THOMAS HARDY: (from) Wessex Heights

There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.

In the lowlands I have no comrade, not even the lone man’s friend –
Her who suffereth long and is kind; accepts what he is too weak to mend;
Down there they are dubious and askance; there nobody thinks as I,
But mind-chains do not clink when one’s neighbour is the sky.

Down there I seem to be false to myself, my simple self that was,
And is not now, and I see him watching, wondering what crass cause
Can have merged him into such a strange continuator as this,
Who yet has something in common with himself, my chrysalis.

As for one rare fair woman, I am now but a thought of hers,
I enter her mind and another thought succeeds me that she prefers;
Yet my love for her in its fullness she herself even did not know;
Well, time cures hearts of tenderness, and now I can let her go.

So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow, or little Pilsdon Crest,
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance, and I know some liberty.

I identify very closely with the narrator in this poem, particularly the third and fourth stanzas, though for me the beaches and marshes of the East Coast and the North Sea would be my place “for thinking, dreaming, dying on” rather than the Wessex Heights.

(The narrator of course is almost certainly the poet himself here, but one should never simply assume that of poems written in the First Person.)

SHELLEY

This is for those who haven’t read any Shelley since they were at school (if then) – an attempt to show you a little of what you are missing!

Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound by Joseph Severn 1845

Shelley is a great poet, yet all too often what should have been appreciation of his poetry has degenerated into criticism of his way of life. “With all his genius [said Southey, soon after Shelley’s death] … he was a base, bad man.” To comments like that, Byron (who knew him well) responded: “You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever knew.”

But Percy Bysshe Shelley was difficult to classify. For instance, he was sent down from Oxford for “atheism”, yet his mysticism, underlaid by his platonic vision of the universe, makes him one of the greatest of all religious poets. In an early poem [he was hardly more than a boy himself at the time], he writes that

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard – I saw them not –
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming –
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy.

This is the mystic moment. Yet like all mystics, he suffered moments of depression, aggravated by the knowledge that though he was so idealistic, such a believer in the innate goodness of people, he was “one whom men love not”. Read these beautiful lines, from”Stanzas written in Dejection near Naples”:

Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.

Look at the opening lines of these sonnets:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king

Or read this, from “Ode to the West Wind” (Shelley was a master of the terza rima):

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

But if you read nothing else, read “Adonais”, Shelley’s lament on hearing of the death of John Keats. It is a long poem – 55 stanzas – and all I can do here is quote a couple of them.

LII

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments. Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled! Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.

LV

The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and spherèd skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

Not long afterwards, Shelley’s boat capsized in a sudden tempest on the Adriatic and he was drowned. When his body was washed up days later, it was burnt there on the beach, but his heart and ashes were buried in the beautiful little cemetery in Rome where John Keats and Shelley’s own young son were buried.

He was only thirty, and was writing lines like:

Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
From creation to decay

and:

The world’s great age begins anew …

and:

Another Athens shall arise,
And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendour of its prime

And:

Oh, cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?

Think what he might have written had he lived even a little longer!

VIRTUAL GIRL by Amy Thomson (Book Review)

I have read books, lots of books, about robots – all the Isaac Asimov robot stories for a start, including the final volumes of the great Foundation series – and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its screen adaptation, the virtually perfect film Bladerunner – but I have never come across a story of a robot that so moved me, or a robot – an android – a gynoid – I so wholly identified with.

This book was published in 1993. In the last twenty, thirty, years, the world of Artificial Intelligence has without doubt made advances that would have seemed unimaginable then, but that is not the point. The technological side of this story, like that of many of the best SF books (call them Speculative Fantasy rather than pure Science Fiction) is simply a prop on which the human story is based. And of course even the purists rarely, if ever, get their future science right.

I said “a human story” and it is a very human story, but it is also the story of a humanoid. For the question posed here is: when (not if) we can make computers, Artificial Intelligences, conscious and self-aware, will they be “people” in their own right? Will owning them be tantamount to slavery.

The story is set in the fairly near future, at a time when any form of A.I. has been proscribed, although, of course, at certain universities such as MIT research goes on regardless. But Arnold, the son a of a super-rich industrialist, exaggerates, and is sent down.

But let me be quite clear about this: Virtual Girl is not the story of a machine, it is the story of a girl who at one year old, has suddenly to become a young woman and take control of her own life, albeit life on the street. In many ways the ultimate outsider, for AI has been banned and she has been created illegally by an MIT drop-out, a loner who wants the perfect companion, she proves to be the most human person in the dystopian world of this book.

When the book opens, he is living like a bum. His father refuses to have him in the house unless he gives up his research and his dreams and agrees to take his natural place as his father’s heir and successor. In a rented garage, he builds his masterpiece: a robot called Maggie, programmed to be the perfect companion. And I do not mean sex partner. On the contrary, although she is a woman, perfect in every detail, she has not been programmed for sex. Does not understand it. Our Arnold is a bit of a prude.

The description of her first faltering steps when he downloads her into her body, and the incident of sensory overload the first time he takes her out in the street, have no equal in SF so far as I am aware. And it is the fact that she has to deal with the sensory overload herself, reprogram herself to deal with the problem, that starts her on the road to autonomy. Freedom.

I am not going to tell you what happens, just that it is one of those books that keeps getting better and better and better. By page 150, you are open-mouthed. By page 200, you know you have never read anything like this before.