A hateful son

apocalypse

Now that the Covid-19 media apocalypse is upon us here in Ireland I am taking a moment to think about the boy who gave us the name for next month.

The painting above is the Benjamin West 1795 “Death on a pale horse” which depicts the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, riding successively horses coloured white, red, black and pale.

In the ancient world disease killed more armies than battle, and was a constant companion of any assembled army.  Famine followed in the wake of every army as they stripped the land bare of food, like a plague of locusts.  Death of course is the bride of war.

So it is interesting to look at the parallels between the apocalyptic horsemen and the earlier Greco-Roman depictions of the Roman Mars (for whom we name March) and his Greek origination as the God Ares.

Homer, in the Illiad, quotes Zeus as calling Ares the god most hateful to him.  Such a thing to say to your own son!

The Greeks, for all their warlike tendencies, had a suspicion of unbridled passion.  They saw Eros (uncontrolled love) as a form of madness.  In Ares they saw the passion needed to succeed in battle, but they also saw the brutality.  Untamed aggression was achieved by letting slip the reins of mental discipline.

Like the later four horsemen Ares travelled in a gang of four.  Himself, the God of war, accompanied in his chariot by his two sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror) and his daughter/lover Enyo (Discord).  Indeed it was Enyo who started the Trojan war.  But that’s a different story.

Ares had four sure-footed, gold bridled, immortal horses who pulled his chariot; Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos (same name as his son).

The Greeks saw Ares as a destabilising force, and saw war as a necessary evil, both to be avoided if possible.  Ares is often ridiculed or embarrased in Greek mythology.

Rome took a different line.  Rome placed Mars in the top 3 of their Gods.  The Romans viewed War as the means to Peace and they treated their god of war with reverence and dignity.  Instead of being incestuously linked to Discord like Ares the Roman Mars is married to Nerio, the Goddess of Valor.

So we can see that the four horsemen of the bible have more in common with the Greek god of war than they do with the Roman Mars.

And now back to the painting.  In a twist of fate it carries its own apocalyptic tale.  When the first American Academy of art burned down a volunteer fireman cut the painting from its frame and saved it from the conflagration.

Ship of Death

Schooner

Here is a verse composed by Henry Van Dyke Jr “For Katrina’s Sundial”

Time is
Too slow for those who Wait,
Too swift for those who Fear,
Too long for those who Grieve,
Too short for those who Rejoice,
But for those who Love,
Time is not

There is a huge bank of sundial poetry and mottoes.  Many of the epigrams are in latin.  Most are about time, how we use it, how short it is, how our lives are fleeting things.  I also like this poem from Van Dyke where he uses the ship as a metaphor for the life of a person.   Ships as symbols for death are not uncommon.  Perhaps the clearest examples we have are from Pharaonic and Viking burials.  I attach a couple of good examples at the bottom.

Van Dyke was born on November 10th, so I am belatedly wishing him a happy birthday.

 

 

Gone from my sight: by Henry Van Dyke

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, ‘There, she is gone’

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me – not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, ‘There, she is gone,’
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, ‘Here she comes!’

And that is dying…

Death comes in its own time, in its own way.
Death is as unique as the individual experiencing it.

 

Khufu

Model of the Khufu Solar Barge found in his tomb.

 

Viking ship, Oseberg, a 9th century burial ship, Vikingskiphuset (Viking Ship Museum), Bygdoy peninsula, Oslo, Norway, Scandinavia, Europe

The Oseberg Burial Longboat

Happy Birthday Roger McGough

mcGough.jpg

A beat poet from Liverpool, born this day 1937.  A man who worked with the Beatles, writing dialogue for their movie Yellow Submarine.  I love the brutal northern honesty and truth of his poetry.  His approach to death is both real and funny.

 

Soil; by Roger McGough

we’ve ignored eachother for a long time
and I’m strictly an indoor man
anytime to call would be the wrong time
I’ll avoid you as long as I can

When I was a boy we were good friends
I made pies out of you when you were wet
and in childhood’s remembered summer weather
we roughandtumbled together
we were very close

just you and me and the sun
the world a place for having fun
always so much to be done

But gradually I grew away from you
Of course you were still there
during my earliest sexcapades
when I roughandfumbled
not very well after bedtime
but suddenly it was winter
and you seemed so cold and dirty
that I stayed indoors and acquired
a taste for girls and clean clothes

we found less and less to say
you were jealous so one day
I simply upped and moved away

I still called to see you on occasions
but we had little now in common
and my visits grew less frequent
until finally
une coldbright April morning
a handful of you drummed
on my fathers waxworked coffin

at last it all made sense
there was no need for pretence
you said nothing in defence

And now recently
while travelling from town to town
past where you live
I have become increasingly aware
of you watching me out there.
patient and unforgiving
toying with the trees.

we’ve avoided eachother for a long time
and I’m strictly a city man
anytime to call would be the wrong time
I’ll avoid you as long as I can

Poor Death

ingmar-bergman-film-seventh-seal-analysis-meaning

 

 

 

Death be not proud : by John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
for, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
and soonest our best men with thee do go,
rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
and dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
and poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
and better then thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

 

Come,let us pity not the dead:  by Drummond Allison

Come, let us pity not the dead but Death
for He can only come when we are leaving,
He cannot stay for tea or share our sherry.
He makes the old man vomit on the hearthrug
but never knew his heart before it failed him.
He shoves the shopgirl under the curt lorry
but could not watch her body undivided.
Swerving the cannon-shell to smash the airman
He had no time to hear my brother laughing.
He sees us when, a boring day bent double,
we take the breaking-point for new beginning
prepared for dreamless sleep or dreams or waking
for breakfast but now sleep past denying.
He has no life, no exercise but cutting;
While we can hope a houri, fear a phantom.
Look forward to No Thoughts. For Him no dying
nor any jolt to colour His drab action,
only the plop of heads into the basket,
only the bags of breath, the dried-up bleeding.
We, who can build and change our clothes and moulder,
come, let us pity Death but not the dead.

Happy Birthday Stevie Smith

Stevie

Sylvia Plath described herself as a “desperate Smith addict” and wrote a letter expressing an interest in meeting Stevie, but first committed suicide.  Smith herself struggled with depression all her life and was a fatalist from a young age.  Abandoned by her father as a small child she grew up in a house of independent feminists, particularly her Aunt Madge who she called “The Lion Aunt”.

At age five she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium.  She resolved herself to death at age seven.  At age eight she was discharged.  Her mother, never in the best of health, passed away when Smith was 16.

Smith was born on this day in 1902 and passed away aged 68 in 1971.

 

I do not speak; by Stevie Smith

I do not ask for mercy for understanding for peace
And in these heavy days I do not ask for release
I do not ask that suffering shall cease.

I do not pray to God to let me die
To give an ear attentive to my cry
To pause in his marching and not hurry by.

I do not ask for anything I do not speak
I do not question and I do not seek
I used to in the day when I was weak.

Now I am strong and lapped in sorrow
As in a coat of magic mail and borrow
From Time today and care not for tomorrow.

 

JFK, Dallas, 1963, Nov 22.

John F. Kennedy Jr. Saluting His Father at Funeral

I Have a Rendezvous with Death;  by Alan Seeger

 

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

 

 

Another Year

death

Another year slides away.  If my life is the Samuel Beckett play, “Breath” I am on the exhale.  I intend to squeeze every drop of juice out of what is left.  If fatalism teaches you anything it teaches you to treasure the moment.  Just treasuring Dublin retaining the Sam Maguire at the moment.  Full time for Dublin, and I am (hopefully) still in the third quarter.

 

For a Birthday: by Thom Gunn

 

I have reached a time when words no longer

help:

Instead of guiding me across the moors

Strong landmarks in the uncertain out-of-doors,

Or like dependable friars on the Alp

Saving with wisdom and with brandy kegs,

They are gravel-stones, or tiny dogs which yelp

Biting my trousers, running round my legs.

Description and analysis degrade,

Limit, delay, slipped land from what has been;

And when we groan My Darling what we mean

Looked at more closely would too soon evade

The intellectual habit of our eyes;

And either the experience would fade

Or our approximations would be lies.

The snarling dogs are weight upon my haste,

Tons which I am detaching ounce by ounce.

All my agnostic irony I renounce

So I may climb to regions where I rest

In springs of speech, the dark before of truth:

The sweet moist wafer of your tongue I taste,

And find right meanings in your silent mouth.