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New Feature: Reading Back

Written by jen, 17th June 2009

Today we introduce a new feature to The Reader Online. For the last twelve years The Reader magazine has published new fiction, new poetry, thought pieces, book news, reviews and reader recommendations. The Reader wants to remind its readers of all the great existing poetry and prose worth reading in the belief that classic literature belongs in ordinary daily life and should not be confined to the classroom or lecture hall. Over the years we have featured new work by prestigious writers including A. S. Byatt, Seamus Heaney, Doris Lessing, Andrew Motion to name but a few, and their work has appeared alongside poets and authors who are much less well known or perhaps have never been published before, for we are dedicated to finding new voices, new ideas, new life. Now we would like to republish some of this work on our blog. It is too good to confine to the back issue shelf and therefore, starting from today, The Reader Online will feature fortnightly articles selected from past issues of The Reader. We begin with an essay from issue 12 by the deputy editor Sarah Coley, called 'Reading a Difficult Poem'.

(You can find more information, plus how to subscribe to the magazine here.)

Robert Browning’s ‘Two in the Campagna’

Sarah Coley

It’s inevitable that at some point you will be faced by a poem that scares you with its remoteness and difficulty. There’s no predicting what kind of poem it will be since all readers are different, but that feeling of a mind that simply won’t grasp hold of the words should be familiar to everyone. What can you do? How can you make your mind start to work in the poem? Here’s a difficult poem to be going on with, in which the poet himself seems to be pursuing a thought or sensation that is eluding him:

Two in the Campagna

I wonder do you feel to-day
As I have felt, since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?

For me, I touched a thought, I know,
Has tantalised me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.

Help me to hold it: first it left
The yellowing fennel, run to seed
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,
Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed
Took up the floating weft,

Where one small orange cup amassed
Five beetles, – blind and green they grope
Among the honey-meal, – and last
Everywhere on the grassy slope
I traced it. Hold it fast!

The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air –
Rome’s ghost since her decease.

Such life there, through such length of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting Nature have her way
While Heaven looks from its towers.

How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above.
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?

I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more –
Nor yours, nor mine, – nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? what the core
Of the wound, since wound must be?

I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs, – your part, my part
In life, for good and ill.

No. I yearn upward – touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul’s warmth, – I pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak –
Then the good minute goes.

Already how am I so far
Out of that minute? Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, whenever light winds blow,
Fixed by no friendly star?

Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? Off again!
The old trick! Only I discern –
Infinite passion and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

When a poem or a book fills your head with numbing fear, it’s the whole sense that is lost – the underground impact or the precisely urgent feeling that the poem was a bid to convey. The details on the other hand stick around and look confusing. So you’re left struggling with scraps of alliteration, or rhyme, or the tense in which the poem’s written, while your more honest mind is saying that you do not know how to begin.

But there has to be a beginning. If the poem is in stanza form, it may help to give each stanza a kind of ‘chapter heading’ by taking a phrase from each verse that impulsively seems central. ‘Two in the Campagna’ could go into these headings: I. ‘Do you feel?’; II. ‘I touched a thought’; III. ‘Help me to hold it’; IV. ‘Everywhere... I traced it’, and so on. Settle quickly on the phrase and write it down, or underline it on your copy. There has to be a way to make the tangled experience manageable and direct, and to isolate patterns of thought and feeling. Look at how words that are related to one another develop. So it’s interesting here how ‘Two in the Campagna’ splits into the separate threads of ‘you’, ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘it’. There’s something dynamic or at least unequal in the relationship that the poet is trying to use to get his own mind working.

There are other things you can do, but at this stage, it’s important to say that you must trust your impulse, even if it’s an angry rejection of the poem. Your impulse came in response to the poem and it doesn’t matter if that response was conscious or instinctive, you have to take it seriously.

You might well think, ‘I don’t like this poem, it’s got too many words in it... He’s too much in his own head.’ He is thinking restlessly throughout the poem and that is striking in a poem about a love relationship. So he writes about spontaneity in a way that makes it seem not quite simple feeling: ‘How is it under our control / To love or not to love?’ Though at the same time, it does appear that it’s the simple feeling he wants. On the other hand you might react against the poet’s almost too-full responses, his ‘primal naked forms of flowers’ and his ‘Silence and passion, joy and peace, / An everlasting wash of air’. Why can’t he just say plainly what he means? That actually would be a terrific question to ask of this poem.

So let’s ask it. Why can’t he be plain? Something seems to be preventing him from saying simply what he wants to say. It’s a rare and fleetingly private thought and yet it’s as if he needs the other person to see and feel it too in order to be sure of it. ‘I wonder do you feel to-day… For me, I touched a thought, I know, / Has tantalised me many times…’ It is exactly that appeal to be understood, but contradictorily, the phrase itself evades sense. He uses the physical word ‘touched’ to show direct contact with mental stuff, and only recovers the language of mind, ‘I know’, when he’s talking about the earlier remembered encounters with the thought. It’s as if the sense of the idea were too fresh to sustain knowledge. It’s only when it belongs in the past that he can talk securely about it. He can’t be plain because the idea is too young or too full of its own energy to settle into words, and his language – for all its zest – comes helplessly after the event.

That’s better isn’t it? He’s not being willfully obscure but struggling to entice the experience into words. In many ways, it feels as if the outward relationship between ‘you’ and ‘I’ is really a secret way to tangle with that inward relationship between the poet and the tantalising sense. It’s a tremendously active poem, in which the ‘I’ is trying to get the spider-thread sense into open present tense.

Just as with the chapter heading idea, try tracing the ways in which the poet attempts to capture the thought: ‘Help me to hold it’, ‘Hold it fast!’ The first attempts are grasping, and it’s a wonderfully physical picture, a kind of butterfly-netting expedition in which the lady is asked to assist: ‘it left / The yellowing fennel, run to seed / There…’. Then later in the poem, almost as soon as he’s said ‘Hold it fast!’, two things happen that over-turn those terms. She gets equal billing (‘us’ now rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’), and the attempt becomes a matter of alignment to the colossal pattern of the universe rather than that tableau of nineteenth-century playfulness: ‘Let us; O my dove, / Let us be unashamed of soul, / As earth lies bare to heaven above. / How is it under our control / To love or not to love’.

It’s grand language. I’m not altogether sure what it means, but it’s fine in its expression. It feels as though he has got something clear – though from this position, perhaps it is really a poem of seduction rather than a poem about that fleeting thread of feeling. Whichever it is, it’s a big arrival to understand that the desired element comes where the mind stops trying, as something beyond ‘our control’. It’s true about reading poetry too. It’s when you read without distance, unashamed of soul, hearing in the poem your own immediate worries and wants, that the poem really is getting read. Then the difficulty is not that of hard language only, but the more serious difficulty of life-size attention. Being scared, in that context, makes perfect sense.

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