Surrendering to a timeless joy; Poet/scientist William Anderson

"The central man of all the world," representing in perfect balance "the imaginative, moral and intellectual faculties all at their highest," was John Ruskin's characterization of Dante.

The 13th-century Italian poet has so profoundly influenced Western literature that his appeal has been timeless and unconfined to one nation, equaled only by Shakespeare, born 250 years later.

William Anderson, the British writer and poet, was so captivated by Dante and by Dante's legendary love for Beatrice -- an ideal never objectified -- that the spent nine years on his biography, Dante the Maker, which was published in 1980.

As a poet, Anderson has suffused the entire word with lyrical writing. As a historian, he has woven historical and cultural patterns together in a rich background of information. But as a scientist, working as publications manager of Nuffield Foundation's Science and Mathematics Projects, he has given the book the rare qualities of precision and accessibility. Nuffield is a foundation that strives to make the sciences understandable to the young and lay community. It follows, then, that Mr. Anderson has made his scholarly study sensible to the interested common reader. Dante the Maker has been called the first recent and reliable account in English of Dante -- his world and his work as a whole.

In 1980, William Anderson received the Silver Pen Award for Dante the Maker. He is also the recipient of the Richard Hillary Memorial Award. His several books include Castles of Europe and Cathedrals in Britain and Ireland, and his long poem "Haddow Sonata" has recently been published.

In recent interview with Barbara Acton-Bond, who talked with him at his home outside London, William Anderson discusses his work on Dante, Dante's The Divine Comedy, and the concept of creativity. The First half of this interview appeared on yesterday's Home Forum Page.

According to your biography, Dante's desire to convince others of the inner truth of what he was saying made him tenderly aware of his reader's needs. Were you also conscious of your reader's needs?

Yes, and there's always an ideal reader whom you think about -- how to give him pleasure and anticipate his needs. You find yourself saying, "This you're going to find interesting!" You've got to keep him awake and alive. But one of the difficulties with a book like this is that it's full of subjects that must be discussed and then somehow put together in the book. What you then have to do, so as not to be boring, is to find contrasts of mood, as in a sonata, using different subjects as musical form. You are constantly looking for contrasts to give relief to the reader. You think, "Poor reader, you can't have another 10, 000 words on Papal Wars. What about some nince troubadour poetry?"

What kind of reader did you envision?

Last October I was in my kitchen wondering whether we were going to have chops or mince for dinner and suddenly I wrote a poem to my ideal reader: By what light-slanted windowm Do you sit, O perfect reader,m Caught in a moment of reflectionm Aroused by lines I wrote or am to write?m Is the house built or is it long destroyed?m And you" are you of the futurem Or the past? I only knowm That you for whom I writem Are not of this unseemly present:m You with your white dress,m Your pretty neck, your understanding eyes;m You who are the mirror of my landscapesm And youthful sibyl of desires.m

With such a mammoth study as Dante the Makerm you must have been totally engaged in the task. How much mental space did it leave for your own poetry?

I used to work quite hard at poetry, to learn all sorts of techniques and to try to be as competent in the craft as possible so that one was ready for the moment. That has never been a burden on my time. Compared to the labor that had to go into the Dante book -- nine years -- poetry is a very lightearted business. Though there were months when I couldn't write poetry, I could at least take notes or say, "I will write you later. Please, muse, don't go away entirely." I wrote the "Haddow Sonata" very quickly after I'd written the Dante book. The stanzas came through already formed. And it was only after I'd written quite a bit of it that I realized the basic form was the one Dante used.

Are words a form of musical notation for you?

Yes, you've got it. I feel that much of modern poetry has tried to get rid of tired poetic language, as it no longer expresses the feelings of today. But in so doing many of the possibilities of verse have been thrown out. But verse is charged language. It communicates very efficiently.

You wrote that it is the poet in us that responds to poetry. But where does the difference lie between the poet and everyone else?

I have a great desire to democratize the idea of creativity. One of the basic teaching methods at Nuffield is that a child learns through investigation and the use of his hands. Indeed, he remembers and enjoys what he does far more than by hearing an explanation. There are moments of discovery for children -- and for all of us -- when we seem to move in leaps from one level up to another. Something has changed inside us and we've got into another gear. When I write poetry, I'll write it down, or a tiny bit of it, and then have to depend on the reader to bring his own feelings, moods, and memories to the act of reading the poetry. And this act is a considerable art in itself. to read poetry or literature with attention is a marvelous thing to be able to do -- to respond, to live and be moved -- by this subtle world you've created about you. But the difference between the poet and everyone else is the difference of capacity and the direction of desire.You also have love words and make games and puns of words and language. You must want to do it. And the more you want to do it, the more you will find yourself doing it. If you look at the nature of poetry and what you are doing, that helps. Poetry is made up of rhythmical sentences, with words joined together in a charged language. In choosing words, the poet has an effect on people and can bring them to a marvelous state of delight, contemplation, and peace.

You wrote that "Works of art are storehouses of psychic energy and they transmit this energy according to the quality of attention we bring to them." What do you mean by this?

To put it at its crudest, when you go to a symphony concert, and an outside train of thought begins to take over -- such as what you might be doing next Tuesday -- you're not going to get very much out of that concert.

The there's another stage at which you are listening to the concert but making a commentary to yourself all the time, such as "Aren't I wonderful to have these remarkable feelings" -- or -- "Though so-and-so's come along with me, she doesn't have these remarkable feelings at all, poor thing."

But there are even further stages of intense endeavor when you come to a composer you don't like, yet try very hard to understand. This can help you to an impersonal stance -- when receiving is no longer an effort. It's as much a gift as the gift to create. You are transforming and redeeming the fact of creation by giving your sympathy and your great, good attention to a work of art. You are changing your existence and your being because you are bringing yourself, pure and impersonal, to the work of art.And that connects to the deepest and the best elements of humanity. It's a surrender to art and it should be lighthearted.

You wrote that art only works if the artist becomes part of the experience of the person he represents. how far did you become a part of Dante?

In some ways it's like being an actor in different episodes of Dante's life. You have to insert yourself imaginatively, through the documents available and through all sorts of memories of your own. From these, you select and choose. It's like an actor playing the part of a Shakespearean king: although he's never been a king,he can still draw upon the amazing community of feeling we have with one another. It's an understanding of what people feel in quite different circumstances. A biographer has to draw upon his own memories and create from them a new presentation.

But I was also constantly aware of Dante's presence in that I had to do my best to live up to his standards. I had to check things ten times because he would have expected me to. I'd also find myself pulled up by something inside me saying, "This passage isn't meant to be like that -- it's like this!"

In the Divine Comedym Dante portrays the journey of a man from a state of being lost to a state of finding his true self. He also portrays the journey as one which Western medieval man had to make in terms of the dogma and doctrines of the church at that time. But throughout the Divine Comedym he is actually portraying a single world which changes according to the perceptions of the man who sees that world. I give the example of the element of fire: the fire of hell is the very same element that the souls in glory use in their torches to delight and to express themselves.

Did the writing of Dante the Makerm involve you in a journey similar to Dante's?

Yes, it helped me to make changes as well as discoveries. But this was partly because I became very ill three quarters of the way through the book. But the book benefited from this, because I received tremendous insights during that experience. I was able to rewrite a lot of what was written and complete the book. The experience made my own ideas much firmer, and I trusted myself more. When I was convalescing, I remember putting my hands on that table by the window and asking for help to go on. And then really not fussing anymore -- knowing somehow it would come. It would be done.

It seems to me you're hinting now at something which always lay under Dante's thinking. What did you discover as you put the book together?

I think it has to do with the recovery of joy -- a joy that doesn't depend on our circumstances or our psychological makeup.

Because an artist's work is closely related to his inner self, self-knowledge is essential. But I sensed from your analysis of Dante that he went far beyond self-knowledge into the realm of spiritual knowledge. What pushed him up to this level of understanding, and what do you feel it gave his writing?

I think, like many artists and writers, Dante was particularly close to his childhood throughout his life. He was in contact with marvelous experiences from his early childhood. One of his most moving acconts was given in the Vita Nuova,m which described his early meetings with Beatrice and his deep love for her.

But Dante would not have regarded any self-knowledge as being possible without the spiritual being brought into consideration -- and neither would I. I mean that man is a spiritual being as well as an intellectual, emotional, and physical being, and in fact, the spiritual side of his nature takes in all those other sides of himself. It is in his spiritual nature that he finds unity. And where he finds unity he finds his individuality, destiny, and true sense of himself. Everything in man that comes from his true self is God in him.

You state that the source of Dante's art deepened with his understanding of God as the supreme artist and that you believe he prepared himself for writing with spiritual exercises.

Yes. He would recite all the Psalms from memory as an exercise of supreme mental effort. What happens with such a great mental effort is that the constant chatter and commentary of the mind is quieted, and then the deep creative faculties are allowed to express themselves. I think he also had some contemplative practices he used, but I have no direct proof other than his reference to prayer. But what he says of the Lord's Prayer -- with his understanding of its deeper meanings -- shows that he must have experienced something very deep, and experienced it constantly.

Could you explain what you meant by the idea that Dante's love of Beatrice was the Christ in him?

This love was the catalyst in him of a higher form of consciousness -- the Christ consciousness, if you like.

What do yo mean by the Christ consciousness?

It's very difficult to described. You have to use your imagination to ask such questions as, "What was the world like that Christ saw?" or, "Howe did ordinary men and women look to that mind and those eyes and that perception?" You have to think of everything in a completely different scale -- of someone who could look at manking in terms of the whole of time with complete and utterly positive love. I'm speaking of the Christ principle -- the principle of creation. St. Paul says, "Ye shall be the sons of God." This Christ was and is a state for mankind to aspire to and actually achieve.

The teaching of the Gospel went deeply into Dante the man, and he applied it to art and the making of art. Dante described his creative processes not solely to justify his own processes, but as an example he hoped others would follow. so what you get is the idea that art is an act of praise. It is the happy surrender of the small self to the greter self.

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