‘… passions that are not my own’

poetry appreciation Dec 26, 2019

Someone read excerpts from Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ at a group I was facilitating earlier this month, and one phrase really jumped out at me—the bit where the speaker is talking about how ‘the gentle agency / of natural objects led me on to feel/ for passions that were not my own’. It is, of course, All Very Wordsworth to emphasise how being in relationship with nature can help you access empathy, compassion and understanding of what is otherwise unknown to you; but I was struck, once again, by the fact that that’s what exactly poetry can do, too. And since then I’ve found myself thinking about Don Paterson’s ‘Waking with Russell‘, which speaks of a relationship I will never get to understand from lived experience. In so doing, so vividly, this poem allows me a bittersweet insight into ‘passions that [are] not my own’.

This is another of those poems which opens as it were mid-conversation, with the speaker unable to say what ‘the difference’ is but acknowledging that the fact of being a parent has totally, irrevocably (‘pledged myself forever‘) changed his life. The first nine lines of this sonnet are a breathtakingly beautiful evocation of that moment of love felt, shown, ‘returned and redelivered’—so beautiful that I’m simultaneously stricken with grief and envy of the experience of parental love and flooded with joy that this life-changing love exists and is (one hopes!) expressed and lived out. I read the lines about the smile and find myself grinning involuntarily: the fact that the ‘four-day-old smile dawned on him again,/ possessed him, till it would not fall or waver’ really captures something about the totality of emotion that we see in babies. There’s nothing measured about a newborn’s experience—nothing to set it against. To see a baby’s face ‘possessed’ by a smile surely calls out in most of us a smile in response: exactly the experience evoked in the poem.

The poet says that ‘we woke up face-to-face like lovers’ and, like much ecstatic poetry of romantic love, ‘Waking with Russell’ captures a moment and projects from it into the future, seeing how the the present has a powerfully determining effect on what lies ahead. How apt, then, this use of the sonnet form—the form of so much exquisite love poetry both sacred and secular (think Shakespeare, Donne, St Vincent Millay, Hopkins, to name but four.) In ‘Waking with Russell’—again, like poems of romantic love—there’s an absence of perspective: there’s no postlapsarian awareness of the shift from love’s first bliss into the more tempered, more mixed everyday. (Think how different this poem is from last week’s ‘Those Winter Sundays‘, for instance!)

But ‘Waking with Russell’ inverts the usual sonnet structure of octet and sestet (8 lines/6 lines). In this case the sestet comes first. This enables Paterson to do something different from the set-something-out-in-the-octet-and-“turn”-it-in-the-sestet formula of the Petrarchan sonnet or indeed the turn in the final couplet we find at the end of the Shakespearean sonnet (which is 4/4/4/2. And yes I know that sounds like a football formation). In Paterson’s sonnet, the inverted form replaces the “turn” with a sense of expansion, of widening out—the emotional experience with which the poem is concerned—and, in this, the form reflects—enacts—the content. Sure knows what he’s doing, this Paterson!

The reference in line seven to being ‘mezzo del cammin’ is a quotation from the beginning of Dante’s Inferno (‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’) where the speaker opens with talking about being half way along life’s way. In midlife, then, the poet’s ‘true path was as lost to [him] as ever/ when [Russell] cut in front and lit it as [he] ran’. What a heart-piercing expression of love and gratitude, of lostness (the Inferno) and of being found—of the redemptive power of love. The imagery is of love flowing between them, given and returned and growing in magnitude as a river swells on its journey towards the sea; it ‘poured through [them] like a river’, taking possession of them (like the smile), sweeping them away, sweeping them clean.

… all of which has possessed this article, rather: feels like we’ve travelled a long way from Wordsworth. So I want to finish (for now) by noting that the idea of being ‘led… on to feel/ for passions that [are] not [our] own’ is, of course, not only about being enabled to get insight into experiences you have not had. It’s also about having our heart expanded: having our capacity for compassion, kindness and empathy increased. Poetry can help us get beyond the narrow confines of the self. And that’s an idea I’m sure we’ll be returning to over and again in this column.

Till next time, then.

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