I was awoken one morning, a week or so ago, by the radio alarm. To be precise, by a man's voice talking on the Pause for Thought spot. He was asking What is the most spiritually uplifting piece of music for you? He than confessed that for him it was This must be the place by the Talking Heads. I can feel the change in me when I hear it, he said, cannot resist the urge to dance. He then mentioned that the setting to Psalm 51, the Miserere was regarded as so spiritually uplifting by the Vatican that they limited its use so as not to dilute its effect. The result of all this was that I got to wondering what for me was the most uplifting art work that I know.
It was poetry I turned to first, thinking that whichever poem has been the most spiritually uplifting for me over the years, it was going to be one that I had come back to time and time again and still came back to, and that not just for its aesthetic delights, its music, its word play or its assonance, but at times in some sort of extremity, the way religious people have always turned to their particular faith at such times. I very much stand with Wallace Stevens in believing that the old gods have dissolved, that for most people the god they knew is dead, the old heaven is empty, and most urgent now is the task to construct some new, sustaining fiction, something to convince us of its truth even while we know it not to be true. (The way that many believers in the old religion still seem to believe?) In his poetry Stevens is searching for a fiction that is more than fiction. And because I stand alongside Stevens in this, it was probably inevitable that the first poem to make it to my short list would be his Sunday Morning.
Sunday Morning (read here) is almost certainly Stevens's most anthologised poem. It is also one of his more traditional in form, and one that he proved quite unwilling to talk about too much - perhaps because he thought it straight-forward and not in need of explanation. It was also his first sustained attempt to offer a natural ( Pagan) replacement for the old supernatural religions which he believed had had their day. The poem's main argument emphasises the consolations of nature and natural religion. They are sufficient. They are also all that is on offer. In this connection, though, he introduces a caveat: we can only enjoy the beauties of nature and the love of those around us as we come to a realisation of their - and our - transience. The artist whose brush applies such beauty to the world is death. It is as we attain the knowledge that we are on the very cusp of forfeiting all that we love and cherish the most, that its beauty becomes most available to us.
What in essence Stevens gives us is a dialogue. On the one hand we have the thoughts of a woman enjoying the complacencies of the peignoir, which he represents as late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair. Since the dissolution of the gods she lives in a world of superb but disconnected pleasures. Furthermore, the natural beauty of the world is marred by feelings of guilt natural to her as a lapsed church-goer. The answering voice reassures her that the pleasures of the world are sufficient. After all, Why should she give her bounty to the dead? And again: The world should pay her compensation for her lost Heaven.
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
So the poem is also considering the question of surfaces and what might lie beneath them, a wide water flows beneath the surface things, a water representing the unconscious and carrying the truth of blood. The world as recorded by our senses is nothing but a phantasmagoria, a confused play of surfaces. The image of the cockatoo on the woman's rug and the reality of the swallows and pigeons outside, together with the trees and the fruit, are all part of the same deception, passing like things in some procession of the dead.
A later section of the poem gives us a potted history of divinity and the godhead from Jove, who was wholly inhuman, through Jesus who was partly human, to the fully human godhead being proposed by the poem: the natural man. Thus earth becomes paradise and the sky which had been merely a boundary, a separation between heaven and earth, belongs entirely to the earth. The skies are suddenly friendlier.
In the poems fourth section the woman becomes dissatisfied with the suggested alternative, pointing out that it too is impermanent. Stevens counteracts this objection by pointing out that nature has its own in-built permanence represented by the cycle of birth, death and regeneration, but the woman demands an individual permanence., in response to which Stevens points out what would be the shortcomings of a static heaven that would last for ever: the boredom of a world in which the fruit would never fall from the trees.
She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"
It is in part the in-built permanence of nature that seems important to me now, though it has been other aspects in the past - an important attribute of great art I think. Not only has the Godhead lost its sway with most people, so too has nature. I have blogged on this before, I know: the fact that nature, like religion - and like art, too, for that matter - is not what it was. We have only to think of pollution, genetic modification, climate change, the destruction of the rain forests - and that of our own countryside - and much else. Art, for its part, is not concerned with beauty as it once was. Okay, some of it is, and there is still countryside to be enjoyed, but both seem to be shrinking, neither is representative of the whole as it once would have been, we are talking of islands where once we spoke of continents. So it is good to have any reminder of the self-healing powers of nature. It just happens to be that Stevens's reminder speaks lucidly to me, even if, at the death (so to speak) he is aware that problems remain.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
My second choice was T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (read here). I toyed with the idea of proposing all four, but decided that would be cheating, so finally selected the third of the four, Dry Salvages.
Eliot wrote these four poems over a period of eight years, between 1935 and 1942, in other words, during the years of W.W.II. (He wrote Dry Salvages in 1941) and there is much of war time pessimism in them. Dry Salvages, though is the most optimistic of them all - possibly the only one you could properly term optimistic. Other things were happening in Eliot's life at this time though: it was the period of his conversion to The Church of England and the period in which he took British Nationality.
The quartets mark something of a break with the work he had produced until then: he had turned away from the fragmentary forms that had characterised his writing in The Waste Land, for example. He is much less experimental. All four poems have place names for titles. He has himself pointed out that Salvages is to be pronounced to rhyme with assuages. The Dry Salvages is the name of a group of rocky islands off the coast of Massachusetts. He has applied it to quartet dealing with humanity as a unified organism with its own subconscious and memory creating its own mythic structures., It has its own history and its own cycles of birth, death and regeneration. It is on a par with Nature seen as a single entity.
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
This first section of the poem compares the sea with a river as metaphor for what cannot be known. The river can be tamed, diverted, bridged, but the sea is endless in mystery and conflict and there is no mastering of it.
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobster pot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
The second section deals with time and establishes that time can destroy, but it can also preserve. And just as the allows no mastery, so time allows no escape.
The third section bids us desist from our determination to do well, get on, and to be content with mere existence. Not for the first time in The Four Quartets Eliot employs a ghost or a ghostly figure, a voice high up in a ship's rigging, to present an awareness of what is beyond that which is available to the sailors and passengers below.
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think 'the past is finished'
Or 'the future is before us'.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
'Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
In the penultimate section he gives us a prayer to The Virgin Mary, asking her to keep safe the sailors and their loved ones at home - his model for the whole of humanity.
Finally we achieve the possibility of hope. Mankind forever tries to understand the dilemma of time and the timeless, but the attempt is all in vain. however, within the everyday there are moments in which we are the music, while the music lasts and, though it may sound trite to say so, the truth is that the only way to subvert the demonic forces within us is by right action. it will not always be successful, but it is all we have to work with.
The poem's thrust is interrupted a couple of times by the ringing of bells, by human intervention in other words, by man's puny attempts to control things, perhaps by appeal to a higher being, in which connection it may represent prayer. The fist bell is attached to a buoy. It is meant to warn the sailors of rocks, but it cannot be heard above the storms that sweep the seas until it is too late. The second bell is for the dead - and how are they to hear it? So only the living can profit from it.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
It will come as perhaps only a small surprise to learn that I was unable to separate these two poems and so I offer them as my joint choices and move on to consider which painting or art work I regard as most uplifting. In this connection my first thought was Giovanni Bellini's Agony in the Garden. The version known to me is in The National Gallery. It is one of the most powerful images I know. The human frailty of the sleeping disciples is almost overlooked as an irrelevance to the drama which is centred in the figure of Christ and of which we are given heightened awareness by the dramatic backcloth of landscape and sky. He was very much influenced in this by the work of Mantegna, his brother-in-law. Indeed this work was done in emulation of Mantegna's painting of the same subject, but to my mind it far exceeds it. Bellini combined an acute observation of nature with rare feeling for poetry.
Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire was next on to my short list. It is an image which appears over and over again throughout his work. He plays with pattern, with the geometry of the buildings, with the inclining and angling of the planes representing the fields, and with the grouping and shaping of the clumps of trees. The mountain itself rises gently, but rather regally from all this. Again, I have chosen a subject poetically rendered, this time by the rhythms he conjures from the array of elements.
And then I thought I had to consider Edvard Munch's, The Sun. Munch is best known for his dark side, I suppose, but he had a positive, even joyous side as well, and here is a simple, unadorned life-affirming statement. It is a mural in Oslo University. I think it speaks for itself.
And - sorry to be so boring - I made these three a dead-heat, too. Well, you can't show favouritism among your favourites, can you now? They have one thing in common which is personal to me: I can see them in my mind's eye without recourse to any form of external image, and even so I find them uplifting.
Thinks: might be interesting to hear which works of art (any of the arts) others find uplifting.
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