in verse #42 : Art is God

A stake president once took me aside, a week or so after a stake conference, and in his own gruff but loving way, asked me a few questions. He had led me into the High-Council room, and then asked me to look at the pictures on the wall. Fifteen pictures. I didn’t need to count. I recognized the men in them — the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church. He asked me what they all had in common. I said “Well, they’re all old older white males.” [I pretended not to notice how young David Bednar was.] “What else?” he asked. “Well” I said, “many of them are bald, some are balding, but” — here I couldn’t resist — “Elder Bednar still has all his hair.” “What else?” he asked. “Well” I said, finally realizing that this was not an interrogation so much as an indoctrination, “they all have dark suits on” — I quickly checked — “but not all of them are black.” “What else?” “That about sums it up” I said. “Brother Clark” he said,  “do you see that they are all wearing white shirts?” I took a long hard look. “Why so they are” I said; “they must all shop at Mr. Mac.” “What does that tell you about the brethren” the stake president asked. “Maybe they just send one secretary out to shop for all of them?” I said. “Brother Clark” he said, finally realizing that I was too dumb to catch his meaning, “It means that they are all of one accord. And we should model ourselves on them.” I now realized my mistake. At that stake conference, I had sat in the front row of the chapel, wearing a pink shirt. “Will you serve as a model for members of your ward and wear a white shirt?”

That didn’t bother me much — white is my native hue — but it was his next request that frosted me. It was so casual. “Now, Brother Clark, I know that you like your distinctive fun little bow ties — but notice that all these brethren are wearing long ties — can I get you to give up the bow ties?” I allowed as how he could, I guessed. “That’s good” he said. “Now you won’t find any of this in the handbooks, but it is truly the practice of the brethren to encourage uniformity of dress” or words to that effect — by then I was so woozy that I wasn’t nearly the smartypants I had been. I now understand the meaning of “the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.”

It strikes me that this is somewhat analogous to the “anxiety of influence” that Harold Bloom immortalized in his study of poets, and in this post I intend to wrap up my extended investigation of the Romantic poets’ turn to the ode by answering the question uppermost in your minds: “But Brother Clark, were there other odes by Romantics other than Keats (and, oh, yeah, Wordsworth)?”

How about “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley? Remember that ode is “[i]n modern usage the term for the most formal, ceremonious, and complexly organized form of lyric poetry, usually of considerable length.” I present you here a longish poem, which I expect you to finish as you would a peanut-butter sandwich , relishing every bite even when a bit of the filling sticks to the roof of your mouth, a tidbit like “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” or “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” You know what to do in such cases: gulp, swallow and trudge on. Oh, and I should point out one last thing: For this poem, Shelley used five stanzas of terza rima, doubtless in tribute to that master of the form, Dante Alighieri. It took Dante three books full of terza rima, in 34, 33 and 33 cantos, to make his point. We can thank Shelley for doing it sooner; so here it is, for your enjoyment:

_____Ode to the West Wind
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!

Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Now, it’s easy to make fun of Shelley. In fact, he makes himself a target with “The trumpet of a prophecy!” which turns out to be “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” That’s right up there with “as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, so surely will the risen sun then set.” But his choice of terza rima does little but point out the paucity of suitable rhymes for that verse form in English, especially when he rimes even, heaven and striven in stanza IV. That’s not even the eye-rime of wind and behind with which he closes the poem. And he just can’t get away from that Greeky iambic pentameter. That could be because of his privileged life as heir to a peer of the realm, and therefore his privileged education — mastery of a classical education would set him apart as surely as his good buddy Lord Byron’s education and peerage set him apart.

But I would submit that the only thing that really makes this an ode is Shelley’s title. It is formal in its stanza structure, but certainly far more passionate than ceremonious, and very simply organized. For a more “formal, ceremonious, and complexly organized form of lyric poetry, usually of considerable length” I submit instead Dejection: an Ode by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rather than tax your memory with the task of recalling the poem, I will present it here entire for your enjoyment. Notice how it is, in its own way, an ode to the west wind as well, but with a great deal more respect for the wind than for the poet’s windy emotions. And note how often Coleridge employs as a rhyme-scheme the neo-classical couplet — the poem is almost a variation on that form rather than a new, bespoke, form:

*****Dejection: An Ode

*****Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
*****With the old Moon in her arms;
*****And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!
*****We shall have a deadly storm.
***** (Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence)

Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
*****The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
*****This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade
Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,
Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Æolian lute,
**********Which better far were mute.
*****For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
*****And overspread with phantom light,
*****(With swimming phantom light o’erspread
*****But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
*****The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
*****And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!
Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed,
**********And sent my soul abroad,
Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,
Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
*****A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
*****Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
**********In word, or sigh, or tear—
O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood,
To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo’d,
*****All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
*****And its peculiar tint of yellow green:
And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:
Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

*****My genial spirits fail;
*****And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
**********It were a vain endeavour,
**********Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
*****And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
*****Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
**********Enveloping the Earth—
And from the soul itself must there be sent
*****A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
*****Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given,
Save to the pure, and in their purest hour,
Life, and Life’s effluence, cloud at once and shower,
Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
*****A new Earth and new Heaven,
Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud—
Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud—
**********We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
*****All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
*****This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
*****Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
**********But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
*****My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
*****But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
*****From my own nature all the natural man —
*****This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
**********Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
*****Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,
*****Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
*****Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.
*****Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!
Thou mighty Poet, e’en to frenzy bold!
**********What tell’st thou now about?
**********’Tis of the rushing of an host in rout,
*****With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds —
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!
But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!
*****And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,
With groans, and tremulous shudderings — all is over —
*****It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud!
**********A tale of less affright,
**********And tempered with delight,
As Otway’s self had framed the tender lay, —
*****’Tis of a little child
**********Upon a lonesome wild,
Nor far from home, but she hath lost her way:
And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,
And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
*****And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
*****Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!
**********With light heart may she rise,
*****Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,
*****Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice;
To her may all things live, from pole to pole,
Their life the eddying of her living soul!
*****O simple spirit, guided from above,
Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice,
Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.

From the opening phrase — “Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made” — to the wish for another’s joy — that of the “little child” for whom stanza VIII is written — the contrast between Shelley and Coleridge could not be stronger. And some of that is surely owed to Coleridge’s investigations into the traditional ballads of England, and to his collaboration with Wordsworth in their Lyrical Ballads.  But notice how much more colloquial Coleridge is than Byron and Shelley, who may well have fancied themselves revolutionaries, but who function more as apologists for the ruling class. Coleridge and Wordsworth were, like Keats, aware, at the least, that there was a whole ‘nother world out there.  And they could hear it talking.  Next month we go to that other world, America, to look at a truly new development in verse in English. And we’ll begin with a prime example of the power of the spoken word in the poetry of Joseph Smith.

But hold on, I hear you say: aren’t there any other Romantics whose graves you can plunder, holding up their bones to ridicule?

Your turn

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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2 Responses to in verse #42 : Art is God

  1. Wondering why the stake president didn’t mention that none of the 15 men have beards.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Or even more to the point, why those late-coming apostles Joseph Fielding Smith and David O. McKay didn’t grow beards when they joined the hirsute quorum in their day.

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