Friday, December 03, 2010

`The Morning Star Climbs Above Mount Ida'

In 1947, Helen Wadell, author of The Wandering Scholars (1927) and The Desert Fathers (1936), delivered the eighth W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture at the University of Glasgow and published it the following year as Poetry in the Dark Ages. Midway through the slender volume she inserts an anecdote about her reading of Virgil’s Aeneid:

“The Aeneid is not a popular schoolbook, nor the hero of it always a heroic figure: but if all else goes from the schools, let us at least keep the second book of Virgil. I speak of it with passion, for after half a lifetime of neglect, something sent me to it on that September afternoon when the Luftwaffe first broke through the defences of London, and that night it seemed as though London and her river alike burned.”

To read with deliberation is to attend to the world. In no sense is it “escape,” though escape is a perfectly acceptable reason for performing other sorts of reading. Waddell sought not “relevance” but a reader’s consolation. She cites Aeneas’ pitiful words in a dream to Hector, now dead and no longer the heroic defender of Troy -- “O lux Dardaniae!” -- as the Nazis prepare to level London. Aeneas, she says:

“…finds them, the housefolk and a herd of fugitives, soldiers, mothers, and most pitiful of all, collectam exsilio pubem, a huddle of young things gathered up for exile. I saw them, the young things gathered up for exile, with their little bags and bundles, at the end of that cloudless, endless September day, when the mothers and babies were herded out of London: now at evening huddled like lambs in a green field after a whole day’s travelling, and bleating like lambs `with their weak human cry’ – collectam exsilio pubem. And the night passes, and the morning star climbs above Mount Ida, and Aeneas looks down, and sees Troy burning still, and the Greeks at every gate.”

Waddell neither aestheticizes violence nor sentimentalizes literature. Her resort to Virgil as the bombs drop is humbling and ennobling. She feels the pity and horror no less knowing pity and horror have precedent. In 1978, hospitalized and in fear of sanity burning away, I asked for my copy of Dickinson’s Complete Poems. Now it stands on my desk between Helen Pinkerton’s Taken in Faith and Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm. The poem I underlined and annotated most heavily, and have reread most often, is #539 in the Johnson edition:

“The Province of the Saved
Should be the Art -- To save --
Through Skill obtained in Themselves --
The Science of the Grave

No Man can understand
But He that hath endured
The Dissolution -- in Himself --
That Man -- be qualified

To qualify Despair
To Those who failing new --
Mistake Defeat for Death -- Each time --
Till acclimated -- to –”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

The multi-valence of Dickinson is such that this poem could be read as anything from a conventional exaltation of the risen Christ to a Decadent aesthetic that the “art” of life is to understand what stays on after death, which can only be understood by the slow “dissolution” created by suffering. I read it, however, as another one of Dickinson’s sly treatises on the concept of love. Love is what saves things, love is what persists, love is the science of the grave, the dissolution of self is the act of loving, the only counsel for the throes of despair is love, and the only possible missing word after the ellipse at the end of the poem is – love.

Love for books creates a new reality.