Monday, April 16, 2012

`Hope Illuminate'

In preparation for a trip to Poland in May, I have been rereading the poetry and prose of Zbigniew Herbert, as I reread Melville before my first visit to New Bedford twenty years ago. The comparison is not farfetched. True journeys begin as pilgrimages. On the night of his first trip from post-Stalinist Poland to Paris, Herbert walked straight from the train station to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and two days later traveled to Chartres to see the cathedral. In “A Stone from the Cathedral” (Barbarian in the Garden, 1962), Herbert writes:

“The outstanding Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne drew an analogy between the dynamism of European society in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and of mid-nineteenth century America.” 

Herbert reminded me of a poem in Helen Pinkerton’s ekphrasic series, “Bright Fictions,” titled “On the Jamb-Statues of the Portrail Royal (1150) of Chartes Cathedral” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002): 

“Kings, queens of Judah, patriarchs, prophets, saints
Yield in their solemnly molded stone constraints
To no one’s freedom. For their fluent Word,
Distinguished, still is part of that to be.
God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, help
Here in the stone-flesh other men to see
Imaged an emblem of fidelity,
Which is no dream, but hope illuminate,
And love, resisting hell, able to wait.”

“Molded stone” precisely renders the appearance of the cathedral’s sculpted stone, the work of tailleurs de pierre (beautiful: “tailors of stone”) who were not considered artists in the modern sense. Their exclusion, Herbert notes, is “unimaginable to us”: “They merged with the anonymous mass of stonemasons.” Their art is enduring in a way unimaginable to moderns with our corrosive sense of artistic impermanence. Helen’s favorite figure is always light, the emblem of being itself, and here even the stones shine: “hope illuminate.”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Thanks, Patrick, for your link to the website showing Etienne Houvet's photographs of the jamb-statues of the Portail Royal of Chartres. They sent me back to my copy of Houvet's book, "Portail occidental ou royal," purchased in 1949, with its preface by the great French art historian Emile Male. The printing of the photographs has not faded with the years, although the paper has browned somewhat. These were my guide to the statues the following year when I saw them, in the flesh (so to speak), and I could not have had a better guide. As Male writes, Houvet was not an art historian, but the "gardien de la cathedrale," who knew the value of the treasure which was confided to him and had the "passion" to undertake and fulfill his project of recording the statuary and windows of the entire building. The net reproductions seem sharp and well-defined. However, my printout of one of them has a reddish-brown coloring that is not true to the gray cast of those in Houvet's book, which is, in turn, true to the coloring of the original stone figures.