Sunday, December 19, 2010

Poems From a Poet's Soul 6

My mother playing with a teddy Christmas 2009 - her second Childhood
The Christmas season is undoubtedly a season where children loom large, and rightly so.  Who does not remember the sheer wonderment and surprise created by this wonderful season.  I will assume here the reader's knowledge of the Christian origins of Christmas and say a little of its pagan beginnings: In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honouring the god Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. Needless to say this  festival season was marked by much merrymaking as it helped to "break the back" of the long winter season. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of carolling was born.

I do not wish to delay much here on this history, but I wish to point out the importance of celebrating the joy of life and the importance of the victory of the Sun (Good) over the Dark (Evil).  It is not so hard, then to see, why the early Christians sought to marry the feast-day of the birth of their Child Saviour with this ancient Pagan Feast.  So many of our Christmas cards traditionally show illustrations of the Virgin Mother with the Child Jesus.  He is, in a very special way, the Puer Eternus. (See these links here: P.E. 1, P.E. 2, Michael Jackson in this present blog).

There is the Puer Eternus in us all, that longing to return to the innocent days of our youth when we were cared for, nurtured and loved by our family, especially our mother.  Now, those of us who have had at least a tolerably good family life will have experienced this care, nurture and love I have mentioned here.  As a practising teacher of some thirty years standing I have met a growing minority of youngsters who have seldom if ever experienced the security of a relatively good family life.  (I say relatively because we are all to some extent damaged souls as our parents, no matter how good they were, are only human and they did make mistakes and they did at times fail to be always good, loving and caring towards us.  Here I am reminded of that all too realistic poem called This Be the Verse by the late great Philip Larkin which I have discussed in this post here some years back: PL Poem )

I have spoken about the fact that the human being grows or develops rather like an onion, to use a rather simplistic but useful simile.  We humans are fashioned as it were layer by layer.  Essentially, each successive period of our life lays another layer down on what has gone before.  In other words at our very core lies the baby/infant in us, then the toddler, then the young boy or girl, then the teenager, then the young adult, the middle-aged adult and so on.  Modern counsellors and psychotherapists speak about the importance of parenting the child within us, and I have personally used many visualizations of such parenting while doing meditation exercises with the students I teach at school.  I have written one such parenting visualization for the Christmas Season in a book I wrote, published by Veritas, Dublin, back in 2002 called Still Point Meditations: see this link here: SPMTQ.

Now back to Rilke who was both a luminously brilliant but suffering soul.  He was writing, as I have pointed out, possibly too often, in a transitional period between the Romantic and the Modernist era in the development of literature.  This added a deep realism to his more spiritual insights.  The soul in Rilke is always an embodied soul.  Indeed, one can argue that the soul in Rilke is very much an ecological soul insofar as our great German poet incarnates that soul very much in nature, in things, in animals and in all humans undoubtedly.  He is also a very psychological/spiritual writer who has deep insights into the nature of the human soul or psyche, and in so doing he gives us many insights into the nature of childhood.  And so, now that we are in the Advent season where we await the mythical coming of the Christ Child, the ultimate Puer Eternus for the Christian believer, I should like to offer the reader of this blog, Rilke's poem on childhood, translated here by Edward Snow.

It would be good to give much thought, before
you try to find words for something so lost,
for those long childhood afternoons you knew
that vanished so completely --and why?

We're still reminded--: sometimes by a rain,
but we can no longer say what it means;
life was never again so filled with meeting,
with reunion and with passing on

as back then, when nothing happened to us
except what happens to things and creatures:
we lived their world as something human,
and became filled to the brim with figures.

And became as lonely as a shepherd
and as overburdened by vast distances,
and summoned and stirred as from far away,
and slowly, like a long new thread,
introduced into that picture-sequence
where now having to go on bewilders us.

I will offer here a very short commentary by way of illumination, though not explanation.  As I have always been at pains to point out in these pages, explanation is nothing short of a sheer travesty of the very meaning of poetry.  However, points of illumination by way of associations, resonances, chords struck, notes sounded, ideas sparked off one another, feelings moved, soul-depths plumbed, soul-heights scaled - all of these are allowed, but never to explain and say a final word - never.  They merely open up the mystery of the poem and expand it, never reducing it. 
Me on the left with my brothers, aged around 5
As we seek to become more fully human, more fully ourselves, we are often engaged in a work of reclamation.  Hence we are indeed in pursuit of what Rilke above aptly calls the "something so lost" within us.  Those of us familiar with St Augustine of Hippo who spoke so movingly about the emptiness within the huamn soul that he famously said in his Confessions:  "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts will never be at rest until they rest in Thee."  In other words, St Augustine believed that essentially the human heart was lost or abandoned, after the Fall of humankind in The Garden of Eden, that only its restoration or recovery could be effected by being united with the source of his being, namely God.  Now, even if you are not a believer, you can always interpret the great philosopher Augustine as referring to the lostness and abandonment of humankind or even anachronistically to the alientaion of the human being from its real essential nature.  I have already pointed out that much of Rilke's writing is existential in tone and effect, as he writes out of his own pain, his own suffering and his deep insights as a result.  
I have also said many times here that Rilke's poems are never ethereal.  Indeed they are so real that within his creative power and use of words, objects and things become transfigured, and in this sense are rendered Joycean ephiphanies as we find in these lines above: "We're still reminded--: sometimes by a rain,but we can no longer say what it means;" 
Then we have the pastoral image of the shepherd, but it is not a sentimental one as of the Good Shepherd finding his lost sheep.  No, no, no.  We are given a picture of a shepherd who is himself lost and lonely, abandoned somewhere on some hill:   "And became as lonely as a shepherd//and as overburdened by vast distances,//and summoned and stirred as from far away.." Once again here we have a very existential theme: the sheer insignificance of man viz-a-viz the infinite size of the universe.  This theme of humankind's sheer insignificance and lostness in comparison with the eternal silences of the universe also occur in the Pensées of Blaise Pascal and in the works of many other poems besides Rilke, e.g., Robert Frost.
And yet, there appears to be a mysterious thread that some surreal seller of picture cards (say God-the-Merchant) puts through the various pictures or images that occur spontaneously in our lonely minds that seek to create some meaning from them.  But this Surreal Picture Card Seller bewilders rather than comforts us.

No comments: