One of the first was Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem.” It begins, “May his soul increase… Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace/And saw within the moonlight in his room/Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom/An angel writing in a book of gold—”
The sight didn’t terrify Ben Adhem. “Exceeding peace had made Ben About bold/And to the presence in the room, he said, ‘What writest thou?’—The vision raised its head,” and that “its” is a disappointment, for surely, of all beings, an angel is feminine?
It turns out this vision is writing “The names of those who love the Lord”—and Ben Abou is not one of them. But all it takes is him asking to be included—no proof required—and another night, and when the vision reappears and shows him the list “And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”
It may be that Hunt’s poem was based on the endless argument between Christians as to whether faith or deeds gains entrance to heaven; it may be that Hunt is forgotten now as a poet but remembered as the man who introduced Keats, Browning and Tennyson to the public, and was so well known in the mid-nineteenth century in England that the painter Fournier imagined him standing by Shelley’s funeral pyre on a Greek beach—and yes, Shelley was drowned in a sailing accident and burned by his friends on the beach, and one of them snatched his heart out of the fire…
What does all of this have to do with the price of eggs?
Nothing at all.
But it does have to do with inspiration.
Images, and words.
A Pre-Raphael painting called The Blessed Demoiselle set me to wondering and imagining, and does so still. It’s no accident that imagining and imaging are so closely linked. I didn’t know who Dante Gabriel Rossetti was, nor that his painting was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” All these are forgotten now, but the painting remains, and brings up for me a fragment of what Rossetti, poet and painter, wrote: “The blessed damozel lean out/From the gold bar of heaven”—Is heaven barred?—”Her eyes were deeper than the depth/Of waters stilled at even/She had three lilies in her hand/And the stars in her hair were seven/ He robe, ungirt from clasp to hem.”
Well, that was worrisome, but the painting hardly showed anything because the space where some unseemly bit of underwear—or worse, bare skin—might have been revealed was filled by three beautiful, and clearly girl angels.
Whatever complicated resentments Rossetti’s words might arouse, his sumptuous colors fired my sense of possibility, and still do.
It’s a little harder to feed those fires with the bareness of modern poetry, but yet it happens. e e cumming’s
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefouorfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
And it’s not even a question. The difficulties my computer has with reproducing cummings’ unconventional spelling and line arrangement shows how radical, even now, this poem is. And “radical”—with its root meeting, from the root—is what we need to drive our imaginations on.
There is prose, too, but sometimes it’s the relatively unadorned prose of literature written by or for children. Donn Fendler’s “Lost on a Mountain in Maine”—as told to Joseph B. Egan shortly after Fendler, at twelve, has what he calls “an adventure”—fills my mind with pictures. On a mountain climb with his father and other boys, Fendler went off on his own and spent two weeks lost in very rough country, in cold weather, before he finally connected with a search team. Remembering it, he wrote, “I started to run and found I couldn’t because of the boulders; that made me frantic and I climbed over them like a cat and yelled and shouted and cried all the time…”
Anyone who has ever been lost in the wilderness will remember that frenzy and the cool will to survive that follows it.
Imagination is the tool and the way.
These example have all been male because at one time it seemed that was all we had. It was never the whole story, but the whole story had yet to be revealed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, had an equally talented sister, Christina, who wrote the fabulous “Goblin Market”:
“Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy.”
The orchard fruits are far too luscious, including “Plump unpeck’d cherries” and “Bloom-down-cheeked peaches.” One of the two sisters the goblins lures resists, but the other succumbs and sucks these juicy fruits. The moral is clear, and to be avoided. When I join other shoppers pawing through racks in the post-holiday season, I hear the goblins calling, “Come buy, come buy,” and hope we all succumb.
Contemporary women poets have taken up the tools of inspiration. Among my favorites are Adrienne Rich, at one end of the spectrum, and May Sarton, at the other. Rich’s “Diving into the Wreak” explicitly points to the experience itself, not the memory or writing of the experience, and Mary Sarton’s “New Year Resolve” is a promise.
“For it is now or not
As old age silts the stream,
To shove away the clutter,
To untie every knot,
To take the time to dream,
To come back to still water.”
These writings are the blessings of the new year.