James Shirley – 2 – (“The Triumph of Death”)

“The Triumph of Death” – by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder ( 1525-1569) – oil on panel, 117 cms x 162 cms (1562-3) – collection of Museo del Prado

AG: [reading James Shirley’s “A Dirge”]  – “The glories of our blood and state/Are shadows, not substantial things;/There is no armor against fate;/Death lays his icy hand on kings./Scepter and crown/Must tumble down/And in the dust be equal made/With the poor crooked scythe and spade./  Some men with swords may reap the field/And plant fresh laurels where they kill,/But their strong nerves at last must yield;/They tame but one another still./Early or late/They stoop to fate/And must give up their murmuring breath,/When they, pale captives, creep to death./  The garlands wither on your brow,/Then boast no more your mighty deeds;/Upon death’s purple altar now/See where the victor-victim bleeds./Your heads must come/To the cold tomb;/Only the actions of the just/Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.” – ( nice end – a very nice end, actually, both Christian and Buddhist, the end is something that Marianne Moore picked up on , I think  (probably it’s in this book [sic] .. a late poem by Marianne Moore maybe that..well, I’ll look it up, we’ll get to it later.)

But,  “Scepter and crown/ Must tumble down”, “Early or late /They stoop to fate”, “Your heads must come/ To the cold tomb” are real pretty little short couplets. When I was at Columbia College, I wrote a lot of poems imitating this, this particular one. It seemed just sort of..a little iron-like, compared to some of the earlier pretties, like of (Robert) Herrick, or of (Thomas) Campion, or later of (Edmund) Waller, or even, next, on the next page, (Thomas) Carews, Carew’s little cadence “Ask me no more where Jove bestows”. This is sort of iron-like – “The glories of our blood and state /Are shadows…” (that’s Buddhist), still it’s like really prophetic, and applicable, and practical, and, like a real comment on the nature of our experience, you know, as transitoriness of our experience. And then really interesting like that Does anybody know  Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death“? the painting by (Pieter) Bruegel? – anybody here? – fantastic!

Student: …Is that that large work with all of those figures in it?…

AG: Yes, yes, a large work of all the figures , everybody… everybody.. It’s in the Prado. Yeah, it’s in the Prado Museum and it’s sort of dark and it’s got armies, kings, churches, priests, battling, and every army has an army of skeletons battling against it, and every priest has… you know, like the priests are performing an… extreme unction for somebody, who’s been killed by a skeleton on the ground, and the skeleton is, like, performing, helping him, holding his arms. Then, there’s a king dying, like this, and there’s a skeleton holding him up. And then there’s a horse that has got a skeleton, you know, sort of dying also. So every living being is checkmated by a skeleton. So he’s got an equal number of skeletons and an equal number of people. And the whole canvas is…what’s it called?..

Student: “The Triumph of Death”

AG: Yeah, The Triumph of Death

Student: Is it a modern work?

AG: Bruegel, is a painter of the 15th century, sort of a Gnostic painter of the time of Bosch, Hieronymous Bosch, really worth seeing, and worth looking up – that “The Triumph of Death” – Does anybody know Bruegel’s paintings at all? He’s like Shakespeare or Chaucer or something like that, full of people, full of people, full of people doing things, living in, you know, shitting in the corner, taking pisses, eating pies (Gregory Corsos idea of heaven is to be in a big Bruegel-like bed eating big pies! – all day long – stay in bed all day and eat Bruegel pies! )

Anyway, so this (Shirley’s poem) is like “The Triumph of Death” in that it is ineluctable, immovable death, invincible, the invincibility of death, as.. at least, you know, the physical death.

“Death lays his icy hand on the… “Death lays his icy hand on ..” It’s just accurate. Generalization, but it’s very accurate generalization – “Scepter and crown /Must tumble down’ – (the “Scepter” of power , “crown” of kingship) – “Must tumble down/ And in the dust be equal made/ With the poor crooked scythe and spade.” – (that’s worthy of  Shakespeare – “ the poor crooked scythe” – “poor” meaning .. “poor crooked”, like a poor old scythe, but also the poor man’s, the humble poor, the poor working..worker..the poor.. for poor man’s work, the poor man’s scythe, which fits well with the scythe of death also) – “Blood and state” is a very noble way of saying aristocracy and government – “The glories of our blood and state/ Are shadows, not substantial things”. Then, “there is no armour against fate”, (I guess this was towards the end of any era where people were actually using armour). Then (but dig that)- “Some men with swords may reap the field/ And plant fresh laurels where they kill” (Well, “laurels” would be boasting heroic victory in triumphal poems or triumphant political speeches) –

“But their strong nerves at last must yield” ( “their strong nerves” is great. You know, to see the mighty hero in terms of nerves, and his “strong nerves”, strong nerves yielding – he kind of x-rays the hero there) – So the point is there’s another skeleton with strong nerves, yield. Then,  “They tame but one another still” – (so it’s like power is tamed by powers… the only thing that power can do is hit power, the only use of power is to hit other power, in the sense of aggressive power). With all those rationalizations, the only possible use of all the power of the United States is to hit another power, and the only possible use of Russian power is to hit American power, and between powers hitting powers, “They tame but one another still” . This.. for.. sort of undercutting the entire macho militarist philosophy of “You gotta be strong, you gotta be number one”, (Richard) Nixon’s idea of being number one – “They tame but one another still” –

“Early or late /They stoop to fate /And must give up their murmuring breath,/ When they, pale captives, creep to death.” – (So who’s he talking to when he says “The garlands wither on your brow”? – Me – or somebody) – “The garlands wither on your brow/Then boast no more your mighty deeds” – (that’s really chutzpah, like, directly at him, whoever he’s talking to). Then, there’s a very sort of nice nineteenth century decadent  “Upon death’s purple altar” ? – (For the seventeenth century that’s a really great line – “Upon death’s purple altar” – the body of self, I guess, the bloody body, of the heart) –

“See where the victor-victim bleeds” – (that’s very new-fangledness, that’s a new-fangled idea – the victor/victim) –  Then, very cool about,  “Your heads must come/ To the cold tomb”  (I don’t know, where have I seen this?  -“cool tomb”? – Well, in Auden [the Auden-Pearson anthology], it says “To the cool tomb” and not a “cold tomb” – “cool tomb”, I think is better – you might check that out – I’ll check that out, in fact. – The Auden anthology says “Your heads must come/ To the cool tomb” and the anthology that I brought here.. (which) was made in 1896, says “cold tomb”, but I like “cool tomb” better. Auden says “cool tomb” so I’ll buy the “cool tomb”..

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately sixty-three-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately seventy-two-and-a-quarter minutes in]

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