Two reasons to learn the language of another country: to let its beautiful poetry truly speak, and to speak to its truly beautiful women.
Harry Clarke, a stained glass artist and book illustrator from Ireland, wields black ink like no other. I don’t think you’ll find a more mesmerizing illustrator of Edgar Allan Poe. Regrettably, when I find copies of his work in Tales of Mystery and Imagination in the average bookstore, they are inferior. It angers me when publishers churn out cheap reproductions of beautifully illustrated books. Shrunk to fit the page, the images become darkened, blurred, and robbed of their power. (Of course, you might say the same for their appearance on this website. Go ahead and click to get a better look.)
Years ago, I encountered an old edition featuring Clarke’s work and felt a renewed chill of Poe-inspired horror, a delicious feeling interwoven with nostalgia for my adolescence, when my sensitivity to such images and stories seemed greater than it is now. (We all encounter Poe in our adolescence, don’t we?)
Why is that? What makes Poe so fascinating to juveniles? Well, my guess is that at some point, adults stop feeling true horror; they just worry about bills and bullshit. Generalized anxiety replaces fascination with the unknown, the mysterious, the macabre, the supernatural. Adults aren’t frightened by the prospect of being buried alive — because most of them already are buried alive: under debt, depression and stress. The heightened feelings Poe inspires are a luxury for moody teens.
Perhaps it’s not too late to bring back those feelings.
Visit the House of Usher. Take Clarke with you.
I’m reading a biography of William Butler Yeats, and I must say, it is quite enjoyable. Yeats’s fascination with the occult is a major reason I’m curious about his life:
“… he was even more obsessed with magic, occultism, psychical research, and mysticism, the whole tradition à rebours, than he allowed to appear, partly because of solemn vows of secrecy, partly because he was sensitive to mockery and convinced that he must use in his public writings only the most traditional aspects of his own thought. For many years he deliberately suppressed or only half disclosed many of his principal preoccupations…”
Anyway, I’m reading Chapter II: Fathers and Sons, which describes the poet’s relationship with his father, John Butler Yeats, a barrister who stopped practicing law to become an artist. He made a living by painting portraits.
According to Richard Ellman, the author of Yeats, The Man and the Masks, his father John was opinionated, intellectually dominating, and financially irresponsible (no business sense!).
One sentence about J.B. caught my attention, and I can’t stop thinking about it:
“Unable to rest easy with his scepticism, yet opposed to faith, he exalted poetry as a form of knowledge which was independent of both.”
Religion and science – both options, in and of themselves, fail to satisfy my hunger for meaning. The musty, medieval and backward tenets of religion violate my intellectual conscience, while science, though it induces deep respect and wonder, is all rationality, and humans aren’t rational beings.
Poetry is indeed a form of knowledge, independent of both.
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! — yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:
Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.
We rest. — A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise. — One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:
It is the same! — For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.
Reading poetry can be edifying.
Edification – This word has always attracted me, because it sounds so much better than “self-improvement,” a phrase associated with motivational clap-trap sold by hucksters. Self-improvement books are like diet books – their profusion attests to their lack of effectiveness. If they really work, why are new ones always coming out?
To edify, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to instruct and improve especially in moral and religious knowledge : uplift; also enlighten, inform.” Well, I could do without moralizing and religion, but the word still expresses an important goal in my life. I want to be edified, and to edify others. (Edify, which once meant “to build,” is also where we get the word “edifice.”)
When I channel surf, it often hits me how unhealthy entertainment has become. I’ve always liked applying the phrase “mental pollution” to what I see – what’s on television not only wastes your time, it harms you psychologically, albeit in a subtle manner. I seldom feel better after aimlessly watching television. Ask yourself, as you view the images – is this improving me in any way? Chances are, it isn’t.
Granted, entertainment is an escape, and it’s fun to watch, even if it’s something trashy. Everyone is entitled to an occasional guilty pleasure.
And announcing that you don’t watch television at all is tantamount to a proclamation of snobbery, and I wouldn’t advise it. (And don’t use words like “tantamount,” either.) It’s also a rather dubious claim. We all watch television.
Oddly enough, even committed philistines tacitly acknowledge that television is bad, by consistently downplaying their addiction. No one says: “Television? Oh yeah, I watch a lot of TV! A LOT. Other than work, it’s what I do!’ Highbrow types will admit to viewing, but will excuse their weekend binge as an attempt catch up with a season of their favorite, usually critically acclaimed show (Mad Men, etc.).
I like what environmentalist Bill McKibben said about television. He described it as a “time out” – and everybody could use one now and then. The problem is when the time-outs last longer than the game. Author Ray Bradbury likens television to a Medusa that turns millions to stone every night (see his short story, The Murderer). And then there’s my favorite, most devastating critic of television, Neil Postman, who notes that “Television doesn’t ban books — it merely displaces them.” The fact that DVDs are divided into chapters confirms his observation.
Television has its place, but it’s like sugar. Mostly empty calories, and it makes you flabby after a while, both physically and mentally. You’re an adult, not a child, so seek out some nutrition, if not from my pretentious blog that wants to edify you, then somewhere else. Find something. Don’t just escape from life via entertainment, enrich it with something that speaks to you.
Poetry speaks to me. It is an antidote to all things modern and unhealthy.
It is a clear spring in a world of polluted digital streams.
Here is a poem by William Wordsworth, that always has been a favorite, because it promotes the importance of doing nothing, an aimless aim completely lost to modern society. Many great ideas have been the result of long walks, of moments of reflection, of daydreaming. This is a skill you must cultivate if you want new insights and flashes of inspiration to emerge from the unconscious depths of your mind. Ideas must be given time to bubble to the surface — and those tiny bubbles will never be noticed if your life is an endlessly churning, stormy sea of distraction. Sometimes, you have to put everything aside. Even the books!
Expostulation and Reply
Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?
“Where are your books? — that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.
“You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!”
One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:
“The eye — it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.
“Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
“Think you, ‘mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?
“– Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.”
“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Never give all the Heart
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
Well, this is sound advice. Keep your woman guessing and she’ll think of you more often. Vex her thoughts by making her wonder, making her uncertain.
Love makes you high, and if you’re high, you’re impaired: deaf and dumb and blind! When you’re smitten, you’re stupid! You act like an idiot, and you can’t play the game. Don’t do it, says Yeats.
Easy to say!
(From his recent interview with Caroline Kennedy about her new book, “Poems to Learn by Heart.”)
Opening lines of Kubla Khan, by Samuel Coleridge:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Colbert, being the mighty Tolkien nerd that he is, couldn’t resist slipping in the following, from the hobbits’ encounter with Tom Bombadil in the Fellowship of the Ring. (Peter Jackson omitted this episode from the film, which by all accounts was a sound directorial decision. )
“Oh slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water!
O reed by the living pool! Fair river-daughter!
O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after!
O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves’ laughter!”
Lastly, e.e. cummings. This poem is not nearly as exciting in print as it was delivered by Colbert:
“mr youse needn’t be so spry
concernin questions arty
each has his tastes but as for i
i likes a certain party
gimme the he-man’s solid bliss
for youse ideas i’ll match youse
a pretty girl who naked is
is worth a million statues”
― e.e. cummings
“That is no country for old men. ….”
The words sound familiar, of course, because they make you think of a movie featuring a memorable sociopath played by Javier Bardem.
Not sure how Yeats would react, since these are the opening words to his poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Many titles of books and movies, and many well-known expressions and phrases, derive their origins from poetry, which, like an aquifer, provides life to culture, and yet remains hidden from view. A lot of thirsty writers, parched of inspiration, draw from the well and don’t give credit.
My first encounter with Yeats began with those words, and I’ve since been moved by his mystic, spell-like power. Here are some favorite lines of mine:
The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;
Yet still she turns her restless head:
But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.
—- opening lines from The Song of the Happy Shepherd
That’s the type of verse I enjoy reading out loud and memorizing.
Footnotes: Arcady refers to Arcadia, a region in Greece;
“represented as a paradise in Greek and Roman bucolic poetry” – Encyclopedia Brittancia. It would be interesting to visit modern-day Arkadía to make a comparison.
Chronos refers to Time, personified.