Grendel’s Mother, Archetype of Grief

J. R. Skelton, Grendel’s Mother


I report today on a memorable encounter I had with an African American alum upon my first post-retirement return to St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I was talking with a former colleague when Candace looked in and began reminiscing.

I didn’t recognize her, even after she told me her name, but something clicked when she mentioned taking my Early British Literature survey almost 20 years ago. “Oh, you’re the student who wrote that essay about Grendel’s Mother and grief, I said.” She was amazed that I remembered and, to tell the truth, so was I. This doesn’t normally happen.

Only her essay was so remarkable I have never forgotten it. As I recall, she lost a twin sister when she was a girl, after which her father’s heart closed down and never reopened. She felt his coldness and assumed, as children will, that the fault lay in her. She thought she could reopen his heart if she made him proud of her and strove to excel, especially in academics.

She therefore saw the struggle with Grendel’s Mother as a struggle with grief. As I teach the poem, the lake into which Beowulf leaps following the death of Hrothgar’s best friend is the human heart. Beowulf shows the heartsick king that one must handle grief directly, not shy away. To do so takes real courage, and the poet tells us that a deer fleeing from hounds would rather be torn apart on the shore than enter those dark waters. In such ways do we let our repressed sorrows tear us apart.

Candace, as I recall, saw her father in the frozen lake and again in the chest armor that Beowulf dons to protect his heart. Courageous though he may be, even Beowulf seeks to steel himself to the sea monsters that claw at his feelings. Hardness can only last so long, however, and when Grendel’s Mother starts stabbing his chest with a knife, he is in danger of being swallowed up by emotional devastation.

Candace knew the drama intimately since she, as well as her father, had traveled that road. Her deep dive into the battle gave her a narrative framework for their struggles. In the poem, Beowulf discovers that his normal strategies for coping with life’s challenges no longer work (his iron grip, his sword). Only through a cause bigger than himself, represented by a warrior’s sword forged by giants before the flood, can he defeat the monsters that assail him. In our essay conference, I remember asking Candace, “What is your giant sword?” although neither she nor I could recall how she answered.

In the few minutes that we talked, however I got a sense of her response. Her advanced degree in higher education indicates that she has gone out in the world to help young people, and she now works for another Maryland college. She has stepped into her Beowulf strength and the world is a better place because of it.

Although I haven’t found other scholars who interpret Beowulf as an exploration of bad and good ways to grieve, I can’t read it any other way. Grendelian resentment over exclusion arises over the sadness of being unloved, Grendel’s Mother is the vengeful grief that visits one’s own suffering on others, and the Dragon is the cold, depressed grief that withdraws into its cave. In other words, troll grief lashes out at others, dragon grief sinks into itself.

Throughout the poem, one finds that all the warriors and kings (including even Beowulf) grapple with one or more of these three griefs.  Beowulf finds a powerful response to each one.

As an exploration of grief, the poem has proved a boon to humankind. In the 8th century it gave Anglo-Saxon warriors a way of voicing their sorrow over fallen comrades. In our own time (as I have blogged numerous times) it gives us ways to process our mass shootings. I argue in my 2016 book How Beowulf Can Save America that U.S. grief over the loss of cherished dreams contributes to our charged politics. The poem, I argue there, offers us both a diagnosis and a way forward, and my admiration for it grows with every passing year.

If I can see these many dimensions of Beowulf, it is because students like Candace have been willing to open up themselves up to what it had to teach them. Through their explorations I have conducted my own.

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GOP: Ignore the Trump behind the Screen

Arthur Denslow, The Wizard of Oz


The GOP right now appears to be taking its cue from the Wizard of Oz. Pay no attention to what’s in the Mueller report, they tell us. It’s time to move on.

Neither Donald Trump, Senate Judicial Committee Chair Lindsey Graham, nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want Robert Mueller to testify before Congress because they worry the public will in fact pay attention. New York’s Jon Chait describes how McConnell wants us to ignore what’s behind the curtain:

This morning, McConnell took to the Senate floor to deliver a coda to this historic act. In a speech that was notably smarmy even by his standards, the Senate Majority Leader declared the Mueller report to be “case closed,” accused Democrats of refusing to accept the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and called for an end to all investigation or inquiries of Mueller’s findings.

“They told everyone there’d been a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign,” he announced. “Yet on this central question the special counsel’s finding is clear: case closed. Case closed.”

First of all, Mueller’s report did say it was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia. But that is not the same thing as saying “case closed.” Indeed, on some of the most important avenues of potential conspiracy, Mueller was simply not able to establish conclusive answers. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, gave 75 pages of detailed polling to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian agent, but Mueller concedes he “could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.” Nor could Mueller fully nail down all of Roger Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks.

Second, one of the reasons Mueller could not establish a criminal conspiracy is that Trump signaled his willingness to pardon aides who stayed loyal, thus encouraging them to withhold cooperation. Attorney General William Barr has argued that the failure to prove an underlying crime means Trump should not be charged with obstructing justice, but of course, this means obstructing justice is okay as long as the obstruction works.

Third, McConnell’s speech danced around the massive evidence of obstruction of justice committed by Trump in the Mueller report. His speech, incredibly, didn’t even mention this topic, which occupies half of the Mueller report.

If Mueller testifies, the curtain could come down, as it does in Baum’s novel:

The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were. The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, “Who are you?”

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” said the little man, in a trembling voice. “But don’t strike me–please don’t–and I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Our friends looked at him in surprise and dismay.

“I thought Oz was a great Head,” said Dorothy.

“And I thought Oz was a lovely Lady,” said the Scarecrow.

“And I thought Oz was a terrible Beast,” said the Tin Woodman.

“And I thought Oz was a Ball of Fire,” exclaimed the Lion.

“No, you are all wrong,” said the little man meekly. “I have been making believe.”

“Making believe!” cried Dorothy. “Are you not a Great Wizard?”

“Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard–and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”

“And aren’t you?” she asked.

“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”

“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”

As long as Trump keeps his followers focused on his projected image, he can get away with his con. It’s working so far, with some seeing him as a great intelligence, some as a seductive promiser, some as a punishing force, some as a great ball of fire.

Democrats are hoping that Robert Mueller testifying before cameras will reduce Trump to a common cheat out to scam the public. I hope they’re right. Although Baum could imagine exposure leading to truth in 1900, we don’t know for sure that the old rules still apply.

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Rich Bullies in the Admissions Scandal

Fontaine and Bates in Rebecca


Several weeks ago I came across an insider’s account of the college admissions scandal from an English-teacher-turned-college counselor. In sharing her view of prep school parents, Caitlin Flanagan cited Jane Eye and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Although Flanagan doesn’t report on any illegal behavior from the ambitious parents she encountered, she daily saw the mindset that would lead people to bribe college admissions directors, coaches, and others. Here’s a sampling of what she saw:

The new job meant that I had signed myself up to be locked in a small office, appointment after appointment, with hugely powerful parents and their mortified children as I delivered news so grimly received that I began to think of myself less as an administrator than as an oncologist. Along the way they said such crass things, such rude things, such greedy things, and such borderline-racist things that I began to hate them. They, in turn, began to hate me. A college counselor at an elite prep school is supposed to be a combination of cheerleader, concierge, and talent agent, radically on the side of each case and applying steady pressure on the dream college to make it happen. At the very least, the counselor is not supposed to be an adversary.

I just about got an ulcer sitting in that office listening to rich people complaining bitterly about an “unfair” or a “rigged” system. Sometimes they would say things so outlandish that I would just stare at them, trying to beam into their mind the question, Can you hear yourself? That so many of them were (literal) limousine liberals lent the meetings an element of radical chic. They were down for the revolution, but there was no way their kid was going to settle for Lehigh.

Flanagan turns to literature to capture her situation:

In the classroom I was Jane Eyre, strong and tranquil in the truth of my gifts; in the college-counseling office, I was the nameless heroine of Rebecca, running up and down the servant stairs at the Hôtel d’Azur as Mrs. Van Hopper barked at me.

And further on, after examining the various crimes committed by William Rick Singer and the parents who employed him:

All this malfeasance has led to the creation of a 200-page affidavit, and a bevy of other court documents, that can best be described as a kind of posthumous Tom Wolfe novella, one with a wide cast of very rich people behaving in such despicable ways that it makes The Bonfire of the Vanities look like The Pilgrim’s Progress. If you have not read the affidavit, and if you’re in the mood for a novel of manners of the kind not attempted since the passing of the master, I recommend that you and your book club put it on the list for immediate consumption.

Let’s examine the Jane Eyre-Rebecca comparison for a moment. Jane Eyre isn’t always strong and tranquil, as indicated by her panicked flight from Thornfield, which almost kills her. But okay, she becomes a strong and confident teacher. Then, perhaps like Flanagan becoming a guidance counselor, she leaves her students to spend the rest of her life catering to a cranky rich guy.

To focus on Eyre’s teaching for a moment, here’s her first-year experience with a classroom:

I continued the labors of the village-school as actively and faithfully as I could.  It was truly hard work at first.  Some time elapsed before, with all my efforts, I could comprehend my scholars and their nature.  Wholly untaught, with faculties quite torpid, they seemed to me hopelessly dull; and, at first sight, all dull alike: but I soon found I was mistaken.  There was a difference amongst them as amongst the educated; and when I got to know them, and they me, this difference rapidly developed itself.  Their amazement at me, my language, my rules, and ways, once subsided, I found some of these heavy-looking, gaping rustics wake up into sharp-witted girls enough.  Many showed themselves obliging, and amiable too; and I discovered amongst them not a few examples of natural politeness, and innate self-respect, as well as of excellent capacity, that won both my goodwill and my admiration.  These soon took a pleasure in doing their work well, in keeping their persons neat, in learning their tasks regularly, in acquiring quiet and orderly manners.  The rapidity of their progress, in some instances, was even surprising; and an honest and happy pride I took in it: besides, I began personally to like some of the best girls; and they liked me.  I had amongst my scholars several farmers’ daughters: young women grown, almost.  These could already read, write, and sew; and to them I taught the elements of grammar, geography, history, and the finer kinds of needlework.

At least Jane will gain the respect of the rich guy, however. Such was not the case with Flanagan:

Some of the parents—especially, in those days, the fathers—were such powerful professionals, and I (as you recall) was so poor, obscure, plain, and little that it was as if they were cracking open a cream puff with a panzer. This was before crying in the office was a thing, so I had to just sit there and take it. Then the admissions letters arrived from the colleges. If the kid got in, it was because he was a genius; if he didn’t, it was because I screwed up. When a venture capitalist and his ageless wife storm into your boss’s office to get you fired because you failed to get their daughter (conscientious, but no atom splitter) into the prestigious school they wanted, you can really start to question whether it’s worth the 36K.

So yes, we are in Rebecca territory here. Check out how the unnamed protagonist, who is a lady’s companion to Mrs. Van Hopper and has her self-confidence systematically undermined by her employer. Their conversation occurs right after the unnamed heroine announces that she will be marrying Max de Winter:

“Well, I can’t stop you. He’s much older than you, you know.”

“He’s only forty-two,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”

Mrs. Van Hopper looked at me again with the same unpleasant smile. “I hope you do. You won’t find it easy to look after Manderley. You haven’t any experience and you’re too shy. Max de Winter is very attractive, of course. But I think you’re making a big mistake.”

I did not say anything. I was young and shy, I knew that. But I was going to be Mrs de Winter. I was going to live at Manderley. And I was going to make Maxim happy.

Mrs. Van Hopper put out her cigarette. She walked slowly towards me.

“Of course,” she said, “you know why he is marrying you, don’t you? He’s not in love with you. The truth is he’s lonely by himself at Manderley. He can’t live in that empty house without Rebecca. He’s marrying you because he can’t go on living there alone.”

Yes, I see why Flanagan invoked Rebecca. My question is why she chose to leave teaching in the first place.

But of course, if she hadn’t agreed to become a counselor, some other underpaid individual would have been similarly bullied. Increasingly in our unequal society, educational professionals are regarded no more highly than lady’s companions.

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Diving into May’s Spiritual Honey


I was traveling yesterday so here’s a Mary Oliver poem I’ve shared before, once in connection with Pentecost (here). Note how Oliver derives spiritual sustenance from nature, even as she simultaneously emphasizes “the flourishing of the physical body.” For Oliver, there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual realms.

May, and among the
miles of leafing,
blossoms storm out of the darkness—
windflowers and moccasin flowers. The bees
dive into them and I too, to gather
their spiritual honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs
is the deepest certainty that this existence too—
this sense of well-being, the flourishing
of the physical body—rides
near the hub of the miracle that everything
is a part of, is as good
as a poem or a prayer, can also make
luminous any dark place on earth.
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My Star Shines in the Firmament

Spiritual Sunday – Ramadan

Today being the first day of the month when Muslims purify themselves through fasting and prayer to come closer to God, I share a poem by the Algerian Sufi mystic Ahmad al-Alawi. The poem calls to mind Song of Solomon, which uses erotically charged imagery to capture (so it has been interpreted) the relationship between God and Israel, or Christ “the bridegroom” and his church. Think also of how Dante turns to Beatrice as his divine guide in Paradiso.

Layla and Majnun are two lovers kept apart by parents in a 7th century Arab story that has been told and retold over the centuries. At some point it was picked up by various mystics, including the founder of the Bahá’í faith, to stand in for the beloved. The love between us and God is symbolized by a woman. In Arabic, Layla means night, further capturing the mystery.

Layla is also referenced in the well-known Eric Clapton song by that name.

In al-Alawi’s poem, the lover is annihilated, cleansed, and reborn in divine love:

She changed me and transfigured me,
And marked me with her special sign,
Pressed me to her, put me from her,
Named me as she is named.
Having slain and crumbled me,
She steeped the fragments in her blood.
Then, after my death, she raised me:
My star shines in her firmament.

Al-Alawi goes on to say that his poetry captures “something of her brightness.” Art is one way to approach the unattainable:

Thou that beauty wouldst describe,
Here is something of her brightness
Take it from me. It is my art.
Think it not idle vanity.
My Heart lied not when it divulged
The secret of my meeting her.

Here’s the poem, in all its sensuous immediacy:

Full near I came unto where dwelleth
Layla, when I heard her call.
That voice, would I might ever!
She favored me, and drew me to her,
Took me in, into her precinct,
With discourse intimate addressed me.
She sat me by her, then came closer,
Raised the cloak that hid her from me,
Made me marvel to distraction,
Bewildered me with all her beauty.
She took me and amazed me,
And hid me in her inmost self,
Until I thought that she was I,
And my life she took as ransom.
She changed me and transfigured me,
And marked me with her special sign,
Pressed me to her, put me from her,
Named me as she is named.
Having slain and crumbled me,
She steeped the fragments in her blood.
Then, after my death, she raised me:
My star shines in her firmament.
Where is my life, and where my body,
Where my willful soul? From her
The truth of these shone out to me
Secrets that had been hidden from me.
Mine eyes have never seen but her:
To naught else can they testify.
All meanings in her are comprised.
Glory be to her Creator!
Thou that beauty wouldst describe,
Here is something of her brightness
Take it from me. It is my art.
Think it not idle vanity.
My Heart lied not when it divulged
The secret of my meeting her.
If nearness unto her effaceth,
I still subsist in her subsistence.

Happy Ramadan!

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The Danger of Normalizing Trump

Trump last Saturday at a Green Bay rally


Recently the Washington Post reported that Trump just told his ten thousandth lie, a fact that barely raised eyebrows since we have become inured to his incessant falsehoods. Bertolt Brecht describes the normalization process in “When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain.”

Imagine that you’re hearing the 10,000th lie for the first time–which is to say, before you’ve become inured:

During an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Mr. Trump suggested that his heartless policy had continued practices in place under the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, among others. In contrast to his predecessors, Mr. Trump said, “we’ve been on a humane basis . . . we go out and stop the separations,” he said. 

Or how about this one from Saturday’s rally in Green Bay:

Trump said he was shocked that Wisconsin’s Democratic governor said he would veto a bill that would punish doctors who don’t try to preserve the life of an infant born alive after an attempted abortion.

“The baby is born,” Trump said. “The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.

Or this one from the same rally:

“If you look at what’s happened with the scum that’s leaving the very top of government… these were dirty cops,” Trump said. “These were dirty players… They’re just leaving because they got caught like nobody ever got caught.”

After hearing any of these once, there would be “a cry of horror.” After hearing versions of them 10,000 times, however, they come across as so much falling rain.

Brecht is talking about something far worse than lying—mass butchery—but we have our own version of that as well. Yet another place of worship was attacked by a white Christian terrorist on Saturday as the number of Americans killed by legal semi-automatic weapons continues to rise.

Brecht begins his poem with a series of analogies, each one getting at our desensitization in a different way. This is what it can feel like to protest or complain:

When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain
Like one who brings an important letter to
the counter after
       office hours: the counter is already closed.
Like one who seeks to warn the city of an impending flood,
      but speaks another language. They do not understand him.
Like a beggar who knocks for the fifth time at a door where
      he has four times been given something: the fifth
      time he is hungry.
Like one whose blood flows from a wound and who awaits
      the doctor: his blood goes on flowing.

So do we come forward and report that evil has been done us.

The first time it was reported that our friends were being
      butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred
      were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered
      and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of
      silence spread.

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!”

When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When
      sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer
      heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

In her remarkable article “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” Putin-survivor Masha Gessen tells us to resist “the impulse to normalize” autocratic behavior. It is essential, she says,

to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.

The miracle of the Parkland survivors is that people actually listened when they called out, “Stop!” to the NRA. Also heartening was how voters in the 2018 election opened their hearts, their doors, and their pocketbooks to Trump resisters, leading to a “blue wave.” Trump’s egregious behavior has not become entirely invisible.

Nevertheless, we are in dangerous territory. A “blanket of silence” remains possible.

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Using Jane Austen to Dissect AG Barr


The drama surrounding the Mueller Report continues to become more postmodern with every passing day. Or rather, the Trump administration has been trying to render it so. To highlight how Attorney General William Barr is throwing up smokescreens, I turn to my favorite passage from Sense and Sensibility.

First, however, let’s note that the report is not postmodern at all. Postmodernism throws into doubt the possibility that truth can ever be attained, and Mueller—while he doesn’t answer every question—has produced a clear story of what happened: the Trump campaign willingly accepted help from the Russians to beat Hillary Clinton and the president has been working to cover up that fact ever since. The cover-up has included attacking the various investigative bodies, firing people, and dangling pardons.

Acting more like Trump’s attorney than America’s, Barr has engaged in various forms of obfuscation, failing to (in Mueller’s words) “fully capture the context, nature, and substance.”

Mueller must be particularly aggrieved by how Barr cherry picks his language, as in the following key example from Barr’s four-page “summary”:

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

For a day or two, Barr’s conclusion reigned supreme. Trump crowed that he had been exonerated while his supporters demanded apologies and called for the investigators to themselves be investigated.

Observant commentators like MSNBC’s Ari Melber, however, pointed to the use of brackets and observed that a subordinate clause appeared to have been omitted. In Sense and SensibilityJane Austen demonstrates the potential power of such a clause.

At the end of the novel, we appear to witness a miscarriage of justice. Edward Ferrars, the deserving son, has been dispossessed of his inheritance because he won’t renege on a marriage pledge made to gold digger Lucy Steele, even though she is not worthy of him and he now loves Elinor. When Lucy sees him lose his fortune, she switches to his younger brother Robert, now the heir. At the end of the novel, Robert and Lucy are living with his execrable mother and his equally execrable sister and her husband, Fanny and John Dashwood. If we are hoping that the virtuous Elinor will get a Pemberley-like estate along with Edward, we are disappointed.

Only Austen, through the strategic use of a subordinate clause, makes it clear we should prefer this outcome. The author knows how to wield a subtle stiletto better than almost anyone and she draws blood here. The clause I have in mind begins after the semi-colon:

 They settled in town, received very liberal assistance from Mrs. Ferrars, were on the best terms imaginable with the Dashwoods; and setting aside the jealousies and ill-will continually subsisting between Fanny and Lucy, in which their husbands of course took a part, as well as the frequent domestic disagreements between Robert and Lucy themselves, nothing could exceed the harmony in which they all lived together.

Austen’s withering irony signals that Elinor and Edward are well clear of this household. Who wants an estate that comes with such baggage?

Now for Mueller’s full sentence, starting with his own subordinate clause:

Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

If Barr were to summarize Austen’s report of life in the Ferrars/Dashwood household, he would write:

As the report states: “[N]othing could exceed the harmony in which they all lived together.”

As to which Jane Austen character Barr most resembles, I propose the weaselly Mr. Elliot from Persuasion.

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A Poem for International Workers’ Day

Wednesday – May 1

Despite incessant GOP attacks on unions with their Orwellian-named “right to work laws,” increasing income inequality may push Democrats to aggressively push for more actual workers’ rights. I was struck that Joe Biden, in announcing his presidential bid, said he was “sick of this President badmouthing unions.” Later he tweeted, “Labor built the middle class in this country. Minimum wage, overtime pay, the 40-hour week: they exist for all of us because unions fought for those rights. We need a President who honors them and their work.”

Few poets have supported worker organizing more powerfully than Bertolt Brecht. In “Report from Germany,” he reminds us how the rich and powerful have always hated organized labor.

Having just fled Hitler’s Germany, Brecht describes Nazi stormtroopers (“the brown plague”) descending upon a worker community flying a red flag to commemorate the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s October 7 revolution.

The symbolic gesture costs many lives, and irony hangs heavy in the poem’s conclusion as we get a new explanation for the color of revolution’s flag. The poem, like much of Brecht’s writing, features a clear and compelling narrative line with an everyday item playing an important role:

Report from Germany
We learn that in Germany
In the days of the brown plague
On the roof of an engineer works suddenly
A red flag fluttered in the November wind
The outlawed flag of freedom!
In the grey mid-November from the sky
Fell rain mixed with snow
It was the 7th, though: day of the Revolution!

And look! the red flag!

The workers stand in the yards
Shield their eyes with their hands and stare
At the roof through the flurries of icy rain.

The lorries roll up filled with stormtroopers
And they drive to the wall any who wear work clothes
And with cords bind any fists that are calloused
And from the sheds after their interrogation
Stumble the beaten and bloody
Not one of whom has named the man
Who was on the roof.

So they drive away those who kept silent
And the rest have had enough.
But next day there waves again
The red flag of the proletariat
On the engineering works roof. Again
Thuds through the dead-still town
The stormtroopers’ tread. In the yards
There are no men to be seen now. Only women
Stand with stony faces; hands shielding their eyes, they gaze
At the roof through the flurries of icy rain.

And the beatings begin once more. Under interrogation
The women testify: that flag
Is a bedsheet in which
We bore away one who died yesterday.
You can’t blame us for the color it is.
It is red with the murdered man’s blood, you should know.

We are a long way from Nazi Germany and, for that matter, from the white terrorism that established and maintained Jim Crow following the Reconstruction. Never underestimate, however, what fear will cause even so-called civilized people to perpetrate or tolerate.

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When Great Souls Die

Justin, who died 19 years ago today, carries the National Cathedral’s cross


Today is the 19th anniversary of my oldest son’s death. When Justin died in a freak drowning accident in 2000, our world turned upside down. He was 21 at the time and would have been 40 this year. In “When Great Trees Fall,” Maya Angelou captures much of what I experienced.

I’m struck by her observation that, “when great souls die,/  the air around us becomes/ light, rare, sterile.” Justin was a great soul—joyous, thoughtful, and kind—and I have different ideas what Angelou means by “light.” Let me try them out.

When I was watching the divers search for the Justin’s body, my mind went to a disturbing place in that I experienced a feeling of lightness. Suddenly, I thought, the complexity of living with Justin would be lifted from my shoulders. I wouldn’t need to worry about his future after college or how much longer he would experiment with Christian fundamentalism. Looking back, I realize that I was in a state of shock. Perhaps my mind was frantically searching for ways to lighten the crash that would come later.

In Sartre’s play The Flies, Electra experiences the heaviness of her guilt at having killed Clytemnestra and longs to feel light again. In André Malraux’s novel La Condition Humaine, one character feels exhilarated when he returns home to find that Chinese nationalists have killed his wife and child. Although he loves them, his first feeling is that the responsibilities weighing him down have disappeared. Death, at first encounter, seems to remove a lot of our tangles.

As Angelou notes, however, the air around us also becomes sterile. In Flies, Orestes counters Electra by saying that we should embrace life in all its heaviness. “We were too light before,” he tells her. As I recall, Malraux doesn’t further pursue the inner life of his character, but in my case I too turned my back on lightness and embraced the full weight of my sorrow

In doing so, I experienced the other kind of light. When great souls die, Angelou says, “Our eyes, briefly,/ see with/ a hurtful clarity.” Suddenly, everything around me vibrated with a kind of luminescence. I would gaze at the vegetation growing in our back yard and see life insisting upon itself. Although the light would eventually “dwindle to the light of common day” (Wordsworth), for about a year I vibrated to the world around me. Death had that kind of effect.

Fortunately, I didn’t have the regrets that Angelou mentions, kind words unsaid or promised walks untaken. Five days before he died, Justin came by my office, and although I was swamped by student essays (it was the last week of the semester), I pushed them aside and we talked for two hours. The next time I saw him, it was to identify his body.

Angelou gets right what happens next:

We are not so much maddened 
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance 
of dark, cold 

I too thought of myself in a dark, cold cave, which for me was the underwater cave that Beowulf enters in search of Grendel’s Mother. I came to see her as a symbol of destructive grief, which threatens to pull us into darkness and tear our hearts out.

In an epiphanic moment that occurred two weeks after the death, I suddenly saw myself as Beowulf seized by the monster. Although I didn’t know where my grief would take me, I was determined not to resist. I was there to receive whatever she doled out, and unlike Beowulf I dispensed with my chest armor.

This meant that, when I was angry, I allowed myself to be angry. When I experienced the deepest fatigue of my life, I allowed myself to be tired. If I didn’t fight her, maybe my grief would transform from monster to guide.

At the bottom of my grief, I found my version of Beowulf’s sword. As I read the poem, Beowulf ultimately handles grief by reconnecting with his warrior identity. My own giant sword was my responsibility to be a good husband, father, and community member. My commitment to others called for me to be strong.

The ending of Angelou’s poem also rings true:

Our senses, restored, never 
to be the same, whisper to us. 
They existed. They existed. 
We can be. Be and be 
better. For they existed.

On the night that Justin died, I remember thinking that I could either let his death blight my life (and, by my actions, the lives of those I loved) or lead me to a new and better place. “Be and be better,” Angelou tells us, reminding us both to live again and to live in a new way.

After the death, I became more empathetic to students and acquaintances who were suffering. Dropping much of my emotional reserve, I became a better teacher and friend. I reached out.

For Justin existed.

Here’s the poem:

When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall, 
rocks on distant hills shudder, 
lions hunker down 
in tall grasses, 
and even elephants 
lumber after safety. 

When great trees fall 
in forests, 
small things recoil into silence, 
their senses 
eroded beyond fear. 

When great souls die, 
the air around us becomes 
light, rare, sterile. 
We breathe, briefly. 
Our eyes, briefly, 
see with 
a hurtful clarity. 
Our memory, suddenly sharpened, 
gnaws on kind words 
promised walks 
never taken. 

Great souls die and 
our reality, bound to 
them, takes leave of us. 
Our souls, 
dependent upon their 
now shrink, wizened. 
Our minds, formed 
and informed by their 
fall away. 
We are not so much maddened 
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance 
of dark, cold 

And when great souls die, 
after a period peace blooms, 
slowly and always 
irregularly. Spaces fill 
with a kind of 
soothing electric vibration. 
Our senses, restored, never 
to be the same, whisper to us. 
They existed. They existed. 
We can be. Be and be 
better. For they existed.

Further thought: Because my feeling of lightness in the moments after Justin’s death so disturbed me, I have just looked up my father’s copy of La Condition Humaine to find the character who has a similar response to death. Hemmelrich is a humane Belgian in Shanghai with revolutionary sympathies who has saved a woman from death. He doesn’t particularly love her but feels an obligation to take care of her and the sickly child they have together. Although he wants to join the revolution, for their sake he turns away revolutionaries who come to him looking for assistance. Meanwhile the child cries incessantly.

The passage I recalled occurs after he returns to the record shop he runs and finds that it has been “scrubbed” by a grenade and that the woman’s and child’s blood are everywhere. Unexpectedly, he feels “liberated” and “exhilarated.” Here’s a rough translation (rough because my French is rusty):

This time destiny had played things badly: in tearing from him all that he possessed, she had liberated him…Despite the collapse, this sensation of a blow to the neck had lifted a weight from his shoulders and he experienced an atrocious joy, heavy and profound, of liberation…[H]e was no longer powerless. Now, he too could kill…An intense exaltation overcame him, the more powerful because he had never known it before; he abandoned himself utterly to this frightful intoxication. “One can kill with love. With love, God damn it!” he repeated, pounding his fist on the counter.

As Wordsworth once noted, one is powerless before the wayward thoughts that sometimes slide into one’s head. Rather than yielding to self-disgust, I turned to Sartre and Malraux to help me better understand my response. In my case, I doubled down on caring for my family.

Posted in Angelou (Maya), Beowulf Poet | Tagged , , , , , , | 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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