Friday, 11 December 2009

A. Mitchell, P. Shelley

A couple of us went to this and found it hard to take, not all of it but enough to make us opt instead for the bar to escape cringing and embarrassment.

Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies about Vietnam)’ is a good poem but the image I have of it being performed at protests by angry students who, unlike the speaker in the poem, were perfectly able with their education to be well informed about Vietnam sums up for me the self-indulgence and dangerous simple-mindedness of many such campaigners: let them try being prime minister or foreign secretary and balancing all the considerations that have to go into wise government. I'm aware that ‘It’s more complicated than that’ can be a regular cop-out to avoid principled action -- but I'm still glad that many of the people I see on protests aren’t running anything. Or the crowd on the stage at this event.

Poetry, including good poetry, can serve the self-indulgence of simple-minded ranters. There was some of that on Wednesday. Some good Mitchell and some good Blake were well read, but were also set to music in a way that seemed to me to be allowing the singers to get off on the highs of idealistic anger and utopian vision: nice experience for them, excruciating for listeners who see them from my sort of perspective as the childish and comfortable privileged still on parade in their advanced baby-boom years -- and disastrous as politics if what you favour, as I tend to, is ‘piecemeal social engineering’, at least in the normal course of things, until things have reached such a pass that there’s no alternative but full-scale revolution - with which you take your chances and which certainly don’t guarantee that things will be better afterwards or that all the death and misery will turn out to have been justified. And, yes, absolutely, that piecemeal engineering can’t be just technical tinkering without something of Mitchell’s vision of ends: there does need at the back of it to be something like his and Blake’s anger at injustice. But the following, for instance (Blake, anti-Malthus) doesn’t amount to a political programme:

Compell the poor to live upon a Crust of bread by soft mild arts
Smile when they frown frown when they smile & when a man looks pale
With labour & abstinence say he looks healthy & happy
And when his children Sicken let them die there are enough
Born even too many & our Earth will be overrun
Without these arts If you would make the poor live with temper 

With pomp give every crust of bread you give with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts reduce the man to want a gift & then give with pomp
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh If pale say he is ruddy 

Preach temperance say he is overgorgd & drowns his wit
In strong drink tho you know that bread & water are all 

He can afford Flatter his wife pity his children till we can
Reduce all to our will as spaniels are taught with art

From VALA Night the Seventh - Blake

I know that piece because of a talk by a person whose name I've forgotten at a Hazlitt study day; she read it alongside a terrific piece from Scott’s The Antiquary in which a fishwife reproaches the visiting laird who has upbraided her for enjoying a dram.

On Thursday I was in the lovely King's library on Chancery Lane -- the old Public Records Office, beautifully converted -- with a list I'd accrued over a time, on which was Shelley’s Queen Mab. My interest in this little read work (published 1813 when I think Shelley was 21) arose from Edward Reed’s From Soul to Mind, about how 18th century moral philosophy became 19th century psychology. Erasmus Darwin and Shelley shared a materialist philosophy in which humanity had no distinctive soul but all matter had some degree or sentience and was infused by the Universal spirit. No soul, no God -- these views were so heterodox, indeed dangerous, that they had to be written as poems -- supplemented by extensive notes at the end.

So Queen Mab sets out in allegorical form a deterministic philosophy in which everything, including the mind, is connected in ‘the great chain of nature’. As philosophy it doesn’t work. Most of the verse doesn’t either but in places it becomes powerful in a Blakeian way:

But the poor man,
Whose life is misery, and fear, and care;
Whom the morn wakens but to fruitless toil;
Who ever hears his famished offsprings scream,
Whom their pale mother's uncomplaining gaze
For ever meets, and the proud rich man's eye
Flashing command, and the heart-breaking scene
Of thousands like himself; – he little heeds
The rhetoric of tyranny; his hate
Is quenchless as his wrongs; he laughs to scorn
The vain and bitter mockery of words,
Feeling the horror of the tyrant's deeds,
And unrestrained but by the arm of power,
That knows and dreads his enmity.

More than a hint of threatened revolution there. And what about this for a good atheist rant, his note to the lines

Whilst round the chariot's way
Innumerable systems rolled.

The plurality of worlds, the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur, is in no danger of seduction from the falshoods of religious systems, or of deifying the principle of the universe. It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine, begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman... All that tale of the Devil, and Eve, and an Intercessor, with the childish mummeries of the God of the Jews, is irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars.

This could have meant big trouble for him and his publisher. Presumably he counted on no one but the initiated reading his notes.

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