Tag Archives: St.Patrick

Not waving…

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

I first read Stevie Smith’s poem at school and could make neither head nor tail of it, yet this morning, lying in the dark, the lines above came to me and resonated. They seem to me to capture perfectly that sense of being trapped in a despair that is impossible to communicate. It is a commonplace now to observe that we say ‘I’m fine’ when the opposite is true, and yet the psychology of it is complex – it is not that we could just say instead ‘actually, I’m not fine’ and make all well – because one aspect of the despair is that you cannot say how you feel; you cannot in fact act to save yourself at all – you can only wave as you drown.

I was going to add  ‘ – and hope that your conventional gesture is understood as a cry for help’ but the point is that you do not hope for anything – that is what despair consists of. You hold two thoughts in parallel but can do nothing to bring them about: you think, ‘if only someone would come and rescue me, say kind words, simply touch me, all would be well’ yet at the same time it seems quite impossible for you to initiate such an act: you cannot say, ‘hold me, touch me’ – because somehow the asking would alter it, turn it from a gesture of love to – what? – one of pity, perhaps, or indulgence – ‘You are only doing this because I asked, not because you feel like it.’

How puritanical and ungenerous despair makes us! ‘What I want is a spontaneous gesture of affection which I have done nothing to elicit.’ And not only do you not hope, you almost relish the fact that you know the gesture will not be forthcoming, because that will prove that you were right to despair in the first place, that you are not loved, that no-one cares that you are drowning. It is easy to see the strong link that exists between pride and despair.

(At the back of my mind I wonder if there is not also a link between reason and despair: it seems to me that when I am at my bleakest, I also feel that I am being at my most rational: it is reason that persuades me there is no way out, reason that persuades me that action is futile – yet I do not say this to condemn reason (which seems to me a most valuable thing) but only perhaps to be wary of the use we can make of it – it is the perversity of despair that it uses our strongest tools against us, a point I will come back to).

It is little wonder that I did not understand Stevie Smith’s poem as a boy, though I was accounted good at English, and I’m sure I grasped intellectually whatever explanation we were given, at least sufficiently to reproduce it for an examiner (one of the great exercises in futility that we have allowed ourselves to mistake for education – by all means encourage young people to read poetry and make of it what they will and can, but don’t examine them on it; just let it do its work. Literature, Art, Music need no supporting structure: exposure and opportunity is the thing. Then, when people are enthralled, they will learn about it because they want to).

As a boy, I simply lacked the experience of life to – do what? – I am conscious of avoiding what seems the obvious choice of words, ‘to know what that poem meant’, because I am wary of ascribing meaning to something as if that was definitive (though, as a matter of fact, it is exactly that clarity we seek when we are young – ‘but what does it mean? How can he be dead yet still moaning?’).

When we are young our feelings are enormously powerful but without any subtlety (which is hardly to be wondered at): we really do feel we might die of a broken heart, and equally that we might soar to the heavens if only the right person would look at us the right way; in the same way, we want all our causes to be black and white – we are impatient with any suggestion of shading, any hint that there might be something to be said on both sides of the argument. We want to know the right answer (and not hear there isn’t one, or that perhaps there is more than one).

It is only with the unfolding of life that our feeling, like our palate, becomes more refined and we acquire a taste for the subtle rather than the strong (ask a young man to make you a curry if you have any doubt on this). But this is scarcely news. However, what interests me about my experience with the Stevie Smith example is the mechanism involved, because it strikes me as one that is of fundamental importance.

Rather than say ‘I knew exactly what Stevie Smith meant’ I would sooner say ‘that line resonated with me’. Now, this is no mere pretentious dressing-up of a plain concept in fancy language to make it (or the writer) sound more impressive – rather it has to do with that difference alluded to above, between the youthful desire for clarity and the more mature realisation that there is a lot to be said for vagueness, for being open to interpretation (Wittgenstein somewhere speaks of the error of ‘making the vague precise’ which is something else I shall return to).

When I say ‘resonated’ I am trying to pin down the feeling it gave me – a sense of recognition (what someone else of my acquaintance terms an ‘aha!’ – meaning the moment when something comes to you and makes you exclaim). What interests me particularly is what it is that you are recognising –  and it is notable that another exclamation we use in these circumstances is ‘that’s right!’ We sense a rightness, an aptness, in whatever it is – it rings true.

That ‘ringing true’ is, I think, our sharing in the artist’s intuition – it is the instant of seeing or sensing something like she did when she made the line – whether it is a line of poetry or music or in a drawing. (and it resonates rather than means because this is something the artist did and felt rather than set out to say) In similar circumstances we speak of  ‘seeing the truth of something’ and it is generally accompanied by a desire, not to explain whatever it is (which is often impossible), but to draw others’ attention to it – ‘just look at/read/listen to that’ we say, with the firm conviction that the same thing that has become apparent to us will become apparent to others (it doesn’t always work, of course – some people ‘get it’ while others don’t).

(In this connection, consider Eliot’s response on being asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree” –  ‘I meant, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree”.’)

It seems to me that I am approaching, by a circuitous route, something I spoke of the other day, namely St Patrick and the shamrock, and the mystery of what it is we understand when we grasp an explanation that is couched in metaphorical terms – but that is matter for another day.

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More on Metaphor: St Patrick and the Queen of Tropes

If we are to rescue metaphor from the charge of disrepute, of being essentially dishonest, saying something is what it is not, then we have to look at it differently.

For a start, considering metaphor as a figure of speech is not helpful, for then it it is ranked with a host of others, most with uncouth-looking Greek-derived names, such as anacoluthon, syllepsis and zeugma (the terrible non-identical twins), metonymy, meiosis, synecdoche, aposiopesis and hypallage.  Being able to say which is which is seen as cleverness and commended (as I know – it used to be my stock-in-trade) while all the time the far greater game being played out under our noses is overlooked.

Even as a figure of speech or literary device, metaphor could be taught better. It is remarkable how many examples still use nouns – that sadly threadbare and moth-eaten old lion, who is forever ‘in the fray’ or ‘in the fight’ and for whom even Chambers can do no better than substitute a tiger. As Aristotle observed long ago, the real power of metaphor as a literary device lies in the choice of verbs: ‘this ulcer feeds on the flesh of my foot’ is the rather disgusting but effective instance he quotes, if I recall. Even the dear old lion gets a little breath of life if we say of someone that he mauled his opponent. Likewise if we speak of a crowd ‘surging’ we are likening it to a wave, with a suggestion of unified, fluid and powerful motion, though to be sure, familiarity has probably blinded us to that particular image.

Unexpectedness is certainly part of the effect of metaphor when it is used as a literary device: it is an implied comparison that works by substitution – we expect one word – ‘the chancellor spoke’ – but are given another – ‘he bleated’ – and by implication we are invited to compare the chancellor to a sheep. Put another way, a metaphor is an invitation to ‘see it like this.’ The masters of the unexpected in this respect were those same metaphysical poets that Vita Sackville-West refers to in her definition of metaphor. For them, it is all about wit and ingenuity, taking the most unlikely pairing and contriving to show a resemblance: Donne’s The Flea is a prime example –

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

But the startling or ingenious comparison, though it may be what brings metaphor to most people’s attention, is only a small part of what it does, and not the most important. Where metaphor comes into its own is as a tool of thought, a way of understanding – that simple invitation, ‘see it like this’, will, if we follow it, lead us into some strange and remarkable places.

When I first started thinking of this seriously, some thirty six years ago, I was an eager student of philosophy, and that coloured my approach strongly. I was much under the influence of early Wittgenstein – his ‘picture theory’ of language – and wrestling with his somewhat later concept, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ But what now enthralled me was another kind of use: the distinction between literal and figurative.

I had been thinking about Time, and was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no language proper to it – all the words we used were borrowed from Space, or spatial relations – Time had length, it was before and after, and so on. We could not speak of Time directly, but only in terms of other things: a clear instance of what Vita Sackville-West had described as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ My excitement at this was soon swallowed up in a greater one: it seemed to me that I had discovered the firm bank from which the bridge of metaphor sprang before it vanished midway in the fog.

It appeared to me that the literal meaning of all the terms which were applied figuratively to Time could all be explained, illustrated indeed, with reference to Space – in fact, I recall essaying an OHP presentation (don’t smile, it was cutting-edge in those days) to demonstrate this very point. What interested and excited me was the realisation that figurative use did not alter meaning; on the contrary, it relied on retaining the same meaning, but transferring it to a new context (and of course ‘transfer’ in Latin is etymologically identical to ‘metaphor’ in Greek). The meaning was not altered, but extended, from its original, literal context, where we understood it plainly, and applied to a new context, with the invitation, ‘think of it like this.’

There were two things in particular that excited me about this discovery. The first was the revelation that perhaps the most important words in the language were also the most overlooked: prepositions, the (literal) meaning of which could be demonstrated clearly and unambiguously using objects in space (I envisaged myself making my OHP presentation to a Martian). Prepositions, it seemed to me, denoted spatial relations: that is what they meant, how we understood them.

And prepositions were everywhere.

I was struck by just how many words had, as a key component, some preposition, though often in classical guise – substance, that which stands under (and compare the English ‘understand’ which literally means the same – how exciting is that?!) circumstances, what stands around, synthesis (putting together) analysis (literally, loosening up) symbolism (throwing together) preventing (coming before), the delightful adumbration, shadowing forth, metaphor itself, of course, a carrying over or across – the list seemed endless, and the presence of spatial relations as metaphorical components of words so ubiquitous, that as a young man I actually did envisage, as a piece of research, reading my way through the dictionary and making a note of all the etymologies that involved it.

It will seem a huge leap from that to speaking of St Patrick, the shamrock and the Trinity, but I recall making it at the time, because it seemed to me to illustrate very neatly the other thing that excited me about this discovery, namely that if all our metaphors were ultimately derived from spatial relations, then a three-dimensional world was implied in our language and, hence, our thought (implied, by the way, is another metaphor – ‘folded up’ – and I recall getting rather excited by the distinction between explication – unfolding – and explanation – smoothing out); but if all the imagery we used to understand what we could not come at directly (like Time) was drawn from the world of objects and space, did that not exert some kind of limit on thought itself? Were we really understanding new things at all, or only seeing them in terms of what we already understood?

Hence St Patrick, who famously explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish king by using the shamrock: three leaves, three persons; but only one stalk, so one God. (It was a witty Irishman* who neatly embodied the counterargument to this, when a friend suggested that three men travelling in the one carriage provided a perfect illustration of the  doctrine of the Trinity – ‘ah no,’ says our man, ‘for that I would need to see one man travelling in three separate carriages.’)

The point is, of course, that the King goes away thinking he has grasped the concept of the Triune God, but in reality has only understood the structure of the shamrock. What had me near gibbering with excitement as a young man was the possibility that perhaps, in everything we thought, we were all being similarly duped.

*it was in fact an Englishman, Richard Porson – my apologies.

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