In Aeneid, It’s the Wives Who Riot

Minneapolis building burns during riots


Are any of us surprised, after years of watching police and self-proclaimed vigilantes abusing and killing African Americans—and of white juries letting them go free—that we finally have 1960-style riots on our hands, complete with burning buildings? Donald Trump encouraging police officers to rough up their suspects has led directly to the George Floyd murder, although the primal racism that I explored a couple of weeks ago is also a key factor. The literary image that comes to my mind is the rioting wives in Book V of The Aeneid.

It is one of the strangest episodes in Virgil’s epic. Heretofore, the wives haven’t been mentioned at all, let alone been named, yet here they are, mad as hell and setting their husbands’ ships on fire.

African Americans will relate to their pent-up rage, even though the parallel isn’t exact. To this point, Aeneas has considered, and rejected, a series of sites in which to settle down: Thrace, the Trojan settlement of Buthrotum, the Stophades, Crete, Carthage (with Dido), and now a Trojan settlement on current-day Sicily. However, Aeneas’s sense of destiny, voiced by Jupiter, decrees that he set his eyes on the Latin kingdom further north, even though he could settle for their present location. After seven years of wandering, the wives aren’t having it.

The Trojan men, who don’t bother to consult them, are off playing sports. (More precisely, they’re honoring the death of Aeneas’s father with Olympic-style funeral games). Juno, the goddess of the hearth who opposes Aeneas’s imperial ambitions, sends down her messenger Isis to stir things up:

                               Juno brooding, scheming,
her old inveterate rancor never sated. Iris flies,
arcing down on her rainbow showering iridescence,
and no one sees the virgin glide along the shore,
past the huge assembly, catching sight of the harbor
all deserted now, and the fleet they left unguarded.
But there, far off on a lonely stretch of beach
the Trojan women wept for the lost Anchises.
Gazing out on the deep dark swells they wept
and wailed: “How many reefs, how many sea-miles
more that we must cross! Heart-weary as we are!”

They cried with one voice. A city is what they pray for.
All were sick of struggling with the sea. So down
in their midst speeds Iris—no stranger to mischief—

Iris takes the form of wife Beroe and proceeds to enflame the rest:

Oh, my poor doomed people! What is Fortune saving you for,
what death-blow? Seven summers gone since Troy went down
and still we’re swept along, measuring out each land, each sea—
how many hostile rocks and stars?—scanning an endless ocean,
chasing an Italy fading still as the waves roll us on.…
What prevents us from building walls right here,
presenting our citizens with a city? Oh, my country,
gods of the hearth we tore from enemies, all for nothing,
will no walls ever again be called the walls of Troy?
We’re never again to see the rivers Hector loved,
the Simois and the Xanthus? No, come, action!
Help me burn these accursed ships to ashes.
The ghost of Cassandra came to me in dreams,
the prophetess gave me flaming brands and said:
‘Look for Troy right here, your own home here!’
Act now. No delay in the face of signs like these.
You see? Four altars to Neptune. The god himself
is giving us torches, building our courage, too.”
Spurring them on and first to seize a deadly brand,
she held it high in her right hand, shook it to flame
and with all her power hurled the fire home.

A peacemaker intervenes but the wives, like the rioters, are too aroused to halt for long:

[A]t first the women wavered, looking back
at the ships with hateful glances, torn between
their hapless love for the land they stood on now
and the fated kingdom, calling still—when all at once
the goddess towered into the sky on balanced wings,
cleaving a giant rainbow, flying beneath the clouds.
Now they are dumbstruck, driven mad by the sign
they scream, some seize fire from the inner hearths,
some plunder the altars—branches, brushwood, torches,
they hurl them all at once and the God of Fire unleashed
goes raging over the benches, oarlocks, piney blazoned sterns.

As I say, the wives have been ignored to this point, but their riot gets the men’s full attention. Aeneas’s son Ascanius, sounding like various city mayors, veers out of the horse race that he’s winning and comes riding in to save the ships:

Out in the lead, Ascanius, still heading his horsemen,
still in triumph, swerves for the ships at full tilt,
his breathless handlers helpless to rein him back,
and finding the camp in chaos, shouts out: “Madness,
beyond belief! What now? What drives you on?
Wretched women of Troy, it’s not the enemy camp,
the Greeks—you’re burning your own best hopes!
Look, it’s your own Ascanius!”
Down at his feet he flung his useless helmet, the one 
he donned
when he played at war, acting out mock battles….

Although the rioters retreat, the ships are still on fire:

Despite all that, the flames, the implacable fire
never quits its fury. Under the sodden beams
the tow still smolders, reeking a slow, heavy smoke
that creeps along the keels, the ruin eating into the hulls,
and all their heroic efforts, showering water, get them nowhere.
At once devoted Aeneas ripped the robe on his shoulders,
called the gods for help and flung his hands in prayer:
“Almighty Jove, if you still don’t hate all Trojans,
if you still look down with your old sense of devotion,
still respect men’s labors, save our fleet from fire!
Now, Father, snatch the slim hopes of the Trojans
out of the jaws of death! Or if I deserve it,
come, hurl what’s left of us down to death
with all your angry bolts—
overwhelm us here with your iron fist!”

Jove helps out with a timely rain shower, after which the Trojans arrive at a good compromise. Counselor Nautes advises Aeneas that those who wish to should venture on while the rest can stay with Acestes, head of the Sicily settlement:

You have Acestes, a Trojan born of the gods,
a ready adviser. Invite him into your councils.
Make your plans together. Hand them over to him,
the people left from the burnt ships and those worn out
by the vast endeavor you’ve begun, your destiny, your fate.
The old men bent with age, the women sick of the sea,
ones who are feeble, ones who shrink from danger:
set them apart, and exhausted as they are,
let them have their walls within this land.
If he lends his name, they’ll call the town Acesta.”

Our own solutions are not so simple since the problems are systemic. Racism runs deep within police departments and deep within the country as a whole. Given rightwing cops, white nationalist provocateurs, anarchist groups, and opportunistic politicians, we can expect more mischief. Fortunately, we also have wise counselors, including rapper Tiger Mike, Rev. Al Sharpton, and various enlightened mayors, who are attempting to find a way forward.

The burning boats have sent a warning signal that we cannot ignore. We must make productive use of them.

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Every Flame Becomes a Tongue of Praise

El Greco, Pentecost

Spiritual Sunday – Pentecost

The wonderful Malcolm Guite has a sonnet for every Christian holy day, including Pentecost. Luke (Acts 2:1-4) describes the moment when the Holy Spirit entered the disciples as it had entered Jesus:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

And now for Guite’s sonnet, which to capture the moment must pile up the metaphors–as must Luke:

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

Previous posts on Pentecost
2019 Czeslaw Milosz: Come, Holy Spirit
2018 Lucille Clifton: Light Breaks Where No Light Was Before
2017 Denise Levertov: Pulled into the Ring of the Dance
2015 William Blake: To See God, the Heart Must Catch Fire
2013 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Look into Thine Heart and Write
2012 Ken Sehested: Pentecost Is When All Heaven Breaks Loose
2011 Derek Walcott: Pentecost Flames, Fireflies’ Crooked Street  
2010 Mary Oliver: Life Storming Out of the Darkness

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Secret Garden, Perfect Pandemic Reading


Among books to reread during the pandemic, Paris Review’s Frankie Thomas makes a lovely case for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, one of my own childhood favorites. Although we may think children’s books are an escape from reality, Thomas points out that the novel begins with its own epidemic:

The cholera had broken out in its most fatal form and people were dying like flies…. There was panic on every side, and dying people in all the bungalows.

During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing. Mary alternately cried and slept through the hours.

…When she awakened she lay and stared at the wall. The house was perfectly still. She had never known it to be so silent before.

Thomas, settled in place as she is, relates to the sense of isolation in the English manor house to which the newly orphaned Mary she transferred:

Mary is terribly alone at Misselthwaite Manor. The house has a hundred rooms, most of them “shut up and locked”; outside is nothing but windswept Yorkshire moor, and Mary feels “so horribly lonely and far away from everything she understood.” Sometimes she hears a voice in the walls—it sounds, she thinks, like “someone crying.” The servants tell her it’s only the wind, and indeed Mary can “scarcely distinguish it from the wind itself.” But late at night, the sobs are unmistakable. She finally goes investigating and finds a little boy, Colin, hidden away in a secret room. They mistake each other, at first, for “a ghost or a dream.” Neither is sure the other is real. They can hardly believe they’re not alone.

(My downstairs neighbor is sick. All day and all night, through the floor, I can hear her coughing. I never knew the floor was so thin.)

Thomas sees Mary, who early on abuses her Indian servants, as growing beyond the evils of colonialism and class privilege. Our version of this abuse is growing income inequality and a callous disregard for Covid victims, especially when they are nursing home residents, prison inmates, and people of color working on the front lines. Thomas points out we can learn much from this:

What could have been a saccharine story—a little girl discovers a secret garden, makes friends, and helps a disabled boy learn to walk—has uneasy psychological stakes. You might even call them spiritual stakes. Tending a secret garden is meaningful work that teaches Mary about human connection, but her character growth goes deeper than that. She comes to understand, I think, that her former life was steeped in evil.

(Evil is a heavy word to hang on anything, let alone a little girl, and just a few weeks ago it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it. But some things—violence, exploitation, dehumanization—are evil. We shouldn’t be afraid to say so.)

As the book proceeds, Thomas says that two themes speak to her hopes for our own future. One is interdependence. While Mary dominates the first half of the book, the world becomes “bigger and fuller” as the story progresses, and she finds herself sharing center stage with a growing cast of characters:

Mary doesn’t vanish but merely takes her place in it, among all the others. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the shift in perspective occurs right after this monologue from Dickon’s mother:

When I was at school my jography told as th’ world was shaped like a orange an’ I found out before I was ten that th’ whole orange doesn’t belong to nobody. No one owns more than his bit of a quarter an’ there’s times it seems like there’s not enow quarters to go round. But don’t you—none o’ you—think as you own th’ whole orange or you’ll find out you’re mistaken, an’ you won’t find it out without hard knocks.

No one owns the whole orange. Everyone has a right to their own bit of a quarter. There’s enough orange to go around—or there can be, if we share.

Thomas focuses also on the hopefulness found in the book’s garden imagery:

And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above [Colin’s] head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents. And the sun fell warm upon his face like a hand with a lovely touch…

“I shall get well! I shall get well!” he cried out. “Mary! Dickon! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

Thomas observes,

There was a time, once, when I would have scoffed at this passage. Of course Colin isn’t going to live forever—no one does! As if Frances Hodgson Burnett didn’t know that. She had a son who died of tuberculosis when he was sixteen. He’d been dead for twenty years when she wrote The Secret Garden. It’s easy to forget—or it used to be easy to forget—the nearness of death in those days.

Then she returns to Burnett’s prose:

One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun—which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so.

Although, like Mary, we may have focused initially on ourselves when the pandemic hit, we are combatting it as a community. For all the publicity that lockdown protesters have garnered, most Americans are taking safety precautions. They regard wearing masks as a way to protect others, support governors who are proceeding cautiously, listen to the science, and reject magical thinking. Like good gardeners, they know that new life will grow only if special care is taken.

We shall get well. We shall get well.

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The Lit That Inspired Van Gogh

Van Gogh, L’Arlesienne


I don’t normally think of painters being influenced by literature, which upon reflection is stupid of me since, like anyone, they would have their vision of the world shaped by a host of influences. For example, my friend Alan Feltus, a painter based in Assisi, first alerted me to the novels of Cormac McCarthy, and I can see connections between his work and McCarthy’s bleak and unsparing vision. I therefore shouldn’t be surprised by a new work out on Van Gogh’s literary influences (thanks to Literary Hub for the alert).

According to Mariella Guzzoni’s Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him, the artist’s major literary influences were

–Charles Dickens (Christmas Tales)
–Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin)
–Guy de Maupassant (Bel Ami)
–Pierre Loti (Madame Chrysanthème)

Other authors mentioned by Van Gogh are Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, and French naturalist authors Emile Zola and Eduard de Goncourt.

In June, 1880, Van Gogh writes of turning to Michelet’s History of the French Revolution along with works by Hugo, Dickens, Stowe, and Shakespeare. Guzzoni notes that the common theme, at least for the first three, is “the fight for freedom and independence; the moral importance of literature; the plight of the poor and deprived.” Shakespeare, of course, finds depth of characters in all classes.

That summer Van Gogh was in Borinange, Belgium where, according to Guzzoni, he had spent a year and a half seeking to console the miners there. Guzzoni writes that “Michelet’s new approach to writing history dared to give the People agency, placing them firmly at the center of the revolutionary dynamic.” The novels meshed well with the history as few art forms are more effective at giving people agency as the novel, as can be seen in Hugo’s Les Miserables, Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The latter work especially hit Van Gogh hard, becoming a kind of “modern gospel” for him when, “in a moment of great doubt, …he rejected the ‘established religious system.’” Van Gogh wrote in his journal,

Take Michelet and Beecher Stowe, they don’t say, the gospel is no longer valid, but they help us to understand how applicable is it in this day and age, in this life of ours, for you, for instance, and for me…

I’ve written about how Stowe contrasts Uncle Tom’s Christianity with that of the slave owners, and it sounds as though Van Gogh may have been making similar distinctions between the mineowners’ and the miners’ faith.

Guzzoni writes that Dickens meant a lot to Van Gogh during his bleakest period:

In the darkest moments of his life—self-exiled in the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence—Vincent finds consolation in Charles Dickens, his favorite British author, “one of those whose characters are resurrections….” In the spring of 1889 he goes back to Dickens’s Christmas Books and Beecher Stowe’s novel. These two old friends, whose landmark works Vincent unites in one of his portraits [see L’Arlésienne above] now offer him positivity and humanitarian sentiments. The ethical and political potential of (literary) art, both in Dickens and in Beecher Stowe, flows naturally in their fiction as examples of clear moral commitment. Art for mankind, Vincent’s artistic credo.

While Dickens’s Christmas tales are indeed uplifting and Uncle Tom is a virtual Christian saint, I find it interesting that Van Gogh likes the far less sentimental Maupassant, Zola and Goncourt as well. To provide a sample, in Maupassant’s Bel Ami, which actually shows up in one of Van Gogh’s paintings and which he recommended to his sister, we see rural life stripped of all romanticism. The villainous protagonist, who makes his way upward by manipulating wealthy women, has taken his new wife to visit his peasant parents in Normandy. His father’s first question is how much the wife is worth, and for her part she wants to leave as soon as possible:

Madeleine did not speak nor did she eat; she was depressed. Wherefore? She had wished to come; she knew that she was coming to a simple home; she had formed no poetical ideas of those peasants, but she had perhaps expected to find them somewhat more polished, refined.

Van Gogh said that Maupassant got him to laugh for the first time in years, and I wonder if he would have found humor in such a passage. His powerful paintings of peasant shoes (see below) are the opposite of polished and refined.

Guzzoni concludes by noting that Van Gogh’s reading played a key role in his “astounding artistic evolution, over a period of just ten years”:

In his passion for books lies part of the energy and creative tension that flows through his art. Faithful friends, sources of inspiration and consolation, safe harbors in rough seas—for Vincent books were all this and more. It is great lesson for us, too, to bring joy in these difficult times.


Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes
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Atwood Gets the Authoritarian Mindset


I’ve finally read Margaret Atwood’s sequel to Handmaid’s Tale and have enjoyed it a great deal, even though I didn’t find it as groundbreaking as many of her other novels (Edible Woman, Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, Robber Bride, Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, the Oryx and Crake trilogy). Because of our current crisis, one scene in particular jumped out at me.

Regarding our crisis, I’m thinking of how Donald Trump has called upon Americans to be heroic warriors and venture bravely into the teeth of Covid-19, thereby saving the economy. Those he wants to be heroic, of course, are Other People. They are the ones who should sacrifice their lives to insure his reelection. If a disproportionate number of them are people of color, well, at least they died for a higher cause.

This is the situation we encounter in Testaments. Because the birthrate has plummeted (probably because of radioactivity or other environment reasons), the baby always wins out over the handmaid mother whenever that terrible choice must be made.

In compensation, the mother is applauded for her noble sacrifice at her funeral. Here’s the passage:

[Aunt Lydia] said that our sister in service, Handmaid Ofkyle, had made the ultimate sacrifice, and had died with noble womanly honor, and had redeemed herself from her previous life of sin, and she was a shining example to the other Handmaids.

Aunt Lydia’s vice trembled a little as she was saying this. Paula and Commander Kyle [who now have a healthy baby boy] looked solemn and devout, nodding from time to time, and some of the Handmaids cried.

I did not cry. I’d already done my crying. The truth was that they’d cut Crystal open to get the baby out, and they’d killed her by doing that. It wasn’t something she chose. She hadn’t volunteered to die with noble womanly honor or be a shining example, but nobody mentioned that.

Many of those dying of Covid-19, whether meat packers, store clerks, transit workers, or other frontline workers, aren’t choosing to nobly sacrifice themselves. Doctors and nurses didn’t sign up to work without adequate Personal Protection Equipment. While we should honor them, we should also hold to account those who put them in these precarious positions.

Another passage from Testaments jumps out as it helps explain why most in the GOP are buckling under to Donald Trump, even though it is clear to many of them he is unfit for office. Aunt Lydia, the feared head of the Aunts who is actually a secret agent, explains why she buckled under to Gilead’s rightwing fundamentalists—or at least did so until deciding to undermine the system from within.

As you read her explanation, think of traditional conservative values in the best sense—and then think of how, in exchange for rightwing judges, deregulation, and upper bracket tax breaks, Republicans have been willing to stomach Trumpism, including its racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and general incompetence:

Did I hate the structure we were concocting? On some level, yes: it was a betrayal of everything we’d been taught in our former lives, and of all that we’d achieved. Was I proud of what we managed to accomplish, despite the limitations? Also, on some level, yes. Things are never simple.

For a time I almost believed what I understood I was supposed to believe. I numbered myself among the faithful for the same reason that many in Gilead did: because it was less dangerous. What good is it to throw yourself in front of a streamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive.

And then in a final kicker that is characteristic of Atwood’s style,

They knew that so well, the architects of Gilead. Their kind has always known that.

From the first, the authoritarian Trump instinctively knew how to cow the GOP, from Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan on down. That’s his particular genius.

Further thought: Are there Aunt Lydias within the Trump administration? Maybe we won’t know until later since those who have stood up to the steamroller have been “crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot.” We can dream.

In the meantime, we have Aunt Lydia’s assessment of autocratic regimes, which is only too accurate:

How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot.

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There Watched I for the Dead

Monday – Memorial Day

This Memorial Day I turn once again to Wilfred Owen, my favorite anti-war poet. In “The Unreturning,” the speaker longs for his fallen comrades but hears only silence.

The night having “crushed” the day, the poet lies awake watching for his friends, only to learn that “they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled” so that “never one fared back to me or spoke.”

Just as Owen excoriates those who romanticize war in poems like “Dulce et Decorum Est,” so in this sonnet he castigates those who offer up facile religious consolations. If the dead have gone to heaven, then they are chained there, “gagged by the smothering wing which none unbinds.”

In British poetry, “wing” has religious associations. George Herbert’s famous emblem poem “Easter Wings,” starts in a dark place but then erupts into Resurrection hope, a butterfly emerging out of a caterpillar. Although we begin by “decaying more and more,” come Easter we shall “sing this day thy victories.” The poet confidently concludes, “Affliction shall advance the flight in me.”

 In the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem I wrote about last week, the world may be “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” Nevertheless, the poet asserts that the Holy Spirit broods over us until we emerge “with ah! bright wings.”

There is no flight, no emergence of bright wings, in “The Unreturning.” Instead of protecting and nurturing, the wings of the dove smother. Dawn is not a hopeful moment but a “weak-limned” (poorly illuminated) hour when sick men are likely to die.

Owen uses the word “gloaming,” which points to twilight rather than dawn and to the opening lines, where we have seen night hurling the remnants of the day “over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.” At best, the “indefinite unshapen dawn” is as sad as a half-lit (half drunk) mind.

If God looks after our fallen soldiers, we should not be glib when we invoke this divinity. Shallow belief dishonors the soul-crushing reality of war death. Owen demands that we face up to the silence of “the Dead” before we seek religious comfort. Otherwise, it becomes too easy to engage in future wars.

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.
But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled;
And never one fared back to me or spoke.

Then peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men’s sighs are drained.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,
Gagged by the smothering wing which none unbinds,
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

Further thought: “Unreturning” is a Petrarchan sonnet, but in this one it is the Dead, not the mistress, who rejects the lover. It’s not Owen’s only poem where, with grim irony, he plays death against love. “Greater Love” opens with “English lips are so no red/ As the stained stones kissed by the English dead,” and closes with “Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.” The title is from Jesus’s words to his disciples (John 15:13), “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Yet deep comrade love seems mocked when, as Owen also notes in that poem, “God seems not to care.” As in “Unreturning,” this is not an occasion for religious platitudes.

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A Star Leaving the Sphere

Cavedone, The Ascension of Christ (1640)

Ascension Sunday

My dear friend Sue Schmidt, a frequent contributor to this blog who is currently going through ordination, writes today’s post. She is as fond of the metaphysical poets Henry Vaughan and George Herbert as I am.

By Sue Schmidt

Ever since Easter morning, I’ve been puzzling over why Jesus said to Mary Magdalene when he saw her in the garden, “Tell the disciples that I am going to ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). This phrase seems like it comes out of nowhere. How is this helpful for Mary or the disciples?

Why not say, “Mary, I’m glad to be back. I have lots to tell you.” Or, “The grave has been destroyed, isn’t that good news?”

Thankfully, the lectionary a few weeks ago had me in John 14, just a few chapters before the resurrection story. There we see Jesus spending significant time talking to his disciples about his death and his return to the Father (his ascension). This is necessary, he says, for three reasons: he is going there to prepare a place for his disciples; he has to go so the Holy Spirit can come; and he leaves so that he can act for the disciples as they pray in his name. His death, his resurrection and his ascension are all necessary for the ongoing mission of bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

On Ascension Day, we celebrate the completion of Jesus’s mission on earth. We also marvel that a humanized member of the Godhead has returned to his rightful place as the energizing Word of God. Jesus not only understands what it is to be human. He also has the power to help us as we seek our own transformation, and that of the planet as well. What good news in this time of uncertainty, where we see so clearly the ignorance and hate that still plague humanity!

In looking for poetry celebrating the Ascension, I came across “Ascension Hymn” by Henry Vaughan who, along with George Herbert, was one of the 17th century British religious poets. Vaughan speaks of the possibility of ascension for all of us.

Walking to the sky will require our willingness to die, he indicates, just like the seed that falls into the ground. Death involves letting go of the garments that are soiled from sin, the result of fear and lies. The power for transformation comes from the one who left heaven to rebuild fallen man.

Like a fuller (one who beats clothing to wash it), Jesus can make us whiter than snow. Like the transfigured Lord, we can regain the glory we had when we lived within the lines (boundaries) of Eden. Echoing Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, Vaughan assures us that we will be rebuilt bone to bone and all will one day be glorified like Jesus.

Happy Ascension Sunday! May you rise with the risen Lord.

Ascension Hymn
By Henry Vaughan

                        Dust and clay
            Man’s ancient wear!
            Here you must stay,
            But I elsewhere;
Souls sojourn here, but may not rest;
Who will ascend, must be undrest.

                        And yet some
            That know to die
            Before death come
            Walk to the sky
Even in this life; but all such can
Leave behind them the old Man.

                        If a star
            Should leave the Sphere,
            She must first mar
            Her flaming wear,
And after fall, for in her dress
Of glory, she cannot transgress.

                        Man of old
            Within the line
            Of Eden could
            Like the Sun shine
All naked, innocent and bright
And intimate with Heav’n as light;

                        But since he
            That brightness soiled,
            His garments be
            All dark and spoiled,
And here are left as nothing worth
Til the Refiner’s fire breaks forth.

                        Then comes he!
            Whose mighty light
            Made his clothes be
            Like Heav’n al bright;
The Fuller, whose pure blood did flow
To make stained man more white than snow.

                        He alone
            And none else can
            Bring bone to bone
            And rebuild man,
And by his all subduing might
Make clay ascend more quick than light
Posted in Vaughan (Henry) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Rereading Is Different for Lit Profs

Lovis Corinth, Portrait of Eduard Meyer


While I wrote on Wednesday about the rewards others find in rereading, my own rereading experiences are different. The narrator of Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot helps me understand why.

Flaubert-obsessed doctor Geoffrey Braithwaite takes personal offense at such literary scholars (he calls them critics) as Oxford Flaubert scholar Enid Starkie, who observed that Flaubert kept changing the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes:

My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronizing tone towards their subject. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. Of course, it’s her house, and everybody’s living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know, …time?

Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense. There’s none of the daily rancor which develops when people live bovinely together. I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush. Which is what Dr Starkie can’t imagine herself doing…

I look up at the authors I teach, never down, and I certainly never regard them as “some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair.” That being said, Braithwaite has a point about the curse of memory. Once one has taught a work twenty or thirty times, it’s hard to recapture the early intensity.

For instance, I used to ritually reread Pride and Prejudice at the end of every school year. I may have chosen it for the same reason that the World War I soldiers in Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites” do: to find calm following a stressful period. (A tumultuous school year is nothing like being shelled by the Germans, but you get my point.) Once I started teaching the novel every semester, however, I stopped using it to transition my way into summer.

Of course, I reread works when I teach them and, yes, I’m always find things I hadn’t noticed. In this way I am like the Stanford professor in Woody Allen’s hilarious short story “The Kugelmass Episode” and not like those teachers in the story who don’t bother to reread what they teach.

Thanks to a friend’s invention, City College humanities professor Daphne Kugelmass is able to enter the work of his choice and begins an affair with Emma Bovary. (A film version of the story is Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.) This means, however, that Kugelmass also shows up in the novel itself. Some teachers learn of this only through their students:

His heart danced on point. I am in love, he thought, I am the possessor of a wonderful secret. What he didn’t realize was that at this very moment students in various classrooms across the country were saying to their teachers, “Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?” A teacher in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, sighed and thought, Jesus, these kids, with their pot and acid. What goes through their minds!

As I say, I’m more like the Stanford prof, who notices when Kugelmass takes Emma to New York:

“I cannot get my mind around this,” a Stanford professor said. “First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she’s gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.”

The humor here, of course, is that something new really has happened this time. I can testify, however, that the cliché is still true.

Rereading for a literature teacher, then, may be different than it is for most people. Since I teach many of my most beloved works (Austen’s novels, Jane Eyre, Twelfth Night, King Lear), when I have free time I only read things I haven’t read before.

To be sure, I reread constantly for this blog, but that’s another way of being cursed by memory. I’m not running my finger over the books in my library at an idle moment but rereading with a set purpose.

Maybe one day I’ll settle into my retirement and reread like other people do. I see both my wife and my mother doing this constantly. I’m not there yet.

Posted in Allen (Woody), Austen (Jane), Barnes (Julian), Flaubert (Gustave), Kipling (Rudyard) | Leave a comment


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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