirs in the mud.

Eliot gives us detail, depth – and time. She gives us lots of time. Things unfold slowly, at real-time pace; with the beat of real hearts and of bodily gesture, with the natural pace of thought, emotion and conversation – with the daily movement of the sun.

I am standing beside Grandfather Poyser, leaning on the gate and dreaming the distance between the hedgerows and the retreating backs of his family as they cross the fields towards Hayslope church.

And I am wandering the village, its valley – and Fir-tree Grove:

‘…a wood of beeches and limes, with here and there a light, silver-stemmed birch – just the sort of wood most haunted by the nymphs; you see their white sun-lit limbs gleaming athwart the boughs, or peeping from behind the smooth-sweeping outline of a tall lime….….. Not a grove with measured grass or rolled gravel for you to tread upon, but with narrow, hollow-shaped, earthy paths, edged with faint dashes of delicate moss – paths which look as if they were made by the freewill of the trees and underwood, moving reverently aside to look at the tall queen of the white-footed nymphs.’

Paths made as if ‘by the freewill of the trees’ – isn’t that a wonderful phrase? I’m sure we have all followed such paths in our time…

And in this place, Fir-tree Grove, named – with beguiling idiosyncrasy – ‘not because the firs were many, but because they were few,’ we see Arthur Donnithorne caught, against his frail better judgement, by his fascination for Hetty Sorrel – waiting to meet her amongst ‘Those beeches and smooth limes’ which he comes to see as ‘surely…haunted by his evil genius.’ Here, at a remove from the more sobering effect of the Chase where ‘the strong knotted old oaks had no bending languor in them,’ Arthur’s fragile ‘self-mastery’ dissolves:

‘…It was a still afternoon – the golden light was lingering languidly among the upper boughs, only glancing down here and there on the purple pathway and its edge of faintly-sprinkled moss; an afternoon in which destiny disguises her cold awful face behind a hazy radiant veil, encloses us in warm downy wings, and poisons us with violet-scented breath.’

And then, I am shadowing another meeting, between Adam Bede and Hetty Sorrel in the Hall Farm garden, where flowers, fruit and vegetables grow ‘together in careless, half-neglected abundance’ and roses teem ‘all huddled together in bushy masses, now flaunting with wide open petals.’ An Eden place, where the mismatch of Hetty and Adam, in the collide of their very different dreams, has already set its seeds of heartbreak.

I glimpse that coming heartbreak as I walk the Hayslope lanes with Adam, for whom ‘It was summer morning in his heart, and he saw Hetty in the sunshine: a sunshine without glare – with slanting rays that tremble between the delicate shadows of the leaves.’

On the edge of Hayslope’s ‘rich undulating district’ – within sight, and always on the margins of awareness – lies ‘a grim outskirt of Stonyshire,’ a landscape of ‘barren hills’; the shadow of a more starkly declared possibility just a short step away.

On entering the region of Hayslope:

‘…the traveller might exchange a bleak treeless region, intersected by lines of cold grey stone, for one where his road wound under the shelter of woods, or up swelling hills, muffled with hedgerows and long meadow-grass and thick corn; and where at every turn he came upon some fine old country-seat nestled in the valley or crowning the slope, some homestead with its long length of barn and its cluster of golden ricks, some grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees and thatch and dark-red tiles. It was just such a picture as this that Hayslope church had made to the traveller as he began to mount the gentle slope leading to its pleasant uplands, and now from his station near the Green he had before him in one view nearly all the other typical features of this pleasant land. High up against the horizon were the huge conical masses of hill, like giant mounds intended to fortify this region of corn and grass against the keen and hungry winds of the north; not distant enough to be clothed in purple mystery, but with sombre greenish sides visibly specked with sheep, whose motion was only revealed by memory, not detected by sight; wooed from day to day by the changing hours, but responding with no change in themselves – left for ever grim and sullen after the flush of morning, the winged gleams of the April noonday, the parting crimson glory of the ripening summer sun.’

We too, as we read the novel, are ‘wooed from day to day’ with a gradual motion ‘revealed by memory.’ And, like a ghost invited through the locked gates of the Hall Farm, I see the old manor house and farmyard, the sheen of sunlight touching every surface; warming my skin.

Come with me there ‘…for imagination is a licensed trespasser: it has no fear of dogs, but may climb over walls and peep in at windows with impunity’:

‘…the life at the Hall has changed its focus, and no longer radiates from the parlour, but from the kitchen and the farmyard.

Plenty of life is there! though this is the drowsiest time of the year, just before hay-harvest; and it is the drowsiest time of the day too, for it is close upon three by the sun, and it is half-past three by Mrs Poyser’s handsome eight-day clock. But there is always a stronger sense of life when the sun is brilliant after rain; and now he is pouring down his beams, and making sparkles among the wet straw, and lighting up every patch of vivid green moss on the red tiles of the cow-shed, and turning even the muddy water that is hurrying along the channel to the drain into a mirror for the yellow-billed ducks, who are seizing the opportunity of getting a drink with as much body in it as possible.’

In the farm’s ‘house-place’:

‘Everything was looking at its brightest at this moment, for the sun shone right on the pewter dishes, and from their reflecting surfaces pleasant jets of light were thrown on mellow oak and bright brass; – and on a still pleasanter object than these; for some of the rays fell on Dinah’s finely-moulded cheek, and lit up her pale red hair to auburn, as she bent over the heavy household linen which she was mending for her aunt.’

I am reading Adam Bede, and it is lighting up my hours, my days, my mind. George Eliot loves people. For all their faults and frailties and failings, she loves them. Even when the sharper cuts of her perception and prodigious intellect fall critically upon a character, the understanding and compassion informing her words warm, deepen and clarify – like awakening light.

Do you feel it too – that glimmering illumination, with its insistent realness of shadow; that luminous, incisive light filling the edges of your vision?

Penguin Classics edition of 'Adam Bede' by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

Penguin Classics edition of ‘Adam Bede’ by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

“So that ye may have
Clear images before your gladden’d eyes
Of nature’s unambitious underwood
And flowers that prosper in the shade. And when
I speak of such among the flock as swerved
Or fell, those only shall be singled out
Upon whose lapse, or error, something more
Than brotherly forgiveness may attend.”

– William Wordsworth (from The Excursion)

(George Eliot’s chosen epigraph for Adam Bede – quoted on the title page of Volume 1).

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Selkies and ‘the eternal present of song-time’

Chasing a thought as it darts amongst the ripples left by Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea, here’s another telling of a selkie tale; this time in song form – not told through the ‘lilts and hissings’ of Eilean o da Freya’s strange ‘language of…singing’ – but via, once more, the beautiful voice of Heather Dale

This is her version of The Maiden and the Selkie, written by Emily Holbert-Kellam (from Heather Dale’s album The Green Knight):

I must, must get myself a copy of David Thomson’s The People of the Sea. It’s been on my wish list for too long now; ever since I first heard a piece on the radio about Thomson’s vital work, undertaken during the middle of the last century, to collect and record the old selkie stories before the tellers and traditions passed from memory.

I can’t remember when or what radio programme it was… just that what I heard was magical and earthy and connected to deep pasts. David Thomson was a writer and producer of radio documentaries for the BBC from 1943 to 1969 – and the warp and weft of the voices with which he made such empathic connection during his folklore-gathering travels, reached out beyond his radio work to become bound into the pages of his book. The poet, Seamus Heaney, was a friend of Thomson and has written the introduction to Canongate’s reissue of the The People of the Sea. (You can read The heart of a vanished world, taken from Heaney’s introduction, on the Guardian website).

In it he writes that:

‘David Thomson’s book is luminously its own thing; it had its origins in one man’s rambles round the highlands and islands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, in search of stories and folklore surrounding the “selchie” or grey Atlantic seal. It was written at a great moment in the history of radio, during the 1940s and 1950s, when the BBC employed poets and writers to record and collect oral material and – most important – gave them permission to re-create it in a new artistic form.’

Heaney relates how, as he re-read the book, Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper kept coming to mind. Also written after a tour of Scotland, the poem was inspired by an incident recorded in the notes of Wordsworth’s friend Thomas Wilkinson – and is, writes Heaney, ‘…about the experience of listening to one of the local people express herself unforgettably in her native Gaelic’ :

‘Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.’

This final stanza of The Solitary Reaper, Heaney goes on to say, ‘…manages to shift into the eternal present of song-time an incident that might otherwise have remained part of the accidental record.’ Heaney likens the ‘poetic achievement’ that is The People of the Sea to this Wordsworthian fixing in ‘song-time.’ What he describes as Thomson’s ‘Total respect, intuitive understanding, perfect grace and perfect pitch’ create a similar surety that ‘what was heard in the “chaunt” of the storyteller gets fixed on the page, only to rise in all its formality and down-to-earthness at each re-reading.’

As I read Seamus Heaney’s evocation of the character and effect of the man and his work; how Thomson’s The People of the Sea ‘…makes the reader a kind of dual citizen, at once the inhabitant of a poetically beguiling world of pure story and of a realistically documented world of fishermen and crofters’; of how Thomson’s ‘…writing combines a feel for the “this-worldness” of his characters’ lives with an understanding of the “otherworldness” they keep a place for in their consciousness,’ I felt again those ripples of deep story-time I experienced in Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea – and in the musical cadences of The Maiden and the Selkie.

The song-time of the selkie tales, echoing from somewhere between (to re-apply Heaney’s words) the ‘here-and-nowness’ and the ‘there-and-thennness’ seems, to me, to abide most powerfully in a concept Seamus Heaney beautifully apprehends when he writes that The People of the Sea ‘…at the mythic level presents us with an image of ourselves in those amphibians we have evolved from, all of us (to quote Wordsworth again) “inmates of this active universe”…’

Inmates of this active universe’. It says so much. It is the kind of phrase in which Wordsworth’s worth to the world most shines – a stepping stone phrase, helping to pave the pathways of poetry with gold.

And Heaney’s poet’s heart cannot resist scattering extra shimmer by layering alongside it the words of another poet, emphasising how the ‘fundamental understanding’ of the characters within The People of the Sea ‘…is shaped by what the poet Edwin Muir once termed “that long lost, archaic companionship” between human beings and the creatures.’

And, building on his own golden stepping stones of insight and expression within the book’s introduction, Heaney adds: ‘Plainly, memorably, repeatedly, instances of this old eye-to-eye and breath-to-breath closeness between living things appear in the narrative.’ He describes the selkie stories as possessing an ‘irresistible holistic beauty.’ They are not, he says: ‘…escapist fantasies but a form of poetry, especially if we think of poetry in terms of its definition as a dream dreamt in the presence of reason.’

In song, in story, the figure of the selkie reminds us of relationship: vital, life-and-death interrelationship between human and all other animal life – and between land and sea.

They sing of interdependence, these selkie tales; of the give and take, the not knowingness of beginnings and endings, the impossibility of defining where land and sea retreat or extend. They sing of the blending of past, future, present in cycles of belonging and leaving; and of how each of us exists in our own moment of shifting nows, thens and tomorrows; living as part of nature’s fathomless shaping of her own mysterious tale.

And – to bring us, appropriately, darting back along those cyclical ripples – just such an instance and endlessness of relationship shifts into ‘the eternal present of song-time’ in Seamus Heaney’s own poem Lovers on Aran (another shimmering offering to grace the golden pathway…):

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.

– Seamus Heaney

Wordsworth and those ‘Spots of Time’

 

Picture of books - Wordsworth's The Prelude & Lyrical Ballads


There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen

– William Wordsworth, The Prelude. Book 12. 208-218 (1850 edition)

I’ve been re-visiting bits of Wordsworth’s The Prelude recently – plus several of his shorter poems – and am finding, more than ever, what an antidote to jaded feeling those poems are. There’s something about Wordsworth’s poetry that stirs up your inner world – swirls through  the heart of your thoughts and self – and settles everything back down in its rightful place, refreshed and restored.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

 – William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much with Us – (1807)

We need an inner restorative against the ‘fretful stir’ and ‘fever of the world’; a place where memory connects us to the moments when we felt most alive (and perhaps most connected to wider Nature); where we felt the narrative of our truest self – or the self we most want to be – shift into place, take shape. Where maybe, even, we felt that ‘serene and blessed mood’ described by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey:

In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened…

and ‘We see into the life of things.’

Memory facilitates our own stories and, the older I get, the more active and busy my own ‘spots of time’ seem to be. There is a more insistent chiming, too, of these memories, new events, things said and things read. All the time, there are connections. Multiplying, reaching further – increasing in resonance.

In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth writes of his return, after an absence of five years, to his ‘wild and secluded scene’ where the ‘steep and lofty cliffs…connect/ The landscape with the quiet of the sky’ and delights in that landscape and his personal connection to it:

                                These beauteous forms,
Through long absence have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owned to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart

A ‘renovating’ moment my mind has often turned to in times of dead-end ‘weariness,’ is a special, snowy day spent with my husband when we first met. We escaped the city, and wandered Padley and Yarncliff Woods in the Peak District. Those woods were magical places, full of mossy rocks and gnarled, ancient oaks; a place from a fairy tale or from Middle Earth. I loved their atmosphere of deep age and waiting – enhanced that day by the silence of snow. Recently, I met that woodland again (well…one that, though not exactly alike, echoed with reminders of it) within the pages of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

 …a deep forest, densely overgrown,
with ancient oaks in huddles of hundreds
and vaulting hills above each half of the valley.
Hazel and hawthorn are interwoven,
decked and draped in damp, shaggy moss…

– (Fitt II, 741-5, translated by Simon Armitage – published by Faber and Faber Ltd)

                                       
                                    … Such moments
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood

 – The Prelude, Book 12, 223-4 (1850 ed.) 

From my earliest years, there are the deep memories of the North Downs. Mind pictures of the astonishingly huge Roman snails, clinging to the rain washed chalk; of the towering beech trees and shadowed yews, watching like knowing ancients. When I was a child, those hills seemed outside the rest of the world; an old, magic land wrapped close round the modern housing estate where we lived.

Just a step away from the pavements, rows of front doors, kids on bikes – there was this place of glimpses; hidden, hushed and full of happening. It was a land of wild creatures, and of stories – and the overlap of Time. There, I could wonder at the dart and slink of a fox, peer along trails made by badgers, and follow the ghosts of travellers along the old hollow ways; my steps falling on footprints hidden in layers long since worn away. Pilgrims had passed that way for centuries en route to Canterbury; and when, years later, I came to read the vivid tales of the Miller, the Wife of Bath and their ‘..compaignye/ Of sundry folk’ – I accompanied those characters on ‘my’ path along ‘my’ Downs, whilst Chaucer wove his magic.

Frequently now, whilst mind-drifting through ‘trivial occupations,’ scenes from novels (often those read many years ago) will unexpectedly pop into my head. Some secret synaptic connection between recent life events, and those past bookish moments, will fire into life; sometimes with flashes of new understanding and relevance; sometimes as a fond reflection on old favourites, to lighten the task in hand. Certain books are melded to various stages of life – they are the shapers and the keepers, forever related to those ‘spots of time.’ But they also endlessly make new connections; bringing new significance as experience grows, and as life and page continually overlap. Books, in several ways, become spots of time themselves.

Often, when in (a kind of) ‘vacant…mood,’ loading the washing machine, or during some other automatic-pilot task (there never seems to be much opportunity for lying on couches!) a special memory will ‘flash,’ like Wordsworth’s daffodils, upon my ‘inward eye.’ A mind-vision of a well-loved clearing in an ancient wood in Kent – a place to stand in wonder, surrounded by ‘hosts’ of wild orchids:

Picture of a Lady Orchid

Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea

Picture of a Greater Butterfly Orchid

Greater Butterfly Orchid, Platanthera chlorantha

A few years ago, when I returned to that wood (after a twelve year absence and a lot of life changes) it was for me, in my own small way, a Tintern Abbey moment; an emotional collide of my past and present self, in a place that means so much to me. That day contained, like Wordsworth’s return to the hills above Tintern Abbey, a complex comfort; a celebration and a ‘sad perplexity’ – and something perhaps, ‘Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.’ A moment where the self settles with a feeling of both homecoming and significant change; a complex, emotional interplay of past and present – and a tug between loss and gain, limits and possibilities, regrets and inspirations.

And so it goes on. Moments constantly chime – across life and literature, interweaving in memory and experience; in what we ‘half create/ And what perceive.’ A constantly developing process of connections that ‘spread like day.’