Growing Up With Tennyson: How The Text Takes Us Higher

20180924_120033When I was twelve, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the legendary bookshops of the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. For £5, I purchased an ancient copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry, published in 1883, nine years before his death.

What a world of wonder it opened up to me! It may have even changed my life.

On one of the front pages, spotted with yellow patches of age, I found an inscription identifying the book’s first owner: “To Lilian Henderson from the Parents of the Infant School of S. Mark’s South Teddington in token of their love and appreciation of her kindness to their children. Jan 31. 1884.” How this excited me! Well over a century before, this woman had held my book in her own hands and loved it when it was new and the golden gilt edges still shone. In my imagination, I created Lilian Henderson. She had dark hair and spoke with a soft voice and wore plain white dresses edged with lace.

20180924_120137Inside her book, I found little slips of verse and a penciled list of titles with their corresponding page numbers. Lilian, I was sure, had written these. I read them over and over, and I carefully worked through her list of what I assumed were recommended titles, prepared to like each one right from the start, reading them like a prospector hunting for gold.

The other slips of paper, those with the excerpts of poetry, planted themselves in my mind and, thirteen years later, I still think of them sometimes. One piece had two neat little maxims penned with great care. I was fascinated by the appearance of the writing. The effect of the inked dip pen on the page was startling and glorious to me, and looking back now, I think my first love for old-fashioned ink lettering was kindled in me that very day.

20180924_120212On the back of this sheet, Lilian (so I like to think) had written out a quatrain from “Lady Clara Vere de Vere.” I didn’t have ready internet access at the time, so I didn’t know the origin of the verse until I discovered it myself in the poem. What fun that was! What a thrill of discovery! The text reads:

Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

At the time, I had yet no notion of the tempting lures of classism and snobbery that would come to afflict me later. But I hid these lines away in my heart and they came back to me just this week to shed light and wisdom on a present struggle.

And this, after all, is why I do what I do. It’s why I love to create art out of words that have the power of truth behind them. Because when these words are duly ingested and have truly saturated our hearts, I do believe they are weapons in the good fight of everyday life. It’s as Charlotte Mason wrote in Towards A Philosophy of Education: I heard the other day of a man whose whole life had been elevated by a single inspiring (poetic) sentence which he heard as a schoolboy.” 20180924_120253

That’s real. The text can take us higher. I believe it because it happens to me.

For the rest of my stay in Great Britain, I devoured Tennyson voraciously from this historic volume. I had always enjoyed reading, and had read some of Tennyson already, but the experience of stumbling through pages of blank verse that I knew to be intended for adults was a new kind of challenge. It made me feel grown up and I was eager to rise to the occasion and demonstrate that I could enjoy this book as it was meant to be enjoyed and as thousands of other Victorian Britons (including Lilian) had, I presumed, enjoyed it.

I read the easy ones, like “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Brook,” “Alymer’s Field,” “Marianna in the South,” “Break break break,” and Lady Clare,” (not the same as Lady Clara Vere de Vere. I know, so confusing.) I tried to read “The Princess,” although I understood it not a whit. I even struggled through pages and pages of “In Memoriam.” On the plane back to the Middle East, where my family was living at the time, I tried to hide my tears over “Rizpah” and “In The Children’s Hospital.” And in a cold drizzle in the Welsh countryside, sheltering the book with my jacket, I read a poem that would affect me so much I would write about the experience later in my own first poetry collection.

20180924_120502To contemporary readers, “Enoch Arden” might seem to be trying too hard. The story of a sailor who is lost at sea and returns home after many years to find that his devoted wife has finally given him up for dead and remarried his childhood rival may not sound to us like a fresh plot or a new idea. But reading the story at twelve, still inexperienced both in life and in fiction, I was captivated by the pathos and tragedy of the characters. I was desperate for a resolution, for a happy ending, and genuinely disappointed when I realized that the loss in the story was going to be permanent, that there was not going to be any way out. However, I was able to grasp some little part of what Enoch’s character champions at the end of the story when he chooses not to reveal himself to his wife and her new husband but dies alone, blessing them with his last words and taking comfort that he will soon join their child whose death in infancy had been a great blow.

It doesn’t sound original, perhaps, but this woeful story in blank verse moved my heart so deeply and stirred me to value and adore silent, self-denying heroism, an attribute all too easily forgotten in this era of fanfare and self-promotion. “Enoch Arden” talked to me and it made me better. It talked to me because I had no smartphone to fill up my spare minutes, no little red notifications to distract me from the book in my hands and the great outdoors around me. Because of that, I made connections with words that would stick with me always, and with a woman who lived over a hundred years ago and was kind to the children of the Infant School at St. Mark’s, South Teddington.

20180923_140605I have yet to mention the Tennyson poem that has been with me the longest. Even before I bought Lilian Henderson’s book in the little Welsh shop, I had memorized one of Tennyson’s most famous pieces in school and copied it out in my best hand-writing on lined paper. I had been given the option to pick a poem to memorize, and the one I chose was “Crossing The Bar.” Yes, I chose it in part because it was shorter than many of the other options. (Although, to be fair, it’s certainly longer than “Flower In The Crannied Wall.” So there’s that.) But also, it held a strange fascination for me. I had only a vague idea of what was being conveyed, and was certainly thrown off by phrases like, “from out our bourne of Time and Place,” and “such a tide as moving seems asleep,” but I just disregarded these odd lines and stuck to what I understood.

I knew that in this poem, Tennyson compares death to a sandbar that separates a ship from the ocean, and hints at his hope of encountering God (the “Pilot”) on the other side of death. This seemed sublime to me, and while I wanted Tennyson to take a bit of a lighter tone and be a little bit more reassuring and less darkly mysterious, I was, on the whole, well satisfied with my choice. Lilian too, it seems, was a fan. “Crossing The Bar” was only poem she wrote out in its entirety and stowed away between the pages of her copy of Tennyson.

It has been something like seventeen years since then. I now know why Tennyson said, “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!” I know why he said he “hoped,” to see the Pilot, not that he “would” see Him. Like most of the great thinkers and writers in the Victorian age, Tennyson grappled with faith all throughout his life and at times seems to have been overwhelmed by doubt. But the words he wrote in honor of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam in “In Memoriam,” are perhaps equally applicable to their author:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Later in his life, Tennyson wrote, “The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him…[He is] that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us.” Before his death, he told his son Hallam that he wanted “Crossing The Bar” to appear at the end of all future editions of his poetry.

At last he beat his music out.

20180923_141052A few weeks ago, I set out to create a piece of art that would honor the debt I owe to Tennyson. My artistic rendition of “Crossing The Bar” is a small watercolor painting accompanied by hand-lettered dip pen calligraphy – the kind Lilian Henderson got me sold on back in the day. Thanks, Lilian, whoever you were. It took me several days to complete this piece and although my capitals are still improving, I’m pleased with how it came out. 8×10 prints just became available in my Etsy shop yesterday, so if you want to have one for your own home, click here to view the listing.

[NOTE: I’ve tried to find records of Lilian Henderson, but haven’t been successful so far. If anyone out there knows anything about her, her family, life, or connections, I’d love to hear from you!]

That Is No Country For Old Men

nocountry
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
(W.B. Yeats, “Sailing To Byzantium”)

One of the great joys of marriage so far has been that of having a companion who consistently spices up my life with his inconsistent schemes, plans, and ideas for new adventures. Whereas I tend to become a little hum-drum and driven by routine, Alex is always coming up with new things to try.

Lately, he’s been working a delivery job most of the day while I’m at home pouring my heart and soul into custom calligraphy projects and new designs for my Etsy shop. It’s a big change from a few months ago when we were at university together, taking most of the same classes and spending the days listening to English lectures together or writing papers side by side.

Thankfully, Alex found a way for us to go on learning together even in this strange transitional stage of our lives. We’ve started listening to audiobooks on Audible and Librivox while he’s doing deliveries and I’m doing calligraphy. So far we’ve knocked out O Pioneers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Children of Hurin, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and No Country For Old Men. It is on this subject that I mean to say a few words, as we’ve been thinking and talking for some time about Cormac McCarthy’s neo-Western noir masterpiece and its Academy Award-winning film.

For me, No Country For Old Men was one of those works that carries its central thematic thread so deep inside that at times the soul of the story seems undiscoverable. Is it a story about fate? The senseless nature of violence? The changing landscape of crime? The far-reaching implications of the drug wars? The new face of the American Southwest? The end of the archetypal cowboy hero?

Or is it much, much bigger than that?

I think we can take a hint from the poem to which McCarthy owes his title: an enigmatic, lyrical piece written by Ireland’s W.B. Yeats and with imagery centered in the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (what is now modern-day Istanbul). This is not cowboy poetry, and what McCarthy has to say is a lot bigger than cowboys. That being said, I think the cowboy is still key.

So who are the cowboys in No Country? It’s obvious, of course, that the kindly and old-fashioned Sheriff Bell is one of them. However, although he is much younger than Bell, Llewelyn Moss may be one of the most important cowboys in the story and although it took me awhile to recognize it, I think Moss might be a quintessential “old man,” in the sense of the story’s title.

llewelynmossMoss is a Vietnam vet in his mid-thirties, and a wannabe cowboy hero. He seems to see himself as a sort of crusading bad-ass lone ranger, a John Wayne character in the flesh. Even his name lends credence to this reading: “Llewelyn” is rooted in old Welsh and “moss” is reminiscent of a forest full of history and years. Moss seems convinced that his skills and intelligence, coupled with the justice of his cause, will ultimately triumph. Although he experiences fear and consternation, he is never so overcome by these things as to reach out to law enforcement for help. He thinks he’s a cowboy boss-man: tough, gritty, brave, brusque, resourceful, authoritative, a man of action and command, capable of violence and extreme steps, but just and righteous.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

However, in what I think it is the central element of the story, McCarthy will not allow Llewelyn to be the hero he thinks he is. Llewelyn, he wants us to know, is deluded in thinking he is the hero of the story. On the contrary, his self-sufficient arrogance brings death and sorrow to everyone he encounters, from his wife and her mother to the teenage runaway girl he is mentoring and “protecting” with a cynical, detached air when she is brutally killed along with him in the motel.

In every possible way, McCarthy is undermining and overturning the archetype of the cowboy hero that Llewelyn aspires to be. In what is perhaps one of the most significant story-telling decisions he makes, McCarthy chooses to have Llewelyn killed off-screen. He does not even dignify the cowboy hero with a heroic final stand. Llewelyn thinks he is the hero, but in the end, he is merely insignificant collateral damage in a war much bigger than him, and his stubborn insistence on getting involved in that conflict makes him the agent of destruction to his own family.

So what is the significance of how McCarthy treats Moss’ character? I think the answer lies in his foil: Sheriff Bell. The other “old man.”

While Bell is also a cowboy and an old-fashioned man of action, what sets him apart from Moss is his humility. Unlike Moss, Bell doesn’t see himself as the hero of the story, and he is full of misgivings about his own adequacy for the position he’s placed in and his ability to tackle the challenges posed by the brutal drug wars intensifying in the southwest. In the end, Bell makes responsible choices for himself and his wife, and avoids the pitfalls of bravado and arrogance that prove the ruin of Llewelyn.

So how does all this fit in with Yeats? It’s a question I’ve been puzzling over for weeks now, and I’m still uncertain about which interpretation to pursue, but I have a few thoughts on the subject.

I think it’s very tempting to assume that the Yeats’ tie-in is a reference to the fact that Sheriff Bell sees the new Southwest (and, by extension, perhaps the whole world) as an unfit place for the wise and for those committed to traditional ideals of justice, righteousness and sanity. Just like Yeats, Bell finds himself lost in the morass of modernity. You could even make the argument that Bell sees earth itself as unfit for good men. Unlike Llewelyn, he recognizes that the earth is not a place where the just are necessarily rewarded, not a place where good men always triumph. Perhaps, like Yeats, he is hungry for “the artifice of eternity.”

However, I wonder if this interpretation is not a bit too easy, a bit too surface-level. Also, it hardly suffices to explain Llewelyn’s prominence in the story and the decisions made by both McCarthy and the Coen Brothers to consistently reverse our expectations for his character. To me, Llewelyn’s character prevents us from interpreting the theme of this story as a direct adaptation of Yeats’ idea. Rather, I wonder if we’re being challenged to challenge Yeats’ own take on the old men.

sailing to byzantium.pngIs there something harmful in self-identifying as part of a wise and righteous minority? Perhaps not necessarily. But I think Llewelyn’s character points to the imminent danger of hubris and destructive arrogance that so often accompanies the determination to be an old-fashioned hero. And, what may be more to the point, he is a living (well, OK, not living anymore) warning against the oh-so easy assumption that we’re always on the right side simply because we understand our own motives and fail to understand the motives of others. Maybe McCarthy is suggesting that there is an inherent danger in Yeats’ own self-congratulatory statement.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions. What do you see as the central theme of No Country For Old Men? (the film or the novel) How do you reconcile it with “Sailing To Byzantium”? What do you see as the significance of Bell and Llewelyn’s characters? Is there any country for old men? Who are the old men?