A Noble Kind of Thievery

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”  —T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood

I think this famous dictum is correct as far as it goes. But poets of truly outlandish genius commit a whole lot more than petty thievery. They think themselves licensed to pillage nothing less than all of the world’s literature.

The dying Robert Greene attacking Shakespeare with his pen

The dying Robert Greene attacking Shakespeare with his pen

Consider William Shakespeare, whose thefts are legion. We’ve all heard about how he stole most of his stories. For example, he brazenly snatched the plot of Pericles from a novel by Robert Greene, who on his deathbed some years earlier had fulminated against a certain conceited young upstart crow” who fancied himself “the only Shake-scene in a country.”

But Shakespeare didn’t stop at stealing overall plots. He grabbed up specific passages by others seemingly pell-mell and did whatever he liked with them. Let’s look this speech from Antony and Cleopatra, in which Enobarbus describes Antony’s first glimpse of Cleopatra upon the river Cydnus …

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

Compare this to a description of Cleopatra’s barge in Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives …

… the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the owers of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musicke of flutes …

Resemblances sharpen as Enobarbus starts describing Cleopatra herself …

For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.

"Cléopâtre et Antoine sur le Cydnus" by Henri-Pierre Pico

“Cléopâtre et Antoine sur le Cydnus” by Henri-Pierre Pico

… again echoing Plutarch …

And now for the person of her selfe: she was layed under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus, commonly drawen in picture …

And so Enobarbus continues for some seventeen lines, matching North’s Plutarch pretty much image after image.

Similar thievery can be found in Prospero’s climactic speech in The Tempest

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves …

Compare these words to those of the sorceress Medea in Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes …

Again, the parallels continue for some seventeen lines.

“Prospero and Miranda” by William Maw Egley

“Prospero and Miranda” by William Maw Egley

I’m not griping. None of us should. Indeed, we really must rejoice. Shakespeare’s was more than the “honorable kind of thievery” mentioned in Two Gentlemen of Verona; it was truly noble thievery — Promethean, even. He stole liberally from the vast stores of human letters, transformed cold brass plunder into fiery gold, then handed this augmented treasure down to the poor in spirit — namely us.

Shakespeare also knew when to jettison his sources and let fly with his own preternatural eloquence. Prospero’s speech culminates in a poignant farewell to magic, which according to legend was Shakespeare’s own farewell to his art. You won’t find anything like it in Ovid …

But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have required
Some heavenly music (which even now I do)
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

The Gateway of the Soul: Queen Christina and the Death of Descartes — a short play


René Descartes
Queen Christina

The scene is the royal library in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 1, 1650, at about 5:00 a.m. Queen Christina is elegantly dressed in male attire. René Descartes enters, bows to the queen, and begins to speak. He shivers almost convulsively, despite being warmly clothed. He is extremely ill and coughs frequently.

Queen Christina (left) and René Descartes (right)

Queen Christina (left) and René Descartes (right)

DESCARTES. Your Majesty, I have a regrettable announcement to make. I’m not long for this world. Your royal physicians have told me so. These morning lessons of ours are to blame. I’m 54 years old and have never been in robust health. As you know, it was long my custom to stay abed mornings till nearly noon, meditating upon my work. But you insist that I meet you here at 5:00 in the morning. Before that ungodly hour, I must rise, bathe, and dress. And while I am still damp from bathing, I must walk here to your library, out-of-doors in this northern cold that freezes men’s very thoughts. I am burning up with fever. I cannot stop shivering. My lungs are inflamed. Your doctors tell me that my only hope of survival is your royal mercy. Please, please, Your Majesty, allow me a few more hours of sleep. Allow me to tutor you in the afternoon. And may we not light the fireplace? And may we not close some of these windows?

CHRISTINA. I learn best in the cold.

DESCARTES. But Your Majesty—

CHRISTINA. Stop calling me that, Monsieur Descartes. It infuriates me. I am the only woman alive who knows your analytic geometry. You dedicated a book to me. We’ve discussed the mysteries of the universe. We’ve probed each other’s intellects in their full nakedness. That makes us lovers. I am your mistress, not your queen. So call me your beloved darling—no, your precious little squirrel. I command it.

DESCARTES. Your Majesty, that would be—unthinkable.


DESCARTES. Yes, my … precious little squirrel.

CHRISTINA. Now stop whining about your paltry little ailments. Something terrible has happened. I’ve committed a frightful deed. I don’t know how to live with myself. Sit down.

(DESCARTES does so. CHRISTINA hands him a saucer and a magnifying glass.)

CHRISTINA. Tell me what this is.

DESCARTES (looking in the saucer through the glass). It looks like a tiny pink pinecone.

CHRISTINA. You should know what it is.

DESCARTES. A pineal gland?

CHRISTINA. It came from my dear tomcat, Loki.


René Descartes

DESCARTES. You killed your cat?

CHRISTINA. He was terribly sick. His eyes were sunken and had lost their luster. He couldn’t lift his backside off the floor, not even to relieve himself. He was suffering terribly, and I knew he would never get better. So I held him close, and said goodbye to him, and broke his neck with a twist of my hand. Then my curiosity got the better of me, and I opened his skull with a paring knife to see what was inside. And there I found this between the lobes of his brain. I thought I was putting him out of his misery. But it turns out that I murdered him.

DESCARTES. You did not murder Loki.


DESCARTES. One cannot murder a brute beast.


DESCARTES. Because a brute beast does not have a soul.

CHRISTINA. This brute beast had a pineal gland. The pineal gland is the seat of the soul. You’ve said so yourself.

DESCARTES. Not the seat of the soul precisely. More like a gateway. It connects the sensory realm of matter, space, and extension with the spaceless dimension of spirit, soul, and thought.

CHRISTINA. The dimension of God.


CHRISTINA. Loki had a pineal gland. Therefore, Loki had a soul. Therefore, Loki had access to that spaceless dimension. Therefore, Loki was connected with God. Therefore, I murdered him.

DESCARTES. Not so, lady, not so. Didn’t you read that book I wrote for you? An animal is nothing more than a wonderful machine of nature. It cannot think or feel. You could have cut open Loki’s skull and poked about his brain while he was fully alive without causing him the slightest distress. I practice this sort of thing myself. Would I ever sanction murder? So put your mind at ease. And please, please, call a servant to start a fire and shut these windows.

CHRISTINA. You haven’t explained why a soulless creature’s brain should contain a gateway of the soul.

DESCARTES. And I shall explain, my precious little squirrel. But not now, not while I am so sick. I beg you, if you love me with a true mistress’s love, if you don’t want me to die—

CHRISTINA. Oh, stop fretting about death.

DESCARTES. Then you do want me to die. That’s exactly it. You are stalking me. You are awaiting the moment for the kill. When I weaken enough, you’ll snap my neck, just like your cat’s. And then you’ll dissect me to compare the insides of our skulls, won’t you?


CHRISTINA. It hadn’t occurred to me.


Cover Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy

Cover of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy

CHRISTINA. I’m starting to understand. It’s all coming clear. This whole pineal body-mind duality business, this separation between the material and the mental, you made it all up.

DESCARTES. Why would I do such a thing?

CHRISTINA. Naturally, as a materialist and a mechanist, you’re afraid the churchmen will discover that your learning leads directly to atheism. You are afraid of being burned at the stake like Galileo.

DESCARTES. You mean Giordano Bruno.

CHRISTINA. No, I mean Galileo. Something bad happened to him too, didn’t it?

DESCARTES. He was forced to keep quiet.

CHRISTINA.  Even worse. I warn you, don’t try to deceive me. I did not bring the most brilliant scholar in Christendom to my court so he might hoodwink me along with everybody else. I mean to learn the truth. About everything. At all costs. Now if you value your life, tell me what you know!

DESCARTES. The gland—it is exactly what I’ve said.

CHRISTINA. It makes no sense.

DESCARTES. Then what other purpose might it serve?

CHRISTINA. Perhaps it is vestigial of some long-defunct use. Let us suppose that Loki and I had a common ancestor—

DESCARTES. Cousins? You and your cat?

CHRISTINA. And you. And a dog. And a fish. And a precious little squirrel. Every creature that has a pineal gland.

DESCARTES. But, oh, noble lady—!

CHRISTINA. I know, I know. “And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind.” And here I am, proposing that God’s eternal kinds are mutable, that they evolve. But let’s be just wee bit heretical, shall we? Just between ourselves. This is neither Catholic France nor Calvinist Holland, but simple, backward, rustic, Lutheran Sweden, where scarcely anybody has brains enough to be bigoted. Whatever we say won’t leave this room. And if it does, and if the Inquisition catches you—well, I promise to be burned at the very same stake right along with you, and won’t that be fine? Again, let’s suppose that you and I and Loki had a common ancestor. Whatever such a creature was, it had some use for the gland. Perhaps it was a sort of eye, just like the mystics say. That use disappeared, but the gland did not. And now it just sits there wedged in our brains, doing nothing in particular. There is no gateway to the soul.

DESCARTES. Blasphemy.


DESCARTES. You are on the brink of saying—

CHRISTINA. What? That there is no soul? That there is no God? Nay, perhaps simply everything—this entire exquisitely manifold and sundry material world of ours—is nothing but soul, is nothing but God.

DESCARTES. It is atheism either way.

Queen Christina

Queen Christina

CHRISTINA. Nonsense. It is piety multiplied. We must worship the body, because it creates mind. We must worship mind, because it is capable of worship. We must worship all immanence, because it is God. When we go into a church, we must sing hymns of praise to its very stones, for they too are the stuff of divinity, restlessly striving for mind and for life. If I am wrong, you must explain to me why.

DESCARTES. I haven’t the strength.

CHRISTINA. Then you’ve proved my point. Your body and your mind are one. Otherwise your mind would be impervious to the sickness of your body. Your body is about to die; therefore your soul is about to die. Or might your soul instead assume some other material shape?

DESCARTES. I shall lose consciousness.

CHRISTINA. Oh, do! Please! I must observe that! (Pause) Could you teach me how to lose consciousness too? I want to know what it’s like.


Tolstoy and the Shaker

AnnasWorldcoversmallThe work Pat and I do together leads us on some fascinating detours. While we were researching the Shakers for our multiple-award-winning novel Anna’s World, we ran across a startling letter from the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy himself …

I received the tracts that you sent me, and read them, not only with interest, but with profit; and cannot criticise them, because I agree with everything that is said in them …

Tolstoy was writing to Frederick W. Evans, a Shaker elder based in New Lebanon, New York.The date was February 15, 1891. By then Tolstoy was a thoroughgoing Christian anarchist-pacifist, cantankerous and iconoclastic enough to look back upon his own masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina with utter disgust. And the communistic, celibate Shakers were right up his alley. He and Evans kept on writing back and forth, exchanging ideas about religion, society, and justice.

shakers-dancingFrederick Evans had been a socialist since his youth. In 1830, when he was about 22 years old and every inch a materialist and secularist, he went out scouting New York state for a place to found his own utopian community. He stopped in New Lebanon to visit the Shakers there, expecting to find “the most ignorant and fanatical people in existence.” Instead he was promptly converted, convinced that he had found just the ideal society he had envisioned.

Evans’s life as a Shaker was anything but cloistered. He served the Shakers as an ambassador to what they called simply “the World.” At the height of the Civil War, Evans and another elder visited the White House, petitioning President Lincoln for exemption from the draft. Although deeply opposed to slavery and actively supportive of the Union, the Shakers were steadfast and devoted pacifists for whom fighting was morally impossible.

Lincoln was impressed by the elders. After they finished making their case, he asked …

“Well, what am I to do?”

“It is not for me,” Elder Frederick replied, “to advise the President of the United States.”

“You ought to be made to fight,” Lincoln said. “We need regiments of such men as you.”

Even so, Lincoln granted the petition.

10606140_910718692290831_759700197982803500_nIn their correspondence, Evans and Tolstoy hit it off famously. When Evans died, Tolstoy wrote a letter of sympathy to another Shaker elder …

I can not tell you how sorry I am, not for the death of our dear and honored friend Evans, but for you and for all those who loved him and were fortified by his spirit. I am one of them.… I loved him very much.

In Anna’s World, I hope that Pat and I wrote a novel that both Frederick Evans and Leo Tolstoy might enjoy. I expect that our chances might have been better with Evans. Shaker intellectuals weren’t too otherworldly to disdain all fiction, and they much admired Tolstoy’s then quite scandalous story “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

But I suspect it would have been tougher to please Tolstoy, whose literary standards eventually got to be downright quirky. In his old age, he had this to say to poor Anton Chekhov

You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.

Ruins for the Future


I see this meme pop up from time to time. And yes, I too feel a certain pang about the Library of Alexandria. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if our grief might be a tad misplaced. For one thing, just which of the four fabled destructions of the Library of Alexandria is supposed to still upset us? Its reputedly accidental burning by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE? Another accidental ruination by the Emperor Aurelian ca. 270 BCE? A markedly deliberate destruction at the orders of the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 CE? An apparently apocryphal ravaging by Caliph Omar in 642 CE?

A single iconic “Burning of the Library of Alexandria” seems to linger in literate imaginations as a catch-all metaphor for the loss of any and all intellectual riches throughout the ages. But just what percentage of all the great ideas lost to time can really be blamed on those four purported catastrophes in that one place? A pretty small percentage is my not-so-humble guess.

A more pertinent if more unpalatable question might be — should we still be upset about it? In his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright doesn’t specifically mention Alexandria, but he does mull over another catch-all metaphor for cultural waste, the so-called Dark Ages. Wright challenges Thomas Cahill’s assertion in How the Irish Saved Civilization that Irish monks singlehandedly rescued humanity’s most indispensable treasures from barbarian hoards after the fall of Rome. Wright quotes Cahill:

Had the destruction been complete — had every library been disassembled and every book burned — we might have lost Homer and Virgil and all of classical poetry, Herodotus and Tacitus and all of classical history, Demosthenes and Cicero and all of classical oratory, Plato and Aristotle and all of Greek philosophy, and Plotinus and Porphyry and all the subsequent commentary.

Wright’s response to Cahill:

Well, them’s the breaks. But what people of the early Middle Ages most needed wasn’t a good stiff dose of Demosthenes. They needed mundane things, such as a harness that wouldn’t press on a horse’s windpipe.

Wright isn’t being as callous as he might sound. His guiding optimistic idea in Nonzero is that human history is a halting but inexorable proliferation of “non-zero-sum” games — a sometimes wobbly but ever-forward march toward increasing intellect, sophistication, and cooperation. This perpetual advance will continue, Wright insists, with or without the all-too-perishable poems, plays, novels, and artworks that we so touchingly revere. The truer essentials of progress are the more prosaic but vastly more durable technological memes ranging from horseshoes to iPhones — and these have an uncanny way of turning up when we need them.

Another such argument is voiced in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. In a scene set in early nineteenth-century England, a precocious fourteen-year-old pupil pines to her tutor about Julius Caesar’s destruction of the Library of Alexandria:

Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library … ! How can we sleep for grief?

Septimus replies:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

Much more trenchant is a passage from Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra. Here the elderly tutor Theodotus brings Julius Caesar desperate news:

THEODOTUS. The fire has spread from your ships. The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames.

CAESAR. Is that all?

THEODOTUS (unable to believe his senses). All! Caesar: will you go down to posterity as a barbarous soldier too ignorant to know the value of books?

CAESAR. Theodotus: I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.

THEODOTUS (kneeling, with genuine literary emotion: the passion of the pedant). Caesar: once in ten generations of men, the world gains an immortal book.

CAESAR (inflexible). If it did not flatter mankind, the common executioner would burn it.

THEODOTUS. Without history, death would lay you beside your meanest soldier.

CAESAR. Death will do that in any case. I ask no better grave.

THEODOTUS. What is burning there is the memory of mankind.

CAESAR. A shameful memory. Let it burn.

THEODOTUS (wildly). Will you destroy the past?

CAESAR. Ay, and build the future with its ruins.


The Wand Bearer — Still in Progress …

Juggler in the WindOnce in a while Pat and I receive a note from a reader who enjoyed our award-winning novel Juggler in the Wind and asks when to expect the rest of Randy Carmichael’s story. Please rest assured that we are still working on the Wand Bearer chronicle. Like many stories that Pat and I tell together, this one has grown way beyond our expectations. It has become much more ambitious, time-consuming, and I might say life-consuming than we had anticipated. It’s taking time to complete. We’re grateful for your interest, and we hope you can be patient.

Among other things, Randy Carmichael’s tale is becoming a love story of mythic dimensions. Here’s a short sample of what’s to come:

“Look,” she said.

            I followed her gaze. She was staring between the maple trees at the mountains. They were so magnificent, I wondered why I hadn’t stopped to look at them already. Of course, during the drive, I’d been too scared to look at much of anything. And since we’d arrived in Turtle, I hadn’t really had the chance.

            The mountains rose up sharply beyond a stretch of forest at the edge of the town. On the slopes you could see where the timberline abruptly ended, and above that level lay indescribably huge blue-gray slabs of bare rock, all rising toward snowy peaks with clouds forming wispily around them. Those peaks looked so razor sharp, you could imagine cutting your hands if you tried to touch them.

            “Beautiful, huh?” I said, with exactly the lameness I’d hoped to avoid.

            “They’re so white on top.”

            “It’s cold up there. The snow never melts that high.”

            I felt dumb saying that. Of course she knows that already, I thought.

            She turned and looked at me. Her small, jewel-like eyes switched from blue to green, the way I’d seen them change before. You could swear that they talked when they did that. Right then, they spoke of surprise.

            “You’ve seen snow, right?” I said, laughing.

            A hint of darkness burst out of those brilliant eyes. Had I hurt her feelings? She looked back toward the mountains, her mouth slightly open with awe. Those full, wide, glinting lips seemed out of place on her lean, long, pale face—but then, so did all her features: the narrow, inward slope of a nose that appeared to sit just a little off-center, a round little dome on its tip; those sharp cheeks that reminded me of points on a compass; the chin that jutted maybe a fraction of an inch farther than I might have expected; the alarmingly high brow with curling auburn hair parted high above and behind it.

            Not a single feature wasn’t beautiful. It’s just that you’d think they were from different faces—the faces of a dozen or so equally lovely girls. And the blend of features—no, not a blend, more of a collisionwas like a collage, made up of pieces cut out and put together by some super-amazing artist to create a face too wonderful to be quite human.

            The rest of her body was like that. She was willowy but not tall—almost exactly my own height. Standing there in her brightly-embroidered white muslin dress, she reminded me of a twig you might cut from a tree—straight here, turned there. Her legs bowed together a little at the knees, and her slim arms with almost outsized hands hung down and meandered about, as if trying to find out where they belonged exactly. Her back swayed inward lower down, then straightened sharply into her long neck, where her head tilted to and fro, from side to side, striking every possible angle with endless curiosity.

            I guess it was right then that I realized just how drawn to her I was. And somebody who wasn’t—well, me might have seen her quite differently, as a typically gangly teenage girl. “She’ll grow out of it,” an adult might say. People have said that about me.

            But she’d never grow out of it, I was sure. She wasn’t really born into that body—it had been given to her somehow. She would spend all her days trying to find her way into it. And that struggle made her all the more beautiful. It transformed what ought to have been awkwardness into a gracefulness you couldn’t quite make sense of. Even with her odd edges, she seemed all gentle curves—long, sweeping, elegant.

            “The snow—it’s so white,” she murmured, still staring at the mountaintops. “It’s like—like silver, only purer, brighter. It’s … it’s …”

            Her high, hushed voice trailed off as she kept on gazing. I wondered—how could she be so astonished by snow? Well, I knew that Circus Olympus had wandered across the country from Florida, where the troupe likely spent its winters, and where there was never any snow. And during summer tours across the country, the troupe probably didn’t see snow. Still, hadn’t Jill seen snow on, say, television? No, nobody in the circus had a TV as far as I knew. But what about photographs, postcards?

            “You’ve never seen snow?” I asked.

            She didn’t reply for a moment, as if I weren’t there. Finally, without averting her eyes from the mountain, she said …

            “It’s been so many years. So many lives.”

            I remembered something she’d said back on the road, when that hot wind had been so deadly …

            “We’re all old.”

            And again I wondered …

            How can she be old?

            I felt a tingle in my face, especially my cheeks. It’s a familiar tingle that I get whenever I’m upset, worried, frightened, angry—any of a whole variety of emotions. What do I look like when I get that tingle? Does my face tighten or go slack? Do I turn red or pale? I’m sure I don’t look my best when that happens—certainly not smart or cute or handsome or any other way I wanted to look around Jill. I was just as happy that she was looking at the mountains and not at me.

            But then she turned directly toward me. She smiled a stunning, broad smile, her gleaming teeth arranged as oddly and yet as marvelously as everything else about her. If she wanted to see snow-like whiteness, all she had to do was smile at herself in a mirror. But somehow it was hard to imagine Jill ever looking in a mirror. Beauty came so easily to her, surely she never gave it a moment’s thought.

            “Let’s go,” she said.

            “Where?” I asked.

            “There,” she said, pointing to the mountain peaks.

            “To the mountains?”

            “Sure. Way up to the top. Where the snow is.”

            “Uh—we can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            How could I begin to explain? Didn’t she understand already? Didn’t she realize that those mountains were miles away? And as for climbing them, didn’t she have any idea about rope and gear and equipment, not to mention the athletic skill involved—and the daring? Just looking at those peaks, imagining myself up there scaling sheer cliffs at outrageous heights, made my legs wobble queasily. And, oh, how cold it must have been, with air almost too thin to breathe. I’d always figured that mountain climbing was for crazy people. And I doubted that anybody had been crazy enough to scale those peaks.

            “We just can’t,” I said stupidly.

            She laughed brightly, her eyes switching from green to blue again. “Stay here if you like,” she said. “I’m going.”

            That alarmed me. Not that I thought Jill was really going to get near any serious slopes on her own. But what if she headed off into the woods at the edge of the town, trying to make her way toward the mountains? What if she got lost? What if she ran into dangerous animals? I didn’t figure I could talk sense to her about this whole thing. So if she took off in a run, what was I supposed to do—run after her and tackle her?

            Her smile faded, and she turned away from me to look at the mountains again. Her eyes switched from their pale blue to a golden color, and her pupils pulsated in a slow but steady rhythm. She seemed hypnotized. I didn’t understand what was going on in her head, but I was relieved that she was staying put, as rooted where she stood as the nearby maple trees.

            She was somewhere else now—and wherever it was, I wasn’t anywhere nearby. So I turned away from her and walked back toward the inn.

Trump VI: The Lovers (poem)

“So tell me—what is love?” asked Socrates.
The banquet guests fell silent in their cups,
covertly craving inebriated naps—
until the comic playwright broke the pause:

“The Trickster Titan labored many days,
molding our kind from river clay by the scoops;
twin souls he devised, combined in single shapes—
twin-male, twin-female, or coupled he’s and she’s.

“Zeus feared the might of our three-gendered kind
and cleaved us double with his lightning spear,
then threw our halves to the dispersing wind.

“So what is love? A phantom-limbed desire,
a quest for something just beyond the wound—
an aching palpability of air.”

Robert E. Lee’s Mexican “Noche Triste”

… one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation …

Ulysses S. Grant in 1843

Ulysses S. Grant in 1843

That was how Ulysses S. Grant described the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 in his Personal Memoirs. Some two decades before he commanded the Union Armies during the American Civil War, Grant served in Mexico as a young lieutenant.

I ran across the quote back in 1998 while compiling a book of source materials about the war in Mexico. Grant’s eventual nemesis Robert E. Lee also served in that war as a captain. Did Lee share Grant’s bitterness about the conflict? While looking for an answer, I ran across a strangely haunting document. On April 12, 1848, shortly after the war’s end, Lee wrote a letter from Mexico City to a lady cousin back home in Virginia. The letter begins …

Robert E. Lee, c.1850

Robert E. Lee, c.1850

I rode out a few days since for the first time to the church of Our Lady of Remedios. It … is said to be the spot to which Cortez retreated after being driven from the city on the memorable Noche Triste.…

Lee refers here to the fabled Noche Triste of July 1, 1520, when Hernán Cortez and his army, routed by the Aztecs, fled Tenochtitlan. The letter continues …

I saw the cedar tree at Popotla … in which it is said he passed a portion of that night. The “trees of Noche Triste,” so called from their blooming about the period of that event, are now in full bloom. The flower is … of the most magnificent scarlet color I ever saw. I have two of them in my cup before me now. I wish I could send them to you.…la-noche-triste

The letter fascinated me, evoking as it did an image of a later-to-be American legend treading in footsteps of that much earlier legend, Hernán Cortez. As I read the rest of it, I wondered what thoughts and emotions lurked between its lines—homesickness, despair, horror, regret? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But the question moved me to write this sestina, loosely based on Robert E. Lee’s letter …

Last night I rode out for the first time, lady—
rode west into the hills that looked like wax
molded by moonlight, and rested beneath a tree
with scarlet blossoms burdening its limbs.
(Even by night they were a brilliant hue.)
The night seemed sorrowful—a Noche Triste.

Long ago on another Noche Triste
(is not the night always a plaintive lady?)
a Spaniard fled, his moonlit face the hue
of pallid rout, as damp as fevered wax.
Conquered Cortés paused and rested his limbs,
weeping lost men and treasure beneath that tree.

I have two perfect blossoms from the tree
in a cup before me—twin flowers of Noche Triste.
They ease my soul, they please my aching limbs;
I wish that I could send them to you, lady.
I’ll bring you two facsimiles of wax,
but they can’t duplicate this scarlet hue.

As the moon shimmered yet more pale in hue,
I rode farther in hills beyond the tree
to where Cortés, conquistador of wax,
ended his retreat on that Noche Triste.
There stands the little chapel of Our Lady
settled beneath the sky’s nocturnal limbs.

Inside, I found the Virgin’s likeness—her limbs
clad in a petticoat of silver hue,
her head encircled with a crown. Our Lady
stood amid branches of a maguey tree,
and as befitted such a Noche, Triste
seemed to me her smile of lovely wax.

And all around her, shaped from pallid wax,
were sundry disembodied human limbs—
offerings left on some past Noche Triste
by those the Virgin healed. Their routed hue
whispered of sad Cortés beneath his tree;
and weary from my ride, I slumbered, lady,

and dreamed her tears were molten wax, the hue
of Our Lord’s bloody limbs nailed to a tree.
Ah, such a Noche Triste for Our Lady!