Sunday, July 29, 2007

Someone should name J.K. Rowling an honorary Inkling.

Am I allowed to talk about Harry Potter yet? What the heck, I will. SPOILERS!, and all that. Honestly, why would you be reading blogs if you still had two more chapters of Deathly Hallows to go?

I had been losing my enthusiasm for HP ever since the fourth book, when things started getting too convoluted for me to follow and Rowling's style became more uneven. I still cared immensely about the characters, but I was stuck in my nostalgia for the third book, which is still the best, I think. But I always knew that I was going to revert to my 13 year-old fangirl self when the last book arrived. And I did. I actually revisited a message board that hasn't seen the light of day on my computer since I was in junior high.

One thing I noticed in Deathly Hallows is that Rowling is a master of false foreshadowing. I was positive that she was going to kill Ron, especially after this:

"But even if we wreck the thing it lives in," said Ron, "why can't the bit of soul in it just go and live in something else?"

"Because a Horcrux is the complete opposite of a human being."

Seeing that Harry and Ron looked thoroughly confused, Hermione hurried on, "Look, if I picked up a sword right now, Ron, and ran you through with it, I wouldn't damage your soul at all."

"Which would be a real comfort to me, I'm sure," said Ron. Harry laughed.

"It should be, actually! But my point is that whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched," said Hermione.
I think I just moaned for a while after reading that. Of course it came to nothing. And she also foreshadowed good things that never panned out - Peter Pettigrew was all set up from book three to be a Gollum-like hinge character and to find redemption. He does yield to a tiny merciful impulse, one that helps Harry and Co. escape, but he comes to a miserable end for it, and the whole scene is very anticlimactic. No one can say that he didn't deserve it, of course.

Snape is back to being one of my favorite characters, now that we've found out that he was really the unsung hero of the series. He haunted the happy ending like Shylock or Malvolio, having perished without ever getting anything he wanted from life. The scene where his Patronus leads Harry to the sword is... well... numinous. I liked the whole section where the the trio was wandering through the woods of Britain, actually. Shades of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

So this rider rode through the realm of Britain,
Sir Gawain in God's service: and to him it was no game.
At each stream and ford that he found in those lands
enemies lurked (unless his luck held) --
vicious, violent, hard to avoid.
Only constant courage and the care of his God
could save him sometimes from certain death.
For if warfare was hard, winter was worse,
when the clouds shed water cold and clear
which froze in the air and fell as sleet.
He lay down half-dead, drenched in his armor,
too many times to bear: and on barren stone
where cold-running creeks came clattering down
and icicles hardened high overhead.
Thus with peril and pain, in difficult plight,
he carried on alone till the Eve of Christmas

I'm glad that Rowling tempered Harry's cavalier attitude towards Voldemort's name. By having him refuse to say "You-Know-Who," she made the excellent point that you should always call things by their right names, and that you shouldn't be cowed by evil - but in the case of spiritual evil, talking about it tends to attract its notice. And in Deathly Hallows, saying Voldemort's name is as good as Frodo putting on the Ring for attracting the Dark Lord's attention. Of course, "Voldemort" isn't his real name either; and it's very satisfying when Harry addresses him as "Tom" during their last battle.

One theme that was present in the other books really came to the fore in Deathly Hallows: the dangers of the occult. (Yes, I'm savoring the irony.) The legendary Hallows managed to lure Harry into a gnostic fever-swamp worthy of Dan Brown, and only Dobby's death pulled him out of it. Dumbledore went far deeper into his obsession with the nasty things and made a right mess of his life. I liked the way Rowling gave us clues to the progress of Harry's discernment: "And yet the fiercer the longing for the Hallows burned inside him, the less joyful it made him." Or again, when he decided to dig Dobby's grave with his own hands instead of with magic: "In the darkness, with nothing but the sound of his own breath and the rushing sea to keep him company, the things that had happened at the Malfoys' returned to him, the things he had heard came back to him, and understanding blossomed in the darkness...." I like the way she ties knowing to doing. It reminds me of how Robert Bridges wrote an angsty letter to Hopkins asking how to acquire faith, and Hopkins replied in two words: "Give alms."

The big "Oh no!" that everyone is talking about is Dumbledore's mishap with the principle of Double Effect. I don't see any way around it: Dumbledore told Snape to murder him. Sure, he thought that he was ordering Snape to perform some other type of action, but Catholic theology clearly defines what Snape was forced to do as murder. O moi moi. Dumbledore just got messier and messier in this book, and by the end he was more enigmatic than Snape; a lot more enigmatic, after we found out what was really driving Snape to protect Harry. The revelation of Dumbledore's youthful misdeeds was less disturbing than his failure to outgrow his flaws, even as he became wiser and more venerable. I mean, Dumbledore was basically a stand-in for Providence throughout Deathly Hallows. But as much as Harry trusted Dumbledore to guide his steps, he realized that his teacher's apparent omniscience was just extremely shrewd psychology. Dumbledore had him figured out. I doubt we'll ever figure out Dumbledore, though. He was so deeply compassionate that he could think of giving Harry the Resurrection Stone for his solace as he faced his death, and he was so coldly detached that he actually sat down and composed that mirthless riddle, I open at the close, and wrote it on the Snitch with his own hand. Setting up Harry's Death by Scavenger Hunt? Cold, cold, cold. Dumbledore is very humble about his faults, but he doesn't number his detachment among them. When he leads Harry to the knowledge that he must sacrifice his life you could call it saintly tough-mindedness, on par with St. Bernard telling his brother to leave his family and become a monk - terrible and harsh, but founded on a burning love of the truth. But when he arranges his own death at the hands of Snape, his detachment is seen to be mere coldness and abstraction. Unless, that is, Rowling approves of his decision - and Harry's reaction to it suggests that she does - in which case the error is not Dumbledore's, but Rowling's. Sigh.

In spite of Dumbledore's worrisome actions, the ending was wonderful. Eucatastrophe all the way. I haven't been so joyful after reading a book since I finished The Lord of the Rings when I was 12. The story keeps its integrity and Harry lays down his life, but he gets it back and marries his true love and sends his own kids off to Hogwarts. Anyone who has read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will catch how similar some of the description is: Harry's walk into the forest where Voldemort waits with his monsters by firelight; his defeat of Voldemort at the very instant of red-gold sunrise. Rowling loves Narnia, so I take this resemblance to be a homage.

And then there was King's Cross Station! How cool was that?

Thank you, J.K. Rowling. For eight years of delightful suspense. For taking up the mantle of the Inklings. For characters that will live in my imagination for the rest of my life.

Long live Harry Potter!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Harry Potter and the... Libation Bearers?"

My thought exactly. I opened the seventh book and said, "Huh? What's Aeschylus doing in here?"

I had no idea that Fr. Z. liked Harry Potter!

Fr. Z.'s post has also reminded me that I need to read David Jones' Anathemata. Catholic High Modernism from a man deeply scarred by his service in the First World War? It will be interesting at the very least...


I visited Marseille in March, and I've finally gotten around to posting some pictures. Enjoy!


Sunset in front of the cathedral

The Old Harbor at night

We caught a noon Mass at this cathedral. Before Mass there was a rosary and afterwards we said the Angelus. All the prayers sounded more vehement in French, which became my new favorite language.

A sign inside the cathedral's entrance - click to read it. If you think there's no one left in Europe who understands, think again. "Gardez la foi!"

The view from the shrine of Notre Dame de la Garde, Our Lady of the Guard.

To get to the shrine you had to cross a drawbridge. How cool is that? The mistral nearly blew me away, though.

Looking back...

The shrine seen from the Old Harbor. Everyone in Marseille loves Notre Dame de la Garde! Her shrine is covered with ex votos. My friends and I were trying to find the way up to it, and this nice old gentleman asked us if we were "looking for the Virgin" (I heard something something la Vierge? anyway), and he told us how to find the stairs.

The cathedral by the sea - a strange mix of Baroque, Byzantine, and Italian Gothic.


Theres a subtle feeling to Marseille. The colors of it are pale and bright - bleached ivory; pink like an ancient dress that's lifted from a trunk all brittle and camphory; pale cornflower; and a tender Easter icing color for some of the shutters, not quite cyan, not quite sea-green. There's something gaunt and forbidding about it, but also a certain feeling I've found in certain poems - say, the last stanza of Louise Bogan's Song for the Last Act. I liked it, and I'd definitely go back. When I was arranging the trip, I read a lot of sources that said it wasn't safe, was full of angry Muslim immigrants, etc. But our experience was good. We were just passing through to Lourdes, but we wished we could have stayed longer.

Note: If you want a really scary French city, try Toulouse. We had to wait there for several hours coming back from Lourdes, and we decided to go and venerate Thomas Aquinas's relics. The poor guy is buried in a desecrated Gothic church known as the "Convent les Jacobins" (!) which was stolen and gutted during the Revolution and gingerly patched up at a later date. It's pretty much a museum. We crawled under a rope and touched our rosaries to St. Thomas' golden casket, and then prayed for our college. We came back through a boisterous rally for Saddam Husein, which involved a large circle of young Muslim men singing loudly, holding banners, and pumping their fists in the air while all the women in their headscarves stood silently to one side. Oddly enough, I got more crap from boorish males in ten minutes there than I did the whole time I was in Italy. If you are a woman, don't be seen outside there, alone, unless you want to be very annoyed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What am I doing on this blog?!

"July has only four letters so as to prevent us from taking up time to pronounce her name: she would rather we be outside enjoying her." - TS.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ave atque vale.

Last summer I took my first Greek course at UC Berkeley. For ten weeks we did nothing but study Greek, day and night; and we went from not even knowing the alphabet to reading Euripides (propped up at every turn by the Middle Liddell, but still). It was intoxicating. Our GSI led her little phalanx through the Swamp of Accents, over the tricky pass of Conditional Sentences, and across the burning plains of the Athematic Verb, chewing through a textbook the size of a telephone directory. The rank and file loved her, for she was everything a teacher/commander should be. I regretted, afterwards, that I hadn't gotten to know Corinne better - I did the typical introvert thing and hero-worshiped her from a distance, while my more confident classmates became fast friends with her. I did make one lasting friend from the workshop, though. I called her a few days ago to chat. She had to break the news to me: Corinne was dead. She had been hit by a car while she was riding her bicycle in Walnut Creek.

"Only 26 years old, she was obviously a woman of extraordinary brilliance, having graduated summa cum laude from Harvard at the age of 20, while simultaneously being awarded a Harvard master's degree. Having taught at Harvard, I can attest that in this age of grade inflation, Harvard still guards the honor of summa degrees rather closely. The honor is reserved for those who qualify as one of the finest minds of their generation, in essence."

- American Thinker.

Why did I have to learn all of this now? She studied with Fr. Foster when she was in her teens. She gave the Latin oration at the Commencement when she graduated from Harvard. She... It's not that knowing what a prodigy she was changes my feelings about her; it just makes her death that much harder to take, that's all.

On her blog she snarkily described herself as a "pissy feminist Ph.D. candidate and proud." She had a lot to be proud of, and she was making her way in a very male-dominated world, but I've never had a teacher who was more unpretentious. She had a way of explaining concepts as though she had just discovered them herself and was still luxuriating in that "Ohhhhh!" moment. I remember her defining participles as "adjectives with verb superpowers," pausing to think about it, and then saying, "or maybe... 'adjectives on crack'." She called Euboea 'Happy Cow Island' and baked us cookies and she had this cute way of saying "ohhhhhmega." Remember that "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy" I blogged about? I first read it on a handout she made for us. One day near the end of the course, she had us decipher the first page of the Greek translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (which begins Δούρσλειος καὶ ἠ γυνὴ ἐνῴκουν τῇ τετάρτῃ οἰκία τῇ τῆς τῶν μυρσίνων ὁδοῦ, in case you were curious). She could explain the most abstruse ideas simply.

At first glance she was an elfin sort of person, with her short dark hair and glinting eyes. She wore thick black glasses, as if to make herself look fiercer. She was perfectly unapologetic about her California accent, calling it "my dialect." This was encouraging to me, as I am an irredeemable valley girl. (I may use certain annoying particles when I speak <μὲν> , but at least I never employ them in my writing < /δὲ> .) But her slightness and chirpiness were deceptive - she was as athletic in her body as she was in her mind. She was always out cycling, and she was about to win her black belt in karate. (Once she told us about the previous day's ride, through the hills above Berkeley, and how she had wanted to see the "fire goats." With a kind of Chestertonian delight, she told us that she had seen the nimble little αἴγες standing in trees!)

If you click on her cartoon at the top of the post, it will take you to her page on the Berkeley site. I thought I might get to visit her this summer - but no. It's worse for my friend from the program, because she is a regular Berkeley student, and she continued to grow closer to Corinne after the summer workshop. Please pray for Corinne and for her family.

Arturo the Sarabite also learned from Corinne, and he has written a poem for her. He says what I wish I could say.

Music for Buses – V


Arturo Vásquez

For Corinne Crawford

I decided to take the bus
To where it ended-
Beyond familiar stops
And faces of those
Who tread wearily
On newspaper-covered floors.

I decided not to get off
At my stop
But continue to that place
Where I could see worry,
Tiny and shivering,
There below-
And I could guide the sun
With a sigh
And love all
The smallness of things.

I decided no longer to feed
The cares of the day,
But finally to get off
Near the last sign
That meant the flowing of sunset
And the end of the line,

Where waters lap on
Memory’s shore,
And once again you
Fold up the night
Like a note scrawled in affection,
And there, with courage
And gentleness,
Take flight.

I decided to take the bus
To where it ended-
To see you off
As you walked away-
Since you had brightness of heart
That belongs to so few,
May the heavens possess your soul
And the earth lie light on you.

Esto perpetua, Corinna.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"Drowned Latinesse, lost and lovely and strange — and cruel, we heard..."

Wow. Summorum Pontificum is definitely bringing out the poetry in people:

People my age grew up with a strange wound and longing in their parents: as if we’d all been driven out by flood from a homeland that no longer existed, where on stormy nights, the church bells clanged randomly beneath the waves; and you might hear those who’d refused to leave (and been turned into mermen by some curse or mercy) chanting in their black and golden robes, as strange lights burned in stony caves beneath the sea.

Friday, July 13, 2007

What goes into a "perfect line?"

Sometimes you come across a single line of poetry that is so striking that it has a life of its own. It would still be powerful even if it were ripped from its context, blowing around in the Sahara on a scrap of papyrus. If you like poetry, you have a lot of them drifting through your mind:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

From silken Samarkand to cedered Lebanon

I knew a woman lovely in her bones

Inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold

Blogger Nick Seddon raised the old and rather murky question of what makes a line "perfect," but mostly left it to his readers to suggest answers. Dozens of people replied with lines they thought perfect. Many started getting off track and citing whole passages of their favorite poetry. A handful proposed some standards. Someone cited the "golden line" of Latin poetry.

Well, all of this got me thinking, and I thought about it way longer than I should have. It was easy to pick out lines that I thought were perfect, and less easy to say why they were perfect. First off, I decided that perfect is not the same thing as best. Some "perfect" lines I like better than others, but each one seems to inhabit its own little world. After looking closely at some of them, I put together some characteristics of the "perfect line":

1. It has to be complete. The root sense of "perfect" is "finished" (Latin, perfectus), as in "the perfect tense." There can't be bits of syntax intruding from the lines before or after. Look at this line:

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

It comes from a great poem ("The Windhover"), but it is not a perfect line. As a part of the whole, it is flawless; but it can never stand alone. Though a perfect line doesn't need to be a complete sentence. It isn't often a subordinate clause, but very often it's part of a clause: "Or stormy silver fret the gold of day" - Yeats. Usually the perfect line is either a main clause ("The wintry haw is burning out of season" - Heaney) or a single image - that is, a noun with all its pomps and accouterments, but without the slightest hint of a verb. And no need for one. These single image lines seem framed by a contemplative eye, and they don't have to justify their existence:

A rose-red city, half as old as time

A bracelet of bright hair about the bone

These things are sufficient in their own way. They can summon an image in your mind without any help from the rest of the poem. And such images!

2. It has to be strange.
A perfect line stands out vividly from the other lines, like a hologram. It is unique; it pops off the page. The idea must be strange, or the words used must be strange. Look at the last two lines I gave: "rose-red" is an unusual foil for "city," and bracelets are made of many things, but usually not of hair. "Half as old as time" - none of the words are unusual, but the idea is strange. The first line is strange in both ways: its first half uses strange diction; its second half uses a strange concept. The second line, one of John Donne's, takes three pairs of words, each perfectly normal, and then mixes them up. "Bright" and "bracelet" - connected by alliteration and association. "Bright" and "hair" - a commonplace. "Hair" and "bone" - definitely on the same page here. But combine them, and see how the bright beginning slopes down and becomes increasingly macabre, while the entire line retains an overlay of brightness, even at the gruesome ending...

3. It has to be familiar. Mere strangeness isn't enough. What I'm trying to get at is the idea of balance. The line has to strike a golden mean between... well, a lot of things - some of them obvious, many of them elusive. It should feel right somehow. It should have a bit of the primitive, a bit of the artless, to balance its strangeness. It should make you a bit homesick. Look at the Seamus Heaney line again: The wintry haw is burning out of season. It feels like a nursery rhyme or a song. I think of Tolkien: "In Western lands beneath the sun / The flowers may rise in spring..." or this:
When winter first begins to bite
And stones crack in the frosty night -
When pools are black and trees are bare,
Tis evil in the wild to fare.

The line feels like other simple lines that we've enjoyed before, but it stands apart from them with its elegant rhythm and highly tuned language.

4. It's usually iambic pentameter. If it's in English, that is. Why is this? Because I.P. is so widely used. Because iambic tetrameter doesn't finish a thought in one line so often. Because of that balance thing: there's something about those five feet that sounds complete. A four-foot line feels like it wants to keep on going. But here are some that aren't iambic pentameter:

She walks in beauty like the night

Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.


Now, a whole poem composed of perfect lines is not the ideal. It would be over-intense, as well as disjointed. There is a poem by Theodore Roethke that has an unusual number of perfect lines, and by the last stanza every line is syntactically complete and only vaguely connected to the other lines:

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

Lovely lines, but the lack of cohesion is slightly irritating.

In the end, of course, it's personal opinion that deems a line "perfect." The same line can give one person a charge and leave another cold. And I happen to like these:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

Low-latched in leaf-light housel his too huge godhead.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ' her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Not where I breathe, but where I love I live

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Truth and beauty buried be.

And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

She's all states, and all princes I

Let bone be flute; the music in our marrow

Delphiniums Blue and Vatican Two

Barbara Nicolosi rejoices over the Motu Proprio and then vents:

Read it and weep, all ye liturgical innovators with your Barney music and your leotard ladies and your pita breads and your, "Hi everybody, I'm Fr. Joe, your presider! Welcome to our celebration!!!"

I'm calling to mind just now all the stern-faced, liberal ideologues of my whole ecclesial life - ruthlessly trampling on every aesthetic or reverent impulse in the name of - what the hell was it again? Oh yes - in the name of making me feel special.

Whew. Glad she got that off her chest. There's nothing more infuriating than watching the powers-that-be destroy something beautiful that you love "for your own good."

There's a poem that describes the phenomenon beautifully, and it was written by none other than A.A. Milne. I used to read it when I was a kid, but not very often, because it always turned me into a quivering blob of irrational outrage. When I got older, I found out why...

The Doctor and the Dormouse

There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),
And all the day long he'd a wonderful view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue).

A Doctor came hurrying round, and he said:
"Tut-tut, I am sorry to find you in bed.
Just say 'Ninety-nine' while I look at your chest....
Don't you find that chrysanthemums answer the best?"

The Dormouse looked round at the view and replied
(When he'd said "Ninety-nine") that he'd tried and he'd tried,
And much the most answering things that he knew
Were geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue).

The Doctor stood frowning and shaking his head,
And he took up his shiny silk hat as he said:
"What the patient requires is a change," and he went
To see some chrysanthemum people in Kent.

The Dormouse lay there, and he gazed at the view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue),
And he knew there was nothing he wanted instead
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red).

The Doctor came back and, to show what he meant,
He had brought some chrysanthemum cuttings from Kent.
"Now these," he remarked, "give a much better view
Than geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)."

They took out their spades and they dug up the bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),
And they planted chrysanthemums (yellow and white).
"And now," said the Doctor, "we'll soon have you right."

The Dormouse looked out, and he said with a sigh:
"I suppose all these people know better than I.
It was silly, perhaps, but I did like the view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)."

The Doctor came round and examined his chest,
And ordered him Nourishment, Tonics, and Rest.
"How very effective," he said, as he shook
The thermometer, "all these chrysanthemums look!"

The Dormouse turned over to shut out the sight
Of the endless chrysanthemums (yellow and white).
"How lovely," he thought, "to be back in a bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red.)"

The Doctor said, "Tut! It's another attack!"
And ordered him Milk and Massage-of-the-back,
And Freedom-from-worry and Drives-in-a-car,
And murmured, "How sweet your chrysanthemums are!"

The Dormouse lay there with his paws to his eyes,
And imagined himself such a pleasant surprise:
"I'll pretend the chrysanthemums turn to a bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red)!"

The Doctor next morning was rubbing his hands,
And saying, "There's nobody quite understands
These cases as I do! The cure has begun!
How fresh the chrysanthemums look in the sun!"

The Dormouse lay happy, his eyes were so tight
He could see no chrysanthemums, yellow or white.
And all that he felt at the back of his head
Were delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red).

And that is the reason (Aunt Emily said)
If a Dormouse gets in a chrysanthemum bed,
You will find (so Aunt Emily says) that he lies
Fast asleep on his front with his paws to his eyes.

I always wanted to beat up the Doctor and find the little Dormouse a nice bed of geraniums and delphiniums where he could be happy. I never could, of course. But now, if Summorum Pontificum works out (Deo volente), the Dormouse won't have to shut his eyes and pretend that the blank wall in front of him is a gilded reredos; and he won't be putting his paws on his ears and dreaming of Palestrina while Marty Haugen blares from a loudspeaker. I have done these things. I won't be doing them anymore!

I still feel like this is all too good to be true.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Christmas in July

Back in my emo phase, which involved writing lots of recusant poetry, shopping for black chapel veils, and listening to William Byrd in the dark, I often thought that this proclamation would never come. But fortunately that was just teenage idiocy, and now we can all party!

Papa Benedict, I just want to say...

Thank you!
Thank you!
Thank you!

I think I wrote something about the Tridentine rite and poetic formation... ah yes. Here. Accounts from Seamus Heaney and Dana Gioia of their experience of the Latin Mass.

Here are a few reasons I love the TLM:

1. The silent Canon. There's something about the way the Sanctus opens like gates of bronze - with those urgent bells - and then everything passes through into Silence. It easily inspires reverence. The consecration is more startling when it finally comes.

2. The ad orientem posture. I like it when priest and people are all facing God in the same way. There's no way to make the mistake of thinking that the priest is just emoting to us and talking to us.

3. The prayers at the foot of the altar. They are beautiful. The refrain of And I will go in to the altar of God: to God Who giveth joy to my youth is very affecting. Look at the way it weaves through the prayer with such antiphonal grace.

4. The Last Gospel. It's just so right.

After forty years, a great many patient people are reaping their reward. I will leave you with something from Eliot's Ash Wednesday:

The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream....

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

(Photo credit: Fr. Z's
What Does the Prayer Really Say?)

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Gazing into the Abyss

One man's escape from the tedious hell of existentialism.
“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy,” Weil writes, “in order to find reality through suffering.” This is certainly true to my own experience. I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love. To come to this realization is not to be suddenly “at ease in the world.” I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable. Though we may be moved by nature to thoughts of grace, though art can tease our minds toward eternity and love’s abundance make us dream a love that does not end, these intuitions come only through the earth, and the earth we know only in passing, and only by passing. I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

This essay is so good that I don't know what to say about it. But it sets up modern skepticism, romantic love, death, religion, and poetry - and shows them colliding in one very real life. It's not really an essay, it's more of a confession or an act of witness. I know that I'll be thinking about it for a long time.

The scariest passage in the piece was this unsparing look at the connection between spiritual health and the writing of poetry:
On another level, though, the decision to stop writing wasn’t mine. Whatever connection I had long experienced between word and world, whatever charge in the former I had relied on to let me feel the latter, went dead. Did I give up poetry, or was it taken from me? I’m not sure, and in any event the effect was the same: I stumbled through the months, even thrived in some ways. Indeed — and there is something almost diabolical about this common phenomenon — it sometimes seemed like my career in poetry began to flourish just as poetry died in me. I finally found a reliable publisher for my work (the work I’d written earlier, I mean), moved into a good teaching job, and then quickly left that for the editorship of Poetry. But there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.

Inspiration is a mystery. It was the subject of Hopkins's last poem - and he, of all people, was complaining about the lack of it. A number of things - now including Christian Wiman's account - are moving me towards the belief that poetic inspiration really is a spiritual event.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Nothing for Ever and Ever

An interesting article on A.E. Housman.

Reading it, I remembered that my favorite Housman poem is not "Loveliest of trees," but "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy." Mysterious reader, if you happen to be a student of ancient Greek and you have never read this parody, you have indeed been gypped.

O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?

I cranked out a number of such horrifically literal translations last summer, and some of them were almost that funny. But just wait until you get to the part about the shipwrecked cows...

Monday, July 2, 2007

Roman Exile

During my last week in Rome I paid a visit to the Protestant Cemetery, where John Keats is buried. It was impossible that I leave without making this small pilgrimage. The place was so lovely that I stayed there for an hour, and I said a rosary for Keats, attempting to give him something in return for his poetry. Here you can see that he is buried next to Joseph Severn, his artist friend:

An admirer had left him this object:

What did it have inside, I wonder? The true, the blushful Hippocrene? Actually, that would be uncivilized... if you're going to offer a libation, you pour it on the ground; you don't leave it standing there going "Nyah nyah!" Maybe the vase was filled with crumpled-up sonnets.

One more picture. This is a far-off view of Keats's grave, and it shows that he is buried in the quietest, most distant corner of the Protestant Cemetery.

It tore me up that Keats only came to Italy when he was dying. Rome is the worst place in which to be living a posthumous existence; when I was there, I often felt a kind of panic that I was going to have to leave without seeing some marvelous thing or other. His doctor kept Keats from visiting the famous sights of Rome, fearing that the excitement would weaken him; and as he fell asleep at night, listening to the plash of Bernini's fountain outside his window, the "warm South" must have seemed as distant as it was in England when he imagined it vaguely as a land of "summer waters":

Happy is England! I could be content
  To see no other verdure than its own;
  To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent:
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
  For skies Italian, and an inward groan
  To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,
And half forget what world or worldling meant.
Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
  Enough their simple loveliness for me,
    Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:
  Yet do I often warmly burn to see
    Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.