Emily Dickinson, a poet who can only be described as American, wrote a dashful poem about the aftermath of a great pain. My darling Charlotte has deciphered the pain as being that which follows a bereavement. See what you make of it:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
Since my dictating the first sentence, Charlotte and I have discussed this poem and we have agreed it could apply to grief in general. The first stanza speaks of the numb paralysis after a great trauma. The Mrs Bennet esque reference to nerves is accurate and expressive. I am sure we have all felt at one point preyed upon by our nerves. The reference to Christ’s suffering is a little more confusing to me. This requires an explanation – deixis (use of general words and phrases to refer to a specific time, place, or person in context, e.g., the words tomorrow, there, and they) to be understood. We can only suppose that Dickinson’s grief seemed, at the time, to be akin to Christ on the cross. But what did He bear?
Charlotte has reminded me that one cannot mention feet in a poem without making reference to the meter of the poetry, Iambic pentameter, for example, consists of five iambs ( _ / ). There are two main types of iambs, a trochee and spondee. Trochee is stressed then and unstressed syllable. A spondee consists of two stressed syllables. An example of a trochee would be the beginning of Blake’s The Tyger: the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright
Why all this talk of poetic dissection? Merely to explain the feet pun in the second stanza. Beyond the metric punnage, the second stanza speaks of the effect of time on anxiety. The speaker uses solid materials to emphasise her frozen stiff state. Quartz contentment could mean tranquility and acceptance, stability in the hard material, or indeed a cold, hard numbness.
The final stanza is a little more jarring. It seems to suggest that the speaker does not believe she will live through the leaden hour. Will she die before she has gotten through her grief by natural causes, or by her own hand? The stages of grief are clear here, the speaker is chilled, frozen by the impact of the event, then numb. After this, the speaker is freed from her grief, though at what cost?
W. B. Yeats, (13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939), was an Irish poet and writer, and one of the leading literary figures of the last century. He is a key figure behind the Irish Literary Revival. In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. From my research, I believe When You Are Old was published in 1893, when Yeats was not very old. It was written as a love poem to an Irish revolutionary who stole his heart, Maud Gonne. She refused to marry him despite several proposals. See the poem below:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
The phrase ‘full of sleep’ is quite horrifying to me. It implies a stage in one’s old age when they are so tired and close to death that they are almost sleep walking into death. Now, death is not necessarily something to be afraid of, especially not for a practicing Catholic. But this stage of life where one is exhausted is quite worrisome for someone with a modicum of vitality, at the time of writing. The first two lines invite Maude to read this poem while she is within a few weeks of death and comfortable by the fire, possibly dozing off.
The next two lines invite Maude to remember her youth, indeed dream of it. The dark shadows signify pessimism and depression, perhaps.
The second stanza in my view casts aspersions at Maude for dumping Yeats. It implies that the man she went on to marry was a false lover. Perhaps, those who loved her falsely enjoyed her beauty over the substance of her character. This is confirmed in the second half of this stanza when Yeats points out, helpfully, that he loved her wandering and/or searching soul
The last stanza reminds me of the beginning of Revelation 12, where the writer (ostensibly St John), describes the Virgin Mary in Heaven.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
Yeats is berating his ex love interest in the spiciest form yet, goading her for wasting an entire life because she has not spent it with him, even implying she is going to hell as he, Mr Right, ends up in heaven. Overall, a lovely poem! There is a lot of sass, a lot of projection and a lot of power here.
Welcome to the March 2022 edition of Five Favourites. See below my choices for this month
Black and White – The Stranglers (1978)
The four members of the Stranglers are looking quite morose on this cover. You will be glad to know that the B side of Tank, when it was released on vinyl, has the original singer, Dionne Warwick, on it. This is the same with the vinyl itself. I love this cover and so too does Mr Nick, who remarked on it when I showed him the vinyl.
London Calling – The Clash (1979)
British photographer Penny Smith took this iconic photograph. You can see an excellent article on the cover here. I was fascinated to read that she does not like the photograph of the lead singer, Paul Simonon, smashing his good bass guitar, as it is out of focus. This was the case, because she was backing away from him so as not to get hit!
The The – Soul Mining (1983)
This was album of the month last month and with good reason. The cover feels very much like how you will feel when listening to it. It speaks to the shocking soul searching of the lead singer, whom my father reliably informs me was in Marc and the Mambas. It is a difficult album and indeed a dark one. The cover speaks volumes.
Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads (1984)
The Big Suit. Need I say more? This cover contains one of the more iconic jackets in music history. I believe the suit is either in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or some fashion museum. This album is out of this world but the cover is pretty awesome too.
Night Flight to Venus – Boney M (1978)
For my last cover I have chosen the excellent Night Flight to Venus. Imagine four be-tutued Germans coming at you, at speed, while holding on to a rope. Is there anything more horrifying? Yes: their other album covers.
Van Gogh painted this arresting painting in the last few weeks of his life. He did a series of paintings of wheat fields around Auvers, of which Theresa May would be proud. This one, Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, is quite arresting and took me by surprise.
In these landscapes he tried to express ‘sadness, extreme loneliness’. But the overwhelming emotions that Van Gogh experienced in nature were also positive. He wrote to his brother Theo, ‘I’d almost believe that these canvases will tell you what I can’t say in words, what I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside.’
The elongated format of Wheatfields under Thunderclouds is unusual. It emphasizes the grandeur of the landscape, as does the simple composition: two horizontal planes. Van Gogh Museum
This is a simple painting, covering two horizontal plains. It is painted with simple, visible brush strokes, yet I find it quite striking. The emotion in this piece is palpable. The movement of the clouds, both light and dark is haunting. It is advancing towards you as you are watching. You can almost see the curtain of rain in the distance. The wheat in the field is almost moving and you can see the wind taking the three in the bottom right.
There is something very moving in this painting, there is a brooding, almost menacing quality to it. The painting reflects what Van Gogh must have felt in the closing weeks of his life, a kind of loneliness and despair, but at the same time in his own words, it is meant to show us the restorative qualities of the countryside. In all, a fascinating work in the later period of Van Gogh’s life.
Another metaphysical Catholic poem? Why, yes of course! Although, my dearest Charlotte tells me that he was in fact first Catholic, then reneged the faith (his family were recusant), then became Anglican priest and apostatised, which is rather shocking to me. That word has rather negative connotations for me since I watched the 2016 Scorsese film Silence. See below John Donne’s striking rebuke of Death personified:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
This poem uses the literary tactic of Apostrophe (not apostasy), which addresses a subject who cannot respond. Here, Donne addresses Death directly, as a person, and takes him down a peg. In the first two lines we see Death’s reputation as being full of pride and mighty. Donne tells us that this is in fact not the case. The second two lines follow suit, telling Death that he does not not in fact have the power to overthrow us, that Death itself has no power to kill, so we should not be afraid of it. Even St Paul knew this, as Charlotte pointed out to me as we were walking to Mass, in the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?”
1 Corinthians 15:55
The next four lines show death as akin to falling asleep, further degrading Death personified and encouraging the reader to be less frightened. Donne goes on to explain that the good die soonest in order to experience this peaceful rest and go with death to their eternal resting place.
There’s really no point in doing anything in life because it’s all over in the blink of an eye. The next thing you know, rigor mortis sets in. Oh, how the good die young.
Mr Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel
(excellent article on the nonsense poetry int he film here)
Lines 9-10 see Donne taunting Death saying that he is impotent without the foolish acts of man. Without chancers and fate, Death would not have a purpose, in essence. Donne makes fun of Death’s friends, poison war and sickness, to further degrade him. Lines 11-12 continue in the vein of lines 7 and 8, stating that Death brings only a short sleep and that poppies (drugs) can do the same. Why should we be afraid of a little sleep?
The final two lines are evidence of Donne’s faith. One short sleep and we, like Christ, awake into eternal life. Therefore, Death is robbed of all his power and indeed shall die. This notion of eternal life is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. It helps the faithful live their life to the fullest in the hope of eternal glory. This concept is one I have been wrestling with for some time but can see is wonderfully calming when understood. Donne saw this almost 400 years ago and I have found great comfort in his writings. I can only hope you will, also.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas or the Rockox Triptych (or “Altarpiece”), is a triptych painting by Peter Paul Rubens(1577 – 1640), and was produced between 1613 and 1615. On either side of the triptych you can see sir Nicolaas II Rockox and his spouse Adriana Perez. This painting was originally commissioned for the Lady Chapel in the Recollects Convent in Antwerp but now sits in the Great Hall of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where I saw it in October.
If you can bring yourself to ignore the ‘freaky Dutch bastards’ as Dr Evil would call them, the central panel is something of a masterpiece. I went to the museum with Celia and she must have thought me quite queer because I stopped and stared at this painting for at least ten minutes. I felt like Ongo Gablogian having an epiphany.
Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”John 20:25
Here, three apostles, Thomas, Peter and John, are incredulous at Christ’s returning from the dead. This event is the bedrock of the Christian faith. They are looking at Christ with surprise, with Thomas wanting to verify this incredible event with empirical evidence, namely putting a finger in the wounds. The event speaks to the quality of faith, asking us whether we believe this core tenet of our faith without needing for it to be verified. I was so moved by this painting. Seeing Christ depicted with such light and looking at his doubting apostles with love in spite of their doubt electrified me. There are three reactions in this painting as I can see, shock by Thomas, interest by Peter (closest to us, presuming this is indeed Peter) and love from John in the back. I may have got the apostles in the wrong order, for which I can only apologise. Which of these three reactions would we have when confronted with this event in scripture?
I noticed at once that Jesus’ halo was missing in this painting but that a faint gold glow can see seen behind his head. The absence of a halo emphasises the corporeality of the risen Christ, that is to say that Christ is here in human form again. This was another striking aspect of the painting for me, with Rubens, who was always inspired to his work by faith, stating clearly his belief in the resurrection.
Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”John 20:29
Overall this is a work of genius which left a lasting impression on me. It tackles the founding event of the Christian faith and was profoundly moving to me. I am very much looking forward to my next trip to Amsterdam when I will be able to see it again.
“My passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings.” Rubens