Saturday, September 28, 2013

REPOST | BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF YEARS by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1865)

Last night I immersed myself in two hour-long documentaries on the life of Father Bede Griffiths. These films are part of a rich archive of study material for an online programme I signed up for several months ago. The films pose a great many questions and today prompt me to do something dear Marylinn does from time to time - namely, repost a piece from 'the archives' that blog stats indicate has been repeatedly revisited. We wonder how and why this happens? Certainly, I have appreciated being put in touch with stories-of-old again, for the themes they highlight, the patterns they reveal. 

Who was it who said, 'We are our stories'? In the original post - a little over a year ago - Mary McC used the word 'wrought' in reference to the 'life material' I'd uncovered. I appreciated her choice of word, indicating as it does the 'forged-in-fire' process Life is. We are continually in the making.  Staying with the story metaphor, we are changed in the telling and re-telling of our stories.  Every choice we make and every experience we have forms, informs and reforms us. There'd be something seriously amiss if it didn't. The implications in this are profound; we are the same people we were a decade ago, a year ago, a day or an hour ago and, too, entirely, utterly different. Not only are the compositional ingredients of our body completely replaced every seven years so that we are physiologically, biologically and structurally renewed, but our psychic, spiritual and emotional interiors are engaged in corresponding processes of a similarly transformative nature. If something doesn't change - and transform through that changing - it effectively dies? In this way we are in constant and dynamic process, a recurring combination/application/ministration of flame and heat, of chipping and sanding, welding and refining

We find ourselves scorched and broken, tested and found wanting. We understand. We do not understand. We understand. We weep and wail. We beat our breasts and gnash our teeth. We despair. We laugh. We rejoice. We dance on light's edge and, too, spend long periods burrowing through darkness, picking over the pieces in our personal compost heap and roaming - we trust, productively - the shadowlands. We attach so as to learn to let go. We detach so that we can learn to give more generously, more authentically engage. It is not enough just to know 'about' these things, or to 'visit' these places. We have, it seems, to fully inhabit them in order for the gifts to make themselves known and the lessons to find purchase. To quote Roethke, 'We wake to sleep and take our waking slow. We learn by going where we have to go'.

And now to the re-post --- 

I first encountered Before The Beginning Of Years in 1980 - in Norton's Anthology of Modern Verse. At the time I was a student at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, studying Fine Arts, Latin, Classical Civilization and English. I've kept Swinburne's poem (written in 1856) within arms' reach ever since. As far back as I can remember I've taped it to the walls of my studio - it's probably hung in every studio I've worked in. So saying, I seem to have misplaced it recently and spent some time today trying to find it.

I wrote the poem out way back in the 1980s, using ivory black ink and a long scroll of newsprint. This same scroll was carted from one workspace to the next. In 1985 it hung from a bare curtain rail in the converted tractor shed that doubled-up as accommodation and studio; I was twenty-four at the time, recently graduated and newly married. We - my twenty-five year old husband P & I - started our life together on a remote pig farm in a farming district named Nooitgedacht (back in South Africa this was). As it turned out, we ended up having very little in the way of 'together' time there; six weeks after our wedding, he was called up to the Angolan border to serve time as a medic for the military. I've never quite got my head around that chapter of our story. . . 

Storm Warning I (detail) - lithograph with ink & gesso - CB + Katherine Glenday vessel

Anyway, I spent the next couple of months on my own - well, no, I wasn't entirely on my own. I shared the cottage with my cat, Count Cumulus. I grew veggies, walked, talked to pigs and cows and otherwise spent long, satisfying hours working towards my first solo show. I loved living out there - the huge skies, skudding clouds and wild fecundity of the place. Within a week or two of P's leaving, I discovered I was pregnant. I thrived, deeply content in the knowledge of my growing babe and found myself entranced by the surprise of full breasts and a rounding belly. Everywhere I looked I found rhythms - echoes between my inner and outer landscapes. This short period of productivity and paradise came to an abrupt end after two grueling murders were committed within unsettling proximity of the farm. I decided it would be unwise to stay and, within twenty-four hours of the second death, had packed up my few belongings, my studio materials and cat and moved to the city. The curator of my first-ever dealer gallery kindly offered me her spare rental flat for a few weeks while I hunted for a suitable place to stay. I had an exhibition to produce and was thoroughly nest-y at the time; am not sure what I'd have done had K not stepped in and offered me that temporary shelter. I hung Swinburne's poem on the wall opposite my king-sized mattress in K's very small street-front flat (our mattress lived on the floor in those days). I drew and painted all day, read and played music to my belly at night, ate kilograms of citrus and drank litres of rooibos tea (loose twigs, with honey). 

Before long, I found a small, affordable garden cottage to move into in Randburg (one of Johannesburg's Northern suburbs) and taped Swinburne to the wall behind P's empty - and patiently waiting - desk in the spare back room I'd chosen to make my studio. From there, the same (rapidly-yellowing) scroll moved with me to the shed that became my workspace in our whitewashed home in Kenilworth, Cape Town. Our family had expanded to five by then. In 1994, we moved to New Zealand; the poem came, too, of course. It spent several months on a container at sea (a little like me) and when our belongings arrived and we'd unpacked, I took it down the hill to the second floor studio I'd signed a lease on in George Street, downtown Dunedin. We - the poem and I - settled into that space and stayed there for seven years - we left reluctantly when my landlord decided to double my rent (inner city apartments were becoming The Thing) and I moved on to another place; next came a rather derelict two-roomed studio in a neglected old building at the bottom of Jetty Street. I didn't stay there long - less than two years - but, despite the isolation (the building was tucked under the armpit of an over-bridge in the older, largely uninhabited part of town), my stint in Jetty Street was one of the most productive periods of my working life. In 2003 I moved to the old harbour-side villa I live and work in today. The Swinburne Scroll came with me, of course. I've had it out and up since moving to 22; it has to be here somewhere. . . 

Here, then, is the poem -


            Before the beginning of years
                There came to the making of man
            Time, with a gift of tears;
                Grief, with a glass that ran;
            Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
                Summer, with flowers that fell;
            Remembrance fallen from heaven,
                And madness risen from hell;
            Strength without hands to smite;
                Love that endures for a breath:
            Night, the shadow of light,
                 And life, the shadow of death.
            And the high gods took in hand
                 Fire, and the falling of tears, 
            And a measure of sliding sand
                 From under the feet of the years;
            And froth and drift of the sea; 
                 And dust of the laboring earth;
            And bodies of things to be
                 In the houses of death and of birth;
            And wrought with weeping and laughter,
                 And fashioned with loathing and love
            With life before and after
                 And death beneath and above,
            For a day and a night and a morrow, 
                 That his strength might endure for a span
            With travail and heavy sorrow,
                 The holy spirit of man.
            From the winds of the north and the south
                 They gathered as unto strife;
            They breathed upon his mouth,
                  They filled his body with life;
            Eyesight and speech they wrought
                  For the veils of the soul therein,
            A time for labor and thought,
                   A time to serve and to sin;
            They gave him light in his ways, 
                   And love, and a space for delight,
            And beauty and length of days,
                   And night, and sleep in the night. 
            His speech is a burning fire;
                   With his lips he travaileth;
            In his heart is a blind desire,
                   In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
            He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
                   Sows, and he shall not reap;
            His life is a watch or a vision
                   Between a sleep and a sleep. 

            Algernon Charles Swinburne (1865)  

Storm Warning II (detail) - Lithograph with ink and gesso - CB

(I'm happy to report I found my original Swinburne Scroll.)


  1. oh my goodness. Seek and ye shall find. I have been housecleaning today and listening to the the most beautiful playlist that Gaz made me. Life eh in all its mess and Glory.Too much salt on my face and never enough.
    Gorgeous profound writing Claire x

    1. Dear Kat - life in all its mess and glory, yes. As to salt. . . Isak Dinesen's wrote, 'The cure for anything is salt - tears, sweat or the sea.' I agree, in part. We are lucky to have ready access to the ocean here; healing spaces to amble, pound and converse with. I think of you often, Kat xo

  2. Claire, what a tender, generous, challenging and heartening offering this is (and I didn't see it the first time). What a poem to hold/be held by . . . Thank you.

    1. "They gave him light in his ways,
      And love, and a space for delight,
      And beauty and length of days,
      And night, and sleep in the night."

      Ingredients that hold it - and hold us - all together.


  3. So lovely Claire. Thank you. Our story is the only one we know; we tell it over and over.

  4. Hi Christine - the other day I was talking with a friend who had just come through major heart surgery. He said he'd been musing on the idea of life as a circle - and of that circle being a river. There is much to ponder in this image: life's river quickens and slows, it deepens and widens and - like the image of walking in a spiral up a mountain - we keep passing the same landmarks though each time we do, we look onto them from a different vantage point, assimilating the parts into an ever-fuller whole. Telling our story reminds us who we are, what we are here to learn, give, change and make sense of?

  5. Dear Claire - what a beautiful poem - it seems tailor-made for you (replace the 'he's' with 'she's' etc. and it's all about you)! A stunning poem I have never heard / read it before. And that spell-binding partial autobio. as a prelude, seems to wind itself in and around that poem. Thanks so much for sharing all this. Magical and inspiring.

  6. Than you for sharing this story Claire. It's so beautifully presented and I'm so glad you found the original scroll.

  7. Hello Claire, thank you for stopping by.
    The older I get the less I understand this thing called life.
    Thank you for sharing a part of yours.