WILLIAM BLAKE : “JESUS WAS AN ARTIST”

Verily , verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”

GoSPEL OF ST. JOHN 12.24

Curiously, although brought up on the Bible, I never noticed this saying until I read Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov where it is used as an epigraph. The power of the saying acting with the creative insight of poetry immediately struck me.

The saying relates, of course, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his death and its consequences. The single grain of corn if left on the surface is unfulfilled. The buried seed is as dead, but contains new life bringing forth new seeds of growth.

If this sounds like great poetry bringing out the deepest meaning, is this what Blake meant when he distinguished Jesus as an artist? For Blake this did not mean that Jesus expressed himself through the arts. Like Socrates, Jesus produced no written work. Blake sees, however, in Jesus a power of creative imagination central to being an artist or a poet. The Imagination is the quality which Blake, rather like Coleridge, appears to see as the supreme gift.

For creative imagination we might single out his “sayings” or his power of vivid speech. He speaks creatively not by presenting rules or flat statements or simple directions but by utterances that involve us in seeking to puzzle out what he means. Whether it is by direct teaching or by telling stories, as parables, he leads us into re-thinking. His sayings are ever memorable: think of a few of dozens:

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head”,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,

Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt hath lost its savour wherewith shall it be salted”,

He is an artist as shown by his pervasive story-telling. (But without a parable spake he not unto them. Mark 4.34). Think of the parable of the prodigal son, called the most perfect short story ever told. How he gets us to enter into the state of mind of both sons! with the younger: And he fain would have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat and also with the elder But as soon as this thy son was come which devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf . But he also takes us into the mind of the Father, not directly by thought, but by action: But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. At the end the Father sums up the reason for joy which the elder brother has to decide if he is going to come to terms with : This thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found. In the shortest compass we have been invited to use our imaginations to access three minds and work out our own feelings.

Or think of the parable of the of the Good Samaritan ever an inspiring tale, exposing bigotry, of a person of rejected background acting with charity as against those with official religious duties who passed by on the other side. It is a tale that runs so deep in our culture that we use the phrase, to be a good Samaritan.

The imaginative power that enables Jesus to create such tales also enables him, with supreme quickness, to see into the minds of those seeking to bring him down. Think how he deals with the challenging questions of those seeking to trap him: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? and Jesus’ answer ” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Always he seems equipped through his imaginative understanding of the questioner and what is at issue to answer in a way that, instead of falling into the trap, he puts the questioner on the spot.

But it is not only his speech and parables that show creative imagination. He also acts creatively on those who need healing. He is sensitive to the touch of the woman, who, afraid to speak to him, touches his robe. He brings her forward, in fear, but having “made her whole” he reassures her beautifully: Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. To those whose illness or mental disturbance is caused by awareness of sin he is again reassuring: Son thy sins be forgiven thee

His imaginative capacity to see beyond limits means he refuses dogmatism. Brought up in the Jewish tradition he naturally respects the Law but is also daring enough to challenge its whenit limits thinking.”Ye have heard it said “Thou shalt love thy enemy and hate thine enemy”, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” To those who would condemn the stoning of the woman taken in adultery he challenges” Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone”.

With creative power and highly developed critical understanding, he challenges conventional attitudes both towards sinners , and exposes the self-righteous. Once heard who can forget the story of the Pharisee and the publican?: The pharisee thanked God he was not as other men are. and he is contrasted with the publican who stood afar off and would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me , a sinner

Creative people prize spontaneity and have a natural love of the openness of children. Jesus held up children :

Unless ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven”.

And also he held up those devalued by society : much to her amazement, St John has him in long conversation with the ostracised Samaritan woman at the well:”Give me to drink” and then proceeds to tell her what she needs to know:

Whosoever shall drink of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give them shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

His imaginative action is also declared in his life purpose, his journey carrying his sense of God’s calling. We might pick out particular actions of dramatic power: the Palm Sunday parade on a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple protest, the passover meal, the washing of his disciples’ feet . These are all acts of a man who understands the power of dramatic teaching pointing us to understanding of the meaning of what he is doing.

Wondrously he sees himself not only as a prophet but also the point, God-guided, towards which the Jewish tradition is leading him. On tradition T.S.Eliot is helpful here: by understanding the way in which he, in his art, has been shaped by tradition he develops the awareness of the way in which he can extend the tradition. Jesus steeped in the Scriptures- in the Psalms ( quoted on the cross), in the prophetic understanding of Isaiah and Daniel and Zechariah-understands in what direction he must go, even though that direction leads to the Cross.

To call Jesus an artist is not to delimit him but to point to the nature of his creative power.

“APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH”: TWO POETS, TWO MEN, TWO AGES

April is the cruelest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain, 
Winter kept us warm, covering 
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding 
A little life with dried tubers. 
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbargersee 
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. 
Bin garkeine Russin, stamm'aus Litauen, echt deutsch. 
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's, 
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, 
And I was frightened. He said, Marie, 
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. 
In the mountains, there you feel free. 
I read much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow 
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 
You cannot say or guess, for you know only 
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, 
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, 
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only 
There is shadow under this red rock, 
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), 
And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. 
              Frisch weht der Wind 
              Der heimat zu 
              Mein Irisch Kind, 
              Wo weilestdu? 
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; 
"They called me the hyacinth girl"
- Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, 
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not 
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither 
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 
Looking into the heart of light, the silence 
Oed' und leer das Meer.
T.S.Eliot The Wasteland.

April: the month that heralds the season of spring; after long winter, the release towards renewal and regeneration; the time of year traditionally when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. Also, usually, the month of Easter, of faith gathered round the ritual of death and resurrection.

Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month denies all this” negates, as it remembers, all this. His April sees no possible fruition. Hence the cruelty of memory mixed with desire; he lives in a place and time gone sterile: the desire for love, the desire for sex, the desire to celebrate faith in unity are all still remembered but no longer meaningful.

“The Wasteland” decisively confirms a new age of poetic expression in English. The Great War, the First World War, is over but the poetry has nothing to celebrate: there is, apparently, no hope of European renewal, only an awareness of lack of continuity of the desire for life, faith, renewing love. Hence, a poetry of changing voices, fragments, with no narrative progression.

Was this the problem of Eliot or the age?. Eliot’s wife suffered from a severe hormonal condition that eventually led to being a patient at a mental institution. Eliot wrote in a letter: “To her the marriage brought no happiness to me ot brought the state of mind that led to The Wasteland.” (Collected Letters of T.S. Eliot Vol 1).

Yet it also reflected powerfully an age, devastated by war, torn by fragmentation and a lack of cultural continuity and shared faith. Given the continuation of all these through the century the wasteland may be seen as not only personal but societal.

Compare this with the opening of The Prologue of Chaucer’s masterpiece “The Canterbury Tales” also featuring April.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote [sweet]
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote  
And bathed every veyne in swich licour [plant vein,liquid]
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; [potency]
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth [west wind,also]
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth  [woodland,heath] 
The tendre croppes and yonge sonne      [shoots]
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, [Aries]
And smale foweles maken melodye         [birds]
That slepen al the nyght with open ye   [eye] 
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); [incites, their, hearts]
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken stronge strondes [professional pilgrims]
To fernes halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; [far-off shrines, known]
And specially from every shires ende 
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,  [go] 
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,    [blessed,Thomas Becket]  
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.  [helped, sick]
 

In Chaucer there is a continuity, lacking in Eliot, from the Nature that pricketh in the hearts to the longing to go on pilgrimage. In Eliot the holiday , going to the Alps in winter is exclusively enjoyed by the well off, not by the variety of classes which “The Prologue” shall introduce us to . And though for many of Chaucer’s pilgrims the religious aspect is less holy day than holiday there is no need to inquire, using the Biblical prophets: “What are the roots that clutch out of this stony rubbish” ; there is a combination of faith and culture that holds it all together.

Eliot’s sterility is replaced by a perceived vital connection linking the life of Nature with the life of folk with shared faith.

As a man Chaucer is in mid-career, a successful diplomat and an experienced poet. He is a Londoner where Norman French is the common tongue of Court and upper society so he is helping to develop the possibilities of a new poetry in “southren” English in that great era of English poetry with Langland and the poet of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight developing on the alliterative tradition of North WestEngland.

Chaucer is now recognised as one of the very greatest of poets in English. Eliot after “The Wasteland” journeyed towards a renewed Christian faith that found expression, specially, in “The Four Quartets”

For Chaucer the world was all before him, for Eliot, at this point, the world was collapsing around him.

SIXTY NOT OUT!

Dear Readers,

Sixty not out refers to the number of blogs you can access by scrolling down the blog page. Before this the cut-off point was around thirty. I have found out how to adjust this (it takes me time to learn these things!) so you can now go back to my first steps at blog writing on Good Friday, last Easter.

Lots of interesting stuff for new readers, I hope: some lovely poems on Poppies and D. H. Lawrence on the “Imagination of God” and “The Body of God”. T.S. Eliot’s beautiful poem “Marina” (surely, once you get to understand what he is doing, one of the loveliest twentieth century poems) was early discussed as was the applicability of a section of “The Four Quartets” to Lockdown: “The whole earth is our hospital endowed by the ruined millionaire”.

I also explored mythic stories like Plato’s Cave, the Biblical “Tower of Babel” and the curious Genesis story of God getting Adam to name the animals.

Etymology might sound a dry study but the history of word “Romantic” is tied up with so much history that I found it fascinating to write about.

I tell you all this to encourage you to explore, scroll down the Blog page and take your pick!

Happy browsing!

Thank you once again for your support.

Alan

JOURNEY OF THE MAGI

(READERS PLEASE NOTE: This blog post with minor revisions is being re-published because of problems with website design issues. I apologise to followers who will receive the same post a second time.)

Today is the sixth of January, Epiphany, recognised by Christians as the day of the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It is based on the visit of the Magi (or Wise Men or Three Kings) to the baby Jesus as told in the gospel of Matthew. The gospel describes how the Magi (never specified as three in the gospel, but remembered as such in popular tradition) discovered the child and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

T.S.Eliot in this poem seeks to record in dramatic monolgue the significance of the visit.

            Journey of the Magi
"A cold coming we had of it, 
Just the worst time of the year 
For a journey, and such a long journey:,
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter." 
And the camels galled,sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow. 
There were times we regretted 
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet. 
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling 
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, 
And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters, 
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly 
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it. 
At  the end we preferred to travel all night, 
Sleeping in snatches, 
With the voices singing in our ears, saying 
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow-line, smelling of vegetation, 
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the dakness,
And three trees on the low sky.
An old white horse galloped away in the meadow, 
Then we came to a tavern with vine leaves over the lintel, 
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins, 
But there was no information, and so we continued 
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon 
Finding the place; it was(you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago,I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down 
This set down 
This: we were led all that way for 
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, 
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, 
But had thought they were different; this Birth was 
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But  no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, 
With an alien people clutching their gods, 
I should be glad of another death.
 
 

At first for Christian readers there might be disappointment. There is no joy, no giving of gifts, the language seems muted, detached and intellectual. Words like “Information”, phrases such as the exasperatingly coldly objective “it was (you may say) satisfactory”, “there was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt”. This is a voice similar to that of the modern academic, coolly, objectively assessing evidence -as if to sound personal and emotionally involved is a violation of intellectual credentials. It is, whether today or yesterday, when reacting to the wonderful, a profoundly exasperating and limitedly cerebral voice.

What is Eliot doing, transmitting the “information” through such a voice? Partly because, as a possible lecturer at Harvard in Philosophy, it was a voice natural to him.But more is revealed in the final lines of the poem. For something of the mystery and wonder of this birth has got through the intellectual layers of defence. In this Birth they, the Magi, somehow faced their deaths. Hence it was agony. It meant that on returning home they could not abide “at ease here, in the old dispensation.” Consciousness, understanding has moved on, that is their insight as witnesses, but they live among a people who do not know this, who have becometherefore “alien” worshippers of old gods exposed now to the Magi as no longer credible.

They are left unable to communicate with their people with only death to look forward to.

When Eliot became a Christian around the time he wrote the poem many of his friends of the literary world were shocked. T. S. Eliot, the avant-garde poet of the The Wasteland become a Christian! The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) saw it as “betrayal” And this was the reaction of his friend Virgia Woolf (1882-1941). Writing to her sister Vanessa she expresses herself thus:

I had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot , who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. .. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean there’s something obscene in having a person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”

By the literary world, the world of Bloomsbury it is Eliot seen as clutching the old God against the insights of post-Darwinian intellectuality and the belief in reason as understood by his society. But the Eliot who wrote “Journey of the Magi” following his conversion saw it was the contemporary world of the literati in its hold of the Nietzschean belief “God is Dead” that was without adequate roots in religious understanding. When Woolf committed suicide in 1941 the grieving Eliot wrote “it was the end of a world.”

So the poem reflects the difference and separation his new found faith has created between the fashionable dispensation and his role as the great poet of the age. Fortunately, unlike the Magi, he has not simply death to look forward to. He is to go on to write his great work “The Four Quartets” and numerous invaluable works of critical reflection.

As for us? It is for each of us- certainly within the Christian tradition- to reflect on what the contemplation of the Nativity does not only for our faith but for our place in the modern world.