|Texts and Contexts|
“...I realize that it is impossible for me
to raise myself to the altitude of the stars,
and that I am forced, therefore, to bring down
the stars to my own level and to incorporate
them in my own physical universe.”
Dylan Thomas, (letter, Jan. 1934)
It is not only religion that imagines and images order as being something high above this tormented earth which seems to be ruled by flux, accident, and ceaseless change. Philosophy and metaphysics frequently propose orderings based on abstract concepts and principles which are said to exist outside our changeable, material world. For example, in sonnet #116, William Shakespeare gazes heavenward and locates there an idealized, unchangeable symbol for love. It is a star. In fact, it may well be the polar star by which ships in Shakespeare’s day took their bearings and navigated on the open sea. Such an image of an “ever-fixed” and stable object functions as an ordering principle in a world of storm and flux where the human heart can alter as quickly as the weather. Here’s the poem:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The star, his metaphor for perfect love, doesn’t change, doesn’t even move. Serenely above it all, this “love” exists outside not only the timebound world, but also outside the human world of embodied selves. It is abstract, transcendent—a philosophical ideal (notice that it is a marriage of minds that the poem celebrates, not bodies). Perfected, detached, its purity somehow sustains us and represents an ideal everyone can steer by. Such a love doesn’t perish with the “rosy lips and cheeks” of embodied being.
A belief in metaphysical ideals, like a belief in religious orderings, is based on faith and when that faith wanes, poets must seek elsewhere for their orderings. In the West, profound cultural reorderings and displacements in the eighteenth century led many poets to lose confidence in such abstract orderings, and one manifestation of this was the rise of Romanticism. The most characteristic expression of Romanticism was the personal lyric, which became more and more secular as the self struggled with a subjectivity no longer understandable in the light of religion or metaphysics. To bring the struggle for orderings down into the timebound, secular world was also to bring it down into the human body. The English Romantic poet John Keats was a profound admirer of Shakespeare and learned a great deal about sounds from his poems. In one of his sonnets, “Bright Star”, he “borrows” sonnet #116’s image of the star and its ideal quality of being beyond change (and thus something one can count on, something that can order one’s world). He borrows Shakespeare’s star, but he alters it and alters his relationship to it by trying to bring its quality of stability down into the time-bound and body-bound world of human relationships. Here is Keats’ sonnet:
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft fall and swell,
Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, (1819)
Much as Keats appreciates the steadfast quality of the star, he notes its isolation: its “lone splendor” makes it like a hermit monk. His desire to bring the star’s qualities of unchangeable endurance down into the world of sexual intimacy where he lies “pillowed upon (his) fair love’s ripening breast” has as its price an entanglement with change and death. The “ripening” of breast is an image of fruit and contains within it the frightening implication of rotting and decay.1 How can Keats have both his sensual intimacy and his “forever?” How can he have the disorder of human bodies in time and also have his “still”—his unchanging quality? Questions without an answer—because Keats expresses his situation as a passionate, irrational wish, a longing, not a metaphysical dilemma which he is obligated to answer with a philosophical idea. What Keats’ sonnet does is dramatize his longing for order and his longing for erotic intimacy, plus his sense that somehow they are at odds with each other. Whereas Shakespeare’s sonnet makes a certain metaphysical or emotional claim based on an abstract ideal, Keats’ sonnet plops the issue right down in the timebound human world of bodies and passions and makes no intellectual claim but simply articulates an anguished desire. As such, it is a secular personal lyric. Keats has moved down from the detachment and idealization of Shakespeare’s sonnet to the embodied self, but in doing so, he’s becomes entangled in mortality.
Here’s a third poem that continues our theme of “borrowing” and modifying from earlier poems. Written about forty-five years after Keats’ “Bright Star,” this poem by Walt Whitman seems to have overheard Keats’s sonnet and lifted from it specific images and its sensual tone. This time, the borrowing is of the imagery of “washing” and “still,” and also that favorite Keatsean word “soft:”
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage
must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night
incessantly softly wash again, and ever again,
this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still
in the coffin—I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips
the white face in the coffin. (1865-66)
Whitman has clearly also lifted from Keats the image of the ocean as a priest whose rhythmic tides are like a ritual cleansing of “earth’s human shore.” Keats’ personification of something as vast and shapeless as the ocean is matched by Whitman’s allegorical figures of Death and Night as “sisters” who are “incessantly softly wash(ing) again, and ever again, this soil’d world.” Both poems personify cosmic forces whose rhythms (one thinks of the “tide of night” as a recurring pattern) indicate an order almost more profound than the human imagination can comprehend, but one that seems in both poets’ eyes to be benevolently related to human anguish.
Keats was writing about the mystery of erotic love, Whitman is taking on that other great mystery: death. If death and war are the disordering powers Whitman seeks to engage and order in this poem, then “time” is imagined not as his enemy, but as his friend. Time will obliterate all traces of war and its carnage.2 And the sisters Death and Night, like the “priestlike waters” in Keats’ sonnet, will further cleanse a world soiled by suffering. Whitman’s poem, like Keats’ sonnet, begins at a great distance from the physical world—but its distance is the abstraction of conceptual language (“reconciliation” the “word” that is “over all” which is compared to the same distant sky that the stars in both earlier poems occupied. Whitman’s poem is like a zoom shot in films—it starts with a wide shot (wide as the sky) and moves relentlessly down and in, closer and closer to details. Before we know it, we are in the world of human bodies: of the dead body of “my enemy” and of the speaker’s own body drawing near to that dead body, bending down and “reconciling” with it through the gesture of a kiss.
If detachment and abstraction are aspects of the Thanatos principle, and if an “enemy” is another human from whom one is cut off by hatred and alienation, then Whitman’s poem is about the Eros of an affirmed connection “a man divine as myself” and a gesture (the kiss) overcoming Thanatos. Whitman’s poem embodies its meaning through selves (the “I” and the body of the enemy) and through the action of intimate contact as reconciliation. Distance can be a metaphor for estrangement and detachment. Both Keats and Whitman collapse the distances that their poems begin with and in the process affirm intimacy and embodied meaning. Whitman’s gesture of intimacy transforms the social and political estrangement of war just as Keats’ sonnet sought to transform the personal space shared by two lovers. Whitman’s erotic gesture is as radical as that recommended by Christ when he adjures: “Love thine enemy as thyself.”
If Shakespeare’s sonnet accepted the Western philosophic legacy of a mind-body split and located its ideals in the timeless mind, then Keats and Whitman both heal that split by bringing meaning down into an embodied self.
It’s not only Western philosophy that seeks to separate the ideal and the sensuous. Christian thinking over the centuries has made common cause with its own version of the mind-body split, only this one involves soul and body. In much of Christian thinking, the soul is immaterial, pure, superior to the body—in fact, the soul is seen as an element of the divine trapped or housed within the mortal body. In his extraordinary poem “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” the Irish poet William Butler Yeats dramatizes the collision of two contrary views: the “sacred” order of the body-hating Christian bishop and the “profane” or secular vision of embodied meaning presented by “Crazy Jane” and her erotic commitments:
CRAZY JANE TALKS WITH THE BISHOP
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
“Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.”
“Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,” I cried.
“My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.”
“A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
but Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.”
The Bishop tries to frighten Crazy Jane with mortality, with images of death and bodily decay. He urges the conventional Christian commitment to a divine order in “heaven” as a reward for those who spurn the sensuous, mortal world. Jane responds by affirming that “fair and foul” (good and bad) are not that far apart; that love is of this world, and, even more vividly, that “Love” (the ideal, Shakespeare’s ever-fixed mark) is incarnated in bodies, where the sexual organs and the excretory organs (fair and foul?) are startlingly close together. Her final assertion seems quite mystically paradoxical: nothing can be whole that hasn’t been torn (rent apart). This certainly seems to affirm a secular sexual mystery. But it can even be argued that she reinforces her profane but passionate point with a series of outrageous puns: “sole” means intact and separate, but it is also a pun on “soul.” “Whole” again seems to reiterate “intact,” but also puns on “hole”—as in vagina and anus. Last but not least, these holes that remain whole are “rent apart” but there’s also a possible mocking echo of the bishop’s insinuation that Jane is a prostitute who “rents” her body. I realize all these puns might seem so odd as to be improbable, but note how powerfully and humorously they reinforce Yeats’ governing image of mystically profane anatomy. Yeats—who argued in a letter that man cannot know the truth, he “can only embody it”—has, in this poem, embodied his personal truth with surprising anatomical frankness.
1. As the cynical Jacques remarks in the middle of the cheerful love story of Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.
2. It’s worth noting that Whitman is writing this poem at the close of the American Civil War, when the issue of reconciliation had great significance for the entire country. Whitman himself had spent several years of the war working as a volunteer in Washington hospitals dressing and changing the wounds suffered by soldiers.
|TEI markup by Shelly Nocon|