Today’s post was written by Sam, Research Associate for Team Mead at the Council on Foreign Relations. He studied political science and English at Yale.
Giving me the reins of The Blog for the day (and Easter no less!) is daunting—a bit like when Mr. Mead lets me dust and clean the statue collection in the North Wing of the Mead Mansion: I mean, it’s such a privilege, but I’m always afraid I’ll break something.
But when I realized that getting to choose an occasional poem for Easter and write about it would mean a break from weeding the Mead Manor Garden, I didn’t object.
Given the central religious and cultural importance of the the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, there are, of course, a lot of poems to choose from. Yeats would have been an obvious choice, as would a favorite of this blog, Milton. A friend of mine had the wonderful suggestion of “Easter Wings” by George Herbert.
Since it’s Easter, and in the spirit of this blog breaking the confines of genre, I thought we’d get a bit crazy and go for two occasional poems and a short story. A regular literary Easter buffet. And a longer break from yardwork.
In reading back over these poems and story, I was reminded of something theologian Paul Tillich wrote in the second volume of his Systematic Theology and which was in the back of my mind while reading these poems and story: “there is a qualitative difference” between the Cross (the crucifixion of Christ) and the Resurrection:
“While the stories of the Cross probably point to an event that took place in the full light of historical observation, the stories of the Resurrection spread a veil of deep mystery over the event. The one is highly probable fact; the other a mysterious experience of a few… The New Testament lays tremendous significance on the objective side of the Resurrection; at the same time, it elevates the objective event indicated in the stories of the Crucifixion to universal symbolic significance. One could say that in the minds of the disciples and of the writers of the New Testament the Cross is both an event and a symbol and that the Resurrection is both a symbol and an event.” (153)
The Cross as event and symbol, the Resurrection as symbol and event. His point is not that historical inquiry would be more likely to find a record of the one and not the other; rather, it’s easier to accept the Cross as an actual event, but it takes more work to understand the symbolic significance of it.
For this reason, I want to share three works—from John Donne, Derek Walcott, and J.L. Borges—that pick up where the disciples left off: two poems and a story wherein the crucifixion lingers as an event whose symbolic significance haunts and confounds. Sorry, no bunnies and springtime flowers in this post.
The first poem—“Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.”—is from John Donne, one of my favorite poets (favorite in that I can’t claim to always or even often understand him, but enjoy poring over his lines in an attempt to). One of his best poems (devotional or otherwise), “Goodfriday, 1613” was written a few years before he became an Anglican priest.
Donne was to the 1920s and 30s what Pabst Blue Ribbon is today: just as the beer has recently found new popularity among the today’s young and hip after enduring a stint in obscurity, the 17th-century English preacher and metaphysical poet, after a long hiatus out of the spotlight, made a resurgence among the hip of the hip—the Modernists. I quickly realized I’m living in the wrong time period on Friday evening when, no matter how many times I made sure she saw the cover of my Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, the cute and very fashionable girl in black jeans sitting across from me in the subway didn’t bite.
On that Manhattan subway car–as I sat rocking a bit in my seat as the downtown train swayed, scanning Donne’s 400-year-old Easter sermons (read them if you’re suffering from sugar-induced insomnia tonight), oh-so-piously pondering the meaning of Easter—I was in a moment similar to that which opens the poem: lulled by the rhythm of the saddle, the speaker is set off reflecting on the meaning of the day by the Good Friday gloaming.
Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.
LET man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.
Typical of Donne and the metaphysical poets, he unpacks the theological quandary central to Easter—and to Christianity—by constructing an extended conceit. To confront “What does it mean that God died upon the Cross?”, Donne asks (and his poem is the answer), “What if I were riding along and suddenly saw Jesus crucified upon a nearby tree?”
Two of the reasons I like Donne so much come out in this poem: He provides a window into devotion—into the sublimity and pain of a faith that is at once fervent and yet doubt-ridden, sure and yet conflicted; the speaker is a man both exalted and terrified. Moreover, on display here is the rather frightening transformative power of the mind as it mixes with belief: by the end, the speaker does not just imagine, but really sees a cross silhouetted against the orange evening sky. Apt for Easter, the poem is an exercise in self-inflicted pain: the speaker sets himself into a fit of trembling by conjuring up the cross. Perhaps in this way he seeks to partake of—in an imperfect and partial way—the holiday.
While Donne gives us a conceit, Derek Walcott gives us a parable for our second poem. Walcott, a St. Lucian poet, is perhaps most famous for reimagining the Odyssey as a Caribbean epic in Omeros, and won the Nobel Prize in 1992. I never knew words could be tasted until I read Omeros, and I chose this poem, in part, because its language and images—the nailhead eyes of the Roman soldiers, the skin against the wood, the dripping white shirt—have stuck with me and changed the way I remember the story I heard so many times in Easter services.
(From Collected Poems 1948-1984.)
Anna, my daughter,
you have a black dog
that noses your heel,
selfless as a shadow;
here is a fable
about a black dog:
On the last sunrise
the shadow dressed with Him,
it stretched itself also—
they were two big men
with one job to do.
But life had been lent to one
only for this life.
They strode in silence toward
The rats at the Last Supper
shared crumbs with their shadows,
the shadow of the bread
was shared by the bread;
when the candles lowered,
the shadow felt larger,
so He ordered it to leave;
He said where He was going
it would not be needed,
for there there’d be either
radiance or nothing.
It stopped when He turned
and ordered it home,
then it resumed the scent;
it felt itself stretching
as the sun grew small
like the eyes of the soldiers
receding into holes
under the petrified
serpents on their helmets;
the narrowing pupils
glinted like nailheads,
so before He lay back
it crept between the wood
as if it were the pallet
they had always shared;
it crept between the wood
and the flesh nailed to the wood
and it rose like a black flag
as the crossbeam hoisted
itself and the eyes
closed very slowly
extinguishing the shadow—
everything was nothing.
Then the shadow slunk away,
crawling low on its belly,
and it left there knowing
that never again
would He ever need it;
it reentered the earth,
it didn’t eat for three days,
it didn’t go out,
then it peeped out carefully
like a mole from its hole,
like a wolf after winter,
like a surreptitious serpent,
looking for those forms
that could give back its shape;
then it ran out when the bells
began making wide rings
and rings of radiance;
it keeps nosing for His shape
and it finds it again, in
the white echo of a pigeon
with its wings extended
like a shirt on a clothesline,
like a white shirt on Monday
dripping from a clothesline,
like the greeting of a scarecrow
or a man yawning
at the end of a field.
While Donne wonders what it would be like to look up from an evening ride and see Jesus on the gibbet, Walcott’s poem lets us slink and slide dangerously close to the scene. Ironically, just as the poem makes the event tangible (we’re made to focus on and feel the space “between the wood and the flesh nailed to the wood”), it feels little need to be tethered to the objective facts of the event. In that way, the poem does what the disciples couldn’t: imagine the event as a way to approach the symbolism.
The darkness of Walcott’s poem gets a sardonic edge in the last of these Easter-themed pieces, “The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorge Luis Borges, the famous and not uncontroversial Argentine author. Borges is a family pastime–my older sister wrote her thesis on him, and I just try to keep up; rest assured, I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to correct any of my errors in the comments section.
The story follows a medical student, Baltisar Espinosa (Spanish for ‘thorny’), on his short-lived trip to the Argentine countryside, where he lives alongside a family who is delighted by his charismatic readings of Mark’s gospel.
Like many of Borges’ stories, it is deceptive and dazzling in its ability in such a short a space (3 pages in my edition) to leave you trying to figure out how you got from there to here, and what happened in the precious few moments before the lights went dark.
I won’t post the whole story obviously, but there are two translations online or you can read it in the New Yorker (if you have a subscription) where it ran in 1971. Without giving away the ending, I’ll instead quote the final bit of dialogue, in which the father of the family and Baltisar discuss the Roman soldiers present at the crucifixion (whose roles and actions, like the criminals flanking Jesus, vary according to the gospel):
The next day began like all the others, except that the father spoke to Espinosa to ask whether Christ had allowed himself to be killed in order to save all mankind. Espinosa, who was a freethinker like his father but felt obliged to defend what he had read them, paused.
“Yes,” he finally replied. “To save all mankind from hell.”
“What is hell?” Gurtre then asked him.
“A place underground where souls will burn in fire forever.”
“And those that drove the nails will also be saved?”
“Yes,” replied Espinosa, whose theology was a bit shaky.
The story returns us to where we began: I read the story as one about misinterpreting (or mis-teaching) what is and is not important in Christianity about God’s death on the cross. It gets at the difficulty of understanding the symbolism of the Cross (what it means, and how to respond to it) when the objective event is accessible and comprehendible. And, seeing it, in Tillich’s words, as just “one more tragic event (which it also is) in the long history of the tragedy of man,” the Gutre family keeps that history alive and well.
You may find Borges’ story profound, or maybe a bit too cheeky, or both; you may read it as a parable worth some time and thought, or as an uncomfortable and morbid tale, or, again, as both. But I think that’s the point. The more I’ve spent my Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday reading these pieces and thinking about the meaning the Cross and the Resurrection, the more I’ve found that when it comes to these topics, the line between pious and heretical thought, between profound and problematic, can be quite thin—and is drawn in very different places for different people.
In any case, whether you celebrate this day religiously, or are of a different faith, or are of no faith, I hope you enjoy these pieces as much as I do.