Insistence and Propulsion in Peter Larkin’s ‘Next Portent’: Brushwood to Drift
In William Wordsworth’s earliest surviving letter he announced ‘I am a perfect Enthusiast in my admiration of Nature in all her various forms’ and in the Fenwick note to the poem ‘An Evening Walk’ the seventy-three year old poet recalled a moment in his youth when he noticed an oak tree on the road between Hawkshead, where he was at school, and Ambleside:
I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them: and I made a resolution to supply in some degree the deficiency.
The poem was originally published in London in 1793 and the oak tree appears ‘fronting the bright west in stronger lines’ with ‘dark’ning boughs and foliage twines’. Wordsworth was a great reviser of his work and the 1836 version of the poem presents the reader with a slightly different cadence:
And fronting the bright west yon oak entwines
Its darkening boughs & leaves in stronger lines.
The Fenwick note asserts that this image ‘is feebly & imperfectly exprest; but I recollect distinctly the very spot where this first struck me. It was in the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history…I could not have been at that time above 14 years of age.’ In the revision the poet creates a sense of life and purpose in his humanising of the memory of the tree: not only does the oak front the setting sun (with its echo perhaps of Ulysses’s speech in Act III of Troilus and Cressida, ‘like a gate of steel / Fronting the sun’) but it also plays an active and seemingly purposeful role in entwining its boughs and leaves in such a fashion as to make a more impressive picture to the viewer: the lines stand out more clearly.
One of the most memorable moments in John Ruskin’s autobiography Praeterita concerns a sketch which he makes of an aspen: the tree appears to insist upon its presence:
The flat cross-country between Chartres and Fontainebleau, with an oppressive sense of Paris to the north, fretted me wickedly; when we got to the Fountain of Fair Water I lay feverishly wakeful through the night, and was so heavy and ill in the morning that I could not safely travel, and fancied some bad sickness was coming on. However, towards twelve o’clock the inn people brought me a little basket of wild strawberries; and they refreshed me, and I put my sketch-book in pocket and tottered out, though still in an extremely languid and woe-begone condition; and getting into a cart-road among some young trees, where there was nothing to see but the blue sky through thin branches, lay down on the bank by the roadside to see if I could sleep. But I couldn’t, and the branches against the blue sky began to interest me, motionless as the branches of a tree of Jesse on a painted window.
Feeling gradually somewhat livelier, and that I wasn’t going to die this time, and be buried in the sand, though I couldn’t for the present walk any farther, I took out my book, and began to draw a little aspen tree, on the other side of the cart-road, carefully…
How I had managed to get into that utterly dull cart-road, when there were sandstone rocks to be sought for, the Fates, as I have so often to observe, only know…And to-day, I missed rocks, palace, and fountain all alike, and found myself lying on the bank of a cart-road in the sand, with no prospect whatever but that small aspen tree against the blue sky.
Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced,--without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they “composed” themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere…This was indeed an end to all former thoughts with me, an insight into a new sylvan world.
Not sylvan only. The woods, which I had only looked on as wilderness, fulfilled I then saw, in their beauty, the same laws which guided the clouds, divided the light, and balanced the wave. “He hath made everything beautiful, in his time,” became for me thenceforward the interpretation of the bond between the human mind and all visible things; and I returned along the wood-road feeling that it had led me far;--Farther than ever fancy had reached, or theodolite measured.
In his unpublished notes on the outlooks and procedures of the post-Romantic mind J.H. Prynne refers to this passage in some detail:
The incident he described took place in the summer of 1842, when he would have been twenty-three. This summer excursion to France and Switzerland was in great part spent working out the groundwork and collecting material for the first volume of Modern Painters.
Prynne goes on to suggest an interesting comparison with Ford Madox Brown’s ‘not dissimilar account of a journey to St. Albans in August of 1854’:
Brown, that morning in a disgusted and depressed state, is relieved by fine weather; and “one field of turnips against the afternoon sky did surprise us into exclamation” (Preraphaelite Diaries and Letters, London 1900). When he later passes the charred ruins of a burnt-out house, the family dispossessed and only two chimneys left standing, he is reminded of having recently broken a tooth and of the gap caused by this loss. The turnips later form the shadowy but luminous foreground of a small landscape, which though ostensibly concerned with a harvest-scene is by 16th December still being called “the landscape of the turnip-field”. The finished canvas now hangs in the Tate Gallery, with the title “Carrying Corn”. The sheer intelligence and complexity of feeling and tone in Brown’s small landscapes, few in number, make them some of the most impressive attempts to re-work an English post-Romantic relationship with the natural scene.
In writing about the astonishing power of both Wordsworth and Coleridge’s late eighteenth-century attitudes towards the natural scene John Danby, in his 1960 publication The Simple Wordsworth, referred to Coleridge’s ‘Conversation pieces’ as moving ‘like water over moss’:
The ‘conversations’ are internal dialogues. They are a mind making itself up in flux and re-flux, not an overbearing iteration of pre-rehearsed assertions. The reader overhears. The poem is the living plasm of a psychic process delicately controlled…The physical environment in which the thinking solitary is placed becomes a living partner in the thinking. It provides objective correlatives for the personal process. Internal and external prompt each other, modify each other, stand for each other, in a way that makes it difficult to speak of subject and object as divided opposites, where the object is symbolic and the symbol an effort to grasp its object more entirely.
Peter Larkin’s 2010 piece of writing, ‘Brushwood by Inflection’, opens with a quotation from Theodor Adorno:
The less of life remains, the more seductive it is for consciousness to take the bare harsh remnants of the living for the appearance of the Absolute.
If there is a tone of Apocalyptic warning in Larkin’s writing it is always tempered by hope and the quotation from Adorno is followed by the words of Christ taken from The Gospel According to S. Luke as He is led away to crucifixion:
For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?
The insistence of growth, the tenacious thrusting forth of life in the teeth of the ingenuity of mankind, is uplifting. Literally so as ‘The “inflection point” on a branch is where the direction of curve outwards changes to the direction of curve upwards, and is usually a play-off between the elastic bending and thickening growth.’ The word ‘inflection’ carries a range of associations from the politically serpentine (Thomas Elyot’s The Boke named the Governor) to the labyrinthine creation of the home of the Minotaur in Sir Thomas Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus. In Peter Larkin’s writing it denotes the insistence of life’s regeneration:
A branch bends continuously even while it thickens and as such the shape of a branch can be seen as a function of time. But any break-off from that branch provokes a compunction of space across a strewnness which wrangles with its proneness before horizon. (Give Forest Its Next Portent, 9)
Mathematical certainty and spiritual awareness merge not only with that sly reference to a Mathematics undergraduate at the University of Cambridge but also to the change of curvature from convex to concave at a particular point on a curve:
So “inflection” in these texts has a more speculative association, not so much with permanent deformation, as with the trails of brushwood matting which surround trees or edge out beyond their line. After the break from main branch comes a further twist towards these given-aways’ own sensory of gift amid a heaping-up of separation. Now tree becomes the agent for which branch appears the source and brush is the locus. (Give Forest Its Next Portent, 9)
In Larkin’s work close attention to detail, the precision and honesty of the observer, merge into speculative belief in the insistence of Life. His subtle awareness includes recognition of Darwinian impulses towards survival becoming merged with the human notion of greed as expressed by the language of the military:
Given brushwood isn’t code for a wrenched thing lying across
origin but the inflection of it is forescatter where the young
of the year are broken in advance of the trees’ own persistence
—a cob of green cud spat out by the tree’s specialism to vacate
shoulder but recast the forks of surface extending bent matter
to the neck of horizon. (Give Forest Its Next Portent, 11)
The breaking of codes has associations with the secrecy of a military campaign and it can never be simply comfortable to hear of the ‘young / of the year’ being ‘broken’. The human act lying behind the word ‘spat’ finds further emphasis with a reference to both ‘shoulder and ‘neck’.
where roots creep to their edge quota, brush has swept past bed
to lie out on jammed marginal rota (Give Forest Its Next Portent, 11)
A military manoeuvre which might involve both creeping and sweeping might be faced with temporary reversals
Where brushwood trips at faltered roots to re-abrupt them, fold
in juxtaposition what is the brittle turn to origin ahead of fuelled
despairs mimicking fluent repairs (Give Forest Its Next Portent, 11)
A reference to ‘fuelled’ and to ‘repairs’ will lead three lines further on to ‘surge’ and then ‘tree-limbs’ which will ‘inspect the path’. However, what overrides this militaristic language is a fundamental belief in re-birth as resurrection and ‘the outmapped / lay nestling / in the inflicted’. Whereas at first glance one might be forgiven for associating this compression of linguistic echoes with that to be found in Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’, ‘In the curving / mirror of enlarged depravity’, a closer analogy might really be with the much earlier series of poems Prynne first published in The English Intelligencer:
Envisaging the chapter-
head in the historical outline as “the
spirit (need) of the age”—its primary
greed, shielded from ignominy by the
like practice of too many others.
of course is not expansion but acquisition
(as to purchase the Suez Canal was merely
a blatant example): the true expansion
is probably drift, as the Scythians
being nomadic anyway for the most part
slipped sideways right across the Russian
steppes, from China by molecular friction
through to the Polish border.
‘Brushwood by Inflection’ concludes
inflection the precondition for finiteness what counter-confines
by reach the slights of itself, relational debris attended across
horizoned extent: brush the event from its tree (Give Forest Its Next Portent, 34)