Wednesday, April 13, 2016

`Air that Once Was Breath'

I know a Russian-born engineer who reads Chekhov and Babel, and one from Israel who reads Spinoza and Miklos Radnoti, but never have I known so book-smitten an engineer or mathematician as the late Michael M. Carroll. Not bookish like an English prof, but widely read for the joy of it. Michael reveled in words, loved puns and Scrabble, spoke English and Irish from childhood, wrote and had produced two plays, and published crossword puzzles in the New York Times. Even his memorial service on Monday in the campus chapel was a celebration of language. Michael’s son read from three poems by Yeats -- “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “Under ben Bulben” and “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” From conversations with Michael I knew Irish writing for him primarily meant Yeats, Joyce and Flann O’Brien (he grew up reading Myles na gCopaleen’s “Cruiskeen Lawn” in The Irish Times, and from memory could quote “Keats and Chapman” routines), and I remember talking to Michael several times about John McGahern.

Printed on the back of the program for the memorial service were three quotations. The first was Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer,” followed by the first stanza of Dickinson’s 314:

“`Hope’ is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –”

Then came a surprise, a poem I prize by a poet few seem to have read: Caelica LXXXII by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Fulke Greville (1554-1628):

“You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
            Reader! then make time, while you be,
            But steps to your eternity.”

I have no idea if Michael ever read Greville, and I’m certain we never talked about him, but even if a family member pulled the poem from a book of quotations, the lines are full of bracing realism if not conventional consolation. I’ve seldom been so delighted to see, without warning, a poem. Greville is a poet I have urged, without success, on many readers. His great modern champions have been Yvor Winters and his student Thom Gunn. The latter edited Selected Poems of Fulke Greville in 1968, and the University of Chicago Press published a new edition in 2009. Here is Winters in “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” (The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises, 1957):

“The language of metaphysics from Plato onward is a concentration of the theoretical understanding of human experience; and that language as it was refined by the great theologians is even more obviously so. The writings of Aquinas have latent in them the most profound and intense experiences of our race. It is the command of scholastic thought, the realization in terms of experience and feeling of the meaning of scholastic language, that gives Shakespeare his peculiar power among dramatists and Fulke Greville his peculiar power among the English masters of the short poem. I do not mean that other writers of the period were ignorant of these matters, for they were not, and so far as the short poem is concerned there were a good many great poets, four or five of whom wrote one or more poems apiece as great as any by Greville; but the command in these two men is not merely knowledge, it is command, and it gives to three or four tragedies by Shakespeare, and to fifteen or twenty poems by Greville, a concentration of meaning, a kind of somber power, which one will scarcely find matched elsewhere at such great length in the respective forms.”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

Perhaps it should be noted that the Greville poem has attained new life in the title and content of the late Paul Kalanithi's account of his too/short life and dying "When Breath Becomes Air". The fact that this poetry- infused testament is the #1 best seller spells hope for Western Civilzation