Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself — An early-spring meditation

As you will see below, following on from last week, I haven’t quite yet done with Jesus’ call to consider what the birds of the air might encourage us to notice and, to begin this address, click on the link below to hear the poet Wallace Stevens reading his poem:

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache…
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry—It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

The tress that sheltered us from the wind. Stiiffkey Salt Marsh to the left (click to enlarge)
Walking east along the Norfolk coast in mid-February on the way to Stiffkey from Wells with Susanna, I was well aware that we were still very much in the season of winter. True, this year it was not in any way a harsh one but it was winter nonetheless. Rounding a tree-lined bank we stepped out of the wind for a moment and were simultaneously caught in a brief and tenuous ray of sun making its way through the heavily overcast sky. Then, suddenly, I heard an unexpected bird song and called out to Susanna, “A skylark!” The combination of these three things served immediately to transform my winterly-being into springly-being and I felt a gentle, joyous, lightness of spirit within and around me.

Geese flying above Stiffkey Marsh
Of course, the sun disappeared within a few seconds and our eastward walk took us quickly back into the cold wind and the spring song of the skylark was replaced once again by the winter sound of geese coming into land on Stiffkey Salt Marsh to the north. This sudden return of winterly-being caused me to recall the opening line and a bit of Wallace Steven’s poem “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”: “At the earliest ending of winter,/In March”. As I retied my scarf, pulled my woolly-hat further down over my ears and walked on, I said to myself, “Don’t fool yourself, old chap, it’s too early, spring isn’t here yet”.

In the early evening, on returning to the old fisherman’s cottage where we were staying and turning my attention to laying a fire so as to get some warmth into our small downstairs room, everything continued to speak of winter: on the back of a chair were my two thick jumpers and tweed-jacket temporarily  discarded to keep them clean while I cleaned up the dust and ashes of the previous night’s fire, there were the blankets hanging over the doors and back window, there was the curtain around the bottom of the stairs to keep the heat in the room and, finally, there was my mug of freshly brewed tea sending up white vapour like some idling steam-engine. This railway-inspired image was only added to by the fact that my cold hands now cradling the mug for warmth were blackened with coal dust.

The fire that evening
Later that evening, still fully in winterly-being but now with the fire burning warmly and glass of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale in my hand, I took advantage of a fleeting 3G connection to read again the whole of Steven’s short poem.

It never fails to fully to engage my imagination but that is not to say I have ever fully understood it — if, indeed, it is a poem capable of being fully understood, and whatever that word ‘fully’ might mean. It seems to me that, like all great works of art, it always remains capable of giving more than it is. But, for all that, there are certain times and places when and where the words of this or that poem, the lines and shapes of this or that picture, the cadences and dissonances of this or that piece of music, suddenly seem to speak with a clarity previously inaccessible to me. This was one such occasion though, please remember, the clarity I found — if clarity it is — was not absolute and the poem’s meaning is not even vaguely exhausted by what I saw and felt. (For instance, I have not said anything about the poem's possible relationship with Kant's "ding an sich" or with William Carlos Williams' mantra, "no ideas but in things". These and other ideas are explored on an episode of an excellent programme called PoemTalk which you can hear by clicking this link).

I think the place to begin is with that moment when the wind dropped, the sun came out and I heard the song of the skylark. You will recall that I said “the combination of these three things served immediately to transform my winterly-being into springly-being and I felt a gently joyous lightness of spirit within and around me.”

There I was, fully, knowingly in winter, and yet, suddenly, there I was fully, knowingly, in spring. But more than this. The moment of transformation was a change in everything about my being, I was winterly-being, then I was springly-being. It wasn’t that I was this particular, individual being to whom winter was happening, and then I was this same particular, individual being to whom a harbinger of spring was happening. I was myself winter then, suddenly, I was myself spring.

This kind of total feeling, a total change of being, raises all kinds of questions about what may meaningfully be said to be inside and outside of us.

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

Fully in this moment did it make proper sense to say that the skylark’s song was outside of me? From a certain rational point of view, of course, I’m minded to say the skylark was most assuredly outside me, fluttering and singing just above my head. Though it has to be said I never once saw it and, perhaps, I was mistaken. But, in the totality of this moment, it really seemed to me like a sound in my mind.

Steven’s use of the phrase “seemed like” — with it’s conditional sense — is important because he wishes, for good reason, to place some doubt in our minds. He wants us to ask whether the bird and its song was, is, inside or outside me? We’ll return to this question in a moment when we turn to the sun.

To be sure, Steven’s bird has a scrawny cry and mine had a considerably more varied and mellifluous song, but a key point here is, surely, to do with hearing a sound that spoke to me and Stevens of spring and not of winter.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

I, too, knew I had heard it even though, for me, it was at two in the afternoon and in a mid-February wind but, nevertheless, it functioned for me as a wake up call too.

Also, like Stevens, I was well aware that the sun was rising earlier and setting later as well as rising ever higher in the sky. In that brief shaft of clear sunlight, just for a moment, the sun had appeared to me higher and more colossal and with a panache more substantial than the battered and flattened out show it usually makes at this time of day and year. But again, fully in this moment did it make sense simply to say that “it” was outside of me? Stevens is deliberately very unclear at this point about whether the “it” here refers to the bird’s cry or the sun but, in either case, surely, they would have been outside me? Well, they would have been, wouldn’t they?

It was not from the vast ventriloquism 
Of sleep’s faded papier mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

Of course, from one perspective I had no doubt that the sun was coming from outside. But, once again, in the totality of the moment, it seemed to me that a colossal sun was not only risen outside me but was simultaneously risen inside me, not with battered, but with full panache. I know this because in that moment this inward dawn did not have the compressed quality of a dream about it, instead it felt like a phenomenally enlarged reality that was way, way more real than “the vast ventriloquism/Of sleep’s faded papier mâché” — those surreal, papered together constructions of a mere dreamlike state that we all know so well. No, the reality of this inward dawn was so encompassing that it was impossible only to say that “the sun was coming from outside”.

The three lines, “Seemed like a sound in his mind”, “It would have been outside” and “The sun was coming from outside” help us, I think, begin to grasp Stevens’ desire in this poem to collapse our simplistic, dualistic understanding of reality. Inside to outside, outside to inside is a both/and experience, one that is constantly moving, and one which is capable of showing up for us the infinitely rich, modal expression of Nature (or God), God (or Nature), showing up now as bird, now as sun, now as winter, now as spring, now as inside, now as outside, now as one, now as manifold, now as Andrewly-winterly being, now as Andrewly-springly being.

That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality. 

Although, unlike like Stevens’ scrawny single-note cry, the skylark was singing a complex melody it was still a solo voice and, as such, I heard it as if it were the solo chorister singing the opening verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” at the beginning of King’s College’s Nine Lessons and Carols and heralding the astonishing richness of the choir’s polyphony as it's voice fills the chapel to proclaim a new birth, a new being.

Filling the chapel that is the natural world in its fullness, both the single ‘c’ — the scrawny cry — and the skylark’s complex melody are also part of the sun and not a thing apart, for these sounds spread out like the flow of light from a star to fill the whole universe of being even though still far away.

As I stood on that marsh it was not simply that I knew spring was coming but that I felt I now knew that spring always already nests in winter and all the other seasons always already nest within all the others and all of them in me. The skylark, too, always already nests in my mind and I nest in hers, and so too does the sun, phoenix-like, nest within my being, always ready to rise and bring with it a new dawn filling the whole world with new light and meaning.

It was to me like a new knowledge of reality, something like standing for a moment “sub species aeternitatis” — under the form of eternity — a phrase which, from the time of blessed Spinoza onwards, has been used to describe that which we cannot but feel to be universally and eternally true and which needs make no reference to, nor be dependent upon, our usual, temporal experiences of reality. Though remember, this is not a proof of the unity of all things — it simply a poetic expression of an intuition out of which one may confidently, but always humbly, live.

Perhaps, I thought, “the thing itself” that Stevens was trying to write about was precisely this experience of being sub species aeternitatis. Of course Stevens, like me in writing this address, knew that his words about all this seem chocked-full of ideas about things, But in this poem he, to my mind, succeeds in pointing us to, to nudge us into, a direct appreciation of and gratitude for “the thing itself” which, in this case, is life in its lived fullness, here and now, with everything about it enfolded and nested within everything else.

And then, all of a sudden, the sun went in, the song of the skylark was replaced by the song of geese, our onward walk took us back into the wind and winterly-being returned.

Stiffkey Salt Marsh (click to enlarge)
You may say, this poetic stuff and nonsense is all well and good but what practical, religious/spiritual something might be gained from my telling you this? I might ask need it have any immediate, obvious practical use? Perhaps not, but all the foregoing does helps me to pass on something I first learnt from Henry David Thoreau. At the very end of “Walden” he writes: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Reflecting on my experience in the Stiffkey marshes two weeks ago it has become clear to me in a new way, like a new knowledge of reality, the profound importance of awakening to the fact that in our lives there are always two endlessly interweaving and interpenetrating dawns. Yes, of course, we need to acknowledge the dawn signalled daily by the rising of our local star outside of us. This dawn is clearly vital, for without it there would be no life on this extraordinary planet that is our home. But we need to be awake to another dawn too and to acknowledge that within ourselves there is also always already the ever-present possibility of a daily, even hourly and minutely inward dawn. Without being awake to this other dawn then the sun outside us could rise for ever but never bring with it “the gift of life” that is a world filled with new possibilities for belonging, meaning and wonder.

The first day of this ever new world is always ready to break for those who are awake to its possibilities.  So I feel emboldened to say, "Wachet auf"—"Sleepers, awake!"

And, for myself, following on from last week’s address it seemed to me that the skylark — that chorister whose song preceded the choir — was a bird of the air who acted for me like an angel in our old myths, suddenly waking me up with a greeting and bringing with her the auspicious blessings of both the inward and outward dawns and the possibility of a new way of being in the world that seems like a new knowledge of reality.

On this beautiful, early spring day, to her and the mysterious source from whence she, the sun and all things come, I give the greatest of thanks.


Helen said…
Thank you, your post has helped lift my day. In times of struggle, we can allow new dawns to break through, mini-dawnings of light and deeper wisdom.

Most enlightening to me is "Though remember, this is not a proof of the unity of all things — it simply a poetic expression of an intuition out of which one may confidently, but always humbly, live."

Rejecting, in my cerebral hardness, a belief in unity and connection despite the feeling of unity and connection - rejecting external meanings of transcendence - has led me to move away from this side of life. However, the feeling of transcendence in its many forms can be seen as "an intuition out of which one may confidently, but always humbly, live". If this is true (and I feel it is), the intuition is worth strengthening through practice and discipleship...

... and your post may just have drawn one person back into the fold.

Thank you, Andrew Brown.
Dear Helen,

Thank you so much for taking the time to post your kind words. I hope you continue to find your own flexible ways to deepen this intuition.

As I re-read the words of mine you quoted I can hear again the words that many years ago did something similar for me. They are by George de Benneville (1703-1793):

"The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things."

It was for this reason that he also said:

"Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. . . . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception. . . ."

Warmest wishes,