Friday, July 10, 2015

`Sweet Day, So Cool, So Calm, So Bright'

Call it second-hand nostalgia: a longing for another’s longing for a past we (and they) never knew. I feel nothing comparable for anything in my personal past, and I say that not in a spirit of complaint but with the recognition that my experience has merely served to make me who I am. The nostalgia I’m trying to describe is probably rare, though it occurs with some frequency among dedicated readers and perhaps moviegoers. Let’s distinguish it from false nostalgia, about which Terry Teachout has written: “The English language needs a word whose definition would be `nostalgia for that which one has not experienced.’” I knew instinctively what Terry meant, but I mean something else.

In A Man Could Stand Up (1926), the third novel in Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, Christopher Tietjens describes another officer, Capt. McKechnie, as a “fellow [who] spread seventeenth-century atmosphere across the landscape over which the sun’s rays were beginning to flood a yellow wash.” Ford continues: “What had become of the seventeenth century? And Herbert and Donne and Crashaw and Vaughan, the Silurist? . . . Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright, the bridal of the earth and sky!” And then this:

“The only satisfactory age in England! . . . Yet what chance had it to-day? Or, still more, to-morrow? In the sense that the age of, say, Shakespeare had a chance. Or Pericles! or Augustus!”

Even as nostalgia envelopes him, Tietjens questions it, almost mocking his susceptibility to such longings. But the longing returns as Tietjens awaits another German offensive:

“The land remains . . . It remains! . . . At that same moment the dawn was wetly revealing; over there in George Herbert’s parish What was it called? . . . What the devil was its name? Oh, Hell! . . . Between Salisbury and Wilton . . . The tiny church . . . But he refused to consider the plough-lands, the heavy groves, the slow highroad above the church that the dawn was at that moment wetly revealing--until he could remember that name. . . He refused to consider that, probably even to-day, that land ran to . . . produced the stock of . . . Anglican sainthood. The quiet thing!”

Finally, Tietjens recalls the name of Herbert’s parish:

“The name Bemerton suddenly came on to his tongue. Yes, Bemerton, Bemerton, Bemerton was George Herbert's parsonage. Bemerton, outside Salisbury...The cradle of the race as far as our race was worth thinking about. He imagined himself standing up on a little hill, a lean contemplative parson, looking at the land sloping down to Salisbury spire. A large, clumsily bound seventeenth-century testament, Greek, beneath his elbow. . . Imagine standing up on a hill! It was the unthinkable thing there!”

The scene is powerfully poignant. Ford sets it up as a series of lenses in a telescope peering three centuries from the Western Front into Herbert’s day. The effect is heightened if we recognize the opening lines of Herbert’s “The Virtue”: “Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright, / The bridal of the earth and sky.” In a lecture on C.H. Sisson delivered in 1980, Geoffrey Hill looks at the same scene that struck me recently while rereading Parade’s End:

“The capacity to interfuse ideas with landscape is one of the great creative secrets: to make a tree or a field either draw out, or reciprocate, or feed images into, the life of the mind. It is a great art we become palpably aware of in Wordsworth; scarcely anyone does it more beautifully than George Eliot. Ford Madox Ford, in a passage from one of the Tietjens novels, deliberately eschews balanced reciprocity: the mind and the landscape mirroring and stabilizing each other; shows, instead, the `wind,’ `twist,’ of the process of memory and its blank-faced twin aphasia. Tietjens is in the trenches: his groping for the name of George Herbert’s parish (Bemerton) is partly an unconscious strategy to ward off shell-shocked despair and paranoia; partly the attachment of a particular religious and political vision to the soil of England itself; an intellectual sensuousness, a sensuousness of intellect: `But what chance had quiet fields, Anglican sainthood, accuracy of thought, heavy-leaved, timbered hedgerows. . . ”

Hill notes Sisson’s frequently expressed admiration for Ford, suggests these scenes in Parade’s End had a powerful influence on him, and quotes lines from Sisson’s “On My Fifty-First Birthday”:

“A great sunlit field full of lambs.
The distant perspectives are of the patched earth
With hedges creeping about. If I were to die now
No need of angels to carry me to paradise.
O Lord my God, simplify my existence.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

I like Hill's "intellectual sensuousness" and the references to the 17th century. It chimes well with TS Eliot's siting of the moment of the dissociation of sensibility in the English literary consciousness some time around the English Civil War.