Monday, May 1, 2017
Jason, the hero of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Hellenistic epic the Argonautica, may surprise the first-time reader with his failures of resolve and fits of depression. He is repeatedly described as améchanos, which in his case means he simply does not know what to do. This apparently unheroic attribute is thrown into high relief by the fact that the same word was used of Achilles and Hector in the Iliad with a diametrically opposed meaning, something like “irresistible” or “undefeatable.”  Just as the Marvel comic superheroes of the sixties appealed to their audience by being more vulnerable than the old-style Superman and Batman, this new sort of compromised protagonist seemed appropriate in the belated Alexandrian world. Yet the poet never abandons the grand old encyclopedic reach of epic, and there are moments when Apollonius strives to present an orderly symbolic pattern that ambitiously aims at representing everything.
Perhaps the most dramatic compressed example of such an image is Jason’s marvelous cloak. Jason pauses at Lemnos on his way to capture the Golden Fleece. Invited to an audience with the local queen Hypsipyle (and unaware that the island’s women have slaughtered all the males), Jason dons his grandest cloak, a magnificent garment covered with embroidered scenes described in an ekphrasis of nearly fifty lines.  The seven scenes ornamenting the garment, which outshone the rising sun (725) include a variety of mythological scenes. Such a work of art resembles the symbolic ambitions of a coat of arms or a Baroque title page and tends toward encyclopedic images like mandalas, magic diagrams, or a bank of stained glass windows in a Gothic cathedral. Parallels include the Shield of Achilles in the Iliad (or the pseudo-Hesiodic “Shield of Heracles”), the similarly shining cloak the incognito Odysseus wore, or, in a different medium, the song of Orpheus that follows in Apollonius.
Critics have read the cloak as an overture-like anticipation of the themes of the epic, but epic itself seeks to be all-inclusive, so its themes tend to epitomize all themes. The ekphrasis is neatly tied to the specifics of the poem in its end, but its center is surely an attempt to symbolically capture the most significant terms of human reality as though in a miraculously wide-angle lens.
The first scene, of the Cyclopes forging Zeus thunderbolts, provides an image of technical expertise heightened by its setting in the divine realm. Just as the Argonautica itself is a work of art, the production of metal, clearly an astonishing transformation to early peoples witnessed by the role of gods like Hephaistos and Egyptian Ptah, the Germanic Wayland, the Yoruba Ogun, and others.  The poet thus associates his own art with this heavenly production.
The marvel of the cloak is represented by its luminescence, a characteristic on prominent display in this representation of the spurting flames and shining lights of the god’s thunderbolts. The brilliance of the work parallels the dazzling images of poetry and reinforces the identity of humans as art-producing, symbol-making creatures. The human connection becomes more explicit with the following image, the construction of Thebes by the sons of Antiope, Amphion and Zethus, who lived as humans in spite of their divine parentage.  The garment, a tour de force of embroidery, serves as an example of the development of the technical skills, including art and poetry, that distinguish human beings. These initial scenes portray technical skill in the service of the divine, serving the ends of fate, one might say.
The next panel of the cloak portrays Aphrodite with the shield of Ares, neatly combining the strongest instinctual passions of sex and violence, eros and aggression. In an ingeniously clever image, the lovely goddess’ tunic is said to have slipped below her breast and, the poet reports, her body was reflected in the shield. (746) Thus the primary psychic preoccupations of our species (and, to a large extent, the rest of the animal kingdom) are reflected in a single compressed code, adding these elemental drives to the construction of culture implied in the first two pictures.
The violent portion of this complementary pair is then foregrounded in the picture of the defeat of the herdsmen sons of Elektryon by their relatives, the Taphian raiders. This incident, like most mythic episodes, only a single term in a lengthy and interwoven series of events extending backward and forward in time, emphasizes the role of brute force in the world. The scene is also linked to the present narrative through Elektryon’s descent from Perseus whose myth parallels that of Theseus in many details.
The following image again emphasizes the complementarity of love and aggression in a representation of Pelops’ winning of Hippodamia through his victory in a chariot race with Oenomaus, her father, who had killed the eighteen earlier suitors who had proved slower. Without tracing the many links backward and forward to Tantalus, Perseus, Agamemnon, and others, it is sufficient here to note the preeminence of eros and Todestrieb.
A new element enters with the sixth image, that of Apollo shooting at Tityos as he attempts to abduct Leto. Here is the inverse of the dutiful Titans of the first image, as the giant impiously seeks to dispossess Apollo of his love object. Once more, love and aggression are impossibly intertwined, the complementary dynamos that motivate action, yet here it is Tityos’ impiety, his deviation from the Olympian script, that causes Apollo to act.
The final image refastens the chain of pictures to the current tale. Phrixos is yet another babe threatened by a hostile maternal figure. While his double falls to his death, Phrixos is protected by an established city on the margin of the known world. His sons in fact join the crew of the Argo after being rescued. His fleece is the object of the quest.
The whole series, then, defines humanity as artists and technologists, motivated by powerful forces of love and death, suspended between divine and human realms, constantly threatened by untamable forces, making a way forward in life like the hero Jason who is undertaking an all-nut-impossible task. The generic images of human passions are clearly linked to the main plot line in a myriad of ways. Yet the plot of the Argonautica, the endlessly branching related myths, and the images, and the stories depicted on Jason’s cloak, all these do not provide conclusions as much as they suggest bipolar oppositions that organize the tensions and problems of human experience.
1. See Iliad, XIII, 726 and XVI, 29. The Homeric heroes do, of course, have their moments of confusion, hesitation and despondence. The difference is a matter of degree.
2. I, 721-767.
3. These include the the Vedic Tvastarpre-Islamic Qaynan, the Sumerian Gibil, the Hungarian Hadúr, the Finnish Ilmarinen, the Gallo-Roman Gobannos, the Slavic Svarog, and the Celtic Creidhne, Goibniu, and Gofannon.
4. Of these two, the first is associated with art, poetry, and music, and the second with hunting and livestock raising, though both are described as participating in the building of Thebes’ walls and both are sufficiently human to die.
5. See Daniel Odgen’s Perseus for a catalogue of similarities.
This is the seventh of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) non-scholarly readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.
Though every poet is one of a kind, William Blake is more dramatically singular than most. Though he owed little debt to the literary fashions of his day and enjoyed scant readership during his lifetime, Blake developed a mystical style of writing and graphic art that has become immensely influential. His grand prophetic books can be bewildering. Anecdotes from him and his contemporaries indicate that he kept people guessing even in his own time.
Perhaps the most convenient entry to Blake’s work is through his political convictions. Though hardly a systematic or pragmatic activist, Blake was possessed with prophetic rage like that of ancients like Amos when he evaluated the contemporary scene. In 1802 Blake drove off a drunken soldier from his garden in Felpham. The trespasser then accused him of high treason, claiming that he had cursed the king and declared all soldiers to be slaves. As it happens, British democracy had advanced just far enough that a jury of twelve acquitted the poet. Blake’s lyric from the preface to Milton: A Poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient times” denounces the manufacturers’ “dark Satanic mills” and looks forward to a new Jerusalem in “England’s green and pleasant land.” The verse, set to music at the time of WWI, has become one of the country’s most popular patriotic songs, particularly popular at Labour Party events.
In the brief four stanzas of “London” Blake raises some of the most significant social questions of the era of the Industrial Revolution.
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
The use of the word “charter’d” in the first stanza, though its precise meaning is not altogether certain, clearly criticizes capitalist private property which has parceled out resources which properly belong to all. The fundamental source of oppression is thus identified at the outset. The ruling class has assigned rights and privileges over both land and water, producing inequity, alienation, and pain, evident in the “marks of woe” evident in the citizens’ faces. I have often reflected on this line when boarding a New York City subway late at night. I fancy the stricken urban faces have not changed in two hundred years. Though the ultimate aim of the ruling class is wealth, for Blake the most oppressive chains are “mind-forg'd,” internalized habits of thought that render the slave compliant.
The third stanza identifies two of his principal complaints: the rapacious exploitation of workers, in particular such lowly workers as the chimney sweeps, whose suffering cries are ignored by established religion. The churches, their own walls blackening with pollution, ignore their own teachings as they ignore the complaints of the humblest among them, the very people with whom Christ would have stood. Likewise soldiers, willing to die for their country, are merely cannon fodder to the indifferent ruling class, sheltered behind palace walls far from any battlefield.
To Blake the most horrifying aspect of the social order must be the perversion of love. The woe he feels “most,” exciting his most heart-felt protest, arises with the transformation of love itself into a commodity. With the Industrial Revolution favoring the cultivation of wool for sale rather than food for consumption and the enclosure laws that facilitated the change, many rural families found themselves in urban areas with no means of support, leading to a dramatic increase in prostitution. Apart from Blake’s implication of venereal disease (“blights with plagues”), to him a husband who would purchase sex can hardly be a true lover, and thus his marriage is also a funeral. Blake considered the very institution of marriage to be fatally linked to power relations and restraint of the divine energy of desire, though he himself was an apparently monogamous and happily married man whose wife took an active role in his creative endeavors. Alexander Gilchrist described coming to call and finding Blake and his wife naked in a small summer house reading Paradise Lost aloud. “Come in,” cried Blake, “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know.”
He claimed to have visionary experiences beginning when God looked in his window when he was only four. Angels and prophets appeared to him in the sky or in trees, and he eventually developed a highly personal and complex mythology. Apparently to him, as to some other mystics, a deep gaze into anything may reveal the divine. The world provided an endless field every object in which is an aspect of god in myriad disguises.
In what is perhaps his most well-known poem, “The Tyger,” Blake insists that the imagery of Christ as a lamb represents only one side of god. For him, as for Hindus, every benevolent deity has a malevolent or frightening figure to balance. Ultimate Reality is beyond good and evil and must contain both. In Blake’s theory of contraries, there can be no privilege to the more agreeable vision; it is inevitably accompanied by its terrifying transformation.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The deeper implication of the poem is the ultimate identity of opposites, the explosion of dualism in what is called in one tradition Advaitism. If, as the hymn of another tradition says “In Christ there is no east and west, in him no north and south,” then there is likewise no temporal/divine, mind/body, life/death, or other dualities. The enlightened view is monistic.
The very title of his “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” suggests the identity or interdependence of opposites. In it the devil expounds the “error” that body and soul are distinct. Yet it is also a devil whom he witnesses writing the profound words: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/ is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?” and the following are among what he calls “the proverbs of Hell.”
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
One thought fills immensity.
Exuberance is Beauty.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
He sounds like a Zen master when he advises “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.”
The reader to whom such sayings make Blake a didactic poet, will, at the same time, find him avoiding reductive themes, often through the use of paradox and ambiguity. In “The Sick Rose” the rose’s virtue and the worm’s malignity seem clear at first glance, but to many the poem’s implications remain elusive.
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Rather than prescribe a single reading of this brief poem, I shall indicate some of the directions which a reading might take. The likeliest initial interpretation would see the rose as a lovely and wholly admirable thing whose love, his “bed of crimson joy” is destroyed by a monster, malicious invisible flying worm. This approach is not only consistent with general poetic usages of rose (beautiful, desirable) and worm (associated with death and decay) but also might well be supported with parallel passages from other Blakean texts.
On the other hand, it is the rose that is described at the outset as “sick,” while the worm has “love,” albeit a dark and secret variety. Might it be that the worm is as wholesome as a medicinal leech and that the “crimson joy,” sensational as it sounds, might arise from a bed of dysfunction? Some have read the final lines “And his dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy” to mean, not that the worm destroys the rose, but rather that the worm’s love is destroyed by the rose’s life. The fact is that, while Bromion’s assault on Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion is analogous to the worm’s on the rose, in the Book of Thel the title character is told “Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies, How great thy use, how great thy blessing.” Her reluctance seems there to be a sign of inhibition and limitation.
The illustration Blake made for “The Sick Rose” also complicates the interpretation. What can the viewer make of the fact that the artist depicts no storm at all, but a clear and sunny day? While the upper flowers seem to be wilting, the one associated with the worm is healthy-looking. Do these details suggest that the persona of the poem has an inaccurate subjective view?
Such underdetermined signification, far from indicating the author’s confusion, is characteristic of the aesthetic text. The role of the paradoxical and mysterious is foregrounded in William Blake, whose visionary insights often challenged and contradicted received ideas. A poet who celebrated the joy of the creation, he no less embraced the tumultuous and stressful, aiming to place his ultimate focus beyond good and evil. A prescient critic of the already failing feudal system and of the nascent capitalism replacing it, of the institutional church which seemed to him to veer sharply from Christ’s teaching, he was perhaps most profoundly a critic of everyday perception. Another line in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” notes "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Human senses may block perception as well as permit it. Blake was ambitious enough to construct in his art, both verbal and visual, new objects for mental contemplation designed to extend human vision and to bring others in the direction of enlightenment.
Gospel is Old English for good news, and the predominant message of much gospel music is indeed joy at an unquestioned salvation. The worshipper delights in every breath, since the future ultimately holds a sure deliverance. This theme and the ecstatic mood it may produce are prominent in the recordings of Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson’s bottleneck slide guitar work and growly intense vocals owe much to the blues, but many of his songs are nonetheless celebratory and optimistic. His vision includes, however, the suffering Christ no less than the risen Lord, and he offers the inspiration of Jesus’ model to believers who may have much to endure in their own lives. Sometimes, Johnson’s songs, whether traditional or original, reach further yet, to suggest an ultimate reality beyond joy and suffering, no less certain for being bound in mystery.
While the blues are largely concerned with pain, loneliness, and frustration, Johnson sings of his “joy and gladness in “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” Death is welcomed in the almost rollicking easy tones of “Bye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The King”: “And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God.” A variety of ingenious figures of speech reinforce the point. In “It's Nobody's Fault But Mine” Christ appears as a benevolent bail bondsman, freeing the captive soul. “God don’t never change” offers the delightful image of the singer so consumed in divine worship that he can direct even a mountain to “skip around like a lamb.” The magical efficacy of Christ’s blood is affirmed in “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.”  Sin and damnation play very little role in Johnson’s ministry, though in “If It Had Not Been For Jesus” the singer notes that Christ ”washed my black heart white” without further details.
Among the other songs with similar emphasis are “Let your light shine on me” with its claim that luminous “angels in heaven, done write my name,” “Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” “He’s my Bosom Friend,” “Sweeter as the Years Go By,” “Go With Me To That Land,” and “Church I'm Fully Saved Today.”
Pain and suffering, however, receive their due. The very heart of the Christian myth with its deity mysteriously combining divine and human natures emphasizes Jesus’ passion on the cross, the strongest available image of anguished torture. The believer’s own difficulties are given meaning while at the same time appearing less than his Lord’s. One may safely assume that Johnson’s African-American listeners had sufficient troubles of their own to identify readily with Christ.
Most profound of Johnson’s songs on this theme is doubtless “Dark was the night.” Johnson takes his opening line from a pre-existing hymn, then follows with a series of equally powerful images. I am reminded of Crashaw by “his sweat like drops of blood ran down.” These drops are mysteriously present in the Garden to which the sinner is directed. Ultimately the song teaches the imitation of Christ: “Learn of him the cross to bear.” “Jesus Make Up my Dying Bed” is an imaginative tour de force in which Christ is the singer’s spouse and the suffering of worshipper and worshipped are conflated.
Contemporary afflictions appear: the Titanic disaster in “God Moves On The Water” and WWI and Spanish flu in “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” Probably the most powerful metaphor for suffering, one appearing multiple times in both sacred and secular lyrics is the separation from God as loss of a loving parent in “Mother's Children Have A Hard Time” and “Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying.”
Thus Johnson’s lyrics, like the Psalms, chart the high and low of experience. There is a numinous glow, however, about Johnson’s religious vision, a sheen of mystery imponderable until the Apocalypse which has little to do with good and evil or pain and pleasure. I think, for instance, of the gloriously minimal miracle of “The Rain Don't Fall On Me,” the understated imagery of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” and the open-mouthed wonder of “The Soul Of A Man.” The culmination of this nearly occult aspect of the poet’s religious experience is surely the haunting “John the Revelator” which invokes the most spectacularly mystifying book of the Bible repeatedly as though its very mention is a magic charm. The song is made of this hypnotic iteration along with a few enigmatic symbols (“Judea’s Lion”) and an account of a theophany to Moses. This song is anticipated by the mention in “I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge” of the “dragon hurled down by the preacher” with its specific scriptural reference.
Though a musical artist is hardly a theologian, gospel singers have always been inspired and motivated not only by their faith, but also by the approaches that have proven successful in appealing to an audience whose critical judgment is not suspended even in church. Willie Johnson’s oeuvre emphasizes the joy and confidence of salvation, with a darker shadow acknowledging suffering, then ornamented with a bit of mystery and magic. His message reached not only the streets and storefront churches, but into Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and new versions of his songs by Reverend Gary Davis, folk revival figures like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Fairport Convention, and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as rockers like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.