Sunday, April 16, 2017

Poets’ Sidelong Glances at Easter

Easter Morning or Easter Mystery, by Maurice Denis, 1891

It’s Easter morning and I hope it is lovely where you are.  If you came here today expecting lofty contemplations of a stone rolled away and an empty tomb, of redemption and hallelujah! you are bound for disappointment.  Likewise if you are a Unitarian Universalist who squirms uncomfortably in the pews waiting for your sensitivities to be assaulted or a pagan longing for a hymn to Oester you will likewise be crestfallen.  Not this year.  Maybe another time.
Today we celebrate the quirky, sidelong glances at the Spring festival in short pieces by some well-known poets.  Each is fresh and exciting and demand you leave your expectations in the umbrella stand by the door.

Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.  by Joe Pellegrino.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a young and scholarly Anglican convert to Catholicism who was ordained as a Jesuit Priest.  After his own order’s magazine rejected his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland as too difficult, Hopkins became a poet of the closed drawer—he never published during his life time.  After his death in Dublin at the age of 44, his work was discovered and published to wide acclaim.  He has been called “the most original poet of the Victorian age.”  Hopkins’ view this morning comes from an unusual vantage point—a priest before the altar prepared to impart Holy Communion to the congregation before him in its Easter finery.  He was not entirely please with what he saw.
Easter Communion
Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins

Young Katherine Tynan capture William Butler Yeats's heart among others.
Katherine Tynan was born in Dublin in 1859 the daughter of a prosperous cattle raiser.  A lovely girl with a bookish bent, she began writing at an early age and turned down a marriage proposal from a young and smitten W.B. Yeats.  Instead she married a scholar and had three children.  And she turned her hand to writing compulsively.  In addition to a large body of quality poetry—18 volumes in all—Tynan wrote  five plays, seven books of devotion, one book about her dogs, 105 popular novels, twelve collections of short stories, and innumerable newspaper articles before she died in 1931.  Whew! Her outlook was a combination of Catholicism, Irish nationalism, and feminism.   The death of a youthful love in 1885 and of her husband in 1919 both deeply affected her—and colored this view of Easter.


Bring flowers to strew His way,
Yea, sing, make holiday;
Bid young lambs leap,
And earth laugh after sleep.

For now He cometh forth
Winter flies to the north,
Folds wings and cries
Amid the bergs and ice.

Yea, Death, great Death is dead,
And Life reigns in his stead;
Cometh the Athlete
New from dead Death’s defeat.

Cometh the Wrestler,
But Death he makes no stir,
Utterly spent and done,
And all his kingdom gone.

Katharine Tynan
Oscar Wilde in all of his glory.

Oscar Wilde is too well known to need much introduction here.  The son of a prosperous and artistic Anglo-Irish family he made his name in London as a critic, poet, and enormously popular playwright as well as for his foppish attire and barely concealed sexual life style—a married father of three who carried on a long semi-public romance with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquees of Queensbury.  The Marquees brought charges of homosexuality against Wilde who spent two years at hard labor.  After his release he went into exile in Europe, wrote his famous Ballad of the Reading Gaol, and died poverty stricken and broken in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46.  Along the way he passed through Rome one Easter.
Easter Day

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.
Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendour and in light the Pope passed home.
My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest.
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears!”

—Oscar Wilde

Young Claude McKay speaking at the Kremlin in Moscow, 1923.
Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889 and came to the U.S. to study—very briefly—at the Tuskegee Institute before going on to study agriculture at Kansas State University.  But he was not destined to be a farmer.  Instead he was equally drawn to a literary life, socialism, and a militant sense of racial justice in New York City.  He became the pioneering  leading light of the Harlem  Renaissance writing four novels and political journalism.  As a poet he was a profound influence on the whole lively Harlem scene and a special inspiration and mentor to Langston Hughes.  After World War I McKay traveled extensively in Europe, especially France.  He was rousted and nearly arrested in 1920 in England for supposedly contributing articles under a pen name to a magazine sponsored by radical and Suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst.  He spent nine months in the Soviet Union in 1922 and ’23 including attendance at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow.  He returned to Harlem a committed Communist, although he claimed never to have joined the American Party.  By the late ‘30’s he became disillusioned with the Communists and began to write extremely critically of them.  McKay embraced the social teachings of the Catholic Church and converted in 1944.  He died 4 years later in Chicago. But McKay was still a youthful radical when he wrote this poem.
The Easter Flower

Far from this foreign Easter damp and chilly
My soul steals to a pear-shaped plot of ground,
Where gleamed the lilac-tinted Easter lily
Soft-scented in the air for yards around;

Alone, without a hint of guardian leaf!
Just like a fragile bell of silver rime,
It burst the tomb for freedom sweet and brief
In the young pregnant year at Eastertime;

And many thought it was a sacred sign,
And some called it the resurrection flower;
And I, a pagan, worshiped at its shrine,
Yielding my heart unto its perfumed power.

—Claude McKay

John Berryman, a life long heavy drinker, expounding at the pub.
Our final poet, John Berryman, was born John Smith in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1914.  He was educated at Columbia University and at Cambridge in Britain. Back stateside he had a long successful career as an academic at Wayne State University in Detroit, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Minnesota while building a solid reputation as a poet.  His creative breakthrough came in 77 Dream Songs, which was published in 1964 and awarded a Pulitzer Prize.  The sonnet-like poems had wrenched syntax, scrambled diction, leaps of language and tone, and mixture of high lyricism and low comedy.  Berryman continued the series and finally published four hundred collected as The Dream Songs in 1969. He collected all of the top poetry awards—the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Bollingen Prize. Despite the success and recognition Berryman was subject to deep depressions and committed suicide by throwing himself off of a bridge in 1972 at the age 57.  This Easter Dream Song reflects the poet’s frequent struggles with death.

Dream Song 123: Daples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north

Dapples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north,
I have nothing to say except that it dapples my floor
and it would dapple me
if I lay on that floor, as-well-forthwith
I have done, trying well to mount a thought
not carelessly

in times forgotten, except by the New York Times
which can’t forget. There is always the morgue.
There are men in the morgue.
These men have access. Sleepless, in position,
they dream the past forever
Colossal in the dawn comes the second light

we do all die, in the floor, in the morgue
and we must die forever, c’est la mort
a heady brilliance
the ultimate gloire
post-mach, probably in underwear
as we met each other once.

—John Berryman


No comments:

Post a Comment