This post is one in a set which I’ve been meaning to write for some time, under the tag “commonplace”. I don’t keep an actual commonplace book (I know, the shame…) so when I’m reading I occasionally notice something – a connection, an apparent quotation, an image – and then promptly forget about it. I thought I’d start sticking them up here instead, to share striking bits, and also as a way to ask “Er, is it just me, or are you seeing this too?” I’ll tag them in the title, so you can ignore them more easily if they don’t interest you.
The first one comes from Dorothy L. Sayer’s novel Gaudy Night, specifically from the section where Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey “co-write” a poem. Harriet, still refusing to marry Peter and having a minor crisis over the purpose of her life (made worse by having to deal simultaneously with a detective case in her old college at Oxford and the problems of women and higher education more generally) writes an eight-line poem and leaves it in a pile of papers concerning the case.
Here then at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.
It could be a hymn to her version of the contemplative life (which Oxford is so noably failing to provide her with), a hopeful claim that she is at peace with her feelings over Peter, or just a description of what she wants but has not found. She leaves the poem in the dossier accidentally when she gives it to Peter, and when he returns it she finds this sestet added to make a sonnet:
Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stopping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.
Within the novel, Harriet reads this addition as a statement of his feelings:
But if she wanted an answer t her questions about Peter, there it was, quite appallingly plain. He did not want to forget, or to be spared things, or to stay put. All he wanted was some kind of central stability, and he was apparently ready to take anything that came along, so long as it stimulated him to keep that precarious balance. And of course, if he really felt like that, everything he had ever said or done, as far as she was concerned, was perfectly consistent.
What struck me recently was an echo from another poem. I’m not claiming this is a particularly notable discovery, I’m sure it’s something a lot of readers of commented on, but their two sections of the poem sound awfully like an argument over the meaning of a famous passage of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Specifically the bit from Burnt Norton which begins:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Harriet comes close to citing the poem, and Peter’s replying sestet reads like a challenge to her interpretation. I’m not sure of the particular significance of this – within the novel we’re told that “She went to bed thinking more about another person than about herself. This goes to prove that even minor poetry may have its practical uses”, though we might retort that it actually proves how lively friction over the interpretation of a text can eventually lead to emotional insight and sexual fulfilment.
I’ve also been wondering whether we can read it via Sayers’ status as an apologist for Anglicanism. Eliot – particularly the Four Quartets – is one of the entries on my mental Anglican bingo card, a set of names which pop up more frequently than others in my experience of Anglican writing (the others so far being Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart and Richard Hooker). Unsurprising that Four Quartets should have influenced her and Harriet – to whatever conscious extent for either of them – but I remembered Rowan Williams’ comment when writing about Browning’s A Death in the Desert and the Fourth Gospel, that “If there is any kind of apostolic succession in Anglican commentary it is provided in part by the reflections of this unusual Nonconformist poet…in…Johannine work”. There is perhaps a similar line to be traced of engagements with Four Quartets in Anglican writing – though it might not have a particularly definite shape, given the range of meanings which can be produced from that obscure text. I wondered if Harriet and Peter’s love affair is a half-submerged episode in this textual history, a moment when the poem found its way from Sayers’ criticism into her invention, providing the two characters with a text around which their emotions could crystallise and resolve.
 That would be, what struck me aside from a) the recurrence of imagery of whips and whipping in Sayers (see also the dog collar in later chapters, and the spaniel metaphor which blindsides the reader in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club) b) the use of a metaphor from physics, given her interest in non-Newtonian physics, perhaps surprising for a detective novelist who relies on the Newtonian universe for her plots’ coherence (see also The Documents in the Case) and c) Peter, consistent?!?