Arpinum, 1 or 2 April 49
Rome being impossible, I have given my son the white gown at Arpinum as the next best place, to the gratification of my fellow-townsmen. Not but what I find everyone both at Arpinum and on the road gloomy and downcast; so sad and terrible are the thoughts inspired by this vast mischief. Levies are in progress and men are led off into winter quarters. You can imagine how sorely such proceedings are felt. They are unpleasant enough in themselves, even when carried out with moderation by honest men in legitimate warfare; now they are carried out by ruffians in a wicked civil war with the utmost brutality. You may be sure that every disreputable character in Italy is with Caesar. I saw the whole crew at Formiae and upon my word I thought them more like beasts than men; and I knew them all, but I had never seen them all in one place.
Let's see, where was I? Ah, yes:
Fleeing to Pompey, in a losing cause.
Thoughts Prompted by Romulus
A month ago (or so) I saw a local production of Romulus by Gore Vidal, among several other plays about which I posted. Romulus was an adaptation of a Friedrich Dürrenmatt play and gave Dürrenmatt his first international success.
Because my interest has waned, I’m not going to read either play (though a comparison between the two would be a profitable exercise for the right playwright). Both exist in a single volume, but I also have Dürrenmatt’s in a compendium with The Visit, two essays and a novel. His essay “Problems of the Theater” posed many problems, and offered solutions. I like the questions; the answers maybe not so much.
He begins with an echo of that thought I’ve heard frequently about the artist in regards to scholarship.
The artist indeed has no need of scholarship. Scholarship derives its laws from what already exists; otherwise it would not be scholarship. But the laws thus established have no value for the artist, even when they are true. The artist cannot accept a law he has not discovered for himself. If he cannot find such a law, even scholarship cannot help him with one it has established; and when the artist does find one, then it does not matter whether scholarship discovered it or not. But scholarship, thus denied, stands behind the artist like a threatening ogre, ready to leap forth whenever the artist wants to talk about art.
This affirms Yeats’s view in “The Scholars” (which Guy Lee thought might more aptly be titled “The Pedants”). It corroborates my view that the writer—poet or playwright—ought to make his own choices. It is well to listen to what one’s critics may have to say, but then to make up one’s own mind. This runs counter to both the poetry workshop model prevalent in schools (participants trade laws with one another if they are not handed down) and, in most circumstances, today's "development" process for a play script—here with the caveat that I am usually always talking about drama, not any of the other various forms of hijinks that fall under the rubric “theatrics”.
“Contemporary theater,” writes Dürrenmatt,
is two things at once: on the one hand, it is a museum, while on the other an experimental field where each play confronts the author with new challenges, new questions of style. Today style is no longer a common property, but something highly private, an individual decision. We have no style, only styles, to describe the situation in art today in a nutshell. For contemporary art is a series of experiments, nothing more nor less, just like all of our modern world.
I am not sure today is any different than another day: among the three great Athenian tragedians, can we say that there exists a uniform style?
If there are only styles, then it follows that we have only theories of the art and the practice of the theater, but no longer one dramaturgy. We now have Brecht’s and Eliot’s, Claudel’s and that of Frisch or of Hochwälder: each individual has his own ideas.
If I survey the Chicago scene, we have no single dramaturgy, for certain, but we also have a situation in which a majority of theater practitioners have given little thought to drama or are not working toward dramatic ends in their productions, but rather entertainment or “telling stories”. The dramatic line may always be sacrificed for special effects, acrobatics, topicality: possibly theater has ever been that way—we hardly know much about the other Athenian tragedians, for example.
Broadly, Dürrenmatt argues that pure tragedy is not possible in our modern age:
Schiller wrote as he did because the world in which he lived could still be mirrored in the world his writing created, a world he could build as an historian. But just barely. For was not Napoleon perhaps the last hero in the old sense? The world today as it appears to us can hardly be encompassed in the form of the historical drama as Schiller wrote it, for the simple reason that we no longer have any tragic heroes, but only vast tragedies staged by world butchers and produced by slaughtering machines. Hitler and Stalin cannot be made into Wallensteins. Their power was so enormous that they themselves were no more than incidental, corporeal, and easily replaceable expressions of this power; and the misfortune associated with the former and to a considerable extent also with the latter is too vast, too complex, too horrible, too mechanical, and usually simply too devoid of all sense. Wallenstein’s power can still be envisioned; power as we know it today can only be seen in its smallest part for, like an iceberg, the largest part is submerged anonymity and abstraction. Schiller’s drama presupposes a world that the eye can take in, that takes for granted genuine actions of the state, just as Greek tragedy did. The modern state, however, cannot be envisioned, for it has become anonymous and bureaucratic; and not only in Moscow and Washington, but even in Berne as well. Actions of state today have become post-hoc satiric dramas that follow the tragedies previously executed in secret. There are no true representatives, and the tragic heroes are nameless. Any small-time crook, petty government official, or policeman better represents our world than a senator or president. Today art can only embrace the victims, if it can reach men at all; it can no longer come close to the mighty. Creon’s secretaries close Antigone’s case. The state has lost its physical reality, and just as physics can now cope with the world only in mathematical formulas, so the state can only be expressed in statistics. Power today becomes visible, material, only when it explodes as in the atom bomb, in this marvelous mushroom that rises and spreads immaculate as the sun and in which mass murder and beauty have become one. The atom bomb can no longer be reproduced artistically, since it is mass produced. In its face all man’s art that would recreate it must fail, since it is itself a creation of man. Two mirrors that reflect one another remain empty.
The only tragedy available to the contemporary playwright, he writes, is that which arises from comedy. Historical drama—he postulates—is no longer possible, because of all the scholarship which precedes the artist:
To rewrite such a history in a creatively literary manner would now be a tautology, a repetition by means that are not suitable or fitting, a mere illustration of scholarly insights; in short, it would be the very thing science often claims literature to be. It was possible for Shakespeare to base his Caesar upon Plutarch, for the Roman was not an historian in our sense of the word but a storyteller, the author of brief historical sketches. Had Shakespeare read Mommsen he could not have written his Caesar, because he would of necessity have lost the supremacy over his materials.
I don’t believe this is the case, although, as essentially a comic poet, my insight into tragedy is limited. Socrates argued that one man should be able to do both (and Shakespeare proved it), but my personal experience argues the other way. Of more than a score of plays that I’ve written, all are comedies, with the exception of one historical drama—though at base it is probably comedic in impulse as Dürrenmatt suggests is the only means possible. I have (and have had) ambitions to do more historical work, but, possibly because of the presence of all that scholarship, find it time consuming and no simple matter of parroting another man’s story.
Dürrenmatt seems to understand well the mechanisms of comedy:
The means by which comedy creates distance is the conceit. Tragedy is without conceit. This is why there are few tragedies whose subjects were invented. By this I do not mean to imply that the ancient tragedians lacked inventive ideas, as is sometimes the case today, but that the marvel of their art was that they had no need of these inventions, of conceits. That makes all the difference. Aristophanes, on the other hand, lived by conceits. The stuff of his plays is not myths but inventions, which take place not in the past but in the present. They drop into their world like bombshells, which, by creating huge craters, transform the present into the comic and at the same time into the visible. This, of course, does not mean that drama today can only be comical. Tragedy and comedy are but formal concepts, dramatic attitudes, figments of the aesthetic imagination, which can embrace one and the same thing.
If I would like to write a tragedy, his distinctions might be a place to begin study. (Although it might be fun to attempt, that is not my general aim—the scope of my drama has been defined for me, but I believe the possibility remains for others to effect.)
Dürrenmatt adds that “Tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility. In the Punch-and-Judy show of our century, in this backsliding of the white race, there are neither guilty nor responsible individuals anymore.” I am not quite sure what he is implying (in a political sense) about “backsliding”, but he seems to have pressed an early finger upon a hallmark of our time: the lack of guilt and of responsibility (perhaps in its extreme American manifestation ushered in by the “teflon president” helming the state).
Dürrenmatt’s essay is from 1954; in 1966, introducing his edition of Romulus, Gore Vidal discussed the state of contemporary American theater:
For some fifty years naturalism has dominated our prose and dramatic literature. It is essential to naturalist doctrine that literature to be good must be “true” and to be true it must, finally, be the author’s experience worked out literally. Now naturalism has many merits, but in our time most of those merits have become demerits. In the interest of a superficial honesty our plays grow more and more meager in content. It is not thought quite honest to use the imagination... assuming the playwright has any... nor is it thought truthful to transcend the limits of one’s own personal experience of the world which, for a mid-century American playwright, is apt to be limited.
“The result?” he asks:
Plays about what happened last summer... and how much was drunk and how the marriage went wrong and what the wise psychoanalyst said, and so on toward total boredom.
Gore Vidal writes as an interloper in theater: “I am not a naturalist playwright or, for that matter, a true playwright. Primarily, I am a prose writer with axes to grind, and the theatre is a good place to do the grinding in. I prefer comedy to ‘serious’ drama because I believe one can hone the ax sharper on the comedic stone.” In this he expresses laudable self-knowledge.
It is not surprising, of all the several plays I had seen that fortnight (of a previous blog post), I found Euripides and Vidal’s Romulus more satisfying in their scope—never mind the failures of execution—than all of Mamet’s excellences. His play was surely a continuation of the American tradition which includes Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller. Vidal’s comedy—which I referred to as more camp than comedy—yet attempted so much more, something so broad as the collapse of an empire, which put him—an interloper—more in league with the Greeks than with Mamet. The play might have been a critical failure—that is for scholars and critics to determine—but as a dramatic production it was refreshing.
A nice example of Wills' writing in the Martial is I.39—not precisely the sort of thing Martial's name conjures up:
If ancient virtues could abound,
One thinks of the Nymph's reply, or possibly something from Shakespeare's sonnets. Wills has his influences—to judge fidelity to the Latin is beyond me (nor is the text bilingual), but for its literary qualities his effort seems irreproachable.
Coincidentally, I also happened upon a book of Catullus. His reputation (very much so) precedes him; but I have never encountered his text itself. "Lord, what would they say, did their Catullus walk that way?" wrote Yeats in his well-known poem.
In his introduction Guy Lee refers to this:
Yeats in his well-known poem The Scholars, which might more reasonably be called The Pedants, imagines how horrified those 'old, learned, respectable bald heads' would be if they could meet the real Catullus. In fact Catullus would have been far more horrified could he have seen the state of his text at the beginning of the fourteenth century, some 1350 years after his death.
Surely he would have been gratified that something had survived; but he would not be happy about the corruptions: the text "must have contained no fewer than a thousand mistakes." He goes into some detail, which I shan't repeat here, listing several of the Latin misreadings and their (sometimes very inspired) corrections or emendations. ("A very beautiful correction was that of Scaliger in 1577, who saw that the original behind... sed michi ante labello... must have been semihiante labello.") Momigliano reserved high praise for a scholar making such an intuitive or educated deduction.
Lee's text is bilingual, and I don't expect to read it any time soon. I have already read the first chapter of Wills, and hope to keep dipping into it. (I still have Cicero beckoning.) He continues with an entirely deserved rebuke:
So down the centuries Yeats's despised Scholars have gradually purified the text of Catullus and brought it ever nearer to what its author intended. In textual criticism, at any rate, one can forget about the so-called 'Intentional Fallacy', that pathetic modern academic belief which takes for granted the perfection of the text one happens to be reading and maintains that one has no right to talk about the author's intention, because his intention is precisely the words on the page in front of one's eyes — words, incidentally, of which any interpretation is believed to be as true as any other. To return to Yeats's poem: amusing as it may be, it is hardly fair to The Scholars, for despite baldness, respectability, coughing in ink, and wearing out the carpet, it is to them that we owe the text of Catullus; were it not for them there would be no Catullus to read.
A marvelous admonition to keep in mind, however much we may enjoy the Yeats poem.
The other confluence or correspondence of which I haven't made mention, was with the format of the epigram itself. I know little of it. Wilde spake so many indelible ones (and surely had others attributed to him), while those done by a contemporary of his, G.K. Chesterton, Edmund Wilson referred to as "mechanical" (and more than once). I have seen a few, and would concur—but now perhaps have the opportunity to learn the form "at the feet of the masters".
"Martial counts epigram as lowest in the hierarchy of literary genres" (Lee writes) and I would tend to side with his viewpoint—but perhaps we have several literary arenas which had not been invented at the time, such as the detective story (P.D. James argues for its potential literary merit) or the straightforward riddle of the type for which Richard Wilbur expresses a fondness: about greyhounds and such.
I have not glanced much at Garry Wills' biography of Chesterton. I've seen enough to note that he seems determined to rescue his subject from the charge of being a propagandist instead of a true artist, but, as with his defense of Paul, his case seems never quite convincing. Perhaps better apologists will be found, though I am not hunting.
Outside of the epigrammatic, Wills quotes the first bit of interesting prose I have come across by Chesterton—never mind the deprecatory self-assurance of his swipe at "dull atheists" in the excerpt to follow. Wills ponders "the almost hysterical attitude Chesterton occasionally manifested toward Impressionism" and his "violent and symbolic use of an art style that seems harmless enough to us now". "Impressionism was preached as a mystique of rebellion by Arthur Symons and the Yellow Book circle. Chesterton, with a Gallic passion for the absolute statement of an idea, took this mystique to its logical extreme". Chesterton reflects in his Autobiography:
I had thought my way back to thought itself. It is a very dreadful thing to do; for it may lead to thinking that there is nothing but thought.... I was simply carrying the scepticism of my time as far as it would go. And I soon found it would go a great deal further than most of the sceptics went. While dull atheists came and explained that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind.
This has nothing to do with Martial, and in some ways the major connecting thread is Wills. Not one of my favorite writers, as I have said, but dependable for certain things. Now I am aware that about any book with his authorship fetches exactly two dollars at the cheapie bin, and presumably all will show up eventually. What Paul Meant was there again in another copy this last visit—but for what purpose to buy a duplicate copy?
"Terence, this is stupid stuff", as wrote that great classical scholar (of Martial no less). Not stupid, perhaps, but disconnected. Ergo the hunt for correspondences.
One is fond of correspondences.
Eh, what? Could I have a more formal opening than that?
Really, what I'm saying, is nothing more than the trivial observation that it is fun, when reading, to find some reference or correspondence with something else you have been reading.
Something of Wilbur's which I recalled reading came back to my mind while I was shopping the after Christmas sales at the used book store. Talking about translating: "I tried to do a little Catullus around 1949 or so, but I had no luck with it. I can't stand the mincing and evasive translations of his tougher poems that one has in the Loeb Library; at the same time I couldn't find a way to be nasty in a language that was poetically effective."
Lately in this blog I have recorded reading some Loebs. I've always heard that the level of translations was uneven; though my C.R. Haines of Marcus Aurelius and Fronto seemed adequate enough. Though I have a Penguin edition, the Cicero I've been reading, translated by D.R. Shackleton Bailey, is drawn from the Loeb edition, or at least done by the same hand.
So I happened to find Martial translated by Wills in the cheapie bin. I'm not a fan of Wills, though his name has been mentioned here a time or two, because he represents a sort of dependability, even if one must take into account his biases. I had seen the edition reviewed here at The New York Review of Books, which at another time I managed to link but today seems behind the paywall. (I think possibly if you try to link through Facebook it will grant access to the full piece.)
Wills' dedication is to D.B. Shackleton Bailey. I don't know if he means possibly a brother, or if the difference is due to an embarrassing typo, but I notice that Shackleton Bailey is the translator of Martial at Loeb. Wills refers to the previous translator—which seems to be the object of Wilbur's dislike—as "Martialissimo" (however you want to interpret that superlative). Difference of opinion? Who knows. At any rate, Wills offers a readable, not necessarily a literal translation.
To a Pedant
To be continued...
Final Thoughts on Wilbur's Prose Pieces
Of Wilbur's two prose collections, I find the earlier more interesting. Responses covers 1953-1976, Catbird 1963-1995.
Catbird has, additionally, two essays about Poe, not one, as I previously mentioned. Having had my fill of EAP, I skipped them. Most of the subjects about whom he writes do not draw me, so I will take a pass on the bulk of them; I forced myself to read his introduction to Witter Bynner, simply to educate myself historically, but was not enthused. Even his short, short piece on Longfellow, while harmless, did not satisfy my desire for something more. So both books will go back, Responses read entirely and enjoyed, Catbird looked at a little.
Going back to Responses, I found much more of generalized substance than in the later book. His essay "Poetry and Happiness" has some food for thought; and then there is a piece about literary influences titled "Poetry's Debt to Poetry."
It is an endlessly interesting topic, though of limited value, in the way gossip can be interesting but valueless. Recently—the "project" to which I have referred—I busied myself writing an essay about a poet who has influenced me greatly: it should appear online next month if the editor accepts it and does not demand much change. Otherwise, it will appear here for sure.
Wilbur begins with a description of a party at which every one of a bunch of artists told the story of what turned them onto the art—and it was always seeing a painting or hearing Bach played on the organ etc., never in any case, "the turmoil of first love, the song of the thrush, or the Bay of Naples." (I can't quite say my personal experience corroborates this: my first poem was written at age eleven based on a sixth grade classroom assignment, and recall no prototypes having been shown us—but this would require a separate essay to delve into.)
The essay morphs into a more general piece on literary influence. Wilbur says:
All of these open admissions of poetic indebtedness are attractive and useful; they reminds us that art is ultimately a loose collective enterprise, and they tell us something of the particular writer by exposing his affinities. Still, they must not be taken too simple-mindedly: it is not of much interest to assign Ezra Pound to someething called the “Whitman Tradition,” and let it go at that. Pound’s poem of capitulating praise should move its commentator to discern what in Whitman Pound could actually use, what was not to his purpose, and what he still could not stand. Literary historians, in their taxonomic fury, often talk as if the process of influence were like decalomania, as if writers simply copied each other’s productions, as Macy’s might match Gimbel’s in item and price; but such is not the case, and that character in Borgès who was so influenced by Cervantes as to write Don Quixote is fictitious. To be sure, there are people other than scribes, plagiarists, and forgers who copy art or try to; they are not in the full sense artists, and they cannot help it. Think of those who have aped the spare and additive Hemingway sentence, without having the peculiarly resigned sense of life that required it; or those who, with no apparent sense of its function, have copied that long Faulkner sentence which is so suitable for conveying simultaneities of awareness and action. And what of all those instant Welshmen of twenty years ago, who dropped everything and wrote in the distinctive rhapsodic manner of Dylan Thomas? We cannot remember their names, and the reason we cannot is that Wordsworth was right: art must grow naturally, like a plant, from its own roots and in its own soil and climate. A plant may be pruned or trained or grafted to advantage, but only within the limits of its own nature. The saddest epitaph I have ever heard was spoken by Robert Frost; he said of another writer, “He wanted to be me.”
The article is largely statement of the obvious, but with literate particulars that are helpful:
[P]oets do not always go about being influenced in the way in which critics and scholars would have them do. Critics and scholars, if I may be flippant about them for a moment, like literature to be organized sensibly in schools and streams—on the one hand, the Sons of Ben, on the other the Spenserians; they think it convenient for writers to be explainable by reference to immediate forerunners and major contemporaries. How wistfully scholars speak of the possibility that the paths of Milton and Donne may have crossed, when Milton was an adolescent student at St. Paul’s, and Donne was dean of the Cathedral; but if it happened, it brought nothing about, and Milton went stubbornly on to elect such outlandish influences as Cardinal Bembo. It is always that way with the best poets—they do not travel in gangs, and they make surprising decisions as to who shall teach them. Not all our hindsight can make it seem predictable that Ezra Pound, in such and such a year, should have turned to Gautier for inspiration.
He gives good examples.
Responding to Richard Wilbur's Responses
Spending some casual moments reading Richard Wilbur's Responses.
I've mentioned that his introduction to Shakespeare's narrative poems, from the old Pelican edition, impressed me when I first encountered it years ago; this time, I am not revisiting that essay, and so far am taking a "hit or miss" attitude with regard to the pieces. So, for example, I began "Round About a Poem of Housman's" and found the introductory matter enjoyable—about his wartime experiences in Italy—but dropped out when he began to discuss the poem itself. As I wrote two days ago, it's not a topic I want to delve into deeply.
The book contains three essays about Poe. There again, after a bit, my interest lags with Poe. Poe was an early enthusiasm of my youth; one of the first books of poetry I remember purchasing was The Portable Poe (which also contains stories and essays). Not sure if it was this exact, or an older Penguin edition; but I imagine the contents remain constant. The introduction was good, and after you've encountered versions of the "Poe life story" once or twice you begin to realize something of what the materials are, what can be inferred, and—as Wilbur himself notes—how little knowledge of the life (incomplete as it is) can explain the genius of the writing.
It's a "penetrating analysis" I suppose you could say, and I began with "The Poe Mystery Case" because it touched on the Inspector Dupin stories—the invention of detective fiction. Again, there is not much new ground covered, but Wilbur is thorough, and a good place to begin if you haven't read about Poe. This sentence fits right in with my posts here of the last month or so:
Poe invented the detective story, but our sense of what he might be up to in a "tale of ratiocination" should not be limited by what the form has become in other hands. Those other hands have narrowed the form; so far as I know, G.K. Chesterton is Poe's only continuator in the writing of detective fiction having an allegorical stratum. In any case, straightforward whodunit writers like Agatha Christie do not define Poe, any more than chemistry defines alchemy.
A more general introduction to Poe, "Edgar Allan Poe" appears to have been written five years earlier—and I wish I had tackled it before "Mystery Case". The third essay is "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" about a story which I read (and read about) years ago, and probably may not attempt it. As I said, my interest wanes.
Possibly tidbits will be addressed elsewhere. His second book of prose pieces (The Catbird's Song), which also contains another essay about Poe, has an one on Longfellow, so I might find some elaboration on this:
A series of paranoid articles on Longfellow's "plagiarism," which Poe published in the Broadway Journal during 1845, would from a fully sane man have been dishonest, and Longfellow's decent and perceptive response was to say that the articles must have arisen from "the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong."
Elsewhere he discusses Poe's poetry explicitly:
We must not, Poe warns us in a review of Macaulay, "confound obscurity of expression with the expression of obscurity," and surely the best of his tales may be defended as illuminations of a subject matter essentially obscure. But the poems, with few exceptions, do not truly illuminate, and what brilliance they have is like that of a Fourth of July rocket destroying itself in the void.
Wilbur notes Milton's heavy influence on Poe, and also finds that "'The Haunted Palace' and 'The Raven' [which] are, among Poe's verse-narratives, relatively clear" to "have a tantalizing incompleteness which one dies not find in the better tales." All this is interesting relative to how deeply you feel like engaging with Poe; along the way Wilbur lays down some laws of his own: "Expressive rhythm in poetry derives either from the things and movements described, or from the emotions embodied." I have no way of knowing if this is true—perhaps indicative of my own deficiencies in the understanding of rhythm.
He concludes saying "I reserve my respect for the major tales," suggestive that he does not accord it to much else.
"Sumptuous Destitution" is a definitely penetrating and incisive essay about the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Few people seem to write effectively about her—Vendler certainly has not—and I find none of Wilbur's claims particularly disputable.
But here, I have to say, I am glad that I have had a lifetime's encounter with the writings of Dickinson before having had them handed to me "on a platter" so to speak. Somebody (that I was reading) recently said that poets should be advised to read no criticism: the intermediary was valueless to them in their art. At the time, I felt it a ridiculous assertion; yet this causes me to reassess. Somehow, here, it seems that criticism dilutes the mystery. Yet, in these "latter days" in which I find myself, I'm glad to come upon it.
This is a poem from my book The Soul's Refinement. I sent it out as a Christmas card that year, if not the year after—though actually it was just a photocopied 8.5" x 11" page folded, not something on the order of Robert Frost's Christmas cards which he is known for.
O, Holy star of Bethlehem, upon
The night of Jesus’ birth—how blessed were they
Who witnessèd the coming of the Son
As earthwards mercy cast its healing ray.
Lord, how was mankind blessed, upon that day
That thine own son, the Christ so called, was sent
To bring redemption and to show the way
To life eternal, in this firmament.
Father, he spake a simple truth: forgive,
And love each other, but to be like children,
Easy to preach, but much harder to live,
When man puts more faith in some witches’ cauldron
Than in the Gospel truth. Yet Jesus showed
By his example, how to walk the road.
The road of sacrifice, that has been cobbled
By many brothers of the Christian fame,
Both saints and martyrs, though they all but hobbled
Or though mankind remember not their name.
Lord, let us take the cross, and let us claim
The Son as Savior, as we follow them
Upon the road in which there is no shame
In worshipping the child of Bethlehem.
Lord, Godhead condescended in the person
Of Jesus, that his mercy might descend
Upon the earth; heal harms which but did worsen
At man’s attempts to falsify, pretend.
That was a day of blessing, wholly blessed
The sum of Thy creation, worst and best.
The worst of men, although he be a sinner,
May find redemption in the holy church
Erected in the heart; though for his dinner
He begged or stole, he weren’t left in the lurch.
The deepest, darkest heart, if man but search
May find a place, for God to welcome in
Redemption-by-forgiveness, to besmirch
His fettered soul no longer, but cleanse sin.
Lord, many saints and martyrs, prophets too
Have heeded and received Thy mercy, even
Enlightened statesmen (though they have been few),
For whom I pray there be reward in heaven.
None find exclusion, but Thy mercy finds
All men who take Thee into hearts and minds.
Three wise men came with gifts, but let us not
Grotesquely make of these, merely a token
The sum of all our worship, while the lot
Of men heed not the words Jesus had spoken.
Ah, Lord, while men and women wrap or open
Their Christmas gifts, I cannot help but ask
Thee if the Christmas spirit has been broken
By such diversion from the soul’s true task?
Lord, we were meant, who go so far to call
Ourselves the name of Christians, but to carry
Our cross to calvary—no goods withal
So valuable to make us linger, tarry.
Three wise men came, and them we imitate
Who Jesus’ birth with gifts commemorate.
There is no harm in gifts, O Lord, a token
Of kinship whereby we in Christ are bonded,
But so exaggerated, Lord, an oaken
Though damasked casket fits the faith he founded.
Lord, Christian faith, if it has not been grounded
In principle of him the Living Word,
Will see the Gospel message but confounded
As if no special miracle occurred.
Ah, miracle of birth! That Thou didst love
The world enough to send Thy Son to us--
While still men cry Thou dost not love enough--
Yet let me not be one to fume and fuss.
If Jesus Christ, the Word, is not translated
In living hearts, the message be outdated.
That miracle of birth, beneath that star!
Which represents the luminary of
Our Lord on that day born; when from afar
There rode three kings, who gave their gifts in love.
Such love! But if in giving we remove
The heartfelt sentiment, or we forget
What we commemorate, then we may rove
In pagan lands, nor find salvation yet.
King of the Jews, they wrote; and yet he said
His kingdom were not of this world, or else
The armies of his faithful belovèd
Would have protected him; which statement quells
The ardent claims we make in calling our-
Selves Christian who but seek for wealth and power.
Lord, earthly wealth and power! There be kings
Who steep themselves in indolence and pleasure,
Hereditary joy which neither brings
Themselves a conscience clean, nor soul at leisure.
Lord, there be men, who gaze upon the treasure
Of wealth accumulated, over years
Of banditry, deceit, who fear Thy measure
On Judgement Day, yet no one quells their fears.
Ah, Lord, so many set their store by wealth
As if a hoard of shekels were the key
To life’s longevity and body’s health,
As if those were the sum of mystery.
Lord, I believe, as so the Bible saith,
That man must live not by sight but by faith.
Faith, practice, perseverance, these have been
My only prop, when it seemed that against
Me raged the world; when I succumbed to sin
So vile I knew not how the sin commenced.
Yet, Father, though my true way had been fenced
By obstacles, obstruction, yet I find
My heart is tranquil, mind all not incensed
By anger when with Christ I am aligned.
Lord Jesus, I who have succumbed to hate
And to vindictive anger many times,
Have borne my cross, although it seems the weight
Was carried most by Thee, despite my crimes.
Saints, prophets, martyrs! Lord, in my small part,
Let me be Christian, with unsullied heart.
Richard Wilbur has always been fond of literary cleverness. Riddles in verse go a long way back in poetry. His collection, The Catbird's Song, contains an essay about them. I haven't given the book a thorough read-through, but one of his (found) riddles seemed exemplary of the form:
Head like a snake,
"[O]ne is likely... to have wild composite ideas, chimerical visions. In this case... of an incredible monster", he writes. "However if the mind's eye is particularly agile, it may soon commence to see the poem for what it is: a deconstruction of a greyhound."
Speaking from personal experience, he adds, "I can tell you, as the owner of a greyhound, that the similes of this riddle are very accurate." It "does what almost all good riddles do—it explodes for a moment our habitual classifications of phenomena."
He deconstructs the process:
Not only does a riddle offer us, once we have solved it, a yoking of supposedly unrelated things; it obliges us, in the process of solution, to strike out across the conceptual grid which our minds have imposed upon the world. If an enigma seems to turn upon the word head, for example, we find ourselves ransacking the environment for things and creatures to which it might apply: a man, a river, a pin, a bed, a glass of beer, a boil, a parade, a daisy."
This comes from a lecture at the Library of Congress, published as "The Persistence of Riddles." An excellent title, and a good exploration of the theme—one of the best "prose pieces" in the book, I warrant.
He is always insightful, and—to be fair—he goes out of his way to mention that these are not to be considered finished, polished essays (though some are). They are incidental pieces. For me, the only limiting factor in my appreciation of the book, depends on the extent of my interest in the subject at hand: my interests are not identical to his, and often his speculations wander off into topics that I am not keen to study. Even the "Riddles" is a case in point.
Riddles can be interesting and fun—but as in the case of the Agatha Christie play I just saw, after the murderer has been revealed (the last person you would expect), my reaction is, "How clever, she did that very well, ho hum." A riddle such as the above is concise, whereas a detective mystery is drawn out; this pertains to language and perception, while, if that may too, it carries a lot more baggage.
The riddle, even as Wilbur's exploration of it, is more sophisticated than a murder puzzle in detective fiction, yet they belong to the same order.
I thought, in view of my recent postings on GKC—I know tangentially some likable chaps who consider themselves acolytes—that I should give the bugger the benefit of the doubt, and investigate other writings of his beyond the odious and insipid Orthodoxy which I disliked so much.
At least one title has yet to be shipped from its extraneous Public Library branch (the CPL, if it works at all, works in mysterious ways), but three others arrived: The Man Who Was Thursday, The Essential Father Brown, and Chesterton on Shakespeare. (Also Garry Wills on GKC.)
As it happened, I got sick—a cold, but quite a monstrous one—and then I got involved in another project. Meanwhile books and books began to pile in from their various branches, to the point where I had at least fifteen piled high. Needless to say, overwhelmed, I shunted more than half back, and, as it turned out, inadvertently, the one I most had designs on, Chesterton on Shakespeare was included in the batch.
Now, the book is a compilation, not itself by his hand; but a nice consolidation (I figured) of his thoughts on a leading figure. Of course, I don't possess a book even briefly without at least flipping through it a little bit, and I think I found bits and pieces that were of interest. Now, alas, the sustained study which I had intended, cannot happen unless I reorder the book, which I am loathe to do for a writer that has failed to inspire me.
Thursday went back. In my glance-through, I found a couple of examples of "cheap effect" writing of a type that I find annoying (if not reprehensible), but I thought, do I really want to revisit this in greater depth, when the opus itself seemed less than compelling? "No," I chortled to myself aloud, and shipped the book back.
Also accidentally, the Essential was left behind. Were I a young man, and still in my dick phase, I might find the stories quite droll and fun; but, frankly, the last thing I want to do these days is look at detective fiction.
So I'm pissed off that the wrong title was sent back, and the wrong title left behind; but I shall have to live with that. Cicero meanwhile beckons, but I have not been able to muster the energy for it: easier to be lazy and do nothing, especially as the holidays approach. Half of Atticus is better than none, and I consider it time well spent; but I will be happier if I follow through to the end: momentous history is in the making.
As an aside, though—but in line with my topic—I had a chance to see Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap performed. As the longest-running play in history I felt it worth some attention. My reaction was about exactly what it was to her novel I read years ago (and which equalled that of Edmund Wilson, as I reported previously). It captivated my interest well enough while the action was occurring—the performance was well done—but at the conclusion I felt something of a terrific letdown: "I never want to do that again."
My understanding is she wrote numerous plays, and all were successful—in fact her success sounds similar to W. Somerset Maugham's as a dramatist: multiple productions running at once. Bully, bully, I guess. Just one more bit of the puzzle why, when it comes to popular taste, I find myself so frequently at the periphery. Possibly that explains my reaction to Father and Thursday. Not my cup of tea, eh wot?
A nasty cold has laid me low. Books of all sorts have piled in from the library--the various theatrical collections: Romulus by Vidal and Dürrenmatt, an edition of Euripides; also both books of Richard Wilbur's essays. These last two I have glanced through—they seem more scattershot than I would like. But my attentions have been drawn elsewhere.
I keep thinking "a few more days, a few more days..." is all I need to put my house in order; but—especially with the holidays approaching—it may prove to be something more like a fortnight.
A new poem is always news to the poet.