Just when we think we have "seen it all," we have not "seen it all." And so this week we are suddenly reminded: we will never see it all.
The question arises: what is the appropriate human way to respond? Of course, anyone with a ghost of decency reacts with horror and sadness to the latest outrage. But, then, what? I have no answers.
Peter Graham, "A Spate in the Highlands" (1866)
Recently, I have been revisiting the poetry of Edwin Muir. In my previous post, I remarked upon his journey through the 20th century. Last week, for the first time, I came across the following two poems by him. The first was written during the Second World War. The second was written in 1958, when it had become clear that the century had not yet exhausted its evil. Nothing has changed since.
Art and poetry can never be enough, of course. I know that. And I do not post the poems here in a vain attempt to "explain" things or to place things "in perspective." That is impossible. And insulting. Which I think Muir knew. He, like all of us, was grasping for something.
Reading in Wartime
Boswell by my bed,
Tolstoy on my table:
Though the world has bled
For four and a half years,
And wives' and mothers' tears
Collected would be able
To water a little field
Untouched by anger and blood,
A penitential yield
Somewhere in the world;
Though in each latitude
Armies like forests fall,
The iniquitous and the good
Head over heels hurled,
And confusion over all:
Boswell's turbulent friend
And his deafening verbal strife,
Ivan Ilych's death
Tell me more about life,
The meaning and the end
Of our familiar breath,
Both being personal,
Than all the carnage can,
Retrieve the shape of man,
Lost and anonymous,
Tell me wherever I look
That not one soul can die
Of this or any clan
Who is not one of us
And has a personal tie
Perhaps to someone now
Searching an ancient book,
Folk-tale or country song
In many and many a tongue,
To find the original face,
The individual soul,
The eye, the lip, the brow
For ever gone from their place,
And gather an image whole.
Edwin Muir, The Voyage (1946). The poem was first published on July 8, 1944, in the BBC magazine The Listener.
The first half of the poem, with its literary references, may initially prompt one to think that this will be yet another poem that attempts to resolve things by placing Life in the context of Art. But a crucial turn occurs in exactly the middle (at line 19): "Tell me more about life . . ." From that point onward the poem moves steadily and movingly to another level entirely, culminating in the heartbreaking final lines, which bring us to where we ought to be. It is not our own personal heartbreak -- the distance is unbridgeable. But heartbreaking nonetheless.
Peter Graham, "Along the Cliffs" (1868)
Respectable men have witnessed terrible things,
And rich and poor things extraordinary,
These murder-haunted years. Even so, even so,
Respectable men seem still respectable,
The ordinary no less ordinary,
For our inherited features cannot show
More than traditional grief and happiness
That rise from old and worn and simple springs.
How can an eye or brow
Disclose the gutted towns and the millions dead?
They have too slight an artistry.
Between us and the things that change us
A covenant long ago was set
And is prescriptive yet.
A single grief from man or God
Freely will let
Change in and bring a stern relief.
A son or daughter dead
Can bend the back or whiten the head,
Break and remould the heart,
Stiffen the face into a mask of grief.
It is an ancient art.
The impersonal calamities estrange us
From our own selves, send us abroad
In desolate thoughtlessness,
While far behind our hearts know what they know,
Yet cannot feel, nor ever express.
Edwin Muir, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1960). The poem was first published in August of 1958 in The London Magazine.
"While far behind our hearts know what they know." Is this true? Or is it spurious consolation and/or self-protective rationalization? But if Muir was writing about this sort of thing 50 years ago, where are we now? The images arrive unbidden, on a daily basis, in detail.
I'm not certain if this is pertinent or not, but it comes to mind:
"Once you've experienced the infinite significance of another person's life you feel something of the same for all lives, and for your own. There remains in the world this infinite significance and to every event we owe a responsibility. Also we must forgive ourselves. You can construct a universe out of that, a heaven and a hell."
P. J. Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger (Chatto & Windus 1966).
Perhaps, in the end, it simply comes to this:
. . . we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
Philip Larkin, "The Mower."
Peter Graham, "Wandering Shadows" (1878)