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One of the great joys of my life is watching speeches and interviews given by great intellectuals. It was in pursuing this pleasure that I happened upon an episode of the ABC’s panel discussion show, Question and Answers. Coming out of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, the four people on the panel – the traditional conservative, Peter Hitchens; the feminist writer, Germaine Greer; the American writer, Hanna Rosin; and the gay rights activist, Dan Savage – spent an hour discussing tops ranging from western civilisation to modern hook-up culture.
It became quickly apparent that the intellectual stature of the four panellists was not evenly matched. Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage were less rational, less mature, and more ignorant than Peter Hitchens and Germaine Greer. By comparison, Hitchens and Greer gave carefully considered answers to most of the questions asked. Hitchens, in particular, gave responses based on careful consideration, rational thought, fact, and wisdom. (This is not to say one is required to agree with him)
It was the behaviour of the audience that proved the most alarming, however. Like most Questions and Answers audiences, it was comprised mostly of idealistically left-wing youth. Their primary purpose for being there was to have their ideological presuppositions reinforced. With no apparent motivation to listen to the answers to their questions, these youngsters would clap and cheer like trained seals whenever someone makes an ideologically-correct statement.
How has our society become so stupid? Why do we no longer see being wise and knowledgeable as virtues in and of themselves? Part of the answer comes from a culture of self-hate and contempt promulgated by left-wing intellectuals. Accordingly, Christianity is regarded as archaic (unless, of course, it promotes left-wing beliefs), inequality is caused by capitalism, and the problems of women come as the result of the “patriarchy.” Even the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge are rather conveniently blamed on “trauma” emanating from the Vietnam War (rather than the actions of Pol Pot and his band of murderous, communist brutes).
This continuous, unrelenting assault on Western civilisation has led to a general estrangement from Western culture. The common people have been robbed of their inheritance because scholars and intellectuals have reduced their culture into a caricature to be dismantled at will. As a result, they are no longer exposed to the great works of art, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, poetry, sculpture, theology, and theatre that the Western world has produced.
The modern proclivity for ignorance and stupidity comes out of a very special kind of arrogance. It is the kind of arrogance that makes people believe that all those who came before them must be dumber than they are. It does not acknowledge that our modern “enlightenment” is built on the works of those who came before us. Our forebears would be dumbfounded to find a world where, despite having greater access to information than anyone else in history, people have closed their minds to learning.
What all this boils down to is a rejection of wisdom. If you believe that all those who came before you are dumber than yourself you are unlikely to believe they have anything worthwhile to contribute. As such, you are unlikely to believe in wisdom as a universal good. As Neel Burton over at Psychology Today pointed out: “in an age dominated by science and technology, by specialisation and compartmentalisation, it [wisdom] is too loose, too grand, and too mysterious a concept.”
We have made phenomenal advancements in all areas of human knowledge. Sadly, our successes have also made us arrogant and self-righteous. If we are to take full advantage of our potential, we need to reignite our cultural past and find the humility to learn from those who went before us.
In 2015, the then-Presidential candidate, Donald Trump (1946 – ) called for a boycott of Starbucks after the famous coffee shop chain failed to include the words “Merry Christmas” on their annual Christmas cups. “Did you read about Starbucks?”, Trump asked a rally in Springfield, Illinois. “No more ‘Merry Christmas’ on Starbucks. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks.”
Two years later, Donald Trump, now President of the United States, doubled down on his pro-Christmas message. Speaking at a Christian Public Policy conference, the President stated:
“We’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ because it’s not politically correct.”
“You got to department stores and they’ll say, ‘Happy New Year’, or they’ll say other things and it’ll be red, they’ll have it painted. But they don’t say it. Well, guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
The sentiment that there is a War on Christmas designed to push the religious holiday out of public consciousness carries a great deal of validity. Since 2000, the Becket Institute has listed the biggest Christmas scrooges in American public life, giving the worst offenders an ‘Ebenezer award.’
In 2000, city manager of Eugene, Oregon, Jim Johnson was given the Ebenezer Award after he issued a five-page memo banning Christmas trees from any “public space” in the city.
In 2011, the Ebenezer Award was given to the United States Post Office after they enforced a policy preventing people from singing Christmas carols on Government property. This decision stands in direct contradiction to Benjamin Franklin’s (1706 – 1790) (their founder) commandment to “always live jollily; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas.”
In 2014, the City of Sioux Falls was given the Ebenezer Award after they threatened to repaint and censor snowploughs that featured artwork celebrating the religious nature of Christmas.
In 2015, the Ebenezer Award was given to the Department of Veteran Affairs after they banned their employees at their Salem, Virginia facility from saying ‘Merry Christmas.’
The problem is not unique to the United States, either. During an interview with 2GB Radio, Peter Dutton (1970 – ), Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection, became incensed after a caller informed him that there had not been any Christmas carols in a performance at his grandchild’s school. The caller informed Dutton that the school in question, Kerdon State High School, had replaced the lyric “we wish you a Merry Christmas” with “we wish you a happy holiday.” Dutton replied: “You make my blood boil with these stories. It is political correctness gone mad and I think people have just had enough of it.”
I believe that the drive to remove the more traditional and religious aspects from holidays like Christmas and Easter is indicative of a larger attempt to abolish the influence of Christianity on society and culture.
The problem with this, needless to say, is that it is akin to chopping down a tree and still wishing to enjoy its fruits. It is not possible to enjoy the fruits of Western culture and civilisation when its ideological origins and overarching philosophical-cum-theological structures have been removed. Christianity and Western civilisation are inextricably linked. The poet, T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) wrote in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1943) that “to our Christian heritage we owe many things besides religious faith. Through it we trace the evolution of our arts, through it we have a conception of Roman Law which has done so much to shape the Western world, through it we have our conception of private and public morality.”
The War on Christmas is an attack on the very fabric of Western Civilisation. Christmas symbolises the central axiom our culture was built on: that the Universe was constructed to have a natural and moral order. The War on Christmas is not merely an attack of Judeo-Christian belief, nor is it merely an attack on Western culture, it is an attack upon truth itself. And the truth cannot prosper while those who believe it are unwilling to defend it.
This week for our cultural article we will be examining William Wordsworth’s (1770 – 1850) 1815 poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.
William Wordsworth was born on April 7th, 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland to John Wordsworth (1740 – 1783), a legal agent to the Earl of Lowther (1736 – 1802), and Ann Wordsworth (1747 – 1778). Wordsworth came as the second of John and Ann’s five children. Richard Wordsworth (1768 – 1816) came before him and was followed by Dorothy (1771 – 1855) (who would aid him throughout his career), Christopher (1774 – 1846), and John, Jr.
Wordsworth attended grammar school near Cockermouth Church as well as Ann Birkett’s school in Penrith. His love of the natural world began early stemming from his childhood living in a terraced garden house along the Derwent River.
Wordsworth experienced personal tragedy early in his life. In March of 1778, Ann Wordsworth died while visiting a friend in London. By June, Wordsworth’s beloved sister, Dorothy, had been sent to live with her mother’s cousin, Elizabeth Threlkheld (1745 – 1837), in Halifax. The pair would not be reunited until 1787. As if that wasn’t bad enough, John Wordsworth, Sr. would die in December of 1783 after being forced to spend a night out in the cold. Following the death of his father, Wordsworth and his brothers were sent to live at the house of Ann Tyson and attended school at Hawkshead. It was here that Wordsworth first began composing prose, an enterprise that was greatly encouraged by his headmaster, William Taylor.
In 1787, Wordsworth went to Cambridge University to attend St. John’s College as a sizar (an undergraduate student receiving financial assistance from the university). That same year, he published his first poem in The European Magazine. Although his academic career was unremarkable, Wordsworth managed to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in 1791.
During his last term, Wordsworth and his friend, Robert Jones (1769 – 1835), embarked on a walking tour of Europe. The tour would prove to be a great influence on Wordsworth poetry which started in earnest while he was travelling through France and Switzerland. During his travels, Wordsworth was also exposed to the ravages of the French Revolution, an experience which his inspired his lifelong sympathy for the common man.
Between 1795 and 1800, Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, would move three times. In 1795, the pair used a legacy obtained from a close relative to move to Dorset. Two years later, they would move to Somerset where Wordsworth would become neighbours and close friends with the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834). Finally, in 1799, the pair would settle at Dove Cottage in Grasmere following a trip to Germany with Coleridge.
In 1802, Wordsworth returned to France with his sister to meet his illegitimate daughter, Caroline (1792 – 1862), whom he had conceived illegitimately while living in France. Upon his return, he married his childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson (1770 – 1859). Together, the couple sired five children: Reverend John Wordsworth (1803 – 1875), Dora Wordsworth (1804 – 1847), Thomas Wordsworth (1806 – 1812), Catherine Wordsworth (1809 – 1812), and William Wordsworth, Jr. (1810 – 1883).
In 1813, Wordsworth made the Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland. Years later, following the death of Robert Southey (1774 – 1843), Wordsworth was made Poet Laureate. He died on April 23rd, 1850, in Rydal.
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:—
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the shew to me had brought:
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
William Wordsworth is credited with ushering the English romantic movement. Accordingly, Wordsworth is remembered as an intensely spiritual and epistemological writer whose poetry moved away from the grand, moralising themes of the past towards that which explored the purity and beauty of nature.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud was first published in Poems in Two Volumes in 1807. (The version analysed here is the 1815 revised version). The poem was inspired by a long walk Wordsworth took with his sister, Dorothy, around Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater. During their walk, the pair came across a “long belt” of daffodils. Wordsworth became inspired to write the poem after reading his sister’s diary description of the walk:
“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway – We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the Sea.”
— Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal Thursday, 15 April 1802.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud consists of four stanzas with six lines each and featured an “ababcc” rhyming sequence. The poem has a peaceful and tranquil feel to it which is expressed through simplistic language, figurative vocabulary, and subtle rhymes. The first three stanzas of the poem describe the narrator’s experiences. Its first line, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” serves to personalise the poem. Likewise, the reference to “a crowd, a host of golden daffodils” describes an ideal place, a form of euphoric paradise which the narrator experiences for the briefest period of time. The second stanza gives the impression that the daffodils were majestic, even other-worldly in their beauty. The narrator even compares them to the stars of the milky way. The poem’s last stanza details the poet’s recollection of his experiences. He describes how his recollection causes his heart to fill the pleasure and “dance with the daffodils.” In the end, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud reminds us that beauty can only be found when we are willing to slow down and take notice of the world around us.
The writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) evokes images of murderers, madmen, premature burials, and mysterious women who return from the dead. Our common image of him is of a mysterious, somewhat melancholy figure who frequents cemeteries and other creepy places. However, his influence extends far beyond the gothic and the macabre, he is credited with the invention of the modern detective story and with innovating the science fiction genre. Over the course of his lifetime, Poe wrote hundreds of essays, books on scientific theory, short stories, poems, book reviews, and novels. His classics, like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher, have thrilled readers for nigh-on two centuries. For this week’s cultural article, we will be examining his poem, The Raven.
Edgar Allen Poe was born on January 19th, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. Both his father, David Poe, Jr. (1784 – 1811), and mother, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe (1787 – 1811), were travelling actors who died by the time Poe was three-years-old. While his siblings, William Henry Leonard Poe (1807 – 1831) and Rosalie Poe (1810 – 1874), were sent to live with other families, Poe was adopted by the wealthy tobacco merchant, John Allan (1779 – 1834), and his wife, Frances Valentine Allan (1784 – 1829), in Richmond, Virginia.
In 1826, Poe left home to study ancient and modern languages at the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, John Allan had provided Poe with only a third of the funds he would need to support himself at the university. Although Poe excelled in his classes, he managed to accumulate a considerable amount of debt. By the end of his first term, Poe’s financial situation had become so dire that he was forced to burn his furniture to keep warm.
Poe left the university after just a year and returned home. Back in Richmond, Poe discovered that his fiancée, Elmira Royster (1810 – 1888), had become engaged to Alexander Shelton (1807 – 1844). He lived in John Allan’s home, but animosity between the two caused him to leave after only a few months.
John Allan had raised his adopted son with the intention that he would become a businessman and gentleman. Poe, however, rejected his adoptive father’s aspirations and set out to emulate his hero, Lord Byron (1788 – 1824), by making himself a great writer and adventurer. He achieved the former with the publication of his first book, Tamerlane, at the age of eighteen. The latter he achieved by enlisting in the United States Army. Two years later, he was accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Following his expulsion from West Point after only eight months, Poe travelled to Baltimore, Maryland – the home of his biological father – to seek help from relatives. Although one of his relatives robbed him in the middle of the night, Poe was able to find refuge in the home of his aunt, Maria Clemm (1790 – 1871). It was there that Poe met and fell in love with his cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm (1822 – 1847). Around the same time, Poe’s adoptive father, John Allan, died. Poe, who was living in poverty at the time, was left out of Allan’s estate.
Despite this, Poe’s writing career was progressing at a steady pace. He was already publishing his short stories and was able to gain an editorial position at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. The combination of Poe’s scathing book reviews and his sensational stories made the Southern Literary Messenger the most popular magazine in the southern United States.
In 1835, the twenty-six-year-old Poe married the thirteen-year-old Virginia and brought her and her mother with him to Richmond. Later, dissatisfaction with his pay at the Southern Literary Messenger would cause Poe and his young wife to move to New York, and later Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he would write for numerous magazine publications.
Poe wrote his most famous poem, The Raven (1845), whilst living in New York. Its publication made him a household name and provided him with the funds and opportunities to buy the Broadway Journal, publish two books, and demand higher wages. However, rumours of an extra-marital affair, financial difficulties, and Virginia declining health forced Poe to leave the city in 1846. Poe moved to a country cottage where, in 1847, Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis.
Poe slipped into a deep depression and lost the ability to write for several months. Then, in the summer of 1849, he returned to Richmond and rekindled his relationship with his former fiancée, Elmira Royster Shelton. Elmira, like Poe, was a widow. The pair became engaged and planned to marry when Poe returned from a trip to Philadelphia and New York.
On his way to Philadelphia, Poe disappeared in Baltimore for five days. He was found in the bar room of a public house (which had been used as a polling station in a recent election) in a state of delirium. Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital. Edgar Allen Poe died there, aged forty, on October 7th, 1849.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
The Raven is characterised by the nightmarish nature of its images and themes. There is talk of wild dreams, burning souls, and imaginary perfumes. The poem’s most vivid image, that of the stately raven, tortures the narrator with its continuous repetition of the word, “Nevermore” (whether or not this is just a figment of the narrator’s imagination is never established). Similarly, the poem mentions “quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” as a reference to antiquated, and forgotten, books of antiquated traditions and knowledge (who knows? maybe the narrator was experimenting with pagan or occult practices). Elsewhere, the poem mentions “a bust of Pallas”, a reference to the Greek titan Pallas, and “Night’s Plutonian shore”, referring to the underworld of Roman mythology.
This is our weekly theological article.
For most of my life I have had a great affinity for cemeteries and graveyards. A gentle stroll through the neat and peaceful rows of graves, pausing occasionally to read the inscription on the headstone of someone who lived and died long before I was born has been the source of great pleasure for me.
I believe cemeteries and graveyards are important for two reasons. First, they are incredibly artistic. One cannot help but notice the well-manicured lawns and beautiful gardens, the magnificent sculpting’s of the headstones, and the often-poetic rhetoric of the epitaphs. Second, I believe that cemeteries and graveyards provide people with a physical connection with their cultural heritage and allows them to tap into their ancestral past. As Doctor Celestina Sagazio, a historian working for Melbourne’s Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, observed, cemeteries and graveyards provide a clue into the daily lives of people throughout history.
Modern culture has little time for the contemplation of death. That would go against ‘positive thinking’ and the perpetual lie of ‘eternal youth.’ This, however, stands in stark contrast with the convictions of most of our forebears. From antiquity through to the early twentieth century, the consideration of death was considered a good motivator for leading a virtuous and meaningful life. Recent studies affirm this belief, finding that the contemplation of one’s own mortality acts as a motivator for assessing one’s values and goals and can greatly improve physical health.
The phrase, ‘Memento Mori’, is said to have originated with the Ancient Romans. Tradition in Ancient Rome dictated that a servant or slave should stand behind a triumphant General during his victory parade. This servant or slave would whisper in the General’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento Mori!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”).
Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the concept of ‘Memento Mori’ took on new motifs. The engraving, ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1539) by Georg Pencz (1500 – 1550) depicted a scythe-wielding skeleton commanding an oxen-driven chariot. Similarly, the dance of death – involving skeletal figures – lead everyone from the Pope to the humble ploughman in a final dance of death. During the 17th and 18th centuries, many New England graves were adorned with epitaphs like ‘Memento Mori’ and ‘Hora Fugit’ (‘the hour flees’) and were emblazoned with images of skulls, bones, winged death’s heads, hourglasses, and other symbols of death and the passage of time.
The Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca (4BC – AD65) advised: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” The careful contemplation of mortality and the deliberate awareness of death has a profoundly positive effect on the health and vitality of the soul.
This week for our cultural article, we will be examining Robert Frost’s (1874 – 1963) poem, The Road Not Taken.
First appearing in Frost’s poetry collection, Mountain Interval, in 1916, The Road Not Taken is one of America’s most enduring poems. It has become a part of our cultural lexicon, appearing in in numerous films and books, among other mediums, including, most notably, Dead Poet’s Society (1989), as well as in advertisements for Nicorette, Mentos, AIG, Ford, and more.
Robert Lee Frost was born in San Francisco, California, on March 26th, 1874, to William Prescott Frost, Jr. (185- – 1885), a journalist, and Isabella Moodie (1844 – 1900). William Frost would die of tuberculosis when Frost was eleven years old. Shortly after, he would move with his mother and younger sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts.
It was during high school that Frost first developed an interest in poetry and literature. In 1892, Frost enrolled at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He dropped out after only two months and took a series of menial jobs – teacher, cobbler, and editor of the Lawrence Sentinel, among others – to support himself. Later he would attend Harvard University but would drop out due to poor health.
Robert Frost published his first poem, The Butterfly, in the New York newspaper, The Independent, in 1894. On December 19th, 1895, Frost married Elinor Miriam White (1873 -1938), with whom he had shared valedictorian honours in high school. Together, the couple would have six children, only two of whom would live to see old age. Elliot Frost, born 1896, would die of Cholera in 1900. Carol Frost, born 1902, would commit suicide in 1940. Marjorie Frost, born 1905, would die in childbirth in 1935. Elinor Frost, born 1907, would die in infancy. Only Leslie Frost, born 1899, and Irma Frost, born 1903, would live to see old age.
After failing to generate enough income as farmers in New Hampshire, the Frosts emigrated to England in 1912. There Robert Frost made numerous friends, and garnered inspiration, with various British poets and writers. Among these were Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917), Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915), Robert Graves (1895 – 1985), and Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) – who helped Frost publish and promote his poetry. The Frosts returned to America in 1915. By this time, Robert Frost had published two collections of his poetry, A Boy’s Hill, published 1913, and North of Boston, published in 1914.
By the 1920s, Robert Frost had become the most celebrated poet in America. He received more and more accolades, which included Pulitzer prizes, with every collection of poetry he published.
In 1938, Robert Frost was widowed when his wife, Elinor, lost her battle with breast cancer. He never remarried. Between 1958 and 1959, Frost served as the consultant for poetry at the Library of Congress. Robert Frost died in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 29th, 1963. He was eighty-eight years old.
Embedded throughout world religion and mythology is the psychological motif of the shadow. In the story of the fall of man, the shadow is symbolised in the snake that tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In modern times, the motif of the shadow can be seen in various superhero and fantasy films. Batman can be seen as the shadow of Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter’s ability to speak to snakes is a sign of his magical connection to the evil Lord Voldemort, and so forth.
Perhaps the most notable example of the shadow, however, comes in the distinction between the light and dark sides of the force in the Star Wars saga. Indeed it is the inability to recognise and come to terms with his own shadow that causes Anakin Skywalker to succumb to the dark side and become Darth Vader. Years later, Vader’s son, Luke would also battle his shadow, but, unlike his father, he would be able to recognise and ultimately overcome his own dark nature.
The shadow is an aspect of the Jungian concept of the psyche. The psychologist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) conceived of the human psyche as a self-regulating system comprised of many complex and archetypal parts. The ‘self’, therefore, is the totality of all the aspects of the psyche. It is the part of us that expresses a desire for fulfilment, that aims at goals, and drives us forward.
The Jungian concept of the psyche consists of the persona, the ego, the self, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious, the shadow, and the anima and animus. The ego represents the aspects of our psyches that we are consciously aware of. It is the part of our psyches that regulates and organises our memories, our thoughts, our feelings, our sensory experiences, our intuitions, and so forth. From the psyche, our concept of ourselves and our place in existence springs forth.
Standing in contrast to the ego is the Jungian concept of the unconscious, which can be split into the collective unconscious and personal unconscious. The collective unconscious refers to the deep-seated and archetypal memories and instincts shared by the entirety of the human race. The personal unconscious is developed through the interaction between the collective unconscious and personal development. Jung himself defined it as:
“Everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things which are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness; all this is the content of the unconscious… Besides these we must include all more or less intentional repressions of painful thought and feelings. I call the sum of these contents the ‘personal unconscious’.”
It is from the collective unconscious that the shadow is grounded. This is because people are the product of both nature through the evolution of the human mind over millions of years (yes, this author is a believer in evolution), and their cultural heritage.
The simplest way of considering the shadow is to think of it as the part of your personality that you do not like. It is the part of yourself you have rejected because you consider it to be weak, flawed, inferior, or even disgusting. The Jungian psychologist, Aniela Jaffe (1903 – 1991), defined the shadow as the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the conscious attitude, are denied expression in life.”
The shadow emerges out of the essential need for choice and opposition in life. The shadow represents all those ‘unchosen’ choices. When we choose to be one way, we choose not to be the other way. As the British philosopher, Alan Watts (1915 – 1973) said:
“It’s always the devil, the unacknowledged one, the outcast, the scapegoat, the bastard, the bad guy, you see, the black sheep of the family. It’s always from that point, that which we could call the fly in the ointment, you see, that generation comes. In other words, in the same way as in the drama to have the play it is necessary to introduce a villain, it’s necessary to introduce a certain level of trouble. So, in the whole scheme of life, there has to be the shadow because without the shadow there can’t be the substance.”
Jung saw the shadow as presenting a “moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality.” Because it represents a side of ourselves that we do not like our instinct is to try and hide and repress our shadow. Often those who have totally rejected their own dark side will unconsciously project the dark or negative aspects of their own personalities onto people or entities that they do not like. The more we condemn the evil in others, Jung observed, the blinder we are to it in ourselves.
Understanding and reconciling oneself to their shadow is an integral part of self-enlightenment. One must make himself consciously aware of the darker elements of their own psyche without being an enemy to it, and then accept it as absolutely present and real. In doing so, it is possible for the individual to integrate the evil within themselves and place their devils in their proper function.