Shakespeare wrote many a sonnet about the love of friends and friendship, and though we have commentators and historians to tell us that some of his sexual loves were female and others male, the friendship component of many of the sonnets is a free-standing element of them, which could lead one to read those particular sonnets aloud to friends of a more Platonic nature and mean it just as literally. Today, I would like to illustrate this point with a comparison of three of them, representing a sort of past, present and future in the conceptual history of a friendship.
First, the past: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past,/I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,/And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:/Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,/For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,/And weep afresh love’s long since canceled woe,/And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:/Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,/And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er/The sad account of fore-bemoanéd moan,/Which I new pay as if not paid before./But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,/All losses are restored and sorrows end.” Here, the past is the main emphasis of the poet’s conception, yet he thinks of the “dear friend” and ceases to mourn, though there is no sure sign that the friend is still alive in the present tense except possibly for the direct address in the word “thee” (which is still temporally ambiguous to a certain extent).
Then, the present: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state,/And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,/And look upon myself, and curse my fate,/Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,/Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,/Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,/With what I most enjoy contented least;/Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,/Haply I think on thee–and then my state,/Like to the lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;/For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” In this sonnet, though the poet does speak of “thy sweet love remembered,” almost as if the love were in the past, the main gist of the poem casts the experience of the poet in the present: he is even despairing of “deaf heaven” at the beginning of the poem, yet by the end he forsakes the considerations of “sullen earth” and his “state” transitions into something like a “lark” which “sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” Thus, the change is not so much within heaven as within the poet’s experience and attitude toward heaven, and the poem is the moment of transition contained in an awareness of the present.
Finally, the future: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,/So do our minutes hasten to their end;/Each changing place with that which goes before,/In sequent toil all forwards do contend./Nativity, once in the main of light,/Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,/Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,/And time that gave now doth his gift confound./Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth/And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,/Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,/And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow./And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,/Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.” In this poem, which looks at the entire span of human life as a gradual hopeless fight of the pebbles against the sucking sea, of youth against gradual aging, of “the flourish set on youth” against the wrinkles, “the parallels set in beauty’s brow,” there is yet that promise for the future and future humans and ages which occurs in more than one Shakespearean sonnet: “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,/Praising thy worth….” The poet has thus secured a future existence not only for himself, but for his friend who inspires him to write as well.
Thus, for the perfection of a form united with a concept, for the developing view of past, present, and future as they impinge upon a great poet’s awareness, and for deservedly famous tributes to love and friendship, these three sonnets by Shakespeare that I have reproduced here and commented on in passing are ideal: if you enjoyed them, why not read them aloud with a friend, to a friend, when occasion presents itself? Even better, commit them to memory or do some art work to accompany the words on parchment paper as a special gift for a friend who’s down in the dumps. Even if your friend is not an expert with Shakepearean English, the meanings are fairly clear if you read with the punctuation, and worth sharing.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet almost from the beginning, son of a poet and of a pious woman. In later life, he combined the two streams of his existence by becoming a Jesuit and by taking up again (in 1875) the writing of poetry, which he had left off when assuming the life of a religious, having destroyed all his earlier poems as too worldly. After his death and much later in 1918, the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, who had been a friend of Hopkins’s, saw that his poems were published. Today I would like to remark upon my two favorite poems of his, both frequently anthologized and both published in several other sites on the Internet.
The first poem to be considered is contemplative but a bit whimsical, even lightly teasing of a child who is sad or melancholy without a precise way of recognizing the cause or expressing her state. The speaker is an older individual, one who feels that he sees her situation well, and can enlighten her as to the sources of her frustration or grief. There is both a formal cause and an efficient cause: that is, the change of season is the formal cause of her grief, but her sadness has a deeper source, an efficient cause, “the blight man was born for.” Here is the poem in its entirety:
“Spring and Fall (to a Young Child)”
“Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?/Leaves, like the things of man, you/With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?/Ah! as the heart grows older/It will comes to such sights colder/By and by, nor spare a sigh/Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;/And yet you will weep and know why./Now no matter, child, the name:/Sorrow’s springs are the same./Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed/What heart heard of, ghost guessed:/It is the blight man was born for,/It is Margaret you mourn for.”
When the speaker himself is the sufferer, however, the matter is not even this blithe or teasing or capable of being sifted out as to the cause. In the second poem, which had no precise title but was instead given its first line as a title, we see the lyric voice itself as expressing the suffering, and it is far more serious in tone; there is not any hint herein that the speaker sees an end or a meaning to his grief, only that death itself will end the matter, a tough plight indeed in which to be. The expressive quality is here heightened, so that no one can possibly miss the meaning, and the formal cause is muddled together with the efficient cause in the line ” O the mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall,” as if there were no other explanation. There is even a Shakespearean quote from Edgar (as the madman Poor Tom) in King Lear, when the fugitives are wandering around out in the storm without cover and the misery is extreme: “Creep, wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind.” The unquantifiable misery in this poem is in stark contrast with Margaret’s almost self-centered complaint in the first poem, though both take a dim view of human happiness. Here, then, is the second poem:
“[No Worst, There Is None. Pitched Past Pitch of Grief]“
“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,/More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring./Comforter, where, where is your comforting?/Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?/My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief/Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing–/Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-/ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’./ O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small/Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,/Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all/Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
It is almost as if the second poem is an instance of the prediction from the first poem coming true: the speaker in the first poem predicts that “as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder by and by,” and sure enough, in the second poem it does, though “knowing why” is a little sketchy, and it is said to be because of the state of the mind’s “mountains,” which are “frightful, sheer,” and “no-man-fathomed.” But these poems have a therapeutic use, as poems often do, even if we aesthetically hesitate to use them as “medicine,” because that seems perhaps an inappropriate way to use literature. Here’s what I mean: if you are feeling really, really low, whether in spring and fall or in a rainstorm or on a dull, gray, stormy day, you can read “Spring and Fall,” and end by counselling yourself that after all, “it is Margaret [yourself] you mourn for,” and perhaps find some self-discipline that enables you to put the matter aside. But if you’re really feeling abysmal and totally lousy, you can read “[No Worst, There is None. Pitched Past Pitch of Grief],” and not only achieve catharsis, but go catharsis one even better: no matter how dreadful I’m feeling, I have only to read this second poem and I immediately perk up a little: not only did someone else feel as I do, but his expression of mourning for the human condition is even more extreme than anything I could possibly come up with, even at my most poetic and articulate, and my case is not, after all, that bad.
So, enjoy the upcoming summer if you are in the temperate zone, and if you are not, or when the summer cheats on you and issues a cold, rainy day or when it is over altogether, drag out the Gerard Manley Hopkins and give him a read: he has happy poems and sad poems, all beautifully evocative, but even if you only get acquainted with these two I’ve discussed today, you will be doing yourself a favor: Hopkins is one of those poets at heart who have shared their hearts and minds without stint, and who will always have something to say to you if you want to listen.
For the last two weeks or so, and upcoming at the end of the month of May, I wasn’t and won’t be blogging as frequently. Though I hope to squeeze in another post or three before the last two weeks of May, or maybe even one just before June begins as well, I can’t predict just now exactly when I will be doing about the next four or so posts, except to say “sometime in May, please don’t forget about me, I’m still here.” I feel especially grateful that so many readers (according to the stats page) have kept in touch with my blogsite and have been perhaps reading posts they previously missed or especially liked.
Why am I slacking off? Call it spring fever, and catching up on a lot of reading, and having company, and travelling. In short, I have a few other pursuits and endeavors keeping me busy during the merry month of May, and have to cry off my preferred frequency of blogging. I hope to have some interesting things to write about when I return to blogging, especially some new reading material I’ve run across and some old favorites as well. And I may have something to say about my travels, too. Until then, please be patient: like the man said, “I’ll be back.”
When I was but a young person, I attended a summer day camp which had horseback riding as an activity, and I also took horseback riding lessons independently. What sticks in my memory are two horses in particular, Prince and Show Prince, two horses whose similarity in name bore not at all upon their individual equine temperaments and manners. The pure thoroughbred, Prince, whose people had retired him to the stable for cheaper boarding on the condition that young people could (after being taught to be gentle to his mouth) ride him for lessons, had the manners of the most flawed and cranky aristocrat. He tried to buck. He had a habit of twisting around and trying to bite his rider, and with the best will in the world to be gentle to his mouth, it was hard to do, because he fought his young rider constantly, fishtailing and dancing around, not in high spirits as would a racer, but in pure spite and bad temper. By contrast, the mixed breed largely Appaloosa, with the misnomer Show Prince (a misnomer because though he could win trophies as an Appaloosa, he was not a thoroughbred competitor), was a perfect and lovable mount, one whose manners were kind, whose gait was so gentle that I once found myself galloping and being held on safely almost by his will when all I was asked to do was trot. He was affectionate and dear, responsive and never ill-intentioned, and had a truly gentle mouth because it would never occur to anyone to jab at the reins. Thus though Show Prince was perhaps less valuable in dollars, he was a dream of a horse, the ideal horse with children, who yet had some pride of place in breeding circles as a show horse. I was years away from having heard of a writer named Henry James, for whom the question of human “breeding” was so very important that it was one of his most constant subjects, which he turned back and forth and back again and examined in great detail. Yet, years later, when I read his short story “The Real Thing,” one of the first things that popped into my mind were my old acquaintances, Prince and Show Prince, in one of those unbidden sorts of thoughts that will occur when the mind is not censoring itself.
People are not horses; horses are not people. That much is clear. When we discuss the question of “breeding” in people, there has historically and repellently been a tendency to assume that wealthier people are necessarily “better bred” than poor people, though there has also been the opposing mythology (for “breeding” is a mythology in the sense of an informing societal belief) of “nature’s gentlemen,” that is, of those of poorer status who have an innate sense of what to say and do in difficult situations. The writer Henry James was one much given to exploring the questions relating to breeding and good manners, and in “The Real Thing,” an artist, an aspiring portrait painter who makes the main part of his living in doing magazine and book illustrations, meets up with both sorts of people. He has some regular models, such as Miss Churm, an irrepressible Cockney, and Oronte, an impoverished Italian man who acts as his butler as well, and they both have a sense of how to pose for various portraits of aristocrats and rich people in novels with whom they have nothing in common. By contrast, there are also a Major Monarch and his wife, who come by when recommended to the artist by Mr. Rivet, another artist. They are genuinely “well-bred” people, who have fallen on hard times financially. They have looked for work, for what they might be able to turn their hands to, among various venues, and have at last hit upon the stratagem of asking to pose as the artist’s models for aristocrats and well-bred people, reasoning that since they are “the real thing,” it ought to be easy.
This is a mistake, as the artist finds out. He tries his best, but is unable to make anything successfully of Major and Mrs. Monarch. Whatever they do, they simply are not “right” for the role of artist’s models. For what they lack, it turns out, is the ability to practice “imitation,” which Miss Churm and Oronte have in abundance. Miss Churm has so much that she is able to pose as an Italian, whereas the Italian Oronte, in the right costume, makes a perfect artistic model of an English gentleman! At a point near the end of the story, the artist has to tell Major Monarch that he can’t afford to lose the artistic contract in order simply to give them employment. The text reads: “I drew a long breath, for I said to myself that I shouldn’t see him again. I hadn’t told him definitely that I was in danger of having my work rejected, but I was vexed at his not having felt the catastrophe in the air, read with me the moral of our fruitless collaboration, the lesson that in the deceptive atmosphere of art even the highest respectability may fail of being plastic” [italics mine].
The artist does see his erstwhile “well-bred” models, though. His friend Jack Hawley, who has returned after an absence, has told him that they are ruining his work, and so he is “disconcerted” when they turn up again, to watch him sketch at a love scene between his other two models. The artist feels that “this is at least the ideal thing.” Not “the real thing,” but “the ideal thing.” Suddenly, Mrs. Monarch offers to straighten the hair of Miss Churm, whose curls seems a little untidy to her for the scene. The artist is at first afraid that Mrs. Monarch means some harm. “But she quieted me with a glance I shall never forget–I confess I should like to have been able to paint that–and went for a moment to my model. She spoke to her softly, laying a hand on her shoulder and bending over her; and as the girl, understanding, gratefully assented, she disposed her rough curls, with a few quick passes, in such a way as to make Miss Churm’s head twice as charming. It was one of the most heroic personal services I’ve ever seen rendered. Then Mrs. Monarch turned away with a low sigh and, looking about her as if for something to do, stooped to the floor with a noble humility and picked up a dirty rag that had dropped out of my paint-box.”
The next ten minutes are telling. While the artist continues to work, the Monarchs (so tellingly symbolically named for their erstwhile social status) do his dishes and clean up his kitchen in order to be useful to him. As he says, “They had accepted their failure, but they couldn’t accept their fate. They had bowed their heads in bewilderment to the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal; but they didn’t want to starve. If my servants were my models, then my models might be my servants. They would reverse the parts–the others would sit for the ladies and gentlemen and they would do the work.” For the time being, this dutiful bowing to the forces of “fate” ruins his ability to work, and he dismisses the sitters temporarily. He continues to allow the Monarchs to work for him for another week, then he gives them “a sum of money to go away.” He gets the remaining contract for designing the rest of the book series’ art works, but as he says, “my friend Hawley repeats that Major and Mrs. Monarch did me a permanent harm, got me into false ways. If it be true I’m content to have paid the price–for the memory.”
What’s most obvious is that the “false ways” the Monarchs get him into are ironically the opposite of the “true ways” of art, which are in turn only the arts of “imitation,” as opposed to the attempt to secure “the genuine.” Miss Churm knows how to “look over a head” in an imagined “crowded room,” though she says honestly that she would rather be “looking over a stove”; it’s no doubt a bit chilly in the artist’s rooms in her borrowed costumery. But the point is that the artist can make it look good through “the alchemy of art,” which does not need the actual facts with which to construct a painting or illustration. And it’s hard to believe, honestly, that the artist really doesn’t mind if he has been done a “permanent [artistic] harm,” or that he feels repaid in having “the memory” on which to look back. Still, when the Monarchs first walk in, before he knows they want to be paid as models, he assumes they are there to pay him, that is, to sit for a portrait of themselves as wealthy people do. This is perhaps the crowning irony, that they would have been appropriate for his most genuine aspiration to fulfill itself in terms of. Or is the crowning irony that Mrs. Monarch shows a kind of quality of gentleness that he is in fact incapable of painting, that is individual, not class-oriented, and not susceptible to artistic representation?
So, though Henry James often plays favorites and writes far more sympathetically of the so-called upper classes and less so of the so-called lower classes, even to the point of being often and sometimes justifiably labelled an elitist, in the world of art, at least in the world of this story, he recognizes no aristocrats except those who “can make the thing work.” Thus essentially, my old friend Show Prince told me a much-valued secret a long time ago, when we were trotting and cantering and galloping around together: Prince may have gone to some sort of valuable stud farm and have sired other genuine aristocrats as crabby and intemperate as himself, and have made the thing work that way, in a sense “doing the dishes” like the Monarchs, but for making the thing work as a mannerly steed with the true sweetness and aplomb of the real artistic gentleman, give me Show Prince (and Oronte and Miss Churm) every time.
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”–Stephen Bantu Biko
Finally, as of the weekend it seems (or perhaps I just didn’t notice it before, in the events of the last week), the trees are bursting out with green tips. The long and soggy winter has given way to a greener, more glorious spring, whereas last spring the grass, due to droughts, came up brown. The forsythia, dandelions, redbush, hyacinths, and daffodils are out and are waving in gentle spring breezes. The temperatures have wavered from 50-74 (F) or so, and the world seems a brighter, sunnier, sweeter place in spite of pollen counts vexing some folks and bad weather reports coming in from elsewhere. It’s possible now to sit by the water and watch the ripples and the current and dream of an impossibly beautiful summer still to come. And already this morning, there is on the news a report of a five-person shooting in Seattle and a shooting of undetermined number in North Carolina. This is on the heels of last week’s Boston Marathon bombings and shooting spree and God knows how many separate bombings and shootings and stabbings and slayings and injuries in the last year, some due to verifiable quarrels, some simply due to indescribable malice, others due to mental confusion, others due to doctrinal differences, and others (as seems to be emerging in the Boston bombings) due to apparently unknowable factors. For, though both of the Tsarnaev brothers were said to be devoutly religious Muslims, the outrage of their relatives and communities speaks I believe genuinely when it declares that they were not acting as sincere Muslims act, but were acting out on their own tick, motivated by unimaginable things even to their nearest family members. So here we sit, as a nation and a part of the world community, left with another question mark even more noticeable than that of 9/11 because that had an origin of easily determined cause (a particular radical group).
It may sound odd to quote Steve Biko at this juncture, from his own struggle for freedom and dignity, but I would like first to quote and then to explain my frame of reference: he said “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” He was abused and jailed and suffered for a cause, and it may seem odd to apply his remark to a whole nation, nay, a whole world enslaved by violence and mayhem, and to pilgrims from other countries “yearning to breathe free.” But who is it but the convenience store clerk, working the night shift, or the female student, trying to make her way home at night after a late class or library study, the enthusiastic people at a political rally supporting their candidate, or the happy crowds in full daylight enjoying a community spectacle and thinking to get away from chaos and heartbreak for a day’s communal fun, who stand the most to lose when martial law of the streets becomes the norm due to insane and unpredictable explosions and bullets? We all lose freedom and dignity and the right to keep open minds in that situation, because the caretakers of our nation have to treat us all as potential suspects in order not to miss a real miscreant through carelessness.
Our dilemma is a real one, experienced all over the world in this century, and becoming more and more what a frenzied and frustrated newscaster who was trying to follow up the scene in last week’s day of terror on Friday called it (when the second Boston Marathon bomber was finally cornered): he referred to our dilemma as “the new norm.” Is this the truth? Is terror and looking surreptitiously around oneself constantly in all directions instead of just looking both ways when crossing in traffic to become the new norm? Is reporting tittle-tattle on possibly innocent new neighbors with some “funny” foreign habits that are not ours to become the new norm? Is going through numerous checkpoints and security checks and barriers where we need to present identity cards the new norm? Guess what? In some parts of the world, it already is, and has been for quite some time. And maybe it’s time that we in the United States stopped flag-waving in a chauvinistic way and pretending that it can’t continue to happen here just because our individual right to bear guns and apparently kill each other at will is “secure” and instead raise our flag more reverentially and attempt to make realistic adjustments to our new conditions as long as they may last.
For, things change. They do, though we don’t always notice it right away. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but while a utopia is perhaps not likely, neither is a dystopia absolutely necessary. We are not the slaves of Fortune, but are instead the controllers of our own souls and hearts and minds, and we can choose to maintain freedom and dignity inside ourselves, in our own hearts and minds, not to forge forward without fear, but to inform ourselves with our fears, of our fears, and then to try to go ahead anyway, heads and hearts not high, but realistically levelled and eyes alert and aware. The human mechanism is a wonderful entity–you’ll notice I don’t say “thing”–capable of marvelous degrees of adaptation, and because we are not things and are reasonably and within limits self-directed at our best, we can choose to participate in our own enslavement by adverse conditions, or can fight free of the bonds of hysteria and cant, and can ask ourselves what more, under each set of requirements, we can do to keep free of feeling enslaved.
Now is the hour of our choice, a long-overdue choice according to some. We are now more than ever, as Plato said of himself, “citizens of the world,” and now as then, when the known world was a smaller place by far, we must act according to a different set of responsibilities, a mature set of responsibilities, acknowledging that there are those who perhaps for partially understandable reasons do not like us or fit in with our descriptions of ourselves, whether we label them agitators, lunatics, terrorists, or human ciphers. We must deal with the anomalous and abnormal in our midst, and must begin by accepting that even as “the old world, she goes on the same as she always did,” that “the world has [also] changed,” that now as never before there is more ferocious firepower and destructive power and wanton energy around to make our task a hard one. What we must ask ourselves is: will we, with Steve Biko, refuse to allow our inner beings to become oppressed when we cannot prevent the external being from suffering oppression, will we, as the world has with a resonant voice and Boston has with one unified voice decreed in our stead, be strong? I think that with respect and acknowledgement for all that was lost on that Monday in Boston and with the same respect for the sufferers and grievers in every like situation, my question answers itself.
The Nature of Human Imperfection, Idealism, and the Spectre of Human Doubt–Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”
One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best-loved and most effective tales (which Edgar Allan Poe praises for the mastery of its brevity and “single effect”) is his tale “Young Goodman Brown,” about the spiritual adventure–rather, misadventure–of young Goodman Brown, who journeys away from his young “aptly named” wife of three months, Faith, on an “evil purpose,” about which he tells himself, “‘Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth, and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.’” Now, there are ways of arguing as to whether this short story is a fable, parable, or exemplum, all special kinds of allegorical endeavor, and one could make a closely reasoned argument for any of the three, but this technical detail is of less moment, to my way of thinking, than the fact that Hawthorne seems to prefer a final mystification as to which of the three exactly it is. As M. H. Abrams told us long ago in A Glossary of Literary Terms, if it’s a fable, it “exemplifies a moral thesis or a principle of human behavior; usually in its conclusion either the narrator or one of the characters states the moral in the form of an Epigram.” Well, in a long paragraph at the end of the story, the narrator shows young Goodman Brown’s life history in brief after he has (perhaps, or apparently) attended a witches’ sabbath. The narrator draws a conclusion, however fictionalized and broadly painted: the moral seems to be either that one should, if one wants to retain faith (that key word again), either never part from the right path or–and this is a split moral, from which we see the saturnine features of Hawthorne grinning at us broadly–we should have a sufficiently complex view of human sin and redemption that we can allow for the occasional straying from the right path, as long as we also envision human goodness to reside in a disproportionate overbalance on the “good” side of actions and intentions. On the other hand, if the story is an exemplum, it’s told as “a particular instance of the general theme of a sermon.” If in fact we see Hawthorne’s story as an example of the way ministers and priests and speakers of various kinds often preface their sermons and talks with an illustrative story, then this is an exemplum; but given Hawthorne’s complexity of vision and the way he often in his tales seems to prefer putting his reader over a barrel or leaving the reader sitting on a fence (to mention just two uncomfortable psychological results of his work), he makes a somewhat quizzical preacher. Still, if complications and complexity are the issues he is trying to raise, then this story is a perfect exemplum of the issues involved. Finally, if the story is a parable, or “a short narrative presented so as to stress the tacit but detailed analogy between its component parts and a thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to us,” this would account for the ease with which the analogies in the story as it is structured shine forth (though again, one has to beware of seeming ease when Hawthorne is the source–he likes to throw the occasional spanner into the works).
Now for the story itself: young Goodman Brown (and the story, as must be obvious by now, is set in the American Puritan era) leaves at sunset to make a journey of some sort overnight away from his young wife Faith. Faith begs him not to go in a key but indeterminate phrase, on this night “of all nights in the year.” Thus, the night, which fills Faith with apprehension at the thought of being alone, is an important date somehow, perhaps Halloween or some other night of ill omen. As he tells her in response, “‘Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.’” He feels guilty and thinks that it’s as if “‘a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night.’” And of course, near the end of the story, we are proposed the option of thinking of Goodman Brown’s adventure in the forest that he too might have had a dream: ”Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” But then the solemn knell of Hawthornian tones rings out in the final paragraph: ”Be it so if you will; but alas! it was a dream of ill omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.” For, when young Goodman Brown goes forth toward the woods, he goes to meet a man “in grave and decent attire” (and many texts tell us that the devil appears as a gentleman) who bears “a considerable resemblance to” young Goodman Brown as if they were “father and son,” though “more in expression than in features.” In short, as this fable, exemplum, or parable leads us to believe, he goes to meet the devil and attend a witches’ sabbath.
Several times during the course of his journey farther and farther into the woods, Brown bethinks himself of his Christian teachers and people who have been held up to him as moral examples, and he wants to turn back, and even declares his purpose to the devil, who slyly doesn’t resist his suggestions but leaves him with his options open. Still, as they walk on, he sees and hears these very moral examples heading for the same place he is heading, and saying such things that he believes they have been deceiving him all along. They talk about a “goodly” young man who is going to be taken into their communion, and the devil, when young Goodman Brown protests that his own family has always been free of the taint of sin, responds thus: ”‘I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village….They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.’” When young Goodman Brown–though still walking ahead–objects that he doesn’t want to break Faith’s heart, the devil cunningly agrees with him and allows him to step to one side of the path, where he nevertheless sees other moral exemplars of his youth coming along to the meeting, and hears them greeting his new acquaintance in a friendly manner.
When the devil gives Brown his staff to lean upon (again, an involved kind of symbolism from Hawthorne), he tells Brown, “‘You will think better of this by and by….Sit here and rest yourself a while; and when you feel like moving again, there is my staff to help you along.’” Next come along in front of the resting Brown some male members of the “communion,” who discuss the fact that a “goodly young woman” is to be taken into the fold, and though the well-known figures further demoralize Brown, he looks up to the starry heavens and shouts, “‘With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!’” But then, a cloud comes between him and the stars, and we read: ”Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices.” He then in desperation begins to call out Faith’s name, but hears mocking voices and a woman’s scream. ”‘My Faith is gone!’ cried he after one stupified moment. ’There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.’” He has of course before been relying on the Christian doctrine that if a man or woman is sufficiently good, that they may even take a sinning mate into heaven with them; but because this is his weak point, relying upon Faith rather than upon himself, this is where he is morally the weakest (or perhaps Hawthorne wants to point here to the necessity as well of Good Works, which from what we have heard from the devil in Brown’s moments of doubt, Brown’s relatives haven’t practiced).
There is a dramatically rewarding and frightening scene of Brown in the woods at the witches’ sabbath, where he comes face to face with the other “convert,” Faith, his wife, and the devilish figure says, “‘Lo, there ye stand, my children….Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.’” Then, after they are welcomed by the whole group, Brown suddenly perks up and shouts to the apparent figure of his wife, Faith, “‘Faith! Faith!….look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.’” The text says he doesn’t know if she does or not, but that the whole scene promptly vanishes, the fiery hearth and forest as well as the rest, and he finds himself sitting on a rock.
So, what do we have? We’ve had the chilling apparitions associated with demon worship, yet we have the option (or do we?) of interpreting the whole thing as a dream. At the very least, we have the option of assuming that in the end Brown repented of his bad mistake, and departed “a sadder and a wiser man.” But the end of Hawthorne’s tale tells us instead, in a lengthy paragraph, that Brown felt suspicion and dread the rest of his days of everyone around him, including Faith, who continues in the end of the tale to greet him as she did at the beginning. The last line reads, “And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession [again that word "goodly"!], besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”
Thus, Hawthorne’s story is about the nature of human imperfection and its involvement with idealism: too much idealism, which demands that one never err or make a mistake, can be the real mistake, because any little slip can cause one to assume that there is no way to recoup the loss. This was one of the perpetual criticisms which Hawthorne, in all his tales, seemed to be making of Puritanism: too strict and unrelenting a moral code seems to invite mistakes, because people are human, and cannot help the occasional misstep. Thus, those who are held up as models in the average community, like ministers, deacons, judges, and virtuous women, are often held up by Hawthorne as short-changing those who rely upon them. But were so much not expected of them in the first place, idealistically, or were more forgiven them, then they would not seem so flawed and dramatically imperfect. Hawthorne cleverly selects a prime sin in Puritan times, consorting with the devil and witches, because it involves us to some extent in the realm of the imagination: we can propose to ourselves that it is an allegory even, in which whatever it was that young Goodman Brown was going away for that night was perhaps some quite ordinary sin, symbolized by the illicit meeting in the woods, and thus was a sort of flaw more of us might be able to sympathize with rather than something a bit anomalous. The spectre of human doubt is the face of young Goodman Brown himself, gloomy and brooding over all the scene that had previously been so filled with joy for him–once doubt enters, can it ever fully be dismissed? Or is human doubt the nature of human life? This is why I say that Hawthorne’s dark visage grimaces at us a little in stern amusement: he knew that his tale was one that we couldn’t easily dismiss with an either-or idealistic answer, because he allows us the same freedom either to doubt or believe that the devil-figure allows Brown, and if we lack imaginative robustness and are so weak-minded as to be swayed by a cloud that sweeps over the midnight stars and the sound of the wind shrieking in the forest trees, then we deserve what we get. And what we got this time was a superlative tale by a master of the short story, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Robert Frost’s “Neither Out Far nor In Deep”–The Nature of Aspiration, Longing, Disappointment, and Fulfillment
Today, I had it in mind to share a poem by Robert Frost, “The Bearer of Evil Tidings.” Unfortunately, this poem has no version which is in the public domain yet (i.e., which has been out for a sufficient period of time and can be found elsewhere on the Internet), and so my own sense of aspiration and longing to communicate both the poem and an analysis closely interwoven with it cannot be met. Strangely and funnily enough, however, as I was searching the Frost poems that are quotable in full, I ran across another Frost poem which I find intriguing and worth commenting on, and so I wasn’t doomed to disappointment, but instead was able to fulfill at least some part of my desire to share a Frost poem today. The title of the poem is “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” and it appears in several other places on the Internet, but I want to quote it in full, so here goes:
“The people along the sand/All turn and look one way./They turn their back on the land./They look at the sea all day./As long as it takes to pass/A ship keeps raising its hull;/The wetter ground like glass/Reflects a standing gull./The land may vary more;/But wherever the truth may be–/The water comes ashore,/And the people look at the sea./They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?”
Some commentators on this poem (who can be found in other sites on the Internet) like to point out that the people who watch the sea and its horizon are deluded (are in fact “gulls” like the bird in the foreground, that is, “dupes”). Others point to the finite nature of human achievement. By contrast, I would like to point to the infinite nature of human aspiration, which persistently looks at that which seems opaque, or boundless, or impenetrable. The received wisdom about this poem also seems to be that Frost is taunting or mocking the effort to see “out far” or “in deep,” but I’m not sure that’s really the point of the poem. It may well be that he is in fact practicing a sort of self-mockery in titling his poem “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” as if he was aware that his own view is shallower than that of those whom he is watching. The mystery of the sea beckons, casts its external evidences forward (like ships and sand–the “wetter ground”–and the gull) and seems to frustrate or deliberately limit what can be seen. Still, the humans insist on their view of the horizon and the water which “comes ashore” to such an extent that Frost, writing of them, does not say that they “turn their backs on the land” but rather that they “turn their back on the land,” as if they were all one body.
As one body thus the humans “look at the sea all day,” regardless of the land behind them which “may vary more.” They clearly find something which makes up to them for the fact that “they cannot look out far” and “they cannot look in deep”–perhaps after all, Frost is not slighting the watchers at the shore, but is instead commenting on and commending to our attention the nature both of disappointment and fulfillment, and the difference between goal and process, between achievement and journey. For, despite the fact that the sea seemingly limits our abilities to penetrate its meaning, still the goal and the achievement of doing so may not be the correct things for us to be focusing on. Perhaps instead we are meant to be focusing on the process of the quest and the journey, of the seeking itself. And thus, the people who sit and stare so fixedly at the sea are not necessarily the “dupes” of the view (and of Frost, one might add), but instead are doing what humans always do when faced with a limitless puzzle–continuing to ponder and question the conundrum in view, somehow secure in the “knowledge” that even if none of the present watchers manage to circumvent the enigma’s unending nature, yet there is more than enough of that nature there to supply generations to come with riddles which they can solve, not perhaps the ultimate riddle of existence, but smaller goals to achieve which all chip away at that riddle, piece by piece, adding more and more to the stock of human understanding. And here, I’ve mixed Frost’s metaphor, by suggesting that the sea (a fluid, after all) is a solid something which can be chipped away at like a block of stone–I apologize to my critical readers for this figure, though of course I could switch my figure and say that Frost, in mentioning “the wetter ground like glass” means to foreground the sand as an objective correlative of sorts for what the sea itself endlessly washes back and forth, gradually itself eroding the solid earth beneath.
Finally, the nature of human faithfulness to “keeping watch” is perhaps also being commented upon, whether or not one sees it as commendable being a matter of individual interpretation: ”They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?” suggests other sorts of watches, such as religious vigils and death watches over deceased bodies or ill persons, and the victory of human perseverance in maintaining watches of these sorts. For, who can look “out far” or “in deep” to the endless mystery of human life and death, and not wonder “wherever the truth may be?” Whether “on the land” of our ordinary perspectives or “on the sea” of our more unusual views and speculations, we are both limited by our capacities and distinctly suited by our longings and aspirations to touch some small parts of the “infinite sea,” and find some sorts of fulfillment in the watches we keep. Thus, though today I did not get to put before you the full text of “The Bearer of Evil Tidings,” I was able to find some measure of fulfillment and soften my own disappointment by putting before you yet another Frost poem, which I hope you have enjoyed. A simple search of the author’s name and the title of the poem, listed together, will take you to various sites where other commentators have written on it.