How philosophy dovetails with the swerves of verse ASCENT Commandeering Shelley's skiff among the Euganean Hills Awake, awake! For all the dear bay's glistening In uneven light still listening For whatever of utterance Soul's chrysolm beauty may glance Into willing water's dark, My sweet meaning the whole of my bark. Set sail, set sail, my soul, set sail Let no hindrance, no halt, avail: For we are the sweet of the tree, Blossom and bole, shoot and root we three, Myself, my soul, and me. Nor does the shaping heart forego To lend its beat to our argot, My spirit a crystalline keel, Inspiration a motion wind feels Lifting in blessing ascent All some deeper sleep had blent With nightmare chimeras now forgot By all within my steady boat. Somehow, now, still lingering Out of the sullen east the sun Has given my soul a tongue. Soul may speak what mind began: Light's meditation is an ardor, Of my soul the keeper-warden Which never must be abandoned For so simple delight is saddened And everything of remembered worth Thrown seedless to the earth Whence never another vine will reach From dusky plain unto the sun Bearing with ripeness as a spillage Grape or fruit of many an age Longing time may bring to blossom Out of darkness' drowsy bosom. Gentle Charity, no farther Must you bear this as a father Childish swearing does forebear. Those who see not propounding noon Liquified in soul's triumphant swoon As swan lifts trumpeting his song All the purple light along At tender vespers, languid and long, Or blinking matins, awake and strong, For themselves must conquer hatred Through loving hearts, many-gated, Until dim and churlish slaughter Lies self-becalmed as these waters. Go out, go out, my broken-hearted-- With untroubled look depart them, Cast back no final, futile glance For all in a single chance Is your future concentrated. Let not one chafing countenance, Deaf to this beneficence, Shake from their sordid hearts a sigh; Live in my smiles, or die! From here commences, in my sight, An headlong, eternal light That every living form bedights, With dews of immortality Awakening soul's sweet rarity Floods the loosening dawn With: ocean, field, and lawn, (Building light from evening's jet By apperception the mind begets) From the gentle fount of grass To the living wave like glass No such light may overpass But must ignite in simpleness Love's million multiple beams! Every morning wayfarer Whose light boat cannot tarry But pushes on out of darkness With whatever of best and best In tangles of light impressed In bossing golds on waves' breast Plies resistless to the crest! Such silver as the eglantine To the dew-fraught morn resigns And heaven on every still thing deigns Rewarding quiet prayers With this mercurial layer-- Such silver I say is savior When soul its own good blossom knows Nor will be shaken by the cold Into something hard and cold But that a sheath of clear protecting Such firm flowers thus selecting That deep winter's dire infecting Shall not break them by its cold, In such clear light protecting. All that night my heart had lain Upon this boat and silver stream Until all memory became Like the memory of a dream; And there true life began Beneath night's stars swirled to one-- Past the extinguishment of suns When realer dream draws us on To dream of all we may have been And in heart's solace draws us on In dreaming dream to dream again! O how cold the moon's a mirror For all the heats within her! I my own bright soul create Nor did this fascination make To slave it to a universe I, living, gaze on as a hearse. My silver hand in dawn's lake Dips, its own soul to take; From this sweet enlivening Come my symbols unquestioning: Crown upon my crown rests cherishing, The sword in my hand unperishing. Do not dispraise the light That, singing whatever's brightest, Undoes the theft of night-- In soul-enchanting soliloquies Enmansioning aerial ways That we might thrive there all our days In realms of spendless purity Absent nations' perfidy Heart to heart for sole surety; This our pledge, this our guarantee That all's well with humanity Once these bleak constants, fear and dread, Lay to light exposed, and dead, The human plant may only mend, Think to create, and speak to praise, Throughout the endless paradise of days --Touch to caress, or move to love, As this thoughtless rhyme does prove. Ai! Ai! High radiancy, Round eve's ever-changing sea Like universes' bright periphery, Back to sun-like man's centrality I and all mortality Welcome both thy light, and thee. And if all the world condemn What all the heart commends What matter, so that heart sail on In self-discovery without bourne Through mystic waters, blue and calm? What does pleasure's grieving echo give But light to dark-hearted lives? O when the trembling hand may shiver And some momentary joy deliver To thought-locked face and brow What passes from that hand to bless In an unending tenderness As paradise were with us even now? Memory makes no bounty of the scorn Dementia attempts to ripen on In sold human hearts since we're born; Whatever slender wing endeavors Be communicant with the treasure One heart may hold forever Will find such wind in chambers there Beyond conjoining woe or care That they may sail infinity In the air of that one heart's ease. Pleasure alone may live within The human bound of life given As light within these waters: Ungrieving, crystalline, faultless. And now my soul is voyaging on In mystic waters blue and calm. For whatever true hope had wrought In time-defying, true love-knot How could Love forget?
A life of tender articulation has its costs and comeuppances; its burden to bear and its killing cross to exalt. To dare to tell the truth of one heart leaves that heart open to the public view; it is a cry for connection in its raw availability. And, since we are all incorrect in our insistences as well as in our submissions to received opinion, this nakedness can leave us vulnerable to the darts of condemnation and correction. To be always seeking the most inclusive truth, however, can lay a straightness in the keel of our individual skiffs and turn our rudders more toward our goal of knowing (rather than merely guessing). To be always truing up our jibs is the best we can ask of ourselves and others. Such is the intent behind this wandering poem.
This eminent insouciance, obviously based on Shelley’s lovely Lines Written Among the Eugean Hills, contains a mix of philosophy and scenic detail that is anathema to the post-modern poetic project, and runs counter to all the little lectures on “how to write poetry” going on across the country at this very moment. Executed with a tone of expansiveness reminiscent of an opium daydream, Ascent begins with a call to action to the speaker’s own soul to “Awake! Awake!” But we are most certainly not awaking into the durable toils of daily life; we are awaking to the philosophical imperatives of one’s own inner symbolical dream life–the life that defines the self to the self. As Coleridge so famously invoked it in Kubla Khan, it is “a vision within a dream.”
What is the relationship between orphic statement and accountability–Yeats’ “responsibilities [that] begin in dreams”? This is the field of exploration, promise, and eventually of willful assertion that Ascent takes place within. In the innermost image of ourselves, whipped up by unresolved subconscious materials, we confront the raw reality of our constituent inner-experiences. We discover what hot messes we are before we take hammer and tongs to the mirrory self-image we will hold before our dreaming eyes in either aspiration or frustration.
Art has no inherent limits, but makes a playful pretense of limits for the dramatic purpose of wrenching them asunder, or, equally dramatically, failing and fainting under their impermeable permanence. For a narrative voice or character to flutter and fail in a work of fiction secures the reader’s sympathetic allegiance to the failer–and this is simply a passive-aggressive victory for the artist and his conjured hero. The self-imposed limitations of a work of art (often expressed as an adherence to inherited or nonce conventions) do their best to push the craftsman to greater flights of inventiveness to defy, deflate, or deify those adopted limits. The gamesmanship of a grid on which to plot our battleships is thus at least as liberating as it is limiting. In Ascent there is octosyllabic meter and a recurrent tendency toward triple rhymes that the poet gets to row against. To me, these rhymes (coming as they do before the full finality of a more stately pentameter gait) feel like the suggestive repetitions of hypnotic ripples–both gentling the impact of rhyme’s self-conscious effect and allowing the mind to float out a bit farther into each implication of the thought or image presented. Lulling but not sleeping on the vague edge of pillow and dream….
The power of general applicability is perhaps obvious to the sensitive and self-aware, but even Descartes felt compelled to plainly declare: “cogito ergo sum.” And so shall I. The power of philosophically reflective language and its larger framework allows for the examination of illustrative detail without the need to commit to the supremacy of those details–the detached hovering of a dragonfly skimming surfaces can suffice to feed the illustrative lust of the imagination without making the dreamer/reader a slave to every trough and crest. Our boat, powered by this capability to be both sympathetically near-at-hand and distantly observant at the same time, can shuttle at will across waters that swamped Odysseus’ more mortal craft.
The poet chanting in Ascent seems determined not just to echo Shelley’s language (“crystalline”, “waves”, “glimmering/glistening”) but to remove the entirety of the poem from the context of the modern world in which it was written. This is no motorized Boston Whaler; no zipping jet-skis blur by, breaking the sailor’s chain of long thoughts. Instead of the ragged free verse of the late 20th century, we have not simply rhymed poetry, but quick-rhymed and even triple-rhymed ballad meters employed, as if the whole elegant construct would be set to the lyric interludes of a court lutanist. But this retreat from the modern is not a retreat from sophistication–just as the wet, rural setting of the poem is no renunciation of civilized attitudes. Rather, it is a retreat into aesthetic isolation for the purpose of meditation on the value of the individual and his community–a meditation undertaken in vibrantly philosophical and sophisticated language that is more at home among the eloquent heights of English poetic achievement then shuttled into the dirty subway of today’s easy victimhood and the brainless Manichaeism of rapping sloganeers who haunt a million aptly named “loser slams.”
Ascent could in some ways be considered a response-poem to Shelley’s Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. It is a poem of encouragement for Shelley’s sad sailor stuck in the “deep wide seas of Misery.” Imagine a second paddler, an oarsmen or rudder-handler hopping into Shelley’s lonely craft and letting the wandering Englishman know that he need not wait to land on one of the “many green isles” in order to become a happier sailor. Shelley famously, for all his ecstatic affirmations and visitations from the capitalized “spirit of Intellectual Beauty,” was quite demon-haunted as well–afflicted by a depressive sense of his abandonment by that same Intellectual Beauty that had so recently inspired his soul to its heights.
In contrast to Shelley’s quietly languishing “sea of Misery,” Ascent begins with a reveille trumpet call to seize the day:
Awake, awake! For all the dear bay's glistening
Instead of a wide empty alien ocean, we have a familiarly known and beloved “dear bay” that glistens with the promise of a new day, and like Shelley’s therapist-companion, is “listening.” In Ascent the world is just waiting to reflect the wayfaring individual’s inherent worth–from which he is temporarily alienated. Ascent is in this way a sort of literary version of one of Marianne Williamson’s “affirmations,” a popular self-help subgenre. The whole first stanza pushes the reader-sailor to be “self-actualized” and not to give into the power of loneliness, loss, and devastation. “Let no hindrance, no halt, prevail.” The only miseries that actually do appear here are illusory ones that have already been dealt with (or at least have already been summarily dismissed): the “nightmare chimeras now forgot/ By all within my steady boat.” We are in a terror-free zone, a “safe space” as my yoga teacher says, as we set out on our voyage of self-exploration.
So far, the poem has some of the juvenile happy-talk that permeates so many of Whitman’s paeans, or Emerson’s backslapping meditations. Perhaps we are “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or have managed to “hitch our wagons to a star.” Are we stuck in a tub with Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, singing “rub-a-dub-dub” no matter what catastrophe occurs? Is “cheer up, look on the bright side of life” the only tripe our overpaid therapist-paddler has to offer? Buck up!? That’s it!? Is this a philosophical inspection of life or a comedy routine?
The loneliness and sensual seriousness of the lines mitigates against the sense that we are merely being “taken for a ride” by the poet. Let’s trust him at least for the duration of our voyage and see where we wind up. And remember, our poet is talking to one ready to leap over the gunnels and end it all; this may at least explain, if not excuse, his sumptuous solicitousness.
In America, of course, Emerson is the Old Testament, and Whitman the New. I know that some would have Hawthorne or a select handful of our Pilgrim scribes be the Old Testament, but when the creation of our civic religion had such midwives as the wild “world citizen” Thomas Paine, we must confront the fact that we are still shiny with the afterbirth of big ideas and the communitarian impulse that drives even such movements as today’s Tea Party. A poem such as “Ascent” works in this tradition of single, almost libertarian, inspiration conjoining the the ideal of an articulate mass of humanity; the courage of a single voice can indeed shape the roaring outcry of all. The fragile rind of repression requires only a single tear, and the rich inner orange may then be revealed, the uneaten rind lying unscrewed in a single twirl to one side. In analysis of totalitarian systems, there is a name for this effect; it is called groupthink, a forced manufacture of consent. One’s neighbors live in a self-imposed silence, borne down by worry, but having the same reservations as each other but thinking it is themselves alone who have the reservation.
Here, too, we have the same tripartite self who appears in Whitman’s “song of myself.” To whit “myself, my soul, and me.” I doubt that the parallels to the Catholic conception of God are merited, other than to note in passing that Freud to discovered people to be three distinct selves– the ego the superego and the id. Harold Bloom has made a wonderful exploration of Whitman’s divisions of self – and, of course, Freud was one of the great self explainers of the modern age. In Ascent, these cells are compared to a tree’s “shoot, root, and bole” and evokes further comparisons to Yeats’s “great-rooted blossomer” of whom Yeats asks the question “are you the dancer or the dance” in his poem “among school children”. The bole is an interesting substitution for blossoms here, and its uniqueness encourages us to examine the comparison further.
But first let us dispose of the other parts of the self. Using a direct parallelism, “myself” is the “shoot” – the growing branch on which blossoms or new leaves appear. The “soul” is logically seen as the “root” or base of the tree that can next to a broader, universal spiritual reality in which all conscious beings participate. The “me,” the “bole,” has a quality of unreflective self identification. It is the slowly increasing trunk of the tree and has a quality of embedding the history of the self’s growth and its rings. It is neither the invisible soil soul, unchanging source, nor the eager, exploratory shoots that expand precipitously each spring. The mass, the bolus of what we are is simply the history of our becoming what we are. We are, in part the time it is taken to get to here.
But what is a tree doing in a boat anyway, however steady that boat may be? Small boats are often made of wood, and the mention of a tree, even in this abstract comparison, may be a way of embodying something of Shelley’s “green isles” in this contemporary poem. To travel somewhere else you have to first be somewhere (and someone) to begin with–and a tree is a concrete living exemplar of both being and place.
Another connection is, I believe, the purely metaphysical one of the role of the sun–both in vegetable maturation and as a visible promise made to the voyageurs that, essentially, “life is good.” Like a speaking tree, “somehow… the sun/ Has given my soul a tongue.” More likely, it is the human agency of consciousness and ensoulment that is speaking anthropomorphically on the sun’s behalf–but let us accept the poet’s premise as given for a moment.
For the singer in the poem, light is “an ardor” and a “warden”–a guardian of the hopeful expression of the soul. If this expressive function of the soul is “abandoned” then life itself will cease its endless cycle. Like an oak whose acorns are “thrown seedless to the earth,” never to bear “ripeness as a spillage” from the fructifying process of life.
This conflates several of the image streams already pouring forth in the poem: the self/tree and the light/water/(and now seamen) groupings. Positing the sun as the guardian of expressive life also highlights the importance of the Guardian/warden role, which this navigator is playing to both his readers and putatively to P. B. Shelley adrift in his miserable Mediterranean.
The third stanza affirms the progress achieved thus far that emphasizes the legitimacy of the mission undertaken–to help a friend and to be awake oneself to all of life’s ecstatic chances. Arguments to the contrary are blissfully dismissed as “childish swearing.”
The fourth stanza which begins imploring the sailor to “go out, go out” in their self exploration takes a Neitzchean stance against the naysayers of their mission. As Nietzsche instructed “let the half sick care for the sick” rather than impede the progress of the uberman. In the same way Ascent advises its sailors to “with untroubled look depart them,” i.e., the naysayers. There is one proviso and that is that the efficacy of the individuals self ignition must be accepted without further question so that the quest may proceed to new lands, new insights rather than be sucked back down the drain of the “sea of misery.”
Live in my smiles, or die! From here or commences, in my site An headlong, eternal light . . . . No such light may overpass But must ignite in simpleness Loves million multiple beams!
The poem does undertake a few more exhortation’s against self-defeating “retrograde thinking,” but, one hopes, without too totalitarian a re-educational insistence. Of course, this joy in the face of despair, this quick grip of life despite any grimness or grimaces of circumstance echoes in its individualistic insistence the very ethos of punk rock as practised by one of its fun founders, Johnny Rotten. Indeed, the line “Live in my smiles, or die!” echoes Rotten’s imploring scrap of book-flap blurb on his multi-authored autobiography No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, which insists that readers of his life story have but two choices before them: “Enjoy or die.”
All who “pushed on out of darkness” on this voyage will be protected; if the dew of morning prayers freezes around with the knight who has kept his nightlong vigil on his knees–then that very frozen dew will be transformed into a “sheet of clear protecting.” No coldness, no loneliness such as Shelley’s, will stop these wayfarers. Indeed, of such frozen due the poet proclaims: “such silver I say is savior.” This reinforces the efficacy of soul-speech, the creative power of one’s own upheld point of view.
But where does this point if you come from? What is at the root of the individual selves reality that he can then explore and eventually come to sing? You’ve heard me quoted here before folks; it is that old Yeatsean saw: “in dreams begin responsibilities.” We are brought almost a cinematically backwards from the point of dawn into the night before when the speaker was keeping his vigil. We are drawn a picture of the poet lying on his back in the boat looking up the sky. The gentle rocking of the boat the swelling of the gentle day the darkness overhead the stars and the memory of these things become a point in time that is clearly meditative, and in the nadir of this meditation is where “true life began.”
Night's stars swirled to one Past the extinguishment of suns
becomes the rock or root of his experience of self. In this self is the self of a dreamer indeed it is the self of a dreamer remembering himself dreaming. When he looks out again from the streaming interior space and to the world of the night and the moon he exclaims “oh how cold the moons a mirror for all the heats within her.” It is not outer reality that sets the pace that creates the measure becomes the foundation for action. It is rather our understanding of our interior reality which allows us to take action in the outer world. And indeed we do not even take this action in the outer world for the sake of results or efficaciousness in the outer world. We take our actions in the outer world the sake of the moral imperatives of our inner world as we understand them.
I my own bright soul create Nor did this fascination make To slave it to a universe I, living, gaze on as a hearse
If we are alive to the imperatives of this inner moral world and the world outside of us becomes irradiated by our own efficacy and enlightenment. Our life becomes sweetly enlivened. Now once again the speaker takes a moment to caution us from questioning this radical redistribution of reality.
Reality has moved from the outer world to our inner moral world where we dream only to dream again and thus create what is true.
Do not dispraise the light That singing whatever's brightest Undoes the theft of night--
It is here in our moral realm that we can reach out to the moral realm of another and this is the steady boat which both the speaker and the listener share. Once the “fear and dread” of being subject to the contingency of reality’s mistakes and accidents drops away we can relate to each other from a position of deep humanity. I acknowledge the dreamer in you and you acknowledge the dreamer in me and all we can say about living in each other’s dreams is that it is “the endless paradise of days.”
Now comes the moment of ecstatic uplift when the poet welcomes back the sun into his already fully lit universe:
I and all mortality Welcome both thy light and thee
This is indeed of the nature of a religious revelation where the locus of meaning is removed from reality and brought into what we might call a subjective spiritual realm except that in this spiritual realm as posited by the poet meaning is shared between the poet and the listener who in this case is another poet and indeed the entire bay is glistening and the sun itself partakes in the shared reality of this created context.
The second to last stanza of the poem gives a brief recapitulation of the journey already taken in the poem beginning with discarding the naysayers moving on to answering the summarily a few of the questions that might be raised doubts fears that might occur along the way and ending with the affirmation that “pleasure alone may live within/ the human bound of life given.” (This is no scary Hamlet-Daddy, or vengeful Mozartian Giovanni pere, risen writhingly from purgatory to rend our souls with guilt!) Thus the living poet reaffirms Shelley’s highest hopes and dreams for humanity, dismisses his quibbling misery, and re-centers reality on human consciousness:
Ai! Ai! October, 2012