On good days what I want is as much light as I can take. To wake early enough to witness the red dawn grow from the sky’s hem. Early enough to complete my run before the road by the station is clogged with commuters and kids slouching to school. What I want is long days of work – writing, reading, conversations that expand my thinking – then long nights and weekends so jammed with people and experience that there’s no time to think of anything else. On good days, everything has the capacity to move me. A security guard outside some bar in Leicester Square singing along sweetly with a busker. The patchwork peeling bark of a London plane tree, how its varying shades of yellow and green are sometimes so bright they’re almost fluorescent. A hailstorm which comes from nowhere, its perfect white spheres effecting a million tiny pinging sounds against the car windshields.
But those fast happy days run up a debt. On bad days, the nights go on and I can’t sleep. I find myself insulated from the external world. I don’t want to speak to anyone. Small problems turn monumental, large ones so cumbrous I can’t get beyond them. In the evenings, the temporary anxiolytics of smoking and drinking only serve to make the next jittery morning worse. And when things start to clear, the relief is so great I promise myself not to miss a moment of the returning brightness. And on it goes. A sprint followed by a crash, on loop, ad nauseum, forever.
The week before last I was coming off the back of a protracted low. This time I wouldn’t be able to give myself up to the usual post-sadness freneticism. I was heading out on a research trip to a remote Scottish island, staying in a sixth century abbey. At the ferry waiting room on an intermediary island, I left my half-empty packet of cigarettes on a chair for someone else. I decided I would come back permanently changed.
[See also: Once upon a time in Wakefield]
On the island our days were spent preparing the abbey for its seasonal influx of guests – gardening, painting, cleaning. There was no alcohol. I went to bed early. I imagined my cigarettes being smoked somewhere across the sea. Time slowed, and I slowed with it. The peaks and troughs levelled out. When a sudden snowstorm arrived on the coattails of a bright blue morning, it was miraculous, but it did not derail my day.
There was a talent show planned for our final night. The chance to let off steam after a week of work. Unfortunately I have no workable talents – singing, playing an instrument, dancing, etc. – so I decided to learn a poem and recite that. “Why do you need to learn it? Can’t you just read it?” someone asked and I shrugged. “I guess I always find a way to make things harder for myself.”
I hadn’t learned a poem by heart since I was a kid. Not for want of trying – I’d spent multiple mornings bent bracket-like over my desk transcribing the same beautiful lines over and over. It’s just they never seemed to stick. Mary Oliver wrote many of her poems while walking. She said it put her in a state where she could “listen convivially” with nature. Something similar happens when you read poetry while walking, like the rhythms become infused with the landscape you are witnessing.
As I walked across to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean (even the island’s landmarks were simply, ideally named) I recited “Pied Beauty” by the Victorian poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Pied Beauty” is an extended act of doxology, celebrating the infinite variety in the composition of the natural world. The skies are “couple-colour as a brinded cow”, across a trout’s back are “rose-moles all in stipple”. At every moment, he praises complexity over uniformity, “all things counter, original, spare, strange.” No wonder it’s one of my favourite poems, that Hopkins is my favourite poet. I understood that ecstatic mood so well.
[See also: The new politics of time]
I’d committed the poem to short-term memory by the time I reached the bay (maybe that’s fast, I don’t know, but all I’d done for a full hour and a half was repeat the same 11 lines). And yet it didn’t feel sufficient. The trouble is, I thought, “Pied Beauty” only represents one aspect of Hopkins. Without evidence of his other poetic mood, I can’t do him justice. Find a way to make things harder for yourself.
In the final few years of his life, Hopkins left England for Dublin. There he found himself deeply unhappy, overworked and isolated. He suffered long bouts of sickness. The “terrible sonnets” (as they’re often called) are a sequence of poems he wrote during these last five years of his life, in his early forties. They are the anguished expression of Hopkins’ emotional state: his astonishment at the natural world vanished, everything turned internal, “O, the mind, mind has mountains.”
On my walk back to the east coast, I read aloud “I wake and feel the fell of dark not day” (I came across no other people that afternoon, just the few sheep who bleated back at the stranger talking to herself). “O what black hours we have spent/ this night”, the speaker cries. “But where I say/ hours, I mean years, mean life.” In their directness and intensity, those lines strike me more than any other. It’s hard to say them aloud without some of that agony seeping into your delivery. “I see/ the lost are like this,” the poem concludes, “their scourge to be/ as I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.”
At the talent show I performed both poems with sweating palms. And since returning home I’ve continued to recite them daily because I don’t want to lose either of them. Sometimes I accidentally splice them together, eliding parts of the anguish with the joy, the “couple-colour” of the human condition.
I really wanted to come home changed. I really wanted a week of peace and structured living to shake me out of my old ways. Obviously, as soon as I got back to London, I dumped my stuff and headed straight out to a house party – I didn’t smoke, at least. But maybe there are subtler transformations occurring within me that I can’t yet comprehend – as we were leaving the island, we were told, “You’ll see: You take part of this place on with you.”
Not all the time, but there have been moments where I’ve felt calmer, where I’ve resisted the urge to go out and wreck myself, just about. Hopkins ends “Pied Beauty” by turning his attention towards God, “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change,/ Praise him.” The point is that nothing on Earth is “past change”. And that’s terrifying and destabilising. Of course it is. But it might also become a source of comfort, more than that, a kind of freedom.
[See also: How dating a couple set me free]