Monthly Archives: October 2010

Folly and Place: Madison, Indiana

We recently returned from a semi-annual camping trip in southern Indiana. After the fourth stay at Clifty Falls State Park, the Madison, Indiana area has begun to shape itself in my memory, but vaguely. New vocabulary words need frequent repeating (more than 10 times) before the student owns and uses them with confidence. New languages appear, at one level of mastery, in the speaker’s dreams. Places, in my experience, require either longer or deeper practice. I have dreamed, in my current recollection, of only four loosely defined places: two from my childhood in Kentucky, one in northern Indiana (the first decade of my adult life), and a single street in Montreal. With the exception of Montreal, which can claim only a few weeks, these places mark seasons and years of eating, sleeping, and traveling across a local landscape. (These five years in Indianapolis will wake up someday, perhaps.) Long before they appear in dreams, places need associations. If these are not forged by the force of events, they are built on repeated exposures.

Madison, Indiana, however, might be an exception. Some places (or rather, the communities that occupy them) cultivate shared and public identities–a kind of personality, narrative, or brand, at once explaining and claiming a cause for existence. Madison has spent a hundred years or more preserving its downtown as an antique. In doing so, it displays a proud, but also sad, and even a bit desperate, character. Of course, I do not know anyone that lives there, and I reflect here upon only the most shallow encounters, but nonetheless, Madison has chosen to preserve a memory of its days as booming city on the Ohio. During the first half of the 19th century, it was the largest city in Indiana–“1,752 souls” in 1830. I’m not sure why it did not become a Louisville or a Cincinnati, but when the railroads and the highways crisscrossed through the city of Indianapolis, the distant Madison was marginalized. Through Indianapolis, central Indiana agriculture and industry had quick and convenient means to trade with larger markets. Indianapolis won much that Madison lost.

Now Madison has adorned itself with historical markers. A century and a half after its golden days, the city prides itself in having avoided becoming a metropolis. As writers of the excellent, digital library project, “River to Rails“, note:

[Madison] maintained her pride in just maintaining. As a result, perhaps no other city in the country can boast of so many homes and businesses on the National Historical Register. … In the long run, who can say if Madison might not have followed the best path after all.

Pride preserved or not, signs of Madison’s (old and relatively recent) desperation are not hard to find. The massive towers of the Indiana Kentucky Electric Corporation (IKEC) power plant loom over the city and are visible or audible from every point in the state park. IKEC is the county’s largest tax payer and employs hundreds, but (built in 1952) it is a visible departure from Madison’s efforts to preserve its heritage. The bridge (first built in 1929) over the Ohio to the tiny town of Milton, Kentucky must have been a similar effort to improve Madison’s economic competitiveness. The impact of the bridge was probably minimal (it merely replaced the ferry business to a very rural county), but the bridge will be rebuilt in the next couple of years. An even older and less successful effort can be found in Clifty Falls State Park. There many of the hiking trails were built on the remnant of Brough’s Folly, a failed attempt to improve Madison’s early access to railroads. In the 1850s John Brough, president of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad and future governor of Ohio, began constructing a winding and less steep track out of the river valley. The track would have made rail traffic to and from Madison easier. The existing route, the Madison Incline (also known as “the cut”), was far too steep. The project ran out of funds and was never completed. Had it been completed, it would have slowed Madison’s economic losses.

Madison Incline

Madison Incline

I’m happy to hike where the railroad construction did not succeed, but I’m sure many families suffered when Madison lost future jobs. Undoubtedly, people moved away from the land that they knew in their dreams, away from the people and neighbors with whom they shared deep, domestic responsibilities. The empty tunnel, the abandoned trestles, and the ceaseless hum of the power plant at Clifty Falls have reignited my interest in questionable moral value of loyalty to place. In recent years I have moved away from my places, physically and intellectually. I have declared my home (broadly speaking) in the world without declaring allegiances to specific locations–cities, states, and even countries. Visiting Madison, Indiana (a place bearing the scars of its self-preservation) and living in the city it could not become (Indianapolis) is a reminder that such decisions are not so clean.

Musk-rose: Lycidas

“The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine” – John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 146.

Rosa arvensis

Redoute, Pierre-Joseph. Rosa arvensis. 1817-1824.

On first finding the musk-rose among the funereal flowers of “Lycidas”, I was ready to object: How is it that the poet would imagine the musk-rose (an autumn flower) in bloom simultaneously with the spring and early summer primroses and pansies? Certainly, I thought, the great poet has succumbed to mere poetic convention. Turning to McHenry’s “A Milton herbal”, I found similar doubts about the poet’s botanical accuracy. While not mentioning the blooming season, McHenry wonders why Milton would think of the musk-rose as a wild plant, native to England. Rosa moschata, he notes, would only have been observed in gardens. Tended with care, the plant would have been unlikely to appear in even the semi-wild hedgerows of southern England. McHenry writes:

The allusion to Orpheus and the mention of the dale in [“Comus”, ln 495], as well Milton’s putting the musk rose and woodbine (honeysuckle, a wild vine) together in [“Lycidas”, ln 146], confirm that Milton thought of the musk rose as a wild plant. (McHenry, 96)

As it turns out, objections of this sort to “Lycidas” are unfair–at least most of the time. (I have a hard time following–or caring for–the critical debate about the poem’s place in pagan-Christian-pastoral cultural transitions. I do not know when Milton fails in that regard, or at least, I do not see it as others have.) In my case, Milton was not his wrong and not my right. The musk-rose in this poem might not have been what we know as the “musk-rose” today, nor even what the botanists knew as R. moschata in Milton’s century … but would that make Milton wrong? A common name is not wrong if it is common, but common to whom?

In this case, we are not reading about Milton’s roses, nor even about Milton’s neighbors’ roses. The musk-rose, like many of the flowers in the catalogue, was borrowed from another poet. Not, this time, from Spenser’s “April Eclogue” (Spenser includes a damask rose, but not a musk), nor from Perdita’s speech in The Winter’s Tale, but from Oberon’s instructions to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here Oberon describes the bower where Titania sleeps:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine (Act II, Scene 1. Ln. 628-31)

These are Shakespeare’s musk-roses, not Milton’s. The question, then, is not “Did Milton think of these roses as wild?” nor is it “Did Milton choose the wrong rose for the season?”; but rather, it is: “What did Shakespeare have in mind when he included the musk-rose in Titania’s canopy?” The answer, of course, is: “Who will ever know the mind of Shakespeare? No one.” However, the rose-sleuth and garden writer Graham Stuart Thomas looks at the text, compares Shakespeare’s usage with that of his contemporaries, and identifies a likely species for the Elizabethan common-named “musk-rose”; not R. moschata, but Rosa arvensis (221). The “field rose”, or an “Ayrshire rose”, grows wildly (as does “woodbine”, usually called “honeysuckle” these days) and would easily make a suitable, musky, scraggly canopy for Titania; it also blooms throughout the summer. Thomas even argues that the rose bears a scent closer to the true “musk”–derived from the scent glands of a small, male Musk deer (224).

If Thomas is right (given his reputation, I think he has been and will be “right”), Shakespeare did not mis-imagine a garden rose for his scene in the forests of fairy-land … but what did Milton imagine? Perhaps Milton did not recall a sight (nor even an odor, as Sims suggests–the Musk-rose does have a sweet, funereal scent), but rather the echo of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although Milton probably saw R. arvensis in hedgerows, it may be the case that he knows the Musk-rose only by second hand. We all write from what we know and what do poets know, if not poetry.


McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.
Sims, James H. 1971. Perdita’s “Flowers O’ Th’ Spring” and “Vernal Flowers” in Lycidas. Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter): 87-90.
Thomas, Graham Stuart. 1994. The Graham Stuart Thomas rose book. Sagapress, Inc./Timber Press, Inc.

[Note: This is the eighth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas and The Glowing Violet: Lycidas.]

On John Schneider’s Aesthetic Supralapsarianism

Theologians who are also believers have an uneasy task: writing something new about an eternal subject, about the very foundations of their most deeply meaningful allegiances. Historically, they have done so at the risk of professional and sometimes personal peril. I am not a theologian, thankfully. I find writing hard enough without having to negotiate personal, social, and ecclesial loyalties. I am, however, a believer and a reader. Here, I too easily become one of those ill-informed critics freely boasting of their unprofessional, but deeply felt religious judgments.

All this to say, I have found a piece of academic theology and I have read it with an urgency I seldom feel for scholarly articles:

John Schneider. 2010. Recent genetic science and Christian theology on human origins: an “aesthetic supralapsarianism”. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 3 (September).

Schneider, a professor at Calvin College, mis-titles or, rather, strategically titles the article. He writes very little of real significance about the impact of “recent genetic science” on theology. In fact, I suspect that he merely sees (as many do) “recent” science as sufficient cause to revisit old debates not with new information, but with renewed (or reminded) energy. In a similar manner, he makes an even more strategic reference to supralapsarianism (supra for above or over and laps for the fall; more or less, the idea that God chose the elect for salvation prior to the sin foreseen). Supralapsarianism is advocated by a slim minority of Calvinist theologians, and so it keeps a small a place at the debating table of reformed Christianity. I suspect, anticipating the outrage that ultimately did arrive, Schneider hopes that an invocation of or affiliation with this minority (one that now includes Alvin Plantinga; see his Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’) will preserve his place at this table, but as it turns out, the article is not really about supralapsarianism, nor even about “aesthetic supralapsarianism”. Instead, Schneider risks his employment and probably angers his church community, by arguing (with a very weak hedge) first, that Adam and Eve need not be real people and second, (or simultaneously because) the story of the fall and the origins of sin have been misunderstood not only by Saint Augustine, but even by the Apostle Paul and the author of the Gospel of Luke. Sin, Schneider posits, while relying partly on Irenaeus of Lyon and partly on a “poetic” reading of Job, cannot be separated from the creation. In other words, and this my paraphrase, there’s no going back to a perfect, sinless creation, in part, because it never existed … at least not in any material way, not in this possible world. Instead, we are going forward, thanks to the mercies of grace, foreordained, to a new creation. The story of the covenant broken by Adam and Eve in the garden becomes not an account of how sin came into the world, but rather a way for humans to understand how it divides us from true communion. While sin (and the chaos and destruction, both human and cosmic, that it brings) hurts, it is the part-cause making us what we have been and necessitating the grace we must receive if we are to ever escape its grip. O felix culpa! Or:

Blessed be the time
That appil take was,
Therefore we moun singen
Deo gracias.

(Adam Lay Ibounden, RPO.)

Doing away with Adam and Eve as actual people is one thing. I’m not certain that I would miss them; their bad decisions are replicated every moment of our lives. If it were not for an exact Adam and Eve to first fail God, it could have been me. I know that much about the origin of human sin and I’m not sure I need to know more. On the other hand, realigning the origins of sin as within a “natural” order, sets the enduring ship of Western theology adrift. If thorns, predators, earthquakes, parasites, diseases, rage, jealousy, fear, and lust are simply a part of how the cosmos functions, by design, who are we to expect salvation from the consequences, grief and pain? Would denying the work of the first Adam deny the good news of the second?

Schneider’s atypical-supralapsarianism does provide a solution for the Christian who is also a good student of evolutionary history and the natural record, or (as was once said) the Christian who is also a good reader of “the book of nature”. Although new to me, I do not know enough theology to judge the degree of innovation here, but as Schneider mentions, this is an “old hat” conflict (new genetic science brings very little to the table), one beginning with Copernicus or at least with the Darwinian revolution. I suspect, however, that the hat is much, much older. Death is just so obviously a part of the world that we know; the rose grows with its roots in the corpse. What would the tiger be without a prey? How would this planet hold itself together without its calamities?

I found the article compelling for the same reasons that I hold it in suspicion. Schneider’s solution may be welcomed by Christians caught in the intellectual contradictions, but it smells a bit too convenient. He insists that the “warrants” of his “proposal in this article do not come primarily from evidence of science”, that (in good Protestant fashion) “the authority of Scripture prevails” in his conclusions, but many readers (as I have) will feel that his efforts aim to realign theology to agree with science. (In fairness, his reading of Job is a powerful one–a reading of which Augustine would probably approve–but a Christian scripture as a source for his argument would have been more convincing. It was Paul that wrote most of the Christian scriptures and if Paul was wrong about the origins of sin … what are we to believe?) I would be more convinced, perhaps, with a less direct approach. When I find that my faith puts me in inconvenient places, even in intellectual self-contradictions, I am reluctant to rely on my wits to find my way out. Better to stay in contradiction than to chase after timely conveniences.

As I tire of this bit of confused commentary, and I draw to a close, I realize that readers may conclude that I think of myself as one of Schneider’s (minor) civilian opponents. I do not. Excluding the scriptures themselves, this is the most important thing I have read all year. John Schneider is in a bit of trouble at Calvin College for having written it. (See: Academic freedom blurs and A Black Mark for Calvin College) Calvin is one of the few places where this kind of work is done. Where the faculty, from time to time, will write about what matters most to them and to the church. For the health of the Protestant mind, I hope that Calvin’s administration will weather the outrage and keep John Schneider on its faculty.

Magic Not Made By Melody

The best part of Elizabeth Bishop‘s sonnet “I am in need of music” is also the least intelligible.

Here is the sonnet:

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

Bishop completes most of the work, the argument of the poem, in the octave. In the first eight lines, she establishes the problem (a fretful unease) and names a remedy (melodious music). The poem itself is an attempt at fashioning a version of this remedy. For my taste, Bishop does the job too well. The abundant alliteration and internal rhyming draws too much attention to artifice. The reader, too soon, sees how the poet hopes to manipulate our senses–like a scary sound track preceding an event in an otherwise too ordinary scene at the movies.

The second stanza (the sestet) also suffers from this overwrought “magic made by melody”, but less so. Although contrived (one may easily surmise the unwritten questions Bishop must have asked herself in the composition of the stanza), the last six lines step away from the argument, away from the intellect and toward an ungrounded sensual gesture. Spells, breathing, sinking and floating, waves and pools, dreamy embraces–these are the impressions of melody on the poet’s sensual self, the remedy to her “bitter-tainted” unease. If these lines refer to nothing outside our subjective, soothing, sensual experiences, it’s still hard not to swoon over the “subaqueous stillness” and the “moon-green pool”.

The sestet works the “magic”, but (even so) I prefer the pivot at the end of the octave, an absolutely befuddling statement: “dream flushed to glow!” Here Bishop writes within herself; she is not watching in the self-critical mirror. In other words, one little ecstatic utterance escapes Bishop’s superb and exacting internal editor. I am fascinated with the phrase not only for its departure from the established course of the poem, but also because it sends me in search of some kind of sense, some kind of logic in the syntax that would explain it. How flushed? “Dream” as a noun or a verb? And “glow”? Why, of all things, “glow”? Yes, the phrase completes the rhyme and certainly leaves no guessing for where the caesura is employed, but beyond these mechanics of the form, what on earth did she mean? I am suggesting, of course, that Bishop did not know what she meant. She had some hints and the phrase is by no means in the wrong poem–the sonnet is packed with images of sleep, water and various auras, but there’s nothing here to paraphrase, and that’s the beauty of it.

“Dream flushed to glow!”: this is not nonsense; this is glossolalia. Just so, Milton’s Adam and Eve were found, before the sentence, already repenting (thanks to “prevenient grace”):

… sighs now breathed
Unutterable which the spirit of prayer
Inspired and winged for Heav’n with speedier flight
Than loudest oratory. (Paradise Lost XI:5-8.)

Sometimes, we do not know what we mean; sometimes, right then, there’s no truer language.