One of the more depressing trends in public discourse about the arts (and, for that matter, education) has been the compulsion to justify what we do in economic terms: theatre brings £3 billion a year into the UK economy; reading poetry can relieve stress [and save you/the NHS money]; Shakespeare is an effective way to teach strategy to MBA students; etc. All of which is fine as far as it goes, but it cedes the argument by engaging on the enemy’s terms: for anything to have value, it has to translate into money.
This is partly a function of the funding landscape and the competition for scarce grants. But that in itself is symptomatic of an underlying cultural disease, against which the true value of the arts (if that term means anything) is directly opposed. Art is a form of serious play. It has no purpose beyond itself, and for this reason it can do things that everyday utile activities cannot. Poetry changes how we think and feel. In fiction we can encounter other minds; in music, pattern and form. The arts let us connect — tentatively, imperfectly, but profoundly — with what it means to be human. And they do that precisely because they have no other purpose.
Deep down, we know this. People who never normally read poetry reach for it at weddings or funerals, in those moments when we see through life’s surface distraction. Art belongs to kairos time, to the light beyond the cave, to those liminal glimpses between dog and wolf when familiar things become strange.
Normality has dissolved in recent weeks. After decades of hiding death away in special buildings and behind euphemisms like “passed away”, mortality is once again part of life’s background noise. Anxiety is everywhere. Many of us are shut away at home, painfully conscious of the risks that others are facing to try to bring the epidemic under control, and of the threat to lives and livelihoods around the world. And, just as a deserted city can suddenly seem more profoundly and dangerously itself, part of what we are seeing is what’s really always there.
Poetry belongs to this world of dislocation and uncertainty: its dawn raids on the quotidian are simply its way of connecting with our distracted minds. This morning I read JH Prynne’s “Against Hurt” and had to struggle not to burst into tears — not because of anything it said, but because that contact with the liminal was almost too much to bear. And, in a strange and very real way, that helped.
Poetry makes nothing happen, but it connects us to what matters.
Below is perhaps my favourite poem, Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”. I first read it when I was 16, when my dad brought home a library copy of Wyatt’s poems and explained how he in turn had encountered the poem in school. Over the years I’ve come to understand it more and differently, to see new things either fleetingly or with the force of permanent memory. It has been a companion in good times and bad, and it runs as a unifying thread through my most recent book.
The poem was written in a world both like and unlike ours, a little over halfway between the Black Death and Defoe’s plague year. Wyatt was a courtier and a disastrously-unsuccessful diplomat. He moved between worlds and languages, fusing Petrarch with Chaucer and the English lyric tradition. Surviving in the toxic atmosphere of Henry VIII’s court, he nonetheless spent time in the Tower and narrowly escaped execution. He understood the precarity of life and the permanent background noise of mortality.
“They flee from me” is a poem of memory and loss. It is also a love poem. Auden cautioned that anyone whose partner starts writing love poems should be worried, because it signals that they are more concerned with their own feelings than with you. He was largely right: the overwhelming majority of love poems are cripplingly solipsistic. The person to whom they are addressed or about whom they are written might as well not exist, and in the poem itself they don’t, being at best a facsimile. “They flee from me” is one of the rare exceptions. The moment that the poem recalls is made painfully real, and the unnamed woman is both a presence and an agent — not just because she acts (“she me caught” rather than the other way round, with the inversion emphasised by the jagged word-order) or because she is the only one who speaks, but because the poem successfully enacts an encounter between two whole people, and in doing so conveys something as precious and rare in poetry as it is in real life: total reciprocity of desire.
What better way to face the anxiety of lockdown? The poem speaks as powerfully in a garden in Oxford during an epidemic as it did to its first Tudor readers. Enjoy.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream; I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.