POETS Day! Henry Vaughan and The Yellow King
I started watching True Detective on Max a few weeks ago. I remember reading about the show when it came out in 2014. It was supposed to have all manner of Easter eggs from supernatural horror works. One article made a big deal about references to The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers so I bought that book as a $0.99 Kindle download and promptly forgot about it. I read that Chambers was a big influence on Lovecraft whose complete works I had downloaded for a buck or two some long time before and never read, but I’ve read all the Sandman comics and played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons so at the very least something influenced by the same authors who were influences on the authors of some other stuff I liked was the sort of thing I was interested in being interested in. I promptly forgot about the show.
A Lincoln commercial with Matthew McConaughey aired during College Gameday a few weeks ago and I had an “Oh, Yeah!” moment. It was worth the wait. McConaughey and Harrelson are really good, delivering lines that could have gone off the rails if played wrong. There was one moment where Harrelson’s character watched a gruesome video of a crime and awkwardly has to shout “No!” It didn’t work, didn’t fit the character, and broke what should have been a pivotal moment, but I’m not sure what else he could have done with the line as written. In fact, it highlighted what a hard job the two leads had.
Don’t mistake me. I’m not faulting the screen writers. If anything, I’m impressed with their resolve. That script asked for actors who could play eccentricities as commonplace and the writers trusted themselves and their casting to pull it off. It was risky and I think they deserve cake for doing something hard even with that one syllable that I can’t blame Harrelson for.
There were a few reviews that told me I wouldn’t like Season 2, but I did. Maybe I’m not discerning enough. True Detective changes casts every season and in this one Colin Farell, Amy McAdams, and Taylor Kitch were spot on playing messed up cops. Vince Vaughn may not have ever been in a scene he didn’t own. I’ll go back as far as Swingers with that. He makes a suit look good too; more than any actor I can think of since Cary Grant. (Side note: There are unexpected pictures where Paul Manafort makes a suit look more comfortable and natural than clothing has a right to be.)
I started Season 3 last night, and in the first episode Mahershala Ali’s detective meets the schoolteacher later to be his character’s wife, played by Carmen Ejogo. In that scene she’s reading poetry to her class and I was curious what the poem was. I Googled a few words and didn’t immediately find it, but I did stumble upon this week’s poet, Henry Vaughan (1621-1695.) I can’t figure out why. Maybe a line of his was close enough to one from the poem Ejogo was reading – “Tell Me a Story” by Robert Penn Warren – to trigger an algorithmic pluck from what I thought was obscurity.
It turns out I knew who Vaughan was, or there’s evidence that I did at one time. He’s in my high-school copy of Norton Anthology of English Literature. I made marginalia.
By his poem “Regeneration” I wrote “Puritan Poets?” It’s by the lines “Where, since he stopped there, only go/Prophets and friends of God,” so I suppose Mr. Hames told our class that meant Puritans. Norton numbers every fifth line of poetry for reference but I still felt it necessary to write “32” by the title of “The Retreat” and “32” at the end, two lines below the typed “30.” I have no idea what “gave him work” means but thirty plus years ago I felt the need to write it after the poem “Corruption.” I don’t remember ever coming across Vaughan before, but I clearly did. It’s disturbing how little my handwriting has changed.
Here’s the Robert Penn Warren poem read in that episode of True Detective:
Tell Me A Story
Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
[ A ]
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
[ B ]
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
It gets a little spacey with “great distances, and starlight” but it’s not what the owner of a couple of unread books whose themes and atmosphere can be inferred from some comic books and a role-playing game would consider Lovecraftian. To be fair, True Detective mentions a few things from The Yellow King but it’s window dressing rather than plotting and that occult aura is absent in Season 2. I’ve only seen the one episode of Season 3 so I don’t yet know if it gets freaky or not. Still, the show’s wrapped in a Twilight Zone aura to me because that’s the way I thought of it going in. Thankfully, Vaughan delivers what Warren does not.
Vaughan trained as a lawyer but after a stint on the losing side of the English Civil War returned home to Wales and set up practice as a physician. He published only a few works between 1646 and 1655 and then gave up poetry; at least gave up writing poetry for the public. He was one of few poets carrying on certain aspects of metaphysical verse in the 1650s. He ventured more than most beyond the prime material plane. According to Norton,
“Vaughan’s twin brother Thomas was an esoteric, hermetic, philosopher, an alchemist, and a student of occult correspondences. Vaughan’s poems often imply some knowledge of these ‘secret doctrines’ – doctrines in which folklore, sympathetic magic, religious symbolism, and the rudiments of chemical affinity rub elbows under the aegis of the mythical Egyptian teacher Hermes Trismegistus.”
Just the name Hermes Trismegistus is connection enough to what I would think sounds like a Lovecraft character to tell me that something’s up. Then the normally staid and dry biographers of the older Norton Anthology series go off the rails, finishing Vaughan’s entry with the following:
“There is a kind of silver-gray purity in Vaughan’s finest work, which, though comparable to Herbert’s and tangibly influenced by it, is more nervous and restive, more apt to dissolve the physical book under our hands, turning it into the living mind and immediate soul of a man.”
The biographies are typically informative and occasionally witty, but this is the first one I’ve seen that was written on the back side of a psylocibin jaunt.
Clearly something is working behind the scenes. I suddenly decide to watch a forgotten show I’m told was inspired by mysticism and “the genres of supernatural horror and weird fiction” and then, when searching for a poem related to that show I’m inexplicable directed to a poem by a different poet? A poem that had no discernable connection to the phrase put in the Google search? The poet has occult connections? Norton breaks character? It’s like someone is leaving clues, scattered but not hidden. Harry Vaughan? Vince Vaughn? If I had read Lovecraft, I might think I’d fallen into the beginning of one of his stories.
So Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Celebrate POETS Day by escaping the bounds of your workplace a few hours before you’re technically supposed to leave and spend those extra few hours of weekend watching a show you wanted to watch but never got around to. It may lead to some really enjoyable verse.
This week’s poem is Henry Vaughan’s “The World.” It’s four fifteen-line stanzas with an aaabbccddeeffgg rhyme scheme (each stanza has its own rhyme so the second would be hhhiijjkkllmmnn, etc.) There are patches where he uses too many breaks in my opinion. The images are wonderful but the “short clause stop, clause stop, short clause stop” is distracting. I ran into this issue a few weeks ago when reading Joyce. I don’t know why but it’s easier to get past here.
The opening is a revelation; an awakening of a new outlook. Vaughan follows with examples of human shortsightedness reflected in light of the divine. Interestingly, Norman Podhoretz, legendary editor of Commentary, has a story about this poem. I read about it in the article “Aligned with Liberty” from the September 2010 issue of The New Criterion. The article was a review by Sol Stern of Norman Podhoritz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers so this is sort of confusing but it’s Stern quoting Jeffers quoting Podhoretz and then one or both of them telling us about a connection Podhoretz made. Layers upon layers upon layers:
“Walking in the woods near his country house one night in January 1970, Norman Podhoretz had an epiphany. Against the evening sky, he later recalled, he saw ‘a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge.’ Podhoretz compared his vision to a verse by the seventeenth-century English poet Henry Vaughan that began, ‘I saw eternity the other night.’”
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow’r.
The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg’d the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work’d under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain’d about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.
The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg’d each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac’d heav’n in sense,
And scorn’d pretence,
While others, slipp’d into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper’d thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.”