And I Had Done a Hellish Thing

The beginning of the second part of the Rime is strikingly modern in my eyes. Coleridge shows here a great insight of human nature and the dynamics that rule relations among men and I may say nowadays more than ever. The first part had ended with the Ancient Mariner’s unforeseen killing of the albatross. There is not a  particular reason that may justify such senseless and despicable action. He just did it. That is why this crime is somehow even more terrible than that of Cain, who had killed, for sure, but because he envied his brother. At least he had a reason. The killing of the albatross has no justification at all, that is why it represents absolute evil, the evil that does not need motives: ” I shot the Albatross“. Full stop. Evil is a seed  that resides in every human soul and can blossom in any moment, just responding to our basest instincts and this is a fact for Coleridge.

Particularly interesting is how the crew, who represents the Mariner’s community of friends and connections he has to interact with daily, reacts to the killing of the albatross.  Coleridge,at this point, leaves the quiet pace of the ballad made of quatrains and marks a change employing two sestets where he can better develop the repercussions of the incident on the mariners’ souls:

“And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!”

The seafarers at first blame the mariner for having killed the bird of good omen they had believed to be the cause of their good fortune, thus, managing to escape from the mist and the wondrous cold of the South Pole and move Northward. There is not a single word of condemnation on the moral implication of his action.They are just superstitious and believe that the infamous behaviour of the mariner, somehow, will have consequences on their welfare. They are 200 in all, but they speak as if they had one voice. The scenario, however, suddenly changes:

“Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.”

Against all odds, after many days of suffering and fear the glorious sun rises and under that warm and comforting light the seafarers now believe to see the truth clearly : that albatross was not the bird of good omen, but quite the contrary. They all agree, with no exception, that the killing of the Albatross was rightly done as the bird must have been the cause of their misfortune. In this way they all become accomplices to the Mariner. In these few lines Coleridge tells us how mutable human nature is.The members of the crew are prompt to change their minds according to the new situations and beliefs, but above all they move en masse. This herding behaviour makes them feel stronger and ready to attack like wolves whoever acts differently or is seen like a danger. I may say that social medias provide the most fertile ground where this kind of human attitude manifests itself nowadays.

For better or worse the killing of the Albatross places the Mariner in a condition of seclusion and solitude. Furthemore, he is the only one who realizes the extent of what he had done when he says it was a ” hellish thing“, an action that ” would work ’em woe”. In fact, pleasant warmth becomes unbearable heat and when the wind drops and the men find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean, with no water to drink, the wolves attack the Mariner again and hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

By the way, the crew is eventually punished with death for not having blamed the crime of the Ancient Mariner for its moral implications. As only survivor the Mariner is now condemned to live persecuted by the memory of his dead comrades. His punishment is even more terrible than death itself: to live in solitude, without the hope of God’s piety, with a tormented soul and in constant agitation.  Even when, eventually, he expiates his sin and manages to go back home, he is not allowed to enjoy the communion of other men. He will have the mission of admonishing them, impart the lesson he had learnt from his experience, but nothing more. He’ll remain at the margin of the feast of life, doomed to stop men, with his “glittering eye” to which no one can escape, trying to make them wiser, if possible, even if this means being sadder.

 

 

 

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Romantic Buddhism

Year after year of lessons on the Romantics, in particular those of the first generation, a question has gradually taken shape in my mind : “but were these Coleridge and Wordsworth a kind of Buddhists?” I know, it’s hazardous and I have to confess that my knowledge of Buddhism is actually basic: I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Siddhartha and the Autobiography of a Yogi about the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, that is all. But I want to try to outline an analysis anyhow. Well, Buddhism is a religion /philosophy based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened). For the Buddhists he is the enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help men end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving, thus attaining the highest happiness: Nirvana. Wow, but this the Indian version of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads!!!

Rewind: the Romantic poet as the Buddha is the enlightened man with that superior sensibility/imagination who teaches men how to feel and keep memory of their emotions,  in order to better bear the inevitable sufferings of life, thus reaching happiness. He is a poet and poetry is his weapon. Coleridge,in particular, had understood that the burden of our ” wants” can’t help us understand the true nature of happiness and confounds us. Siddhartha seemed to have whatever life had to offer: he was young, handsome, rich and, naturally, admired and envied at the same time. Hpwever, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. So, he got rid of that burden of things to be free to choose his way, exactly as St Francis of Assisi did.

The ticking that marks the rhythm of our actions, prevents us from fully enjoying that dreamed happiness too. We are so used to stuffing our days with as many actions as possible that we have no time to pause to think about what we are actually doing. “Stop the ticking!” said Captain Hook, but how? We are not characters of a fairy tale. How is it possible to reach our Nirvana, if this is the frantic pattern of our modern age?

In the eighteenth century Romantic artists had already understood  that man somehow would have undergone a great psychological change due to the impulse of the industrial revolution. Macaulay had said that the social-scientifical growth of England was equivalent to what men had done in three hundred or maybe three thousand years. Clock time had replaced seasonal time and from that moment on we have kept moving faster and faster.

That’s why one of the main characteristics of Romantic poetry is its meditative tone.Time had to slow down to understand the real nature of the self and life.  Remember, for example, the amazing “Elegy” of Thomas Gray where the knelling of the curfew toll which pervades the first stanzas gradually fades to give way to the poet’s deep reflection. In the poem “Daffodils” only in a moment of beautiful stillness Wordsworth can experience that pure happiness destined to be enjoyed forever and in Coleridge’s “Rime” the Ancient Mariner stops with a spell a reluctant young Wedding Guest in order to be able to communicate with him and then let him meditate on the meaning of his tale.

So the point is that these “Romantic Buddhists” had understood the importance of meditation to reach the necessary awareness that might lead to happiness. Meditation is, in fact, the primary means of cultivating  Buddhism. Your mind focuses on an object, this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings till your mind is able to gain insight into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude. In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves and the world outside reaching our Nirvana. Yes, but  ……..excuse me, what time is it? I’ve got to go.

 

Rain

Rain is a very powerful symbol. Chaucer makes it, in fact, the great protagonist of the very first lines of his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. It’s April and the “sweet showers “ have soaked deep into the dry ground to water the roots of the flowers. The combination of this spring rain with Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, is so powerful that the “tender shoots” are quickly transformed into “buds”  under the eyes of a “young sun” and with the background music of birds singing. It is the joyful natural rebirth which also stirs man’s spiritual rebirth. That’s why spring was symbolically chosen as the perfect time of the year by Chaucer and his pilgrims to set on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Beckett. Chaucer, therefore, gives us an image of a man totally integrated and in harmony with the world and its natural forces. But that was more or less seven hundred years ago.

When The Waste Land  was published in 1922 , the world had just witnessed the horrors and follies of  World War I and what remained in the present was perceived only as a “heap of broken images”  on  a “dead land “. Among the ruins of the certainties and values of a glorious past, Eliot’s modern man is at loss, he is a “dried tuber”  forced to live a meaningless life. Therefore, the coming of the joyous spring produces a rather depressive mood, if man finds no reasons to live. What’s worse, if you have ever experienced such a state of the soul, than somebody that lightly tells you how wonderful life is, but you can’t see it?  It is not. It can’t be.

Eliot’s world is, in fact, deaf to the seasonal call to life. The feeble rain, which makes its presence in the first lines of the poem as in Chaucer’s Prologue, has, however, lost its invigorating power either on nature and on man.The drops of water try to stir the roots that seem to rest safely covered by the “forgetful” winter snow, but they are “dull“, hence, unwilling to put their heads out of the ground. That’s why April for Eliot is “the cruellest month”: man must emerge from his hibernation only to live in the desolate“stony rubbish” which is the present without the smallest idea of where to go and what to do. Eliot’s modern man, in fact, walks in circle and fixes “his eyes before his feet”, as there is no future to pursue.

Then there is a third option, that is, when men are ready to the natural call of life, and I am, but you feel depressed as you realize that it is the 23rd of March and there is still no spring at sight, only a lot of rain; it has been raining for an entire month, to be precise. So, my question is: “If winter comes can spring be far behind?”

The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody  the poet’s message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‘s poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with his vast wings, he is “the prince of sky and clouds“, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The bird has to walk now, seems to have lost all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross belongs to the sky and he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men, his wings become useless, as they “prevent him from walking“. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art’s sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.  All art is quite useless. The end.

The Romantic Warning

rom1The romantics have often been regarded as reactionaries, because of their unwelcoming attitude towards the great mutation that the industrial revolution was about to produce in their countries. A revolution is a radical, somehow violent change, whose consequences are often unpredictable, but  early romantics instinctively felt that the great transformation the world was undergoing wouldn’t have been free of charge.

Modern man, once left his “natural state” and thrown into the dynamics of a materialistic and competitive society, dominated by the threat of clock time, would have seen the nature of his certainties collapse with the consequent urgency of redefining a new scale of values. But what kind of values can a materialistic society produce? Wealth? Success? Career? Can a society, whose imperative is “time is money” and whose members are only small mechanisms of a careless system, be considered as an amelioration of the previous one in terms of quality of life and, why not, happiness? Certainly not.

That’s why the romantics kept on fighting strenuously against “modernity”, advocating the superiority of the values produced by the “old” world. If men abandoned their Eden, their natural state, just like modern Adam and Eve, they would only find pain, hard labor, misery, hence slowly becoming insensitive and indifferent. Therefore, they began to strive using their lines as weapons, lines that they had deliberately simplified in order to reach with their message the heart of as many people as possible. They talked about the importance of memory, the beauty of nature, the necessity of a world of sensibility without restraining from the impulse of imparting a moralizing lesson.

But the process couldn’t be stopped and somehow they were defeated by the course of events. The great industrial change had spread all over the country and towns, like mushrooms, kept on growing disorderly and faster and faster. At the altar of “modernity” man was sacrificing his greatest gifts as well: his creativeness, his sense of taste and harmony. Man now needed to put at the top of his scale of values beauty, many artists claimed. The most optimistic were convinced that educating people to beauty would have meant to improve man’s ethical sense at the same time, but the majority of them thought that it was too late to teach anything to anybody and kept themselves away from the rude and insensitive masses. The first five decades of folly of the twentieth century and two world wars swept away the few certainties and values left and men seemed now motionless seated on a “heap of broken images” of the past waiting for their Godot like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. We are still waiting.

Rhythm And Poetry (RAP)

min3Greek education by the end of 450 B.C. was mostly centred on athletics, grammar but particularly on music. We understand the importance of the latter,only if we think that the word music derives from the Greek word“μουσικός”, Mousikos, that is, relative to the Muses, the goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology who were considered of the inspiration of literature, science, and the arts, hence the very were source of knowledge.The word refers also to “technique”, which also comes from the Greek word “τέχνη” / techne, therefore music is the technique or better the art of the Muses.  Originally the term did not indicate a particular art, but all the arts of the Muses, so it was referred to something “perfect” and harmonious. As Plato said:

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.

Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

min8That is why rhapsodes and aedi were held in higher estimation at those times.They were not only the living  memory of the history of  a country, but they could use the art of all arts to celebrate the deeds of their heroes to impress them in the minds of the listeners. Aedi, in particular, were sacred figures, who were also considered prophets. They were traditionally portrayed as blind, like Homer, for instance. Their blindness allowed them to sharpen their sensitive skills so that they could get in touch directly with the gods (through the eyes of the soul) that inspired them . “Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks….”. Homer invoked at the beginning of the Iliad. The Muse spoke through him.

min9Aedi were part of the so-called face-to-face society. The transmission of the text, in fact, was done orally, with a “performance” in which the aedo was in direct contact with the audience. As he did not have a written text, he became a composer in turn. Oral transmission required the use of a clear and direct language, so there is a great use of similes and the language is characterized by a formulaic style, with many repetitions and the presence in large amount of names as surnames, as well as the so-called topos, that is, the sites where the narration takes place. In case the aedo had forgotten the next stanza ,well, he could “dwell” on what he was still singing using the tools of his trade.

min2However, these figure were not typical only of the Greeks, the powerful combination of musical rhythm and poetry was well-known in other societies. For instance the Bards formed, along with the Druids and the foreseers, the three priestly castes of the Celts. The Bards were considered the guardians of knowledge and were instructed to store all the traditions and myths of the people. In some regions they were distinguishable from the other two orders for a special cloak they wore. In the Gaelic society  a bard was a professional poet, committed to compose eulogies for his lord and if  his employer refused to pay the compensation decided, the bard composed a satire against him.

In medieval Ireland there were two distinct group of poets : the bards and the fili. Despite the formers constituted a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets,  they were considered lesser class poets, not eligible for higher poetic roles as described above; while the latters were visionary poets, associated with lorekeeping, versecraft, and the memorisation of vast numbers of poems. They were also magicians, as Irish magic is intrinsically connected to poetry, and the satire of a gifted poet was a serious curse upon the one being satirised. However, it has also been argued that the distinction between filid (pl. of fili) and bards was a creation of Christian Ireland as the filid were more associated with the church.

min6In Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, the professional poet was known as a scop (“shaper” or “maker”), who composed his own poems, and sang them to the accompaniment of a harp. In a rank much beneath the scop, were the gleemen, who had no settled abode, but roamed about from place to place, earning what they could from their performances. Late in the 13th century, the term minstrel (from the Latin “ministralis” “retainer”)  began to be used to designate a performer who amused his lord with music and song. Minstrels created their own tales, but they also memorized and embellished the works of others. Love, magic, death, war, these were the themes they amused and entertained  the high society with, but as the courts became more sophisticated, minstrels were eventually replaced at court by the troubadours, therefore many became wandering minstrels, performing in the streets.

We may say, therefore, that the core idea the poets sung in their poems, tales or ballads reflected the societies that produced it. Hence the evolution goes from the magical to the  heroical and finally to the domestic, while its function changes from encouragement to entertainment. And today? Who are the closest depositaries of this tradition? Fine narrators, with a mastery in rhyming, use of similes, refrains etc. Somebody who can still beautifully re-create that magic narration made of Rhythm And Poetry. Well, the answer is :the rappers. RAP is the acronym of Rhythm And Poetry, didn’t you know it?
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“I Tiresias”

ti1

The figure of Tiresias, the blind seer from Greek mythology, has always appealed a great variety of authors both ancient and modern. In particular T.S. Eliot gives him (according to his own notes) a key role in The Waste Land. The question for readers is this: what features of Tiresias are functional to Eliot’s masterpiece? Who is Tiresias?

ti7The myths about Tiresias are many. One of the most common refers that, one day walking on Mount Cyllene, he saw two copulating snakes and he killed the female because that scene bothered him, a male chauvinist choice, actually. The goddess Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children and one of them, Manto, also possessed the gift of prophecy. She lived in this state for seven years trying all the pleasures that a woman could try, till once again she found herself facing the same scene of the snakes. Depending on the myth, it seems that this time the Tiresias cleverly resolved upon either leaving the snakes alone or trampling on them. Whatever her choice was, it worked, as Tiresias was allowed to regain his masculinity.

ti2One day Zeus and Hera found themselves divided by a dispute about who could have more pleasure in sex: a man or a woman. Failing to come to a conclusion, because Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera asserted that it was the man, the quarrelsome couple agreed to summon Tiresias, as he was very likely the only one that could resolve that argument, because of his transgender experience. Once in front of the gods, he said that sexual pleasure is composed of ten parts and “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” and  a woman nine. The goddess Hera was furious because Tiresias had revealed such a secret and instantly struck him blind. Zeus, who could do nothing to stop or reverse her curse, as Greek gods cannot change what others have decided, gave him the power to predict the future and the lifespan of seven lives as recompense. In other versions of the myth  Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he had seen her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong and the gift of divination.

ti3There are diverging myths on his death as well. During the attack of Epigoni against Thebes, Tiresias fled the city along with the Thebans and died after drinking water from the tainted spring Tilphussa, where he was struck by an arrow of Apollo. In another version the soothsayer and his daughter Manto were taken prisoner in Thebes and sent to Delphi, where they would have been consecrated to the god Apollo. Tiresias died of fatigue during the journey. The soul of Tiresias, after entering into Hades, retained the powers of divination, as narrated by Homer in the Odyssey.

ti5Going back to the initial question, therefore,Tiresias embodies exactly what Eliot was looking for: his having been both man and woman makes him a unifying figure in The Waste Land, thus linking the ancient and modern worlds and giving unity to that “heap of broken images” which is the present world. Furthemore Tiresias, in the desolation and despair of The Waste Land,  reactivates his ancient role – that of a prophet. In this mythological context, Eliot seems to indicate that the state of the waste land will not always be perpetual as long as Tiresias directs us.