Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dealing with Death

In the past week, I have been teaching elegies, from the 18th to the 20th Century. What I found fascinating was the change in elegiac tradition in literary history. The most stark difference in my selection, simply in terms of the temporal gap, was between Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and Stevens' "The Owl in the Sarcophagus."

Mr. Gray evokes the emotions of grief and melancholy through his pastoral landscape drowning in the darkness of the evening: "The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea," "the beetle wheels his droning flight," "The moping owl does to the moon complain." Everything in this homely churchyard wanes from view in the darkness of the upcoming night, just like all the inhabitants of this wonderful world wane with each day, awaiting their hour of darkness in death. The scene created by the poet is quite stark: he provides plenty of detail for the mind to be able to recreate that scene, to see it with its inward eye of the imagination.

Mr. Stevens, on the other hand, in one of his habitual incomprehensible modernist mood, evokes a certain pathos in a different way. His poem is inhabited by images more abstract, less tangible: "Two forms move among the dead," "There sleep the brother is the father, too,/ And peace is cousin by a hundred names," "Peace stood with our last blood adorned," etc. These phantoms pass through the poem like ghosts, but the mood of grief and sadness is created by the fluidity of language: we don't really know what he's talking about but, boy, it sounds great! The words roll off the tongue and make us rather intuit the emotion in the beauty of language. We are soothed by the sounds alone: it is comforting us in the presence of death that somewhere, somehow lurks between the lines.

The difference in coping with grief in that span of 200 years rests in abstraction. Where Mr. Gray clings to concrete material objects and ground himself in the corporeal world in order to embrace the melancholy for the ones that passed away, Mr. Stevens chooses to leave the well-known in order to wallow in abstractions, indefinite reality, perhaps the transient images of our imagination created as if in a day-dream but beautiful and serene all the same. He invites us into the world of death, the world of the unknown--"The undiscover'd country, from whose bourne/ No traveler returns"--by appealing to the unknown. Language itself becomes the conciliatory agent.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


The author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, "A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral." I think Saint-Exupery's comment is too true in Western tradition: our civilization strives, on one hand, to control nature, order it according to our own overactive need for symmetry and, on another, to make it into an object of worship. Human beings seem incapable at taking things at face value: Why can't a rock pile remain a beautiful, natural, chaotic pile of rock? Why can't we see any beauty in it just as it stands? Does everything need to have a perfect structure? And, along with that question, what's with our incessant drive for perfection?

Mr. Wordsworth found perfection in nature as it was--in that field of daffodils, in that landscape of the Tintern Abbey. Nature shaped, created, inspired human emotions: it shaped us; we didn't have the power to change it. Even Tintern Abbey, after all a place of worship, became insensible to him as such: it was a scene of a natural sublime. Yet he still became its "worshipper." He couldn't resist the urge to make nature into divinity--some obscure power man chooses to elevate above everything else. At least he admitted that it controlled him and had no desire to subdue it.

Nature in all its imperfections should show us a way to be satisfied, to find beauty and meaning in objects imperfect, to allow ourselves to be happy. Perhaps, as Mr. Keats suggested, the ability to stop squirming once in a while and allow ourselves to remain in a state of uncertainty "without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" belongs only to poets. But it is not impossible to imagine that there is a poet waiting to be discovered in all of us, that instead of trying to order the universe according to laws, rules, and reason, we could order it instead according to beauty. Wouldn't that kind of structure eliminate any need for wars, conflict, pain? The day when a rock pile perceived remains a rock pile would be the beginning of hope for this civilization. And on that note, I will go and enjoy those rock piles now, rock climbing!