05 August 2011

A Child Shall Lead Them

I know I've touched on  this subject before. But some things bear repeating. And particularly when that repeating opens the door to further exploration, and deeper discovery.

Time and time again, through many years of reading, I've found my favorite "modern" English poet, Walter de la Mare, to be an all but unique kind of literary master. A master at deriving a sort of sense, or atmosphere, from out of some of the strangest things you'd ever think of. Things so tiny, so faintly and tremulously real, you would think they'd have all they could do just to be themselves, much less carry their own atmospheres about with them. Things like the seeming eternity - or eternality? - of certain often very private, and very brief, interludes of human experience. Or brief, at least, in terms of what de la Mare calls clock-time.

Now in this instance, I'm not sure of everything the author was trying to put into that strange "children's" tale (razor-sharp in both its quietude and its intensity) that he calls "Maria-Fly." But whatever may have been his intentions at each point, I doubt if I've ever been more sure of what I've been able to get out of a story.

Every so often it happens - de la Mare seems to be telling us - it happens that we get a glimpse, a tremor, a tantalizing savor of what the Divine joy in us is like. A taste of the Divine joy in the joy of any living creature at being its own unfettered, unstrained, exquisitely idiosyncratic Self. A Self that is really more like a kind of fragment, or patch, or island, of what we were back at the Beginning - back when we older and newer and fresher than sin. Or, in a word, independent of sin. Because, after all, it is only as we become conscious of ourselves, and self-conscious, and self-critical, and critical of the creatures we've been made (as if we could have done better), that we grow tempted to fashion ourselves, and become fashionable, and so fall into really ugly and ingrained habits of rebellion and sin. But every once in a while we forget ourselves - much as do both Maria and the fly in the story. And then something of the original brilliance, the crystalline glow of the Divine handiwork may show through: both through us, I mean, and through whatever, and whomever, it is we are looking at and trying to get to know. And particularly it may show through - de la Mare seems to suggest - when the encounter is between two distinct, and even distant, kinds of creature. It's as if there were no limit to how happy, and lovely, and love-able the whole world would seem - and even (in a sense) be - given the most intimate degree of self-disclosure between one order, or level, of visible creature and another. And how much more so ( I myself am moved to ask) when that self-disclosure is exchanged between a creature of one kind, and that One who is behind and beyond all kinds?

And then, having come up from such an encounter, as if from out of a cold, sense-awakening baptism, the question is, With what best words do we tell the story, to others of our kind? First of all, with words that know how to do the job, obviously. Yet not just in their usual mercenary and professional ways. Rather, what we want are words that secrete within themselves, as it were, a kind of pastoral vision, acuity, intensity. Which is to say, words that do their jobs not just for love of the pay, like a hired hand, or even for love of the calling or profession. What we need, rather, are words that do what they have to do out of love for the creatures they must tend and care for, like any good shepherd - and however deeply those same words must sometimes cut:

Up until then it had been a morning like a blue-framed looking-glass, but now a fleece of cloud was spread over the immense sky. Far away in the kitchen-garden she came across the gardener, Mr Pratt. With his striped cotton shirt-sleeves turned up over his elbows, he was spraying a rose-tree on which that day's sun even if it came out in full splendour again would shine no more. Maria watched him. 

"What are you doing that for?" she said. "Let me!"

"Steady, steady, my dear," said Mr Pratt - "you can't manage the great thing all by yourself." But he put the syringe with a little drop of the liquid left in its brass cylinder in her hands. "Now push!" he said, "all your might."

Maria pushed hard, till her knuckles on her fat hands went white, and she was plum-red in the face. But nothing came out. So Mr Pratt put his thick brown hands over hers, clutched the tube, and they pushed together. And an exquisite little puff of water jetted like a tiny cloud out of the nozzle.
"It came out then," said Maria triumphantly. ''I could do it if I tried really hard. What, please, are you doing it for?" 

"Ah," said Mr Pratt, "them's secrets."

"Ah," said Maria imitating him, "and I've got a secret, too." 

"What's that?" said the gardener.

She held her finger at him. "I - have - just - seen - a - fly. It had wings like as you see oil on water, and a red face with straight silver eyes, and it wasn't buzzing or nothing, but it was scraping with its front legs over its wings, then rubbing them like corkscrews. Then it took its head off and on, and then it began again - but I don't mean all that. I mean I sawn the fly - saw it, I mean."

"Ah," said Mr Pratt, the perspiration glistening on his brown face, and his eyes at least two shades a paler blue than Mrs Poulton's, as though the sun and the jealous skies had bleached most of the colour out of them. "Ah", he said. "A fly now? And that's something to see too. But what about them pretty little Meadow Browns over there, and that Painted Lady - quiet, now, see, - on that there mallow-bloom! There's a beauty! And look at all them yaller ragamuffins over the winter cabbage yonder. We won't get much greens, Missie, if you can underconstumble, if they have their little way."  

Maria could perfectly underconstumble. But she hated greens. She hated them as much as if she had eaten them on cold plates in another world. It was odd too that nobody had even the smallest notion of what she wanted to say about the Fly. How stupid. But she looked at the Painted Lady none the less. It was limply perched on the pale paper-like flower of the mallow, with its ball-tipped antennae, and sucking up its secret nectar for all the world like the Queen in her parlour enjoying her thick slice of bread and honey. And then the sunshine stole out again into the heavens above them, and drew itself like a pale golden veil over the garden. The Painted Lady's wings, all ribbed and dappled orange and black and white, trembled a little in its gentle heat, as if with inexpressible happiness and desire.

But though Maria admired the creature in its flaunting beauty more than she could say, this was not her Fly - this, at least, was no Maria-Fly. It was merely a butterfly - lovely as light, lovely as a coloured floating vapour, exquisitely stirring, its bended legs clutching the gauzy platform beneath it and supporting its lightly poised frail plumy body on this swaying pedestal as if the world it knew were as solid as marble and without any change; even though now it appeared as gentle as a dream.

Maria was not even thinking as she watched the butterfly, except that she was saying over to herself, though not using any words, that she did not want to go into the drawing-room any more just now; that she had no wish to see her fly again; that she didn't ever want to be grown-up; that grown-ups never could underconstumble in the very least what you were really saying; that if only they wouldn't try to be smiling and patient as though the least cold puff of breath might blow you away, you might prove that you were grown-up too and much older than they - even though you had to eat your greens and do what you were told and not interrupt old gentlemen writing sermons, and must wait for bed-time - no, she was not really thinking any of those things. But her small bosom rose and fell with a prolongued deep sigh as she once more glanced up at Mr Pratt. 

He was hard at work again with his syringe, and now, because the sun was shining between herself and its watery vapour, it had formed a marvellous little rainbow in the air, almost circular, with the green in it fully as vivid as that of the myriad aphides clustered like animated beads round the stems of the rosebuds.

"I told you," she quavered a little sorrowfully, though she was trying to speak as usual, "I told you about something and you didn't take any notice." 
( from The Old Lion and Other Stories. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1942)

In short, what de la Mare is asking and questing for, I believe, are words of an almost superhuman - or Divine-human? - dexterity and delicacy. Words that, assuming that our encounter has taught us anything, are far less clumsily invasive, and more delicately effective, than even the most intelligent and considerate of modern surgical instruments. And that is to say, finally, words so knowing, and so loving - of both the known and the knower, both the You and the I - that they're able to combine the least trauma, pain and inflammtion with the utmost excision of the actual disease: namely, that peculiar disease of Self - called Self-Importance - which most prevents us from enjoying any God-made thing. Including one as puzzling and exasperating as a human child.

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