The weather is an extremely useful topic: so often the springboard for conversation between strangers; so often, too, the metaphorical barometer of our feelings and state of being. We make heavy weather of stressful times, we leave under a cloud when we transgress and all too frequently brew a storm in a teacup – allowing some small incident to blow up out of all proportion. Of all the metrological conditions, fog is the most disorientating and thus the most pervasive metaphor for uncertainty. I dislike very much driving through fog – its impenetrability frustrating the usual assurance with which I recognise the contours of my world. Authors have fully exploited this obscurity. Charles Dickens begins Bleak House with a swirling description of London in a pea-souper. The city evoked in his tangled tale of lives destroyed by labyrinthine inadequacies of the legal system seems to be as formless, morally, as the fog in whose grip it lies.

From Bleak House, Chapter 1

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Charles Dickens

The poet, Thom Gunn, in his poem, Human Condition, uses fog to evoke the difficulty of making one’s way though life. Gunn’s poem seems to contain within it echoes of another fictional character wavering in an uncertain world. There is more than a glimpse of Hamlet’s shrouded battlements in the opening verse. Yet this narrator seems to make some progress through the fog. Should we take heart from this? Don’t we all emerge, eventually, into a world of clear outlines and known shapes? The wait for this clarity can seem overlong.


Now it is fog. I walk
Contained within my coat;
No castle more cut off
By reason of its moat:
Only the sentry’s cough,
The mercenaries’ talk.

The street lamps, visible,
Drop no light on the ground,
But press beams painfully
In a yard of fog around.
I am condemned to be
An individual.

In the established border
There balances a mere
Pinpoint of consciousness.
I stay, or start from, here:
No fog makes more or less
The neighboring disorder.

Particular, I must
Find out the limitation
Of mind and universe.
To pick thought and sensation
And turn to my own use
Disordered hate or lust.

I seek, to break, my span.
I am my one touchstone.
This is a test more hard
Than any ever known.
And thus I keep my guard
On that which makes me man.

Much is unknowable.
No problem shall be faced
Until the problem is;
I, born to fog, to waste,
Walk through hypothesis,
An individual.

Thom Gunn

This is the last Books at Bibby Line Group email and blog post. I have very much appreciated your interest and the comments I have received. If you have any thoughts about the value or impact of the weekly email/blog, I’d be delighted to hear from you.


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Home is Where

Where do you go to, my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed,” sang Peter Sarstedt in his 1969 song about the inner world of a beautiful socialite. The song’s narrator reflects on the trappings of her success – the clothes, the yachts, the elite to whom she belongs. The repeated question of the refrain suggests there is something lacking in this world of glamour and plenty. The very last refrain of the song reveals the narrator knew this glittering star when she was a ragged child on the streets of Naples. It is to these streets that she returns each night in her dreams. There is no sense that the narrator has retained any contact with the celebrity she has become: it is their shared past, their childhood home, which has forged an unbreakable link between them.

I daresay most people have a place that is the spiritual centre of their lives. I suspect far fewer of us are able to, or choose to, live in this place that means so much. But maybe it is enough to have a haven in our minds, a refuge to sustain us through life’s vicissitudes. W B Yeats writes eloquently about escaping in his imagination to The Lake Isle of Innisfree. A poem of quiet beauty and profound solitude, this evokes a rural idyll and the poet’s longing for its rhythms, its timeless self-sufficiency, its balm. The knowledge of Innisfree lives inside him when he is caught up in the hurly burly of modern life. I hope you enjoy the poem. Where is your Innisfree?


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

William Butler Yeats

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Sharing Paradise

I’d like to share with you the experience of my colleague, Jen, who, for the past fourteen months, has been reading one text with her reading group in Liverpool. Week after week they have returned to the same work of literature. Little by little they have made their way through the profound and beautiful verse of John Milton: they have been reading Paradise Lost. This is Jen’s description of their undertaking:

It’s not been a slog, it’s been the most incredible reading experience of my life: it’s also not been easy (far, far from it) but it’s been something that the six to nine of us (we can’t all be there every week!) have shared: we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve been hugely frustrated, we’ve disagreed, we’ve seen eye-to-eye, we’ve been able to talk about the Big Stuff. Our ideas and thoughts have been able to be expressed openly, in an environment where there’s no judgment, no pressure to say the ‘right’ thing. Milton’s allowed us to talk about life, death, infinity and everything in between: why were we created pure if we were always meant to fall? What does it mean for us that humans exist in a broken world? How is it that good can only exist when there is an opposite to it, evil?

These questions (none of which we have found the answers to, by the way), have got us all thinking about our lives – each week were were thinking about what it is to be human – and this isn’t to say that it was all really heavy going, there have been many laughs and lighter moments along the way too. Milton was writing over 400 years ago, what did that matter? What Milton gets at is the struggle within us all to live our lives: the world is broken, how do we live in it the best we can? What actually is “utter darkness” and are we still in it? We only think of the earth, heaven and hell in terms of space and time – how are we meant to understand eternity?

Please follow the link to read the Jen’s full account:

Jen has selected some highlights from the group’s reading of Paradise Lost. They include:

As Satan gets expelled from Heaven:

Yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe
Book I, ll. 62-4

As Satan decides what lies ahead of him in his new surroundings:
The mind can make its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of a Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
Book I, ll. 254-5

Satan is a fabulous orator! This is where he addresses the other
fallen angels, telling of his plans to corrupt God’s latest creation – man:

O progeny of Heav’n, empyreal Thrones,
With reason hath deep silence and demur
Seized us, though undismayed: long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light;
Our prison strong, this huge convex of fire…
Book II, ll. 430-4

God gives us free will:
They trespass, authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formed them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves
Book III, ll. 122-5

Psychology creeps in – Satan begins to feel:
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell
Book IV, ll. 73-5

As ever, I’d welcome your comments about Jen’s group and Paradise Lost.

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With the English team’s progress to the next round assured, I have chosen Invictus by William Ernest Henley as this week’s poem. This was read and admired by Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, or so we are led to believe in the recent film Invictus. An old-fashioned film, in many ways, this charts the success , against the odds, of the South African rugby team in the 1995 World Cup. In the film, Nelson Mandela offered the poem to Francois Pienaar the captain of the Springboks to inspire him and his team to victory. What appealed to Mandela in his prison cell and what he chose to share with the man carrying the nation’s hearts into battle against the mighty All Blacks was surely the poem’s rousing assertion of individual strength in the face of adversity. The poet suffered childhood illness and later had one leg amputated below the knee. Invictus was written from his hospital bed. The poem may itself be old-fashioned, but dogged determination shines through. I fancy it is emblematic of South Africa’s continuing journey. I offer it here in honour of the host nation and in support of the English team’s renewed endeavours!


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

I would be grateful for your thoughts on this poem and your suggestions for other texts with World Cup applicability.

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Letting Go

The end of the academic year approaches. Undergraduates in their final year are awaiting their results and preparing to plunge into the real world. My stepson is one of them. He releases snippets of information about his future plans in a casual but guarded way. Travel to far-flung places has been mentioned: the funding for this remains vague. I enjoy my conversations with the confident young man he has been come and wonder – conforming to stereotype – where the little boy has gone. I can remember – just – having similar conversations with my parents. A poem which encapsulates the parental perspective in this eternal process is Walking Away by C Day Lewis, written for his son, Sean.

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

C Day Lewis

I would enjoy hearing from you if you have any comments about the poem.
I am on holiday until 20 June, so the next blog post will be in two weeks’ time.

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It is a day of hazy heat and birdsong in the north west of England, as it was yesterday. Yet it seems to me that we cannot enjoy this summery wellbeing without an enhanced appreciation of how fortunate we are to be here today, to feel the sun on our arms, when others are not. As I dwell, appalled, on the killing in Cumbria, my mind chides me to restore some sense of proportion, to remember that such acts of random brutality and the inconsolable suffering they cause are happening, somewhere in the world, at every moment. This is too much to take in. And so are the events in Cumbria. I feel it would be inappropriate to choose a text on an indifferent topic. I have selected, instead, Affliction (IV) by the 17th century poet and clergyman, George Herbert. Herbert left politics for the Church: many of his poems reflect the difficulty of reconciling one’s faith with the demands of everyday life. This poem might offer insight into the anguish of a troubled mind.

Affliction (IV)

BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart ;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face :
Nothing performs the task of life :
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God ! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life : dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief :
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.

George Herbert

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Joseph Wright was profoundly moved by the sight of Vesuvius during his visit to Italy in 1774. He did not see the eruption of 1777, but contemporary accounts must surely have played a part in this glowing canvas. Not all of us have the opportunity to see volcanoes erupting (other than on news footage, obviously): most of us have seen mountains. Might it be impossible to be indifferent to mountains? Whether it’s walking in North Wales, skiing in the Alps or – for the adventurous few – trekking in the Himalayas, we seem to gain something from the experience of being in the midst of these gigantic forms. I love the effort and exhilaration of reaching the summit, the sharp cold air, the vast map of land stretched out below. Yet I am somehow fearful when mountains crowd around me, stepping between me and the sun, blocking my way.

Literature is full of mountains, their drama and impact used to symbolic effect. In Washington Square , Henry James takes his unfortunate heroine, Catherine Sloper and her overbearing father to the Alps. This nineteenth century single parent family are at odds over Catherine’s choice of fiancé. She has engaged herself to Morris Townsend despite her father’s disapproval. Dr Sloper believes Morris is merely after Catherine’s considerable fortune. Ridiculous, in his opinion, to consider that the dashing Morris would be interested in Catherine – dull, quiet and plain – for any other reason. Catherine worships her clever father, but despite his opposition, she loves Morris with an intense passion. During the six months of their European tour, she has not wavered in her devotion to Morris and her intention to marry him on her return to the States. Dr Sloper is increasingly irritated by this unexpected resistence from his weak and biddable child. The confrontation between them, when it finally happens, is in a bleak, mountainous landscape, which seems to intensify Catherine’s isolation and her father’s harshness.

From Washington Square by Henry James

One day at the end of the summer, the two travellers found themselves in a lonely valley of the Alps. They were crossing one of the passes, and on the long ascent they had got out of the carriage and had wandered much in advance. After a while the Doctor descried a footpath which, leading through a transverse valley, would bring them out, as he justly supposed, at a much higher point of the ascent. They followed this devious way, and finally lost the path; the valley proved very wild and rough, and their walk became rather a scramble. They were good walkers, however, and they took their adventure easily; from time to time they stopped, that Catherine might rest; and then she sat upon a stone and looked about her at the hard-featured rocks and the glowing sky. It was late in the afternoon, in the last of August; night was coming on, and, as they had reached a great elevation, the air was cold and sharp. In the west there was a great suffusion of cold, red light, which made the sides of the little valley look only the more rugged and dusky. During one of their pauses, her father left her and wandered away to some high place, at a distance, to get a view. He was out of sight; she sat there alone, in the stillness, which was just touched by the vague murmur, somewhere, of a mountain brook. She thought of Morris Townsend, and the place was so desolate and lonely that he seemed very far away. Her father remained absent a long time; she began to wonder what had become of him. But at last he reappeared, coming towards her in the clear twilight, and she got up, to go on. He made no motion to proceed, however, but came close to her, as if he had something to say. He stopped in front of her and stood looking at her, with eyes that had kept the light of the flushing snow-summits on which they had just been fixed. Then, abruptly, in a low tone, he asked her an unexpected question:

“Have you given him up?”

The question was unexpected, but Catherine was only superficially unprepared.

“No, father!” she answered.
He looked at her again for some moments, without speaking.

“Does he write to you?” he asked.

“Yes–about twice a month.”

The Doctor looked up and down the valley, swinging his stick; then he said to her, in the same low tone:

“I am very angry.”

She wondered what he meant–whether he wished to frighten her. If he did, the place was well chosen; this hard, melancholy dell, abandoned by the summer light, made her feel her loneliness. She looked around her, and her heart grew cold; for a moment her fear was great. But she could think of nothing to say, save to murmur gently, “I am sorry.”

“You try my patience,” her father went on, “and you ought to know what I am, I am not a very good man. Though I am very smooth externally, at bottom I am very passionate; and I assure you I can be very hard.”

She could not think why he told her these things. Had he brought her there on purpose, and was it part of a plan? What was the plan? Catherine asked herself. Was it to startle her suddenly into a retraction–to take an advantage of her by dread? Dread of what? The place was ugly and lonely, but the place could do her no harm. There was a kind of still intensity about her father, which made him dangerous, but Catherine hardly went so far as to say to herself that it might be part of his plan to fasten his hand–the neat, fine, supple hand of a distinguished physician–in her throat. Nevertheless, she receded a step. “I am sure you can be anything you please,” she said. And it was her simple belief.

“I am very angry,” he replied, more sharply.

“Why has it taken you so suddenly?”

“It has not taken me suddenly. I have been raging inwardly for the last six months. But just now this seemed a good place to flare out. It’s so quiet, and we are alone.”

“Yes, it’s very quiet,” said Catherine vaguely, looking about her. “Won’t you come back to the carriage?”

“In a moment. Do you mean that in all this time you have not yielded an inch?”

“I would if I could, father; but I can’t.”

The Doctor looked round him too. “Should you like to be left in such a place as this, to starve?”

“What do you mean?” cried the girl.

“That will be your fate–that’s how he will leave you.”

He would not touch her, but he had touched Morris. The warmth came back to her heart. “That is not true, father,” she broke out, “and you ought not to say it! It is not right, and it’s not true!”

He shook his head slowly. “No, it’s not right, because you won’t believe it. But it is true. Come back to the carriage.”

He turned away, and she followed him; he went faster, and was presently much in advance. But from time to time he stopped, without turning round, to let her keep up with him, and she made her way forward with difficulty, her heart beating with the excitement of having for the first time spoken to him in violence. By this time it had grown almost dark, and she ended by losing sight of him. But she kept her course, and after a little, the valley making a sudden turn, she gained the road, where the carriage stood waiting. In it sat her father, rigid and silent; in silence, too, she took her place beside him.

Wordsworth’s Mountains

William Wordsworth’s love of the Lake District is well known. Much of the poet’s inspiration and, indeed, beliefs came from the natural world and the unspoilt landscapes through which he strode. In The Prelude Wordsworth writes of the moral guidance which, so it seemed to him, he received from Nature. In the extract which follows, the young boy slips out at night and rows a boat out onto Ullswater. Of course he has not asked permission to use the boat. As he rows towards a point he has determined to reach in the centre of the lake, form behind the mountain opposite, a second taller peak suddenly apprears. No matter how he rows to try to hide this looming bulk behind the first mountain, he cannot. It has a profound effect on him.

From The Prelude by William Wordsworth

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood;

Do let me know your thoughts about these and any other landscape texts which have made an impression on you

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