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After La Rochefoucauld
‘It is more shameful to distrust your friends
Than be deceived by them’: things in themselves
Do hold – a pot, a jug, a jar, Sweet Williams’
Greenshank shins – so that your eye’s pulled
Clear of metallic thought by the light constancy
Of things, that rest there with you. Or without.
That gaily deadpan candour draws you on –
Your will to hope rises across their muteness.
Denise Riley is Professor of Poetry and History of Ideas at UEA. ‘After La Rochefoucauld’ was first published by Eggbox in a handset [pictured] pamphlet to accompany the inaugural event of the 2014 UEA LDC Reading Series. It has been nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2014, and reprinted in the Forward Book of Poetry 2015. The winner of the prize will be announced on 30th September.
Click on the Soundcloud player to hear Denise Riley reading the poem in the UEA Drama Studio on 14th January 2014. You can read more about forthcoming UEA LDC poetry readings and events here.
It is more shameful to distrust your friends / Than be deceived by them: the poem is ‘after’ La Rochefoucauld, the seventeenth-century French nobleman and writer, because it begins by translating the eighty-fourth of his Maximes: Il est plus honteux de se défier de ses amis que d’en être trompé.
Quotation may seem a rather impersonal way to begin a lyric poem. But the absence of explanation also implies some urgency or strong feeling, accentuated here by the recasting of the French maxim into a line-and-a-half of English blank verse, broken at the loaded word ‘friends’.
The poetic metre and the stoic sentiment in combination might remind us of the unexplained cries of pain-in-love that characterise Shakespeare’s Sonnets, such as ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none’. We are thrown into a moment of emotion finding its first expression.
Things in themselves / Do hold – a pot, a jug, a jar: the second line leaps from the world of words to the world of ‘things in themselves’. This phrase itself arrives almost in quotation marks, being the English plural of a concept coined by the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: ‘das Ding an sich’. For Kant, the thing-in-itself – the thing as it exists, beyond our experience of it – is distinct from the thing-as-phenomenon: the thing, that is, as we perceive it with our senses.
The first three ‘things’ that follow – all kinds of container – suggests a further allusive context for these lines. The twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger meditated intensely on ‘a jug’ in his essay ‘The Thing’, observing that ‘the jug is a thing as a vessel – it can hold something’. Moreover, the jug holds in order to give: for Heidegger, ‘the holding of the vessel occurs in the giving of the outpouring’.
The jug’s capacity to ‘hold’, therefore, is more than its function: it is what reveals its being. This distinction is anticipated by the third line’s rhythmically emphatic opening: ‘things in themselves / Do hold’. The primary meaning of ‘hold’ as a verb here is the intransitive one: ‘not to give way’. With ‘a pot, a jug, a jar’ this shades into the transitive sense of ‘to contain’: these things do exist – and hold other things – because they don’t break.
Sweet Williams’ / Greenshank shins: these words, broken across the third and fourth lines, colour in the poem’s abstract still-life picture with sensual metaphor. Sweet William is the English name for Dianthus barbatus, a summer flower often cut for domestic display. Its stems (magnified in water?) remind the poet of the Common Greenshank – a migratory, wading bird named for its long, greenish legs or ‘shanks’. Legs and stems combine in the image of ‘shins’.
So that your eye’s pulled / Clear of metallic thought by the light constancy / Of things, that rest there with you. Or without: this is the climax of the poem’s emotional argument and its most rhythmically liberated passage. To be ‘pulled / Clear’ is to be rescued from danger. ‘Things’, here, save the mind – via the eye – from the inhuman notion of ‘metallic thought’. ‘No ideas / but in things’, said the poet William Carlos Williams. ‘Mind-forg’d manacles’, said William Blake.
Like the ‘friends’ of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, the poet prefers to trust in the solid existence of jugs and flowers, despite the ambiguous implication of their ‘light constancy’ (one meaning of ‘light’ is ‘unfaithful’). The reflection that they exist ‘with you. Or without’, however, brings an abrupt pause to this moment of hopeful eloquence. Do things deceive us after all? Or are they simply beyond us: ‘without’ in the sense of ‘outside’?
That gaily deadpan candour draws you on – / Your will to hope rises across their muteness: asked about her poetry in a recent interview, Denise Riley commented: ‘The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope.’
Commentary by Jeremy Noel Tod, September 2014.
[With thanks to David Nowell Smith, Nathan Hamilton, and my 2013-14 Poetry After Modernism class, for memorable discussions of this poem.]