Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bill Monroe and Romantic Agony

The home page of my web browser is set to The Writer's Almanac, and to be introduced to a new poem at the start of the day rarely fails to provide me with a thrill. (For a while a couple of years ago I was also the crank lady who sent them exasperated emails about the lack of research and sloppy editing in their writer profiles -- things like getting the plot of my favorite novel, The End of the Affair,  entirely wrong, and making assertions along the lines of "the novels of Thomas Mann have now fallen into neglect" -- but they've improved.)

Although today is the birthday of William Wordsworth, the Writer's Almanac poem of the day is the text of a song by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe:

Sittin' alone in the moonlight,
Thinkin' of the days gone by,
Wonderin' about my darlin'.
I can still hear her sayin' good-bye.

Oh, the moon glows pale as I sit here.
Each little star seems to whisper and say,
"Your sweetheart has found another,
And now she is far, far away."

It reminded me of a recent conversation with Melanie B in the combox here, about the notion that all poetry is about nostalgia for a never-to-return Golden Age. And I was struck by how much the Bill Monroe song resembled the premise of Schubert's great song cycle Winterreise, the first number of which, "Gute Nacht" (Good Night), is sung here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by an unidentified pianist:

Having been disappointed in love, the nameless protagonist of Schubert's song cycle goes off on foot across the winter countryside, growing more and more alienated from society as his journey continues.  In the last song, he throws in his lot with an outcast, mentally disabled organ grinder who he sees wandering barefoot over the ice.

Here is the text of "Gute Nacht," by Wilhelm Müller, translated by Arthur Rishi:

As a stranger I arrived,
As a stranger again I leave.
May was kind to me
With many bunches of flowers.
The girl spoke of love,
Her mother even of marriage, -
Now the world is bleak,
The path covered by snow.

I cannot choose the time
Of my departure;
I must find my own way
In this darkness.
With a shadow cast by the moonlight
As my traveling companion
I'll search for animal tracks
On the white fields.

Why should I linger, waiting
Until I am driven out?
Let stray dogs howl
Outside their master's house;
Love loves to wander
God has made her so
From one to the other.
Dear love, good night!

I will not disturb you in your dreaming,
It would be a pity to disturb your rest;
You shall not hear my footsteps
Softly, softly shut the door!
On my way out I'll write
"Good Night" on the gate,
So that you may see
That I have thought of you.

While doing research for my book project recently, I came across an essay entitled "Wounds and Beauty" by the painter and scholar Bruce Herman.  Herman suggests that the prevailing Western notion of beauty since 1750 has been an emblem of the Romantic longing for the lost Golden Age:  "Beauty," he writes, "is everywhere colonized by the Romantic longing for perpetual youth."  Herman posits

the possibility of a clear-eyed adult aesthetic that bears the marks of Christ's resurrected body -- marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it to redemption, healing, and eternity.  The ascended Christ still bears earthly wounds, and his new body can be treated as a starting point for a new aesthetic -- a broken beauty if you will -- and a means of working through and beyond pain to a perfection that need not participate in [Romantic] idealization.

Herman suggests that Romantic yearning is not only untenable, but unsavory, even antithetical to the Christian longing for heaven.  Indeed, the thread of complete personal annihilation, certainly antagonistic to the Christian ethos, hangs heavily over the Romantic quest for a lost Golden Age.  We should, Herman exhorts, long for the future in heaven, not for the past.

The Bill Monroe song has all the elements of the Romantic argument:  grief, loss, rejection in love, yearning for the past, solitude, and the countryside by night; but its protagonist restrains himself from the more Wertherian extremes of disappointed lovers of the previous century.  I suppose that if we are to mourn in this life -- and we are -- it's better to do it sitting alone in the moonlight for a spell than wandering off across the frozen landscape into ever-increasing neurosis and alienation.  It's worth remembering that the words of the most famous song by Bill Monroe's contemporary, Hank Williams, are “I'm so lonesome I could cry,” and not “I'm so lonesome I could die."

There are numerous performances of the Bill Monroe song on Youtube, but none by Monroe himself, so I'll leave you with this particularly fine one:


Rodak said...

Very beautiful post, as usual. One of my poems, entitled "Before the Fall" touches thematically on what you're writing about here, I think--an appreciation of the beauty of scars.

Rodak said...

Here is one of my favorite bands, playing of one my favorite songs of theirs, and playing it in Brooklyn!
I think it that the feelings it evokes fit in with this post.

Pentimento said...

I think your poem speaks to Bruce Herman's argument.

The Wilco song is interesting because the "wandering" party is a woman, and the man is left mired in domesticity, which turns the Romantic paradigm, at least as expressed in several famous song cycles by Schubert, Schumann, and Mahler, on its head. (Also it is very funky.) There is a great song cycle by Schumann about a woman's life and love -- in fact, that's what it's called, Frauenliebe und -Leben -- but it is not one of the "wandering" cycles, needless to say. It's about the joys of a woman's life circumscribed by her domestic circumstances. Here is the fourth song, "Du ring an meinem Finger," in a very beautiful performance:

A translation of the text:

You ring on my finger,
my little golden ring,
I press you piously upon my lips
piously upon my heart.

I had dreamt it,
the tranquil, lovely dream of childhood,
I found myself alone and lost
in barren, infinite space.

Thou ring on my finger,
thou hast taught me for the first time,
hast opened my gaze unto
the endless, deep value of life.

I want to serve him, live for him,
belong to him entire,
Give myself and find myself
transfigured in his radiance.

You ring on my finger,
my little golden ring,
I press you piously upon lips,
piously upon my heart.

Rodak said...

Thanks for the clip, it is very beautiful--sound and light.
The Wilco tune particularly moves me, because that is my precise personal reaction to similar circumstances.
Contemporary women who will tolerate being circumscribed by their domestic circumstances, much less wanting that, are, I think, kinda hard to find.

Rodak said...

Thanks for the clip, it is very beautiful--sound and light.
The Wilco tune particularly moves me, because that is my precise personal reaction to similar circumstances.
Contemporary women who will tolerate being circumscribed by their domestic circumstances, much less wanting that, are, I think, kinda hard to find.

Pentimento said...

I dunno, R; if you click over to some of the blogs on my blogroll, I think you'll find plenty of women who do tolerate it and even love it, and others who have given up the gratification of studies and careers in order to take it on, and still others who very much want to make that trade.

Rodak said...

I guess that it's just that so many of us have been "looking for love in all the wrong places?"

Pentimento said...

Oh, I hear you. One good that the interwebs have brought to our society, I think, is that, if you are looking for a partner in a specific niche group (say, a Catholic woman who wants to devote herself to the cultivation of home and children after marriage), the web makes it a lot easier to throw yourself into that pool. There are all kinds of niche dating groups, after all.

Rodak said...

Oh, I'm not currently looking for a partner . The connections I'm making now fall into the category of "Remembrances of Things Past." I do very much enjoy associating with creative and loving people on the web, however.

Pentimento said...

Me too. I've made some of my best friends through this blog.

Rodak said...

I can well understand that. You have much to offer people.

Pentimento said...

I don't know about that, but thank you!

Rodak said...

Fortunately, you don't need to take my word for it.

Melanie B said...

I'm much more satisfied by the idea that beauty = nostalgia is a legacy of the Romantics than that it's a universal idea.

In the middle of my college career I reluctantly decided that somewhere along the line I'd fallen out of love with Romanticism. It felt like a betrayal of my former self. And yet suddenly I had no patience for the endless nostalgia, the pining for a Golden Age that never was. It felt like a big lie. And I hated to see what agonies it put my best friend through. For that matter she's still rather a lost soul, searching endlessly for her lost youth and growing further away from it every year and seeming more and more sad. Very unsavory indeed.

I love the idea of "a clear-eyed adult aesthetic that bears the marks of Christ's resurrected body -- marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it to redemption, healing, and eternity."

That seems to me to be a fairly concise statement of what I've been searching for for most of the past decade. Perhaps that is at the heart of my failure as a grad student. I was in search of an adult Christian aesthetic in a department adrift in adolescent post-modern theoretical naval-gazing. I needed a clear-eyed mentor to help me realize what it was I was longing for and instead all my profs were more lost than I was.

I'll probably never return to academia. I'm definitely one of those women who welcomes being "circumscribed" by my domestic circumstances. Somehow I see much more clearly here among the sippy cups and poopy diapers than I ever did in the halls of academe.

I have found much wiser mentors and greater discussions of books and ideas here on the internet (and especially here on your blog) than I ever did there where it seemed like walls were thrown up in my way any time I ever started to get close to my clear-eyed aesthetic.

Pentimento said...

Thank you so much for this comment, Melanie. It really hits home for me, though I didn't start to fall out of love with the Romantic aesthetic till last week or so myself. And the music will always be compelling to the point of enchantment to me -- Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, etc. I'd love to read more of your genesis away from Romanticism toward the aesthetic of Christian motherhood.

As you may know from reading this blog, I love Brahms especially, and yet he seems to me the archetypical Romantic -- a free spirit, a wanderer, and a solitary genius. At the same time, he was never able to marry, because, or at least it seems so from the historical evidence (they burned all their letters to each other), his great love, Clara Schumann, somehow fell short of his Romantic ideal. After the death of her husband, Robert Schumann, in an asylum, she expected Brahms to propose to her, but he simply lacked the maturity (granted, she was fourteen years older and already had eight children). Later, Brahms, already old, proposed marriage to one of Clara's daughters, who rejected him. This seems to me both pathetic and emblematic of the failure of Romanticism.

Melanie B said...

Of course if you want me to expand, I'll have to clarify a little. I don't really dislike all of the Romantic poets. I can still tolerate quite a bit of Wordsworth and I adore Coleridge and Keats. But I think both of them have a maturity that many of their Romantic brethren lack. And Coleridge at least did have a Christian aesthetic, so perhaps he's an anomaly.

I'll confess I know much more about Romanticism as a literary movement than about the parallel development in music. When it comes to music I'm pretty unschooled. I've listened widely but not deeply and so can't offer much in the way of analysis.

As for your question about my movement from Romanticism toward an aesthetic of Christian motherhood... I started to write something here and goodness, I'm afraid you hit on something there.

I'm afraid this is going to turn into a nostalgia piece (ironically) wandering through my past, revisiting my academic career. I'm going to ramble and get off track but it's hard for me to pinpoint exactly how I got to where I am now without retracing my steps. Perhaps I should make this into a blog post instead of taking over your comment thread.

I've been looking for a way to frame a reflection on my academic career and how it relates to where I am now as a stay at home mother. I think this is exactly the opening I've been looking for.

Pentimento said...

It's definitely a huge enough topic that it calls for a full-fledged blog post. I can't wait to read it.