Five Sonnets

I needed to reread these five sonnets by CS Lewis today, so I thought I’d share them ’round.

You think that we who do not shout and shake
Our fists at God when youth or bravery die
Have colder blood or hearts less apt to ache
Than yours who rail.  I know you do.  Yet why?
You have what sorrow always longs to find,
Someone to blame, some enemy in chief;
Anger’s the anaesthetic of the mind,
It does men good, it fumes away their grief.
We feel the stroke like you; so far our fate
Is equal.  After that, for us begin
Half-hopeless labours, learning not to hate,
And then to want, and then (perhaps) to win
A high, unearthly comfort, angel’s food,
That seems at first a mockery to flesh and blood.
A Crazy Stair
There’s a repose, a safety (even a taste

Of something like revenge?) in fixed despair
Which we’re forbidden.  We have to rise with haste
And start to climb what seems a crazy stair.
Our consolation (for we are consoled,
So much of us, I mean, as may be left
After the dreadful process has unrolled)
For one bereavement makes us more bereft.
It asks for all we have, to the last shred;
Read Dante, who had known its best and worst—
He was bereaved and he was comforted—
No one denies it, comforted—but first
Down to the frozen centre, up the vast
Mountain of pain, from world to world he passed. 

Of this we’re certain; no one who dared knock
At heaven’s door for earthly comfort found
Even a door—only smooth, endless rock,
And save the echo of his cry no sound.
It’s dangerous to listen; you’ll begin
To fancy that those echoes (hope can play
Pitiful tricks) are answers from within;
Far better to turn, grimly sane, away.
Heaven cannot thus, Earth cannot ever, give
The thing we want.  We ask what isn’t there
And by our asking water and make live
That very part of love that must despair
And die and go down cold into the earth
Before there’s talk of springtime and rebirth.

Pitch your demands heaven-high and they’ll be met.
Ask for the Morning Star and take (thrown in)
Your earthly love.  Why, yes; but how to set
One’s foot on the first rung, how to begin?

The silence of one voice upon our ears
Beats like the waves; the coloured morning seems
A lying brag; the face we loved appears
Fainter each night, or ghastlier, in our dreams.
“That long way round which Dante trod was meant
For mighty saints and mystics, not for me,”
So Nature cries.  Yet if we once assent
To Nature’s voice, we shall be like the bee
That booms against the window-pane for hours
Thinking that the way to reach the laden flowers.
Bee
“If we could speak to her,” my doctor said,

“And told her, “Not that way! All, all in vain
You weary out your wings and bruise your head,”
Might she not answer, buzzing at the pane,
“Let queens and mystics and religious bees
Talk of such inconceivables as glass;
The blunt lay worker flies at what she sees,
Look there—ahead, ahead—the flowers, the grass!”
We catch her in a handkerchief (who knows
What rage she feels, what terror, what despair?)
And shake her out—and gaily out she goes
Where quivering flowers stand thick in summer air,
To drink their hearts.  But left to her own will
She would have died upon the window-sill.” 

Free bee

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Ego Dominus Tuus

Ego Dominus Tuus

By W. B. Yeats
Hic. On the grey sand beside the shallow stream
Under your old wind-beaten tower, where still
A lamp burns on beside the open book
That Michael Robartes left, you walk in the moon
And though you have passed the best of life still trace          5
Enthralled by the unconquerable delusion
Magical shapes.
Ille. By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.   10
Hic. And I would find myself and not an image.
Ille. That is our modern hope and by its light
We have lit upon the gentle, sensitive mind
And lost the old nonchalance of the hand;
Whether we have chosen chisel, pen or brush   15
We are but critics, or but half create,
Timid, entangled, empty and abashed
Lacking the countenance of our friends.
Hic. And yet
The chief imagination of Christendom   20
Dante Alighieri, so utterly found himself
That he has made that hollow face of his
More plain to the mind’s eye than any face
But that of Christ.
Ille. And did he find himself,   25
Or was the hunger that had made it hollow
A hunger for the apple on the bough
Most out of reach? and is that spectral image
The man that Lapo and that Guido knew?
I think he fashioned from his opposite   30
An image that might have been a stony face,
Staring upon a bedouin’s horse-hair roof
From doored and windowed cliff, or half upturned
Among the coarse grass and the camel dung.
He set his chisel to the hardest stone.   35
Being mocked by Guido for his lecherous life,
Derided and deriding, driven out
To climb that stair and eat that bitter bread,
He found the unpersuadable justice, he found
The most exalted lady loved by a man.   40
Hic. Yet surely there are men who have made their art
Out of no tragic war, lovers of life,
Impulsive men that look for happiness
And sing when they have found it.
Ille. No, not sing,   45
For those that love the world serve it in action,
Grow rich, popular and full of influence,
And should they paint or write still it is action:
The struggle of the fly in marmalade.
The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours,   50
The sentimentalist himself; while art
Is but a vision of reality.
What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair?   55
Hic. And yet
No one denies to Keats love of the world;
Remember his deliberate happiness.
Ille. His art is happy but who knows his mind?
I see a schoolboy when I think of him,   60
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,
For certainly he sank into his grave
His senses and his heart unsatisfied,
And made—being poor, ailing and ignorant,
Shut out from all the luxury of the world,   65
The coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper—
Luxuriant song.
Hic. Why should you leave the lamp
Burning alone beside an open book
And trace these characters upon the sands;   70
A style is found by sedentary toil
And by the imitation of great masters.
Ille. Because I seek an image, not a book.
Those men that in their writings are most wise
Own nothing but their blind, stupefied hearts.   75
I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,   80
And standing by these characters disclose
All that I seek; and whisper it as though
He were afraid the birds, who cry aloud
Their momentary cries before it is dawn,
Would carry it away to blasphemous men.   85

I have neglected my study of Yeats. But this week I had read him “like the wind” for a class, and I am enjoying it very much.

This poem in particular has hit upon on a touchstone.

In the first place the sly wit of the two speakers named “this” and “that” attracted my humor.

But mainly it is the discussion of Image  – or Sign – and Thing that fascinates me. And so comes the subsequent discussion of Art, its worth and aims.

The accusation that modern art, here poetry but it could be painting or music, has lost “nonchalance” and so certainty and vigor failing to realize the power of the image is powerful. Keats cannot compete with Dante. (But who can? Milton seems that think that he himself comes close, but  . . . . no.)

Here, in Yeats’ argument, it seems that in searching for the Thing without the mediating understanding of the Image artists and the Modern World lose a vision of higher reality. The reality of Dante. (Can any work of art be more Real than The Divine Comedy?)

We have not discussed the poem in class yet, but for right now this poem is evoking many questions and thoughts.

Do humans need that mediation to see properly? To concentrate on  the image rather than the book? How does the image affect the artist or the reader-viewer differently from the the thing?

Dante’s tale is superficially obviously fiction, but his images evoke a deeper, higher, more complex reality. Is this art the best way of approaching not only God, but ourselves?

I have not read enough to completely trust Yeats or his philosophy, but this work has gone a long way to inspiring my appreciation for him. More study time ahead!