I've considered doing a post every once in a while responding to a piece of poetry. In this one I do not quote the lines I am talking about, so I would love for you to first read the poem and then read my post, and then, of course, respond.
"-- And so the conversation slips
Among velleities and carefully caught regrets
Through attenuated tones of violins
Mingled with remote cornets
At first read, "Portrait of a Lady" tears me up. The image of the lady, late in years, sitting near the lilacs and forever serving tea is heartwrenching especially since she knows. She knows youth, learning, and friendship, yet she sits removed from all of those. Worse still is the I, Eliot or the speaker or whomever, who is so "self-possessed" that he possess (holds, binds) all life from escaping (flowing from) him. He smiles patronizingly as the lady speaks of youth and has politely barred himself from developing a friendship with her. He goes through all the motions of gentlemen and ends up empty. He forms no attachments so his life must be a "cauchemar," a nightmare, as described in the first part.
Upon my second read, I find such a strong and lively figure in the lilac-twisting woman. She praises friendship and intimacy and warns the speaker of what will happen if he continually refuses to be vulnerable, to have an Achilles heel. Inside, he is broken by her words and ashamed of himself (see him crawling on hands and knees in his mind), yet he does not know what to do in response. He knows he is a coward, but that knowledge does not give him the will to change.
I really enjoy the imagery that moves the poem from its beginning to its end. He speaks often of music, flowers, months, light, and darkness. I enjoyed how these were woven into the poem like harmonizing dashes of color in a painting. They helped me to orient myself, to see the poetry, and referred me to other ideas, images, and experiences that I had.
In the quote that I referenced at the top, Eliot illustrates how conversations awkwardly start up again just as that last part, "and begin" awkwardly inserts itself into the silence of the lines preceding it. Last week I learned that his use of grammar to create an image is called syntactic symbolism. Neat!
Overall, the poem speaks deeply of the necessity of friendship. I like how the intimacy of friendship is descibed as if it alone is capable of holding up something special, Chopin's Preludes. It is also interesting that the one who has a life without friendship is the one with the good life, in spite of the line about a life without friendship is a nightmare. He has his youth. He has tea time invites. He goes abroad. He is self-possessed, knowing all the right things to do.
Yet, the lady who has known friendship sits within the tensions of existence, trying to understand mysteries like how it is that youth is cruel and how friendships sometimes fail to form. She has to struggle but he gets to act matter-of-factly. Why? Clearly, it is she who has the better life, meaning that tension is a characteristic of being fully alive.
Despairingly, the speaker does not wake up from his nightmare. He does not come to life. Rather, he envies the lady who perhaps dies. He has self-possessed himself right out of living in this reality, clinging instead to the one which involves even less tension and struggle-- death.
Remember when Jesus was confronted by Judas and the outraged mob? One of the disciples cut off the ear of the servant of a high priest. Jesus explained that was not a good action and he healed the wound with the touch of his hand.
Today I reflect that excitable Christians often act as rashly and ignorantly as this disciple did. We too often strike before considering what the best response would be when confronted by an accusation, threat, or anomaly. We discount the value of other people when they are different. We consider ourselves better, and forget that we, too, were once enemies to God.
Yet, Jesus acts consistently in that his actions come from knowledge of His just and loving Father. He sees that what the mob really needed was love, not a retaliation.
In my reading today I am learning about a Christian art history professor at Wheaton. A discipline that he encourages us to develop is discernment. The disciple in the garden could have used a healthy does of discernment, and so could we all.
Let us search for the good in all men, and use wisdom and discernment to accurately assess what is evil, ignorant, and false.
I need you so much closer. Ben Gibbard’s lonely love lyrics bleed through the white speakers placed by the illumined white crown molding in the corners of Crooked Tree Coffee House’s yellow room, my favorite room. Sunlight is pouring through the fully bared South window into the yellow room. It rolls over the blue, green, and yellow striped couch and reflects like heaven off of the wooden tiled table upon which I have set my vanilla chai tea latte. Outside, cars drive by slowly on Routh. The trees sway to the music. So come on---- come on------. The multitude of limbs are fraught with eager branches encased in the foliage of their dark red leaves. Red is everywhere. Red are the leaves and the lights. Red is my love for you and every beautiful thing I see makes me love you, and God, that Great Mystery, more than I can say. Red are my lips and the Dallas paintings on the wall. If I had the income, I would purchase the largest painting, not for the sake of its size, but because of its scope, because of the thick red stripes painted across the reflective water near the Old Red Museum. Remember I said that I would like to go there with you? Yes, I think that would be nice. In the painting the clouds are dark purple.
I love you like the perfectly curled scrolls on the eclectic bronze lamp to my right. I love you like the hints of dark blue in the bubbly azure glass of the lamp on the corner table. I love you like the sun hitting the oatmeal woven rug. I love you like the red leaves waving, waving, waving. I love you like familiar harmonies and our secret stories and characters that sneak across my mind and call me away from my writing. I love you like mathematical perfection. I love you like the twelve basic colors. I love you like warmth.
I love you through your writing. I love you through your poetry. I love you in the rhyme and meter of your breathing. I love you in the green of your eyes. I love you in your fastidiousness. I love you in your laugh and in your strength.
I’ll love you in the rain, in this thick sunshine, in the pines, in the hills, in the city, down the sidewalk, down the lane, in the dance of falling leaves, in the sigh of falling snow, in the gasp of flowers blooming, in the hot relief of summer.
Conversation and thoughts. All around me are people working. People. Good and loving and working people. People with ideas and passions and responsibilities. And today they are all beautiful. Especially the ones whom I keep distracting by looking up at that huge painting that is hanging on the yellow wall behind them. Oh, life! It is good.