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Wallowing in the dark side of love

DIEING ROSE
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It is the conflicted nature of love: that which heals supremely can hurt indescribably.

“When the ancient Greeks realized that there is ‘something irremediably wrong in the world,’ while such a world must be judged ‘at the same time as beautiful,’ tragedy was born.”

– Robert Kaplan, The Tragic Sensibility

 

As I read them, I was reminded: This is dark stuff.

In 1624, an ill and languishing John Donne scribbled a poem that would make up (in part) his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Though writing from his lofty theological role as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and composing for no less a personage than the king’s son, his words were no aristocratic treatise or fusty elaboration of Anglican doctrine. Instead, they were a raw contemplation of the meaning of life in the face of inevitable death.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

In 1865, a lamenting Walt Whitman penned a mournful poem. Stricken with grief over the unthinkable murder of President Abraham Lincoln, Whitman’s words embodied the conflicted mood of many: joy at the Civil War’s end; sorrow over the death of a divided nation’s father figure.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
                         Here Captain! dear father!
                            This arm beneath your head!
                               It is some dream that on the deck,
                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.
And in 1938, 31-year-old Wystan Hugh Auden devastated readers with his Funeral Blues, an acute submergence into the inky blackness of grief. For the full poem, link here. But just consider its beginnings.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message “He is Dead.”
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves …
This is dark stuff. So black an abyss is not a place to live. So why did the likes of Donne and Whitman and Auden and so many other brilliant minds dwell on it? And why do we find ourselves inexorably drawn to it? As the herald asked in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon,
Why must a live man count the numbers of the slain, why grieve at fortune’s wrath that fades to break once more?
It is because these lives mattered.
And we feel it acutely.
If we love — love truly and deeply — then we can experience incomparable joy and ecstasy, but we also open ourselves to unparalleled pain and grief. It is the conflicted nature of love: that which heals supremely can hurt indescribably. The solid stones that we value as they support our weight when crossing the raging river, we curse when we trip and cut our leg against them. The stones’ hardness is treasured one moment and resented the next. And so, to grapple with the fullness of love, we must embrace the pain that comes with it: searing, aching, at times, pitiless pain. It is the pain of the Passion, the guttural groan of the Pieta. It is the nature of tragedy that something is tragic at all because it was dignified, it was valued, it was loved.
No, I am no masochist. I don’t want to wallow in the dark side of love.
But there it is.
And sometimes, to fully understand it, I have to.
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