Remembered Bliss is already one of my most treasured possessions
I must confess that when I used to see some of these poems when Sebastian was alive, as at odd times I did, I didn’t rate them at all highly. They were naïve and clumsy, too cerebral, I looked in vain for the resolved elegance that gives us such pleasure in poetry. They lacked the ‘sensuous immediacy’ and ‘union of thought with feeling’ and ‘muscular complexity’ that literary critics have taught us to admire, the terms of engagement that Leavis, the progenitor of so many of these canons, would have taught to Sebastian himself. Yet now the poems, or rather the fraction of so rich a harvest that has been gathered in, now that they have been published under their wonderful title, I feel that these are the very qualities these poems do possess. It is their intensely unvarnished feeling, their artlessly telling it straight from the heart, that communicates so much. At first sight you might feel it is as if a teenager were publishing his first efforts in the school magazine. Exactly. They catch exactly the quality in Sebastian that we all loved and adored so much. Here was a 95 year old man who was still full of adventure and excitement, each day setting out to discover, and the poems tell us did discover, a new America. How lucky for us that such excitement is contagious. The wise ancient with the secret of eternal youth. You don’t meet many of them.
They put before us the enigma of Sebastian. So egocentric, yet nobody so self-forgettingly devoted to what Martin Buber, one of his many intellectual heroes, calls ‘the other’. So much more intelligent than most of us were, yet eagerly jotting down in his notebook the banal contributions we might perhaps have made to his great feast of intellectual enquiry. So cerebral, yet nobody so emotionally enthralled by the excitement of thought. So radical in his thinking, yet profoundly orthodox. a very old man who was still effervescent as an adolescent, a man with a brain so full of learning it could have stocked libraries, yet finding it all summed up in the simple language of a fellow adventurer most of us would have pompously dismissed as a new-age charlatan – though how can we now? – a naïve versifier, yet with great skill reducing so much intensely felt inner experience – the kind it is almost impossible to communicate and only great poets can – to the tight discipline of the sonnet form. Nobody would think that Sebastian was a great poet, as Eliot, one of the few who really could communicate intensely felt inner experience, undoubtedly was, least of all he himself. Yet when he writes:
‘We know of a resistance that, once stopped,
Bliss absolute was let in on the scene’
can we doubt that he really did experience bliss absolute? I do not think we can. What memorable lines: ‘bliss absolute was let in on the scene’. Surely up there with ‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ or ‘he pursued me down the nights and down the days’. And does not his intense excitement at finding God communicate itself, if only just a little, to us wearily homeward plodding ploughmen, and set our own hearts just a little more a-tingle? I think it does. Is not this what we ask of poets?
One of my dearest memories is visiting East Coker with him one hot summer’s day a few years ago. Of all his maestros who came and never quite went, for each departing hero left a vivid strand in the interwoven tapestry of his intellectual life, the first, Eliot, remained the constant genius ever presiding over his far-flung adventuring. Although how Eliot felt about his eventual defenestration by Tolle we shall never know. It was almost a shock to find that there really is a deep lane shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon, where you lean against a bank while a van passes. There really is a village in the electric heat hypnotized, the sultry light absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone. It was the shock of the real. These poems do what poetry uniquely does. You don’t really need the resolved elegance and muscular complexity, not really. What you need is ‘there really is’. And these poems tell us that there really is a man who eventually triumphed over his pain-body and let go into bliss, there really is a man who so lived in the power of now that each day was the first, and whose beginning was in his end. He was uniquely wonderful, a dancer on a teaspoon, impossible to pin down, what James Joyce, a writer who never quite made it into his pantheon for reasons I never understood – or at least I myself never heard Joyce hailed and revered and lovingly fingered over and over again – he was surely what Joyce would have called a caution to rattlesnakes. He left a mark on all of us, as great men do, the slightly dazed look people doubtless wore who knew Wittgenstein or St Francis, or most of all perhaps, Jesus.
What a memorial to leave us with. These poems are, surely, a really serious contribution to the literatures of mysticism. The trouble, though, with the great mystical works is that they are too great. Few of us will ever know the intensely erotic mystical experiences of St John of the Cross. Nor the sweetly ordered contemplative life of George Herbert. Nor will our orgasmic transports be memorialized by Bernini. These poems, though, are great because, if I might drive an oxymoron to death, they are not great. But they are user-friendly. I can’t say that I’m excited by St John of the Cross’s poetry. It is too remote from my experience. But I am excited by Sebastian’s because he was so excited himself. Are we not all addicted to sadness? I think we are. Do we not all, perhaps without quite realizing it, live in the power of now because Tuesday is neither Monday nor Wednesday? I think we do. For all his unique personality and great scholarship and learning and strange otherness, he was , in the end, one of us. Or rather he was in the beginning one of us. The long beginning of his life and all our lives. I remember once going for a walk with Sebastian through the back lanes round Downside. We came across an escaped cow that a farmer was trying to get back into a lorry. Whooh! Whooh! cried the farmer, as with outstretched arms he headed off the weaving and ducking cow, and then agilely leaping blocked off another exit, before, finally, he persuaded the cow into the lorry. Like God herding a soul, said Sebastian.
Such was the story of Sebastian’s own life. ‘Critically unable to relax/ I panicked and went into therapy for years’. Yet after so many failures and errors, and so much depression and sadness and wandering in wild places, he eventually made it back to that bliss that, so the analysts tell us, we all knew at the very beginning of things. For this was Sebastian’s great gift. All through his life he brought to whatever he did the freshness, the ‘let’s begin again and now’ of beginnings, the aliveness of first things, but never more so than to his end.
And here the poems are, living still. He passes his torch onto us:
‘We have a situation that is new:
My friend, it is entirely up to you.’
It is as if, not so much that he has never left us but as if he is with us more presently than ever, for now he addresses us straight from his heart. In my end is my beginning and in my beginning is my end, as the poet saith.
Infinite thank you for letting me in
Who groaned within me self-in-self alone
A happiness annihilating sin
Waking a heart that had become a stone
For years I had repeated, like a psalm
Dull words, the head of me always astrain
Then suddenly – be honest!’ – and a calm
Came and I gave again and still again
And how I would awake during the small hours,
Remember I was loved, and fall asleep
In luxury of love that never sours
Thanks you from inside infinitely deep
I felt all this as wholly undeserved
Until you taught me I was you-observed.
Remembered Bliss is available from Google Books and Google Play or directly from lapwing.poetry.com