We might use as a shorthand for the industrial revolution and the information revolution these two elements. Our lives have indeed been revolutionised but not without cost. Blake and Wordsworth worried about the alienation of man from Nature. The first four lines of a sonnet by Wordsworth are impressive:
The world is too much with us;late and soon
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.
Rilke expressed similar concerns a hundred years later: See then the engine how violently it labours and at the same time how we are weakened. Since its power is given by us, let it, without passion, be driven and serve.
In my poem, Beyond Bronze, I express reservations about the information age:
Now thanks to silicon, we've got Hamlet in binary code,
and post-apocalypse it could turn up on a machine or
be picked up in space. What will those poor souls make of it?
Now in the days of lockdown, some of us find ourselves with more time to reflect than in years. Will things return to where they were before the pandemic? Will we take care to reconnect with Nature and with other people? Remember the bardic utterance Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Now that we are tentatively beginning to restore some normality to our lives, many among us will be suffering appalling grief from the unexpected deaths of family members and friends. At times of great grief we learn things about ourselves which we had not previously known. Philip Larkin captured something of this in these lines from Church Going: ‘Someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious.’
I try to travel with hope and a sense of how little we know. Trust and its ardent cousin faith seem more difficult. Here is a little piece of mysticism which draws on Zen Buddhism and my sense of the mystery and vast wisdom of the unconscious
KOAN - Why thanks?
'Why is there something not nothing?'
A philosophical boneshaker
but where does it take us?
True, one has to start
somewhere - just not from here.
There's an elsewhere prior to questions
and we've mostly been there,
felt that astonished thanks.
Where dreams become wordless on the edge
of leaving, the edge folds back on itself
and the dream knows
as the dreamer does not
that, pressed on from all sides,
motionless and rapt,
we are never not not there
never not there.
. The parthenogenesis of Daphnia, the water flea, (actually a small crustacean), bids to fill the lake when conditions are favourable, meaning plenty of everything. Explosive multiplication: nothing new but myriad clones to crowd out competition, and exploit their plenty while the going is good. It’s a statistical thing, mutually assured survival through mutually assured destruction once provisions run short. Survival for sexual reproduction when more ordinary times return.
What is de novo arises from the unmistakable sympathy of similar beings being together. Conjugations. Additions through propinquity in sentient bustle or dulled slumber.
As a metaphor, as symbol, consider the natural numbers, those abstractions of time passing. Ordinals as cardinals in the godlike mind. Addition, never multiplication, reveals the prime numbers. Each, as their name implies, a new first.
Multiplication, according to Bobby Darin’s lyrics, was the name of the game. In fact, the name of the game of life is novelty, which is to say addition. This includes addition and subtraction simultaneously, which is substitution.
Having meiosis, but not mitosis, in mind, part of the DNA from both parents reaches each single chromosome of the germ line, through translocation and recombination. An intricate dance occurs which includes a completely random shuffle of the genes as far as we know. It looks far from any human mechanism to the microscopically aided eye perhaps because it takes place in a fluid suspension.
*John Conway mathematician, inventor of The Game of Life died 11 th April 2020
On Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd, Newsnight ended their programmed with a recital of part of Richard the Second’s soliloquy in Pomfret Castle just before his murder. Act5 scene5
I have been studying how I might compare
This prison where I live unto the world
And for because the world is populous…..
I cannot do it, yet I’ll hammer it out.
A good choice in these time of self-isolation. One can see why Richard is a role often favoured by actors as a stepping stone to playing Hamlet. Today I have walked our dog across empty fields filled with yellow dandelions and their spherical seed heads. They becam a memento mori for Shakespeare in his beautiful dirge, Fear No More the Heat of the Sun from Cymbeline:
Golden lads and girls all must // As chimney sweepers come to dust
In 2012 I published my translations of The Sonnets to Orpheus. In this testing time of viral pandemic, many of us have had more time to reflect than in years while others are facing daily the devastation that is being visited upon us. Quoting from my preface to that book, I wrote
“Despite his vision of the inter-relatedness of living things and the healing power of nature, Rilke also had a sense of the abysses of unique experience which separate us and make intimacy so difficult.”
As we slowly come out of the chaos and tragedy which will have harmed so many of us, how will we rise to the challenge of an altered world? What is that challenge? Of course words fail me. This prayer by Rilke seems to me to strike a suitably elegiac note:-
(Sonnet to Orpheus I, 19)
Even the world dissolves
like billowing cloud,
all things achieved
return to their beginnings.
Beyond change and clamour,
wider and freer,
cast your sustaining song,
god with a lyre.
We find pain hard to bear
or learn love's teaching,
and death's estrangement
Only divine song
heals and affirms.
The twelfth century gold jewellery box, back lit in its cabinet, held my attention. It was evenly covered on its rectangular lid and four sides with tiny square turquoise tiles. I made a rough estimate of how many by counting the number over a small area and factoring up. Eight or nine hundred. I could not imagine how the tiles had been placed so precisely, nor how fixed, and there was no way that I knew of finding out. But as I considered the skill of the anonymous craftsman, I felt oppressed by the exigencies of his task. And all to provide a passing delight to a spoilt noblewoman or courtesan. Perhaps. Although possibly a treasured possession passed feelingly from mother to daughter and beyond.
I looked longer. One tessella was paler and greener than the others and lay unassertively on the lid. Had its colour been degraded by a defect in its substance which had gradually appeared during the centuries since the box’s making? I preferred to think of it as the personal mark of its maker, unnoticed by the rich and carefree, but a salute to any future goldsmith, initiate to the mysteries of their guild. So that someone in the distant past might have recognised it as a sign of fellowship arriving from a still more distant past.