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I got to hear my favorite modern poet read from his work tonight, and I realized how nicely this reading bookended my academic career:  I first heard (and heard of) Richard Wilbur during my undergraduate days at Sewanee, when we studied his poetry in a contemporary poetry class taught by my adviser, Wyatt Prunty (also an accomplished poet).  And then sometime that year Wilbur was invited to Sewanee, which is where I first heard him read in person.  Since then I have cherished his poetry (as well as his hymn, “A Stable Lamp is Lighted” which is in the Episcopal Hymnal).  What I love about his poetry is that it not only is amazing, beautiful, profound, brilliant, moving, and skilled– like the work of many of my favorite contemporary poets– but it is also, unlike many of those others– deeply optimistic.  Whereas some of the finest modern poetry can at best be called beautiful but bleak (I am thinking, for example, of something like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” which I love), Wilbur’s work is hopeful, with a deep and abiding sense of God’s grace and providence.  I don’t know much about Wilbur’s life of faith, but I know for certain he is a believer; his poetry radiates love for this world, and peaceful trust in it.  It’s not all Pollyanna and daisies– it can be somber and dark, true to life– but it’s just got this current of hope, a sense of divine order, running throughout it.  Someone once said of him that he has a “sacramental perspective” on the world.

What a gift Wilbur’s poetry has been to me since my undergraduate days, and how thankful I am to have heard him here at the end of my schooling, having just completed my PhD in English literature.  Poetry like Wilbur’s is why I do what I do, why I love to read, study, discuss, and teach poetry, why I could do it from dawn until dusk.   It also makes ME hopeful, that such a spirit can radiate in such a talent, that a man with an unabashed sense of God’s goodness can be a success in this world (he’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice and was U.S. Poet Laureate).  I asked him, during the Q &A tonight, how he hopes his poetry will be remembered, or what he’d like people to take from his work, Wilbur said that he hopes that his poems — as they are records of something that has touched him, has opened up his world or reorganized it — might do the same for someone else.  That he wants to be “in conversation” with others.  Speaking about metaphor– as the greatest poetic gift, the ability to say– and make true– that “this is that” (not that something is “like” something else but that it is “that” itself), Wilbur said that metaphor acknowledges the interrelatedness of all things.  Great poetry like his does that, it opens your perception up, changes your understanding of the world, connects things in such a way that you wonder that they weren’t always connected thus.   (Isn’t God’s creation in many ways one big metaphor?)  Looking back on my days at Sewanee, the path to where I stand right now seems so natural, so “of course,” and yet so mysteriously beautiful.  I’m so eternally grateful for the perspective and widsom Richard Wilbur’s poetry continues to give all who read his work.

Here is a poem from his forthcoming collection:

PSALM

Give thanks for all things 

On the plucked lute, and likewise 

The harp of ten strings. 

Have the lifted horn 

Greatly blare, and pronounce it 

Good to have been born. 

Lend the breath of life 

To the stops of the sweet flute 

On capering fife, 

And tell the deep drum 

To make, at the right juncture, 

Pandemonium. 

Then, in grave relief, 

Praise too our sorrows on the 

Cello of shared grief.

GOOD FRIDAY 1613:  RIDING WESTWARD

LET man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

~John Donne

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

~Robert Frost

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

~Mark Strand

The story of Caedmon (7th – 8th centuries AD) and his hymn are related in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

In this abbess’s monastery was a certain brother particularly glorified and honoured with a divine gift, in that he fittingly was accustomed to make songs, which pertained to religion and virtue, so that whatever thus he he learned of divine letters from scholars, those things he after a moderate space of time he brought forth, in poetic language adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration and well-made in the English language. And by his poem-songs the spirits of many men were kindled to distain of the world and to service of a heavenly life. And likewise, many others after him among the English people endeavoured to compose pious songs, but none however in like manner to him could do so because he had learned not at all from men nor through man that he songcraft learned, but he was divinely aided and through God’s gift received the art of poetry. And he therefore he never could make any sort of lying or idle songs, but just those alone which pertained to piety, and those which were fitting for his pious tongue to sing. The man was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house. Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night. When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said: ‘I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.’ Again he said, he who was speaking with him: ‘Nevertheless, you must sing.’ Then he said: ‘What must I sing?’ Said he: ‘Sing to me of the first Creation.’ When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:

Nu we sculon herigean     heofonrices weard,  
Now we must praise     the Protector of the heavenly kingdom,
meotodes meahte     ond his modgeþanc,   the might of the Measurer     and His mind’s purpose,
weorc wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra gehwæs,   the work of the Father of Glory,     as He for each of the wonders,
ece drihten,     or onstealde.   the eternal Lord,      established a beginning.
He ærest sceop      eorðan bearnum   He shaped first    for the sons of the Earth
heofon to hrofe,     halig scyppend;   heaven as a roof,     the Holy Maker;
þa middangeard     moncynnes weard,   then the Middle-World,     mankind’s Guardian,
ece drihten,     æfter teode   the eternal Lord,      made afterwards,
firum foldan,     frea ælmihtig.   solid ground for men,     the almighty Lord.

 

(from:  http://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html#bede-oe)

Clink on the link below to hear Caedmon’s hymn (the version in the West Saxon dialect) read aloud.  (It’s fun to listen to it being read while looking at the West Saxon transcription!)  It is beautiful (and you can hear where Tolkien, a scholar of Old and Middle English, got his ideas for the languages and names in his books)!

http://ia361301.us.archive.org/10/items/caedmon_librivox/caedmon_ks_64kb.mp3

You can see from this that English as we know it today would not exist, had not Latin and then French invaded.

HOLY SONNETS.

XIV.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
~John Donne

Here’s what I am working with in the chapter I’m writing right now.  First, Richard Crashaw’s (17th-century English metaphysical poet, contemporary of John Donne’s) weird poem to St Teresa of Avila (16th-century Spanish mystic); second, the famous sculpture of her by Bernini in Rome; third, an excerpt from St Teresa’s writings on which Bernini’s sculpture and Crashaw’s poem are based.  All very weird stuff– the long tradition of mystics describing their experiences of divine rapture in erotic terms, and the metaphysicals playing off this tradition.  I’m of course looking at the veil in Crashaw’s poem, but it’s just so bizarre!  Imagine if someone wrote this kind of thing today…

The Flaming Heart

Vpon the book and Picture of the seraphicall saint Teresa, (as she is vsvally expressed with a Seraphim biside her)

WELL meaning readers! you that come as freinds

 
And catch the pretious name this peice pretends;  
Make not too much hast to’ admire  
That fair-cheek’t fallacy of fire.  
That is a Seraphim, they say         5
And this the great Teresia.  
Readers, be rul’d by me; and make  
Here a well-plac’t and wise mistake.  
You must transpose the picture quite,  
And spell it wrong to read it right;        10
Read Him for her, and her for him;  
And call the Saint the Seraphim.  
  Painter, what didst thou understand  
To put her dart into his hand!  
See, even the yeares and size of him        15
Showes this the mother Seraphim.  
This is the mistresse flame; and duteous he  
Her happy fire-works, here, comes down to see.  
O most poor-spirited of men!  
Had thy cold Pencil kist her Pen        20
Thou couldst not so unkindly err  
To show us This faint shade for Her.  
Why man, this speakes pure mortall frame;  
And mockes with female Frost love’s manly flame.  
One would suspect thou meant’st to print        25
Some weak, inferiour, woman saint.  
But had thy pale-fac’t purple took  
Fire from the burning cheeks of that bright Booke  
Thou wouldst on her have heap’t up all  
That could be found Seraphicall;        30
What e’re this youth of fire weares fair,  
Rosy fingers, radiant hair,  
Glowing cheek, and glistering wings,  
All those fair and flagrant things,  
But before all, that fiery Dart        35
Had fill’d the Hand of this great Heart.  
  Doe then as equall right requires,  
Since His the blushes be, and her’s the fires,  
Resume and rectify thy rude design;  
Undresse thy Seraphim into Mine.        40
Redeem this injury of thy art;  
Give Him the vail, give her the dart.  
  Give Him the vail; that he may cover  
The Red cheeks of a rivall’d lover.  
Asham’d that our world, now, can show        45
Nests of new Seraphims here below.  
  Give her the Dart for it is she  
(Fair youth) shootes both thy shaft and Thee  
Say, all ye wise and well-peirc’t hearts  
That live and dy amidst her darts,        50
What is’t your tastfull spirits doe prove  
In that rare life of Her, and love?  
Say and bear wittnes. Sends she not  
A Seraphim at every shott?  
What magazins of immortall Armes there shine!        55
Heavn’s great artillery in each love-spun line.  
Give then the dart to her who gives the flame;  
Give him the veil, who gives the shame.  
  But if it be the frequent fate  
Of worst faults to be fortunate;        60
If all’s præscription; and proud wrong  
Hearkens not to an humble song;  
For all the gallantry of him,  
Give me the suffring Seraphim.  
His be the bravery of all those Bright things.        65
The glowing cheekes, the glistering wings;  
The Rosy hand, the radiant Dart;  
Leave Her alone The Flaming Heart.  
  Leave her that; and thou shalt leave her  
Not one loose shaft but love’s whole quiver.        70
For in love’s feild was never found  
A nobler weapon then a Wound.  
Love’s passives are his activ’st part.  
The wounded is the wounding heart.  
O Heart! the æquall poise of love’s both parts        75
Bigge alike with wound and darts.  
Live in these conquering leaves; live all the same;  
And walk through all tongues one triumphant Flame.  
Live here, great Heart; and love and dy and kill;  
And bleed and wound; and yeild and conquer still.        80
Let this immortall life wherere it comes  
Walk in a crowd of loves and Martyrdomes  
Let mystick Deaths wait on’t; and wise soules be  
The love-slain wittnesses of this life of thee.  
O sweet incendiary! shew here thy art,        85
Upon this carcasse of a hard, cold, hart,  
Let all thy scatter’d shafts of light, that play  
Among the leaves of thy larg Books of day,  
Combin’d against this Brest at once break in  
And take away from me my self and sin,        90
This gratious Robbery shall thy bounty be;  
And my best fortunes such fair spoiles of me.  
O thou undanted daughter of desires!  
By all thy dowr of Lights and Fires;  
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;        95
By all thy lives and deaths of love;  
By thy larg draughts of intellectuall day,  
And by thy thirsts of love more large then they;  
By all thy brim-fill’d Bowles of feirce desire  
By thy last Morning’s draught of liquid fire;       100
By the full kingdome of that finall kisse  
That seiz’d thy parting Soul, and seal’d thee his;  
By all the heav’ns thou hast in him  
(Fair sister of the Seraphim!)  
By all of Him we have in Thee;       105
Leave nothing of my Self in me.  
Let me so read thy life, that I  
Unto all life of mine may dy.  

 

 

St Teresa:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. . . He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire:  they must be those whom we call Cherubim. . .  I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire.  He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.  The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.  The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.  The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one.  It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

Roberto Benigni, the Italian actor and comedian  (most famous in the U.S. for his film, Life is Beautiful) on Dante:

“Dante’s genius is that he can find and create poetry in everything, even excrement.  He doesn’t say you should avoid evil in life–which is impossible–but you should confront it every day, beacuse in that struggle every single human being has the potential of becoming something magnificent, a wonder of the universe.”

If you’ve seen Benigni’s movie, you know it takes place during the Holocaust, and tells the story of a funny guy who gets the beautiful girl (his real-life wife!) and then has a beautiful son, but who is taken to a concentration camp, where he hides his son to keep him from being taken away, telling little Giosuè that this whole thing is a big game that they have to win.  He enlists the help of his fellow inmates to keep up the ruse for the little boy.  In the meantime Benigni’s character also searches constantly for his wife, who has allowed herself to be taken captive even though she is not Jewish.  It is a beautiful movie, and a testament to one man’s ability not only to confront evil, to laugh in the face of present horror, but to become “something magnificent,” leaving his son a far better memory than he would have had otherwise.

The above quote from Benigni comes from a book my mom, knowing my love of Italian language and culture, gave me for Christmas called La Bella Lingua (The Beautiful Tongue/Language) by journalist Dianne Hales.  The book could not have come at a better time (thanks, Mommy!), for it encouraged me over the holidays to remember just how and why I fell in love with Italian during college and kept pursuing my study of it from Seattle to Florida and beyond, and it got me psyched up to write this last (last!) dissertation chapter on Beatrice’s veil in Dante’s Divina Commedia.  

Wish me luck, or, as the Italians say, “In boca al lupo!”* 

*(“In the mouth of the wolf!”– like the English, “Break a leg!”)

Those magic men, the Magi
Some people call them wise
Or Oriental, even kings
Well anyway, those guys
They visited with Jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way

Yes they went home by another way
Home by another way
Maybe me and you can be wise guys too
And go home by another way
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way

Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you
He really, really wants those presents
He’ll comb your camel’s fur
Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh

Time to go home by another way
Home by another way
You have to figure the Gods saying play the odds
And go home by another way
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way

Home is where they want you now
You can more or less assume that you’ll be welcome in the end
Mustn’t let King Herod haunt you so
Or fantasize his features when you’re looking at a friend

Well it pleasures me to be here
And to sing this song tonight
They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figured that they’re right
But Herod’s always out there
He’s got our cards on file
It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile

It’s best to go home by another way
Home by another way
We got this far to a lucky star
But tomorrow is another day
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way…

~James Taylor
I love this song:  it’s so fun and at the same time so profound.  Let’s you and me be wise guys and challenge our well-travelled roads this year, eh?

One of my all-time favorite poems:

The Journey of the Magi

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This:  were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

~ T.S. Eliot