"Romans Angry About the Inner World -And I Feel it"
Lynda McKinney Lambert
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.”--Albert Einstein
“The Two Worlds” is a central theme in many poems written by American poet, author, and translator - Robert Bly. I have been fascinated by Bly’s poetry since I was first introduced to it many years ago. There is always the image of a “world” or “the Two Worlds” in his work. And, along with the image of “the Two Worlds” is the implication that somehow there is a battle or tension between two worlds or a conquest of one world over another. He speaks often of an “internal/inner” world and an “external/outer” world.
Often, it seems to me, as though his poems are constructed while he is experiencing tremendous pain as he tries to sift through the images in defining “the Two Worlds. The portraits that develop are often grim and deeply sad. He recreates images from everyday life that are horrific. He examines a current historical or political event, while simultaneously examining moments from the distant past or from mythological events. In order to do this effectively he has to be able to transverse between two worlds in himself.
Bly is well known for putting on a mask, playing his ukulele and chanting his poems in a singsong fashion. Everything is memorized. He becomes an ancient actor on a Greek stage; he puts on a mask and takes on a persona who comes to tell a story. The event in the poem takes on intense psychological meaning through the distance of the voice of the “other.”
I have sat mesmerized in the audience and watched him perform his work from memory. Hours of poems, performed on a stage where he sits alone. No props or scenery. He is a contemporary bard, and he enables me to envision what it must have been like to be in the audience in antiquity to hear Homer in person. It is a performance in constellated time.
“The Light Around the Body,” published in 1967, was the second book released by Bly. This book won the National Book Award. It was in this book, which was a departure from the deep image themes of his first book, that Bly developed the thesis of a division of two parts: There is the “inward” and the “outward” human.
In the first line, the narrator asks, “What shall the world do with its children?”
In Bly’s work, there is always a duality of places or things that are mutually exclusive. There is a dichotomy of an “inner world” and an “outer world.” One world can refer to two different places or two different psychological locations and/or conditions.
"The Light Around the Body,” written during the Vietnam War, is a protest of war in general and of American involvement in the Vietnam war in particular. In fact, when Bly won the National Book Award, he donated the prize money to the draft resistance movement. The poems are a celebration of resistance and a call to action in raising the public consciousness.
The narrator compares himself to ancient Romans whom he calls “executives” but points out things he has experienced that escaped their awareness. The narrator is aware of his own body and how he has
And we float
Joyfully on the dark places
There is a feeling of ecstasy in knowing the things that are hidden in dark places – the unknown. As soon as the narrator mentions his own body and the feelings he holds inside himself, he quickly does a turnaround from the feelings of joy to feelings of horror. He begins to give a detailed eyewitness account of the torture and execution of a woman named Drusia, by the “two Romans.” There is a time-lapse or a leap from the present thoughts of the narrator, to another time that is far distant, yet parallel to the present.
…The two Romans had put their trust
In the outer world.
After the torture is completed and she has expired, Drusia’s body is “rolled off onto the ground.” Immediately, the weather changes and a snowfall begins that covers her distorted body. Once the snow begins to fall and covers the body, he says that the executives are surprised and leave the scene of the crime.
Following the account of the murder and execution of Drusia, the narrator/reporter then tells the reader:
The other world is like a thorn
In the ear of a tiny beast!
The fingers of the executives are too thick
To pull it out!
It is like a jagged stone
Flying toward them out of the darkness.
Bly describes what it takes to be a complete human being. A person must be aware of both the inner and outer worlds. The narrator is able to live in both worlds and achieve synchronization and a harmonious end. The German philosopher and mystic, Jacob Boehme, defined Bly’s recognition of the two “men” in the 17th century. Such men would not partake in the kinds of atrocities committed in Vietnam in the 1970s, or in historic Rome, or in present day Iraq.
If there is to be any ‘light around the body’ it will need to come from within, from man’s inner life, and it will need to work its way out into the world, vanquishing war and healing the psyche, and thus making peace possible.
I believe it is in the imagination that we will find the road to peace and the meaning of our humanity here on earth. As “The Light Around the Body” suggests, the centuries that separate the “Angry Romans” from the contemporary “astonished” executives have not succeeded in bringing together the two worlds. The “inner world” is
like a thorn
in the ear of a tiny beast
The deeds of the Romans/executives are covered over and hidden from view by the light snow that has fallen on Drusia’s dead body. We, unfortunately, remain strangers in the land of the imagination.
An examination of ancient Rome provides some insight:
Cicero, a writer and thinker in the first century of Rome considered the “inner” world of wisdom and contemplation, “a waste of time involved in aimless and unprofitable studies which supersede activity – a kind of virtuosity by no means extinct in modern times.” (Cochrane 54) The seductive power of art is achieved “not by argument but by suggestion, stimulating the imagination and exciting the emotions in order to win an assent or produce a conviction of which philosophy, in the narrower sense, must remain forever incapable.” (Cochrane 69)
Rome spawned one of the world’s most famous love poets, Catullus. He was born in Verona (Gallia Cisalpina) around 82 B.C. He was a member of the elite and his father was a personal friend to Julius Caesar. Catullus joined the staff of Gaius Memmius, Governor of Bithynia around 57 B.C. His life was short, and it is believed he died at the early age of thirty. No poems are known to exist after 54 B.C..
Through his poems we can see the personality and disposition of the poet. It is in the lyric poetry of Catullus that we can find for the first time in poetry a sense of the “I” of the narrator. We can read his poems and actually have a sense that we somehow know him intimately. Catullus ’poetry celebrates the human imagination. The “inner” and “outer” world become clearer which is most unusual for the time in which it was written. Catullus’ poems reflect the inner conflicts that all humans experience while living out lives in the “outer” world. They range from songs of love, to messages of deep friendship, to expressions of despair, rage and betrayal. Even though the poems have come down through the centuries in fragments and with inconsistencies, they succeed in stimulating the seductive power of the imagination. Through our imaginations we are able to use our own experiences to fill in the gaps.
Catullus is a consummate artist who chooses to comment both directly and indirectly on his poems themselves and what he is doing with them. …Catullus seems most interested in writing about poetry itself. …know enough about (him) to construct a sense of who he is from the poems themselves. In fact, everything we know about him is created in his poems. Without them we know next to nothing. (Negenborn 2)
Catullus creates a persona for the narrator who was in love and faces utter rejection by the the female figure “Lesbia:”
The first of many important creations in which male poets summon through their poetry the image of a woman whom they love, perhaps at a distance, perhaps not – and whose attraction is so powerful it helps the poet write the poems that, in describing this love affair, define himself. Other such figures include Dante’s Beatrice, and Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’ and ‘your man.’(Negenborn 3)
In Catullus poetry we also have a rejection of what it means to be an upper class Roman – he devotes himself completely to the art of poetry.
He was one of the Poetae Novi or ‘Neoteric Poets,’ who used colloquial language in their work, but also delighted in learned allusion. As a poet, Catullus was revolutionary in ignoring the public audience, and writing intensely about his personal experience for an audience of fellow-poets alone. (Walker)
It was the summer of 2004 when I slowly turned the pages in the hefty volume that I had committed myself to read for a four-day book discussion with colleagues. The two books assigned to us were “Christianity and Classical Culture, A Study of thought and Action From Augustus to Augustine by Charles Norris Cochrane” (Oxford University Press published this heroic effort at re-writing history in 1940, just five years before Cochrane’s death). and “City of God” by Saint Augustine, first published in 1467. A time span of four hundred seventy three years divides the two books and the men who wrote them.
As I read Cochrane’s volume I began to feel a deep sadness settling into my bones. It deepened more with each new chapter as I waded through the history of Rome. I felt as though I had fallen into a deep chasm, surrounded by a Niagara Falls of rhetoric, so far removed from the “inner” me that I could find no way out of the chaotic uncharted waters.
Twelve scholars sat around a pristine table in a sterile, much-too-cold air-conditioned conference room, striving to cross the abyss of those centuries each morning. As I wrapped my sweater around my shoulders for warmth, I thought that surely four hundred seventy three years divided me from the author, too. It was awhile before I realized what the problem was. In fact, it was not until after the four days were over and I had time to sit and think it all through that I became fully aware of the difficulty. I kept feeling that something was missing--Something critical. Some weeks later I picked up a poem by Robert Bly and in the poem I found what my intuition told me had been missing: Romans were angry about the inner world!
Bly had put his poetic finger on the pulse of the problem and he had nailed it down. It was the imagination that was the problem. The “inner” world was absent. Cochrane never actually discussed the possibilities of human imagination or the inner world. Imagination is in the other world. His fingers
…are too thick
to pull it out!
It is like a jagged stone
Flying toward them out of the darkness.
In the Outer World we Trust.
And, I have felt it.
Bly, Robert. The Light Around the Body. NY: Harper Colophone Books, 1967.
Cochrane, Charles Norris. Christianity and Classical Culture. A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2003.
Davis, William V. http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=347
Negenborn, Rudy. http://rudy.negenborn.net/catullus/about_cat.htm
Lynda McKinney Lambert is a freelance writer and visual artist. She is a retired Professor of Fine Arts and Humanities, Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA. She is the author of the book, Concerti: Psalms for the Pilgrimage, Kota Press.
McKinney lives in western Pennsylvania in the Village of Wurtemburg where she writes poetry and essays on art, literature and faith. Currently, she is working on two books to be published in 2016. One is a book of essays and memoirs; the second is a book of poetry. Lynda’s story and fiber art is scheduled to be published in the forthcoming book, Artful Alchemy, by Barbara Williamson and Anne Copeland, in January 2016.