With the recent restrictions which have reduced our normal movements and activities to ‘routine’, we can use this time to reflect on the fragility and preciousness of everything we have. In other words, a good time to take stock of ourselves and direct our minds to some strong free-flowing ideas of who we are. This is a time to examine our own inner worlds, allowing our imagination to pursue what we understand by this strange period that we are experiencing of waiting, this vague sense of longing and our restless processes of frustration and boredom with our indistinct guesses of what the future might bring.
We find our present sense of lethargy and lassitude in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). This French poet saw the Paris of his time as a centre of isolation. In ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ (The Flowers of Evil), he describes how crowds mean loneliness: “Multitude, Solitude!”. These terms are interchangeable for him.
Baudelaire’s transfiguration of Paris as a centre of enclosure where he depicts how lonely, shadowy is a window lit up by a candle: “Il n’est pas d’objet plus ténébreux, plus éblouissant qu’une fenêtre éclairée d’une chandelle”.
The only mode of existence for Baudelaire was to create an inner world which would give him a private sense of belonging. In ‘Le Cygne’ (The Swan), like him, the swan is an urban outcast where “…qui s’était évadé de sa cage” (who had escaped from his cage). The poem ‘Le Spleen’ captures well the poet’s estrangement:
Quand la terre est changée en un cachot humide,
Où l'Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S'en va battant les murs de son aile timide
(When the earth is changing in a damp cell In which Hope like a bat goes beating the walls with her timid wings)
And again later in the same poem he intensifies those days which seem eternal and never-ending as we know so well:
Ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité
Prend les proportions de l’Immortalité
(Ennui, fruit of dreary apathy
takes on dimensions of Immortality)
Baudelaire’s use of ‘spleen’, I think, conveys well our inner feelings during this period of isolation. Like Baudelaire. W.B Yeats (1865-1939) invented an inner world out of whatever supernatural scraps he could muster. To Yeats, what mattered was its “wonder” or its “magic” which could transcend the secular, materialistic world of Ireland of this time. Modern life for Yeats was dull and devoid of any visionary or imaginary ardour. His inner ‘wonderland’ was made up of cyclical patterns of history based on the phases of the moon. To many, this inner world of Yeats might have seemed ludicrous, but it made possible some of his greatest poems.
Like Baudelaire, Yeats used the connection of the Swan-equation but in a very different way. Yeats’ Swan becomes more of a symbol of permanence (similar, in many ways, to John Keats’ Nightingale). In Yeats’ poem “Wild Swans at Coole”, he depicts the permanent glory of the swans against his sense of the transience of human life “…and now my heart is sore / their hearts have not grown old.”
In one of his greatest poems, ‘The Second Coming’, Yeats utilises his theory of the cycles of history to relate the heralding of the inescapable doom of “Things fall apart, the Centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” ending with the pessimism of those great lines “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
As he grew older, however, Yeats found himself unable to accept the onslaught of ‘old age’, comparing himself to ‘a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon stick’. While he felt that his ‘heart’ felt young - sick with desire’. His thirst for his inner world of ‘wonder’ grew even greater that he longed to free himself from his bodily form. In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Yeats transforms himself into an artificial Golden Bird “Once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing”. Having shaken off his human nature, Yeats becomes an inhabitant of the spiritual Byzantium City and will assume a form which ensure him an eternity of freedom from change and human decay. As the Golden Bird, not only will he scorn the “common bird’ or petal / all the complexities of mire or blood” but will become the immortal, incorruptible thing which is now the antithesis of his old age.
Of course without this ‘inner world’ of wonder or inner sanctuary, Yeats could not have written these great poems. You may say that it was a ridiculous ambition. In fact, its senselessness is what exalts it. His inner world conquered rationality by going beyond it. Without the lucid power of his imagination, Yeats’ poetry would not have been so ‘magical’ and ‘meaningful’. His great poems like great music when well recited or heard we do not ask does it make sense or not. They are beautiful in themselves, breathing the air from another planet, as Arnold Schoenberg, the composer, said about his new String Quartet. Likewise, during the lockdown time of isolation, we too can create different states of being by asserting the supremacy of our imagination as Yeats said once “There is no truth/saving in thine own heart”.
Yeats could be though as an ‘escapist’ poet. But it is his pain and his ability to communicate it that justifies it. Like great tragic drama and art Yeats’ great poetical statements give us something to throw in the face of our present crises.
John Coltrane, the jazz musician who lived in the United States from 1926-1967 certainly breathed the air from another planet when he recorded the album ‘A Love Supreme’(1964). North America in the sixties saw the continual turmoil of the civil rights movement, racial injustice and the mistrust of capitalist consumerism which shook the socio-cultural fabric of that society. Coltrane at this time was searching for a ‘new’ self; a transitional period where, in his ‘inner’ worlds he was fortunate enough to discover a world beyond on which his identity could be re-invented. The early Coltrane, where saxophone playing defied gravity with his famous ‘sheets of sound’ in albums such as ‘Blue Train’ and ‘Giant Steps’ (1957), exposed his breathtaking virtuoso performances through constantly changing chords. Later in 1960s, Coltrane began his insatiable desire to reduce everything to a minimum - the essential essences of things. This also coincided with this ‘kicking’ as he would say of his drug and alcohol habits. He even discovered the soprano sax, an instrument which he felt was much more plaintive, a higher-pitched instrument than the tenor sax and therefore more suitable for his now, new image of reducing his music to its simplest essence which hauled Jazz music to a greater pitch of expressivity which was rarely heard before.
In creating the album ‘A Love Supreme’ Coltrane utilised a simple modal sequence - in fact, a simple four-note pattern - like four notes of a scale. His personal belief in finding God made this new composition a work of devotion, a meditation on God searching from within.
Coltrane’s faithful group of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double-bass and Elvin Jones on drums, all help to create the dramatic uplifting sense of a spiritual musical suite dedicated to God. In the opening ‘Acknowledgment’ we have simply Coltrane forming an E major chord which will be the basic essence of what will become the major part of his improvisation. In ‘Resolution’, the second part, we have a wonderful melody made up of some musical intervals and small cells. The group’s playing intensifies throughout the whole performance especially Elvin Jones’s drumming of such an exciting display of polyrhythms. The sense of ‘call’ of Coltrane’s sax to the group’s response in this part is quite remarkable. The third part called ‘Pursuance’ is introduced by Elvin’s drum solo before Coltrane exposes the melody followed by angular and edgy phrases from McCoy Tyner’s piano solo. However, the central section of this part is Coltrane improvising; playing eighteen choruses of the blues using devices such as double tempo, sideslipping (playing outside blues chords), mounting rhythmic intensity and generally forcing the listener’s undivided attention to rise to unusual heights of aural awareness by the sheer energy of the magnificent sax solo.
The last part of ‘A Love Supreme’ is called ‘Psalm’. This is a word-based recitation where Coltrane actually sings the theme showing the depth of his commitment to his meditation on God, involving his whole being. ‘Psalm’ is a poignant conclusion ending as a prayer. All in all, ‘A Love Supreme’ is the chant of Coltrane’s inner world which by today’s standards has acquired mythical proportions.
Baudelaire, Yeats and Coltrane have constructed an inner world on which to build our frustrations and hopes. Yeats again has reminded us that “the artist out of his pain and humiliation constructs for himself habitations”. If these habitations could be seen as a symbol of the ‘butterfly’ of our isolation, then we could agree with Yeats again that
“Wisdom is a butterfly and now a gloomy bird of prey”.