Sunday, March 30, 2008

Canonized for Love: John Donne, Love Poet and Saint

One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is that it's willing to confirm sainthood on an erotic poet. All right, John Donne (1572-1631) was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, and he did write many sacred poems, sermons, and essays, including the famous "No Man is an Island." But he wrote some extraordinarily sensual love poems, such as "Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed, in which he compares his exploration of his lover's body to the discovery of America:

License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my Empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.

Or take his well-known poem, "The Canonization," a one-sided argument with a someone who does not want him to carry on a love affair. He argues that after death, he and his lover will be made saints for their love:

We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love ;

Donne was born into a prominent Roman Catholic family, but his parents had managed to escape the outright persecution of Catholics. His brother Henry, however, was arrested for harboring a Catholic priest, and died in prison of the plague. Sometime after this, Donne converted to the Church of England. In his young manhood he was something of dashing young swashbuckler, according to the Wikipedia article on him: "During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes, and travel." He fought against the Spanish under the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh.

At age 25 he was appointed chief secretary to Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. But he fell in love with Egerton's niece, Anne More, and the couple secretly married in 1601. Because Egerton and More's father opposed the marriage, Donne found himself in prison, along with the priest who married them and the man who witnessed the ceremony. He was released after it was decided that the marriage was valid, and he arranged to have the other two released. But he lost his position. He signed a letter to his wife with a play on the pronunciation of his name: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-Done"

The couple struggled financially, especially as the family grew. Done made a meager living as a country lawyer, but the large family (nine of twelve children survived infancy) had to depend on the generosity of Anne's cousin. Only in 1609 was he reconciled with Anne's father, and received her dowry. Anne died in 1617 after giving birth to a stillborn baby. John was devastated. He never remarried. In his later years the turned to sacred verse, and to meditations on our mortality.

Donne's love poems, written in his younger years, were not published during his lifetime, though they circulated in manuscript form. His theme of the sacredness of love--not just the selfless agape of the New Testament, but eros, the physical, psychic, and emotional love between two people--resonates with me.

So I'm thankful that my church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church honor him as a saint, on the date of his death (his "heavenly birthday"), March 31. But I wish Anne More Donne, who inspired much of his love poetry and had to endure much pain and hardship for her love, were similarly honored.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Saint Thomas's Sunday

For all churches that follow the standard lectionary, the Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter is John 20: 19-29, the story of Thomas’s doubt and belief. And St. Thomas’s Sunday is not complete without singing O Filii et Filiae, or O Sons and Daughters Let Us Sing--a hauntingly beautiful fifteenth-century Latin hymn by Jean Tisserand, translated into English by John Mason Neale:

O sons and daughters, let us sing!
The King of Heaven, the glorious King,
Over death today rose triumphing.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

That Easter morn, at break of day,
The faithful women went their way
To seek the tomb where Jesus lay.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

An angel clad in white they see,
Who sat, and spake unto the three,
“Your Lord doth go to Galilee.”
Alleluia! Alleluia!

That night th’apostles met in fear;
Amidst them came their Lord most dear,
And said, “My peace be on all here.”
Alleluia! Alleluia!

When Thomas first the tidings heard,
How they had seen the risen Lord,
He doubted the disciples’ word.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

“My piercèd side, O Thomas, see;
My hands, My feet, I show to thee;
Not faithless but believing be.”
Alleluia! Alleluia!

No longer Thomas then denied;
He saw the feet, the hands, the side;
“Thou art my Lord and God,” he cried.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

How blessed are they who have not seen,
And yet whose faith has constant been;
For they eternal life shall win.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

On this most holy day of days
Our hearts and voices, Lord, we raise
To Thee, in jubilee and praise.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

For me, who was raised an agnostic, but came to shaky faith after marrying a believer, the story of Thomas is special. While homilists often give Thomas a hard time for his doubt, Jesus’ words to him are loving. After all, the other disciples had seen Jesus appear in the locked room. Thomas is honest enough to express his doubts openly.

While my work schedule, prevents me from attending church in my own Episcopal denomination, I try to go to Saturday afternoon vigil Mass at the nearby Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Bloomington. I don’t receive Communion, as the Catholic Church has closed Communion, but I do receive a blessing.

I'm often so exhausted after the Saturday morning shift that I don't make it to church. But I make every effort to attend church on St. Thomas's Sunday. Holy Trinity didn't disappoint me today. We sang O Filii et Filiae.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Happy Dyngus Day!

Dyngus Day, celebrated on the Monday after Easter, is a northern Indiana tradition, especially in South Bend, which has a large Polish-American population. It's a Christian adaptation of a pre-Christian spring celebration. In Poland, young men would get up early in the morning and pour water on young women they fancied. They would also whip the young women's legs with a switch made of willow. My Hungarian blogging friend SzélsőFa writes that Hungary has a similar tradition, called Húsvét. In her blog she writes, "Water has a central importance in Easter festivities. In the old times, men used to throw water on women. Now Hungarian men and boys sprinkle women and girls with fragrance. In return, they are given decorated eggs and/or chocolate, and more recently, money." (Personally, I like the modern Hungarian adaptation.)

In the United States, Dyngus Day is mostly about drinking beer and eating spicy Polish sausage. But it's also a time for Democratic politicians to gather at the West Side Democratic Club in South Bend. Once upon a time, when the Indiana Democratic primary , held the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May, mattered, presidential candidates visited the club. The last time that happened was in 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy came to the club on Dyngus Day. RFK won the Indiana primary handily, beating both Eugene McCarthy and Governor Roger D. Branigan, a stand-in for Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

For the first time in forty years, it's "once upon a time" again. The Indiana primary matters. And while neither Democratic candidate will be at the West Side Democratic Club this year, Bill and Chelsea Clinton will. Former Congressman Tim Roemer will represent Senator Barack Obama at the festivities. I wish I could be there.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

Dear Senator Clinton:

Like you and many others in our generation, I was very idealistic in my youth. In 1968 I sold 'McCarthy's Million' buttons to my high school classmates. Four years later I was writing press releases for the Dick Clark Senate campaign in Iowa. And in 1976 I knocked on doors for Mo Udall. I have tried to hold on to those ideals, even after the stolen 2000 election and the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush.

Just as Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern inspired our generation, Barack Obama has inspired a new generation of idealists. Do not alienate them from our party. Do not become the Hubert Humphrey of 2008. In the last few weeks your campaign has become more negative, and all signs point to a vicious campaign against Obama in Pennsylvania and here in Indiana. You talk of seating the delegates from Michigan and Florida without holding a revote. Should your campaign win the nomination by such 'ends justify the means' tactics, you will surely lose the support of many young idealistic Obama supporters. As for me, I would vote for you, but only as the lesser of two evils.

While I plan to vote for Senator Obama in May, I have found much to like about your campaign. Your health care proposal makes more sense than his (though less sense than a Canadian-style single-payer system). You have creative but pragmatic plans for the economy, education, energy, and foreign policy. If you win the nomination fairly--without resort to the improperly elected Michigan and Florida delegates, and without a destructive campaign against Barack Obama, you will have my unqualified support.

The late Allard Lowenstein, who inspired so many of us to work for progressive causes, said at the end of that the 1968 Chicago convention that it had elected Richard Nixon president of the United States. He likened it to electing Arthur Goldberg Mayor of Cairo. I do not wish to see the Denver convention elect John McCain president. McCain is an honorable man, but his unquestioning support for Bush's war and Bush's welfare for the rich make him nothing but an older version of George W. Bush.

So please, please, run a clean, positive campaign. Support the mail-in revote in Michigan and Florida. (Senator Obama's rejection of the revote complicates matters, but your support of the idea might sway him.) We can't afford to alienate Barack Obama's idealistic supporters. And this nation surely cannot afford to have four more years of Bush policies.

Stephen Crews Wylder
Elkhart, Indiana

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Person from Porlock: Villian, Hero, or Invention?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" has to be one of the most memorable poems in the English language. The poem is a fragment, only 54 lines. Coleridge's explanation of why the poem is so short is well-known:

"In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage: 'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.' The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"

The poem itself was not published until 1816, after several revisions, which has led some scholars to believe that the story of the person from Porlock was an invention to explain the fact that Coleridge was unable to finish the poem. I'm willing to believe the poet. And I wonder whether the poem would have been as popular had it been the "two or three hundred lines" that the author mentions. The very mystery of the forgotten lines have inspired so much. My favorite science fiction novel is Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, in which the hero (SPOILER ALERT!) becomes the Person From Porlock and saves the world. The English poet Stevie Smith, in the poem, "Thoughts About the Person from Porlock," believes Coleridge used the interruption as an excuse for not finishing the poem. She goes on to write:

I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

Canadian writer Robert Fulford wrote a fascinating essay on the impact of this nameless interrupter. Someone once told me about a Porlock Society, which celebrated fragments, though I am unable to find any reference to it on the Web.

Do we blame the Person from Porlock for preventing the completion of a masterpiece, or thank him for creating a very romantic mystery about one of the great romantic poems? Of course, we'll never know what "Kubla Khan" might have been had Coleridge not been interrupted. But I love the poem as it is, and have read it scores of times. Given the tremendous outpouring of creativity that resulted from the Porlock story, perhaps we should thank the anonymous Person.