This Chesterton quotation is one of those very fine, very annoying things we say to each other at times like these, late Decembers, year ends, year beginnings. Yes yes soul must
clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
and louder sing and
Take a look at the most significant publishing launch for the American new year if you want to know how tunefully renewed our souls are.
Our souls are clapping pills down their gullets.
Still, we want what we want. We want vivacity, and we want wisdom. We want to feel we are truly alive, and we want to feel we are living in the truth.
This long clunky poem written in 1897 by Edwin Arlington Robinson – “Octaves” – gets at the problem kind of nicely… Or, since it’s not a very good poem, it gets at the problem in a way ol’ UD finds moving. The bad writing, the unachieved philosophical ambition, the naivete — UD likes these. She likes the peculiar way they’re deployed here, in this particular poem, which records the sound of one man trying to clap.
Some of it’s claptrap, actually, which UD also likes.
You’re welcome to whomp yourself up with Onward Christian Soldiers as you anticipate the new year; UD‘s looking for lyrics that capture the way we shout RETREAT just as loudly as we shout ADVANCE.
So let’s see. We’re not gonna do the whole poem because as I said it’s quite long, one eight-line verse after another after another.
Start here, in the middle of the eighth stanza.
[T]hough forlornly joyless be the ways
We travel, the compensate spirit-gleams
Of Wisdom shaft the darkness here and there,
Like scattered lamps in unfrequented streets.
Clunky, yes? Forlornly joyless feels not only redundant but unpretty as language; and the little points of light that lucid vivid soulfulness sheds are dully compared to streetlights… Reminds UD of Tennyson’s arch, also a dull image:
[A]ll experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
And this is also an image of the glinting into this dull world of the highly lit existence – the new life, the new soul, the new year – that beckons us.
Where does a dead man go?—The dead man dies;
But the free life that would no longer feed
On fagots of outburned and shattered flesh
Wakes to a thrilled invisible advance,
Unchained (or fettered else) of memory;
And when the dead man goes it seems to me
‘T were better for us all to do away
With weeping, and be glad that he is gone.
Let the dead bury the dead, says Robinson; or, rather, Robinson natters away about it while Blake, say, or Allen Ginsberg, or – a prose favorite of UD‘s – Henry Miller – gets it said faster and louder and more jazzily… But, again, UD finds the nattery quality here, the sense of Robinson talking to himself, inquiring rather than announcing, attractive, faithful to most people’s mental reality. A “thrilled invisible advance” is very nice — if one can free oneself from one’s past (UD‘s friend David Kosofsky, who died last year, once lamented in an email to her that he was
feeling self-loathing at never having wrestled my adolescent issues to even a stalemate.)
one can perhaps experience an exciting inward forward motion, a surge of open possibility — that new life everyone’s on about…
But this operation – this wrestling – will probably have to be pretty brutal — “be glad that he is gone.” Blake writes: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” We may not have the stomach for this psychic savagery. We may prefer, like David, a weak form of wrestling which makes us hate our inability to have done with things and move on.
So through the dusk of dead, blank-legended,
And unremunerative years we search
To get where life begins, and still we groan
Because we do not find the living spark
Where no spark ever was; and thus we die,
Still searching, like poor old astronomers
Who totter off to bed and go to sleep,
To dream of untriangulated stars.
Very nice, no? Every now and then Robinson knocks one out of the park. Untriangulated stars is spectacular, as is blank-legended… And what’s the point here? Only that we set out on our new yearly reanimations all wrong; we assume some originary point of purity, of full light, from which we have strayed into the dark, and we piss our lives away trying to get back (like Citizen Kane with Rosebud) to that first principle, Gatsby’s just-flicked-on green light. We think of ourselves as that singular Thing, a Thing not yet triangulated (of course even if we get as far as accepting triangulation, that’s probably still tragic – think of the images of blighted stars amid the sound ones in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Absalom! Absalom!), not yet implicated in the convoluted compromised crowded human story, not yet part of a pattern… We piss our lives away dreaming of getting back to some …
Hold on. Gotta get on the train back to DC. Later.
We lack the courage to be where we are:—
We love too much to travel on old roads,
To triumph on old fields; we love too much
To consecrate the magic of dead things,
And yieldingly to linger by long walls
Of ruin, where the ruinous moonlight
That sheds a lying glory on old stones
Befriends us with a wizard’s enmity.
Not only dead people and their ghostly power over us; not only a disabling sense of our own now-dimmed-but-somehow-maybe-reignitable selves; we also have to reckon with the romance of escapism, the magic of dead things, the malignant wizardry of a world softened into friendly, familiar and lulling shapes. James Merrill, contemplating his love for Greece, writes
[H]ow I want
Essentials: salt, wine, olive, the light, the scream —
No! I have scarcely named you,
And look, in a flash you stand full-grown before me,
Row upon row, Essentials …
You want the hard sharp present-time clarity of things themselves; but even when you go to the trouble of moving to iconic things-in-themselves locations, things-in-themselves tend as soon as you’ve noted and named them to shrink into abstractions — the abstraction in this case being, well, Essentials…
The prophet of dead words defeats himself:
Whoever would acknowledge and include
The foregleam and the glory of the real,
Must work with something else than pen and ink
And painful preparation: he must work
With unseen implements that have no names,
And he must win withal, to do that work,
Good fortitude, clean wisdom, and strong skill.
That last line is a real let-down; the stanza takes us from Keats (“pipe to the spirit/ditties of no tone”) to the Boy Scouts (fortitude, wisdom, skill). But it makes its point well enough: If you want to grasp and express concrete essentials, you are going to have to do a good deal of private soulwork, as Stephen Dedalus says at the end of Portrait:
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
And – not to lay the discouragement on too thick, but … you recall how well Dedalus did at that ambition, right?
Still, writers can sometimes grasp essentials, internalize them… Or rather say they can metabolize them… Give them new life, a new soul.