“Over the Bent World”

To celebrate today’s feast of Pentecost, my church placed an abundance of spring foliage on the floor before the iconostasis. The blue and red-robed icons of Christ and Mary the Theotokos rose right out of the vernal turf — a vision of their thrones in paradise. Continue reading “Over the Bent World”


Consolation on Veterans Day

Veterans Day — My parents spent time with my grandfather today reminiscing about his time in the Navy. He enlisted (underage) during World War II and served aboard the USS San Francisco. Continue reading Consolation on Veterans Day

Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

During the Italian Renaissance, an art form emerged known as the sacra conversazione or “sacred conversation.” Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, later Titian and others painted the Madonna and Christ Child talking with saints and sometimes the artist’s own patrons. Recalling Dante’s beatific vision, figures otherwise separated by time and space meet in the planes of these paintings. Continue reading Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

“Stop Inventing!”

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” I thought, pausing on a run in the woods near my house. The late afternoon sun came slanting through the grey tree trunks and lit up the leaves like bits of stained-glass in a church window. All around me, layers of fallen leaves obscured the paths so that I seemed to have walked into a watercolor. Like a watercolor, although all seemed still, a hint of movement hovered around the edges of things—as if the artist had just, the very moment before, lifted his brush and let the water and pigments seep into the page.

“Glory be to God for dappled things” is the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem Pied Beauty. One of my old professors regularly admonished us about the importance of getting some poetry permanently into our heads, and, although my current store is pretty pitiful, most of Pied Beauty is in there. Here’s the whole thing:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

Rather than do a close-reading of this poem, I just want to briefly consider how this poem helped me yesterday afternoon, and how similar works can help us all.

In an essay titled Learning How To See Again, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper warns that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” One reason for this, he argues, is that “there is too much to see!” Visual noise—the constant input from videogames and television shows and billboards and magazines and now cell phones and iPads etc. etc.—can obscure our perception and make us more and more “totally passive consumers of mass-produced goods.” St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing Aristotle, teaches that “nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses.” What, then, are the consequences for our intellects when we spend more time looking at manufactured or artificial reality rather than the real thing?

Pieper doesn’t use this particular term, but he essentially suggests that our senses can atrophy. We can become like the people of Jeremiah’s prophecy “who have eyes, and see not: and ears, and hear not” and who therefore lack understanding.

So what is to be done?

Besides abstaining when we can from the noise, Pieper says that the most immediate and effective remedy is “to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.” The mere attempt to create an artistic form “compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.” I am reminded of my art professor at George Mason, who would always tell us (and sometimes shout at us) to “stop inventing!” and instead “look harder” and draw only what we actually see. When you’re trying to draw a human face, for example, it’s so easy to fall back and draw what you think you see—which is some combination of generic ideals and cartoon images—rather than what you really see. People’s faces aren’t really circular, their eyes aren’t really symmetrical little ovals, and the whites of their eyes are almost never actually white! But you have to slow down, and I mean really slow down, to be able to see that. Then you can begin trying to honestly communicate what you see.

What applies to painted or sculpted images also applies to verbal images. When I ran into the woods, the rich beauty of the scene literally stopped me in my tracks. I tried to think of words fit to describe what I saw, but it’s difficult to slow down enough to really observe. That’s where Hopkins’s poem helped me out. “Dappled things . . . fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls . . . whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) . . . adazzle, dim . . .”– those phrases jumped out of my memory right into the woods around me. Hopkins’s vision must have been so intense, and so patient, for him to have created such personal and yet authentic verbal images. Hopkins’s observations also led me to look more closely and carefully at my own surroundings.

The visions of artists like Hopkins can challenge us, like my art professor, to look harder and to notice more. Art that comes from sincere investigation, and that notices those things that are small and often overlooked, can help us to slow down and to see more and to speak more truthfully about reality.

The Wisdom of Nick Bottom

One of Shakespeare’s most poetic speeches is spoken by a character who spends half the play turned halfway into a donkey. The play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the character is the very foolish Nick Bottom. Always pay attention to Shakespeare’s fools. Often, they possess wisdom which escapes the wits of more refined men.

The main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves four young people having troubles with love. In defiance of the authority figures, they run off to the forest and, unknowingly, into the realm of the fairy king and queen. The fairies try playing matchmakers and merry madness ensues. Meanwhile, in the ordered world of the city, the duke’s wedding night approaches. And as a comic sort of sideshow, Shakespeare adds a band of rustics to the  mix who are preparing a play in honor of the duke’s marriage.

The men have chosen to act out the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. This is an absurd choice for the duke’s wedding party: Pyramus and Thisbe are star-crossed lovers who both end up committing suicide. Shakespeare pokes fun at himself and his playwriting profession in his portrayal of these lovable fools. I highly recommend that you watch the scene below in which Shakespeare introduces us to the troupe. Plays are meant to be performed and watched, and it’s hard to pick up on the humor if you only read the text.

If Peter Quince is the bumbling ringleader, then Nick Bottom is the main attraction in the whole silly circus.

The actors go off to practice in the woods where they, too, get caught in the fairies’ mischief-making. In the middle of rehearsal, a fairy named Puck enters and decides to turn Bottom’s head into the head of a donkey. Bottom’s friends flee from him in fright, but poor Bottom has no idea why. He cannot see his donkey’s head, nor can any of us (except rarely) see our own absurdities. Bottom concludes that his friends must be playing a trick on him. “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me,” he says, unaware of how truly he speaks.

Abandoned in the woods, Bottom sings a song to himself and happens to wake the fairy queen. Earlier, the fairy king cast a spell to make the queen “madly dote upon the next live creature” she sees. Consequently, Bottom—donkey’s head and all—finds himself swept through the midsummer night with the queen of the fairies doting on his every utterance. She tells Bottom:

I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.

Bottom’s comical sort of union with the fairy queen is more than mere farce. Shakespeare describes the scene with beautiful language that suggests something almost magical in the meeting of the low, earthly nature and the high, spiritual nature. It recalls an historical account of when the low earthly nature and high spiritual nature met in a town called Bethlehem, and that, too, was attended by rough beasts and uneducated men.

As with most comedies, the dreams and revels of the night give way to dawn and the daylight of reason. The four young people resolve their troubles and return to the ordered society of the city, the fairy king frees his queen from the love spell, and Puck restores Bottom to his natural state.

But before everything returns quite to normal, as Shakespeare shifts us from the wild wood to the structured city, in the misty morning twilight hours where distinctions remain a bit hazy, Bottom awakes. He is back to his old self, and yet he is not quite his old self. He says:

[Awakening] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, ‘Most fair Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.

In the beginning of the play, we hear Bottom brag about his abilities. But now, after he has been treated like royalty by the queen of the fairies herself, Bottom curiously refrains from boasting. Or if he boasts, he boasts about the “most rare vision” and not about himself. Bottom concludes that it is past the wit of man [including himself] “to say what dream it was,” and that man [including himself] “is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.”

Bottom treats his “vision” as something which has come from completely outside himself. He suggests that the dream is too real—so deep that it has “no bottom”—for his physical senses to make sense of. He expresses a reverence for the vision: he desires to commemorate it in a ballad and feels it appropriate for the solemn event of Thisbe’s death (which we may laugh at, but Bottom takes very seriously).

Bottom feels the urge to explain his experience, yet cannot find the right words. His speech captures the dilemma between experience and expression which is the dilemma of the human condition. As C.S. Lewis put it: “as thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.” Bottom demonstrates the humor in this, and we chuckle when he interrupts himself and confuses the sense organs, but this humor is tinged with tragedy. A sense of loss attends every attempt to speak about experience. How often do you begin to tell your friends some story and end by throwing up your hands and saying “you just had to be there?”

Bottom realizes he cannot fully relate his experiences; he also cannot help but try. And so it is with us: we know we’ll never be able to explain everything. We know we’ll never be able to speak the whole truth about, say, God. But we try to say something true about the truth anyways. After struggling to say what he means, Bottom says that perhaps Peter Quince can capture the vision in a ballad. I love that! Bottom concludes that art can help connect us to the mysteries of experience. We turn our wonder and our confusion into songs and stories and poetry and paintings. We carve huge chunks of marble out of the mountains to try to communicate some human emotion. We compose symphonies to try to capture a sense of the seasons passing. We build big churches to try to say something about the infinite nature of God. Perhaps this makes us, as Bottom says, patched fools. But true wisdom begins with humility and accepting the position of the fool.

Shakespeare gives other characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream sharp wits and keen eyes. But he gives the most profound vision to one of the dullest characters (Bottom is the only human character who sees the spirit world of the fairies), and he speaks the most profound truths through one of the simplest voices. This suggests that the conclusions Bottom reaches are not reserved for intellectuals in ivory towers. They are fundamental truths of human experience. And it also reminds us that truth can come to us in the humblest of guises, for “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Shakespeare’s Little Autumn Song

Fallen leaves dry and crunch in the cool mornings. Night comes quicker and crisper. Autumn approaches. ‘Tis the season for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.

This post will provide a close reading of Sonnet 73. “Close reading” a work means carefully considering the sounds and structures and senses of language that the writer chooses to convey his meaning. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is one of the richest works I’ve encountered, and its imagery fits perfectly into this fall season.

First, here’s some background on the sonnet form:

Sonnets are tightly structured rhyming poems that traditionally speak about love. The term “sonnet” comes from the Italian sonetto which means “little song.” Sonnets first appeared around 1200 and were popularized by Francesco Petrarch (born in Tuscany in 1304). In an Italian or ‘Petrarchan’ sonnet, the first eight lines present some problem and the last six lines offer a solution. A shift or turn between problem and solution, called the “volta,” occurs around line nine.

By the early 1500s, the sonnet made its way to England and acquired there a slightly different character. The fourteen lines of an English sonnet break down into three four-line sections (quatrains) and end with a rhyming couplet. While Italian sonnets put the volta near the middle of the poem, English sonnets often wait till the last two lines to introduce the shift in thinking.

Sonnets are exciting to me because of their limits. They embody what G.K. Chesterton has called “the wild romance of prudence.” Chesterton uses that phrase to describe Robinson Crusoe, and the best poets, like Crusoe, waste nothing. They treat their words like treasures rescued from a wreck and put them to use in surprising and sometimes amusing ways. The strict limits of the sonnet form challenge the poet to be even thriftier with his words—as Chesterton says, “thrift is poetic because it is creative.”

Here’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Try reading the poem out-loud to get a feel for each word and phrase. I also recommend listening to this audio version.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
AAAThis thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
AAATo love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Shakespeare writes most of his sonnets in iambic pentameter. This term used to baffle me, but it’s not so intimidating if you break it down.

An iamb is a unit of sound that contains an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. You might not realize it, but you hear iambs all the time – it’s the rhythm of the human heartbeat: ba DUM.

Iambic pentameter means five (penta) iambs per line, so each line has a total of ten syllables that alternate from unstressed to stressed:

ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM

Shakespeare writes the first line of Sonnet 73 in perfect iambic pentameter:

that TIME of YEAR thou MAYST in ME beHOLD

  ba  DUM   ba   DUM  ba   DUM  ba  DUM ba DUM

The second line’s rhythm also follows iambic pentameter, but there’s something unusual about the sense of the line:

when YEllow LEAVES, or NONE, or FEW, do HANG

First we have yellow leaves—fall—then no leaves—winter—then we’re back to a “few” leaves—late fall? For such a wordsmith as Shakespeare, the odd order is no accident. Shakespeare uses these clauses to play a bit with time. It’s as if the speaker is saying “I’m old, but wait, I ain’t dead yet!” The line suggests that time is not quite constant, and the aging speaker insists he still has something to say.

The third line continues with iambic pentameter. Listen to the sounds Shakespeare chooses:


“Upon those boughs” has such soft sounds: uh; puh; on; bow. The speaker’s voice sounds physically soft and weak—like a bent bough on a withered tree. But the sounds in the second half of the line change dramatically. We get the hard sounds of ‘k’ and ‘g’ and ‘t’ and ‘d.’ When you read “shake against the cold,” your mouth moves in a way that mimics chattering in the cold. The preposition Shakespeare chooses is also significant. The trees and the speaker don’t just shake in the cold, they shake against the cold. Again, we get the idea of opposition to death.

In the fourth line, Shakespeare departs from iambic pentameter. His steady use of that rhythm up till now sets the reader up for a surprise—sort of like a quarterback who calls a run play and then another run and then another run just to set up the surprise of a long pass (my roommate is watching football right now). The fourth line starts with:


These are three heavy, hard stresses. The voice sounds stark and almost angry, which fits the vision of bare black tree trunks in winter. But the line finishes with this phrase:


The second half of the line returns to something closer to the iambic pattern; the pounding heartbeat returns to something more steady. As the speaker recalls the sweet springs of his past, the language becomes tender and peaceful in both sound and sense.

This fourth line also contains a good example of Shakespeare’s thrift—he often makes words do double and triple duty in his works.

Shakespeare doesn’t call his bare trees simply “bare trees.” Instead, he uses the metaphor “bare ruined choirs.” This is an architectural reference: the choir is the part of the church just before the high altar where the religious sit and sing the Mass responses. The left image shows the location of the choir, and the right shows a choir in a French cathedral:

See how the pillars of the choir stretch and branch like trees? Most modern churches don’t have this structure, but readers in Shakespeare’s day would have been familiar with the choir area. The reference to church architecture also introduces a hint of the spiritual world into the poem—the speaker’s vision of nature contains a sense of the numinous.

I’m going to mostly skip the next quatrain (lines 5-8)—though these are some of my favorite lines and sounds in all of poetry—because I want to point out how Shakespeare returns and develops this tree metaphor in the third quatrain.

In lines 9-12, the speaker compares himself to a dying fire:

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

What a metaphor! A man is like a fire whose life passes from energy and activity into ashes—he is gradually but constantly returning to the dust. And the hotter and brighter he burns, the quicker he expires.

What amazes me is how Shakespeare connects this metaphor to the metaphor of the first quatrain. In the first quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to trees in fall and then winter. Now in the third quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to a fire. And what fuels a fire? Old, dry wood! Shakespeare doesn’t just use a metaphor and move on. He finds one, explores it, reconsiders it from different angles, and connects his ideas all in a kind of subtle and musical unity.

This sonnet moves from the aging of autumn to the fading twilight years and finally to man’s inevitable “deathbed.” The first quatrain suggests a resistance to this progression—the speaker clings to life like an autumn leaf against the coming winter. But the second two quatrains develop an attitude of acceptance towards death. “By and by” black night comes for all, and eventually the fire “must” burn out. It is a melancholy look at growing old and approaching death, but it is not morbid.

The final couplet leaves us with this final shift in the speaker’s view of death:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The person whom the sonnet addresses understands all of this about the speaker, yet loves the speaker regardless. The reality of death does not render love meaningless; instead, it makes love “more strong.” This final couplet suggests that love might be stronger than the separation of death. Death may not be the final word, and so again that hint of the spiritual life enters the poem.

There are many more layers to this sonnet, and the closer you look, the more you’ll notice. I think that is the mark of a true masterpiece—a masterpiece echoes the complexity and mystery of God’s artistry, which can be contained in something as small as a flower of the field or a newborn babe or the fourteen lines of an English sonnet.

I hope you found this close reading enriching, and I hope you try more close reading on your own! At one point in my education, I had got the mistaken impression that poems were full of all sorts of secret meanings and you needed some key to “decode” them. Sadly, many critics do take this approach. But what I’ve learned from the best teachers is that the best poems mean exactly what they say. They just demand that we listen more closely to their language and consider their words as carefully as their creator did—which is not a bad approach to life in general, either.

Dante Dishes on the 2012 Elections

I recently joined Twitter and have found that it’s a good way to discover and follow the work of interesting organizations, writers, and general news. Also, I follow an account called Shire Reckoning which tweets events from Lord of the Rings on the days and times they happened throughout the year. Awesome, right?

But connecting to Twitter has also connected me to endless streams of nasty tweets about the 2012 U.S. presidential campaigns. My feed is filled 140 character reactions and over-reactions and comments on over reactions and analysis of why this over-reaction is warranted but not that one and why that joke was a real joke but the other joke was actually racist and on and on ad nauseam.

Given the instant and fairly anonymous nature of Twitter, uncharitable rhetoric is probably inevitable. And the barrage of barbs isn’t anything new to presidential elections. During the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s campaign called then-President John Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character.” Adams’ supporters countered with claims that Jefferson would cause the “teaching of murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest.” During the election of 1912, then-President William Howard Taft described Theodore Roosevelt as a “dangerous egotist.” Ol’ Teddy took the high road by calling Taft an “infernal skunk in the White House” who has the brain of a “guinea pig.” (Give him points for creativity?)

Some of these old insults are rather entertaining. EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel has a nice piece on the bygone days of the gentlemanly art of the insult. Shakespeare has certainly shown that insults can be at times both appropriate and artistic. But when so much of our general rhetoric is degraded and so many of the insults tossed around are, as Mr. Weigel points out, “invariably scatological or sexual,” I think it’s worth revisiting Dante’s timeless warning about mudslinging.

The setting is the eighth circle of hell, where suffer the falsifiers. (I’ll be quoting from Mark Musa’s translation of the Inferno, Canto XXX.) Here, Virgil and Dante encounter the shade of Master Adamo, a counterfeiter. Adamo’s soul is so bloated and distorted that he can only move “one inch in every hundred years” on his “useless legs.” Dante notices two other souls floundering in a nearby ditch and asks who they are. Adamo explains that they’ve been in that ditch since he arrived

. . . and they haven’t budged since then,
and I doubt they’ll move through all eternity.

One is the false accuser of young Joseph [Potiphar’s wife];
the other is false Sinon, the Greek in Troy [who convinced the Trojans to let in the Trojan horse]:
it’s their burning fever makes them smell so bad.

At this point, Dante recounts, Sinon the Greek

. . . perhaps somewhat offended at the kind of introduction he received,
with his fist struck out at the distended belly [of Master Adamo],

which responded like a drum reverberating;
and Master Adam struck him in the face
with an arm as strong as the first he had received.

(Damned souls duking it out in a ditch surrounded by the stench of burning fever—and who says old literature is dull?)

Adamo taunts Sinon after he hits him, saying that although he can’t move about on his swollen legs, at least his arm is ready for such occasions. Sinon shouts back and the fight really begins:

“But [your hand] was not as free and ready, was it,”
[Sinon] answered, “when you went to the stake?
Of course, when you were coining [counterfeiting] it was readier!”

And he with the dropsy [Adamo]: “Now you tell the truth,
but you were not as full of truth that time
when you were asked to tell the truth at Troy!”

My words were false—so were the coins you made,”
said Sinon, “and I am here for one false act
but you for more than any fiend in hell!”

“The [Trojan] horse, recall the horse, you falsifier,”
the bloated paunch was quick to answer back,
“may it burn your guts that all the world remembers!”

“May your guts burn with thirst that cracks your tongue,”
the Greek said, “may they burn with rotting humors
that swell your hedge of a paunch to block your eyes!”

And then the money-man: “So there you go,
your evil mouth pours out its filth as usual,
for if I thirst, and humors swell me up,

you burn more, and your head is fit to split,
and it wouldn’t take much coaxing to convince you
to lap the mirror of Narcissus dry!”

Back and forth the damned souls go, getting absolutely nowhere. How many episodes of Hardball does this remind you of? How many panelists on split screens just spewing nonsense? Or, beyond politics: how many Housewives episodes echo this exchange?

But before we sensible ones climb too high on our horses, Dante has words for us viewers, too:

I was listening, all absorbed in this debate,
when the master [Virgil, Dante’s guide] said to me: “Keep right on looking,
a little more, and I shall lose my patience.”

I heard the note of anger in his voice
and turned to him; I was so full of shame
that it still haunts my memory today.

Virgil gets angry at Dante for becoming absorbed in the fight. Dante realizes his mistake and asks Virgil’s forgiveness. Seeing he is sorry, Virgil quickly forgives Dante, but warns him:

If ever again you should meet up with men
engaging in this kind of futile wrangling,
remember I am always at your side;

to have a taste for talk like this is vulgar!

Virgil is angry and Dante is ashamed because this “futile wrangling” not only hurts the participants, but it degrades the viewer. There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander to this type of talk. Souls are precious and impressionable things, and that’s why St. Paul tells the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I know (because I do it all the time!) how easy it is to get absorbed in the futile wrangling. But just remember: Virgil does not approve.

[This is from an Ary Scheffer 19th century painting with Dante (in red) and Virgil (in green).]