All Heaven Breaks Loose
Catching the view from unexpected windows
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‘If you are going to get out of bed in the mornings, your time would be better spent in the library than going to lectures.’
I can’t say for sure that our tutor actually said this, since I joined the group late, defecting from Politics, Philosophy and Economics ten days into our first term, drawn to the more wayward crew who were studying English Literature. I had missed the opening session at which this advice was allegedly given, but it sounds like the kind of thing he would have said.
When I did try going to lectures, it often felt like standing on a railway platform while the train you want to board speeds through the station without slowing down. The library wasn’t much better, mind you; I found my mind wandering off, mid-paragraph, chasing spiralling patterns of connection, struggling to stick with the line of someone else’s thoughts.
For a while, in my mid-twenties, I would chide myself for the lack of focus I had shown in those three years at Oxford, when there was nothing to do but read and write, surrounded by remarkable minds and all the books you could want. Later, it struck me that something else was lacking: at nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, I had not yet found any questions of my own; questions of the kind that would light a deeper curiosity and provide a sense of direction.
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Still, those years were not wasted. There was much that I read and learned, as we wandered the rambling old house of English literature, opening doors onto unexplained rooms, catching the view from unexpected windows. Now and then, I caught a glimpse of unimagined worlds.
I want to tell you about one of those occasions.
Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid opens with an old man standing at the window of his private chapel at sunset, watching Venus rise in the darkening sky. The season is early spring, but there’s an icy wind blasting from the north. His intention had been to offer a prayer to the goddess of love, but the cold drives him back to his room, where he will sit by the fire and read.
The poem was written in Middle Scots, the language of the Scottish lowlands, at the very end of the Middle Ages. At six hundred lines, it is short by comparison with the other masterpieces of medieval literature from the British Isles, and no doubt this influenced my choice to write on it. But as I sat at my desk in the early hours of the morning, drinking coffee, rereading Henryson’s rhyme-royal stanzas, moving between text and glossary, I began to hear a strange music.
The legend of Troilus and Cressida (the spelling of the names varies from author to author) is a medieval embroidery in one corner of the epic canvas of the Trojan War. Where classical poets had sung the strength and cunning and moodiness of the warriors, while women featured mainly as booty to be bragged and fought over, the new taste for courtly romance inspired a shift of focus. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde brought this pair of lovers into English literature, telling the story of Troilus’s heartbreak when his beloved is traded to the Greeks in a hostage exchange. Unable to keep her promise to return to him, Criseyde ends up accepting the advances of the Greek warrior Diomede. For this, her name will become a byword for the fickleness of woman, a fate she seems to know in Chaucer’s telling: ‘Alas, of me until the world’s end shall be wrote no good song.’
Having retired to his fireside, Henryson’s narrator takes up the final book of Chaucer’s poem, and then another source which he does not name – and which scholars have often assumed to be an invention – in which he claims to have found the story of what happens next. Diomeid grows tired of Cresseid and casts her aside. She finds her way back to the house of her father, a priest of Venus and Cupid. There she is welcomed warmly, but feels too ashamed to show herself in ‘the kirk’ where the people come to make sacrifice, so she shuts herself in a private chapel and makes bitter accusations against the queen of love and the boy-god of desire.
This is the point at which it happens – for Cresseid, in the private chapel, which echoes the circumstances in which we first met the narrator – and for this reader, sitting at his late-night desk. (And suddenly it comes back to me, a circumstance I gave no thought to at the time, but which makes the hairs on my arm stand on end as I write this: the house where I lived that year had been built for a retired bishop; our living room still had stained glass windows because it had been his private chapel.) So yes, this is the moment in the poem when, as Seamus Heaney puts it, ‘All heaven breaks loose’.
Cresseid falls into a trance on the floor of the chapel and a bell rings that can be heard from heaven to hell. Cupid summons together the gods, who are also the planets, convening a court by which her fate will be pronounced. This court of the heavenly bodies takes place in a dream vision, yet when Cresseid wakes and looks in the mirror, she finds that its sentence has been written on her face. Her beauty destroyed, she flees under cover of dark to live with the lepers at the hospital outside the town. Here she delivers a further lengthy complaint at her misfortune, before the poem moves to its finale.
A company of Trojan knights returning from a victory on the battlefield rides past the place where the lepers are begging. Troilus is among them, and so this pair of tragic lovers are given one last encounter. Neither recognises the other: Cresseid’s sight is failing, while her face is so altered that Troilus does not know it, yet it stirs in him something like recognition. The memory of his lost love comes to mind, though he doesn’t know why, and it moves him to throw his gold and jewels to this leper woman. Afterwards, the other beggars tell her who the knight was, and something breaks in her; having spent the whole poem bemoaning her fate, she turns her accusations on herself, but in the same moment the bitterness that has gripped her seems to be released. She makes a will – the ‘testament’ of the title – distributing the gold among the lepers and asking that the ruby ring Troilus once gave her be returned to him, and then she dies. Some say, the narrator adds, that Troilus had a marble tomb erected over her grave.
There is, as they say, a lot going on in this poem. There are riddles of interpretation with more than one possible answer, and how the reader answers them will cast a different light on Henryson and his characters.1 What got my attention, though, that night in the autumn of 1999, was the weave of causality running through Henryson's poem.
The forces at work in what happens to Cresseid range from the material effects of her cold and damp surroundings, in accordance with the theory of the four humours; the influence of the planets, whose astrological forces are also identified with combinations of the humours; the characters of the unforgiving planetary deities; and, beyond all this, the presence of a nameless God who knows the contents of a human heart. These multiple strands of cause and effect are not simply layered on top of each other, but entangled, acting across planes, so that what is seen in a dream vision turns out to have consequences in the waking world. And all of this is not a peculiar invention of Henryson’s imagination, but his skilful poetic handling of a way of seeing and inhabiting the world that was entirely common to his late medieval culture – and entirely alien to this young reader, arriving at the text five centuries later.
What hit me was that it did not occur to the poet that his reader might ask, ‘Yes, but what’s really going on?’, where the answer ought to be a single chain of cause and effect. And it seemed to me that this was exactly the kind of causality assumed by the culture I grew up in: a world in which explanations of reality ought to boil down to the interaction of billiard balls, or the workings of a mechanism. Reading Henryson’s poem, I felt myself stepping inside his way of inhabiting the world, experiencing it not as some early draft of the world-picture of my own time, but as radically different and no less internally coherent. It was my first strong encounter with the medieval world-picture, or with the world-picture of any culture that experiences itself as inhabiting a living cosmos.2
To use a language I learned later, this was a glimpse into the mirror of the past, where the strangeness of the things that people there seem to take for granted can bring into view the strangeness of present-day assumptions.3 At the time, though, I had another image to describe the experience: imagine you had grown up in a culture where the only form of music was unaccompanied solo song, and then one day you stumble through a doorway into a room where a madrigal or a motet in many parts is being sung. That is how I felt.
Having written my essay for that week’s tutorial, I took all this with me and spoke about it now and then, over the years. Though I felt more than a little awkward at having derived this mind-opening experience from a text that you could argue belongs to a long and ugly tradition of stories about how women are punished for their sinfulness.
A long while later, I began to read Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book, The Mushroom at the End of the World. Tsing is an anthropologist; the book is a branching and tangled story of the human and non-human lives involved with the matsutake mushroom, the post-industrial forests of North America in which these mushrooms now flourish and the chains of activity by which they reach Japan, to be given as gifts, prized for their autumn aroma.
The friend who sent me a copy had said that Tsing’s academic project of cross-species storytelling and disentangling from the logic of progress made him think of Dark Mountain, and I soon saw what he meant. But I had not got far in the book before I was brought up short by a more direct and surprising resonance, one which threw me straight back to that experience with Henryson’s poem.
In a chapter on ‘The Art of Noticing’, Tsing asks how we learn to pay attention to the worlds that emerge among the wreckage of modernity. Industrial transformation turns out to have been ‘a bubble’, leaving behind ‘lost livelihoods and damaged landscapes’; yet simply to tell this as a story of decay and destruction will leave us hopeless, or else send us seeking a chance to repeat the process in the hope of a different outcome, in a cycle of ‘promise and ruin, promise and ruin’. What Tsing is looking for is a way of staying with the ruins and noticing how life goes on and new possibilities emerge, after the failure of modernity’s promises. (Given that I just wrote a book called At Work in the Ruins, you can imagine that all of this is close to my heart.)
To explain the patterns she has been learning to see – what she calls the ‘assemblages’ in which world-making happens, without there being any grand plans or promises, and without all the agency belonging to the humans involved – Tsing draws on a musical analogy:
Polyphony is music in which autonomous melodies intertwine. In Western music, the madrigal and the fugue are examples of polyphony. These forms seem archaic and strange to many modern listeners because they were superseded by music in which a unified rhythm and melody holds the composition together. In the classical music that displaced baroque, unity was the goal; this was “progress” in just the meaning I have been discussing: a unified coordination of time. In twentieth-century rock-and-roll, this unity takes the form of a strong beat, suggestive of the listener’s heart; we are used to hearing music with a single perspective. When I first learned polyphony, it was a revelation in listening; I was forced to pick out separate, simultaneous melodies and to listen for the moments of harmony and dissonance they created together. This kind of noticing is just what is needed to appreciate the multiple temporal rhythms and trajectories of the assemblage.
The revelation that Tsing describes sounded a lot like my experience with the tangled causality I had encountered in The Testament of Cresseid: it was this counterpoint of multiple strands of cause and effect that startled me in Henryson’s poem and led me into his way of inhabiting the world. I had found an image for my own revelation in the polyphonic music of the madrigal – and here was Tsing, using the same analogy to draw our attention to the kinds of pattern worth looking for in a world where the promises of modernity have failed. To learn to notice these patterns requires a reordering of our senses and our imagination, she suggests, since ‘most of us were raised on dreams of modernization and progress’.
It occurs to me now that my ambivalence about the content of Henryson’s poem may have done me a favour: had it offered a more beautiful vision, it might have woken a romantic longing, a desire to ‘go back’ to a lost world. Rather, it excited me with the possibility that the world could be inhabited very differently, and had been, and – I felt sure – would need to be again. Like Tsing learning to listen to polyphony, we could turn our attention to pre-modern forms of life, not to lament the loss of the worlds they belonged to, nor to cut and paste them over the gaps in our own world, but to tune our awareness to possibilities that have been hidden from view by the seeming obviousness of the ways we happen to have been seeing and inhabiting the world around here lately.
And we do this, not because there was nothing good in the ways of seeing and inhabiting the world that we grew up with, but because they have failed us in important respects, and this failure is coming home. Tsing puts this sharply, at the end of that chapter on ‘The Art of Noticing’:
Progress felt great; there was always something better ahead. Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress. The problem is that progress stopped making sense.
I began this series by staking out a set of questions about belief and how my own beliefs have changed over time.
What took me back to The Testament of Cresseid was noticing how natural it seemed, in that opening essay, to invoke Mercury and Saturn, to lean on these old forces as part of how I make sense of the world, without having to explain what kind of reality I accord to them, without assuming it’s my job to settle these things. That is not something I would easily have imagined when I was encountering the planetary deities in Henryson’s poem.
Yet I came to this essay with doubts. Over the years, I had told the story of the encounter I had that night with The Testament of Cresseid. It became an episode within the story of how I came to see the world, a moment in which something broke open for me. But to write about it, I would need to go back and reread the poem, something I hadn’t done since my early twenties. What if – like Gertrude Stein, returning to her childhood home – I went back to find that ‘there was no there there’, and maybe never had been? Or worse, what if I could still see traces of what the poem did for me, but now I found its content too ugly to admit to my original reaction? It seemed conceivable, at least, that the young man writing that essay in Oxford was so caught up in the revelation he found there that he hardly noticed Henryson’s treatment of Cresseid.
Well, I can report that things were not as bad as I feared. What struck me this time around were the moments of kindness in the story – do we notice kindness more as we get older? – and the way that pride can push kindness away. When Cresseid returns to her father’s house and tells him she has been abandoned by Diomeid, the welcome he offers his prodigal daughter could hardly be warmer:
‘Daughter, do not weep for that.
It may be that all comes for the best.
Welcome, to me you are the dearest guest!’4
There’s no talk here of disgrace or dishonour. Rather, it is Cresseid’s own sense of shame that causes her to shut herself away and rehearse her bitterness towards the gods, provoking the judgement at the centre of the poem. Later, at the leper hospital, she stays up all night, delivering another lengthy complaint at her misfortune. When she is finished, one of the lepers asks her:
‘Why do you dash yourself against the wall,
To slay yourself and mend nothing at all?’
I don’t want to reduce this poem to a source of life advice, but I’m reminded of my old friend Charlie Davies saying, ‘Karma is just, how soon are you going to listen?’ If Cresseid were to listen to the voices of her father or the leper woman, and show a little more kindness to herself, it would make for a worse poem; but while she heads on to her final encounter with Troilus, the reader may feel there’s a thread here that belongs to the side of human experience that doesn’t change so much from century to century.
On the other hand, the strange weave of causality that I remembered is still there. And as I retrace the effect that it had on me back then, I think of William Blake’s lines about the ‘fourfold vision’ with which he experienced the world:
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep
I’d call it a Blakean experience, the encounter I had that night with Henryson’s poem. Yet Blake lived three centuries after Henryson and the layered vision of his poetry is a lonelier prospect, the work of an extraordinary mind struggling against the enclosure of reality into a flat, mechanical account of the universe. What I found in Henryson was a glimpse of a world before that struggle, when Newton’s ‘Single vision’ was not yet conceivable.
There is one more doubt here, though, and it’s a big one. Because what is actually at stake in The Testament of Cresseid is the cause of disease – and however swept up I might get in the richness of the medieval world-picture, however impoverished Blake and I might find the mechanistic approach to causality that succeeded it, you could well respond by asking, ‘Which of us would seriously choose to live in a world that still sought explanations for disease in the four humours and the movements of the heavenly bodies?’ We don’t turn lepers into outcasts, these days, or send them to beg at the city gates; we call it Hansen’s disease and we cure it with antibiotics.
Anyone who tries to talk about ‘the myth of progress’, as Paul Kingsnorth and I called it in the Dark Mountain manifesto, will come up against questions like these. In the next essay in this series, I want to think about how we hold together what might seem like contradictions: to take seriously the achievements of modern medicine, while speaking about the failure of the promises of progress and insisting that something vital was lacking all along from the way of approaching the world that has characterised modernity. I want to think about this, not least, because we’ve just been through a time in which our societies were shaken to the core by an encounter with disease. How well has our culture’s approach to causality held up, in the time of Covid? What clues might the pandemic and the responses to it hold for how the unravelling of modernity’s promises will play out in the years ahead?
I’ll be back with the next in this series of essays in around a fortnight from now. Meanwhile, there are a couple of shorter instalments on the way, including a new episode of The Great Humbling and some more about this book I’ve written.
Thank you for reading. If you’re not already supporting my work, then do consider becoming a paying subscriber to this Substack. And anything you can do to share these essays and bring them to other readers is always appreciated.
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For what it’s worth, my sympathies are with Mairi Ann Cullen’s re-reading of the poem, ‘Cresseid Excused’.
The phrase, ‘a living cosmos’, has been on my mind since reading Gordon White’s extraordinary new book, Ani.Mystic: Encounters with a Living Cosmos.
In the Mirror of the Past is the title of a collection of Ivan Illich’s writings from the 1980s. We will return to this image in future instalments.
I’ve put the lines into modern English, because it takes a while to tune in to the original language. But if this should inspire you to read the poem itself, the late Seamus Heaney produced a finely crafted and faithful version of the Testament and seven of Henryson’s fables. In the Faber edition, this is printed on facing pages with the original text.