Not Daffodils: Beauty, Fear and Poetry ‘in residence’ | Matthew CleggPosted: April 17, 2014
‘I was reared / In the great city…’
Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’
In 1998 I’d abandoned a part time and self-funded English Literature degree at Leeds University because I’d run out of cash. I was working in telesales for Sky TV, living in Kirkstall with P, a close friend who’d been fighting schizophrenia and losing ground. An intelligent man, he suspected that the side effects to his medication were in some ways more undesirable than the condition itself. He was experimenting with not taking the pills and his daily behaviour was getting simultaneously more brilliant and more worrying. We had been walking in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. P had been talking about sexual selection – the subject of his PHD – and then he had broken down. ‘We’re all just barking dogs’, he was telling me, and I was struggling to offer an angle that might ground or release him. My morale was at its lowest, and then a day or two later I got a phone call from Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust. He’d been thinking about setting up a modest residency at Dove Cottage and would I be interested.
‘Of youthful Poets, who among these hills
Will be my second self when I am gone…’
I’d met Robert at a Centenary Conference marking the publication of the Lyrical Ballads. The idea was to celebrate that landmark of Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as reflect on where poetry was now, and what it might owe to the Romantics. I was part of a small writers’ collective at that time. We’d had an anthology published with some money from Yorkshire Arts. Steve Dearden – then a Literature Officer at Yorkshire Arts – had alerted us to some bursaries that could pay for places for us at the conference, and we were lucky enough to get the money. We ended up lodging in a holiday cottage owned by some local magnate that Robert had wangled for selected conference attendees who might be strapped for cash. After meeting Robert at the conference he offered us a reading the following summer. Out of that reading, and subsequent correspondence, Robert got the idea of offering me the residence. When interrogated, I was never very good at justifying the opportunity. It had just happened to me.
‘…Within the bounds of this huge Concave; here
Should be my home, this Valley be my world…’
Wordsworth, ‘Home at Grasmere’
I arrived in Grasmere in the New Year of 1999. After checking in I was shown to an 18th Century Cottage in Town End, just off the coffin path that connects Rhydale and Grasmere. I remember going into the front room and being struck that the carpet was speckled by dozens of tiny black dots, in a peacock-fan spray around the fireplace. There must have been a hailstorm, and as the hail passed down the chimney it picked up soot. As the ice melted onto the carpet, it left the soot behind as a signature. This seemed entirely appropriate for a place built around such a strong sense of history. The only other thing in the room was a bucket of coal with a welcome note attached. I had brought no furniture and there was none in the house. Only a king-size bed upstairs. For the first few days the only room I inhabited was that bedroom, before a sofa and chair and assorted bits and pieces were found for me from various donors. I liked the idea that everything in the house was cobbled together from people in the immediate community. It generated a strange sense of hospitality even before I got to know anyone.
‘…O Lakes, Lakes!
O Sentiment upon the rocks!’
Geoffrey Hill, ‘Elegiac Stanzas’
It was raining on the day I arrived. I think it may have rained through the whole first month. The world I entered felt like it had been under water for the whole winter. The moss that cushioned the walls on either side of the coffin path was luminous green like some exotic seaweed. The coal dust in the leaky coal shed was a greasy paste. On my first night I walked into the centre of Grasmere to find a call box. There was one on the edge of a car park on the approach to the village. The car park was flooded and the call box was surrounded by water. I waded into it and stood watching the rain pound down around me as the cold soaked into my feet. I looked up at the dark bulk of Loughrigg and Silver How. The rain was more intense and more violent than any I could remember. It even seemed to be beating down the smoke that rose out of the chimneys of Town End.
‘…it is hard to explain how he could have
climbed to that height in the dark and wet night
without falling to his death…’
Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
It was midwinter. I had been to see the Jacqueline du Pré biopic, Hilary and Jackie, with Sean and Jane Borodale at Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside. When the movie was over we took off in Sean’s Land Rover for a late night drive. After twisting down A-roads, up and down inclines, skirting lakes and surprising many stray sheep in the headlights, we ended up climbing a steep road that might have been at the end of the Elterwater Valley. I’m not sure because, as a passenger, I just went with it, excited by not knowing or not being in control of where I was. When we got to somewhere near the top we stopped and paused for a second or two to take in the scale of the landscape dropping away beneath us. Steam from our breath filled the Land Rover. I opened the door and jumped down onto the road and instantly fell flat on my back. The road surface was a rhino-hide sheet of black ice. We looked at each other in amazement at how we had made it up that road. Then panic set in about how we were going to get down again.
‘The Mind is its own place…’
John Milton, Paradise Lost
P had come up to visit me for a weekend whilst on his way to visit his new girlfriend in Liverpool. He had again been experimenting with not taking his medication, probably out of a fear that it would make him impotent. He came in the summer of my first year in Grasmere. He was lucky. He landed smack in the middle of one of those breathtaking stretches of summer weather that can persuade you that Cumbria really is heaven on earth. We went out walking, choosing to climb up past White Moss Tarn and up and across to Heron Pike. We paused halfway up to eat some lunch and look out across Grasmere towards the green of the landscape beyond – the sky a vacuum swept and immaculate blue. P’s psychosis was taking hold and he was gradually persuading himself that he had in fact died and this was the afterlife. He struggled with this feeling for the rest of the weekend. He told me he was having real trouble not walking out into passing cars or stepping off ledges as he had all but convinced himself that it would do him no harm as he was already dead. My role was to make and maintain an argument to convince him otherwise. This consisted mainly of pointing out details that could not possibly be found in nirvana. Pepsi cans by the edge of the tarn. The never-ending coach parties. The low-flying fighter jets scalping the trig points.
‘…beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror…’
Rilke, The First Elegy, Duino Elegies
It was the middle of the Wordsworth Winter School during my final winter. I had been getting uptight about this business of being a Poet in Residence. This would typically kick in during the schools and conferences in the presence of the various academics and validated connoisseurs. How was I to negotiate the value system of that world and play the role of poet in public? I had acute status anxiety. I’d asked a friend to get me something to smoke that would relax me in the evenings. He did. I wasn’t a self-sufficient user of any form of recreational drug, but late one afternoon I rolled myself a spliff and put some vegetables in the oven.
I’m guessing the skunk I was given was probably very strong and spiked with something else, most likely speed. The sense of euphoria that first came upon me just kept pushing up the ante until suddenly it was my heart turning into a bullet train. I tried to calm myself by lying on the cold stone floor and breathing deeply but it had no effect. I couldn’t believe my heart was going to be able to stand up to this punishment. Quite by coincidence another friend called round to say goodbye before he went away for the weekend and he was able to explain what I was experiencing. I was having a whitey. He didn’t seem too worried – just said I should lie down and it would pass. I did and it didn’t. Normal social interaction had become almost impossible to me. I couldn’t form sentences.
‘..men’s intellectual errors consist
chiefly in denying…’
Coleridge, Anima Poetae
I learned a lot about myself during the hours that followed. I was entirely possessed by fear. I was afraid of the dark, of strong light, of stillness, of anything that moved, of company, of being alone, of every change or lack or change in my body rhythm. And all this despite knowing there was nothing tangible to be afraid of. For a very long time the only thing that seemed to remotely stabilise me was to walk backwards and forwards along the snow-covered road by the woods and lake. 100 yards one way, then 100 yards the other. I did this for what must have been hours. I’d persuaded myself that I had to keep moving. If I stopped, the contrast between the speed of my heart and the inactivity of the rest of my body felt too extreme. Also, cold was better than warmth somehow. Surely, it would slow my heart down. Something primal had woken up and it wasn’t going to go back in its kennel. All my senses had sprung awake. I imagine this is what happens to animals in times of extreme danger. During those hours, the starch-white of the snow on the roads and fields represented a kind of total oblivion and so did the dark in the woods. It was only by constantly changing my focus from one to the other that I managed to stop myself from feeling overwhelmed. De Quincey writes of how ‘space swelled and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity’ under the influence of opium. When I looked out over the snowy fields I had the same feeling. But when I looked into the dark of the woods, I had an equally powerful feeling of claustrophobia, as I did when I considered returning to Town End or my cottage. Internal and external were equally terrifying and normal rational thought was little defence. It reminded me of something P had told me about psychosis: ‘when I’m mad I know in my rational mind that what I’m thinking is madness but still, my rational mind has no power over those thoughts.’ I’d experienced what that meant, at least.
This piece reworks a memoir that first appeared in Staple magazine (Spring 2006). Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.