The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In another’s being mingle—
Why not I with thine?
See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;—
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me.
Did they think they could change the world?, I ask him. Not the world, but thought, W. says. They believed that they could change thinking, that they were the beginning of something, a new movement, that they augured what Britain might become: a thinking country, just as France is a thinking country, just as Germany was a thinking country.
A life of the mind, that’s what they’d chosen. A life of the mind for postgraduates from all over Britain, a kind of internal exile. Because that’s what it means to be a thinker in Britain: a kind of internal exile. They’d turned their backs on their families, on old friends. On the places of their birth. They’d turned from their old lives, their old jobs, old lovers. They’d travelled from the four country to be remade here, to be reborn. Essex, Essex: what joy it was in that dawn to be alive…
They learned to read French thought in French, German thought in German. They studied Latin and ancient Greek. Imagine it: a British person reading ancient Greek! They crossed the channel and studied in Paris. They plunged into Europe and studied in Rome. They visited the great archives. They read in the great libraries.
They were becoming European, W. says. Do I have any idea what that meant: to become European? Some of them even learned to speak other languages. Imagine it: a British person speaking French. Imagine it: a Briton in Berlin, conversing in German…
They went en masse to a two-week conference in Italy. Imagine it: British postgraduates en masse at a two-week conference in Italy. They played chess in the sun, and drank wine until their teeth turned red. Italy! The Mediterranean! Who among them had ever been to Italy, or the Mediterranean? Who had any idea of Italy, or the Mediterranean?
The sun burned them brown, imagine! Their pallid British bodies, brown. Their teeth, red. The sun turned them mad. They thought as Van Gogh painted: without a hat, and in the full sun. Hatless, in the full sun, they became madmen and madwomen of thought.
Essex broke them. Essex rebuilt them. Essex broke their Britishness, their provincialness. Essex gave them philosophy. It gave them politics. It gave them friendship, and by way of philosophy, by way of politics. They were close to Europe, terribly close. Like Holderlin’s Greece, Europe was the fire from heaven for the Essex postgraduate. Like Holderlin’s Germany, Britain, staid and dull, was to be set on fire by heaven.
Ah, what happened to them all, the postgraduates of Essex?, W. muses. What happened to the last generation - the last generation of Essex postgraduates?
Some escaped. Some went elsewhere. But others fell back into Britishness - fell into the drowning pool of Britishness. They drowned, gasping for air, finding no air, in Britain.
Hadn’t they seen too much? Hadn’t they learnt what they lacked? Hadn’t they a sense now of great thought, of great politics? Hadn’t their skies been full of light, full of heavenly fire?
Essex University. God, what a terrible campus! The towers are like the towers of Mordor, we agree. Like the Crags of Doom.
I have seen roads come to a full stop in mid-
sentence as if their meaning had fallen off
the world. And this is what happened, what meaning did
that day in August. The North Sea had been rough
and rising and the bells of Dunwich rang
through all of Suffolk. One wipe of its cuff
down cliffs and in they went, leaving birds to hang
puzzled in the air, their nests gone. Enormous
tides ran from Southend to Cromer. They swung
north and south at once, as if with a clear purpose,
thrusting through Lincolnshire, and at a rush
drowning Sleaford, Newark, leaving no house
uncovered. Nothing remained of The Wash
but water. Peterborough, Ely, March, and Cambridge
were followed by Royston, Stevenage, the lush
grass of Shaw’s Corner. Not a single ridge
remained. The Thames Valley filled to the brim
and London Clay swallowed Wapping and Greenwich.
Then west, roaring and boiling. A rapid skim
of Hampshire and Dorset, then the peninsula:
Paignton, Plymouth, Lyme, Land’s End. A slim
line of high hills held out but all was water-colour,
the pure English medium, intended for sky, cloud,
and sea. Less earth than you could shift with a spatula.
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went - and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires - and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings - the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the World contained;
Forests were set on fire - but hour by hour
They fell and faded - and the crackling trunks
Extinguished with a crash - and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past World; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnashed their teeth and howled: the wild birds shrieked,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawled
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless - they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: - a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no Love was left;
All earth was but one thought - and that was Death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails - men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assailed their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famished men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress - he died.
The crowd was famished by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar place
Where had been heaped a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects - saw, and shrieked, and died -
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The World was void,
The populous and the powerful - was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless -
A lump of death - a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge -
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expired before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them - She was the Universe.
Water, water, everywhere