If there is any one reason to single out artists as being more necessary to our lives than any others, it is because they provide us with light that cannot be extinguished. They go into dark rooms and poke at their souls until the contours of our own are familiar to us. They stare at flowers until their secrets unfold, wrestle with angels that the rest of us are terrified to disturb.
They are a diverse lot, genteel ladies tapping out nightmares on manual typewriters, patresfamilias filling up cathedrals with sound. And to lay the completed lives of a number of artists end to end is to realize how little time so many of them had to work. Henry David Thoreau died at forty-five, Robert Louis Stevenson at forty-four. Flannery O'Connor had only ten years to produce a lifetime of work. But the brevity of the artist's life bears little relationship to the fruitfulness of it. Neither does creativity necessarily diminish at the end.
With age some of the greatest artists increased in depth and strength, oftentimes under crushing adversity. Beethoven created his most beautiful music after he went completely deaf. Milton was blind when he dictated Paradise Lost to his daughter. Yeats battled mental illness and the specter of poverty, the artist's most frequent companion beside the muse. In a sarcastic letter to Lord Chesterfield, Samuel Johnson defined a "patron" as "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and, when he has reached the ground, encumbers him with help."
We live in a culture that assumes an artist must have a massive ego to maintain creative momentum. But Bach was unconcerned with posterity, Emily Dickinson scribbled poetry behind a curtain, and Renoir, who did not underestimate his worth, was nonetheless always a learner. His words on the last day of his life, which was spent painting, were "I think I am beginning to understand something about it."
One of the most touching tributes is by Hannah Arendt for W. H. Auden. "What made him a poet," she writes, "was his extraordinary facility with, and love for, words, but what made him a great poet was the unprotesting willingness with which he yielded to the 'curse.' "But she wonders whether he realized what was going to be involved.
"It seems...very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay. I think it entirely possible that in the end...he might have considered the price too high."
Speaking of Auden, Arendt sums up the debt we owe to all great artists: "We...his audience, readers and listeners, can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny."
"The music of Bach disturbs human complacency because one can't readily understand finiteness in its presence."
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
William F. Buckley Jr.
Bach brought the polyphonic baroque tradition in music to its highest peak of excellence, but he had no idea of his own greatness, except as a performer, and most of his works were not published before he died. A deeply religious man, Bach served as music director for the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, Germany, from 1723 until his death.
William F. Buckley Jr., the noted conservative author, critic, television personality, and newspaper columnist, is an amateur performer of Bach's piano works. This tribute is excerpted from one of his columns.
...Bach has the impact of a testimonial to God's providence not because he wrote the most searingly beautiful church music ever heard (about "The Passion According to St. Matthew" one can say only that it does credit to the Gospel according to St. Matthew), but because he wrote the most beautiful music ever written. If one were to throw away the three hundred cantatas, the hundred-odd chorale preludes, the three oratorios, the passions, and the Mass (which would be the equivalent of destroying half of Shakespeare), still the other half would sustain Bach as a creature whose afflatus is inexplicable, for some of us, in the absence of a belief in God.
If it is true, as the poet says, that one can't look out upon a sunset without feeling divinity, then it is also true that one can't close the door on the sunset and, entering the darkened chapel, listen to the organist play one of Bach's toccatas and fugues without sensing divinity.
It is not necessary to believe in God in order to revel in Bach. It is not necessary, for that matter, to love one's country in order to fight for it, nor even to love one's family in order to protect it. And there is no need to make heavy weather over the point, though there is a need for such human modesty as Einstein expressed when he said that the universe was not explicable except by the acknowledgment of an unknown mover. The music of Bach disturbs human complacency because one can't readily understand finiteness in its presence.
Carl Sagan, who sometimes sounds like the village atheist, reports that the biologist Lewis Thomas of the Sloan-Kettering Institute answered, when asked what message he thought we should send to other civilizations in space in that rocket we fired up there a few years ago with earthly jewels packed in its cone, "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." Then he paused and said, "But that would be boasting." There are those who believe it is not merely to boast, but to be vainglorious to suggest that the movements of Bach's pen could have been animated by less than divine impulse.
There are sobering lessons to contemplate. One of them is that when he lived, he was almost entirely unnoticed. True, he was renowned as a virtuoso at the harpsichord and the organ. When he died, one of his biographers notes, there were something on the order of ninety obituaries written, only three of which, however, mentioned him as a composer. This is tantamount to remembering Shakespeare as a great actor.
The thought reminds us of what it is that we almost let slip through our fingers and reminds us, even more darkly, of what it is that we have irreversibly let slip through our fingers. We are reluctant to believe that anyone else ever existed of such artistic eminence as JSB; but we can never know, can we? Nor can we ever understand how it was that so musically minded a culture as that of what we now know as East Germany could have greeted so indifferently a genius so overpowering.
And it reminds us, too, that there are among us men and women who will not drink from this most precious vessel of our cultural patrimony. To some he does not speak. If we understand that, then we understand, surely, what the problems are in Geneva, where grown men are actually talking to each other as if it were a challenge to formulate arrangements by which the world should desist from the temptation to destroy itself. If a human being exists who is unmoved by the B minor Mass, it should not surprise that human beings exist who are unmoved by democracy, or freedom, or peace. They have eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear. Well, Bach tended to end his manuscripts with the initials S.D.G. Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone the glory. But God shares that glory, and did so three hundred years ago when Johann Sebastian was born.
"As the behemoth storms through the seas, so he strained the boundaries of his art."
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Beethoven, the towering musical genius who bridged the classical and romantic eras, enjoyed one luxury beyond his talent it was recognized during his lifetime. But at the age of thirty-one his hearing began to deteriorate, and for the last ten years of his life he was entirely deaf. During that time he composed the Hammerklavier sonata, the monumental Ninth Symphony, and five string quartets considered by some authorities to be the greatest music ever created. He never married, although he had a number of heartbreaking romances with unattainable women, and his personal life was a lonely one.
Franz Grillparzer was the leading Austrian playwright of his time. He was asked to compose a eulogy, which was then delivered by the actor and orator Heinrich Anschutz on March 29, 1827.
As we stand here at the grave of the deceased, we are, as it were, the representatives of a whole nation, of the German people in its entirety, grieving at the fall of the one, highly celebrated half of the remaining vanished glory of indigenous art, of the nation's flourishing spirit. To be sure, the hero of German poesy, Goethe, still lives and may he live long! but the last master of sonorous song, of music's sweet voice, the heir to Handel's immortal fame and Bach's, the heir to Haydn and Mozart, has passed away, and we stand weeping by the torn strings of faded harmony.
Of faded harmony! Let me call him so! For here was an artist, and what he was, he was only through art. The thorns of life had wounded him deeply; as a shipwrecked man clings to the shore, so he fled into your arms, O Art, equally glorious sister of the good and the true, comforter of suffering, begotten on high. He held fast to you, and even when the gate was closed through which you had gained entrance to him and spoke to him; when his deaf ear made him blind to your features, still he carried your image in his heart, and when he died, it still lay upon his breast.
He was an artist, and who has arisen beside him? As the behemoth storms through the seas, so he strained the boundaries of his art. From the cooing of the dove to the rolling of thunder, from the most intricately woven of idiosyncratic artistic devices to the terrifying point where achieved form becomes the lawless clashing forces of nature, he had reckoned everything, grasped everything. Those who come after him will not be able to continue, they will have to begin, for the predecessor halted only where art itself halts....
He was an artist, but also a human being. A human being in the word's fullest meaning. Because he shut himself off from the world, they called him hostile, and because he avoided emotion, unfeeling. Oh, he who knows himself to be hard does not flee! It is precisely the excess of emotion that shuns emotion. When he fled the world, it was because in the depths of his loving heart he found no weapon to resist it; when he withdrew from people, it occurred after he had given them his all and received nothing in return. He remained lonely because he found no other. But until his death he retained a humane heart toward all people, a fatherly one to his family, devoted his talent and life to the whole world!
So he was, so he died, so he shall live for all time.
You, however, who have followed our lead thus far, govern your pain! You have not lost him, you have gained him. Not until the gates of our life close behind us do the gates to the temple of immortality spring open. There he stands among the great of all times, untouchable, forever. Therefore depart from his place of rest, mourning but composed, and whenever in life the power of his creations overwhelms you like a gathering storm, whenever your tears flow in the midst of a still unborn generation, remember this hour and think: we were there when they buried him, and when he died, we wept.
"I saw her first just as I rose out of an illness from which I had never thought to recover. I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes. An impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterize the woman."
William Makepeace Thackeray
Charlotte Brontë, the English novelist most well known for Jane Eyre, was the daughter of an impoverished, widowed Anglican clergyman and the sister of novelists Emily and Anne Brontë. Self-publishing their first work under the names "Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell," they became the faceless toast of literary London. In 1854, Charlotte married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, but died of pregnancy toxemia only a year after her marriage.
Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray is best known today for his novel Vanity Fair and its wily, albeit winning, heroine, Becky Sharp, who must make her unsupported way in society. It was a task that fell to Charlotte Brontë as well.
Of the multitude that has read her books, who has not known and deplored the tragedy of her family, her own most sad and untimely fate? Which of her readers has not become her friend? Who that has known her books has not admired the artist's noble English, the burning love of truth, the bravery, the simplicity, the indignation at wrong, the eager sympathy, the pious love and reverence, the passionate honor, so to speak of the woman? What a story is that of that family of poets in their solitude yonder on the gloomy northern moors! At nine o'clock at night, Mrs. Gaskell tells us, after evening prayers, when their guardian and relative had gone to bed, the three poetesses the three maidens Charlotte and Emily and Anne Charlotte being the "motherly friend and guardian to the other two" "began, like restless wild animals, to pace up and down their parlors," making out "their wonderful stories, talking over plans and projects, and thoughts of what was to be their future life."
One evening at the close of 1854, as Charlotte Nichols sat with her husband by the fire, listening to the howling of the wind about the house, she suddenly said to her husband, "If you had not been with me, I must have been writing now." She then ran upstairs and brought down and read aloud the beginning of a new tale. When she had finished, her husband remarked, "The critics will accuse you of repetition." She replied, "Oh! I shall alter that. I always begin two or three times before I can please myself." But it was not to be. The trembling little hand was to write no more. The heart, newly awakened to love and happiness, and throbbing with maternal hope, was soon to cease to beat; that intrepid outspeaker and champion of truth, that eager, impetuous redresser of wrong, was to be called out of the world's fight and struggle, to lay down the shining arms....
I saw her first just as I rose out of an illness from which I had never thought to recover. I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes. An impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterize the woman. Twice I recollect she took me to task for what she held to be errors in doctrine. Once about Fielding we had a disputation. She spoke her mind out. She jumped too rapidly to conclusions....She formed conclusions that might be wrong and built up whole theories of character upon them. New to the London world, she entered it with an independent, indomitable spirit of her own; and judged of contemporaries, and especially spied out arrogance or affectation, with extraordinary keenness of vision. She was angry with her favorites if their conduct or conversation fell below her idea.
Often she seemed to be judging the London folk prematurely: but perhaps the city is rather angry at being judged. I fancied an austere little Joan of Arc marching in upon us and rebuking our easy lives, our easy morals. She gave me the impression of being a very pure and lofty and high-minded person. A great and holy reverence of right and truth seemed to be with her always. Such, in our brief interview, she appeared to me. As one thinks of that life so noble, so lonely of that passion for truth of those nights and nights of eager study, swarming fancies, invention, depression, elation, prayer; as one reads the necessarily incomplete, though most touching and admirable, history of the heart that throbbed in this one little frame of this one amongst the myriads of souls that have lived and died on this great earth this great earth? this little speck in the infinite universe of God and with what wonder do we think of today, with what awe await tomorrow, when that which is now but darkly seen shall be clear!...
How well I remember the delight and wonder and pleasure with which I read Jane Eyre, sent to me by an author whose name and sex were then alike to me; the strange fascinations of the book; and how with my own work pressing upon me, I could not, having taken the volumes up, lay them down until they were read through! Hundreds of those who, like myself, recognized and admired that masterwork of a great genius will look with a mournful interest and regard and curiosity upon this, the last fragmentary sketch from the noble hand which wrote Jane Eyre.
"To her, life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality."
Susan Gilbert Dickinson
Emily Dickinson, one of the great American poets, was virtually unknown during her lifetime beyond her circle of family and friends in Amherst, Massachusetts. Around the age of thirty, she began to live the life of a recluse, eventually not leaving the house or seeing friends or family visitors. At her death, over a thousand poems were found in her bureau drawers. Susan Dickinson was her sister-in-law. She wrote this editorial for the Springfield Republican newspaper.
The death of Miss Emily Dickinson, daughter of the late Edward Dickinson, at Amherst on Saturday, makes another sad inroad on the small circle so long occupying the old family mansion....Very few in the village, except among the older inhabitants, knew Miss Emily personally, although the facts of her seclusion and her intellectual brilliancy were familiar Amherst traditions....As she passed on in life, her sensitive nature shrank from much personal contact with the world, and more and more turned to her own large wealth of individual resources for companionship....Not disappointed with the world, not an invalid until within the past two years, not from any lack of sympathy, not because she was insufficient for any mental work or social career her endowments being so exceptional but the "mesh of her soul"...was too rare, and the sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit atmosphere for her worth and work....
To her, life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formulated faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm step of martyrs who sing while they suffer.
"One of the greatest lines in our literature is his. Speaking of an outcast 'Not until the sun excludes the earth will I exclude you.'"
Robert Green Ingersoll
On the Fourth of July, 1855, an anonymous book of poems arrived in the mail for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson found the work astounding and, upon learning who the poet was, quickly wrote to him saying, "I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty." A grateful Walt Whitman immediately had Emerson's note duplicated and used to advertise his Leaves of Grass.
Illinois politician Robert Ingersoll delivered the following eulogy at Whitman's funeral in Camden, New Jersey. One of the most eloquent orators in the nineteenth century, Ingersoll was called "the great agnostic" because he expressed doubt in an afterlife, and while he was greatly admired by the more liberal-minded, he was much maligned by orthodox churchmen, who considered him a poisoner of impressionable minds. When he died, one newspaper wrote: "Robert Ingersoll died yesterday. Perhaps he knows better now."
Again we in the mystery of life are brought face-to-face with the mystery of death. A great man, a great American, is dead before us, and we have met to pay a tribute to his greatness and to his worth. His fame is secure. He laid the foundation of it deep in the human heart. He was, above all that I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. Great he was so great that he rose above the greatest that he met without arrogance; and so great that he stooped to the lowest without conscious condescension. He never claimed to be lower or greater than any other of the sons of man. He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick; he sympathized with the imprisoned and the despised; and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy. One of the greatest lines in our literature is his. Speaking of an outcast "Not until the sun excludes the earth will I exclude you." A charity as wide as the sky! And whenever there was human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above this earth. He was the poet of that divine democracy that gives equal rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great American voice, uttered a song worthy of the great Republic.
He was the poet of life. He loved the clouds. He enjoyed the breath of morning, the twilight, the wind, the winding streams. He loved to look at the sea when the winds and waves burst into the whitecaps of joy. He loved the fields, the hills. He was acquainted with trees, with birds, with all the beautiful objects on the earth; and he understood their meaning and used them that he might exhibit his heart to his fellowmen. He was also the poet of love. He was not ashamed of the divine passion that has built every home in the world; that divine passion that has painted every picture and given us every real work of art that divine passion that has made the world worth living in and gives value to human life. He was the poet of the human race everywhere. His sympathy went out over the seas to all the nations of the earth. And above genius, above all the snowcapped peaks of intelligence, above his art, rises the man greater than all.
He was true absolutely to himself. He was frank, candid, pure, serene, and noble. And for years he was maligned and slandered, simply because he had the candor of nature. He will be understood yet, and that for which he was condemned will add to the glory and the greatness of his name. He wrote a liturgy for humanity the greatest gospel that can be preached.
He was not afraid to live, not afraid to speak his thoughts. Neither was he afraid to die. Cheerful every moment, the laughing nymphs of day remained that they might clasp the hand of the veiled and silent sisters of the night when they should come. And when they did come, Walt Whitman stretched his hand to both. And so, hand in hand, between smiles and tears, he reached his journey's end.
Today we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss, one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay. Since he has lived, death is less fearful than it was before, and thousands and millions will walk down into the dark valley of the Shadow, holding Walt Whitman by the hand, long after we are dead.
And so I lay this poor wreath upon this great man's tomb. I loved him living and I love him still.
"Like a prince he would enter a room...."
Sir Ian Hamilton
In 1915, the poet Rupert Brooke volunteered to join the British army. Less than a year later, he died of an infection off the Isle of Skyros in the Aegean. In his most famous poem, "The Soldier," he prophesied the circumstances of his death abroad. Brooke was not only brilliant but he looked the way people thought a poet ought to look, with patrician features, golden, loose-flowing locks, and bright blue eyes. When he died, all of England mourned as if everything that was best and brightest about itself had sunk into the sea.
At the unveiling of a memorial to Brooke at Rugby School, Sir Ian Hamilton, who had been the British military leader of the Mediterranean forces in World War I, remarked upon the effect Brooke had upon others.
I have seen famous men and brilliant figures in my day, but never one so thrilling, so vital, as that of our hero. Like a prince he would enter a room, like a prince quite unconscious of his own royalty, and by that mere act put a spell upon everyone around him. In the twinkling of an eye gloom was changed into light; dullness sent forth a certain sparkle in his presence....Here was someone who was distinguished by a nameless gift of attraction, head and shoulders above the crowd; and it is the memory of this personal magnetism more even than the work his destiny permitted him to fulfill that adds strength to the roots of his ever-growing fame.
"He now dominated Nature, which all his life he had served as a worshiper. In return, she had finally taught him to see beyond surface appearances; and, like herself, to create a world out of almost nothing."
The French painter and sculptor Pierre-Auguste Renoir, one of the leading impressionists, learned how to make light explode upon the canvas. At the end of his life he was cruelly afflicted with arthritis and unable to walk. But when a doctor helped Renoir regain the use of his legs, Renoir pronounced the success too great a drain upon his waning energies. "I give up," he said. "It takes all my willpower and I would have none left for painting." He sat down in his wheelchair and never walked again.
In this excerpt from My Father, Renoir, his son, Jean, writes of his father's last days, when, despite excruciating pain, he painted one of his greatest works, The Women Bathers, which his son called "the tremendous cry of love he uttered at the end of his life."
Jean Renoir became a filmmaker, director of Grand Illusion, La Bête Humaine, Rules of the Game, and many other films.
The more intolerable his suffering became, the more Renoir painted. Some friends in Nice had found a young model for him, Andrée, whom I was to marry after his death. She was sixteen years old, red-haired, plump, and her skin "took the light" better than any model that Renoir had ever had in his life. She sang, slightly off-key, the popular songs of the day; told stories about her girlfriends; was gay; and cast over my father the revivifying spell of her joyous youth. Along with the roses, which grew almost wild at Les Collettes, and the great olive trees with their silvery reflections, Andrée was one of the vital elements which helped Renoir to interpret on his canvas the tremendous cry of love he uttered at the end of his life....
While he was being put into his wheelchair, the model went outside and took her place on flower-spangled grass. The foliage of the olive trees sifted the rays of light and made an arabesque on her red blouse. In a voice still weak from his suffering during the night, Renoir had the adjustable windows opened or closed, as he wished; and material hung up, to provide him with a protection against the intoxication of the Mediterranean morning. While one of us prepared his palette, he could not help groaning once or twice. Adjusting his stricken body to the hard seat of the wheelchair was painful. But he wanted this "not too soft" seat, which helped him to keep upright and allowed him a certain amount of movement....My father's suffering devastated all of us. The nurse, Grand Louise, the model often it was Madeleine Bruno, a young girl from the villageand I, all felt a lump in our throats. Whenever we would try to talk in a cheerful voice, it sounded false.
One of us would put the protecting piece of linen in Renoir's hand, pass him the brush he had indicated with a wink of the eye. "That one, there....No, the other one."
The flies circled in a shaft of sunlight...."Oh, these flies!" he would exclaim in a rage as he brushed one off the end of his nose. "They smell a corpse." We made no answer. After the fly had ceased to bother him, he sank back into his somnolence, hypnotized by a dancing butterfly or by the distant sound of a cicada. The landscape was a microcosm of all the riches in the world. His eyes, nose, and ears were assailed by countless contradictory sensations. "It's intoxicating," he kept repeating. He stretched out his arm and dipped his brush into the turpentine. But the movement was painful. He waited a few seconds, as if asking himself, "Why not give up? Isn't it too hard?" Then a glance at the subject restored his courage. He traced on the canvas a mark, in madder red, that only he understood. "Jean, open the yellow curtain a little more." Another touch of madder. Then, in a stronger voice, "It's divine!" We watched him. He smiled and winked, as he called us to witness this conspiracy which had just been arranged between the grass, the olive trees, the model, and himself. After a minute or two he would start humming. And a day of happiness would begin for Renoir, a day as wonderful as the one which preceded it, and the one which was to follow....It was under these conditions that he painted his Women Bathers, now in the Louvre. He considered it the culmination of his life's work....
Renoir had succeeded in fulfilling the dream of his whole life: "to create riches with modest means." From his palette, simplified to the last degree, and from the minute "droppings" of color lost on its surface, issued a splendor of dazzling golds and purples, the glow of flesh filled with young and healthy blood, the magic of all-conquering light, and towering above all these material elements, the serenity of a man approaching supreme knowledge. He now dominated Nature, which all his life he had served as a worshiper. In return, she had finally taught him to see beyond surface appearances; and, like herself, to create a world out of almost nothing. With a little water, a few minerals, and invisible radiations, Nature creates an oak tree, a forest. From a passionate embrace beings are born. Birds multiply, fish force their way upstream, the rays of the sun illumine and quicken all this stirring mass. "And it costs nothing!" If it were not for man, "this destructive animal," the equilibrium of a world in ceaseless movement would be assured.
This profusion of riches which poured forth from Renoir's austere palette is overwhelming in the last picture he painted, on the morning of his death. An infection which had developed in his lungs kept him to his room. He asked for his paintbox and brushes, and he painted the anemones which Nenette, our kindhearted maid, had gone out and gathered for him. For several hours he identified himself with these flowers and forgot his pain. Then he motioned for someone to take his brush and said, "I think I am beginning to understand something about it."...He died in the night.
"Earth, receive an honoured guest; William Yeats is laid to rest...."
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
Wystan Hugh Auden
William Bulter Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize in 1923, is considered the greatest lyric poet Ireland has ever produced. This tribute to him by a fellow poet is considered one of Auden's most masterful works, not only because of what he wrote, but because of the way in which he employed the numerous poetic forms Yeats used so well, within the body of the tribute.
In Memory of W. B. Yeats
(D. Jan. 1939)
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself;
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of tomorrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
"One would think...that she could not look so steadily, so drily, and so long at so much false respect without herself dying of despair."
On the brink of her writing career, at the age of thirty, the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus, a degenerative disease, which forced her return to her mother's farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. As Sally Fitzgerald, O'Connor's friend and editor, wrote, "Her return was for good, in more ways than one." O'Connor's disease got worse, but during this last decade of her life, she produced most of her best work.
Thomas Merton, a convert to Catholicism, became a Trappist monk in Gethsemane, Kentucky. It was said that the door shutting behind him was a noise heard round the world. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, triggered a wave of applications to monasteries in the 1950s. His essays, poetry, and books of spiritual reflection continue to be widely read.
Now Flannery is dead and I will write her name with honor, with love for the great slashing innocence of that dry-eyed irony that could keep looking the South in the face without bleeding or even sobbing. Her South was deeper than mine, crazier than Kentucky, but wild with no other madness than the crafty paranoia that is all over the place, including the North! Only madder, craftier, hung up in wilder and more absurd legends, more inventive of more outrageous lies! And solemn! Taking seriously the need to be respectable when one is an obsolescent and very agile fury.
The key word to Flannery's stories probably is respect. She never gave up examining its ambiguities and its decay. In this bitter dialectic of half-truths that have become endemic to our system, she probed our very life its conflicts, its falsities, its obsessions, its vanities. Have we become an enormous complex organization of spurious reverences? Respect is continually advertised, and we are still convinced that we respect "everything good" when we know too well that we have lost the most elementary respect even for ourselves. Flannery saw this and saw, better than others, what it implied.
She wrote in and out of the anatomy of a word that became genteel, then self-conscious, then obsessive, finally dying of contempt, but kept calling itself respect. Contempt for the child, for the stranger, for the woman, for the Negro, for the animal, for the white man, for the farmer, for the country, for the preacher, for the city, for the world, for reality itself. Contempt, contempt, so that in the end the gestures of respect they kept making to themselves and to each other and to God became desperately obscene.
But respect had to be maintained. Flannery maintained it ironically and relentlessly with a kind of innocent passion long after it had died of contempt as if she were the only one left who took this thing seriously. One would think (if one put a Catholic chip on his shoulder and decided to make a problem of her) that she could not look so steadily, so drily, and so long at so much false respect without herself dying of despair. She never made any funny faces. She never said, "Here is a terrible thing." She just looked and said what they said and how they said it. It was not she that invented their despair, and perhaps her only way out of despair herself was to respect the way they announced the gospel of contempt. She patiently recorded all they had got themselves into. Their world was a big, fantastic, crawling, exploding junk pile of despair. I will write her name with honor for seeing it so clearly and looking straight at it without remorse. Perhaps her way of irony was the only possible catharsis for a madness so cruel and endemic. Perhaps a dry honesty like hers can save the South more simply than the North can ever be saved.
Flannery's people were two kinds of very advanced primitives: the city kind, exhausted, disillusioned, tired of imagining, perhaps still given to a grim willfulness in the service of doubt, still driving on in fury and ill will, or scientifically expert in nastiness; and the rural kind: furious, slow, cunning, inexhaustible, living sweetly on the verge of the unbelievable, more inclined to prefer the abyss to solid ground....
The way Flannery made a story: she would put together all these elements of unreason and let them fly slowly and inexorably at one another. Then sometimes the urban madness, less powerful, would fall weakly prey to the rural madness and be inexorably devoured by a superior and more primitive absurdity. Or the rural madness would fail and fall short of the required malice and urban deceit would compass its destruction, with all possible contempt, cursing, superior violence, and fully implemented disbelief. For it would usually be wholesome faith that left the rural primitive unarmed. So you would watch, fascinated, almost in despair, knowing that in the end the very worst thing, the least reasonable, the least desirable, was what would have to happen. Not because Flannery wanted it so, but because it turned out to be so in a realm where the advertised satisfaction is compounded of so many lies and of so much contempt for the customer....
...She respected all her people by searching for some sense in them, searching for truth, searching to the end and then suspending judgment. To have condemned them on moral grounds would have been to connive with their own crafty arts and their own demonic imagination. It would have meant getting tangled up with them in the same machinery of unreality and of contempt. The only way to be saved was to stay out of it, not to think, not to speak, just to record the slow, sweet, ridiculous verbalizing of Southern furies, working their way through their charming lazy hell.
That is why when I read Flannery I don't think of Hemingway or Katherine Anne Porter or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles. What more can be said of a writer? I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man's fall and his dishonor.
"Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, he seems to me to have been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love surely must have loomed large."
WYSTAN HUGH AUDEN
Along with Christopher Isherwood and Sir Stephen Spender, Auden was a leader in a left-wing literary group that lived in England during the thirties. In 1939, he moved to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1946. A professor of poetry at Oxford from 1956 to 1961, he was awarded the National Medal for Literature in 1967. In 1971 he returned for good to England, where he lived until his death.
Political scientist, writer, and philosopher, Hannah Arendt is best known for her writings on Jewish affairs and the rise of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism and imperialism. She became an established intellectual power with her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism. In this excerpt from her tender tribute to Auden, she explores what it was that accounted for both his misery and his greatness.
I met Auden in the autumn of 1958, but I had seen him before, in the late forties at a publisher's party. Although we did not exchange a word on that occasion, I still remembered him quite well a nice-looking, well-dressed, very English gentleman, friendly and relaxed. I would not have recognized him more than ten years later, for now his face was marked by those famous deep wrinkles as though life itself had delineated a kind of face-scape to make manifest the "heart's invisible furies." If you listened to him, nothing could be more deceptive than this appearance. Time and again, when to all appearances he could not cope any more, when his slum apartment was so cold that the water no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits so that one could go to the cleaner or two pairs of shoes so that one pair could be repaired, a subject of an endlessly ongoing debate between us throughout the years was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom, in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to kind of intone an utterly idiosyncratic, absurdly eccentric version of "count your blessings." Since he never talked nonsense or said something obviously silly, and since, moreover, I always remained aware that this was the voice of a very great poet, it took me years to realize that in his case appearance was not deceptive and that it was fatally wrong to ascribe what I saw and knew to the harmless eccentricity of a typically English gentleman.
I finally saw the misery, somehow realized vaguely his compelling need to hide it behind the "count your blessings" litany, and still found it difficult to understand fully what made him so miserable, so unable to do anything about the absurd circumstances that made everyday life so unbearable for him. It certainly could not be lack of recognition. He was reasonably famous and anyhow ambition in this sense could not have counted for much, since he was the least vain of all authors I ever met....Not that he was humble; in his case it was self-confidence that protected him against flattery, and this self-confidence was prior to recognition and fame, prior also to achievement. ("I am going to be a great poet," he told his Oxford tutor, Nevill Coghill.)...In other words, he was blessed with that rare self-confidence that does not need admiration and the opinions of others and can even withstand self-criticism and self-examination without falling into the trap of self-doubt. This has nothing to do with arrogance but is easily mistaken for it. Auden was never arrogant except when provoked by some vulgarity, in which case he protected himself with the rather abrupt rudeness characteristic of English intellectual life.
Stephen Spender, who knew him so well, has stressed that "throughout the whole development of [Auden's] poetry...his theme had been love."...And he tells, at the end of the address he gave in memory of the dead friend at the Cathedral Church in Oxford how he had asked Auden about a reading he had given in America: "His face lit up with a smile that altered its lines, and he said, 'They loved me!'" They did not admire him, they loved him here I think lies the key both to his extraordinary unhappiness and to the extraordinary greatness, intensity, of his poetry. Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, he seems to me to have been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love surely must have loomed large. And beneath these emotions, there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse which no reason and no faith could overcome:
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance's pattern; dance while you can.
When I knew him, he would not have mentioned the best any longer so firmly had he opted for the second-best, the "formal order," and the result was what Chester Kallman so aptly has named "the most disheveled child of all disciplinarians."...
What made him a poet was his extraordinary facility with, and love for, words, but what made him a great poet was the unprotesting willingness with which he yielded to the "curse" the curse of vulnerability to "human unsuccess" on all levels of existence; the crookedness of the desires, the infidelities of the heart, the injustices of the world....
It seems, of course, very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay. I think it entirely possible that in the end, when not the intensity of his feelings and not the gift to transform them into praise, but the sheer physical strength of the heart to bear them and live with them gradually faded away, he might have considered the price too high. We, at any event, his audience, readers and listeners, can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny for the everlasting glory of the English language. And his friends may find some consolation in Stephen Spender's beautiful joke beyond the grave that "his wise unconscious self chose a good day for dying" for more than one reason. The wisdom to know "when to live and when to die" is not given to mortals; but Wystan, one would like to think, may have received it as the supreme reward that the cruel gods of poetry bestowed on the most obedient of their servants.
"His was a granite passion...rooted in the conviction that writing was a vocation in the most humble sense of that word...."
An American writer, John Hersey was the son of missionaries to China. His work, both fiction and nonfiction, centered on man's inhumanity to man. Notable among his many works is his first novel, A Bell for Adano, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Hiroshima, a nonfiction account of the effect of the bombing of that city.
Bernardine Connelly is a short-story writer and novelist.
My name is Bernardine Connelly, and I was one of John's students during his last semester at Yale. John was a great and a passionate teacher. He did not jump on desks or chain-smoke himself into feverish monologues. He did not hide fifths of bourbon in his file drawers or carry on any of the eccentricities that one might envision when linking the words passion, writing, and teaching. Because those are the trappings of ego, not passion, and in John's teaching there was none of that. His was a granite passion, a constant passion, a passion rooted in the conviction that writing was a vocation in the most humble sense of that word, a calling, and that great writing can and should try to improve the world.
John did not write in the semesters he taught. In addition to teaching his classes, each week he met individually with every student to review the previous week's papers. Every student, every week. He critiqued your paper in pencil and in conference would file through his comments patiently, making sure you understood them, and then would neatly erase the marks he'd made, as if to say, I'm gone now, it's up to you, get back to work.
John taught his course by using models. We studied and wrote from these models the way art students draw from the Old Masters. We wrote personal essays based on the wondrous depiction of Achilles' shield in Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Iliad, and profiles of Yale professors based on Gorky's portrait of Tolstoy. But there is no question that the model we clung to was his. We wanted to know about Hiroshima, about May Day, about how he was going about writing The Call. A few students even took to speaking in that Hersey cadence, the soft but sure footfalls on every word, and that little twitch at the back of the neck when he was making an important point. But, in the tradition of truly great teaching he shook off the copycats and sent us all out to find our own voices, and our own calling.
He made sure we understood the difference between striving for fame and striving for excellence, a near impossible task considering that most of us were convinced that in any minute we would be receiving the first Pulitzer for college reporting or perhaps the first O. Henry awarded to a short story published in a campus quarterly. He rid us of our desire for fads and left us with the universals: that when language breaks down, violence enters, and that a writer speaks for those who have no voice.
"Who will take my father's place...in this daily practice of the language of the tribe? Anyone who wishes. He said once the field of writing will never be crowded not because people can't do important work, but because they don't think they can."
Kim R. Stafford
Poet William Stafford was the consultant to the Poetry Division of the Library of Congress in 1970-1971. Stafford's son, Kim, is also a poet and director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
MY FATHER'S PLACE
A few days after my father, poet William Stafford, died, I was sleeping alone at the house of my parents when something woke me at around 4 A.M. My mother, who was away, had told me of this effect, for she, too, had been wakened since his death at my father's customary writing time. As I opened my eyes, the moon was shining through the bedroom window. But that wasn't it. The house was still, the neighborhood quiet. The house wanted me to rise. It was the hour, a beckoning. There was a soft tug. Nothing mystical, just a habit to the place. The air was sweet, life was good, it was time.
I dressed and shuffled down the hall. In the kitchen, I remembered how he would make himself a cup of instant coffee and some toast. I followed the custom, putting the kettle on, slicing some bread my mother had made, letting the plink of the spoon stirring the coffee be the only sound, then the scrape of a butter knife. And then I was to go to the couch and lie down with paper. I pulled the green mohair blanket from the closet, turned on a lamp, and settled in the horizontal place where my father had greeted maybe ten thousand mornings with his pen and paper. I put my head on the pillow just where his head had worn through the silk lining.
What should I write? There was no sign, only a feeling of generosity in the room. A streetlight brightened the curtain beside me, but the rest of the room was dark. I let my gaze rove the walls the fireplace, the dim rectangle of a painting, the hooded box of the television cabinet, a table with magazines. It was all ordinary, suburban. But there was this beckoning. In the dark of the house it felt as if my father's death had become an empty bowl that was filled from below, like the stone cavern of a spring that brimmed cold with water from a deep place. There was grief, and also this abundance. So many people had written to us saying, "Words cannot begin to express how we feel..." They can't? I honored the feeling, for I, too, am sometimes mute with grief. But words can begin to express how it is, especially if they can be relaxed, brimming in their own plain way.
I looked for a long time at the bouquet of sunflowers on the coffee table beside the couch. I remembered sunflowers are the state flower of Kansas. I remembered my father's poem about yellow cars. I remembered how, the night before, we had eaten the last of his third summer planting of green beans. For a time, I thought back to the last writing my father had done at this place, the morning of August 28. As often, he had begun with a line from an ordinary experience, a stray call from an insurance agent trying to track down what turned out to be a different William Stafford. The call had amused him, the words had stayed with him. And that morning, he had begun to write:
"Are you Mr. William Stafford?"
As often, he started with the recent daily news from his own life, and came to deeper things:
Well it was yesterday.
Sunlight used to follow my hand.
And that's when the strange
siren-like sound flooded
over the horizon and rushed
through the streets of our town...
But I wasn't delving into his writing now, only his writing life. I was inhabiting the cell of his habit: earlier than anyone, more ordinary in this welcome, simply listening.
The house was so quiet, I was aware distinctly of my breathing, my heart, how sweet each breath came into me, and the total release of each exhalation. I felt as if my eyes, too, had been "tapered for braille." The edge of the coffee table held a soft gleam from the streetlight. The jostled stack of magazines had a kind of sacred logic, where he had touched them. Then I saw how each sunflower had dropped a little constellation of pollen on the table. The pollen seemed to burn, so intense in color and purpose. But the house the house didn't want me to write anything profound. The soft tug that had wakened me, the tug I still felt, wanted me to be there with myself, awake, awake to everything ordinary, to sip my bitter instant coffee, and to gaze about and to remember. I remembered how my father had said once that such a time alone would allow anyone to go inward, in order to go outward. Paradoxically, he said, you had to go into yourself in order to find the patterns that were bigger than your own life.
I started to write ordinary things. And then I came to the sunflowers, and the spirit of the house warned me this could be told wrong if I tried to make something of it. It's not about trying. It's not about writing poems. It's not about achievement, certainly not fame, importance. It's about being there exactly with the plain life of a time before first light, with breath, the streetlight on one side of the house and the moon on the other, about the worn silk, the blanket, and that little dusting of pollen from the sunflowers.
My head fit the dent in the pillow, the blanket warmed my body, my hand moved easily, carelessly with the pen. I heard the scratch on paper. If this was grieving, it was active in plain things. I found myself relishing the simplest words, mistrusting metaphor, amused by my own habits of verve with words, forgiving myself an occasional big thought:
...to pause at the gate to take
off the one big shoe
of his body and step forward light
I could forgive myself because there was this abundance in time and place and habit. And then I had a page, I closed my notebook, and I rose for the day. There was much to do, but I had done the big thing already.
Who will take my father's place in the world of poetry? No one. Who will take his place in this daily practice of the language of the tribe? Anyone who wishes. He said once the field of writing will never be crowded not because people can't do important work, but because they don't think they can. This way of writing beckons to anyone who wishes to rise and listen, to write without fear of either achievement or failure. There is no burden, only a beckoning. For when the house beckons, you will wake easily. There is a stove where you make something warm. There is a light that leaves much of the room dark. There is a place to be comfortable, a place you have worn with the friendly shape of your body. This is your own breath, the treasuries of your recollection, the blessings of your casual gaze. What is this way of writing, of listening easily and telling simply? There is the wall, the table, and whatever stands this day for Kansas pollen in your own precious life.
Copyright © 1997 by Phyllis Theroux