Monday, November 23, 2015

Perspective, Part Sixteen: Continuity

I am writing this at twilight on the north shore of Lake Superior.  The water stretches away, like a sea, to the south.  Enough sunlight remains to turn the scattered, oval-shaped clouds out over the lake a pinkish-grey, set against a pale blue background.  The sky on the far horizon is pinkish-grey as well, with a tinge of yellow.  In the distance, small snow squalls move across the lake from north to south, grey curtains of flurries sweeping over the dark water.

Here is how I had thought to begin this post:  "The News of the World has been particularly horrifying recently."  But then I looked out the window.

Yes, the News of the World has been particularly horrifying recently. Witnessing evil at work is always dispiriting.  (Yes, evil.  There is no other word for it.  And any attempt to "explain" or "contextualize" or "excuse" or "justify" it on theological, historical, political, economic, or any other grounds makes one complicit in the evil.)

I looked out the window and I thought of a gift I came across earlier this week:

An Epitaph upon a Young Married Couple,
               Dead and Buried Together

To these, whom Death again did wed,
This grave's their second marriage-bed;
For though the hand of Fate could force,
'Twixt soul and body, a divorce,
It could not sunder man and wife,
'Cause they both lived but one life.
Peace, good reader.  Do not weep.
Peace, the lovers are asleep.
They, sweet turtles, folded lie
In the last knot that love could tie.
And though they lie as they were dead,
Their pillow stone, their sheets of lead,
(Pillow hard, and sheets not warm)
Love made the bed; they'll take no harm;
Let them sleep:  let them sleep on,
Till this stormy night be gone,
And the eternal morrow dawn;
Then the curtains will be drawn
And they wake into a light,
Whose day shall never die in night.

Richard Crashaw, Delights of the Muses (1648).  A side-note:  the final line has an alternative reading:  "Whose day shall never sleep in night."

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

Fortunately for us, evil can never harm Richard Crashaw and his young married couple, for they are imperishable.  I harbor no illusions:  evil, and its ever-mutating tyrants of a day, will always be with us.  But so will Crashaw's "sweet turtles."

Think of it:  after nearly four centuries, you and I have just helped to preserve and prolong the beauty of Crashaw's poem and the love of the young married couple.  Evil has no say in the matter.  The continuity of the human spirit is something that evil can never understand, and can never touch.

Who could have known that, three hundred years after Richard Crashaw, Philip Larkin would come along?

            An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd --
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read.  Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time.  Snow fell, undated.  Light
Each summer thronged the glass.  A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.  And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth.  The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

I have talked about "An Arundel Tomb" in a previous post, so I will not discuss its particulars on this occasion.  But I do wonder whether Larkin knew of Crashaw's poem.  Given his knowledge of English poetry, he likely did.  However, I prefer to think that Larkin knew nothing of the "young married couple," the "sweet turtles," and that he independently echoed, and provided his own lovely elaborations upon, Crashaw's theme.

Roger Fry, "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"

Those who traffic in evil are members of the human race, but they know nothing of humanity.  They know nothing of love.  They cannot conceive of, and thus can never harm, the uncountable and continuous streams of life, seen and unseen, that the rest of us create and perpetuate on a daily basis.

     Love Lives Beyond the Tomb

     Love lives beyond
The tomb, the earth, which fades like dew!
     I love the fond,
The faithful, and the true.

     Love lives in sleep,
The happiness of healthy dreams:
     Eve's dews may weep,
But love delightful seems.

     Tis seen in flowers,
And in the morning's pearly dew;
     In earth's green hours,
And in the heaven's eternal blue.

     Tis heard in Spring
When light and sunbeams, warm and kind,
     On angel's wing
Bring love and music to the mind.

     And where is voice,
So young, so beautiful, and sweet
     As Nature's choice,
Where Spring and lovers meet?

     Love lives beyond
The tomb, the earth, the flowers, and dew.
     I love the fond,
The faithful, young and true.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

"Peace, good reader."

Roger Fry, "The Church at Ramatuelle" (1922)


John Ashton said...

The opening to your post Mr Pentz is beautiful. I saw amazing skies myself a few mornings back. The extraordinary combination and blending of colours are so difficult to describe.
The recent news has been bleak and depressing, and I agree with you completely. There are no explanations or justifications for this evil. A friend of mine said we must stay human. I thought at first that sounded a little naïve, but thinking more deeply I know what they mean, and though it may sound simplistic it is what we must endeavour to do.

The Crawshaw poem is lovely and entirely new to me, though I'm very fond of some other Cavalier poets. The final section from " Let them sleep" is very touching, as also is this great favourite from John Clare. Which serves to remind me I haven't looked at Clare's poetry for a while as I've been reading a recently acquired volume of the Collected Poems of the Charles Tomlinson, who sadly died earlier this year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I visit Lake Superior every so often because I have relatives in Minnesota, and I never fail to see something amazing on the North Shore.

I think that your friend's comment -- "we must stay human" -- is perfect. It gets to the heart of the matter much more succinctly than I have. We are in a contest with inhumanity.

Yes, "let them sleep: let them sleep on . . ." is beautiful. I need to explore Crashaw's work further. Interestingly (as you probably noticed), Crashaw's Delights of the Muses and Herrick's Hesperides were both published in 1648. A great deal of fine poetry was written in that time.

I too was sad to hear of Tomlinson's death earlier this year, and, as you did, I returned to his poetry earlier this autumn. I've been meaning to write a post in his memory.

As ever, thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Bruce Floyd said...

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

I know of no other poet who declares more avidly than Shakespeare in his sonnets that poetry will last when all else crumbles and fades into dust. He is certain that the beauty of the one the he loves, the deep passion of his love for the receiver of the sonnets, will endure the ravages of time, and somehow--the magic of poetry--keep love and beauty alive forever.

I think you are right (you almost always are) when you suggest that love will last when all else, the evil and the malevolent, has fallen into the abyss of the years, the grinding mill of inexorable and blind time.

I think this is what Crashaw and Larkin are saying. We can hope that what is best about being a human being will endure and that the malignant excrescences that fester and infect the heart will in time be cast into exile.

I suppose we know better. Evil will endure, but so will love. Perhaps, in the end, each of us has to choose. I think Shakespeare, Crashaw, and Larkin, all three in the midst of evil, choose to believe that love will endure, and that the tomb Larkin views and the sonnet Shakespeare writes reveal more about the human heart than the latest carnage-filled headline.

In black ink love still shines bright.

Anonymous said...

This blog stays with me all week and it is a pleasant staying. Your comments and poems like "On Inishmann" are a delight to my consciousness. I discovered the music of Nick Drake today and then read your posting for November 23. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for the Shakespeare (which goes well here), and for your own thoughts. Your observation that "each of us has to choose" gets to the heart of the matter. My presumption is that those who choose good will always outnumber those who choose evil.

As always, thank you for visiting. Happy Thanksgiving!

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate. I'm pleased to hear that you discovered Nick Drake. His music fits this season well, I think. "River Man," for example.

Thank you again. Happy Thanksgiving!