J H Prynne, the Neolithic and Landscape.

This may seem a little esoteric but I'm going to try and draw on three separate publications starting in 1967 with a letter to Peter Riley in the English Intelligencer then moving on to The Solitary Reaper and Others from 2007 and ending with Kazoo Dreamboats which was published in 2011. I may also stray into A Note on Metal from 1968. The purpose of this is not to draw any conclusion nor is to promulgate any particular synthesis of the above threads but rather to survey/what was said and in what context.

This was kicked off in my head by reading the letter to Riley and recalling that Prynne makes use of an essay, The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle by Richard Bradley and then thinking about where these issues may most obviously crop up in our poets/work. I then thought about the rest of the poetry and decided that this was getting far too ambitious and I didn't want to write the book that this would require. The advantage with these three is that they aren't poems and therefore easier to grasp although I'll need to think about the use of Bradley in the context of Kazoo Dreamboats.

A digressive excuse.

I'm very aware that not all readers will have access to these three publications so I will be reprosucing reasonably lengthy extracts but my selection of extracts is obviously subjective. Other than copying out all three in their entirety, I can't think of a way round this other than to try and pick out the bits that that seem 'important' and are of potential interest to Prynne readers.

Peter Riley on British Prehistory.

I'm taking this from the excellent Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer which was published by Mountain Press in 2012 and is a treasure trove of material for all Prynne and Cambridge School obsessives everywhere. The letter is a response to Riley's Working Notes on British Prehistory or Archeological Guesswork One which is a reasonable indicator of the subject matter. The overall 'thrust' of Riley's argument is that the Neolithic was the best period of our prehistory and that things started to go badly wrong with the advent of the Bronze Age in about 1500 BC.

Now a brief note on my personal interest. I have a lifelong interest in landscape stemming from an adolescence spent on a bicycle in the glories of the North Yorks Moors. My daughter is an archaeologist whose doctorate and most of her academic life has been spent with the Neolithic. As I get older I find that I'm less clear about the idea of landscape and what it does to/for us. As an archaeology bystander, I'm also aware that the past is a very strange place and that we know very little about it- in fact the more discoveries we make, the stranger things appear to become.

Riley attributes this rupture and subsequent decline with the advent of metal tools:

and given a sudden push forwards by the intrusion (? invasion -Arrival?) of a "ruling aristocracy" from Germany (via Brittany?); - "Royal". Fox's theory: a dynastic royalty claiming descent from a god, therefore of Near East ancestry.

Anyway, a power group. Rich from the metal trade, they moved to its new centre. Wiltshire now a European trade and cult centre.

How they did it isn't clear but they arrived and TOOK OVER.

Prynne's letter to Riley

Prynne's response is typically dense and revealing as these this extract may show:

Hence my feeling that your regrets over invasion come from just these developments in the Neolithic revolution which it is possible to resent: not that the land is occupied, but that it's owned, possessed. As if the achievements of quality particular to any given phase of occupation or presence demanded some kind of telluric permanence (watch this space) in order to survive. Thus the talk is of invasion indicating not merely the fluctuating pattern of human need as a response to distance only, but some kind of bitter cultural displacement. Conquest-theory, based on our fears for the English coastline during the last war. But it doesn't work like that, at least to start with, since the Megalithic, dispersions were very probably trade-linked, and even trade routes didn't supplant the effect of presence as (with effort) a portable achievement of quality. The maritime routes in trades for metals or amber (e.g. especially axe-heads) remain hardly distinguishable from cultic pathways; for instance, any handful of practical implements could of necessary become grave-goods by no more than ritual adjustment

So, not so much about metals but much more about settlement, possession and ownership. This is a perspective that I'm familiar with and I believe still persists in certain Marxian corners. He's right to dismiss the idea of invasion and a rapid 'displacement' but I think we need a much better idea of what prehistoric 'trade' might look like before we leap to this equally reductive explanation. I don't think that 'conquest-theory' stems from WWII but from the fact that we are an island which makes any kind of incursion very Big News.

The maritime routes being indistinguishable from cultic pathways is odd, because one is over water and the other isn't, unless what's meant is the route from the site of production / extraction. I think I also need to mention my personal exasperation on the frequent use of 'cult' and 'ritual' as a means of covering up what we don't know. We do know from anthropology that groups at a similar stage of development, for example, make little or no differentiation between belief systems, the physical world and matters of trade.

This is the letter's closing paragraph:

But I can't answer your argument about the damage done by the Neolithic settlement, and even more by the metal using cultures after this, since the changes seem to me not at all on the same scale. The nomadic was thin, and very pure, as you would expect of a hunting economy. As passage becomes less real, increasingly for trade rather than life-transit, it becomes more ritualised; and a richly ambiguous adjustment alters the balance so that recognition becomes more important as it takes place more frequently (at the intersections of experience. But tillage is perhaps simply another pattern of persistence, the condition accruing by other means. Only the overbalance of technology is clearly the genetic breakdown, the specialisation of function leading to the economies of exchange. What went on before that I prize beyond measure, but I could not want it back or any version of cultural nostalgia. We are the prize of our own landscape condition and our quality, now, is exactly that. Or at least, I think so, at the present time.

I now should probably address what our landscape condition might be but instead I'll stick with the more obvious. Prizing things that went before always raises the hackles, especially when these things become more prized the further back we go. I always thought of Prynne as a reasonably hard-nosed thinker but this kind of misinformed (ie incorrect and wrong) nostalgia is quite a shock to the system. The problem with these nomadic pre-Neolithic types is that they moved around and thus didn't leave behind much in the way of dwelling places or artefacts that we could make guesses about. Even though Riley's note has the word 'guesswork', this occurs:

What was once a vague idea I had of cultural decline following Neolithic II has now become a certainty. Possibly it began immediately but the real turning point came about 1500.

This isn't presented here as guesswork but as an established fact. The term 'cultural decline' contains far too many elements and trajectories to be thrown around without clarification.

So Prynne is on the side of the Marxian 'realist' with his emphasis on the idea of ownership and the practice of trade as being more fundamental than the manufacture of metal implements. He also maps out the, for him, decisive development of specialisation which then leads to the beginnings of a more complex economic system. What I think he means here is that the manufacture of goods took workers away from the alleged self-sufficiency of farm work into towns where they earned money that they could then exchange for food. Prynne's rejection of cultural nostalgia disregards the fact that he's also guilty of this sin.

Prynne on the landscape of the Solitary Reaper.

Before we get in further, I have one major issue about this lengthy (130 pages) commentary and it's that Prynne glides over the fact that the poem is 'set' in the Scottish Highlands in 1803 and concerns a female agricultural worker at the time of the Highland Clearances- an act of social and cultural destruction that is close to genocide. This isn't mentioned or alluded to in the poem and Prynne, as we shall see, excuses this omission by pointing out that it's inclusion would "destroy the potential for sublime passion". I simply don't see how someone, touring the highlands in the early part of the 19th century, can fail to remark on this atrocity for the sake of some notion of the sublime. End of short rant.

For those who aren't familiar with the poem, it concerns a distant encounter between the poet and the reaper who is singing in the 'vale' below. I'm going to concentrate on Prynne's notes to the second half of "O listen! for the Vale profound" This is from the first paragraph:

The implied location is a landform folded deeply into the surrounding hills; at the same time profound suggests depth of feeling in the arrested passer-by, in response to an encounter with profound humanity, profound solitude, profound simplicity in a remote but intact way of life with its implicit admonishment concerning more superficial modern habits (including the impression-seeking traveller's easy curiosity).

Two things- the 'profound' problem and the presence or otherwise of the 'admonishment'. As Prynne well knows 'profound' is an adjective that covers a lot of territory at once and it's still not entirely clear to this small brain what exactly Wordsworth intended, especially as the next line is "is overflowing with the sound". If it is about creating a 'depth of feeling' caused by these other profundities then it doesn't 'work' for me because this 'suggestion' carried out by a geological feature seems silly rather than poetic. I'd much prefer that the vale " demanding deep study, research, or consideration; containing great depths of meaning and import" with the emphasis on meaning.

I've really tried quite hard to reognise this implicit admonishment but I can't. For me. for something to be implied there has to be at least one faint trace of a gesture in a specific direction but what's perhaps more relevant to this discussion is that this profundity is contrasted with the superficiality of the traveller's modern world. This strikes me as not only wishful thinking but also an echo of what Prynne was prizing in 1967. It also puts a bit more flesh on the characteristicsics of landscape that he values so much.

I think I need to point out that I'm not one of those that thinks our reaction to our environment is solely a neuronal process that goes on in our heads. There are places not far from where I am now sitting that, when I am in them, challenge the me in quite deep ways. However, I don't grasp this notion of simplicity because I know that the landscape I am in is far more complicated than I can possibly comprehend. Any landscape is full of processes and these progress and mutate at different rates and the interaction between these events is much more extensive than the urban and the modern.

Moving on, we come to:

And yet the labour of arduous cultivation, coaxing growth out of near barren ground, could perhaps be endued with a primal nobility of its own, patient and enduring and intimate with exacting conditions. Well, maybe (and see Richard Jeffries below S47). But we hear nothing of this hard life, not even hints, except the simple diagnostic fact that she reaps alone, and with a sickle, no doubt extra careful not to spill grain on the ground. To express any of this in his record of encounter would bring it close ro a field-report, for which kind of detail Wordsworth explicitly reproached George Crabbe, even as Crabbe attacked Goldsmith inThe Parish Register (1807). But worse than this, it would install the viewer's superior condition by channelling an outflow of emotion into mortified sympathy, from the scarcely immune to the vulnerable, the near victims. This kind of pathos would destroy the potential for sublime passion in this moment and turn it into a sad or even wretched story, because the actual is what there is and not its diagnosis: the subject-object relation must be unimpeded and equal if the unimpeded sense of elemental human presence is not to be fragmented into secondary pathos, the making of claims and allowances.

A further digression

I'm not convinced by this, I'm always suspicious about the use of 'sublime' because it makes a claim that isn't specific, that feels as if it's thrown out to imply both height and depth as well as something mysteriously portentous. The 'story' of the Highlanders during the Clearances is sad and wretched, the work that this woman is doing is arduous in the extreme, as Prynne acknowledges in S 47. There is also a difference between sympathy and solidarity which is what this situation demands.

Landscape and primal nobility.

Returning to the survey, this primal nobility occurring in this particular landscape is an echo of the 1967 letter above with its declared nostalgia for an idealised nomadic past. It would seem likely that the word is used here to signify something fundamental or essential but it also carries the idea of something ancient, belonging to the earliest time, fundamental, all of which would seem to fit with the idea of landscape carrying within it the potential for something both profound and sublime.

Kazoo Dreamboats

I need to say at the outset that I'm not keen on this, I think it's one of his weaker works although I readily accept that it's still head and shoulders above the stuff that's more generally valued by the literati. I'm not going to attempt to discover what KD might be about but merely note that it contains a verbatim quote from the Bradley essay: Below is the end of the poem, I've replicated the use of blockquotes.

    Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out 
    beyond reach, even in transform assignment. A language may die
    also the record of currency exchange to full pair - convert
    transumed in surrender value, decalibrated: or the travel line
    to matter from fancy of spirit is invert and pyretic: smoke for 
    the mirror, tenant creamery.

The orifinal creation 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 on 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 focussing that particular alignment until it was narrowed down to the space between the tallest stones.


    The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particular vapour to
    consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit
    in naturalised position, solemn grade - one rigmarole, better
    Wiglaf's rebuke and insurance payout. To be this with sweet
    song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by
    rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling
    and spinnining and probably grateful, in this song.

So, we have lots about exchange and matters economic, something about a trajectory from the spirtual to the material, the word 'tenant' implies the ownership of land- the point of decline identified in Prynne's letter above. The use of transume is typically ambiguous, these are three of the OED definitions:

The also the play on 'transhumance', the practice of moving livestock between lowland and upland in accordance with the seasons.

So, a prisitne past spoiled by the advent of settlement and consequent ownership of the land, the advent of metal leading to the need to pay specialist workers and thus the long decline into our current dismality. He's also clear that he isn't nostalgic for this imagined past but the work on Wordsworth suggests a strong belief in the power of a primal landscape.