I remember watching a television documentary on the Kennedys (this was probably in the 1970s, since I was in high school) and an interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who must have been in his twenties at the time. He was discussing his father’s state of soul following the assassination of the elder Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy. “He spent as lot of time reading the poets,” the young man said. That made a great impression upon me. My parents, working class Irish Catholics, did not read poetry, but I was ever fascinated by the magic of words—whether in prayer, in song lyrics, or even nursery rhymes. The only poet I can recall RFK, Jr. mentioning was Tennyson. And I can see how a poet given to melancholia and preoccupied with the transitoriness of Things would be welcome reading material to a man who had just lost a brother and close friend to the senseless machinations of evil. In my mind’s eye, I can see Bobby senior poring over The Idylls of the King:
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With those thou seëst—if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)—
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.
In my own life, I have often turned to the poets for clarity and consolation. Philosophers and theologians don’t offer much at such times. In my early thirties, I turned to Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats for companionship and later to John Donne, Jim Harrison, and Czeslaw Milosz. More recently, I have come to rely on Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne for spiritual sustenance. And there is always my jovial king and pastor, Robert Herrick.
I write this because recently my wife came to me with a discovery. We homeschool our children and our youngest is now in fourth grade. We follow, for the most part, a Waldorf curriculum (I was a Waldorf teacher for sixteen years) and a central part of the fourth grade year is the Norse Myths. My wife came to me with the story “Odin Wins for Men the Magic Mead” from Padraic Colum’s masterful retelling Nordic Gods and Heroes.
In the tale, the wicked dwarves kill Kvasir the Poet who “had wisdom, and he had such beautiful words with it, that what he said was loved and remembered by all.” The Dwarves are selfish in their wickedness” “‘Now,’ they said, ‘we have Kvasir’s blood and Kvasir’s wisdom. No one else will have this wisdom but us.’” The Dwarves combine the poet’s blood with honey and make mead from it, storing it in three jars. Curiously, they never never drink from the mead; they only want to make sure no one else does.
Eventually, the mead falls into the hands of the Giants, who likewise hide it but never use it. In time, Odin the Wanderer, after a series of adventures, comes to the cave where he meets its guardian, the giantess Gunnlöd. The enchantment she is under has turned her into a monster, hideous and decrepit, and she implores Odin, “save me from all this ugliness.” The Wanderer takes Gunnlöd’s hands; he kisses her on the mouth. And “all the marks of ill favor fell from her.”
My wife was excited about the story, for one thing, because I am a poet and I make mead (though not from my own blood) and she has been wanting for us to start a meadery—in addition to our farm and everything else we do! But more important is that the fact that we—all of us—need to be saved from all this ugliness. It’s everywhere.
I suppose this is the place wherein I should insert Dostoevsky’s famous line “Beauty will save the world,” but the phrase, as Hans Urs von Balthasar might say, may be losing its vitality through overuse. If it finds it’s way onto a meme or a coffee mug, it’s end is no doubt at hand. It’s better, perhaps, to observe that poetry—real poetry—discloses wisdom to us through the beauty of language. Poetry is a sophianic art, which even the medium cannot compromise (as can happen with music) because the essence of poetry is not on the page or screen or other medium. It resides elsewhere.
The poet, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s astonishing Orphic Trilogy, made over the course of thirty years (1930-1960) and starting with Blood of a Poet (surely in keeping with the Norse myth) stands as a meditation of sorts on this phenomenon. For Cocteau, the work of art takes on its own life after production by the artist, poet, or filmmaker. The creator simply gives it life (a sentence worth decades of theological-philosophical unpacking!). Cocteau, sadly, may have been one of the last popular figures to meditate upon the vocation of the poet in such a public way.
The poet, the maker, can accompany us on our wanderings and the wisdom and beauty that shine through the utterance can strengthen us on the adventure and save us from all this ugliness. For there is a higher vocation to which all of us are called.
With that, I drink your health with mead from my cellars, a gift from my bees.
A scene from 'Blood of a Poet'
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.