John Keats…TO AUTUMN and his own inevitable winter

To Autumn was one of John Keat’s last poems; he died one year after it was published.  What makes this particular poem so moving is the context in which it was written.  Keats was dying, slowly, from consumption as he wrote this piece.  His focus on autumn, the ripest of all seasons… the time when all life reaches fruition… corresponds with his own condition in such a way!

Keats attempts to trap autumn in all its fullness; to stop the apple from falling from the tree… as he desires to keep himself from his own inevitable winter.  Alas, as the apple falls… so does he.

Happy Birthday John Keats!

To Autumn
by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid they store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

And I, cut off from the world, remain… Alone with the terrible hurricane.

William Cullen Bryant is considered one of the most accomplished and popular American poets of the first half of the 19th century.  He was an early proponent of Romanticism in American literature and his work is often compared to English Romantic, William Wordsworth.

    

The Hurricane
by William Cullen Bryant (1854)

            Lord of the winds! I feel thee nigh,
I know thy breath in the burning sky!
And I wait, with a thrill in every vein,
For the coming of the hurricane!
 
            And lo! On the wing of the heavy gales,
Through the boundless arch of heaven he sails;
Silent and slow, and terribly strong,
The mighty shadow is borne along,
Like the dark eternity to come;
While the world below, dismayed and dumb,
Through the calm of the thick atmosphere
Looks up at its gloomy folds with fear.
 
            They darken fast; and the golden blaze
Of the sun is quenched in the lurid haze,
And he sends through the shade a funeral ray—
A glare that is neither light nor day,
A beam that touches, with hues of death,
The clouds above and the earth beneath.
To its covert glides the silent bird.
While the hurricane’s distant voice is heard,
Uplifted among the mountains round,
And the forests hear and answer the sound.
 
            He is come! He is come! Do ye not behold
His ample robes on the wind unrolled?
Giant of air! we bid thee hail!—
How his gray skirts toss in the whirling gale;
How his huge and writhing arms are bent,
To clasp the zone of firmament,
And fold at length, in their dark embrace,
From mountain to mountain the visible space.
 
            Darker- still darker! The whirlwinds bear
The dust of the plains to the middle air;
And hark to the crashing, long and loud,
Of the chariot of God in the thunder-cloud!
You may trace its path by the flashes that start
From the rapid wheels where’er they dart,
As the fire-bolts leap to the world below,
And flood the skies with a lurid glow.
 
            What roar is that?—‘tis the rain that breaks
In torrents away from the airy lakes,
Heavily poured on the shuddering ground,
And shedding a nameless horror round.
Ah! well known woods, and mountains, and skies,
With the very clouds!—ye are lost to my eyes.
I seek ye vainly, and see in your place
The shadowy tempest that sweeps through space,
A whirling ocean that fills the wall
Of the crystal heaven, and buries all.
And I, cut off from the world, remain
Alone with the terrible hurricane.

Legend of Halloween…. a usurped Samhain?

The origins of Halloween come from the Celtic “Festival of the Dead” called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). This is the biggest and most significant holiday on the Celtic calendar and marks the New Year and the beginning of winter.

Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living; because the souls of those who died during the year traveled into the otherworld during Samhain.

In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and people would often walk with their livestock between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual… bones of slaughter livestock were cast into its flames.  Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place at the table was set for them.

People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which is thought to have led to the custom of guising.  It is said that the sidhe, fairy mounds and portals to the fairy world, were always open at Samhain.  Fairies were often thought to steal humans on this holiday and people took steps to ward-off these harmful spirits and fairies.  Fairy mounds were avoided, people stayed close to home and if forced to walk in darkness, they turned their clothing inside-out and carried iron or salt to keep the fairies at bay.  Offerings of food were left at the door for the fairies to ensure favor in the coming year.

Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them, were common.  Their purpose is said to be threefold:  they were used to light one’s way while outside on Samhain night; to represent the spirits and otherworldly beings; and to protect one’s home from them.

Divination was also performed at Samhain.  The most common uses were to find out the identity of one’s future spouse, the location of one’s future home and how many children one might have.  Season foods, like apples and nuts, were eaten during these rituals.  Apple peels were used to divine the first letter of the future spouse’s name, nuts were roasted to predict if a couple would stay together and egg whites were used to tell how many children someone might have.  Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.

Christians, in an attempt to convert “natives”, effectively and majorly transformed the holiday.  In 601 AD, Pope Gregory the First issued the famous edict to his missionaries; if group of people worshiped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.

While the method of converting holidays to facilitate conversion was effective, Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted.  To offset this, the church made these creatures not only dangerous, but malicious and followers of the old religion were branded as witches.

Through time, the old beliefs never died out completely.  All Hallows Eve is still a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings are now all thought to be evil.

It is still common for children and adults alike to dress like these dreadful creatures; performing antics in exchange for food and drink.  To this day, witches, ghosts and skeletons remain among favorite holiday disguises.

Trick-or-Treat!

Baudelaire’s THE ALBATROSS…. the Poet versus Himself

Charles Baudelaire’s The Albatross, is a stirring description of his own feelings on being a man and a poet.

Baudelaire compares “the poet” to an Albatross: for as beautifully graceful as the majestic bird is in flight, it is equally as awkward and ridiculed while on the ground; as is the Poet-  who reaches into the mystical heavens to touch life itself- only to feel ugly, ridiculed and misunderstood by those around him.

The Albatross
by Charles Baudelaire (translated William Aggeler 1954)

Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep briny sea.

Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.

That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!

The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.

Baudelaire is credited with coining the term, “modernity” to designate the changing nature of beauty in modern, industrializing Paris during the 19th century.  His most famous work, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) was first published in 1857.

Ode to Guilt… a Dark Pleasure

Ode To GUILT

Your melancholy song in my head
And on my soul, Of things
Once said and truth untold;
Melancholy tunes upon my breast,
Haunt my waking day and nightly rest.

Since my youth, you’ve suckled me;
Held me close, vampirically.
My dark sun!  Old friend of none!
Mother of my sorrow–
You nurture the dusk of tomorrow.

Oh Guilt! Dark pleasure!
Black candle in the joy of life;
Your dark light runs thru my veins.
Dear friend, only you remain;
On the coldest days, the warmth you feign.

How close you hold my secret pain!

Constant are you who stay with me,
And hold those bonds
That keep me from free;
Heavy shadow on my steps,
In your darkness, I reflect.

Longtime friend, your roots run deep,
In your branches, my secrets keep,
In your leaves, my sorrow flows,
In your bark, my darkness grows;
Trapped inside you, is my soul.

Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray, or Solitude”… Evolution of Body to Spirit

Lucy GrayOne of Wordsworth’s most haunting ballads of childhood, “Lucy Gray, or Solitude” describes the death of a young girl who went out one evening into a storm and was never found again.

Written while Wordsworth was in Goslar, Germany, it was founded on a true circumstance told to him by his sister, Dorothy, of a little girl who was bewildered in a snow-storm. Her footsteps were traced by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her could be traced.  Her body was later found in the canal.

Noteworthy in this poem is Wordsworth’s use of the bridge.  Lucy’s parents follow her footsteps to the middle of the bridge (a connection of two sides) and then they disappear.  The fact that she disappears in the center of two opposing sides poetically launches Lucy into another realm of existence altogether.

Lucy becomes the symbol of the interface between life/death, body/spirit, this life/the next, realism/imagination, civilization/nature (an interplay of opposites reminiscent of 17th century poet, John Donne).

Wordsworth’s description of Lucy’s spirit singing a solitary song “That whistles in the wind” connects her to nature and makes her evolve out of and pass back into the landscape; just as she passes in and out of this world and the next.

Lucy Gray, or Solitude by William Wordsworth

Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray,
And when I cross’d the Wild,
I chanc’d to see at break of day
The solitary Child.

No Mate, no comrade Lucy knew;
She dwelt on a wild Moor,
The sweetest Thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!

You yet may spy the Fawn at play,
The Hare upon the Green;
But the sweet face of Lucy Gray
Will never more be seen.

“To-night will be a stormy night,
You to the Town must go,
And take a lantern, Child, to light
Your Mother thro’ the snow.”

“That, Father! will I gladly do;
‘Tis scarcely afternoon—
The Minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the Moon.”

At this the Father rais’d his hook
And snapp’d a faggot-band;
He plied his work, and Lucy took
The lantern in her hand.

Not blither is the mountain roe,
With many a wanton stroke
Her feet disperse, the powd’ry snow
That rises up like smoke.

The storm came on before its time,
She wander’d up and down,
And many a hill did Lucy climb
But never reach’d the Town.

The wretched Parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.

At day-break on a hill they stood
That overlook’d the Moor;
And thence they saw the Bridge of Wood
A furlong from their door.

And now they homeward turn’d, and cry’d
“In Heaven we all shall meet!”
When in the snow the Mother spied
The print of Lucy’s feet.

Then downward from the steep hill’s edge
They track’d the footmarks small;
And through the broken hawthorn-hedge,
And by the long stone-wall;

And then an open field they cross’d,
The marks were still the same;
They track’d them on, nor ever lost,
And to the Bridge they came.

They follow’d from the snowy bank
The footmarks, one by one,
Into the middle of the plank,
And further there were none.

Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.

O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.

While “Lucy Gray, or Solitude” was written in 1789 and published in Lyrical Ballads, it is not one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems.  It is excluded from the series because the traditional “Lucy” poems are uncertain about the age of Lucy and her actual relationship with the poet; Lucy Gray provides exact details on both.

As a contrast to “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” Lucy Gray is not idealized in death through the Romantic notion of love; her loss is quiet obvious in the poem to those who loved her.  Rather, Wordsworth uses this poem to provide an “escape of spirit” for a lost child through the interplay of realism and imagination.

The Coming of the Tuatha dé Danann and The Myth of THE HARP OF THE DAGDA

It is said that when the fairy race of the Tuatha dé Danann, children of the goddess Danu, arrived in Ireland they came like a mist across the waters- bringing with them magical gifts.

The first generation of the Tuatha dé Danann had to fight off the giant races of the Firbolgs and the FormoriansFormorians The Formorians were a semi-divine race said to have inhabited Ireland in the ancient times. It is believed that they are the beings who preceded the gods, similar to the Greek Titans; having the body of a man and the head of a goat (according to 11th century text), or to have had one eye, one arm and one leg.

The Tuatha dé Danann’s chief of the gods, the Dagda, (father figure and protector of the tribe) was known to have a cauldron (which was said to restore life) and a harp- battle scarred and made of oak.

When his men went to battle, the Dagda would set up his magic harp and sweep his hand across the strings.  A war song would ring out making his warriors buckle his armor; brace his knees and shout, “Forth the fight!” When the men returned, weary and wounded, the Dagda would take his harp and strike a few chords- as the magic music stole out upon the air, every man forgot his weariness and his wounds and thought of the honor he won, and the comrade who had died beside him and the safety of his wife and children.

The Harp of the Dagda

So it was that after the second battle of Mag Tuiread (Moytura), the Dagda discovered that his harp, together with his harper, had been captured by the Formorians and taken with them in their flight.  Angered beyond measure, he set out with his son to reclaim it.

Stealthily they approached the Formorian camp.  Soon they could hear the sounds of the feasting hall in which Bres, the Formorian king, was dining.  Approaching the doorway, they could just make out through the smoke and candle-flame the outline of the old harp hanging on the wall.  Dagda entered boldly and summoned his harp with this chant:

 Come Daurdable, apple-sweet murmurer
Come, Coir-cethair-chuir, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter
Out of the mouths of harps and bags and pipes!

Immediately the old harp flew to his hand across the hall, killing nine men as it came.  A shocked hush fell on the company.  In the silence, Dagda laid his hands on the strings and unleashed the Three Noble Strains of Ireland that he had bound into his harp.  First he played the goltrai, or strain of weeping, so that all present began to mourn and lament their defeat.  Then he played the geantrai, the strain of merriment, so that the company turned to laughter and drunken foolery.  Lastly he played the suantrai, or sleep-strain, whereupon the warriors fell into a profound slumber.  After this the Dagda and his son left the camp as quietly as they had come, taking the harp and harpist with them.

The Tuatha dé Danann were the children of the great goddess Danu and are depicted as magical fairy people who were later overrun by the Milesians who allowed them to reside underground in the sidhe, or fairy mounds.  In folk belief the sidhe are often appeased with offerings and care is taken to avoid angering or insulting them.  Often they are not named directly, but spoken of as “The Good Neighbors”, “The Fair Folk”, or simply, “The Folk”.  They are generally described as stunningly beautiful, but can also be terrible and hideous.