03 January 2010

The Psalm

The subtitle to Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" reads, "What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist." It is an earnest piece, one full of confident longing. Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant! / Let the dead Past bury its dead! / Act, - act in the living Present! / Heart within, and God o'erhead!

My grandma included this poem in some thank you note a few months back. It's been on my fridge since, surrounded by various expired coupons and a magnet depicting the mausoleum at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I happen upon it on the occasion when I'm rummaging through the freezer and I forget what I'm looking for.

This happens time and time again: on the verge of returning to responsibility, my heart becomes a sodden log within my chest. Grateful for the carefree days of a break removed from duty and obligation, spent in the company of those I love most, but haunted, too, by the inevitable end of such joyful peace. Waugh's character Sebastian Flyte in "Brideshead Revisited" remarked to his friend Charles, "If only it could be like this always: always alone: always summer." If only I could hold onto the single moment of connection with another. But the sun refuses to yield; it paints the houses an ominous yellow as it casts its final shot of light across our shared sky. Friends return from whence they came, parties end, holidays submerge for another time.

The transition into a new year brings with it nostalgia for what's passed and some curiosity about what's to come. The older I get the more intense these feelings become.

One day Longfellow's beloved wife caught fire, and despite his best efforts to rescue her, she died from the experience. It's said he never recovered and spent much of the rest of his life fearful he would go insane, begging his family not to have him sent to an asylum. His love was intense for her, mirrored only and tragically by the consuming blaze that took her with it. Poets and artists deal with tragedy the most and I often wonder if it's the intimate association with loss itself that sparks creativity.

At a lecture given at Notre Dame shortly before her death, a long-suffering Flannery O'Connor responded to the question of why southern writers are so often absorbed by the grotesque, by the freak. "We're still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak you have to have some conception of the whole man." Lonfellow wore a beard for the rest of his life, after the ordeal with his wife. The flames disfigured his face and so he concealed it.

I suppose Longellow could put his pen to paper and come up with something tremendous not in spite of the loss of his beloved but precisely because of it. O'Connor's lupus kept her away from the typewriter more than she liked, but when she was able to return to it she wrote with ferocious zeal. And her subjects almost always depict the wreckage and that so often forgotten glimpse of redemption.

The suffering artist is the prophet in our day. It's the wife of Lot, in that instant after turning to look at the burning city and before becoming salt that art exists, that some powerful expressive force emerges and finally consumes. You blink and you miss it. It doesn't drone on. It's a flash moment between nostalgia and demise.

I painted a couple weeks ago with a friend at the lake who had scarcely ever before put a brush to canvas. It was exhilarating to watch the newness of it, the exploration of it.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

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