Starry mystery of the eternal skies!
To-night I walk the verges of the grave:
The shallow things that charm life and enslave
Fall off: the gaunt world stands without disguise.
Hope, starry mystery, to the world-sick eyes:
Unfold, thou aching void, to thoughts that crave
The secret of thy secret, though I rave.
Better to rave than live in sick surmise.
The moon, and all the stars about the pole.
Swim round me, and I travel in dull pain,
A dumb Want in the solitude of Time.
What means it all ? Whence comes, and to what goal?
Whence, what am I whose life seems all in vain?
— Earth, sea, and sky stand silent and sublime.
Happy Halloween. This trick or treat connects sonnets of Evelyn Douglas (John Barlas), the theater of Phantasmagoria and the Christian text, The Art of Dying. Where do I see a common thread? The answer is in the imagery of the macabre, which today we associate with Halloween, but was common in religion, architecture, art and literature from the middle ages through the early 1900’s.
Deaths constant presence, a source of mystery, solace and sorrow, for the whole of human history has diminished in our sanitized modern experience. Health care having changed, for most of us, our first hand knowledge of death, relegating it to an infrequent stranger, an antiseptic ghost that exists outside of our homes and daily lives. Death in the middle ages and Victorian England was an ever-present master, a very real specter that haunted from the miracle of birth to all facets of life. The language and experience of death, a central inspiration of classical poetry, is spoken more seldom today. We have turned the macabre into a mere light-hearted entertainment of October, not a reflection of our human experience, reconciling Life with the inevitability of Death, light with dark.
Ars Morendi, The Art of Dying, is a Christian text. Published first in Germany in the 1400’s and then revised and republished in the 1500’s. It was written during the context of the Black Death, the depopulation of parts of Europe and the following social unrest that occurred. Illustrated with graphic woodcuts like the one above, it provides instruction in how to approach death with propriety. It was an unexpected response by the Roman Catholic Church, whose ranks were hard hit by plague. It gave to laymen, the precepts of preparing for a good death. The idea of the Art of Death, became popular among both Protestants and Catholics, lessening fear and providing relief to both the living and the dying.
The imagery of the Art of Dying may appear graphic to current religious sensibilities; with demons alongside angels, both waiting for the soul to emerge from the dying man’s mouth, but was common in churches and religious texts of its era. It should be no surprise then that the macabre made the jump from religious to theatrical. Phantasmagoria, a common theatrical experience across Europe in the 1800s, combined elements of what we would consider a séance with good old-fashioned scare tactics with projected imagery of skeletons, shadowy apparitions, sound effects and theatrical tricks. Think of phantasmagoria as the Friday The Thirteenth horror movies of their day.
John Barlas, an under appreciated sonneteer, a friend of Oscar Wilde, an anarchist and ardent socialist, published remarkable poems and sonnets under the name Evelyn Douglas. Barlas also wrote for the phantasmagoria in London. His connection to sonnets and phantasmagoria may seem at odds, but fits together seamlessly with his poetic vision. Barlas’ use of color, flames, lust and passion in his writing, weave imagery of romantic beauty with the macabre as part of the natural order. A perspective that would feel perfectly at home, if we were able to walk the landscape of the grime infested alleys of London in the late 1900’s.
Barlas’ book, Phantasmagoria: Love Sonnets, delves deeply into the themes of love, passion, life and death. Here are two of his sonnets for your Halloween pleasure. For a complete collection check out the website Sonnet Central.
As a flower springs up out of dark and cold,
Drawn by the gracious beauty of the light,
A bud that knows not all its own delight,
Till opening to one blaze of red and gold
Its deep-involvèd splendours, fold by fold,
It yields the perfume of its being one night,
Touches with conscious joy its nature’s height,
Then withers back into the crumbling mould:
So love from the human spirit’s lonely lair,
Nourished in moving darkness and damp gloom;
And peeps forth shyly to the golden air,
–A mere bud, but a blossom in its womb,
That knows itself a moment of brief bloom,
Then withers back into the soul’s despair.
Wave after wave arises from the deep,
And slips back into silence and the grave:
It matters not whether it fret and rave
And foam at lip with fury, or still keep
A quiet motion: both sink into sleep,
The same cold sleep, and the great sea, that gave,
Receives again their life, wave after wave.
Shall we who think of it give thanks or weep?
I know not; only would the law not lay
With love as life! for as our lives emerge
From the vague sea to sing their own brief dirge;
So out of each of these, and vain as they,
Love after love arises like a surge,
And sighs, and passes in the sigh away.
Poems Lyrical and Dramatic, by Evelyn Douglas. 1894.
Phantasmagoria: Love Sonnets, by Evelyn Douglas, 1887.
©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry. Other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.