52 Poems, Week 10: Le Roi S'amuse (C.S. Lewis)
52 Poems, Week 11: Note to J. Alfred Prufrock (Billy Collins)

Sunday Night Journal, March 11, 2018

After posting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" a couple of weeks ago, I found myself remembering other bits and pieces of his poetry, so I got out a couple of old textbooks and went looking for them. Principal among these fragments was this, which used to be widely quoted:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.

I couldn't remember which poem it was, so after browsing a bit I resorted to the internet, and quickly found that it's from "Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse." You can read the poem at that link, though to my taste it's a bit long for reading on the web (250 lines or so). I can't say I think it's a great poem, but it's an interesting one. It's an account of Arnold's visit to the founding house of the Carthusian order, and is a more extensive lament for the passing of the old Christian world than "Dover Beach," which was written fifteen years later. More extensive, and more explicit--and more confused, really, it seems to me. Poor Arnold: intellectually he finds the faith of the monks almost contemptible, and is quite certain that the skeptical modern age is right about that question. Yet he deeply laments its loss.

Let's have the whole stanza ("these" are the monks):

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
Their faith, my tears, the world deride—
I come to shed them at their side.

Later in the poem he hopes that the coming age will be wiser and happier, but asks that for the time being he be left alone with his melancholy. 

It's not "Dover Beach," but it's really a pretty good poem, though it would be greatly improved by the removal of nearly all the exclamation marks, a habit of the 19th century which perhaps did not sound quite the same to them as to us. 

I wonder about that world which was in Arnold's time "powerless to be born." I think I can say without too much oversimplification that he found the skepticism of his age sterile, and he seems not to have had a clear idea of how it could become fruitful, really fruitful in the way that Christian civilization had been, though he thought that in time it must. Has that new world been born yet, or are we still waiting for it?

I feel fairly sure Arnold would have been surprised, maybe astonished, by what would happen to Europe in the 20th century. I know he would have been appalled: unprecedented material progress, unprecedented slaughter. Was that what was waiting to be born? The "rough beast" that Yeats so famously saw stirring? (You know that poem, probably; unfortunately politicians have been quoting it in recent years--unfortunately but also somewhat appropriately, though they usual don't get to that last bit.)

Or are we still in transit to some new and more Godless world? If we are, it promises to be, as far as I can tell, some sort of combination of 1984 and Brave New World. No one wants 1984, but I think there are a good many people who could read Brave New World and not understand that it is meant to depict a dystopia. After all, almost everyone is happy there, and isn't happiness what it's all about? Some of the mechanisms of 1984 would still have to be in place there, some means of insuring that people not only behave correctly, but that they think correctly. Those means needn't be violent; in fact violence, as the history of fascism and communism shows, is in the long run counter-productive because of the resistance it provokes. More likely it simply won't happen. Those who wish to get rid of God are finding the task rather more difficult than the skeptics of Arnold's time might have anticipated. 

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Speaking of getting rid of God: a movie based on Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time has just been released. I ran across this commentary on the movie, in which the screenwriter is quoted as saying “I think there are a lot of elements of what [L’Engle] wrote that we have progressed on as a society.” I don't resent the removal of Christian themes in the movie (which, after all, is what you'd expect of Hollywood) nearly as much as I do the suggestion that its removal from everything that counts as real life is a fait accompli, and that the only "we" that counts is composed of those who have removed it from their own lives.

I doubt that I'll see the movie. I'm really not a great admirer of the book. I know it means a lot to a lot of people. But I didn't read it until I was in my thirties, and as I recall it didn't send the meter any higher than "pretty good."

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Last week I discussed the culture wars, and in particular the gun control debate, as being in part a conflict between two political visions, the "free citizen" model and the "sheep and shepherd" model. As I said in a comment in the discussion following that, I knew this would seem to be loading the question toward the former, because in our culture the latter sounds demeaning. But I actually do write this journal in a few hours on Sunday evenings, and nothing better presented itself. Still doesn't, actually. There is a great deal to be said for the sheep and shepherd model. It is, after all, the essential structure of the vision contained in Judeo-Christian religion, and in fact is the same image. And it may very well be the most natural and in the long run most effective and durable mode of government. It may very well be that all this self-government stuff is coming to an end, dependent as it was on certain cultural foundations which are not only decaying but the object of active efforts at demolition.

In any case, it is almost self-evident that the vision I attributed to the Founding Fathers, of "a nation of free citizens: farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and mechanics," no longer has very much to do with our social reality. The typical or characteristic way of life in contemporary Western societies is that of a wage earner, a condition which is inherently more dependent and less free than that of one who lives by his own direct effort and property. Moreover, the characteristic employer, the paradigm that sets the tone and pattern for all, is a gigantic organization, whether "private" (corporate) or "public" (government),  of the type which in textbook terminology is classified as a "machine bureaucracy." It's not meant to produce free citizens. And it doesn't want them.

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While browsing the Arnold section of Poetry of the Victorian Period, I came across a line which I had completely forgotten, but which made me laugh. Someone, either Dr. Eugene Williamson, who taught me that subject, or a critic whom he perhaps quoted, held this up as being astonishingly bad:

Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?

Well, he was only twenty-seven when he wrote that, and he was no Keats; his best work came when he was much older. Still...that's awful. The rest of the poem (here) is not bad, though. In fact, it contains a phrase which became a sort of byword for Arnold's thinking. I'm not sure, but I believe he himself may have used it in his writings about the necessity of culture: the writers who "prop" his mind "saw life steadily, and saw it whole." That is a rare and important gift in any age.

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Well, I've finished The Lord of the Rings, and I repeat what I said last week: if this is not a great work, I am no judge. I mentioned several weeks ago an essay that I'd published years ago in Caelum et Terra that I might dig out and publish here. Turns out I had done that a while back. I read it over the other day and it's still pretty accurate with regard to my opinion of the book. You can read it here

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Here, at Touchstone, is another appreciation of the late Billy Graham, one I thought worth passing on.

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Here's what I have to put up with at St. Gregory, my Ordinariate (not-technically-a-)parish. In the Divine Worship liturgy, which incorporates various Anglican elements, we are instructed to "rehearse the Decalogue" (quaint phrase) on Sundays in Lent. Fr. Matt explains why. This is really just audio, and the one photo moves around a bit, so I recommend you look at something else and just listen. It's thirteen minutes long.

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It's azalea time here. About 85% of them are this color, which is not my favorite, but I included this picture as an example of the way they're supposed to be grown. This doesn't show the entire bush, which is at least fifteen feet wide, and over six feet tall. They're supposed to be big and luxuriant like this.

Azaleas-pink

There's a pale orange-pink color which I like better, also a dark red one which I like even better, but I didn't see any of those on the walk where I took this picture. I did see this nice white one, though. I like the white ones a lot but they very quickly take on a dingy and dilapidated look.

Azaleas-white

Comments

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"I doubt that I'll see the movie. I'm really not a great admirer of the book."

Ditto. The trailer for the film is dreadful, and I'm not a great fan of the book to begin with. Read it in high school, when I was reading a lot of "Christian" fantasy and s/f, and was pretty underwhelmed. I had this idea that I was "supposed" to like it, but I just didn't, much preferring the Inklings-related stuff.

I'm reading A Wrinkle in Time for the first time at the moment, partly prompted by the film's release, but also partly because it's been on my list for a long time. I'm 2/3 through and finding it kind of okay. Unfortunately when I think of the transdimensional beings who are guiding the main characters on their quest, an image of Oprah Winfrey dressed as a fairy keeps popping into my mind (and I've only seen a single image from the film, not even the trailer!). Most unpleasant.

Steven Greydanus really didn't like the film, which seems to have been reduced to some kind of diversity tract.

Wrinkle In Time definitely made a huge impression on my 11-12 year old mind. I re-read it the other day, and of course it failed to have the same kind of impact. The pre-teen experiences perhaps THE most impressionable part of our lives. L'Engle wrote just beyond our (general) experience, but she never wrote down to children. She mixed together a broad set of remarkble ideas, raised the stakes with added danger (a cosmic danger!), made a pre-teen the heroine, and described a clear choice between good and evil. The mix was powerful for a young mind, a mind eager to wrestle with epic concepts, and not particularly aware of style. Reading it now, it is easy to fault a style that is the furthest thing from subtle, albeit a style that worked so well in 1962. But the the themes remain relevant.
I doubt that a similar attempt would work in 2018. Cynical awareness is much too strong a force. I think that trying to cast a story in terms of modern idealism would be harder to accomplish, and would likely devolve into what Tolkien abhorred and Lewis embraced: evident allegory.

Thanks--very interesting to have a fan's perspective. Do you think you'll see the movie?

"reduced to some kind of diversity tract"

Always a big winner with audiences. :-/

Somehow I missed YA books. I think I went straight from Y to A. So having to "catch up" is a dicey proposition because Chuck is correct with what he says about when we are impressionable. Every time I read one now I always think, "meh". I had not heard of A Wrinkle in Time until the movie was coming out. Same for the C.S. Lewis Narnia stuff.

In agreement with Chuck, I can report that I have several friends for whom the book, read at a suitably impressionable age, made a lasting impression and remains a favourite.

I loved the book as a teenager. As an adult I read some of her other ones, which I didn't like quite so much, especially the weird one about Noah. When I had my own kids, I made sure they read AWIT. They loved it. Since them my assessment has significantly lowered. Now it seems too new-agey to me. I don't recommend it to my younger kids any more, although they read it anyway, since it is on the "must read" list for our family.

I was more successful making sure my younger kids didn't get sucked into Harry Potter.

So far, anyway.

I didn't think Harry Potter was so bad, but I didn't think it was very good, either.

I meant to say, btw, that I was surprised and pleased to read that piece in Vox that I linked to, saying removing the religious elements of AWIT was a mistake. I disagree pretty strenuously though with her view that Episcopal theology is more concerned than other Christian communions with the idea of "A vast unknowable God, who defied comprehension, was at the same time a fragile human being: the Jesus Christ who died on the cross." I only encounter that idea in 80% or so of Catholic devotional writing, homilies, etc.

I must say the Mrs-es in the stills for the AWIT movie look pretty silly.

And, now that I think about it, I'm not sure I read any YA books when I was growing up, unless the Hardy Boys count. I get the impression that the field is now very dominated by feminists and is accordingly very axe-grindy.

Mac, thanks for that excellent account of your history with The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I might have mentioned before that I've been trying to read it to my own kids. Like you, we started with The Hobbit and they urged me to carry on with the longer book. But we've fallen on hard times; we got through the first volume in fine fettle, but the second took well over a year to complete. We've started the third, but it is becoming harder to find time at bedtime for substantial reading. I'm not sure we're going to make it.

I cannot understand the designation of these books as "young adult." Charlotte's Web is on the list for goodness sake. I would think an 8 year old could read any of these books we are talking about except maybe Lord of the Rings, and they could certainly listen to LotR.

I can't image anybody would consider Hardy Boys YA.

AMDG

What list are you referring to?

Thanks, Craig, glad you enjoyed it. That's too bad that you're having trouble getting through it. Looking back on it now I think we just happened to hit an opportune moment in the development of our family, the number and ages of children, when the reading was possible.

Harry Potter, whatever its modest merits, is just too bloated. I'd prefer it not be a "thing" in our home--like Star Wars seems to have become.

In your home, or just in general?

"modest merits" of HP made me think of that famous putdown. I can't remember who said it about whom, but someone was described as a modest man who "has much to be modest about."

In our home.

The Harry Potter thing was pretty crazy. Nice to see the written word cause such excitement, but really. I read the first two and decided that was more than enough. And those few movies that I suffered through were pretty awful.

I rather liked the movies. I mean, not as great art or anything, but as enjoyable entertainment.

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