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Augustine

Augustine never says an angel spoke to him. Rather it is a child nearby:

I heard a voice from a neighboring house. It seemed as if some boy or girl, I knew not which, was repeating in a kind of chant the words: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately with changed countenance (note the physical “converts” first. He is in the midst of violent weeping when he hears the voice). I began to think intently whether there was any kind of game in which children sang those words; but I could not recollect that I had ever heard them. I stemmed the rush of tears, and rose to my feet; for I could not think but that it was a divine command to open the Bible, and read the first passage I lighted upon.

In terms of revelation, this most well-reasoned church father, this prince of rhetoricians, this ghost that haunts the whole of Derrida is left weeping violently under a fig tree and allowing the chanting voice of some gender undetermined child to determine the course for the rest of his life. So…is this Magic 8-Ball thinking? Well, to a certain extent, sure, but there is a precedent for such epiphany. For example, Elijah in the cave when he is literally at the end of his tether and does not find God in the mighty roar but in the whispering breeze. There are also the words: “A child shall lead them.” Augustine, being a good persuader, even comes up with a recent precedent for such conversion by words in a moment of transit. He cites St. Anthony (the desert father) who converts upon happening to enter a church where these words from the gospel are being read: “Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”

For Augustine, words are the most malleable and porous of substances. As a master of rhetoric, he knows how they can be bent, distorted, used to flatter, to convince, how empty they are, and yet he is a man of words, and it is by the event of the right words at the right time that he converts. It is written: conversion comes from hearing the word of God.

I think this could be changed to “overhearing” the word of God for, to a certain extent, the will of God in any conversion narrative works like the Eucharist: the actual presence of divine intention under the signs of chance–always the signs of chance. I know someone who converted because, while he was changing a car tire a pouring rain, he cursed: “jesus Christ!” And immediately, for no reason at all, felt a sudden sense of Christ’s presence. He said: “I’d been cursing like that for years, and I was not intending to do anything but take his name in vain, but, for no reason I can think of, my curse was a prayer and he answered it in the middle of the highway. I went to church for the first time that Sunday, and I haven’t missed since.”

Augustine longs for conversion, but his longing must take the form of chance, of the ordinary substance of chance under which hides the extraordinary presence of grace. When the moment of conversion comes, Augustine is not a master rhetorician, not a doctor of the church, not the first creative non-fiction writer: rather, he is a desperate screw up under a fig tree begging God not to delay his conversion any longer. He is in the place of terminus, at the threshold and end of his own effort where grace may act: and grace acts with the same substance that Augustine had used to gain favor with emperors, to seduce women, to lie and outsmart opponents: with words, and not with eloquent words, but with a repetitive, jump rope song: “take and read, take and read.” So under the signs of a child’s repetitive phrase, God’s grace comes to give Augustine the peace nothing in the world can give–the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Still Augustine is not merely passive. He must “hear” these words as the words of God and this is an imagination, a necessary leap into the absurd (some child is speaking for God) that most modern people, even religious folks would caution against. They’d say: “perhaps, but be careful>” They’d say: “faith is not a moment of overwrought emotion.” They’d say a lot of intelligent, well reasoned cautionary stuff, at which time, they’d be unconsciously, doing the work of Satan–for it is hard to see God in a world that no longer believes in Eucharistic reality–that reality of God’s actual presence hidden under the signs of the world–and not only the world, but the most inconsequential and dubious signs of the world–that all of existence might be fired in the kiln of God presence, and yet God is looked for in everything but the voice of some random and genderless child. Our ears, unlike a dog’s, are never at attention. God is always passing, but we hear the sounds of our day and nothing more.

Since I was old enough to remember, I was fascinated by the voice of a child that I always seemed to hear above the din of other children playing blocks away. As a kid, I made up stories that this voice was that of a child who had died a long time ago of some long illness that would not allow him/her to play. After the child died, God allowed the voice of the child to be heard on the street. The child was free to play. If you listened really hard to any group of children playing you could hear this voice.

Often I hear the voice of children playing in the distance.
There is always one voice louder, shriller than the rest.
It cuts through my life and makes its dark incision.
It is the thumb of Father Riordan, pressing home the word.

In this poem, children go to Father Riordan because he thumbs the ashes deep into their foreheads, and they like it. It’s a game: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The narrator of the poem, a nun, remembers her childhood. Father Riordan is long dead. She hears this shrill voice of a ghost child as if it were the thumb of sacramental grace–the sign of her own mortality and God’s presence in the world. This is the child she did not have because she has wed her self to Christ. It is her moment for God to speak to her as her lost child–and to remind her she is dust and shall return to dust, but the voice of the child is eternal.

To read Augustine is to be reminded that humility and majesty are not separate occasions. In lowliness, a person weeps and falls down on the body of Christ and is raised above the angels. This conversion narrative is, like all conversion narratives, both a transcendence upwards and downwards: words become the word, and the word comes to live under the signs of words–the mundane, the overheard, the ambush of a single phrase when our hearts are broken, our ears are desperately alive, and we are ready to hear.

The assertion that “Contemplations” is primarily concerned with the ascension of the soul may bump against prevailing notions. Some critics have said Bradstreet was more in love with the earth than heaven since the lines that directly address the idea of heaven often fall short: “too often merely traditionally rendered passages pale before some of the more deeply felt lyrical passages in praise of Phoebus and the things of earth”. Indeed, the poem begins with the rapture of the poet as she views nature: her gaze begins with the autumn leaves, then moves upward toward the sun:

Thou as a bridegroom from thy chamber rushes,
And as a strong man, joys to run a race;
The morn doth usher thee with smiles and blushes;
The Earth reflects her glances in thy face.
Birds, insects, animals with vegative,
Thy heat from death and dullness doth revive,
And in the darksome womb of fruitful nature dive.

“More heaven than earth was here [on earth]” Bradstreet says. In fact, stanza 8, which immediately follows a four stanza paean to the sun, seems to contain Bradstreet’s inadvertent admission that she cannot express genuine feelings about God, as opposed to her clearly inspired stanzas about nature:

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.
My great Creator I would magnify,
That nature had thus decked liberally;
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility!

Bradstreet is clearly not describing nature anymore any more than she is bushwacking “pathless paths” through the forest. She is traveling an inward landscape now. This stanza and the ones that follow are a flock of neo-Platonist images. Gazing toward the (inward) sky, her Muse thinks it appropriate to inspire song. And yet, divine though the Muse may be, Bradstreet is unable to perform. Is it because Bradstreet harbors the unspoken belief her ecstatic paean to the secular cannot match what she is able to say about the sacred? To me this interpretation only resonates if you harbor the assumption that the one need crowd out the other. But in Hopkins, for example, the ecstasies of the “secular” are sacred. Think how seamlessly Hopkins moves from the image of the dawn to the Holy Spirit and back to nature again in “God’s Grandeur” (another poem that shares many affinities with “Contemplations”):

And through the last lights off the black West went
_____Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
_____World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins is testing the sundered connection between the natural and divine. “Contemplations” does indeed have several passionately felt stanzas dedicated to the sun; yet this is hardly crypto-pagan nature worship. More to the point, though, those who engage in this reading of “Contemplations” are missing the clear neo-Platonic overtones of the whole poem (thankfully, not all critics have missed this; this particular essay makes some similar arguments as mine, but with different concerns).

[Two side-notes for picky readers:

1. For those familiar with Puritan doctrine, it might seem a little strange to connect Bradstreet with the mysticism of Plato, especially inasmuch as it sounds dangerously close to the analogy of being and/or similar ideas which protestants general eschew. This is an impossibly complicated topic to argue here, but I'm hoping to show that the neo-Platonic reading just makes sense. For those who want more of the historical scaffolding, you can return to the aforelinked essay at the end of the previous paragraph, which argues Bradstreet inherited her neo-Platonism from other poets, or you can jump down this rabbit hole, which argues that Jonathan Edwards--that arch-Puritan--more or less bought into the analogy of being.

2. For those who think I'm being sloppy with my use of the term neo-Platonism, you're probably right.]

Other critics have read this passage (along with others in the poem) as Bradstreet conforming to Puritan expectations of feminine weakness. I don’t doubt that patriarchy played some role in shaping this line, but the link to neo-Platonism really helps us see that something else is happening here. Bradstreet’s admission of imbecility is certainly tribute to Bradstreet’s Puritan modesty; but it’s deeper than that: the modesty is also neo-Platonic. Such imbecility is the stupidity of ecstasy. Bradstreet is unable to speak not because she is a woman or because she secretly loves nature more than God, but because one literally cannot speak about these things.

Nevertheless, femininity is an important theme in this poem. The relationship between femininity and ascesis is complex. One sees similar sentiments throughout Interior Castle, in which Theresa constantly chastises her “feminine” inability to be articulate. On the one hand, it is true that such modesty befit the social expectations of femininity in that time; but it is important to note (without denying the marginalizing influence of such expectations) that these expectations contain a subversive corollary: it is only the feminine soul that reaches the heights of ecstasy. According to Theresa, only by not desiring divine gifts can one receive them, can one pass from speech into that deeper eternally spoken Word. That is, only the unassuming, “feminine” soul is actually able to ascend. On a related note, it is no accident that in the very next stanza speaks of crickets and grasshoppers, insects whose classical associations are that of phoenix-like beings entranced by divine song. Bradstreet notes that creatures praise by “their little art” while she remains imbecilic. Bradstreet’s wit here has actually fooled many critics, who assume that on some level she really believes “warbl[ing] forth no higher lays” is a weakness. In fact, this should probably be read as an ironic reproach to the masculine drive to build towers of babble.

But we’re ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to where Bradstreet begins her poem–personal contemplation, a poet called forth into song by the enrapturing beauty of autumn leaves (anyone who has seen the Massachusetts in Fall knows what Bradstreet is talking about):

The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

I’ve never taken shrooms, but I’m told they make color “more real,” as if a veil is lifted and one experiences the sensual uninhibited, unmediated. Similarly, Bradstreet sees the colors that seem “painted,” enhanced as if by artifice, and yet they are confoundingly “true.” This vision stirs up the passions within Bradstreet, the appetites. The appetites and their desire to consume completely is unattainable, however. This inability of the human person to fully sate a desire creates a fundamental confusion because the existence of desire implies its object. This confusion is one object of Bradstreet’s contemplations, one focus of her attempt to come to deeper knowledge of being. Therefore, the next stanza begins

I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is He that dwells on high,

If such desires cannot be sated by the earthly, certainly there is a richness that transcends earthly riches where there can be no barren “winter and no night.” Bradstreet’s gaze then moves upward, from leaves, to sky, to sun, treating each with due reverence. Undoubtedly, Bradstreet is riffing on Augustine’s Confessions:

And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek,’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us’. My question was the attention I gave them, and their response was their beauty. (X.vi.9)

Having begun in such contemplation, Bradstreet moves backwards to the story of Eden. She does so by means of that contemplation:

When present times look back to ages past,
And men in being fancy those are dead,
It makes things gone perpetually to last,
And calls back months and years that long since fled.
It makes a man more aged in conceit
Than was Methuselah, Or’s grandsire great,
While of their persons and their acts his mind doth treat.

Again, Bradstreet mirrors Augustine: memory–both personal and historical–is the primary means of introspection and ascension toward the divine. In returning to the palaces of memory, one finds truths that actually transcend the personal, that impart a wisdom preceding one’s individual being (Plato thought the human ability to recognize truth was actually remembering what was forgotten from the previous life of the soul). However, while Augustine travels back to the creation narrative, Bradstreet returns to a time just after creation: Cain and Abel.

I want to do a bit of a meditation on the nature of voice and how the self is written into a poem.

When I first read Augustine’s Confessions, I felt I had discovered one of the hidden hinges of the modern “voice.” I was familiar with classical writing, and the coldness of the speaking voice in classical authors seemed absolutely foreign to me. Perhaps it was the fact that inflected languages do not always use a singular word to express “I.” The “I” in both Greek and Latin is snuck in by sticking an ending on the word, so grammatically the “I” stands out less.

Yet Augustine was radically different. Classicist, film scholar, and popular historian Thomas Cahill articulates it well:

Augustine is the first human being to say “I”–and to mean what we mean today….Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings–especially one that, like Bartlett’s, goes in chronological order–and let your eye pick out the I’s. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course, characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as “I.” Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptons stand out: a fragment (“The moon has set / and the Pleiades: / it is the middle of the night,  / and time passes, yes passes– / and I lie alone.”), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.

When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone. Marcus Aurelius, by Gibbon’s standards the most enlightened emporer and the great philosopher of Roman antiquity, speaks to us in epigrams, like Confucius and Ecclesiastes before him: “This being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs”–he means his mind. This is as confidential as Marcus gets. Or how about this for a personal revelation? “All that is harmony for you, my Universe, is in harmony with me as well. Nothing that comes at the right time for you is too early or too late for me.” For all their ponderousness, the great emperor’s thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie.

It’s immediately clear why Augustine is often seen as the last classical and first medieval man. He marks the ultimate synthesis of classical rhetoric and sensibilities with the concept of self that marked the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Cahill points out, the Psalms stand out among classical literature, as exceptionally personal. Augustine, says Ronald Heine, was “the undisputed master of using the psalms to lay one’s soul bare before God in the praise and confession of prayer….The psalms permeate everything Augustine wrote.” Rowan Williams points out that the very first sentence of Confessions is a quotation from the psalms. Augustine weaves them throughout such that we hardly know when the words are his and when they are not (a modern citation nightmare).

Consider a few selections from the Greek Anthology:

LECTORI SALUTEM

Reader, here is no Priam
Slain at the altar,
here are no fine tales.
Of Medea, of weeping Niobe,
here you will find
No mention of Itys in his chamber
And never a word about nightingales in the trees.

Earlier poets have left full accounts of these matters.

I sing of Love and the Graces, I sing of Wine:
What have they in common with Tragedy’s comic scowl?

~Strato of Sardis (trans. Dudley Fitts)

And this poem, which is more personal, but even the personal impulse is mediated:

TO HIS MISTRESS

You deny me: and to what end?
There are no lovers, dear, in the under world,
No love but here: only the living know
The sweetness of Aphrodite–
but below,
But in Acheron, careful virgin, dust and ashes
Will be our only lying down together.

~Asklepiades (trans. Dudley Fitts)

One of the more consistently “personal” poets I have found in the several (meager) collections of Greek Anthology poems is Meleagros:

REDIMICULUM PUELLARUM

O Love, by Timo’s curls,
by Heliodora’s sandal,
By Demo’s myrrhdrenched threshold,
by Antikleia’s slow smile,
By the dear flowers twined in Dorotheia’s hair–
O Love, Love, I swear
Your quiver is empty:
all your shafts
Have fled unswerving to bury themselves in my heart

~Meleagros (trans. Dudley Fitts)

In addition to Augustine’s unique “I,” I believe that Augustine is relatively unique in his relationship to his audience. His audience is God, the You of Confessions, yet really, we know it’s us. Homer and Virgil invoke the Muse, yet, I don’t get the picture that the Muse is their audience. No, the Muse is there mostly to help them get started. Ultimately, they have some other audience in mind. Augustine, though, intends for us to “overhear” (in the words of John Stuart Mill that Allan Grossman is so fond of citing) his lyrical unbosoming. He wants us to eavesdrop outside the confessional booth.

There is a fascinating double movement going on here. Augustine, himself weaving, imitating, and voicing the psalms, wishes for us to hear, so that we, presumably, can sympathize, but be moved to make our very own confession. Ironically, much of western art has imitated Augustine’s confession. We have a continual chain of imitation that stretches all the way back to one of the Ur-poets of our world: King David (or whoever wrote the psalms).

Yet even the psalms themselves are not single-voiced. Traditionally, it was understood that many voices are encapsulated in the psalms. Early Christians and Jewish interpreters recognized this (though they often disagreed strenuously on who was speaking). Ronald Heine captures the sense that one has while praying through the psalms: “When I read the psalms…alone, sometimes I am instructed or exhorted by the voice of the ancient author as he relates the stories of Israel; sometimes I myself am speaking, addressing God directly in the words of the psalmist; at other times I am directly addressed by God in the words of the psalm. The conversation may move back and forth within a single psalm.” When you add to this the layer of “inspiration,” and all the accompanying debates about it, it becomes clear that any attempt to unthread the twisted ball of connections will be completely futile.

So we have before us what seems like a contradiction, a swirl of voices that somehow manages to lay bare the angst of the single person. Toward the end of my time at Hunter, coming up on what I felt was a dry period in my writing, I decided to try and rewrite various psalms. Psalm 39 was the first. When picking a psalm, one is immediately confronted with the difficulty of various voices. I was used to creating an overall emotional sense in my poems, something that was difficult with multiple voices. Psalm 39, however, was relatively uniform in its voice (or at least it seemed to me at that time).

This is how my poem came out:

Moth (Psalm 39)

Wanting to avoid your violent side, I tried to keep
my mouth shut when I saw the way you
rigged this game to destroy beauty—

and not just beauty, but the gaudy,
fast food smut that I hoard, too—
always savored by the hungry

moth. But you always hated the grudging
“Yes.” You made me broach the issue
of how you snatch away another’s beauty

in gloating silence, leave us bleached,
belly up, whales on the sand’s ecru:
Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?

It’s either you or vanity, vanity
So, you have my yes. True,
this might have been the point: your beauty

is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while I am consumed
by the blows of your hand, our beauty
—yours, mine—a moth, feeding, still hungry.

As you can see, it’s a villanelle built around two ending words (rather than lines): beauty and hunger. It became clear very quickly, though, that I would not be able to encompass all the ideas in the poem. Like Augustine, I was chopping and using what I could to fit into my own voice. But such decisions are hard to make. The psalms are often so layered with meaning and reference that it feels violent to cut any part while still doing justice to the psalm as a whole. In this case, the form worked as a way that dictated what to include and what to “evict” from Psalm 39: what worked went in.

Later, at Tom Sleigh’s recommendation, I picked up Donal Davie’s To Scorch or Freeze, which, as fortune would have it, also included an adaptation of Psalm 39. Davie, you can see, is considerably less angsty.

The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted
Donald Davie

I said to myself: “That’s enough.
Your life-style is no model.
Keep quiet about it, and while
you’re about it, be less overt.”

I held my tongue, I said nothing;
no, not comfortable words.
“Writing block”, it’s called;
very discomfiting.

Not that I had no feelings.
I was in a feever.
And while I seethed,
abruptly I found myself speaking:

“Lord, let me know my end,
and how long I have to live;
let me be sure
how long I have to live.

One-finger you poured me;
what does it matter to you
to know my age last birthday?
Nobody’s life has purpose.

Something is casting a shadow
on everything we do;
and in that shadow nothing,
nothing at all, comes true.

(We make a million, maybe;
and who, not nobody but
who, gets to enjoy it?)

Now, what’s left to be hoped for?
Hope has to be fixed on you.
Excuse me my comforting words
in a tabloid column for crazies.

I held my tongue, and also
I discontinued my journals.
(They accumulated; who
in any event would read them?)

Now give me a chance. I am
burned up enough at your pleasure.
It is all very well, we deserve it.
But shelved, not even with mothballs?

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and please to consider my calling:
it commits me to squawking
and running off at the mouth.”