Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Past Imperfect (I)

Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball,
From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all...

"Pinball Wizard", The Who

John Ruskin began his lecture "The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century" with the words: 

Let me first assure my audience that I have no hidden meaning in the title chosen for this lecture. I might, indeed, have meant, and it would have been only too like me to mean, any number of things by such a title;—but, to-night, I mean simply what I have said, and propose to bring to your notice a series of cloud phenomena, which, so far as I can weigh existing evidence, are peculiar to our own times; yet which have not hitherto received any special notice or description from meteorologists.

In the same way, I feel I should let my reader know that the title of this post isn't (as they might suppose) metaphorical or in any way tangential to my main meaning. My subject is quite literally the past imperfect.

At least, I think it is. I'm not very hot on grammar, and I never have been. I understand that the past imperfect refers to actions which occurred in the past, but which were continuous rather than one-off. If that's wrong, I hope the reader won't get hung up on it. That's what I'm talking about, and my interest in the subject is not grammatical.

This is a subject that fascinates me, and that I've meant to write on for a long time.

I put those Who lyrics at the head of the piece because they are always the ones that come into my mind when I think of the past imperfect-- or (because this is more my subject) when I think of the poetry of the past imperfect.

I would contend, however, that some of the greatest flights of poetry in the English language (which is, sadly, the only language in which I can appreciate poetry) are in what I am calling the past imperfect. One of my favourites, "Ulysses" by Tennyson, springs to mind:

All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

Some of my favourite lines in Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur" are written in the same sort of tense:

Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go? 
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world;
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer", by John Keats, opens in the same strain:

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Another example comes from another of my favourite favourite poems, "To Helen" by Edgar Allen Poe; the first line of the verse (one of my favourite lines of poetry ever) is absolutely drowned in the atmosphere I'm trying to describe:

On desperate seas long wont to roam
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic grace
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.

John Betjeman's "The Planster's Vision" is also written in this tense, and perhaps makes obvious the connection between this rather arcane subject, and the social and cultural views I espouse:
Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong,
Pouring their music through the branches bare,
From moon-white church-towers down the windy air
Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong.
Remove those cottages, a huddled throng!
Too many babies have been born in there,
Too many coffins, bumping down the stair,
Carried the old their garden paths along.

To turn from the sublime to the ridiculous, I have tried to evoke this atmosphere in my own poor poems, most self-consciously in this piece entitled "Where Life Has Been". (I have to admit I am very proud of the final line).

On a battered Monopoly board;
On a dog-eared deck of cards;
In football boots that have scored
Four thousand goals; on yards
Where generations have played and passed, like changing guards.

In a chipped Coronation mug
In a letter-filled biscuit tin;
In the teddy you used to hug
And the bed that you slept in
When life was a drama waiting to begin.

In the pounded, muddy path
That the cows come home along;
In a battle’s aftermath
Of ruin, and tale, and song;
In an empty dancehall dreaming of its scattered throng.

In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.

I'm always writing about tradition on this blog, and of course the past imperfect is the tense best suited to describing traditions. And nostalgia, too. How often does nostalgia refer to a one-off occurrence?

The fascinating thing about the past imperfect, and about tradition, is that it brings us into a "time that is not a time", even a "time outside time". As I wrote in my series on traditionalism, it's hard not to write on this subject without sounding like a continental philosopher.

But try to think of it in its simplest terms. Imagine you and a group of your friends met up at a particular pub every Thursday night for five years. When one of you speaks of  "the times we used to meet up at the Comet", what is he referring to? Any individual night? The whole period during which this practice obtained? No, it's a kind of imaginary synthesis of all these nights, a "typical" night.

I often think of something similar when it comes to recalling the face of someone you know very well. Think of somebody you know very well. What picture are you seeing? Is it a memory of a particular time you looked at that person? Is it a kind of composite picture built from many memories? It is an imaginary reconstruction based on many memories? How could you ever even know?

My thesis is that when something occurs on several occasions, the human mind creates an abstraction which has a kind of splendour, a kind of poetry, that no one-off event can boast.

I remember once realising that the smudge, or shadow, which surrounds a photocopied page is exciting to me. Whenever I was given a photocopied handout in a class in school or college, the fact that the text had been selected and photocopied seem to give it a glamour, an aura. It had passed through one extra mind, one extra soul. The same aura, except intensified, surrounds school chants, nursery rhymes, proverbs, anecdotes, and folklore of every kind.

I will return to this subject. It's a big one for me.

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