Kiss me, I'm Catholic.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Anti-Narnia

Recently Mark Shea wrote a post about Philip Pullman that generated a big comment-box fight. I have been waiting so long for Catholic commentators to take on Philip Pullman, but they insist on writing about Harry Potter. (To be fair, here are two Catholic articles on Pullman: An Almost Christian Fantasy and Paradise Denied.) It puzzles me to no end that Michael O'Brien, usually quite sensitive to implicitness and symbolism (in other people's work, anyway), has been leading such a Crusade against poor Harry. For Harry Potter is about as sinister as The Wizard of Oz. I read the first Harry Potter book on my thirteenth birthday, and kept reading them until the fifth book came out, when I sort of lost my mania for them; and never throughout did I see Harry cross swords with Catholicism. In fact... Well, look at these quotes from the first book:

A wretched servant of Lord Voldemort ("Will-to-Death") tells Harry that "There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it..." This Nietzchian beyond-good-and-evil crap is consistently condemned. For all the harnessing of magical forces in the book, the climax involves a renunciation of power that is quite close to Tolkien, actually. Voldemort's pawn is trying to get the titular Philosopher's Stone out of the Mirror of Erised ("desire" backwards) - but Harry is the only one who can get it out, because he doesn't want to use the Stone, only to keep it out of the hands of Voldemort. Of the Stone itself, Dumbledore (who reminds me a little of Gandalf in his Hobbit phase) says, "You know, the Stone was not really such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all - the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them." He tells Harry, "Nevertheless, Harry, while you may only have delayed [Voldemort's] return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems like a losing battle next time - and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power." Remind me what Tolkien said about the Shadow again?

And then there is the theme of his mother's sacrificial love, which has marked Harry forever and given him protection from evil. And in the third book Harry is saved from the soul-destroying Dementors by his Patronus - a mysterious guardian that takes the shape of a beautiful silver stag, the symbol of his father. Michael O'Brien might want to remember that he wrote a nearly identical scene in Plague Journal. In the same book, Harry shows mercy to the man who betrayed his parents to their death. Pettigrew escapes, and it is clear that Harry's pity will "rule the fate of many." In Book #2, Harry must descend into an underground chamber and fight a huge serpent, a scene so fraught with (perhaps merely instinctual) Christian symbolism, from the snake to the sword to the phoenix, that it's practically a morality play.

Another thing to consider: Harry's best friend, Ron, is one of seven children. The family is poor, but they love each other, are satisfied with what they have, and are gloriously hospitable to Harry. Harry's WASP-y nemesis however, Draco Malfoy, is a pampered only child who sneers at the Weasleys for having "red hair and more children than they can afford." Go figure.

Okay, now that I've exorcised that rant... on to Philip Pullman.

I started reading Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy at the same time I started reading about our friend Harry. Pullman's writing is better and more sophisticated than Rowling's (although his message turns out to be far more puerile), and his plots are endlessly inventive and surprising - until the third book, anyway, but more on that later.

His most captivating device is the idea of alternate worlds. The protagonist, Lyra, lives in a world that is almost like ours, but riddled with little differences that continually throw the reader off guard. Lyra lives in a college of Oxford called Jordan College, which Pullman evokes in loving, thouroughly British detail - but which doesn't actually exist. There are gypsies in this world, but they are called gyptians; and they eschew caravans for brightly-painted boats which they sail through all the waterways of Europe. The people of this world have zeppelins instead of airplanes. China is still Cathay and chocolate is still chocolatl. But the most important differences are religious and metaphysical.

Unlike Rowling, Pullman infuses his story with religion from the beginning. Lyra, like everyone else in her world, has a daemon - a shape-shifting creature named Pantalaimon who can take any animal form. A daemon is actually your soul - if you are seperated from it, you die. Interestingly, your daemon takes on a fixed shape in adolescence. (This detail becomes the touchstone of Pullman's twisted theology.) So in this world, a metaphysical reality like the soul is visible. But there are other differences. The Church exists too, and it is a looming presence from the beginning of the story. It's holy city is not Rome, but Geneva, and the present Pope's name is John Calvin. These details are not exactly subtle, but I didn't give them much thought when I first read The Golden Compass. Not until The Amber Spyglass did he come right out and say, "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." I didn't suspect an agenda, and the writing kept me spellbound:

At once she saw that something strange was happening in the sky. She thought it was clouds, moving and trembling under a nervous agitation, but Pantalaimon whispered:

"The Aurora!"

Her wonder was so strong that she had to clutch the rail to keep from falling.

The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer. Lyra thought she could hear them: a vast distant whispering swish. In the evanescent delicacy she felt something as profound as she'd felt close to the bear. She was moved by it; it was so beautiful it was almost holy; she felt tears prick her eyes, and the tears splintered the light even further into prismatic rainbows. It wasn't long before she found herself entering the same kind of trance as when she consulted the alethiometer. Perhaps, she thought calmly, whatever moves the alethiometer's needle is making the Aurora glow too. It might even be Dust itself...

And as she gazed, the image of a city seemed to form itself behind the veils and streams of translucent color: towers and domes, honey-colored temples and colonnades, broad boulevards and sunlit parkland. Looking at it gave her a sense of vertigo, as if she were looking not up but down, and across a gulf so wide that nothing could ever pass over it. It was a whole universe away.

Beautiful writing can cover a multitude of sins, but not for long. Pullman attempts a massive transvaluation of values: God is evil, Satan is good, Original Sin is Heavenly Grace. I'm not sure that any writer could pull off such an audacious sleight-of-hand, and Pullman certainly doesn't. The inversions remain too disturbing. The whole thing crumbles under the weight of the centuries-old archetypes he attempts to subvert: Pullman's life-giving Dust can never really supress the memory of TS Eliot's handful of dust, or the ashes and dust of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. His good, wise serpent can't drive out the serpent that is a primal symbol of evil. Again, I think of something O'Brien wrote. He told the story of a woman who submitted a picture to an art exhibit he was judging:

Titled, Icon, it depicted a pile of snakes writhing in the womb of the central figure. Somewhat horrified I asked her why she had done this. Judaeo-Christianity, she explained, had unjustly maligned the serpent. And in order to rehabilitate this symbol it was necessary to take the serpent into her womb, to gestate it, and eventually to bear it into the world as a sacred feminine icon. I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind, and reinforce our understanding of the shape of reality. They are a language about good and evil: furthermore they can be points of contact with these two realities. To face evil without the equipment Christianity has given us is dangerously naïve.

No kidding.

The third book fails as literature because Pullman is deeply conflicted in his worldview. Specifically:

1. Before he switches around all of the Christian archetypes he changes their original meaning. For instance, in an interview he says, "The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know - celebrated, rather than deplored." In his books he says that the Fall of Adam and Eve was a good thing - but he means something entirely different by the Fall. I think Pullman himself was befuddled by these contortions, because the more metaphysical the plot becomes, the weaker and more confused it gets. For instance, all three books are building up to the death of God. But when this moment comes, it is one of the most utterly underwhelming moments in literature. It's such a letdown that it's almost funny, like lighting a huge firecracker, waiting for it to go off, and watching in disbelief as it lets off a couple of sparks and fizzles out. Why? Because Pullman is an atheist, so the being that Will and Lyra kill (by accident, no less) isn't God at all. WHOA, exciting plot twist!

2. Pullman wants to have his cake and eat it too: He wants to be a materialist, free and unhaunted by gods or demons, while remaining a humanist. This, in post-Christian times, is impossible. A passage from this provocative essay gives a good explanation:

The command to have no other god but Him whom Christ revealed was never for Christians simply an invitation to forsake an old cult for a new, but was an announcement that the shape of the world had changed, from the depths of hell to the heaven of heavens, and all nations were called to submit to Jesus as Lord. In the great “transvaluation” that followed, there was no sphere of social, religious, or intellectual life that the Church did not claim for itself; much was abolished, and much of the grandeur and beauty of antiquity was preserved in a radically altered form, and Christian civilization—with its new synthesis and new creativity—was born.

But what is the consequence, then, when Christianity, as a living historical force, recedes? We have no need to speculate, as it happens; modernity speaks for itself: with the withdrawal of Christian culture, all the glories of the ancient world that it baptized and redeemed have perished with it in the general cataclysm. Christianity is the midwife of nihilism, not because it is itself nihilistic, but because it is too powerful in its embrace of the world and all of the world’s mystery and beauty; and so to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity. As Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, the freedom that the gospel brings is too terrible to be borne indefinitely. Our sin makes us feeble and craven, and we long to flee from the liberty of the sons of God; but where now can we go? Everything is Christ’s.

With that in mind, this exchange takes on a grotesque irony:

Robert Bulter: Question from a fellow atheist who is appalled by the materialism of this society - how would PP recommend children develop spiritual life?

Philip Pullman: I don't use the word spiritual myself, because I don't have a clear sense of what it means. But I think it depends on your view of education: whether you think that the true end and purpose of education is to help children grow up, compete and face the economic challenges of a global environment that we're going to face in the 21st century, or whether you think it's to do with helping them see that they are the true heirs and inheritors of the riches - the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches - of the whole world.

Pullman and Bulter are both materialists by definition. Theirs is a gourmet materialism, but it is materialism none the less. It's a tragedy; Pullman is such a good writer, and he has fabulous ideas about literature and the necessity of art, the necessity of meaning and the education of children. But for all his longing to tell children "true stories," he has only lies and half-truths to give. I, along with millions of other children (Pullman's books are nearly as popular as Rowling's, though less talked about), awaited the final book with rapt anticipation, wondering what the stunning, transcendant conclusion of the book would be - and was rewarded with abject emptiness. Scores of teenage girls begged Pullman to write a sequel that would remedy the ending: Lyra and Will forced to give up their love for each other, and go back to their seperate worlds - forever. Pullman is explicit about his hatred of Tolkien and Lewis, but he made good use of their philosophies in his first two books. There are many places where he seems to be applying the lessons in Tolkien's lecture, "On Fairy-Stories." But he finally cuts himself free of them, renouncing all possibility of eucatastrophe in his last book. Although he writes about souls, spirits, God and angels, he relentlessly flattens out everything spiritual: God is just an imposter angel, and the angels are not "spirits" at all, but clouds of rare subabtomic particles. That's what the human soul is as well - a cloud of dark matter that dissolves into oblivion on death. And the dissolving ghosts rejoice in this final dissolution, as Pullman expects his readers to do. He abandons his clever implicitness and sermonizes through his characters, who spout platitudes of an apalling and brutal stupidity. In the limbo where the Authority has confined all the ghosts of the dead,

"...a young woman stepped forward. She had died as a martyr centuries before. She looked around and said to the other ghosts:

"When we were alive, they told us that when we died we'd go to Heaven. And they said that Heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That's what they said. And that's what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew.

"Because the land of the dead isn't a place of reward or a place of punishment. It's a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom forever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep, or rest, or peace.

"But now this child has come offering us a way out and I'm going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I'll welcome it, because it won't be nothing. We'll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we'll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we'll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical word, which is our true home and always was."

That makes me feel so much better.

If "the real world" is all there is, why do we long for a better one? Why do words like this resonate so strongly:

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Whence comes that ache when we sing, nobis donet in patria?

And what to do when "the physical world" isn't all moon and stars? This world is beautiful, but also cruel. For Pullman, Heaven is a "full" and happy life on Earth. I suppose that predestines many of us to Hell. You can't control the circumstances of your birth.

Mary, the ex-nun physicist, is supposed to fullfill her role as "the serpent" by telling Will and Lyra true stories. She tells them about how she lost her faith by falling in love with an Italian while at a conference in Portugal. "But he was nice and clever and funny and it was the easiest thing in the world to sit there in the lantern light under the lemon tree with the scent of the flowers and the grilled food and the wine, and talk and laugh and feel myself hoping that he thought I was pretty. Sister Mary Malone, flirting!" All that sultry latinismo loosens her right up, and lo and behold, she doesn't want to be a nun any more! She conveniently discovers that God is dead, and throws her crucifx into the sea. Hurrah! The two children are enthralled, of course. Ironically, Mary doesn't marry the man who gave her this Joycean epiphany; she lives with another man for four years, gleefully scandalizing everyone, and finally she leaves him, too, to continue her work. "So I'm solitary but happy, if you see what I mean." And Pullman still tries to make us believe that Will and Lyra's puppy love saves the universe. It's a sentimentality so shameless it's willing to coexist with nihilism, pretending to find supernatural meaning in a flatly naturalistic universe. He leaves his young readers with this exhortation from Lyra:

"He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.... We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we'll build..." ....

"And then what?" said her daemon sleepily. "Build what?"

"The Republic of Heaven," said Lyra.

The. End.

Hasn't modernity taught us anything about the futility of Building A Godless Heaven On Earth? Is it too cynical and impolitic to say that when I hear "Republic of Heaven," I think "Thousand Year Reich?" "The heart is deceitful above all all things." But we mean so well...

It is only natural that Pullman knows no more about "the Church" than Dan Brown does. How else could he have written all that garbage? He gets his imagery from Milton and Blake, but his perception of Catholicism is straight out of Ian Paisley and Jack Chick. Sweaty-palmed assassin-priests with names like Fr. Gomez and Fr. MacPhail (Them bloody micks an' spics) engage in "preemptive absolution" to build up a store of merit that will let them commit mortal sins with immpunity. Gloomy cloisters, secret torture chambers and heresy hunts abound. It's fascinatingly awful.

Pullman might want to remember that Portugal is, after all, Catholic Country. Will we really stop chasing the phantom of instant gratification and actually enjoy life if Catholic culture doesn't compell us? Hell will freeze over before we get a fiesta from the Crêche Patrol.

The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea....
The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.... Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. - G.K.C.

I wondered for a long time why these books enraged me so, and I finally decided it was the "Anti-Narnia" scheme of them. Pullman exploits the techniques of Lewis and Tolkien to tell children atheist fairytales - and the thought of all that violated innocence made me sick. This reveiwer summarizes it best:

While many bewail the heartbreaking separation of the lovers, I found myself more angry than sad: angry that God is portrayed as an insane tyrant, angry that the Church is portrayed as unrelentingly evil and with no folk of good heart to balance the power-mad zealots, angry that so much beautiful imagery and loving description could in the end offer the reader only despair and emptiness. When Lyra says "...the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place..." I believe that she is wrong. There is more, or this mythic world we love is nothing but a bunch of empty tales, and God is truly dead. The Amber Spyglass makes this claim, but not, in my opinion, successfully. Ultimately, this series fails to truly support it's central idea...and I'm glad.

Friday, May 21, 2004

*Hector Smash!*

This is just too funny...

Troy in 15 Minutes

(Courtesy of Video Meliora.)

I wanted to see Troy for the same reason I went and saw Hidalgo - to stare adoringly at the LotR actors. But it just looks too stupid. No gods, stupid dialogue - and Briseis kills Agamemmnon?! That said, this spoof is hilarious (if you overlook the profanity).

HECTOR: This is so, so bad. SO BAD.

PARIS: Is it worse than the time I TP'd Mycenae?


Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Ballad of the White Horse

Sorry for the hiatus! I had the flu, and I could hardly move for three days, much less type. Anyway, here is my helter-skelter literary look at The Ballad of the White Horse.

Most of G.K. Chesterton's poems haven't kept very well; they're too topical, dashed off in the service of some polemic or another. That little ditty on Antidisestablishmentarianism is amusing and well-made (and the line on Islam still unnerving), but... who cares anymore?

There are poems of his, though, that ought to be remembered for ever and ever. His religious poems will never become outdated: Think A Christmas Carol and The House of Christmas. Lepanto is his second greatest poem, wonderful in so many ways... Its long, divinely energetic lines, its stirring snare-drum beat, its sudden, cinematic shifts in location and perspective, its stunning color and unforgettable rhetoric.

But the Ballad of the White Horse is on a whole other level.

It is an epic poem, but it draws you in like an exciting novel. The emotional power and weight of the imagery are so far above Chesterton's usual poetic practice that the poem becomes Yeatsian in places. It is all about the war between paganism and Christianity, with the action usually focused on King Alfred. The verses insinuate themselves easily into your memory: they bristle with phrases that have the solid ring of proverb, or prophecy.

The Ballad is rhymed, but to avoid monotony, Chesterton uses three different stanza forms. Here is a passage that uses all three:

A: Her face was like an open word
B: When brave men speak and choose,
C: The very colours of her coat
B: Were better than good news.

A: She spoke not, nor turned not,
B: Nor any sign she cast,
C: Only she stood up straight and free,
C: Between the flowers in Athelney,
B: And the river running past.

A: One dim ancestral jewel hung
B: On his ruined armour grey,
C: He rent and cast it at her feet:
C: Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
C: Men came from hall and school and street
B: And found it where it lay.

The different rhyme schemes have an emotional effect as well. There is the sing-song simplicity of ABCB, then the more lively effect when a second C rhyme is added, and then the triple rhyme CCC which has a more mysterious power. Compare the stanzas:

And right to the red torchlight,
From the trouble of morning grey,
They stripped the White Horse of the grass
As they strip it to this day.

And under the red torchlight
He went dreaming as though dull,
Of his old companions slain like kings,
And the rich irrevocable things
Of a heart that hath not openings,
But is shut fast, being full.

This passage shows another important technique of GKC's: describing the same scene more than once, to get a richer sense of it. This same tactic is used in the Chanson de Roland - when something important happens, it is described three or four times from different angles, just to try and capture its full significance. Very effective. (Stevens uses it in a rather decadent way in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.")

And then there are the characters! Chesterton introduces each of Alfred's allies with a long, brilliant descripive passage. This is part of Colan's description, which contains one of GKC's most famous stanzas:

His harp was carved and cunning,
His sword prompt and sharp,
And he was gay when he held the sword,
Sad when he held the harp.

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.

And then there is this beautiful passage, which illustrates Colan's double allegiance so well:

He kept the Roman order,
He made the Christian sign;
But his eyes grew often blind and bright,
And the sea that rose in the rocks at night
Rose to his head like wine.

He made the sign of the cross of God,
He knew the Roman prayer,
But he had unreason in his heart
Because of the gods that were.

Even they that walked on the high cliffs,
High as the clouds were then,
Gods of unbearable beauty,
That broke the hearts of men.

And whether in seat or saddle,
Whether with frown or smile,
Whether at feast or fight was he,
He heard the noise of a nameless sea
On an undiscovered isle.

Much later in the poem, GKC gives Colan a speech that is unusually ambivalent for the rollicking Catholic journalist (I mean GKC, not Colan! Funny thought, anyway.):

"The tall trees of Britain
We worshipped and were wise,
But you shall raid the whole land through
And never a tree shall talk to you,
Though every leaf is a tongue taught true
And the forest is full of eyes.


"O'er a few round hills forgotten
The trees grow tall in rings,
And the trees talk together
Of many pagan things.

"Yet I could lie and listen
With a cross upon my clay,
And hear unhurt for ever
What the trees of Britain say."

There are signs of poetic laziness here and there (GKC's predilection for splashing purple moons and peacock skies about and calling it scenery), but most of the poem is as tightly constructed as the harp contest between the the four pagans - Harold, Elf, Ogier, and King Guthrum - and Alfred. In that book of the poem, each facet of paganism is shown, and then answered by Alfred.

Thus Harold:

And he cried of the ships as eagles
That circle fiercely and fly,
And sweep the seas and strike the towns
From Cyprus round to Skye.

How swiftly and with peril
They gather all good things,
The high horns of the forest beasts,
Or the secret stones of kings.

"For Rome was given to rule the world,
And gat of it little joy--
But we, but we shall enjoy the world,
The whole huge world a toy.

"Great wine like blood from Burgundy,
Cloaks like the clouds from Tyre,
And marble like solid moonlight,
And gold like frozen fire.

"Smells that a man might swill in a cup,
Stones that a man might eat,
And the great smooth women like ivory
That the Turks sell in the street."

He sang the song of the thief of the world,
And the gods that love the thief;
And he yelled aloud at the cloister-yards,
Where men go gathering grief.

Then Elf:

...As he sang of Balder beautiful,
Whom the heavens could not save,
Till the world was like a sea of tears
And every soul a wave.

"There is always a thing forgotten
When all the world goes well;
A thing forgotten, as long ago,
When the gods forgot the mistletoe,
And soundless as an arrow of snow
The arrow of anguish fell.

"The thing on the blind side of the heart,
On the wrong side of the door,
The green plant groweth, menacing
Almighty lovers in the spring;
There is always a forgotten thing,
And love is not secure."

Then Ogier:

"You sing of the young gods easily
In the days when you are young;
But I go smelling yew and sods,
And I know there are gods behind the gods,
Gods that are best unsung.

"And a man grows ugly for women,
And a man grows dull with ale,
Well if he find in his soul at last
Fury, that does not fail.

"The wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who would rend all gods and men,
Well if the old man's heart hath still
Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
Like cataracts to break down and kill,
Well for the old man then--

"While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.

"There lives one moment for a man
When the door at his shoulder shakes,
When the taut rope parts under the pull,
And the barest branch is beautiful
One moment, while it breaks.

"So rides my soul upon the sea
That drinks the howling ships,
Though in black jest it bows and nods
Under the moons with silver rods,
I know it is roaring at the gods,
Waiting the last eclipse.

Then Guthrum:

He said, "I am older than you, Ogier;
Not all things would I rend,
For whether life be bad or good
It is best to abide the end."

He took the great harp wearily,
Even Guthrum of the Danes,
With wide eyes bright as the one long day
On the long polar plains.

For he sang of a wheel returning,
And the mire trod back to mire,
And how red hells and golden heavens
Are castles in the fire.

"It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat.

"When he shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods,
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods.

"For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell.

"And a man hopes, being ignorant,
Till in white woods apart
He finds at last the lost bird dead:
And a man may still lift up his head
But never more his heart.

"There comes no noise but weeping
Out of the ancient sky,
And a tear is in the tiniest flower
Because the gods must die.

"The little brooks are very sweet,
Like a girl's ribbons curled,
But the great sea is bitter
That washes all the world.

"Strong are the Roman roses,
Or the free flowers of the heath,
But every flower, like a flower of the sea,
Smelleth with the salt of death.

"And the heart of the locked battle
Is the happiest place for men;
When shrieking souls as shafts go by
And many have died and all may die;
Though this word be a mystery,
Death is most distant then.

"Death blazes bright above the cup,
And clear above the crown;
But in that dream of battle
We seem to tread it down.

"Wherefore I am a great king,
And waste the world in vain,
Because man hath not other power,
Save that in dealing death for dower,
He may forget it for an hour
To remember it again."

And Alfred answers furiously:

"When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;

"He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.

"But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

"What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero's throne
And asks if he is dead?


"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

"For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow."

Which doesn't convey the impact of everything I cut out. I guess you'll just have to read the whole thing. (Insert shameless plug for Ignatius Press edition here.)

The end of the poem is shamelessly didactic - or "applicable," whichever you prefer.

"Though I give this land to Our Lady,
That helped me in Athelney,
Though lordlier trees and lustier sod
And happier hills hath no flesh trod
Than the garden of the Mother of God
Between Thames side and the sea,

"I know that weeds shall grow in it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.

"They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.

"Not with the humour of hunters
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.

"They shall come mild as monkish clerks,
With many a scroll and pen;
And backward shall ye turn and gaze,
Desiring one of Alfred's days,
When pagans still were men.


"But though they bridge St. Mary's sea,
Or steal St. Michael's wing--
Though they rear marvels over us,
Greater than great Vergilius
Wrought for the Roman king;

"By this sign you shall know them,
The breaking of the sword,
And man no more a free knight,
That loves or hates his lord.

"Yea, this shall be the sign of them,
The sign of the dying fire;
And Man made like a half-wit,
That knows not of his sire.

"What though they come with scroll and pen,
And grave as a shaven clerk,
By this sign you shall know them,
That they ruin and make dark;

"By all men bond to Nothing,
Being slaves without a lord,
By one blind idiot world obeyed,
Too blind to be abhorred;

"By terror and the cruel tales
Of curse in bone and kin,
By weird and weakness winning,
Accursed from the beginning,
By detail of the sinning,
And denial of the sin;

"By thought a crawling ruin,
By life a leaping mire,
By a broken heart in the breast of the world,
And the end of the world's desire;

"By God and man dishonoured,
By death and life made vain,
Know ye the old barbarian,
The barbarian come again--

"When is great talk of trend and tide,
And wisdom and destiny,
Hail that undying heathen
That is sadder than the sea.

What a glorious torrent of talismanic curses! It's a sort of catharsis, just encountering such certainty: furious certainty of rhythym, certainty of definition that leaves the dark, nebulous spirit of neopaganism "formulated, sprawling on a pin." It is meant to be a war poem, to rouse and encourage resistance. But it is tempered with caution: the White Horse must be patiently and continuously tended, or the grass will cover it. Evil is like the grass - it cannot be conquered "once and for all" (until the end of the world, anyway). There is no earthly "end to evil." Complacency is death. In this Chesterton is very close to Tolkien (the points of overlap between the two have become more apparent to me lately), as in several other places in the poem. It is interesting to see how Tolkien quotes Chesterton in his lectures and letters. Tolkien didn't care for The Ballad of the White Horse; he thought that Chesterton didn't know anything about "Northernness" and that the ending (where the King retakes London) was ridiculous. (He didn't explain this last judgement.) Of course, Tolkien and GKC were very far apart in style and vocation and temperament. Still... both of them understood the "tree" of tradition, the power of "fairy-stories," the need for humility - and the savour of eucatastrophe:

"The high tide!" King Alfred cried.
"The high tide and the turn!
As a tide turns on the tall grey seas,
See how they waver in the trees,
How stray their spears, how knock their knees,
How wild their watchfires burn!

"The Mother of God goes over them,
Walking on wind and flame,
And the storm-cloud drifts from city and dale,
And the White Horse stamps in the White Horse Vale,
And we all shall yet drink Christian ale
In the village of our name."

Yes. We shall yet.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Les Miserables Parody

This was (ahem) inspired by one of the bumper stickers at Shrine of the Holy Whapping: "Say the black, do the red." I thought "Black... red... red... black - Hey!" Here and here are the original lyrics. I wish I could find sound files, but most of you probably know the tunes - which are sooooooo cool!

RED AND BLACK (at the (N)OCP Café)

It is time for us all
To decide who we are
Do we fight for the right
To a night at the opera now?
Have you asked of yourselves
What's the price you might pay?
Is it simply a game
For liturgists to play?
They screw up all the rubrics
Keep them changing day by day…

Red - the stuff you're supposed to do!
Black - the words you're supposed to say!
Red - suppressed and botched on cue!
Black - the Word explained away!

Had you been at Mass tonight
You might know how it feels
To be struck to the bone
With a cold and unutterable dread -
You'd have rather been dead
Than hear the 'songs' that they intoned,
And the rubrics' sense deranged
"It's Kafka-esque!" I said.
"Let's go home. I need a drink -
No, I need aspirin for my head!"


I sit and kneel and stand!


"I believe in unum Deum!"


Keep your missal close at hand!


Though hell-spawned liturgists betray 'em!

And moving right along...


Do you hear the Catholics sing?
Singing polyphony and chant?
It is the music of a people
Who have thrown out trendy cant!
When the choirs all agree:
"Tra le sollicitudini!"
Our hymns and chants will sound
And resound again!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the altar rail
Is there a world you long to see?

Then join in the fight
That will bring back the rite of the free!

Do you hear the Catholics sing?
Singing Gesualdo and Des Pres?
It is the music of a people
Come to shining Solesmes!
When the Haugens hit the road
And Palestrina marches in
Our hymns and chants will sound
And resound again!

Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance
Against Vosko, Mahoney,
RENEW and liturgical daaaaaaaance?

Do you hear the Catholics sing?
Singing Victoria and Byrd?
It is the music of our people
It will no more go unheard!
When the OCP is out
Our Te Deums will begin -
Our hymns and chants will sound
And resound again!


Thursday, May 06, 2004

La Filgia Che Piange

The music of the last stanza is wonderfully shiver-inducing, especially in the last line.

La Figlia Che Piange

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair--
Lean on a garden urn--
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair--
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise--
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

- T.S. Eliot

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Welsh is cool. I wish I knew it.

I am Taliesin. I sing perfect metre,
Which will last to the end of the world.
My patron is Elphin...

I know why there is an echo in a hollow;
Why silver gleams; why breath is black; why liver is bloody;
Why a cow has horns; why a woman is affectionate;
Why milk is white; why holly is green;
Why a kid is bearded; why the cow-parsnip is hollow;
Why brine is salt; why ale is bitter;
Why the linnet is green and berries red;
Why a cuckoo complains; why it sings;
I know where the cuckoos of summer are in winter.
I know what beasts there are at the bottom of the sea;
How many spears in battle; how may drops in a shower;
Why a river drowned Pharaoh's people;
Why fishes have scales.
Why a white swan has black feet...

I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag, a roebuck on the mountain,
A stock, a spade, an axe in the hand,
A stallion, a bull, a buck,
I was reaped and placed in an oven;
I fell to the ground when I was being roasted
And a hen swallowed me.
For nine nights was I in her crop.
I have been dead, I have been alive.
I am Taliesin.

-- Anon., (Welsh, 13th century)

What is it with the Celts and these Whitman-esque pantheistic rhapsodies? Anyway, the effect of it is quite spell-binding. The 13th century is great for so many reasons... by the way, why did they ascribe this to "Anonymous"? Isn't it obvious that his NAME IS TALIESIN?! ::grumblegrumble:: Rank anti-Welsh prejudice. And I'm part Welsh, among other things...

Monday, May 03, 2004

W.B. Yeats

Two Songs From A Play

I SAW a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side.
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God's death were but a play.

Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo's painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.

In pity for man's darkening thought
He walked that room and issued thence
In Galilean turbulence;
The Babylonian starlight brought
A fabulous, formless darkness in;
Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.

Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love's pleasure drives his love away,
The painter's brush consumes his dreams;
The herald's cry, the soldier's tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man's own resinous heart has fed.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Poetry About Poetry

The next week is going to be hard on me because I'm finishing my senior thesis, so I'm mostly just going to post poems that I like. After that's out of the way, expect posts on Dvorak, the Ballad of the White Horse, and the Singularly Wonderful Parish of Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara. (And the story of the Hungry Student - just kidding!) Here's my first offering:


by Galway Kinnell (When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone)

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge, as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unsual willingness to disintigrate, oatmeal should not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something from it.
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the "Ode to a Nightingale."
He had a heck of a time finishing it those were his words "Oi 'ad a 'eck of a toime," he said, more or less, speaking through his porridge.
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his pocket,
but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas, and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day if they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas, and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay \ itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move forward with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal alone.
When breakfast was over, John recited "To Autumn."
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn't offer the story of writing "To Autumn," I doubt if there is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field go thim started on it, and two of the lines, "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells" and "Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours," came to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering furrows, muttering.
Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion's tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneaously gummy and crumbly, and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.

If you like this kind of poetry about poetry (best enjoyed in small doses), here is another, this one apparently adressed to those silly scientists who try to talk to dolphins and teach elephants to paint:

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

by James Tate

They didn't have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
"You look like a god sitting there.
Why don't you try writing something?"

Is this the same guy who wrote The Age of Spiritual Machines, I wonder? Oy...

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