In his ‘Preamble’ to Ceaseless Music, Steven Matthews discusses one of Wordsworth’s continuing challenges to us, how we can only be taken ‘beyond everyday custom and ordinariness’ through ‘a direct experience of the natural world.’ Last summer I had such an experience. It came at the end of eight or nine hours of walking on the Western edge of the Lake District during which one of the sounds accompanying me was that of the river Irt as it carries the waters of Wast Water to the Irish Sea at Ravenglass. It is alternately deeply pooled and fast flowing. I crossed the Irt four times, the last being at Forest Bridge. Here the dense trees and the by now darkly lit water made me aware I needed to keep up my pace to reach Nether Wasdale before true darkness fell. But a stone’s throw from the bridge, at Cinderdale crossroads, the light uncannily blazed up again as the valley came into view. My aloneness in that place made me intensely aware of the presence of the animals in the greenly lit fields and particularly the cluster of trees in the triangular shape made by the quiet crossing of ancient roads. It being early July, the sun had only just begun its retreat from the Tropic of Cancer, and it was possible in that place and at that hour to believe night could be permanently held at bay. I felt both acutely alive and like my own ghost.
In November, reading Ceaseless Music, a line from Book VII of ‘The Prelude’ which Steven quotes in his chapter ‘Ceaseless Musics’ struck me: ‘Through the whole summer have I been at rest.’ Wordsworth is both wiser and kinder to himself than I am when I have periods of not writing. I paused at this line and thought self-critically of my unproductive summer. And when the memory of my Wasdale walk came to me, I knew that the reason I hadn’t even recorded it in my journal was because part of me wanted to leave it outside language. Why haul it in and define it? Why fumble around looking for words which would never be commensurate with the experience of those moments? And I also knew that what I experienced at Cinderdale would lead me deep into a Wordsworthian poetic which immediately raised troubling questions for me as a poet to do with accommodating that poetic and that sensibility to today’s readership.
Holding these thoughts, I turned the page to find a quote from the Victorian writer, Walter Pater, who was critical of Wordsworth’s attachment to ‘that old dream of anima mundi, of the world as a place of spirit and religious power’. I’ve often found that poems happen at intersections, two things coming together which when fused will make a third. So when ‘the old dream of anima mundi’ met the potent images of my midsummer walk, I set aside Steven’s book for a while and wrote the poem which is my response to it and which takes ‘Anima Mundi’ as its title. Fittingly, later in the same chapter, Steven argues that ‘nature animate…is the poet’s care, as ‘shepherd’, to mediate for the auditor, to see the beauty of, to recreate it for us’. The responsibility of witness which Steven is talking about here was something I felt particularly keenly while writing ‘Anima Mundi.’ In the poem there’s a gradual intensification of that witness which, after the Wordsworthian naming of places, shifts into another gear when I acknowledge that this isn’t going to be a poem about the kingfisher I saw fishing on the river Irt in the morning because that would be ‘the easy part’; it would be a poem in which, for better or worse, I would attempt the difficult part – what happened at Cinderdale at the end of the day. Without intending it to be, therefore, my poem became an illustration of Steven’s own observation that ‘reading is a way of being made to coincide with yourself.’
If it is a poem which is in dialogue with Wordsworth and with Steven’s reflections on ‘The Prelude’, it is also a poem which is in dialogue with itself: it is a commentary on the process of writing, of composition, whilst simultaneously performing that very activity. Beginning with an emptiness (‘I wrote nothing of summer’), it then dismisses the kingfisher’s flashiness as too readily yielding up poetic material, before capturing the moment the speaker understands that it is only through the act of writing (‘as I write, / as I write now’) that her rhapsodic experience becomes fully translatable and accessible to her. (I was tempted to italicise ‘write now’ in this line because it brought to mind so forcibly Bishop’s italicised ‘write it’ in ‘One Art.’)
In part, Steven’s Ceaseless Music is a sustained argument for the practice of walking (‘the man who walks is the man who reads the world around him’). New research has shown something which Wordsworth must have known known intuitively, that there is no better way to restore and to refresh the human brain than walking in a wood. And from the rich experience of reading Ceaseless Music, came my poem ‘Anima Mundi’, in essence a poetic record of my footsteps one long July day by the river Irt, through woods, over bridges and stiles and fences, along bridleways and indistinct paths, up farmhouse lonnings, down the slopes of less-than-four-metres-wide tranquil roads where weeds grew down the centre like nature’s answer to white lines, and finally to the road I most wanted to take and didn’t, the one which led ‘into the heart of the valley, the silence.’
I wrote nothing of summer, high or late,
nothing of the kingfisher fishing on
the pooled river Irt, nothing of the loosestrife
and downy oat-grass I lay in while I watched;
and that was the easy part, the flashy
feathers of morning, the sheep in circles
of shade beneath ash and oak, generous
sycamore by midday. I’d left my car
in Nether Wasdale, walked to Strangends,
Foxbield Wood, crossed the river at Hollins,
and then Santon Bridge, Mecklin Bridge,
through Greengate Wood, over Forest Bridge.
At Cinderdale I expected dusk; the word
itself was full of it, the cinders of the day.
But at the triangular crossroads, a place
steeped in human pause, something palpable
as the heat from a coal fire in winter
blazed up in my face. The highest reaches
of the beech were flame and they were water.
The green sun, the red cattle, the white sheep –
everything primary-bright, solid, and yet
see-through. For a long while as I looked
into the heart of the valley, the silence,
I could only think of opposites – it was life
or death I was being shown. But as I write,
as I write now, I think it was continuance,
or to use a word as poetic as Cinderdale –
About the Author
Helen Farish was born in Cumbria in 1962, where she now lives. She has been a Fellow at Hawthornden International Centre for Writers and was the first female Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust (2004-05). She has also been a Visiting Lecturer at Sewanee University, Tennessee, a Visiting Scholar at the University of New Hampshire, and a lecturer in the department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
Her debut collection Intimates (Cape, 2005), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her audio CD Helen Farish reading from her poems was released by the Poetry Archive in 2009. Her second poetry book, Nocturnes at Nohant: The Decade of Chopin and Sand, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2012. Her third collection, The Dog of Memory, published by Bloodaxe in 2016, was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year 2017. Helen Farish was also a Writer of the Year Finalist in the Cumbria Life Culture Awards 2017.
More information can be found at: www.helenfarish.co.uk.