Matters of Life and Death: 4
It was a tough choice. My best O-level subjects were English and Maths, but I had to drop one of them for A-level. That’s how it was in those days: I had to take either an arts or a sciences package. Hmm, which to choose? Well, I wanted to understand the nature of existence, and it seemed to me English Lit offered the best chance of fulfilling that quest.
No one told me Maths was the indispensible tool of Physics, or that Physics was the fundamental study of the observable universe. (I suspect my teachers weren’t the greatest.) However, even if better informed I might still have chosen Literature. Why? Because I had a sense the answers lay deep-deep-deep within. Not without, but within.
I didn’t regret my choice. For instance, whilst still only seventeen, I went hitch-hiking around Europe taking Palgrave’s Golden Treasury with me, rapidly discovering Wordsworth was an excellent man for going deep-deep-deep within. His longest poem in the volume is ‘Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ and here is part of the fifth stanza:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
The stanza continues in highly quotable fashion (for instance, ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy’) but let’s fast forward to the ninth stanza where Wordsworth tells us more about his ‘intimations of immortality’, which he describes as:
... those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised:
For Wordsworth these are ‘truths that wake, to perish never’:
Hence, in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither –
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
I’m not the only one to find this powerfully effective. Philip Larkin, poet and well-known atheist, reckoned in a 1979 interview that, ‘Wordsworth was nearly the price of me once. I was driving down the M1 on a Saturday morning; they had this poetry slot on the radio, “Time for Verse”. It was a lovely summer morning and someone suddenly started reading the Immortality Ode, and I couldn’t see for tears. And when you’re driving down the middle lane at seventy miles an hour …’
There is, of course, far more that could be said about poetry, but let me turn instead to someone born the same remarkable year as Wordsworth, 1770, a certain Ludwig van Beethoven.
While I was a young man, still seeking to understand the nature of existence, I’d ponder Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies over and over again. What did they mean, I wondered, with their progress from dark to light, paralleling the Hell-to-Heaven progress of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or the winter-to-summer progress of the cycling seasons? They seemed to embody ancient initiation rituals – the raising of Inanna perhaps or Orpheus – dramatised into the most emphatic music.
Of the two, the 9th symphony particularly piqued my imagination because of the way the finale seems to rise through layer upon layer of heaven. The lyrics Beethoven chose for this unprecedented music leave no room for doubting the interpretation. They are Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, and as Beethoven’s famous melody plays (nowadays the anthem of the European Union) they begin thus:
Joy, thou lovely spark of God,
daughter from Elysium,
we step drunk with fire,
heavenly one, into your sanctuary.
(trans: Bernard Jacobson)
Eventually Beethoven leaves the famous melody behind to fly ever higher with ever more remote variations. By the time he reaches the furthest point the lyrics are:
Do you fall to your knees, millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Look for him beyond the canopy of stars,
beyond stars he must dwell.
The symphony carries us a long way but, alas, it does not remain in the Empyrean for long, so I am left wanting more. Keep me there, I want to ask; give us more. Obligingly, that is exactly what Beethoven provides in another work premiered the same year (1824), the Missa Solemnis. With this we can spend an hour or more up in heaven – and if we choose Otto Klemperer’s 1951 recording we can make it a full 79 minutes.
I mention this version in particular because it’s what I had on vinyl back in 1974 after our first child was born. At the time I was re-reading C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image a lovely fascinating volume in which Lewis discusses, amongst other great matters, the Music of the Spheres. Outside the window were Venus, Jupiter and a sickle moon, in one of their rare and stunning conjunctions, so even while I read about the spheres I could also see them. But how about hearing them? Well, I could do that too, for their music was on the turntable, and it was called the Missa Solemnis.
Thus while our baby daughter slept in her cradle (actually a drawer lined with a blanket: we didn’t have much money) heaven shone about us.
I have always considered the Missa Solemnis as irrefutable proof of God, Heaven, Ultimate Love, the whole divine and cosmic thing. However, if music doesn’t suit you, Wordsworth will probably do just as nicely.
May I invite you to make certain purchases? (I may? Why, thank you...)
(a) The Salamander Stone (by my most excellent and trusty pal, Mrs Me) from one of these outlets:
Direct from the publisher, Burst Books: click here
Amazon UK: click here
(b) The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole (by Mrs Me’s most excellent and trusty pal, Me):
Amazon UK: click here
Amazon.com (US): click here
(You’ll be getting both of them? Well, that is an admirable choice, if I may say so...)