Saturday, January 13, 2018

Beyond Words

As human beings, we are adept (more or less) at putting things into words.  It is what we do.  Hence, for instance, poetry.  It has been argued that this trafficking in words is what sets us apart from the other creatures with whom we share the World.  Sets us apart for both good and ill, I would suggest.  Poetry, yes.  But a great deal of noisome noise as well.  There is no need to go into the particulars. You know them well.

However, there are some things that are simply unsayable, however articulate and clever we fancy ourselves to be.  Thus, as it wondrously happens, an awareness of the inexpressibility of certain fundamental elements of existence and of the World often accounts for the beauty and the truth of the poems that move us.

     'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water'

'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water.'
Such were the words that fell as by dictation
Into the cloud of my preoccupation,
And one by one they fluttered down like leaves,
Touching me with their strange illumination --
Like leaves the girls would catch at Butler's Cross
To bring themselves good luck, each leaf a year.

'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water.'
A grey-green light of depths that do not stir
Beneath the unfledged ash-bough's contemplation
Touches me now as I transcribe the words.
Such were the depths perhaps where Hylas drowned,
Such were the wreaths his temptresses would wear.
But who are they who came to shelter there
And live obscurely by that leaf-light crowned,
Patiently mending their storm-shattered minds?

Who came to live in grace at Daffodil Water,
And why they sheltered there and from what storm,
Neither the voice that speaks through my abstraction
Nor my own fantasy serves to inform.

James Reeves, The Talking Skull (Heinemann 1958).

Hylas (line 12) was a young man who was a companion to Heracles, and one of the Argonauts who accompanied Heracles and Jason in search of the Golden Fleece.  However, while on the journey, he was seduced by the temptations of the nymphs who haunted a spring and vanished beneath the water of a pond, never to be seen again.

Stanley Roy Badmin (1906-1989), "Stormy Evening, Glencoe"

The phrase "words fail me" usually carries with it a connotation of inadequacy or of frustration.  However, it may in fact represent a sign of progress.  To wit:

"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.522, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness) (italics in the original).  An alternative translation is: "There is indeed the inexpressible.  This shows itself; it is the mystical."  (Translated by C. K. Ogden.)

The word "mystical" (whether used by Wittgenstein or by anyone else) causes some people (ironic moderns, for example) to raise their eyebrows.  The same is true of the word "Immanence."  I don't know why this should be the case.  Perhaps the modern temper is not as "open-minded" as it believes itself to be.  In truth, it is quite doctrinaire and intolerant.  But we are each free to follow our own path.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

Wittgenstein was fond of William James, and of The Varieties of Religious Experience in particular.  He is said to have read it in 1912 in Cambridge, nine years before Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published.  It was one of the books he often recommended (or gave) to friends (another such book, interestingly, was Samuel Johnson's Prayers and Meditations).  James identifies "ineffability" as one of the four defining features of mysticism, and states:

"The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative.  The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.  It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.  In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect."

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Longmans, Green 1902), page 380.

I am not attempting to pigeonhole 'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water' or "Abersoch" as "mystical" poems, or as poems about "Immanence":  they are, after all, composed of words and they do "say" something concrete.  But I think they also point to something ineffable and unsayable beyond themselves.  I am reminded of R. H. Blyth's comment (using a Buddhist saying) about how a haiku works:  "It is a single finger pointing to the moon."  R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page i.  The Buddhist lesson is that we must ultimately look beyond the pointing finger.

Robert Coventry (1855-1914), "The Haven" (1908)

In the end, there are certain things -- likely the most important things -- that are beyond the reach of words.  To think otherwise is to give ourselves too much credit and too much power.  We are forever overestimating our ability to formulate dispositive explanations of existence and of the World that rely upon words.  There are certain things that are beyond words.  Wittgenstein's well-known proposition (which I have quoted here on numerous occasions) is true:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

And where does this leave us?  Bereft of words, we may feel hopelessly lost.  Ah, but that's the beauty of letting words go, and of accepting silence:  we are exactly where we ought to be.

                 The Forest of Dean

'Now here you could not lose your way,
Although you lost it,' seemed to say
Each path that ran to left or right
Through narrowing distance out of sight.

'Not here, not here,' whistled a thrush
And 'Never, never,' sighed a thorn-bush;
Primroses looked me in the face
With, 'O too lovely is this place.'

A larch-bough waved a loose green beard
And 'Never, never,' still I heard;
'Wayfarer, seek no more your track,
It lies each side and front and back.'

Andrew Young, Winter Harvest (Nonesuch Press 1933).

"The Forest of Dean" is prefigured in an earlier poem by Young:

                  In the New Forest

With branch on sighing branch reclined
     And wild rose beckoning wild rose,
I lose my way, only to find
     That no-one here his way can lose.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985).  The poem appears in a letter that Young wrote to John Freeman in August of 1927.  Ibid, page 329.  He did not publish it during his lifetime.  Freeman was an acquaintance of both Edward Thomas and Walter de la Mare.  A few of his poems have appeared here in the past.

Daffodil Water, Abersoch, the Forest of Dean, the New Forest.  Here. With nothing more to be said, are we in precisely the right place?

Dane Maw (1906-1989), "Woolverton and Peart Woods" (1970)


Penn said...

"We are forever overestimating our ability to formulate dispositive explanations of existence and of the World that rely upon words."

Thank you Mr Pentz, this statement is succinct and honest! (And a beautiful, thought provoking post indeed.) Striving for meaning, we tend perhaps to try to offer up profound truths about life when, as you say and have so adroitly illustrated in your examples, we should just accept the unsayable. (Or am I being too dispositive here?)

This dear digital world augments this tendency drastically - what is Twitter if not a platform for those who "overestimat[e] their ability" to sum up life in a handful of characters? Is there a case for drawing parallels between Twitter and haiku? Should we discount a similarity of form if the intentions behind them are different?

No, these are not coherent thoughts! Just ramblings from Africa, but I'm grateful to you for the opportunity to exercise the grey matter, however gossamer-thin it is spread across the dawn sky. Your blog is an absolute joy in my life.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, This is the paradox isn’t it; the desire to say what is essentially unsayable. What is astonishing is that it happens at all, sometimes in poetry, as you show in your post, occasionally in passages of prose too.

Such experiences that seemingly cannot be put into words are like secret places in a wood that make themselves known to us often when we're alone, remaining secret for years, until that mysterious moment, when through some wondrous transformation something of that experience can be revealed in language.

As for those things that remain beyond saying, let us be content with mystery, accepting what is beyond explanation.

I like these words of Andrew Young;

“I lose my way, only to find
That no-one here his way can lose.”

Stephen Pentz said...

Penn: I'm delighted to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post and the blog.

You make an excellent point: in "striving for meaning," we "try to offer up profound truths" that are inevitably couched in words. You are certainly not being "too dispositive" in making this observation. Hence: blogs such as this! In fact, you have reminded me that I am myself often (always?) guilty of being "too dispositive" in assertions that I make here: the danger of words (and of glibness in using them). (Everything I write on this blog ought to be prefaced by the phrase "in my humble opinion".)

This reliance upon words is a conundrum, isn't it? I am reminded of Po Chü-i's poem about Lao Tzu's well-known statement that "those who know do not talk; those who talk do not know" (the translation of the poem is by Arthur Waley):

Lao Tzu

"Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know are silent."
Those words, I am told,
Were spoken by Lao Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao Tzu
Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book
Of five thousand words?

Po Chü-i is making good-natured fun of Lao Tzu, but his point is an excellent one, isn't it? There is an inherent contradiction (as well as a vanity and a presumption) in using words to argue that the deepest truths are unsayable. Ah, well . . .

I agree with your thought about the "digital world augment[ing] this tendency drastically." Twitter is a horrible thing, in my opinion, and I have never considered using it. But I suppose that blogging is not that far distant from Twitter. Again, a conundrum.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for those thoughts. As you say, there is an unresolvable "paradox" in "desir[ing] to say what is essentially unsayable." But, as you suggest, it is something that poets (and writers in prose) cannot help but doing. Of course, we wouldn't want it any other way, since (to use your words) it sometimes happens that "through some wondrous transformation something of that experience can be revealed in language." Wonderfully put. This is why we continue to return to poetry, isn't it? And this is also why we continue to go on our daily walks.

But ultimately, as you say, we must be "content with mystery." I think the two lines you quote from Andrew Young's poem perfectly embody that conclusion.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you. I wish I had the words to describe the comfort and joy I always, unfailingly, find in your blog. A "Thank you" will have to do.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: That's extremely thoughtful of you. Thank you very much. As I hope you know, I greatly value your long-time presence here, and it is always nice to hear from you. Please return soon.

Beth Venus said...

I have found your blog again! It crossed my mind the other day that I had forgotten what it was called, and then the fear came of not being able to find it again. Then I searched a poem by Wordsworth yesterday and there it was, your blog! I love reading it. And I shan't be losing it again!

Stephen Pentz said...

Beth Venus: I'm happy you found your way back. Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. Please stop by again soon: more poems and paintings are on the way. Welcome back.

R.T. said...

Words are such interesting signs. In the beginning was the Word. Hmmm. I suddenly recall being in a college production of The Miracle Worker; Helen Keller needed words — albeit different signs — in order to become fully human. So do we all. Well, enough of my ramblings. Once again your blog allows me to savor the sublime signs. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: You're welcome. Thank you for those thoughts on words. I agree that we certainly need them (or other "signs"), as you say, "in order to become fully human." (Otherwise, we wouldn't have things such as blogs!). Yet, when it comes to certain fundamental aspects of life and existence, words/signs may not be necessary or sufficient, but may instead encumber us, limit us. Such is my sense, for what it's worth.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.