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April is poetry month!  I love poetry…and poets! Many of my friends and close associates are contemporary poets, scrambling to make ends meet as they rework language to capture the elusive meaning and rhythm of life.  I really enjoy talking to them about literature…including poetry, but much of my favorite poetry is Victorian poetry…and it’s frustrating to watch my poor friends’ smiles curdle when I say such a thing.  The rhythm and the themes of 19th century poetry are very different from modern poetic tastes, but not quite sufficiently different that it can be neatly archived away in the hallowed halls of ancient poetry. To modern poets a great deal of Victorian poetry seems fusty and overly-detailed.  It has a repetitive classical-music rhythm which (to ears more used to the syncopation of rap and rock) can sound like a monotonous drone.  Thematically, Victorian works are insufficiently focused on identity politics to rate approval from the academic literary establishment right now.  The canonical poets of the 19th century were seemingly unconcerned with the complexities of gender, class, race which hold the so much of the attention of the literati in today’s democracies (although this stereotype is less true on careful re- reading—indeed many of the great Victorian poets were passing, or gay…or even women!).

I am making the same mistake which drove me away from literature—talking about politics, historiography, the biography of authors, and suchlike “meta” concerns, when what really matters is the actual poetry!  At its zenith English poetry of the 19th century is unrivaled. The sumptuous language immerses the reader in a fulsome world where colors burn brighter than in real life and supernatural epiphany lurks around every verdant garden corner.  The great English poets of the nineteenth century were too concerned with the greater meanings of humankind, life, and the universe to become unduly caught up in the grasping web of daily politics…but that doesn’t mean humankind’s scheming clannish nature and self-delusions are not addressed.

Here is one of my favorite passages of poetry, from Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., a vast elegy which Tennyson wrote for a beloved friend who died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage.  The work is an attempt to make sense of loss and human fragility.  It was written at a time when the simplistic certainties of religion were rapidly fading away. The scientific breakthroughs of the 18th century were driving technology and civilization forward at a breakneck pace during the 19th century but some of the other larger implications of these scientific breakthroughs were also becoming apparent. Victorians were relentlessly trained to be religious, but thinking people could see past the fraudulent stagecraft of the priests and begin to apprehend how vast, ancient, and uncaring the world really is.

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Tension between the ersatz facade of religion, and the darkness of a world without any magical beings, was much at the center of Victorian thinking…and it made for dramatic and interesting poetry! Here is Tennyson’s poem (or actually the 69th canto thereof), a lament about the pain of death and loss…and about the larger nature of life…and about faith.

LXIX.

I dream’d there would be Spring no more,

That Nature’s ancient power was lost:

The streets were black with smoke and frost,

They chatter’d trifles at the door:

I wander’d from the noisy town,

I found a wood with thorny boughs:

I took the thorns to bind my brows,

I wore them like a civic crown:

I met with scoffs, I met with scorns

From youth and babe and hoary hairs:

They call’d me in the public squares

The fool that wears a crown of thorns:

They call’d me fool, they call’d me child:

I found an angel of the night;

The voice was low, the look was bright;

He look’d upon my crown and smiled:

He reach’d the glory of a hand,

That seem’d to touch it into leaf:

The voice was not the voice of grief,

The words were hard to understand.

The work is Christian in meaning and symbolism, but right away the narrator experiences problems with the dogma and the real nature of his faith. The poet picks up and puts on a wreath of thorns which is meant to represent grief for his dead friend and the larger grief of mortality itself.  This thorn crown obviously also has a special religious significance: it is the same crown which Jesus Christ wore during the passion.  Jesus was both human and divine.  In Christian mythology he was a person who died and then transcended death. Christianity extends the same promise to its followers.

Angel of Death (Evelyn De Morgan. 1881, oil on canvas)

Angel of Death (Evelyn De Morgan. 1881, oil on canvas)

In his broken sadness, the narrator attempts to bridge the gap between death and eternity by wearing the same garb as Christ, but right away society condemns the narrator as pitiful and childlike.  Grief is not meant to so undo a person.  Additionally, the promise of eternal life—of any divine compact at all—is in doubt.  Spring will not come again.  The streets are black with industrial grime. His friend is dead…as we all must die, and yet religion is no so longer a sovereign remedy. The world of society is founded on religious strictures—but laughs off expressions of those beliefs.  Worse the beliefs themselves have been undermined…by life’s sorrow sand by greater knowledge of the world.

When the narrator does encounter an actual angel–a numinous from beyond who represents the true meanings of existence—the angel transmutes the crown of thorns into a living wreath and says something which lies beyond the poet’s grasp.   It is a tremendous combined message of hope, uncertainty and grief…yet this sacred message lies beyond the poet.

The words were not the words of grief, but neither were they comprehensible to Tennyson…We all must keep fumbling towards meaning in a world without any certainty.

Divine messages are jumbled whispers from our dreams and from angels of the night…and from poets who keep delivering beautiful and ambivalent truths which the priests and politicians certainly would never dare utter.

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Protesilaus is a figure from Greek mythology.  As one of the suitors of Helen of Troy, he was party to the binding alliance between Greek warrior-kings which pulled them all into the Trojan War when she was stolen by Paris.  Protesilaus was a king in Thessaly (long a rumored haunt of wild magic, and sorcery run amuck).  He brought forty ships full of warriors to the campaign…but there was a problem which nearly foundered the entire Greek effort before it even got started: a dark prophecy stated that the first Greek warrior to leave the boats would also be the first Greek warrior to die in the war.  When the war fleet reached the beaches of Troy, nobody wanted to set foot upon Trojan land and incur the prophesied doom.  So all the fearless warriors set quaking in their boats.

Finally, Protesilaus had enough of this pusillanimous behavior and he leaped to shore (even though he was newly married and had much to live for).  Sure enough, in accordance with binding laws of war narrative, he was killed by the Trojan hero Hector during the first foray of the war—and the prophecy was thus fulfilled (although it should be noted that Protesilaus killed four men before dying at the hands of the greatest Trojan hero—so he went down as a fighter).

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

When his widow Laodamia heard about this, she went mad with grief.  Since the two were newlyweds when the war broke out, their love was in its first flower and burned hot and wild. The Gods admired the bravery of Protesilaus and they took pity on his distraught widow.  For half an hour, the hero was allowed to return from the underworld to the mortal world to give a more thorough farewell to his wife. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) Protesilaus’ brief return from death—followed by a permanent return to the land of the dead–unhinged Laodamia completely.  She commissioned a beautiful lifelike sculpture of her dead husband and proceeded to treat it as though it were him.

Her father, baffled as to how to proceed in the face of these terrible happenings, decided to destroy the statue by casting it into a raging fire, but Laodamia could not be parted from her husband a third time and she leapt into the blaze and was burned away.  His traumatized subjects built a lavish tomb for him and nymphs planted elms upon it.  According to the poetry of antiquity, these trees grew to be the tallest in the world, yet when their tops were high enough to come into eyesight of Troy, the leaves died back and withered away (for the bitterness and sorrow of the dead hero remained even when he and his wife were gone).

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

In the business world it is considered terrible to be the first person to do something truly bold and new.  Business leaders pay lip-service to innovators, but, in truth, business schools teach that ideas should be tried out by others first.  Wang got nowhere, while the wily Steve Jobs took the best parts of his ideas and made an empire. There is a race to be second.  The world’s leaders know not to be brave, but to be sly and calculating.  This is prudent counsel (and has been so since before there were stories of the Trojan War), but I wonder if the world might not have more innovation and invention, if the first movers were not punished so brutally.

Here is a dramatic and visceral Pieta painted by Carlo Crivelli in 1476 for the church of San Domenico at Ascoli Piceno in the Marches.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an interactive web gallery which allows the viewer to magnify this painting in order to see fine details.  Notice how the crown of thorns has sunk its infected barbs into Christ’s head and how intricately Crivelli has rendered the veins of the figures’ hands.

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