Attempting, once again, to restart the long-moribund Poem of the Week feature, though I imagine that the definition of  “week” is going to remain flexible.* You’ll note that this entry doesn’t have the usual linkage and fun with GoogleBooks and Wikipedia – I’m somewhat short of internet in my new apartment, so am trying this crazy method of writing offline instead. Among other things, this means I didn’t bother to look up the date of the poem. And this is all pretty much just stream of consciousness with the occasional nod towards close reading. (Even more than it was before.) If we hate this, we can figure out a way to do the other thing.

This week’s theme? Don’t just do something, sit there!**

296. Magna Est Veritas – Coventry Patmore

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

Where, twice a day,

The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,

Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,

I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail:

When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;

The truth is great, and shall prevail,

When none cares whether it prevails or not.

I was on an honest-to-God vacation last week, which included a couple of days at the San Francisco Zen Center (you wanna talk about “sit me down…”) and, more resonantly, several more in Santa Cruz, which is on a bay and includes the ocean crashing against high cliffs, though perhaps with more surfing culture than Patmore had in mind. Nevertheless, I was initially drawn to this poem because it seemed to resonate with my experience of Northern California.

And I’m attracted to this poem because, like so many of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s selections, it doesn’t entirely shy away from the commonplace and the cliché, while at the same time twisting it just enough to be interesting, to briefly undermine the typical. It doesn’t seem particularly earthshattering to me to that “tumultuous life” would be contrasted with “great repose,” though at the same time I wonder what’s doing the living and the reposing. That we are near cliffs and away from the town suggests that we are not witnessing a bustling port scene, but this is pretty thin as far as nature poetry goes. I mean, not that I think he’s trying to write a poetry of nature here. There’s just a certain extravagance there, as if he’s going out of his way to refuse the description.

Same thing with the following lines. Really, the tide goes in and out every day? Thanks, Victorian poetry! But there is something incredibly striking about the use of “purposeless, glad” to describe the ocean. At first glance, I took it as a welcome change from the fraught, churning, and highly overdetermined “Sea of faith” that we all associate with “Dover Beach.” (And there is something of the anti-“Dover Beach” here now that I think about it.) I don’t say that just because I enjoy poking Matthew Arnold every chance I get. We shouldn’t, I think, underestimate the effort that it took – takes – to see the natural world outside of a religious discourse. It’s not just a matter of having to deal with Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” – sometimes it’s harder to let go of the narrative when you’re looking at something beautiful. (I participated in various forms of Christian camping for over a decade; I know that of which I speak.) On a closer examination, the “purposeless” also seems to gesture towards the Kantian sublime, reminding us that aesthetic judgments are supposed to be ends in themselves, or almost no ends at all, and that the vastness of the ocean itself overruns and smashes any use or purpose we might see in it. What I want to say about the “glad” is less formed right now. I was tempted just to pretend I forgot it, or that it was a way of tempering the purposelessness, but of course “glad” and “purposeless” aren’t opposites, and perhaps the image we’re supposed to have here is something more like “pure,” undirected joy – the sense that a lack of purpose (or, I would say here, a going beyond purpose) does not mean a lack of energy. It’s a hard thing to get my head around, but it suggests to me both a passage in Nietzsche about a boat without a helmsman (the “must” without the “should,” as a very dear friend and professor describes it) and what’s been presented to me recently as part of Zen practice – making your best effort without a grasping idea; aspiring without desire.

This is a lot to put on Coventry Patmore and on you, dear readers. Good thing that the poem invites us to sit down. (And there is something kind of wonderfully hypnotic about watching the waves, don’t you think?)

Are we meant to think that the act of sitting in such a place is enough to suspend our relationship with the world, at least temporarily? It’s always liberating to go on vacation and not check my email every seven seconds, to realize that I’m not as necessary to the world as it sometimes seems. (This is, of course, an easier feat to pull off after the semester’s over.) It’s liberating, but then again it can also be slightly depressing when you do get around to checking your email and it’s basically just 237 messages from the VICTORIA list, with some Friendster spam thrown in for good measure. Patmore rather ups the ante on us here, though perhaps the nod to the Analytic of the Sublime should have warned us that this was coming. We let a few letters go unanswered while we’re at the shore, and then all of the sudden we’ve slipped into a kind of deep time. Once again, there’s this return to the near-cliché—the eventual victory of truth—undermined by the last line. There’s a lot to be unpacked here, I think; at any rate, it’s not as simple as “the truth” being indifferent to particular individuals and time….the more I look at the last two lines, the more I’m inclined to read it as a specifically causal relationship—that is, the “truth” (whatever it is) will win because everyone will have stopped caring about the victory. (Initially I’d read it more as just a deep time kind of thing, that is, the truth endures beyond our human sense of time.) I wonder if this could also be read as an implicit encouragement to stop trying to push your truth to victory: just live, calm down, watch the waves. But I’m suspicious of that conclusion as well.

Over 1,100 words in (sorry, Mia!) and I haven’t yet talked about the prosody – this seems like a sin when it comes to Patmore who, as I’ve been finding out, is one of the leading lights of nineteenth-century versification. As I realized down in Philadelphia a few months ago, I don’t really have the chops for this kind of analysis. So, suffice it to say that no doubt the form of the poem is also significant and probably experimental. It might also be obvious to everyone else. Yes, this is a cop-out, but I’m sure your joy at the (possible) return of the Poem of the Week will outweigh my lack of scansion-tasticness.

*There’s a long history of this, actually. When Coleridge was putting out The Watchman, he did so every eight days to avoid the tax on weekly publications.

**Okay, so I saw that on a little sign in the San Francisco Zen Center gift shop last weekend.