Sunday, December 22, 2013

`Just Before Night Wipes Them Out'

Name the author and subject of the following line: “Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows.” The horror-minded might think Lovecraft or Stoker. Others, the authors of Mein Kampf or Das Kapital. Literary-tuned readers would perhaps consign Dan Brown or Mary Oliver to this shady bolgia. The writer I honor with the darkest corner of my shelf is Samuel Beckett, who made darkness comic. The poet is Edwin Arlington Robinson and his subject is the English poet “George Crabbe” (Christmas Eve, 1754-1832): 

“Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows,
Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will,—
But his hard, human pulse is throbbing still
With the sure strength that fearless truth endows.
In spite of all fine science disavows,
Of his plain excellence and stubborn skill
There yet remains what fashion cannot kill,
Though years have thinned the laurel from his brows.

“Whether or not we read him, we can feel
From time to time the vigor of his name
Against us like a finger for the shame
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars where we kneel
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.”

Read the sonnet with Beckett in mind – “hard, human pulse,” “plain excellence and stubborn skill,” “the flicker, not the flame.” Consider a line chosen almost at random from, say, “The Expelled” (1946): “The short winter’s day was drawing to a close. It seems to me sometimes that these are the only days I have ever known, and especially that most charming moment of all, just before night wipes them out.” 

A pleasing convergence: Robinson was born on this date, Dec. 22, in 1869. Beckett died on this date one hundred twenty years later in 1989, the day Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted from power and the Soviet Empire was crumbling. In 1982, Beckett had produced and published Catastrophe, a play dedicated to the imprisoned Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel. One week after Beckett’s death, Havel became the last president of Czechoslovakia and, soon, the first president of the Czech Republic.

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