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J H Prynne and Beginnings.

I've been re-reading Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer which is a kind of collation of this foundational newsletter for all things Cambridge. In it Prynne writes a lot about old stuff, he corresponds with Peter Riley as to the Neolithic and A Pedantic Note in Two Parts which deals with runes and etymology in the early medieval period. This got me to thinking about later criticism and poetry which also deals with the roots of things.

I also have an interest in beginnings but I think I like to strike a balance between thinking about the poem as it appears on the page and considering the wider context but I'm not convinced that thinking about beginnings provides us with adequate explanations. Of course this balance isn't alway easy to maintain and one of my tendencies is to read some work as historical documents and/or to get carried away with etymology. For example, I read most of Piers Plowman as an account of the social, economic and religious concerns of the second half of the 14th century rather than a poem. On the other hand, I read David Jones' brilliant The Anathemata as a poem and get more than a little irritated by the tendency of some academics to place greater emphasis on the theological and literary contexts.

With regard to Prynne, I'll start with A Note on Metal which first appeared in the second series of The Intelligencer and again in the collected Poems. This looks and reads like an essay rather than a poem but is apparently regarded of sufficient importance to appear alongside the poems. It concerns the origins of coinage as a means of exchange. Given that the subject matter isn't literary (deliberately fuzzy term), it's inclusion here seems odd unless there is a subtler point being made that I don't understand (yet). The essential Prynne Bibliography site tells me that " Seeta Chaganti advances the claim that 'A Note on Metal' is a prose poem" to which the obvious response is "No, it isn't".

Coincidentally, after writing the above yesterday, a book arrived on one of those slightly dodgy free book sites entitled The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece which, unsurprisingly, leads me to believe that Prynne was right fifty years ago to suggest:

....We are almost completely removed from presence as weight, and at this point the emergence of a complete middle class based on the technique of this removal becomes a real possibility. So that by at this stage, there is the possible contrast of an exilic (left-wing) history of substance.

And yet the shifts are off-set and multiple, and in the earlier stages are accompanied by extensions of newly sharpened by exactly that risk. The literal is not magic, for the most part, and it's how the power of displacement side-slipped into some entirely other interest which is difficult, not a simple decision that any one movement is towards ruin. Stone is already the abstraction of standing, of balance: and dying is still the end of a man's self-enrichment, the 'reason' why he does it. The North American Indians developed no real metallurgy at all, at any stage of their history. The whole shift and turn is not direct (as Childe, too insistently would have us believe), but rather the increasing speed of displacement which culminates only later in a critical overbalance of intent. If we are confident over the more developed consequences, at the unrecognised turn we are still at a loss to say where or why.

(The wonderful 'overbalance of intent' phrase is noted as 'urban totalitarianism')

This hypothesis about the beginnings of the middle class and an exilic history I'd question quite a lot but it does indicate this working through of origins and what they might signify- whether or not this is part of the response to Peter Riley's Archaeological Guesswork. Even if the middle class did 'emerge' at this period then I'm not sure how this helps us unless it's a story of decline from the neolithic onwards- this 'abstraction of standing, of balance' which is a further extrapolation of things that we really don't know very much about.

Moving reluctantly on to A Pedantic Note in Two Parts which is concerned with the English rune 'wynne' and various aspects of its use. The format is odd and the tone is a kind of tetchy intensity. We start with a reference to 'the new Oxford Dictionary of Etymological Evasion & Cowardice" with regard to what it has to say about 'winsome'. In opposition to this, it is suggested that 'wynne' stands for bliss. The second part then considers its use in connection with place names and puts forward the idea that it might stand for a field of bliss, a kind of extension of Eden.

For my meanderings, there is a specific point of interest (Home Office joke) at the end of Part One:

The proto Germanic rune, wunjo, "bliss" is now a name no longer audible at our current wave-length: and being a total opponent of names the Oxford Etym. Dict. will do nothing to take us back, to the sounds of our proper selves.

Now, I don't care that much, although I probably should, about this or any other rune but I am tempted to 'do a Prynne' (technical term) on 'proper' by looking at each definition as well as all possible etymologies in order to work out what this statement might be about. I'm going to resist that temptation mainly because it would only amuse me and proceed to think about what might be meant by this particular sound and whether it has any significance for the work that followed. For the purposes of this survey I'm taking the adjective to describe something apt, fitting and authentic. The notion of the self is heavy with stuff that I'm going to ignore and rely instead on some idea of us as individuals. Even in this state of simplification I find that I'm struggling on two fronts:

As ever with Prynne, these are good struggles to have because I do have this interest (obsession) with words and where they may have come from, I am interested in and read a lot about the past without being quite sure why. It could be that I like a story and I enjoy watching how a set of events might 'unfold'. I'm not that interested in explanations so much as in the descriptions of systems and structures that seem to have been important at the time. I'm also of the view that the past and present are far too complex to succumb to either a left or a right-wing 'history of substance'. With language, I can spend many a happy hour with the OED and take great delight in falling across words used in the past that have fallen into disuse. I'll look at primary and subsidiary definitions and usage but I'll rarely look at etymology because, again I'm not that interested in the kind of linear explanations that this seems to provide.

So, I'm not unsympathetic to this kind of endeavour, I just don't think it's very helpful. With regard to the poetry, there are at least a couple of places where this tendency appears to emerge. When I first began to pay some attention to Prynne (2009 or thereabouts) I began with The Warring of the Clans because it seemed to be the most 'direct' piece of work and thus might give me a foothold on the lower slopes of engagement. It is one poem with the exception of four six line stanzas in italics at the beginning. These are the first two:



At some moment in the clan's prehistory
     there was panic that the high points would not
be completed on time. In the sense of "what
     counts is strictly under age", emotional
negativism and fatuous sincerity are states
     like a loose rein on quite the wrong horse.

The clan, tres primitif,  in variable kinship with
      notes on anomaly, turned pig-style right down
on the shell. Outlook vaulted with crystal brows,
      in fact they blanked out for inventions
about battle. The rents were needed from that idea
      to revoke greed and invite swift cunning.    

The poem itself seems to be an oddish mix of the v old and the contemporary, faces are deliberately scarred and painted but reference is also made to 'option trading' and 'shorting the stock'. I am however going to ignore this and merely point to the first line of each stanza both of which are pretty clear and relate to a time before writing. If we take 'rents' in the economic sense then this would perhaps tie in with A Note on Metal and the earlier correspondence with Peter Riley. Or it might not.

Moving rapidly ahead we come to Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, the text of the William Matthews Lecture that Prynne gave in 1992. This contains a detailed refutation of all things Saussure. especially 'the arbritrariness of the linguistic sign'. As might be expected, this is densely but cogently argued and, in terms of beginnings sets out the problem as:

As is by now extremely well known Saussure claimed that the essential subject of linguistic theory is the state of a language at a given point or stage in its history, as a system of signs and signifying relations, rather than the sequence of its evolutionary history through time.

My interest here relates to the promotion of an 'evolutionary history' rather than arguments about the sign because it carries strong echoes of 'the sounds of our proper selves' referred to above. What might also be of interest that Saussure's position has spawned an increasingly broad field of relativist thinking which always has been anathema to whatever the Cambridge School might be.

Having confirmed to myself where this interest in beginnings comes from. in the literary field at least, I'm tempted to reiterate the relativist and or postmodern stance that all types of history are fundamentally suspect and tell us much more about ourselves in the present than they do about the past. Instead I'm going to advance the arduity tendency to see things as more complicated and fuzzy than they at first appear. It strikes my small brain that a language can best be viewed as a complex adaptive system. The Wikipedia article on the CAS quotes Paul Cilliers who identified these characteristics:

I'm very aware that this tentative and provisional suggestion opens up whole areas of debate but my point is that an 'evolutionary history through time' is only one component in the system, especially of literary language, and that the other factors need to be borne in mind throughout that process. Given the extreme difficulty of understanding such a system that existed in the past, I'd also suggest that the starting point has to be now rather than then even though modelling the present may currently be beyond our reach.

We now come to philology which gets several favourable mentions in Stars and may be especially important in the attention Prynne pays to Shakespeare, George Herbert and Wordsworth. In his excellent Philology, the Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities Robert Turner describes this as "all studies of language" which in the nineteenth century had three 'distinct modes':

  1. textual philology;
  2. theories or the origin and nature of language;
  3. comparative structure and historical evolution of languages and language families.

When I first read Prynne's Field Notes I have to admit that I had little idea at all what philology might be so I was unable to recognise that this extended reading into Wordsworth's The Solitary Reader might be philological. There was however a particular paragraph that stuck in my mind. It relates to "O listen!" which is the first part of line 7. This is the first paragraph:

This impassioned expression of strong wish or command (perhaps invitation) is full of paradox, with its entwined homophonic etymologies of desire and inclination. there is also a distinct if refined lexical nuance, as set out in OED 2: listen, is divided into sense 1a (transitive): 'To hear attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to (a person speaking or what is said). Now arch. and poet., and sense 2a (intransitive): "To give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance; to make an effort to hear something; to 'give ear'. These sense allocations are set very close; but the first bears towards 'pay attention with the ear strongly and intently, so as to receive the full import of what (someone or something) is to be heard', and is marked as transitive whereas the second bears towards 'make an effort to hear what may be faint or indistinct, so as to not miss the sound of someone or something', and is marked as intransitive (normally with to). In the imperative mood as here in line 7 the grammatical force of either form fits equally well; yet sense 1 mostly overrides sense 2 (both in line 7 and also potentially in line 29), by virtue of a greater intensity and vehemence. We are not distracted from hearing as unable quite to catch the sound, but rather focussing our full attention on the inflow of sound-presence into consciousness and feeling-awareness. This would expand the grammar as 'O listen the sound' and not 'O listen to the sound' which seems in error to the modern ear; but OED 2 cites instances from Milton, Southey, Byron and Tennyson to demonstrate this difference. Aptly comparable would be Antony's injunction in Julius Caesar: and now Octauius IV.1.40-1), and Wordsworth's 'Listen! the mighty Being is awake', from 'it is a Beauteous evening, calm and free' of 1802 (line 6); compare also 'O listen, how they wind away' from 'There was a spot', in Appendix B, Poetical Works, [V], p. 342 (and see above, S4).

I've quoted the above in full because it's wonderful but also because it seems to meet the above definition of philology as it was practice over a hundred years ago. I find it wonderful because it gives me another perspective and suggests a few other ways of thinking about literature. Some might argue that this is taking a very large and lengthy hammer to crack a fairly insignificant nut and they may have a point but the issue here is whether anything is explained by thinking about earlier beginnings, if the line from Shakespeare gives us a closer understanding of how this particular usage came about. I don't think that it does, it may be that a purely linguistic reading might bring us a little close but I'm still of the view that all such attempts are, at best, informed guesswork and don't begin to bring us any closer to 'the sounds of our proper selves'. In the interests of fairness and the whole picture I've now read the OED 2 definition of listen in the above sense and it turns out that the first recorded use is dated at 1225, a linguistically complex and still mysterious time when Early Middle English was entwined with both Latin and Anglo Norman. The etymology identifies Old Northumbrian and Middle High German as the identifiable word origin.

Before getting back to Prynne's poetry, I'd like to pay some attention to what is said of particular note in of the other thirteen paragraphs devoted to 'O listen'::

The motive for ardency is in part supplied by the scarcely bridgeable bridge between the possibly actual and the intensely desired the two senses of listen); even in deep memory must remain a disruption to unified human consciousness , which may in this era locate on of the primal tasks of the poet, or of a poet of this kind to make danger or desire upon the surface of the universal earth 'Work like a sea'.

The quoted phrase is from Wordsworth but I want to pay attention to 'deep memory': is this referring to individual memory or to some idea of our collective past? What exactly might deep memory, in either context refer to? A cursory glance at the interweb reveals that there is 'deep processing'. a theoretical model which involves "Semantic processing, which happens when we encode the meaning of a word and relate it to similar words with similar meaning". Is this what Prynne is referring to or does it refer to this 'sound or our proper selves'? Phrases like 'one of the primal tasks of the poet' continue to fill me with suspicion because of the vagueness of the adjective and its portentous overtones.

Finally there is Kazoo Dreamboats or, On What There Is from 2011. At the back of the poem there is a list of 'reference cues', one of which is taken from The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Circle, an essay by Richard Bradley. This is the passage that Prynne quotes and it relates to a site at Tomnaverie in Aberdeenshire:

The original cremation pyre was placed where the heavens met the earth and where the inhabitants of nearby settlements could observe smoke rising into the air. It was also located in the one place on the hilltop where the position of a distant mountain would correspond to that of the summer moon. The subsequent development of the site gave monumental expression to this relationship, gradually focusing that particular alignment until it was narrowed down to the space between the tallest stones.

This is the final quote in the poem and, again, would seem to indicate a strong interest in and a bias towards our Neolithic past. Furthermore, Bradley give us this in the following paragraph:

If the pyre had served to link the ancestors to the sky and the distant mountains, now a far more specific relationship was involved. The monument was closed to the living and only the light of the moon could cross the recumbent stone to illuminate the dead.

So, this prehistoric concern with and focus on its own ancestral past may reflect Prynne's similar interest in our linguistic past. There is however this 'if' that qualifies Bradley's hypothesis and I would only add that the last hundred years have seen seemingly endless debates about the nature and purpose of the circles, all of which are still examples of inspired guesswork.