CRITIQUE OF ALAN JACKSON’S WORK
(from The Country Of The Gods) by CHARLES STEPHENS
Like Williamson (Robin) and Henderson (Hamish), Jackson is an Edinburgh poet. Following George Macdonald and C. S. Lewis, he has looked to the tradition which stems from Novalis and the German Romantics, rather than the ‘folk’ sources favoured by Williamson and Henderson, to re-express ‘mythic’’ truth, in his case that which lies, neglected, at the centre of Christianity. For Novalis, Hegel and the German Romantic philosophers, of whom Rudolf Steiner was the twentieth century successor, the Incarnation was understood as a crucial, perhaps the crucial, stage in the evolution of ‘freedom’. Novalis, a fervent Catholic, expressed his vision of the end of human development as follows:
‘When no longer numbers and figures
are keys to all creatures,
when those who sing or kiss
know more than all the learned scholars,
when the world returns to itself
in the life of freedom,
when once again the light and shadow weave
and these united give the real clarity,
when man can know the true world story
in myths and in the form of poems,
then will the whole deformed being
vanish before one single secret word.’
Jackson quotes this passage as the concluding epigraph to his collection ‘To Stand Against the Wind’ (1985). Hegel’s ‘Philosophie des Rechts’ (1821), and Steiner’s ‘Die Philosophie der Freiheit’ (1894), move in a similar direction. The final stage of this dialectical apprehension of History, made possible by the Incarnation of God into Man, is the raising of mankind to condition of pure being, into ‘freedom’, towards the realisation of Godhood.
George MacDonald, whose book ‘Phantastes’  so influenced C.S. Lewis, was an admirer of Novalis and a keen student of German Romantic philosophy. Rudolf Steiner, the inheritor and interpreter of this tradition, was the founder of the Anthroposophical movement which so influenced Lewis’ friend Owen Barfield, which was respected by Lewis and which has preoccupied Jackson for many years. For thinkers such as Novalis, Hegel, MacDonald, Steiner, Lewis and Jackson, Christianity, or rather the figure of Christos, is not a thing of dogmas, creeds and old books. Christos is alive within the fabric of the universe. The presence of this being can be felt in a fairy-tale, a beam of sunlight, the smile of a child or the eyes of a man. For such people the universe is alive and is moving towards that awakening of which Novalis wrote. Jackson expresses his vision thus:
‘Long deep in the heart is the snake that illuminates
Further deeper than daylight intellect imagines
I suffered the journey of darkness
The light of intention did not fail
I was havocked
I was spoken to
I am here now as one of the brothers
I am here now as one of the sisters
Here Now I Am
Not afraid of the evidence
A member of the heart of the sun
Jackson is aware that he is living in the Wasteland of a culture that is falling apart all around him. He knows that he is living through the time which Nietszche called ‘Gottendammerung’ and that tradition is no longer any kind of a guide to the dangers that are ahead. Jackson expresses his insight into the nature of his times in the poem ‘It is the Future Now’ from his collection ‘Light Hearts’ (1987):
‘There is no Tibet now. There are no sun-kings. There is no hierarchy any more. There are no secret schools.
We have been brought, to a new place in Time. It is called: The Opportunity of Desolation. It is: Do you care to be a seed?
The world is the school now, each day. No one is special now. Everyone is called.
It is not the past now. There is no tradition for what we have to do.’
In this period of withering and dying, the poet can attempt to speak in the language of truth. Jackson has reclaimed a language, at once spiritual, colloquial, simple and beautiful which has not often been used by poets in recent times. He lays himself bare and accepts vulnerability:
I hit back
and hurt my conscience badly.
I raged ‘Take that and that!’
It was so badly hurt now,
I couldn’t stand the sight of it.
I stamped on it, the soggy mess
of blood and tears.
‘Look at you. Look at you!’ I cried,
‘You snivelling heap!
Who are you try and tell me anything?’
And her strong and beautiful arms
came round me, said:
Jackson is a poet who is profoundly aware of the language of myth and also of its easy abuse in the conditions of the late twentieth century. He has a firm grasp of colloquial speech rhythms and is anything but a sentimentalist. He feels ruin and chaos all around him and he stares it in the eye. Yet, despite all, he has found a way of speaking the language of Novalis, Blake, Milton and George Herbert; of all the poets who lived before the blight of this ‘terrible’ century, as the Russian poet Aleksandr Blok baptised it, long before the First World War. Jackson begins his poem ‘ Salutations’ , included in his 1986 Heart Of The Sun collection, thus:
‘I bring you salutations from the planets
I bring you watch and welcome from the stars
When I remember I remind you we are spirits
who can wake from death to life and lose our scars.’
In ‘I Can Just Begin to See’, from the same collection, he says:
‘Lords and Ladies of the celestial sphere,
what can I do but call you by names learned here?
You’ve seen me weak and struggle and rise and fall, time and again,
then aid me now as my moment of choice comes near.’
Jackson’s poetry is concerned with profound, and usually agonising, matters. In this he is not unlike Milton, but though his tone is often portentous, and dark, Jackson, like Milton, can also reveal a great tenderness:
‘I had been walking along the dusty road for thirty three years when a woman smiled at me. A constellation shone behind her. I grinned a small grin into my collar. I did not believe such a merry beauty was smiling at me. ‘Yes, you!’ she said with mocking certainty, sending great sparkles and delicious ripples towards me, robbing my 1egs of their strength and my mind of its contents . . . . .
Inside the house she was still merry at my expense. She put wine, some bread and cheese before me in mock serving maid style, and went out of the room. There had been nothing for me to say. I was a guest of the gods, I knew that much. Though I was bewitched and glamoured and undone, I was not in doubt; so I ate. I looked around. Everything was in colours. Hanging cloths, cushions, couches. Stars hung from the ceiling on slender threads, and turned. A sun and moon were painted on the wall above the fire. A wolf’s head was painted and the figure of a wounded knight beside a lake. When she came back in she was in a robe, with red to it.; barefoot.
She stood and the mood was different now. From mocking merriment her eye had turned to tender sad. We looked and looked a long time without speech. The terrible awe was upon us . .
She held out her hand to me, and we went from that room to another . . .
I loved her so, that I saw through her to the stars.’ (from an unpublished manuscript)
Jackson is also a fine poet of friendship:
‘Friends of the mandolin, of the guitar, and of the flute,
friends of the open road and the jumble sale houses,
friends of many talents, many possible careers,
who preferred to hang out with each other, near-nothingness, with the dog . . . .
friends who came in so suddenly from nowhere at the right moment ….
friends whose use of poetry and myth as a means of understanding life on earth
helped make many a dark night lighter and revived the constellations in our hearts . . . . .
Yes, friends of the mandolin and of the guitar and of the flute,
even after al1 these years I can’t see for tears now
and what can I say but Thankyou for seeing me and letting me know again
that I am one of the company on this voyage to the stars.’
‘Friends’ from Heart of the Sun (1986)
‘When I think of you friends
it is like a garland of hearts . . . .
the radiating ramifying connections
that often we uncover in conversation such as:
‘You mean to say you know him and he knows her
and they were all living next door to me
and …. ‘What! You met her in a bus-station in Kent in ‘73,
that’s amazing cos . . . .’
Yes, I would see karma-garland woven into garland woven into garland
all over earth and to the stars and back
through time, through races, empires failures, risings, falls.
Oh yes, if I could see that (which I do a bit of now and feel already)
I would be cured, believe me, cured forever,
of the absurd illusions of separateness etc.’
from a New Year Letter sent to friends (82)
Like the earliest Christians, Jackson believes that the greatest things in life originate in the meetings of friends and that it is through these encounters, not in churches, schools or in front of television sets, that Love does her work in the world. His unpublished short story, ‘The Gifts of Crumb and Thread’, is an expression of this vision. The story begins:
‘We met on the way. The loaf that had been sustaining me for years was down to a crumb. The flag you had been flying was worn to a thread.’
The protagonists spend a little time together. Then:
‘One handed one the crumb; the other gave the other his thread:
It’s all I’ve got. Please. Take it.’
‘Further down the road one found himself carrying a loaf of bread that rang with golden warmth, and just the holding of it healed a wound he’d always thought he’d have. The other found he was moving now with a living cloth of blue and stars out of which a sword struck lightning onto earth . . . . . and both their hearts were struck at once:
What fools we are. How glad I am. Some day we’ll meet again.’
In Jackson’s prose and poetry, the Christian and the Celtic are married together, as they were in the days of St. Columba. Like the ancient Celtic church, he has a vision of God that is as female, as it is male. In another unpublished story, he seems to depict Christ as a woman:
‘A great beauty has been delivered out of prison, but not by the citizens, or by the Court, or by the Church or by the law, of for fee.
It is an unknown unregistered event.
She has been thrown into the streets by night; and those who did so, did so cruelly, because they hated her and hope that she will die or be degraded or go mad.
It is an unknown unregistered event as news is ordinarily processed.
But it is a great event; and all round the world there is a hush, a tremble, in thousands of hearts as in a tiny second the image of a great door closing and of a wonderful being in pain passed through them.
She is unknown, penniless, in rags, hungry, has been kept in darkness for years; but she is free. She lies for a while where they have thrown her. It is early winter, cold. The stones are wet, the street is empty.…
…. She has been here many times before and all that is stored in her. Moons, forests, suns, mountains, children, fathers, priestesses, kings, cities, plains, armies, processions, torches, vigils, chanting, scrolls, deaths, loves, betrayals, obedience to the stars . . . .
She rose, she stood and, without hesitation, she walked ….
…. a line began to be drawn, the line that Beauty made as she walked. In some it appeared as a dream, in others it rose as a poem, or an inspiration, a new understanding; and with others, courage; and with others, compassion. And one here, and one there, got up and decided to make a journey. Some gave themselves reasons that seemed to help to explain why they were doing this; others did not. But the reason for all was the same:’ they were setting out on the series of incidents that over the next days, months and years would lead them to meet Beauty as she walked. And they would help her and be transformed, and she would help them, and learn; and so in the fallen disorder and out of the planet-fragments called persons the free human kingdom would begin to be built.’
That may be a glimpse of the future of Christianity in its third millennium or just a spark of light in the darkness of the centuries. Who can say? Jackson follows his calling, that of a poet, knowing that his task, like that of the early Christians, is to bear witness. He speaks to all those who sense, or just hope, that there is more than chaos and old night in the world when he says in his poem ‘Salutations’:
‘Don’t hesitate and don’t mistake your meaning.
You are what your in-thoughts tell you, that is sure.
Stand up, go out, speak to those who listen.
Your embassy begins at every dawn.’
In the old Celtic world, the poets were the seers, the ones who knew what was really going on. Even in the dark night of this twentieth century of Grace, their voices have not fallen silent. Those that have ears have heard them.