The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Edwin Muir's early poem "Horses" (as distinct from "The Horses", much taught in Scottish schools) is a reverie of a childhood encounter. The last three verses run:
But when at dusk with steaming nostrils home
They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,
And warm and glowing with mysterious fire
That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.

Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night
Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light.
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind.

Ah, now it fades! it fades! and I must pine
Again for that dread country crystalline,
Where the blank field and the still-standing tree
Were bright and fearful presences to me.
I think it's common in the civilized West to associate this sort of revelation with childhood, as part of a natural inheritance we lose as we grow up. The last stanza makes me think of Housman's land of lost content, yet Muir's poem is clearly suggesting something more than what one might call the everyday magic of a child's perspective. These horses are not simply magical, they're elemental, totemic, numinous. If we take these presences to have been part of the common life of farming in Orkney in the late 19th century, then it should be borne in mind that Muir wasn't cut off from this particular source by time alone, but by place and culture. He said that in moving from Orkney to Glasgow he aged about 150 years, and he was not being jocular.


Fortunately modernity did not overtake Europe's remaining primitive enclaves so quickly that we don't have some record of what the European dreamtime was like. Here is Carlo Levi in Basilicata, from Christ Stopped at Eboli:
There is nothing strange in the fact that there were dragons in these parts during the Middle Ages. (The peasants and Giulia used to say: 'A long time ago, more than a hundred years, long before the brigands...') Nor would it be strange if dragons were to appear again today before the startled eyes of the country people. Anything is possible, where the ancient deities of the shepherds, the ram and the lamb, run every day over the familiar paths, and there is no definite boundary line between the world of human beings and that of animals or even monsters. [...]
To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion-baron, and the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But the feeling for life itself, for art, language and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasants' world there is no room for reason, religion and history. There is no room for religion because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinites of the village.
That phrase 'a long time ago, more than a hundred years...' is very interesting because of something Garner says in an essay in The Voice That Thunders about memory within an oral tradition only going back about four generations. All previous history becomes compressed or refined, turns into myth and is associated with the great-grandfather.

A couple of pages later, Levi describes a local feast of the Virgin Mary:
Amid this warlike thundering there was no happiness or religious ecstacy in the people's eyes; instead they seemed prey to a sort of madness, a pagan throwing off of restraint, and a stunned or hypnotized condition; all of them were highly wrought up. The animals ran about wildly, goats leaped, donkeys brayed, dogs barked, children shouted, and women sang. Peasants with baskets of wheat in their hands threw fistfuls of it at the Madonna, so that she might take thought for the harvest and bring them good luck. The grains curved through the air, bounced on the paving-stones and bounced up off them with a light noise like that of hail. The black-faced Madonna, in the shower of wheat, among the animals, the gunfire, and the trumpets, was no sorrowful Mother of God, but rather a subterranean deity black with the shadows of the bowels of the earth, a peasant Persephone or a lower-world goddess of the harvest.
I've posted before on religious ritual performed not as commemoration but invocation - a feature of it being the elimination of time.

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At 8 November 2007 at 23:08 , Blogger Joe said...

Very true, it is one of the things that amuses me about organised, mainstream religions who tend to pretend they don't do that sort of thing, but in reality such experiences are as much about inducing altered states as rituals in older, pre-Christian religions, 'primitive' (as they are rather poorly labelled) tribal religions etc - or even dancers at a solid rave for that matter. Transgress the everyday mundane, loose the behaviour a bit and transcend the normal. Of course, they could just drop a tab and listen to the Floyd too...

The Muir is very interesting, although not doubting his feelings of loss at moving from his rural home to the Dear Green Place it also strikes me that is has elements of the classic 'lost' golden time, be it childhood or a more generalised view of how much better things were in the simpler, old days which we all partake in to a certain extent, but which I notice rarely talks about the not so nice elements of those days such as short life spans, poor food, little medical care... Oh how we love our Golden Ages...

At 9 November 2007 at 15:04 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Or when it comes to childhood: fear of just about everything, clothing made from synthetic materials, and rotten central heating. Yes, maturity and penicillin have much to commend them.

My use of "civilized" and "primitive" was ironic. I checked to make sure.

Muir is no doubt as guilty of selective memory as any of us, but he captures moments of revelation or transformation, particularly ones associated with childhood, brilliantly - the point to this poem, as I read it. Also the implication that access to such moments becomes rarer with time. (There are compensations, of course.) His autobiography is well worth reading, and makes clear that the conflict between two worlds which has been, for Alan Garner, a source of creative tension, was near-fatal for Muir. Of course, he was simply picked out of one milieu and dumped in another - though the reason the family had to move was that his father had been twice shifted off farms. Muir's account of Glasgow, and of working in Port Glasgow, is harrowing. Culture shock was only part of it - his father, mother and two brothers died, and he was often ill himself. They had to re-learn everything - not to open the door to beggars and feed them, for example, because there were just too many.

Parenthetically, the old name for the Orkney Mainland is Hrossey - the island of horses.

Regarding Golden Ages in general, and notwithstanding my agreement with what you've said, I just read this morning in Donald Smith's Storytelling Scotland (p98)a quote from James Hunter's Last of the Free:

'It is easy to respond to such sentiments by observing, quite correctly, that South Uist never was the earthly paradise Peggy McCormack believed it to have been, but that is wholly to miss the point she so eloquently made. During Peggy McCormack's lifetime there had been deliberately destroyed, both in South Uist and in much of the rest of the Highlands and Islands, socially cohesive and generally self-assured communities of the type she had been born into.'

At 3 December 2007 at 12:31 , Blogger Yvonne said...

I think it is as well to remember that all these ecstatic or otherwise altered states are projections of the inner life upon the outer world, often resulting from the stimulus of the outer world upon the senses, and possibly to do with the way others have interacted with the "spirit of place" before us, which is somehow stored in the resonance & memory of the place (as I once found at Arbroath Abbey, a very resonant place).

Also there are four modes of ritual: liturgical, celebratory, ceremonial, and magical, each of which has a different style, intent, and outcome. Sometimes the magical breaks in upon the liturgical in the way you describe.

At 10 December 2007 at 22:26 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Late response. Apologies. I absolutely agree with the notion of resonance, which seems to me to be the only way to explain the effect of certain places - an example being Thursbitch valley. For how many hundreds of years was it being used as a centre of what we would today call religious practice? A few years back a friend visited one of the famous Zen Buddhist temples in Japan, and she said it was absolutely impossible to feel disturbed or in any way upset while she was there. Eveything just seemed to settle down of its own accord.


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