Eliot’s Oak

The river of history runs only in one direction.*  And so on our river journey, the Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land”  will arrive, and stopping and resting on the landing there will mark us as well past the headwaters, and our memories will diminish of the headwaters, even if the very water that carries our boats flows from there. T. S. Eliot wrote many letters and critical essays, he must have written somewhere about his American poetic forbearers — but if so, the spotty scholar writing this is so far unaware of what he said.

If one searches on that subject, one will see many mentions of Eliot’s Modernism supplanting the American 19th century New England worthies headed up by one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And then something else might turn up, like this deserves-to-be-better-known sonnet of Longfellow’s titled “Eliot’s Oak.”   Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to follow along.

If we largely forget Longfellow these days, we tend to forget Longfellow the writer of short lyric poems to an even greater extent. If this sonnet had been attributed to Keats or Shelley, it would be no less antique in some of its usage, but I suspect it would be better remembered and rated for achievement. Besides the “speakest,” “days remote,” “eventide,” and “hath” language, its chief crust of old-fashionedness is its use of the pathetic fallacy, where a tree is addressed and converses in the poem. We’d forgive Keats and Shelly for this, where we likely won’t forgive Longfellow. If we allow that bald-faced metaphor to pass, we might notice that the imagery in the poem develops in an admirably subtle way. In the sound of the tree’s leaves the poem hears a variety of sounds whose meaning is just out of reach, and masterfully Longfellow transitions to say that different people will hear different nearly intelligible languages in this sound. Am I stretching this conceit’s move too much to say that this 1876 poem has just sought to impress upon us a key tenet of cultural Modernism?

As Longfellow’s sonnet reaches its turn for a final six lines, we are forced, as much as we might be in parts of “The Waste Land,”  to seek out what is being referred to. With “The Waste Land,”  it wouldn’t be extraordinary to believe that some of the readers of this blog would have some knowledge of Richard Wagner, Jacobean drama, Metaphysical poets, or Ovid; and it’s even more likely today that some here would have some understanding of Hindu religious thought and writings, which will get called out in the upcoming concluding sections. But, do any of you know of the “Apostle of the Indians, Eliot…” Longfellow speaks of, what this story means, and how dark it is? I didn’t.

Eliot Oak before 1936

The Eliot Oak still stood in Longfellow’s time, and long enough for a trolley line to run past it.

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In the 17th century, the Puritans who founded the European colonization of Massachusetts included this stalwart preacher John Eliot who came to believe that he was called to preach to the indigenous Algonquin tribes there. The Puritans had a strong streak of religious zealotry, and given that and the commercial interests of colonization, many regarded the natives of their new colony has the devil’s savage minions. John Eliot believed them to be merely unconverted fellow humans.**  As Longfellow’s poem indicates in his Biblical allusion in lines 10-11, Eliot views the indigenous as fellow members of the Abrahamic family, potential “people of the book.” At first, all this was only a philosophical/theological debate. Eliot was allowed to learn their language, preach Christianity to them, and form somewhat autonomous villages of “praying Indians.” In an act of superhuman intellectual and literary effort he managed to translate the entire Christian Bible into their native language. Just this massive translation alone would be remarkable, but these tribes had no written language, so he had to devise a way to use the western alphabet to depict it. Nor was it an easy job to then print the resulting Bible: the press had to be imported, and the work of setting the type and printing was not trivial either. Eliot headed this project, but it should also be noted that the first nations people who worked with him were indispensable.

The resulting book, in a first edition of 1000, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, wasn’t just the first time anyone had created a new written language to publish a Bible, it was the first  Bible to be printed in what would later become the United States.

Now of course the whole issue of evangelical Christianity and native cultures is a complex subject. Even those of you who do not know John Eliot’s particular story will include some who know some of the harmful incidents in such matters. Yes, this story gets dark, but there’s also a strange redeeming element in the end too.

In 1675 some of the Algonquins began a three-year uprising against the colonialists, leading to what was called King Phillips’ War. It makes no difference that Eliot’s converts are co-religionists of the colonialists or if they have any allegiance to the rebels. The very fact that many of them are now fluent in the native languages and English makes any of them prime suspects as spies and informants by both sides. Some of Eliot’s converts are killed, and the rest are shipped off to a concentration camp where many starve, despite Eliot’s efforts. Oh, and most copies of the Eliot bible are deliberately destroyed. Those theological debates have become warfare.

I promised there would be a ray of light in this. I’m not sure this had happened yet when Longfellow wrote his poem — and if so, he prophecies it in the poem’s last line — but in the ensuing colonial disaster inflicted on the native peoples, their language was wiped out. People still existed who were descendants of this Algonquin tribe, but they could not speak it’s Wampanoag language. Surviving copies of Eliot’s Bible become the Rosetta Stone that allows the language to be revived.

John Eliot Memorial Newton Mass

The same year Longfellow wrote his poem a memorial on a spot where Eliot preached to the Algonquin was built. I wondered through Google Streetview to find it still stands, though it looks ignored.

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In summary, as you listen to today’s audio piece, it may just seem like a facile little ditty about a talking tree and this, whatever Eliot,*** who isn’t even T. S. Eliot. Understand what its images and references point to, and it’s a memento of one of the least-known and most-impressive American literary achievements and a link to the complex tragedy of some who hoped to turn in some way from genocide. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but consider some of the lost or just unheard stories of the land we live on during this #NationalPoetryMonth, the lips that spoke them, the hearts that heard them. The river of history may run in one direction — but go ahead, make a fool of yourself, and listen to the trees. Or listen first or second to my performance of Longfellow’s “Eliot’s Oak.”  You can use the player gadget if you see it below, or this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to play it too.

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*Except in Chicago. See this.

**Here’s a short, two-page summary of John Eliot’s efforts in PDF format written for a local church that bears his name.

***So, is John Eliot related to T. S. Eliot? I don’t have a family tree or other such documentation, but it’s highly likely. Eliot’s family was known to descend from early Puritan colonists.

An Arbor Day during National Poetry Month

Today is Arbor Day, a curious holiday, born in the American Midwest, meant to celebrate and cultivate trees. It’s more established than the uncounted more recent designated days, special weeks and “National Months” like Poetry Month, but its observance is spotty.

Birdsey Northrop

Wikipedia says this is someone named “Birdsey Northrup” who helped popularize Arbor Day. Since this isn’t April Fools Day should we believe that?

 

I can’t say I remember and keep it myself, though I’ve always had an attraction to trees. I remember an old tree with exposed root tops outside my earliest remembered childhood schooldays, its roots large and far enough apart that we small school children would sit between them as if it was ground-level-low bench with bark covered armrests. And I remember forgetting where the tree was, like the location of Eden is forgotten, and being unable to locate it even only a decade or so later. That tree is no doubt gone, as many of those school children are gone by place of current location or end of life.

The backyard of the house I grew up in had four large walnut trees, majestic if a bit messy when the nuts fell, littering the ground like a green elfin golf-driving range. I remember that a major branch of one of them had a full long-handled scythe, like the grim reaper’s side-arm, crooked in a joint above anyone’s head or reach, it’s blade now being held in the teeth of the bark which had healed its wound. This I noted as a child, long before I thought to write, or write poetry, and it exists in my memory like a poem that doesn’t need to be written because it just was.

When I was looking for the house I live in now I wanted a yard with trees, which it has. The largest is outside the window as I write this, being old as a tree is and budding like the geriatric Sarah. I note that when Sarah’s husband Abraham met the three angels who told him that he, 100 years old, was to have son with his wife of near the same age, that he met these angels and heard this news under a great oak tree. Abraham, being a patriarch, and therefore by definition part of The Patriarchy,  had his wife get busy making a quick meal for the angels, who as divine beings might not need earthly bread and could have said to Sarah, “Oh, don’t bother, we’ve already eaten.”

Anyway, in what is surely the strangest conversation with angels in a book of strange things, Sarah, hard at work on whatever quick-bread recipe that an antediluvian Epicurious might provide is said—right there in the first book of the books of Moses, the Holy Bible, in Genesis 18, in father Abraham’s tent—to have laughed.

Now the angels—who knows here what angels know—might have figured that Sarah’s laugh was the wisest thing they’d ever heard from a mortal, but it doesn’t say that in Genesis. Yes, it’s revered by many as a holy book, so the author may have figured he’d do something subtle here—or maybe it’s a blunder by a non-inspired editor somewhere down the line. Genesis just has Abraham being told they heard that laugh. Do angels joke? Did one of them wink to the others? Do angels wink? And then, to wind up the old geezer Abraham, who knows they’re angels, and is doing all he can to show how well he treats divine messengers who might only appear to be strangers who’ve wandered up to his tent, the angel looks Abraham in the eye and tells him “We heard Sarah’s laugh you know.”  The term pregnant pause was invented then I think.

giovanni_andrea_de_ferrari_-_abraham_and_the_three_angels

“I dunno, should we threaten to give him a bad Yelp review or something?” Sarah and Abraham with the 3 angels. Oak tree not pictured.

 

I don’t know what kind of pants folks wore in those days, if they even wore pants at all. If they did, let’s hope Abraham was wearing an old, brown pair. A divine being has just implied that your wife has been impolite, maybe even blasphemous. Genesis has other stories about what happens when you don’t treat angels right.

And 90-something Sarah, who’s just been told she’s about to become pregnant at that age, Sarah who laughed, quickly looses her wisdom—as we mortals who may find wisdom in a moment only to loose it in the next do—and she tells the angels she didn’t laugh. And the angels just said back, like trees do when we laugh beneath them, “Yes, you did laugh.”

 

No new audio piece today, but I hope to work on the next part of our National Poetry Month serialization of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  this weekend. Here’s a fairly recent piece that’s in our archives along with over 300 other ones, one that seems right for Arbor Day: Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.”  You can read more about Mew and the poem here, or the full text here. But to hear the LYL Band perform it, use the player below.

 

Cold Is the North Wind, and Why Did Confucius Collect a Book of Songs Anyway?

Here’s one more musical piece from the anthology of ancient Chinese poetry collected by Confucius and his school and known as the Confucian Odes  or The Book of Songs.

This one may be my favorite, though my performance of it dates to a time before I could find literal translations to check against the extant English ones. Perhaps even more so than our last piece, “Wild Plums,”  this presents itself as an expression of lover’s desire. You might find it similar to the Bible’s Song of Songs in that regard.

When I was young and looked at commentary on the Song of Songs,  I was surprised to find that some scholars believed it to be a spiritual metaphor rather than some too-hot-for-school love poetry. My take then: those scholars must be prudes.

With the Confucian Odes,  remember that the Confucians thought their collection of folk-poetry was not just a piece of cultural curation, but required reading for advanced participation in society—not just for poets or humanities majors, but also for politicians and bureaucrats, a class the Chinese Empire needed a great many of. There is commentary on “Cold Is the North Wind”  that says then that this song expresses a hardship or grievance experienced by some province or another, or that the lover’s desire is a metaphor for political concern. After you listen to “Cold Is the North Wind”  you may think that must be willfully obtuse. “What part of the ‘I’m lonely, it’s cold in this bed alone, and I want you right here, don’t they get?” you might be thinking.

In both cases, the Song of Songs  and “Cold Is the North Wind,”  I’ve come to a slightly different view. Poetry, sometimes when it’s at its best, binds the image and what it’s representing in a way that doesn’t privilege one over the other. William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow  isn’t some symbol which we need to decode as a handy emoji for the usefulness of tools in ordinary work, and “Aha! We’ve solved the poetry puzzle for today!” it’s also a freaking red wheelbarrow in a chickenyard and it’s wet with rain in a way we can feel and see if we allow that. Separated lovers are separated lovers, and their ache we can feel, but that ache specific to that need and pleasure is something we can feel again in other intensities. And that act of listening to these words (or listening to them on the page) binds us to the poem in the way the poet binds the image to the things the image is like.

There’s something there for future bureaucrats and politicians.

There was a time, also in my youth, when we thought songs might be able to do that. Someone who listened to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Patti Smith, or other Smiths and Jones would be changed not necessarily into record store clerks or musicians but into more empathetic people whose imaginations would be wider than the immediate space around them. To what degree were we wrong? One provisional answer: “not entirely.”

Chinese Throne

“So, I’m writing this tweet. What makes the best metaphor: low IQ, sick, ugly, dumb, dog, failing or FAKE? I’m a genius myself, but poetry is an elite WITCH HUNT, and I could use a little help casting this spell. What, you can use poetry to listen, not just to speak good?”

 

 

If there was a modern Confucian school sitting somewhere in the English-speaking world, what would they collect to instruct future government members and business functionaries?

The player to listen to my performance of “Cold Is the North Wind”  is below. If you’ve been checking out the archives of over 250 other combinations of various words and original music on the right, you might notice that “Cold Is the North Wind”  appeared here several years back, before the official launch of this blog. With today’s post, it will now be available to those that follow the audio pieces via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or through other podcast services.

 

 

The Destruction of Sennacherib

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold…” This, written by Byron, is one of the catchiest first lines in a 19th Century filled with catchy lines. It’s so good that I remember reading it in high school many, many years ago—and so good, that ironically I recalled nearly nothing else of the poem, not even its title.

I, like many others since, have informally used that image of a mighty force, that wolfpack, totally overwhelming a weaker force, cast as a fold of sheep. So, even though I did not remember the poem, when I read it again this month I thought that opening line summarized what the poem described. In that first re-reading I had trouble following the poem’s plot entirely, though the poem’s rhythm, rhyme scheme, and irresistible forward motion carried me through it with some appreciation. “OK, big bad Assyrians are going to sweep all before them, destroying everything in their path, including, I guess, that ‘Sennacherib’— must be the name of a city.” The poem’s flow moves relentlessly forward, like those Assyrian horse-drawn chariots I think; and there’s death and its all-quiet-afterward corpses—but no real battle, however one-sided, that the famous first line leads us to expect. Did Byron leave something out? And what’s exactly with that last stanza?

Lord Byron plays dress up

Lord Byron in an outfit that only Prince Rogers Nelson could pull off

 

Turns out, I was misreading the poem. It’s also been a long time since I’ve read the Second book of Kings in the Bible, where Byron borrowed his story. Sennacherib isn’t a city, he’s the king of the Assyrians. In the Bible story, the Israelite king, about to be swept away like his kingdom by Sennacherib’s Assyrian army, prays for God to intervene to save the kingdom, and God RSVPs with supernatural force, wiping out that supposedly unstoppable horde from the famous first line.

Sennacherib

Sennacherib goes out to get some more of that Stronginthearm’s Armour Polish for Gleaming Cohorts

 

Once I realized that, I could properly appreciate Byron’s middle section, with it’s spooky Angel of Death sensuously breathing in the faces of the Assyrian army as it flies through it faster than any charioteer. And the gloriously grisly image of the dead warhorse whose spume from its last furious race to escape is stretched between its stilled nostrils and the dirt it now lays in.

Yes, Byron races through this story because the mysterious “glance” of God defeating the Assyrian army might be diminished in a mortal’s attempt to describe it, and when Byron jumps to the aftermath, he keeps moving fast, but each detail he chooses to notice tells.

Unexpectedly to me, this wasn’t a story about how the smart money bets, how the unstoppable force is, as we’d better well realize, unstoppable. It’s instead, the story of a miracle.

Besides my initial misunderstanding, I found the poem has another problem in modern performance. Its poetic meter is anapestic, two unaccented beats followed by the strong beat. This is a jaunty rhythm, which whether for natural reasons or from association, sounds to me either like “A Visit from St. Nicolas”  or Dr. Seuss—and neither assists with the mood of this poem! So, I attempted to break up the metrical feet, and read “against” the meter a bit, while keeping the momentum going.

Musically, it’s some guitars mixed with warbling synths, and a keyboard electric-piano bass line this time. To hear the performance of “The Destruction of Sennacherib”  by George Gordon, Lord Byron, come down like a wolf on the fold onto the player gadget below.