Friday, January 8, 2016


This is not a political blog.  However, I have, on occasion, bemoaned the fact that our world has become overly politicized.  Any sort of holier-than-thou posturing or hectoring -- from any direction -- leaves me cold.  Life is too short.

All of this is by way of introduction to a poem by Edmund Blunden.  To wit: please note that I am definitely not offering the poem as a "political" statement on any "current events."  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog will likely be aware of my distrust of the modern gods of Progress and Science and political utopianism.  You are certainly welcome to read the poem in that context.  But, of course, it speaks perfectly well for itself, and certainly needs no gloss from me.

                         Minority Report

That you have given us others endless means
To modify the dreariness of living,
Machines which even change men to machines;
That you have been most honourable in giving;
That thanks to you we roar through space at speed
Past dreams of wisest science not long since,
And listen in to news we hardly need,
And rumours which might make Horatius wince,
Of modes of sudden death devised by you,
And promising protection against those --
All this and more I know, and what is due
Of praise would offer, couched more fitly in prose.
But such incompetence and such caprice
Clog human nature that, for all your kindness,
Some shun loud-speakers as uncertain peace,
And fear flood-lighting is a form of blindness;
The televisionary world to come,
The petrol-driven world already made,
Appear not to afford these types a crumb
Of comfort.  You will win; be not dismayed.
Let those pursue their fantasy, and press
For obsolete illusion, let them seek
Mere moonlight in the last green loneliness;
Your van will be arriving there next week.

Edmund Blunden, An Elegy and Other Poems (Cobden-Sanderson 1937).

We now have our "televisionary world," don't we?  Blunden was correct on all counts.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was thinking along similar lines at around the same time that Blunden wrote his poem:  "Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features.  Typically it constructs.  It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (Blackwell 1980), page 7e.  The passage was likely written by Wittgenstein in the 1930s.

Richard Eurich, "The Frozen Tarn" (1940)

I suspect that "Minority Report" comes to mind because I continue to be haunted by the lovely lines from George Mackay Brown that appeared in my Christmas Day post:

We are folded all
In a green fable.

George Mackay Brown, from "Christmas Poem," The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Edwin Muir, Brown's fellow Orkney Islander, also took a wider, and longer, view of things.

               One Foot in Eden

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world's great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time's handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Time takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

Edwin Muir, One Foot in Eden (Faber and Faber 1956).

Richard Eurich, " Snow Shower over Skyreholme" (1973)

I agree with everything that Blunden says about our "televisionary world." George Mackay Brown expressed similar feelings:  "The twentieth century has covered us with a gray wash.  Newspapers and cars and television have speeded up the process.  It could not be otherwise."  George Mackay Brown, For the Islands I Sing (John Murray 1997), page 166.  Perhaps this is the world that Muir has in mind when he speaks of "tares" amidst the corn, "famished field and blackened tree," and "beclouded skies."

Still, we ought not to leave it at that.  As I have noted here on previous occasions, each succeeding generation is convinced that the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  But is this so?  Brown and Muir are aware of -- and have not given up on -- the realm of existence that has nothing whatever to do with Progress, Science, political utopianism, and their attendant evils.  In this realm, "building an ever more complicated structure" is of no moment.  All such structures come to dust.

Muir reminds us:  "Strange blessings never in Paradise/Fall from these beclouded skies."  Right here, right now.  However bleak things may sometimes seem.

Richard Eurich, "The Rose" (1960)

Wittgenstein is exactly right about Progress:  "Typically it constructs."  In our time, Progress and Science and political utopianism are devoted to engineering.  Devoted to engineering what?  "Ideal" societies and "ideal" human beings, of course.  A presumptuous and laughable goal.  Doomed to failure.

Why doomed?  Because the world we live in is, and will always be, "the vale of Soul-making."  The human soul is not subject to engineering.  Animula vagula blandula.  "Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite."  "Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing."  What do social engineers know about the human soul?  It is forever beyond their narrow and feeble grasp.

                    -- I am like a slip of comet,
Scarce worth discovery, in some corner seen
Bridging the slender difference of two stars,
Come out of space, or suddenly engender'd
By heady elements, for no man knows:
But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes
And spins her skirts out, while her central star
Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes
To fields of light; millions of travelling rays
Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun,
And sucks the light as full as Gideon's fleece:
But then her tether calls her; she falls off,
And as she dwindles shreds her smock of gold
Amidst the sistering planets, till she comes
To single Saturn, last and solitary;
And then goes out into the cavernous dark.
So I go out:  my little sweet is done:
I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:
To not ungentle death now forth I run.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967). These lines are an untitled fragment, perhaps from a play that Hopkins intended to write.  Ibid, page 304.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)


Ultra Monk said...

Interesting that Blunden's poem was from 1937!
What would he say now?

Stephen Pentz said...

Ultra Monk: My first thought in response to your question was that he would be shocked and amazed at how things are today. But I then had a second thought: given what Blunden experienced in the trenches in the First World War, I wonder whether he could still be shocked by anything under the sun. It is a sad thought. But I wonder. He wrote a poem titled "Can You Remember?" (Coincidentally, it appears in the same collection as "Minority Report.") Here is the first stanza:

Yes, I still remember
The whole thing in a way;
Edge and exactitude
Depend on the day.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. I wish you the best in the coming year.

RT said...

I do not have time (and wits) enough to comment at length (or in substance) today, but I would be remiss if I did not take time to thank you (again) for providing such a feast for my eyes and soul. I especially enjoy being introduced to poets, poems, artists, and artwork with which I am not familiar. I offer this "haiku" in gratitude:

Today the cloud hang
like a shroud over my world
but your sunshine helps

All the best from renewed Beyond Eastrod where "American Bloomsbury" is on today's menu.

Stephen Pentz said...

Tim: You are very welcome. I greatly appreciate your kind words, as well as the haiku -- that's a very nice thought, for which I thank you. I'm pleased that you liked the poems and the paintings, and it is nice to hear that they may have provided some "sunshine."

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.