The Old Ways


A bit premature to call my ‘book of the year’ in February, but maybe, just maybe, The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane might be it.

The Old Ways is a series of ‘journeys on foot’; ‘Always everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering’ opens Macfarlane, quoting from Thomas Clark’s prose-poem In Praise of Walking, and this book is a re-tracing and celebration of those people and those pathways.

One person at the centre of much of these re-tracings is the English poet Edward Thomas, who died in World War I. I’ve written about Thomas before, one of my favourite ‘minor’ poets and of Rain, a particular favourite here.

Thomas is the ultimate wandering doomed walker, but there is nothing maudlin in this book that celebrates the journeys, rather than mourning the end of them. Thomas would set off along ‘indelible old roads … worn by hoofs and the naked feet and trailing staves of long-dead generations’ and Macfarlane wants to bring some of those old ways back. Thomas would make one-day walks in the design of a ‘rough-circle’, trusting that he might ‘by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right … take much beauty by surprise and … return at last to my starting point’ (278)

In his own rough-circle, Macfarlane connects up with walkers like Wordsworth, Nietzsche, Wallace Stevens, Wittgenstein and the English watercolourist Ravilious. It’s a literary book for a walking book. Geological too, with its section titles: ‘Chalk’, ‘Silt’, ‘Peat’, ‘Granite’, ‘Limestone’, ‘Ice’,’Flint’.

I was reminded of other books I’ve been reading lately; The Old Straight Lines gets a mention and a much more recent English walking book: London Orbital. It’s a book about landscape ultimately, ‘and how the places we inhabit shape the people we are’ (187)

‘and everywhere I met people … for whom landscape and walking were vital means of making sense of themselves and of the world’ (32) And so say all of us.

You can read more about the Icknield Way here.
Download Edward Thomas’s ‘Icknield Way’ here.
You can read more thougthful and detailed reviews than mine here from NY Times,  The Guardian/Observer, The Guardian,  The Telegraph, The Independent

robert macfarlane old ways


The Role of the Critic (RIP Frank Kermode)

What role does the critic play in our understanding of great literature, including poetry?  How can our understanding be enhanced by literary criticism? And, I’m not really thinking about the short reviews that adorn the literary sections of the weekend broadsheets, but those critics who spend their careers developing expertise around certain authors and genres and then communicate that understanding to interested readers?

I thought about that last week when I saw that the great critic Frank Kermode had died. Some called him ‘the greatest critic of his generation’ and his death came around the same time as I was thinking about critics and how they can help enhance understanding and bring insight. I’ve been teaching Hamlet to my literature class and I was at the stage where I wanted them to be opened up to the idea of ‘interpretation’ and hear how critics had seen this great play. I turned immediately to A.C. Bradley, who I felt had helped me in my early understanding of Shakespeare: particularly Macbeth.

I generally tell my students that good critics can help you see new things in texts you read. Essentially, critics are gifted readers and there’s two or three reactions you can have. You can disagree and move on, you can say “I’ve felt that myself about this text, but never been able to put it like that” or “wow, I’ve never thought that before”. All those reactions are okay and they’re all ultimately helpful.

I didn’t know Kermode’s work as well as Bradley’s (and you can download the Bradley lectures from Project Gutenberg here) but I’d read and enjoyed some of his writing over the years. One Guardian tribute by John Sutherland said:

Beginnings and endings (genesis, apocalypse, final judgment) were a particular area of interest. It’s in this period that his most quotable quote originates. Why is it, Kermode asked, when the alarm clock by our bed goes “tick-tick”, the brain insists on hearing “tick-tock”? The reason, he suggests, is our human addiction to beginnings and (even more addictively) endings: “Tick is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse.” We’re wired, in other words, into teleology.

It relates to a larger point. Literature, as Kermode saw it, cannot make sense of our lives – and the end points, or destinations that we like to think we are heading for in our lives. What literature can do is “attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives”. Explain, that is, why our ears insist on hearing tick-tock, not tick-tick. And why we must have, or invent, our happy-ever-afters not just in grand narratives such as the Bible or Das Kapital, but in the smallest tracts of our daily lives (why, for example, do we begin and finish meals rather than just eating?)

Some more reading on Kermode below:

Kermode tribute by John Naughton in the Guardian

NY Times Tribute

Washing Post Tribute

Telegraph Obituary

Top photo of Franke Kermode from The Guardian

The Plain Sense of Things


This week the NY Times reviewed Wallace Steven’s Selected Poems, including this nice quote from Stevens.

Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience.

Above: Wallace Stevens, right, with Robert Frost in Key West, circa 1940.

Into the shadowed heart


By far the most interesting thing in the always interesting magazine The Monthly this month is the Pico Iyer review of Nicolas Rothwell’s The Red Highway, a book I liked a lot as I blogged about recently.

Iyer’s long review calls Rothwell’s book ‘masterful and unforgettable’ and proceeds to make more links between Rothwell and some of his characters than I’d made in my first reading; which is what good reviewers should do.

Iyer also draws in threads between Rothewell and another old favourite, W. B. Sebald, an author whose work I’ve admired for a long time. ‘These writers are reporting on the world, but in the process they penetrate into some private and haunted space they can’t escape.

It’s a lovely review, of a powerful book and an argument for the longer kind of review not seen now in newspapers. Towards the end of the review Iyer writes:

The innocent browser may, picking up The Red Highway, think it is a ‘travel book’. She couldn’t be more wrong.  It is in fact a book about being shriven and broken down and brought so close to oblivion that you are released to something else. Though full of long drives into the bush, it has nothing to do with locomotion, and everythig to do with being stirred and moved, carried out of the self …  (Rothewell) carries us higher and higher with his antique elegance and a rapt, attentive interest in everything human, vegetable and celestial tht tempts one to use the almost outdated word ‘sublime’.

Worth the price of the magazine for this review alone.

The Windhover

I was reading a review of a new biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins tonight and it got me thinking about Hopkins again. The review by Dennis Donoghue in the New Criterion talks about the difficulties and beauty of this poet and I was reminded of my favourite Hopkin’s poem, The Windhover, and I went back to read it again after a long break. Here it is:

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Gerard Manley Hopkins