Janmot’s soulful eulogy

Louis Janmot’s “The Poem of the Soul” series is incredible. I discovered it after first encountering “The Wrong Path”:

Poem of the Soul- The Wrong Path.png

What did Janmot paint this series, and what is he trying to convey in this arresting and ominous scene? In short, he was responding as a Christian to the dechristening of 19th century France:

Janmot has made an extraordinary accomplishment that has remained unique in Western European painting. He dedicated all his life to a series of thirty-four paintings called ‘The poem of the soul’. Eighteen of these paintings, which date from 1836 to 1855, are painted in colour. The seventeen drawings, which he made after 1855, are in black and white. The paintings are accompanied by a long poem on the same subject. Paintings and poem document and explain each other.

The poem is about the birth and life of a boy, a new soul on earth F6 . God and the angels decide on life (Génération divine), a guardian angel brings life to earth (Le passage des âmes) and the boy finds a loving mother (L’ange et la mère). The boy is joined by a companion girl (Le printemps). They play together in an ideal and untouched paradise. Both their souls retain images of their previous life in the heavens (Souvenir du ciel). The children remain together from childhood to adolescence. They leave their family (Le toit paternel), face the dangers of a secularised university (Le mauvais sentier), the wrong path for them, which will lose their souls (Le cauchemar). But they encounter a wise man who teaches them religious education (Le grain de blé) and shows them the path of Catholic faith (Première communion). The children grow up to adolescents (Virginitas) and start to love each other with a pure platonic love (L’échelle d’or). Time goes by (Rayons de soleil). They climb the hills of life (Sur la montagne), live a simple life in the midst of nature (Un soir). Their souls join (Le vol de l’âme) and fly to the heavens (L’idéal). But the boy cannot follow and is thrown back to earth where he mourns on the tomb of his beloved (Réalité).

The black and white drawings take over from that point. The boy still lingers in the solitude of a forest (Solitude), yet he finds new energy at the beaches, a new touch of infinity to his soul (L’infini). He dreams and receives the revelation of carnal beauty (Rêve de feu). The lovers are joined (Amour), but in a true sensual, earthly love now. Only for a short time: the dream ends (Adieu), the lady has to leave again. In solitude, the young man falls in despair and doubt (Le doute). This is a moment the devil has awaited (L’esprit du mal). He tempts the boy to an orgy (L’orgie), so the youth loses his soul and his God (Sans Dieu). The black hooded phantom now accompanies the man (Le fantôme), his fall continues to a total ending (Chute fatale). In a macabre scene, the man is bound to the corpse of his beloved (Supplice de Mézence), tearing it with him across mountains, and all the generations of Evil are visited by him (La génération du mal). His soul however longs again for purity. He prays and his mother intercedes on his behalf to God (Intercession maternelle). Finally, faith triumphs over evil (La délivrance) and the soul is elevated to the Heavens (Sursum corda).

Janmot has been thoroughly inspired for his poem and series of pictures by Catholic faith. He was one of the representatives of a struggling generation. Since the end of the eighteenth century France and Europe had entered a struggle for the education of the young. For Janmot this was a struggle for the soul of man. …

His painting ‘Le mauvais sentier’, the wrong path, is a hallucinating representation of Janmot’s feeling about secular education in France. At each step of the children along their road of knowledge, science and literature professors grow out of the wall and lead, tempt them further into what Janmot considered to be the wrong, entirely secularised path. This kind of education corrupted the soul. …

Janmot uses Classicist techniques for presenting profoundly Romantic and religious ideas. He applied themes from antiquity however as symbols of the republic and past revolutions: the ‘Orgy’ is in a Greek temple and ‘Chute fatale’ or ‘Fatal Fall’ uses forms that could come out of an Ingres or a David painting. Janmot deliberately wanted to break with Neo-Classical French style and clearly favoured the purity of untouched nature.

The paintings of Janmot are magnificent, large and important works of art that illustrate one of the great tendencies of the battle of ideas that were the essence of the nineteenth century. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon shows them in all their glory next to each other. The paintings are to be admired as the dedication of a great artist to his ideas. Janmot of course was a great Romantic artist. He devoted his life and his creativity to one idea only, a eulogy in the defence of the soul. Here was an artist not gifted with the power of a genius, devoting all his creative energy to an idea that most people of his times and almost all of ours would mock. We may find Janmot very naive and we may regret his futile effort. Yet, his series on the soul represents the cravings of many persons of Western Europe of the nineteenth century. Many Romantics sought the ideals of medieval and Renaissance Christianism and even though Europe was de-christened in the end, the values and messages of Christianism did not die out.

“A eulogy in defense of the soul”.

Try to love the questions

In Washington tonight thru Sunday for the March for Life and Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network reasons. Rainer Maria Rilke, meanwhile, provides consolation in difficult moments:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved
in your heart and try to love the
questions themselves, like locked
rooms and like books that are now
written in a very foreign tongue. Do
not now seek the answers, which
cannot be given you because you
would not be able to live them. And
the point is, to live everything. Live the
questions now. Perhaps you will then
gradually, without noticing it, live
along some distant day into the
answer.

 

Lady Hollow

As much as Hollow has been Michael and Ben Novak’s doggy, she has been and continues to be a familiar, remarkable, and much loved part of the town of Ave Maria’s community life. Born somewhere in the wilds of Colorado, found by a rancher, and rescued by Michael’s daughter Jana at the last moment at a shelter, Hollow always carried with her a bit of that Colorado ease and agreeableness that I see in my own family who live there. I think of her as basically wolfish in nature.

Hollow’s an example of the sort of creature that one comes across only every so often in life whose essential nature, temperament, and characteristics are so basically reassuring and pleasant that she makes an impression without even trying to do so. Anyway, I’ve loved Hollow for years. And Ben Novak captured a bit of her spirit a few months ago when he shared this bit of poetry with me:

Lady Hollow
Ben Novak

Hollow does not ask why
Flowers grow or rivers flow
Or mountains rise or a bird flies.
Hollow does not know yesterday
Or anything that came before.

Though she remembers
Who was kind and where she lives,
What she likes, and who likes her.
Hollow remembers well the box
Her milkbones come from,
And where her bones are buried.
And where she likes to sleep,
And what time to wake me each morn
By crawling across the pillows at 6:00 am
to nuzzle her snout against my face.

At other times of day,
Hollow remembers when it’s time
To take me for a walk.
She nuzzles my hand, or straightens up
On her hind legs to paw my forearm till I stand up,
And knows exactly where to go and what to do
when I need to change clothes or
Put on my walking shoes;
She knows to jump up on my bed
And crawl to the edge where I can pet her
As opposed to lying near the pillows
When she merely wants to sleep.

Oh, she remembers it all for the next hour,
Where I walk and where to turn and where I stop,
Whether we take one route or another.
She remembers how we cross the boulevard,
Where she always stops beside my leg,
And does not move till I say “Heel,”
Though she has forgotten what it means to heel,
And merely runs ahead.

And she remembers where I am
As we walk each morn and eve,
Follows me or runs ahead and
Rummages through the bushes,
But always with an eye on me
To run up from behind
Or when she runs ahead,
To stop, turn around and catch my eye,
And wait till I catch up.

She remembers when I sit down along the way,
To come back and lie down nearby,
And jump up when my rest is done,
To continue on our walk.

She remembers how I like to sit each morn,
Usually just before dawn,
And smoke a cigarette, or two, or three,
On the stone bench by the fountain
In front of the Oratory,
Where she lies down nearby,
And together we watch the sun come up,
And the joggers run by,
And the cars drive by
On their way to early work.

She remembers to walk with me
Along the sidewalk all the way to where,
We turn to go between the houses
Back to the alley toward our home,
Where she is free to leave me
And run through the neighborhood
To check out everything,
Stopping at the lady’s house
Who gives her a morning treat,
And visiting the Campbells for her
Morning slice of American cheese,
And to be back scratching at my door
Within ten minutes or so.

And she remembers to eat daintily, like a lady,
Who gingerly takes the treat I offer,
Then drops it,
Just like ladies in olden times
Would drop a handkerchief
To allow a gentleman to pick it up for her;
Just so, Hollow drops her treat and looks at me
To pick it up and offer it again
So that she can, oh so lightly, take it
As though she is doing me a favor.

Sweet and silly Christmas things

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
“The church looks nice” on Christmas Day.

Provincial public houses blaze
And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says “Merry Christmas to you all.”

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad,
And Christmas-morning bells say “Come!”
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

John Betjeman

One short sleep past…

Apropos of nothing, other than a reality we all face:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

—John Donne

Old Ironsides

Another historical anecdote I enjoyed from David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, was the role that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s “Old Ironsides” poem played in conserving the USS Constitution, commissioned in 1794 and our oldest serving naval ship:

Old Ironsides

Aye tear her tattered ensign down
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;—
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

 

Bear those ills we have

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause. There’s the respect
that makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
the Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely, [F: poor]
the pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay, [F: disprized]
the insolence of Office, and the spurns
that patient merit of the unworthy takes,
when he himself might his Quietus make
with a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
to grunt and sweat under a weary life,
but that the dread of something after death,
the undiscovered country, from whose bourn
no traveller returns, puzzles the will,
and makes us rather bear those ills we have,
than fly to others that we know not of.

—Prince Hamlet