Night Office and Spiritual Pain.

First of all, I have to report that the above has also received a measured and comprehensive review by Arabella Milbank in Issue 5 of The Cambridge Humanities Review. In contrast to the review in the TLS, this makes no spurious reference to either J H Prynne or the Cambridge School but concentrates on what the poem says and how it says it.

It is both erudite (ie it has words in it that I don’t understand) and focuses on the overriding religious theme rather than the structure of this startling work. What surprises me is that, as far as I can work out, Milbank does not discuss the issue of suffering and spiritual pain which, to this reader at least, appears to run a broad thread through all 227 pages. She does however have this:

Jarvis revoices tenets in some extraordinary ways, reminding us that he believes poetry is “no alibi for weak theology”. These can be very dark. Extraordinary sections in this wintry, Adventine poem cover much of the traditional ground of the Four Last Things, taking the poet down to hell and into Judgement. At one point this vigil is referred to the orthodox mesonyktikon, where the night office is particularly that of eschatologically awaiting wakefulness. Its troparion of the Bridegroom is taken up to paint these lucubrations as those of the faithful virgin. The possibility of properly negative, absolute judgement or damnation haunts, and is not refused, by the poem:

at which this sorry this this & this & this
meet you yourself as your beloved’s right
clear irreversible refusal, set
into that helpless falling out of love
with no past, future, forward, back, above

Being not all that erudite, I’ve spent some time with the interweb and have discovered that the mesonyktikon is the mdinight office of the Orthodox Church and a troparion is a type of Orthodox hymn and the Services of the Bridegroom are held every evvening from Palm Sunday until Holy Tuesday and that the name is taken from the parable of the Ten Virgins. ‘Lucubrations’ are defined by the OED as ” The product of nocturnal study and meditation; hence, a literary work showing signs of careful elaboration. Now somewhat derisive or playful, suggesting the notion of something pedantic or over-elaborate”. I’ll glide over the exclusionary nature of the above and move on to my theme which is that this figure is beset by suffering, by a complex anguish in his relationship (or the absence of it) with God.

Rather than dive into a series of examples to demonstrate my contention, it may be useful to add a personal note with regard to anguish. I have no experience whatsoever of the spiritual / religious aspects of existence because I don’t believe in God and view those that do as fundamentally mistaken. It is therefore difficult for me to fully appreciate what this figure may be going through. As regular readers will know I am prone to bouts of severe depression which, together with a reasonably ropey psychology, gives me some in sight into what non-physical pain is like and the sensibilities that come with it.

I also have some readerly experience in poetic spiritual pain and one of the problems that I have is that of sincerity rather than manipulation. I’ve had lingering doubts about the sudden cries of emotion that leap from some of George Herbert’s lines since reading his manual for priests, A Priest to the Temple where he advocates the occasional exclamatory outpouring to intensify the faith of the congregation. There’s a different kind of problem with R S Thomas whose religious doubts and sufferings seem to be much more about the poet (as poet) than they are about the experience itself. I don’t have any doubts at all about the sincerity embedded in the later work of Paul Celan whose agonised struggles with faith and the You are almost unbearable to read:

SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands:
your name 
that hands comforted

When I knead the 
lump of air, our nourishment,
it is soured by
the letter effulgence from
the dementedly open

With regard to the Jarvis project, one of the many honesties from The Unconditional onwards is this sense of personal vulnerability, a willingness to expose and explore this fragility without resorting to the confessional ‘ah me’. This is at some distance from the interspersed rants about the ways in which capitalism ensnares us, a much more personal meditation on a suffering that is keenly felt:

These chimes and echoes form the long relay 
postponing that intolerable minute
when I should not be able to delay
sight of my face and all the crimes hid in it:
so the quick rhapsode stitches up all
fact-calques and formulas, where who would bin it
must stare down that total knowledge of his error,
continuous inobviable terror.

I’m taking (tentatively, provisionally) ‘rhapsode’ as someone who reads poetry aloud to others, a ‘fact-calque’ to be a premise or supposition that is loaned and eventually adopted by a foreign culture and ‘inobviable’ to be that which cannot be obviated or circumvented.

Severe depression has these characteristics and they hurt a great deal. The extent of the self-loathing is such that staring into a mirror is exceptionally difficult not just because of the hidden crimes but also because of the shame that the acute knowledge of these brings about. Continuous terror is a bit more tricky in that I experience a continuous and nagging fearfulness but this isn’t related to my perceived crimes. I can however just about appreciate how difficult this combination might be to bear.

I think it might be worthwhile as well to consider the use of ‘crime’ rather than ‘sin’, is this because the former carry a degree of forethought/intent whereas a sin can be because of some personal trait.

Of course, with such a lengthy poem, it may reasonable to suggest that I have selected the above purely to make my case and that it isn’t, in fact, representative of the whole. This may well have some truth in it but I’m trying to describe what came across most clearly to me on an initial reading as a devotee of poetry. I’ve acknowledged that I don’t share the beliefs described here and have obviously missed out on many of the theological and liturgical ‘points’ but I do continue to read the poem for its honesty and its strength.

Incidentally, the review refers to Night Office a “great religious poem”, the ‘g’ word is a very big word indeed and not one to be idly thrown about. In my head there are very, very few great poems, religious or not and I don’t think this is one of these even if it is both compelling and exceptionally addictive. Perhaps we may need to wait for the next four poems in the sequence to make a decision on ‘g’ ness.

14 responses to “Night Office and Spiritual Pain.

  1. Love you. I know that’s not what this is about, but I do. And I like this too xx

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  3. Beginning to read it, I find the verse an obstacle. Not the fact that it’s in verse, but the level of craft, which so far seems very spotty. Taking on the verse form of “Among School Children” is, as we say, asking for it. There have been poets since Yeats who’ve managed the old lines — I’m pretty sure we’ve argued about this in the past. Even James Merrill, a much less interesting writer, inhabited them better than does Jarvis so far. This says nothing, of course, about spiritual pain.

    • From what I understand, I think this is probably ‘following’ Tasso and Ariosto rather than any English poets. I’m still undecided about his use of constraint and his view that such constraints enhance philosophical and religious poetry but I am more impressed with both metre and rhyme than I thought I’d be. Am now going to read Drayton’s The Barons Wars which apparently also uses ottava rima.

      • J can choose who to follow, of course, but not I think who to be compared to. We, of course, can argue who to compare him to, but not I think on these grounds. The Yeats, for instance, is very concentrated, with yawning caesurae between the stanzas, without explicit narrative or meditative consecution. But still I think English models, even if inexact, are relevant to judging its effect.

      • Of course they are, it’s just that I’m not familiar with them. Now had a look at the Drayton and it is V Bad Indeed. Which Yeats should I look at? Think he failed completely with the Spenserian stanza incidentally but everybody has, except for the man himself, obvs.

  4. Trivia: the reviewer’s name appears to be neither Arabella Millibank (as in the table of contents) nor Millbank (as by the article) but Milbank,

    • Not trivia at all, I’d be deeply pissed off if any publication got my name wrong in two different ways. Will now amend.

      • For Yeats, “Among School Children”. Very different sort of poem, but I think a comparison is meaningful still. More loosely, anything with the pentameter is fair game. “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

  5. For Yeats’s meditative mode in stanzaic form (if not the same stanza), see “In Memory of Robert Gregory” and “All Souls’ Night”.

    • Have now read all three, I see what you mean about ‘School Children’ and will now go back to NO with a fresh pair of eyes. Have you heard the reading he gave at the launch? Completely different from the way it sounds in my head: – there’s also the discussion with Rowan Williams on this page.

      • Thanks, I listened to it this morning. Yes, completely different for me too. He’s a very measured reader — that is, measuring out the words carefully (& quite effectively) by their prose rhythm, and hardly ever stressing the grid of the stanza. Sometimes I felt he underplayed his prosodic successes — ending that stanza on “June” is a good joke, inaudible in his reading.

      • Yes, seems to me that he’s doing something ‘different’ here but I only get that from his reading rather than what’s on the page. Trying to think of it as my reading in progress…. keep finding new things

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