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52 Authors: Week 30 - Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) has the distinction of being a significant poet of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Had he died in 1900—or, blurring the century line to include 1904's In the Seven Woods—he might not have been considered a major poet, but he certainly would have been remembered. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” would have been the same anthology favorite that it has been, I suppose, since it was published. And there are at least half a dozen more poems in those early books that would have lived on similarly, and many more than that to reward the reader who looked further than anthologies.

The early work is decidedly 19th century. Yeats was Irish and very much involved with the revival of Celtic art and culture that was sometimes called the “Celtic Twilight” movement, and he was sympathetic (at least) to Irish nationalism. Both these facts now seem a little surprising to me, since he was of Protestant ancestry. But I don't actually know much about Irish history beyond the very broadest outlines, and perhaps they shouldn't be surprising.

The Celtic Twilight poems are romantic in every sense. The first poem, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” in the first book, Crossways, states the position:

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy...

The poems are lush and dreamy and often attempt to get at an ecstatic or visionary state. Yeats was fascinated—an understatement—by esoteric mystical doctrines and was among those who seemed to regard poetry as a quasi-religious gateway to spiritual experiences. That's a questionable—no, a downright unhealthy—view of what poetry is and what it is for, and it caused the orthodox T.S. Eliot to sniff that Yeats in his early career was “trying to get as poet something like the exaltation to be obtained, I believe, from hashish or nitrous oxide.” (I quote that because it's funny; Eliot was all in all a great admirer of Yeats.)

But whatever may have been amiss with the theory, it produced (or Yeats produced in spite of it), some beautiful and haunting verse, although often of a somewhat misty nature. He tended toward two themes. One was the allure of the pagan supernatural world that he believed, or wished to believe, still existed alongside the mundane Ireland. All you really need to know of the names in this poem is that the Sidhe are a kind of fairy folk.

The Hosting of the Sidhe

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

You may have read in school another poem on a similar theme, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” If you don't remember, he was the fellow who hoped to

...pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

But I think the Sidhe weave a more powerful spell. The lines beginning “We come between him...” never fail to touch me: is that not what happens to anyone any time he feels the touch of unattainable beauty?

The other theme was love, romantic love, and until he was well into middle age the subject of these poems was a woman named Maud Gonne and his unrequited love for her. The complications of his love life continued for many years, and included, in 1916 (or 1917—I'm having trouble finding the exact date), a proposal of marriage from the fifty-something poet to Maud's twenty-something daughter, Iseult.

MI+WB+Yeats+Maud+Gonne

Oh yes, you are [happy], because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that....The world should thank me for not marrying you.

Yeats's later style became sharper, drier, less mellifluous, more angular. His subject matter became sex, death, politics, and philosophy (not necessarily in order of emphasis). His rhetoric was often blunt. You might say that he became a modernist, but he never abandoned traditional form. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that he responded to modernism, and availed himself of some of the freedom it brought. It occurs to me as I write this that he is comparable to Sibelius, who was born the same year. Both had their roots in Romanticism, and without abandoning those roots adopted what they found useful and appealing in modern innovations, producing work that satisfies both those who were thoroughly impatient with the art of the 19th century and those who thought free verse, atonal music, and abstract painting were ridiculous.

It is this later work that makes us describe him not simply as a major poet, not even simply as a great poet, but as, in the view of many, the great poet in English of the 20th century—that three-quarters or so of the Lyric section of the Collected Poems that lie past a finger holding the book open at the beginning of Responsibilities, which appeared in 1914. Yeats was then almost fifty years old, and would write profusely for another twenty-five years, until his death in 1939. “The Second Coming” appeared in 1921, and as lovely as the early romantic work can be, this is of another and greater order. And he has many poems that can be ranked with it.

I myself am not entirely with those who would call him the greatest of the century. Greatest in pure gift, yes: but I mentioned that philosophy became one of his subjects, and there lies a problem. Yeats was a naturally religious man with no religion. And so he invented his own. That's an over-simplification, but not unfair. The interest in occultism became an attempt to invent, or discover, a set of esoteric doctrines that would explain for him “life, the universe, and everything.” The search included something called “automatic writing” practiced by his wife (he had married not long after his proposal to Iseult Gonne). This involved what sounds like a Ouija-board sort of procedure in which her hand was guided by purported spiritual entities. Concerns about the dangers aside, this does not strike one as a promising approach to understanding the world. His accumulated thought and lore were expounded in A Vision, published in 1926. I read this book many years ago. I couldn't make much sense of it (though there were interesting passages) and have no desire to read it again. Unfortunately there is a good deal of symbolism in his later poetry which is drawn from A Vision and renders some of the work pretty obscure, or perhaps even unintelligible without the key.

A little over ten years ago, in the first year of the Sunday Night Journal, I compared Yeats and Eliot, coming down on the side of Eliot as the greater artist, and this gnosticism of Yeats was a big part of the reason. You can read that piece here

But as I admit in that piece, the making of these comparisons is a bit silly, and I've already dwelt on them too much. So back to the poetry: as far as I can recall I first encountered Yeats when I was a freshman in college, in the Sound and Sense anthology. If I read anything by him in high school, I don't remember it. The pieces in Sound and Sense are mostly from his later work, but I wasn't aware of the distinction at the time. All I knew was that certain lines of certain poems gave me an electric thrill. “The Second Coming” is the one that remains in my mind as the first of Yeats's poems to produce that sensation. I didn't understand it in any detail, but the overall statement, and especially those final lines, were clear enough. In recent years that magnificent work has been abused by politicians and journalists applying certain aspects of it (“The center cannot hold”) to current politics. I might even say it has been over-exposed. But then perhaps it has come to the attention of people who might not otherwise know it. Ten years or so ago there was a Volkswagen commercial that used a Nick Drake song, and I've come across more than one account of someone hearing it there for the first time, and immediately seeking out more of Drake's work.

After that freshman introduction, I graduated to a Selected Poems, which for many years was all the Yeats I knew. Later, when I finally purchased the Collected Poems, I didn't have much time for reading, so it is the Selected Poems that really formed my view of him, and there is no doubt some undiscovered gold in the Collected. But I haven't discovered it, in part because I always seek out the same favorites. Glancing through the book now, having read little of Yeats over the past fifteen or more years, I see poem after poem that I recognize as an old friend, and line after line that still comes to me often. Almost every day, for instance, and every moonlit night, when I walk through the little stand of trees near my house, I hear

And pierce the deep wood's woven shade.

And there are a number of things that bring up a line or a few lines from Yeats when I think of them. When I think of family, and place, and roots, for instance, I hear

Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
(“A Prayer for My Daughter”)

Of the strange and mysterious phenomena of sex and generation:

“A shudder in the loins engenders there...”
(“Leda And the Swan”)

Of radicals who might do violence:

“...had they but courage equal to desire”
(“No Second Troy”)

Of young lovers:

“...the young in one another's arms...those dying generations”
(“Sailing to Byzantium”)

Of old age:

“An old man's eagle mind”
(“An Acre of Grass”)

Of old age:

“Now may I wither into truth.”
(“The Coming of Wisdom With Time”)

Of the sorrows that must inevitably come to children:

“For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.”
(“The Stolen Child”)

Of all too many politicians and journalists:

...one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours' eyes...
(“To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”)

Of the wisdom that outlasts rulers:

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
(“Lapis Lazuli”)

Of friends I've known since youth:

But think about old friends the most
(“The Lover Pleads With His Friends For Old Friends”)

Of my wife:

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
("When You Are Old")

Of the end of things:

A measureless consummation that he dreamed.
(“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”)

Of the vanities of the passing scene:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
(“Under Ben Bulben”)

Those are the last lines of the last poem in his last book, and also his epitaph.

YeatsGrave

Without the poems, of course, we would hardly remember Yeats's name, but I want to mention a few of his other works as well. The Autobiography was fascinating to me when I read it in my twenties, and I think it might still be worth reading. Also, I suspect that some of his plays may be unjustly neglected. I had a memorable experience, also in my twenties, with recordings of a couple of them—the late plays, in which he attempted to emulate some aspects of the Japanese Noh drama. I plan to listen to them again soon and will report my findings.

Here is a "video"--audio with a photograph--of Yeats reading a few of his poems. See this page for details. I heard that first recording of "Innisfree" back when I was in college and the way he reads that first line, especially the way he says "Innis. Frree.", has remained in my mind ever since.

 


Wendell Berry and Pope Francis

Thanks to Rob G for the link to this piece at First Things connecting Laudato Si and the thought of Wendell Berry. I am one of those whom the author mentions as being disappointed by a number of Berry's recent statements on same-sex marriage, not only the content but the tone. Nevertheless, one must try not to be merely reactionary, and these views don't negate the good things he's said over the years.

As I remarked in a comment, I'm now ready to read Laudato Si, some of the fuss having died down. I 'm sorry to say that I ordered a hardback copy via Amazon. I wanted it and Roman Guardini's End of the Modern World, and thought I would order both from their publishers rather than Amazon. But before I could order from ISI, the publishers of the Guardini book, I had to go through a registration process that included giving them my phone number, and I balked. So I went back to Amazon, and then threw the encyclical into the same order. If only Amazon weren't so dadgum convenient....


52 Authors: Week 29 - Josephine Tey

I love mysteries. My affection for a good mystery began with Nancy Drew when I was in the third grade (Nancy Drew was better then.), and has continued for 57 years unabated. There are some authors currently writing mysteries that I enjoy, but my very favorite authors are the women who began writing in what is known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the 1920s and 1930s. Four of these women: Dorothy Sayers (Peter Wimsey) , Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn), Margery Allingham (Campion), and Agatha Christie (Well, you know.), were known as The Queens of Crime. Christie and Sayers are still well known, and all four have had BBC Mystery series featuring their detectives, but there was another woman writing during that time that I enjoy just as well, and maybe more.

I wish I could remember when or where I first found a book by Josephine Tey, née Elizabeth Mackintosh, or which book it was. I know it was a long time ago. In her day, she was quite well-known, probably more so in England than the United States, but her popularity doesn’t seem to have been as durable as that of the “queens.” Her books are easily available online, but they all seem to have been last published in the 90s. Maybe it’s because she wrote so few books—only eight mysteries in all. I’m sure publishers love to see those rows of Christie mysteries on the shelves and know that once you’re hooked, you’re going to want to read them all.

Week29-Richard-program-coverEarly in her writing career Tey, under the name Gordon Daviot, wrote plays. Her first play, Richard of Bordeaux, ran for 14 months in the West End (the Broadway of London), which, Wikipedia tells me, was at that time considered a long run. The star and director of Richard was John Gielgud and, again from Wikipedia quoting a book by Martial Rose:

Prior to that production, Gielgud was regarded as a highly respected classical actor based on his performances at the Old Vic, but the overwhelming success of Richard of Bordeaux catapulted him into the status of superstar.

Tey must have been rather fond of the play herself. In Daughter of Time, her next-to-last mystery, she has her detective, Inspector Grant, say that he saw Richard of Bordeaux three times when he was young. From this and other comments that Grant makes, one gets the impression that Tey did extensive research for her plays, which later contributed to her most famous mystery.

Murder, she didn’t necessarily write.

Unlike the Queens of Crime, Tey did not always write mysteries which were centered around murder. In two of her mysteries, I won’t say which, there is no murder at all, and in some of the others, the murder is in the past and not the most important element of the book. What is central to many of her mysteries is the characters: their psychological makeup and their relationships. The books are more like novels than mysteries.

The first two mysteries: The Man in the Queue (1929) and A Shilling for Candles (1936), were written in the early period of Tey’s career when she was busy with her plays, and two novels. Both of these early mysteries (and indeed almost all of the latter) show the influence of the theatre. They are what you might think of as the average good mystery of the time. They begin with a murder, and Inspector Grant follows the clues and solves the mystery. If you were looking for a mystery featuring Miss Marple, Campion, or especially Roderick Alleyn, and couldn’t get your hands on any of these, you would be happy with either of these books.

Sir John Gielgud, who became a close friend of Tey’s, said that she, “… was distressed by her inability to write original plots.” If you stopped with those first two mysteries, you might think that this was an accurate assessment, but then in the late '40s, Tey wrote a series of mysteries that belied this opinion.

UnGranted

Tey’s first mystery sans Inspector Grant is Miss Pym Disposes. Miss Pym, a retired French teacher has found fame by writing a book about psychology.

She read her first book on psychology out of curiosity, because it seemed to her an interesting sort of thing; and she read all the rest to see if they were just as silly.

She thereafter develops her own theory of psychology which, by pure happenstance, comes to the attention of a publisher. On the publication of her book, she becomes the darling of the lecture circuit and thereby finds herself speaking at a college of physical culture at the behest of an old friend who is the head of the college.

During her stay there is an accident at the college, or perhaps a malicious act, and though the police arrive to investigate, the real detective is…well, nobody. Miss Pym observes what is going on, though, and it is gradually borne in on her what has happened.

There is in Miss Pym a vague similarity to Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, but it is vague. What we have here is not the arena of the intellect, but that of the body, and how extreme physical stress affects the psyches of the different characters. The solving of the mystery is not the main lynchpin of the story. The unfortunate incident is incidental. It is just a means of illuminating the character of the students.

Next, there is The Franchise Affair. The story of two women living in genteel poverty who are accused of a terrible crime by a seemingly undefeatable adversary—a young, innocent-seeming teenage girl. Their only defense is a lawyer who has spent his career working on the business affairs of a small village: writs, and wills, and real estate, and who has no knowledge at all of criminal law. Inspector Grant has a small role in this one, but he could just as well have been Inspector Smith or Inspector Jones. The main story here is the ability of a relentless, self-centered, and conscienceless will to manipulate the truth, and the terrorism of the mob incited by an amoral press.

Brat Farrar is the third of this group. A young man, an orphan, who has lost his means of supporting himself due to an accident is approached by man who asks him to impersonate the deceased heir of his neighbor’s estate. Brat has an uncanny resemblance to the boy who is a supposed suicide, although no body has ever been found. Brat’s eventual acceptance of this imposture springs more from his desire to have a place in the world, and in particular a place which revolves around horses, as any monetary design. Again, the death of the boy heir is not the center of the story, but the door into the life of the characters.

A word about the inspector

Inspector Allan Grant is a detective for Scotland Yard. We are told that:

If Grant had an asset beyond the usual one of devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage, it was that the last thing he looked like was a police officer. He was of medium height, and slight in build, and he was—now, if I say dapper, of course you will immediately think of something like a tailor’s dummy, something perfected out of all individuality, and Grant is most certainly not that; but if you can visualize a dapperness that is not of the tailor’s dummy type, then that is Grant.

Elsewhere, we are told that he looked more ex-military than police.

Knowledgeable about food and wine, theatre and opera, he nevertheless lives a very simple life. He seems to be an introvert. When he has a nagging problem that he can’t solve, he employs the eureka principle—not that he calls it that. He goes elsewhere and tries to get involved with something else, and things fall into place in the back of his brain.

Unlike the detectives of the fab four mentioned above, and many other famous detectives from Sherlock Holmes to, well, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, he doesn’t have a sidekick. He has Williams, who does whatever Grant doesn’t have time to do, and he has Simpson who does likewise, only not as often, but for the most part, he works alone.

As for women, there is the actress Marta Hallard, who is a better woman than thee or me. A tall, graceful actress who knows how to cook, what to drink, and when to keep her mouth shut, she is the woman that Grant would marry if either of them were interested in marriage. There is never the slightest intimation that their relationship is other than Platonic.

In a couple of the books it is mentioned that Grant has flair. Not the best word for it in my opinion, but it means that he has a certain intuitive sense that something is not right, or that there is another way to look at the problem than the one they are using. His superior, Superintendent Barker, recognizes this, but he thinks that you can overdo it.

“Is this an example of the famous flair?” said Barker. . .Put it out of your head, Grant, until you get even a tittle of evidence to substantiate it. Flair is all very well, and I don’t deny that you have been uncanny once or twice, but it has always been more or less in accordance with the evidence before….

Grant makes his appearance again in To Love and Be Wise and stays through the last mystery, The Singing Sands. These two meld the detective fiction of Tey’s first two mysteries with the more narrative style of the next three. I won’t say much about them except that in the last book, Grant’s interest and imagination are captured by a poem that he finds scrawled on the back of a newspaper that he accidentally removes from the train compartment of a man who has died from a fall in a drunken state.

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sands,
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
That guard the way
To Paradise

The face of the dead man, and the words of the poem are so inconsistent with his death by inebriation that Grant sets off to find out who the man was and where he was going—and what that poem describes.

I said all that to say this.

In 1960 the Crime Writer’s Association voted Tey’s masterpiece, Daughter of Time, The Best Mystery Novel of All Time. Peter Hitchens described it as “one of the most important books ever written.” I don’t know about that, but it is an excellent book that shows just how much of what we think we know about history is just not true.

We find Inspector Grant having prickles of boredom as he lies in a hospital bed recovering from having fallen through a trap door while in hot pursuit of Benny Skoll. To allay his boredom, Marta brings him a stack of prints of faces—faces of people to whom some mystery is attached. After thumbing through the group, Grant finds that this picture has dropped to his side.

Week29-R IIIThis is the painting of Richard III which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Grant, who believes himself to be an expert judge of faces, is surprised that Shakespeare’s villain, the man who murdered his beloved brother’s sons, has a face that he would have ascribed to a judge. “[A] judge,” in his opinion, “had a special quality; an integrity and a detachment. So, even without a wig, one did not confuse him with the man in the dock, who had neither integrity or detachment.” Well, you can’t always count on that anymore, but it’s sometimes true. In fact, I have a friend who is a judge, and she has just that look.

This dissonance between Richard’s face and his reputation leads Grant, with the help of young American researcher, to investigate the primary sources that reveal the more likely history of this much-maligned king.

Now, ever since Wolf Hall started to air, there has been much discussion about how Hilary Mantel has maligned Thomas More, and I have wanted to write something about this, but I decided I would save it for this post. The book that is responsible for most of the erroneous detraction of Richard III is attributed to Thomas More. Grant and his aide, Carradine, do find out, however, that the book that was published under More’s name was a manuscript copy of a book written by one John Morton. More lived in Morton’s home when he was young, and was almost certainly influenced by Morton’s adherence to the Tudor line.

I have wondered if Mantel might even have been influenced by Daughter of Time. While she is the perpetrator of just the kind of misinformation that Morton indulged in, she might perceive herself as being on the other side. So, I did a Google search for “hilary mantel daughter or time.” While I didn’t find any reference to Tey’s book by Mantel, there are others who have made that connection, notably Christopher Hitchens writing in Atlantic, who said:

Wolf Hall is a magnificent service to the language and literature whose early emancipation it depicts and also, in its demystifying of one of history’s wickedest men, a service to the justice that Josephine Tey first demanded in The Daughter of Time.

Except she didn’t. Most amusing though was this quote from Mantel herself describing the portrait of Cromwell that hangs in the National Gallery. She says, “"[Cromwell] doesn't care what you think of him. No man more immune to insult. Truth is the daughter of time. Time is what we haven't got." Maybe she is thinking about Tey. That quote, “Truth is the daughter of time,” is found at the beginning of The Daughter of Time.

And by the way

Recently, Josephine Tey has been resurrected by a series of mysteries written by Nicola Upson in which Tey is the detective. I have been listening to the first one, An Expert in Murder, and while it is well-written, I’m not completely happy with it. The murder scene is rather graphic (although far from the worst) and eerie, which is something you never see in Tey, and Upson has so far professed a political opinion or two which I suspect is foreign to Tey. Tey was a very private person, and not much at all is known about her life. I’m afraid that Upson might be inventing a false life for her similar to the false life of Richard III.

Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


I'm Not Surprised, But I'm A Little Disappointed

Image magazine comes out in favor of the same-sex marriage.

I'm really less surprised by the writer's opinion than by his admiration for Justice Kennedy's prose. I wouldn't go as far as the person who said the ruling sounded like something a 17-year-old would post on Facebook, but on the basis of this sample (I haven't read the whole thing) I'd call it pretty ordinary stuff. There's a distinctly pompous note there, never mind the jarring dissonance of his application of the term  "marital union." Surely Kennedy, like most judges who have opined on this subject, is hearing in his mind's ear the praise which he expects future historians to lavish on his edicts. And notice the "I have spoken" tone of that last sentence. A majority of the justices, and a majority of liberals, now seem to think of the Supreme Court as a council of elders with the power to make decisions for the whole tribe on the basis of their own unaided wisdom.

Perhaps the jarring dissonance is only a result of my conditioning, my prejudices, my inability to change. I can see already that it's going to be a bit of a struggle at times to hold out against this soothing spell. One may have to be willing to stick one's foot into the fire, like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair.

NB: I realize the Image piece is just a post at the magazine's blog, but I see no reason to think the editors would disagree. 


I guess I need reading glasses

I'm going to write about Yeats for week 30 (not this weekend, but the next one). Looking around for more information on a particular aspect of his philosophy, I thought I read

Yeats's father, John Butler Yeats, was a hamster...

The word was actually "barrister."


52 Authors: Week 28 - W.S. Merwin

Note: in order to keep the series going through what I hope is only a dry spell, I've resorted to republishing the following piece, which was the Sunday Night Journal for November 7, 2011. I had intended to re-work it for this post, but found that there's really nothing much I want to change. The original post was titled W.S. Merwin: Notes To A Lost Text.

For many years I’ve thought of writing some sort of lengthy appreciation of W.S. Merwin, but the project has never made it to the top of my list, and it’s time I accepted the possibility that it never will. Last year when he was appointed Poet Laureate I thought I would at least do some sort of blog post about him; now his year in that position has come and gone and I never managed to get that done, either. So, on the Chestertonian principle that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, or better late than never, or better something than nothing, here is...something, though perhaps the applicable aphorism is “too little, too late.”

Did you even know the U.S. had a poet laureate? I believe it is a renaming of what used to be the nearest thing we had, the office of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At least, back in the days when I was somewhat more conversant with the contemporary poetry scene, that seemed to be considered a sort of pinnacle of what passes for fame for poets. As someone said—it may have been John Ashbery—on being asked what it was like to be a famous poet, “being a famous poet is not like being famous.”

In those same days, roughly 1971-1976, Merwin was very highly regarded, and imitated, by aspiring young poets, at least those of my acquaintance. As is often the case with poets having a very distinctive style, the influence was not necessarily for the best. Mediocre work in the vein of, say, Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or early Eliot, inevitably seems like mere imitation, and draws attention to the fact that it is not quite as good as the original.

Unlike most of the people I knew in the local literary scene, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry, and didn’t like most of what I read. Indeed, I held on principle a general sort of disapproval of it. I thought the whole direction of modern poetry—free verse, the French-influenced imagism, the obscurity, the flat rhythms—was a big mistake, and had neo-classical or formalist, and definitely traditionalist, ideas about what I wanted to do. More fundamentally, I just didn’t think much of it was very good—it was competent and occasionally memorable, but it hardly ever affected me deeply. Merwin’s work did, though. I was won over when I read his 1967 book The Lice. Specifically, I think it was this poem, at the time and I suppose still, considered one of his very best, that won me over:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year not knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Setting aside what I thought or think about whether this manner of writing poetry is the way it ought, ideally, to be done—that is, whether one thinks it a healthy development for the art—there is also, philosophically and religiously and psychological, something pretty unhealthy in this book. It’s desolate and disoriented:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

(“The Asians Dying”)

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth

(“When You Go Away”)

Out of the morning stars the blood began to run down the white sky and the crowd in tears remembered who they were and raised their hands shouting Tomorrow our flag

(“Unfinished Book of Kings”)

I could go on and on, quoting the whole book. Looking through it again now for the first time in ten years or so, I’m reminded of how many of these poems are perfect in their way, and that even the ones I like less always have something stunning in them. They are often obscure, but not in the tight, logically rigorous way of some of the earlier modernists who were taken with Donne, the way of the riddle or puzzle. This is the way of intuition, instinct, and a definite touch of surrealism. One does not look for a precise physical analog to the bed of ashes, or the blood running down the sky; one accepts them as images of isolation and dread. (Actually the ashes might be pretty straightforward as a reference to a bed empty of the one addressed in the title.)

Isolation. Desolation. Loss. Alienation. Disorientation. Absence. These are the abstractions with Thelice which one attempts to describe the atmosphere of this book. And if those words told the whole story, I wouldn’t like the poems as well. But there is always in them the consciousness of what is missing, and an occasional glimpse of it. My friend Robert said something many years ago about Merwin’s work that has stuck in my mind ever since: that it was like “notes to a lost religious text.” I believe he was talking about Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, but it applies to most of the work that I love.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether or not I believe in something along the lines of a collective mind or instinct, something that brings certain ideas and moods to the forefront among a large segment of humanity: the skepticism of the 18th century, for instance. Perhaps such things are explainable as being simply a matter of the time being congenial to the idea—but when we say that, what have we really said? Why was the time congenial? In any case, whether or not there is some mysterious force behind it, these phenomena do occur. Something happened in the 1960s, throughout the western world, at least. It involved the breaking down of structures of all sorts. For some people in some situations it was a liberation, for others a collapse, and sometimes the same situation was a liberation to some and a collapse to others. And sometimes the same person felt it simultaneously as liberation and collapse. I think that could be said of Merwin, and of my other favorite artist of the mid-20th century, Ingmar Bergman. Their work of the 1960s is often similar in tone, movies like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf seeming to come from a very similar place as some of the poems in The Lice. Both men were the sons of Protestant ministers, both seem to have lost or rejected belief in God, but were left with a sense of loss and a fear of meaninglessness, and created works of art which express a deep spiritual yearning. Their sense of dislocation is almost apocalyptic; they seem to see an abyss opening, and the modern world plunging toward it, or already falling.

What I’ve seen of Merwin’s early work was pretty conventional for its time, which is not to say it wasn’t very well done. The few poems I’ve seen from that period were formal in structure. It was in The Moving Target, published in 1963, that he began to develop the style that produced his most original work: he dropped all formal regularity, including meter, line length, stanza patterns, and finally punctuation, as in the poem quoted above. At a glance you might think his line no different, formally, from the lifeless “free verse” that a high-schooler might produce, but anyone with an ear quickly discerns that it has its own shimmering rhythm, and that each poem has a definite graceful shape, all the product of considerably more skill than is immediately apparent.

It is The Moving Target and the following three books—The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment—which are for me, and I think for many of Merwin’s admirers, the heart of his work. I have followed him only as far as 1992’s Travels, which has its moments but was the latest of several that didn’t seem to me on the level of his work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also seems to have become more political over the years, in the usual left-wing artist sort of way. The great books have some memorable and powerful poems on political and environmental themes, but from the Reagan years forward I have occasionally run across remarks from him that were the sort of bared-teeth leftism that I thought could hardly fail to have affected his art.

But never mind that. The great work remains. Here is another poem from The Lice, one that reminds me of both Bergman and St. John of the Cross. This book, by the way is the darkest of the four mentioned above. And also by the way, the intent of the title is not to disgust and repel: it is the answer to a riddle which, according to Heraclitus, stumped Homer: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Room

I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from the corner the sound of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it is dying it is immortal

***

I haven't really made much attempt here to describe the effect of Merwin's poetry on me, and apparently on a good many other people, and to explain why I like it so much. That is the part of the unwritten essay that would require the most work and even then be inadequate. As with  most art, the old saying applies: for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation will suffice. You will either have responded to the two poems reproduced here, or not. If you did, and are not already familiar with Merwin's work, you should seek it out.


What Is Actually Happening

Somewhere on this blog I quoted somebody saying something to the effect that it's very important, and requires continual effort, to understand what is really going on in the world. At least I thought I quoted it--I went looking for it, but couldn't find it. I did, however, find the passage below, and I think it's applicable to that effort. The observation, as I understood it, was not about keeping up with the details of current events, but about understanding the true nature of the various forces at work. As Christians our response of prayer and, dare I say it, penance, is of the first importance to the worsening situation of Christianity in relation to the culture. But paying attention to the signs of the times is important, too.

I was speaking here of the hysteria one frequently encounters on the left about an emerging "theocracy" in the United States:

We are more likely to be wiped out by an asteroid strike within the next thirty years than to witness the imposition on the United States of an authoritarian Catholic government that would ban rock-and-roll and allow no television except EWTN. I suppose it’s just that these views get on my nerves. What is actually happening is that the upper class is working to make Christians of all sorts into a despised minority, and to limit the practice of the faith where it conflicts with contemporary dogma on sex, marriage, and reproduction. Here [sorry, link is not valid] is a good example of the left-wing fear-mongering about “theocracy.” The pattern—and I don’t say it’s a conscious tactic, but the pattern that emerges—is to paint Christians as a danger to the nation. That’s a very old theme. It’s a little surprising that it would be so effective in a country that is so heavily Christian. But the left-wing position now has the prestige and confidence that mainline Protestantism had a hundred years ago. At the same time, because it is smaller in numbers and because Christianity is still culturally predominant outside the big cities, the universities, and most of the media, it can pose as the brave rebel. Nice position to be in.

When you read the words of judges pronouncing on church and state today, and for decades past, I don't think you generally get the sort of respect for the former that once was the norm in our culture. Instead you get a sense that religion is a sort of toxin that must be regulated by the state. That the state believes it has the right to do this is of course a very old theme in the history of Christianity.

The quote is from a 2011 Sunday Night Journal