We’re still on a figurative high after the highest shared reading group ever at the summit of Mount Snowdon over the weekend, so for this week’s Featured Poem we’re staying with the theme of ascending mountains. Perhaps with the inspiration of Wordsworth, Helvellyn might be our next shared reading target – we’ll already have the reading material sorted…
On Her First Ascent to Helvellyn
Inmate of a mountain-dwelling,
Thou hast clomb aloft, and gazed
From the watch-towers of Helvellyn;
Awed, delighted, and amazed!
Potent was the spell that bound thee
Not unwilling to obey;
For blue Ether’s arms, flung round thee,
Stilled the pantings of dismay.
Lo! the dwindled woods and meadows;
What a vast abyss is there!
Lo! the clouds, the solemn shadows,
And the glistenings–heavenly fair!
And a record of commotion
Which a thousand ridges yield;
Ridge, and gulf, and distant ocean
Gleaming like a silver shield!
Maiden! now take flight;–inherit
Alps or Andes–they are thine!
With the morning’s roseate Spirit,
Sweep their length of snowy line;
Or survey their bright dominions
In the gorgeous colours drest
Flung from off the purple pinions,
Evening spreads throughout the west!
Thine are all the coral fountains
Warbling in each sparry vault
Of the untrodden lunar mountains;
Listen to their songs!–or halt,
To Niphates’ top invited,
Whither spiteful Satan steered;
Or descend where the ark alighted,
When the green earth re-appeared;
For the power of hills is on thee,
As was witnessed through thine eye
Then, when old Helvellyn won thee
To confess their majesty!
It was William Blake in his Poetical Works who said “Great things are done when Men and Mountains meet/This is not Done by jostling in the Street”. A great thing was certainly done on Sunday 20th September when the highest shared reading group in Wales – and England – took place at the summit of Mount Snowdon.
We’re always game for a challenge at The Reader, as well as constantly seeking to take shared reading to new places never before ventured. Earlier this year our North Wales team began to plan for the intrepid adventure, taking into account important things such as logistics, weather and the various safety concerns that come with reading upon the 1,085m peak of the highest point in the British Isles outside of the Scottish Highlands. The shared reading group members, volunteers and Reader staff were gathered and briefed and finally, a date in September was settled upon. Early Autumn would surely provide dry and fairly sunny conditions to enjoy the group reading as well as the breathtaking views…
Unfortunately the British weather couldn’t be as well organised as the rest of the trip, and our band of brave Readers were met with wet, windy and foggy conditions at the top of the mountain. Luckily they were able to remain dry for the majority of the journey, boarding the Snowdon Mountain Railway and warming up with a selection of poems before making it triumphant – if a little weather-worn – to the summit.
For such a momentous occasion, the choice of poem to read aloud became all the more significant. There are plenty of Welsh literary greats who would have proved fitting, but we had to plump for a poem written about the most difficult route to the summit of Mount Snowdon. Even if our team of mountaineers didn’t tread the path of Crib Goch, the readings of Y Grib Goch in Welsh by T. Rowland Hughes and the English translation Crib Goch by Catherine Fisher captured the spirit, history and atmosphere atop the peak, as well as signifying the true versatility of shared reading – there really is a suitable poem for every occasion! On the way back down the mountain, there was more group shared reading in store to celebrate a successful attempt with euphoria and a sense of achievement running high.
The journey, as well as the stirring bilingual readings, were captured on camera for those of us with our feet firmly on ground level terrain to enjoy:
A mountain-sized thanks goes to our North Wales Project Coordinator Jeanette who had the tricky task of organising the expedition against all the adversities, making sure the day was both safe and successful for everyone involved. The group has been submitted to the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest shared reading group to have ever taken place, so we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that we can be recognised as a record breaker.
Jeanette also made the airwaves before leading our band of Readers up into the air, speaking to Wynne Jones on his Big Welsh Weekend show on BBC Radio Wales about the expedition. Listen from 47 minutes 30 seconds in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06b3jxl (27 days left to listen)
Llongyfarchiadau to everyone involved!
Today sees the anniversary of the death of the Medieval poet Dante Alighieri, better known as Dante. His defining work, La Commedia – or The Divine Comedy as is more commonly referred to – is considered one of the greatest works in literature in its journeys through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Paradise (Paradiso), and was largely autobiographical.
Though over 700 years old, the opening lines to the epic work – translated here by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – remains ones that are universal to this day: who hasn’t found themselves in a place or time of darkness at one point in their lives, with ‘the straightforward pathway’ lost? It is here that a journey through literature – and self-discovery – begins.
Inferno, Canto 1
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout
The night, which I had passed so piteously.
And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
Turns to the water perilous and gazes;
So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
Which never yet a living person left.
After my weary body I had rested,
The way resumed I on the desert slope,
So that the firm foot ever was the lower.
And lo! almost where the ascent began,
A panther light and swift exceedingly,
Which with a spotted skin was covered o’er!
And never moved she from before my face,
Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
That many times I to return had turned.
The time was the beginning of the morning,
And up the sun was mounting with those stars
That with him were, what time the Love Divine
At first in motion set those beauteous things;
So were to me occasion of good hope,
The variegated skin of that wild beast,
The hour of time, and the delicious season;
But not so much, that did not give me fear
A lion’s aspect which appeared to me.
He seemed as if against me he were coming
With head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger,
So that it seemed the air was afraid of him;
And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings
Seemed to be laden in her meagreness,
And many folk has caused to live forlorn!
She brought upon me so much heaviness,
With the affright that from her aspect came,
That I the hope relinquished of the height.
And as he is who willingly acquires,
And the time comes that causes him to lose,
Who weeps in all his thoughts and is despondent,
E’en such made me that beast withouten peace,
Which, coming on against me by degrees
Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent.
While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.
When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.
‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.
A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.
But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb’st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?”
“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.
“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.
Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”
“Thee it behoves to take another road,”
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
“If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;
Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.
He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
‘Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;
Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;
Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.
Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,
Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;
And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene’er it may be, to the blessed people;
To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee;
Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.
He governs everywhere, and there he reigns;
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!”
And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,
Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”
Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.
Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
The Reader’s volunteer-led projects in Barnet, North London were our first outside of our base in Merseyside and since their start in 2011 they’ve gone from strength to strength, engaging local people in the pleasure – and often, the power – that comes from shared reading.
Our Barnet volunteer projects focus on reading with community groups, memory loss groups and within care and day centre settings for people living with dementia and their carers. We’re working with Jewish Care, Altogether Better and Comic Relief to enable volunteers to receive training and ongoing support to lead groups in pairs, sustaining the shared reading experience for those who we already read with and bringing it to many more people.
Our volunteers in Barnet are from all walks of life and backgrounds – some have joined us after long careers in healthcare and related settings, some have previous experience with sharing reading. Others have experienced the impacts great literature has had on people they are close to, or just simply have a passion for reading that they want to pass onto others.
Jennifer began her volunteering journey with us after regularly attending a shared reading group with her grandmother. She took part in training and went onto run her own group at the care home she worked at. Her story shows how choosing to volunteer can make a change not only to the lives of those who read, but to volunteers themselves:
“I left school with very poor qualifications, but by having the experience of facilitating in shared reading I was led to a more formal course of learning and have since been able to enrol in a course for serious readers, the Reading in Practice MA. I never imagined I would be working towards earning a degree in my whole life so that is a big surprise and benefit for me. It gave me the confidence to leave full-time employment and ask to be a fully-fledged volunteer shared reading facilitator in a community group at Burnt Oak Library. This is good as I have read a lot more short stories and now we are reading a novel together.
You don’t have to have an English degree or any qualifications to be a shared reading facilitator. You just have to be willing to learn a new craft, and be available once a week, ongoing. You equally share the responsibility of running the group with another shared reading facilitator. There is also the support of a network of other volunteers who are all on the journey of becoming shared reading facilitators. Even the best are still learning. You don’t even have to know that much about poems or books.
From admittedly not having a scrap of appreciation for poetry and an increasing sense of shame for not reading very much at all, I have developed a love for poetry and a desire to read. I can’t wait each week to listen to people reading. It is such a rare thing. I feel I have definitely gained more confidence in public speaking. I have far better conversational skills and am able to quote poems, which makes me sound like I have been reading poetry all my life! It makes me feel really clever. Everyone involved is warm and friendly and it is such a meaningful thing to do.
Side effects of volunteering for The Reader: One day down the line, you may have to buy a bookshelf. It might make you visit the library (or even apply for a library card!). You may read that book you have been ignoring for ages. You may develop a love of poetry. You can talk to others about books and poems without any snobbery or pretence. You may make friends. You may want to run more groups. You may be really surprised at what reading together can create. You will definitely enjoy it.”
We are now recruiting for more volunteers to join us in Barnet on our Jewish Care, Altogether Better (reading with community groups/community memory loss groups) and Comic Relief (reading with people living with dementia and their carers) projects. Volunteers will be paired to run shared reading groups, with full training and ongoing support from The Reader.
This week, we’re sharing a poem recently read with some of our reading groups for people living with dementia – a selection by the American poet Sara Teasdale. One of our group leaders explains how it has evoked some mixed emotions:
“Initially there has been a negative feeling from the first reading of the poem, particularly the line ‘If mankind perish utterly’. Once we’ve read it a few times and reflected further, the responses of the group members seem to change and become more appreciative and less negative; although the sense of sadness remains, it is perhaps less singular – other things are alongside it, not just sadness once we’ve talked about it.”
There Will Come Soft Rains
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.