This miracle in black ink

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways 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 wrackful 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.

Since he was wont to muse on mortal things, it seems fit that Shakespeare’s supposed birthday (the true date, like so much else about him, is unknown) is also the day he died. Death — sad mortality — loomed large to him, and so it’s a marvel of poetic irony that 400 years since the day he died, the world still bears witness to his life. So much of his surviving verse bears out his belief that verse could survive death, his will that it would. The miracle of his work is that it worked. His hand, after all, was strong enough. On this day, he’s not 400 years dead; he’s immortal.


Easter Rising

Almost a hundred years ago, in the streets of Dublin, a small band of rebels led an armed insurrection against the British and proclaimed an Irish Republic. The Easter Rising of 1916 lasted six days. Five hundred people were killed. Most of the instigators were court-martialed and executed, including the artichect of the Rising, Joseph Plunkett, a poet and a journalist. On the day of his execution, Plunkett was married in the chapel of Kilmainham jail to his fianceé, Grace Gifford. Hours later, he was shot by a firing squad. He was 28 years old. 

This is his poem “I see his blood upon the rose.” It's a lyric magnificat of great power, full of the incarnation as well as the resurrection. It reminds me of Donne and Herbert, but with an Irish lilt. It has the pathos and intensity of someone whose own life, like Christ's, was brief and passionate, and whose end was bloody. It's not only about a way of seeing the world but a declaration of loyalty to that vision. It's in fact a hymn of allegiance. A creed.

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.


The gates of bliss

Over the past several Easters I've posted a number of George Herbert poems, but I've never posted his longest and most moving Passion poem: “The Sacrifice.” It's the story of Jesus' capture and execution from his own lips, overlaid with his God's-eye view of myth and mystery. Every aspect of the episode is given its symbolic resonance, its echo through the law and the prophets and the long history of God's forbearance. Even now, I won't post the whole thing because it's immense, but here are a few stanzas. You can find the whole poem here - it's six times as long, and full of riches.

Arise, arise, they come. Look how they runne!
Alas! what haste they make to be undone!
How with their lanterns do they seek the sunne!
Was ever grief like mine?

Judas, dost thou betray me with a kisse?
Canst thou finde hell about my lips? and misse
Of life, just at the gates of life and blisse?
Was ever grief like mine?

All my Disciples flie; fear puts a barre
Betwixt my friends and me. They leave the starre,
That brought the wise men of the East from farre.
Was ever grief like mine?

Ah! how they scourge me! yet my tendernesse
Doubles each lash: and yet their bitternesse
Windes up my grief to a mysteriousnesse:
Was ever grief like mine?

And now I am deliver’d unto death,
Which each one calls for so with utmost breath,
That he before me well nigh suffereth:
Was ever grief like mine?

Weep not, deare friends, since I for both have wept
When all my tears were bloud, the while you slept:
Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept:
Was ever grief like mine?

O all ye who passe by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climbe the tree;
The tree of life to all, but onely me:
Was ever grief like mine?

Lo, here I hang, charg’d with a world of sinne,
The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in
By words, but this by sorrow I must win:
Was ever grief like mine?

But, O my God, my God! why leav’st thou me,
The sonne, in whom thou dost delight to be?
My God, my God ------
Never was grief like mine.

But now I die; now all is finished.
My wo, mans weal: and now I bow my head.
Onely let others say, when I am dead,
Never was grief like mine.



Henry James Asks for Directions

I just adore this story, told in Edith Wharton's memoir, A Backward Glance, about driving around in England one rainy night with her maddening friend Henry James. It's as good as satire, but better because it's true. 

“While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. ‘Wait a moment, my dear — I’ll ask him where we are’; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator. ‘My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so,’ and as the old man came up: ‘My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.’

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: ‘In short’ (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), ‘in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…’

‘Oh, please,’ I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, ‘do ask him where the King’s Road is.’

‘Ah -?’ The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?’

‘Ye’re in it,’ said the aged face at the window."


Shooting from the gut

Yes, of course, the answer to my last post about the dominance of the rational is ‘Well, what about the late pernicious rise of the irrational? What about the growing power (indeed real political power) of a mentality that rejects scientific method and consensus, and the authority of evidence or even of logic? What about the multitudes who indulge in magical thinking about economics or science or healthcare or national security? Who don’t believe in climate change or vaccinating their kids; who don't see a link between guns and gun violence; who are probably about to vote for Donald Trump?’ The prospect of America’s ‘id’ as president is alarming, as is the prospect of rising oceans and unbreathable air, the return of typhoid and polio, unending war in the name of freedom. A world like this would truly represent the triumph of the irrational. 

To all of this I might answer that the irrationalist insurgence is not a sign of rationalism's decline but a result of its dominance. It's a revolt against authority, based on a suspicion (sometimes justified) that authority is both dishonest and self-interested, and an intuition that rationalism doesn't cover the waterfront of human life. And it might have been mitigated if the rationalists had been more tempered by their counterparts, the humanists. If rationalism had given more ground to the holistic, poetic aspects of human being, it might not have lost so much ground in the war against populism. The repression of ego left id and superego to battle it out. In other words, relegating the heart made room for the gut to mount a challenge against the mind. And gut is winning.