“A poet’s work…to name the un-namable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep” – Salman Rushdie
We tend to think of poets as gentle souls wandering the road less traveled by and contemplating the majesty of Grecian urns , but since roughly the 6th Century A.D. they’ve been in a knock-down, drag out fight with philosophers over death, fortune, and the vagaries of human existence. Sadly the philosophers are winning, as the poets starve because nobody buys poetry unless they’re trying to impress us. Yet the poets, undaunted, boldly fight on with the battle cry, “They say the shadows are the place to hide/But listen/No one looks into the sun” or some such pithy bit of eloquence by a poet whose name I can’t recall, since as I said, nobody actually buys poetry. Tragically they then also pass out from lack of adequate nutrition. Still, the poets struggle on.
Poets and philosophers have no doubt been at loggerheads since the invention of their respective job descriptions, but open warfare erupted with a shot across the bow by the philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (or just Boethius to his friends and people who worry about trivialities like word counts). Boethius (480–524 A.D.) had the misfortune to be around while the Western Roman Empire was busy disintegrating, born right after the last Roman Emperor was deposed, and serving as a public official for the Ostrogothic Theodoric the Great, the latest ruler of Italy and regent of the Visigoths. Barbarian kings can be a tad fickle, so Theodoric wound up imprisoning and eventually executing poor Boethius on largely trumped up conspiracy charges in 524 A.D. From his dark and dismal jail cell, awaiting the axeman, Boethius musing on his change of fortune penned one of the more popular books of the Dark Ages, The Consolation of Philosophy. And the message was clear. Screw poets.
In this extended allegory, Boethius, with the aid of the Muses of Poetry is wallowing in misery and lamenting on the bit of nastiness fate has served up to him when Lady Philosophy arrives, tells him to suck it up and declares the evil of error running riot and the folly of any contemplation but that of reason, saying “If this band when warring against us presses too strongly upon us, our leader, Reason, gathers her forces into her citadel, while the enemy are busied in plundering useless baggage. As they seize the most worthless things, we laugh at them from above, untroubled by the whole band of mad marauders, and we are defended by that rampart to which riotous folly may not hope to attain” (Boethius, Consolations, Bk.1). Thus, Lady Philosophy argues that one should only contemplate ill fortune and unexplained turns of events in the glaring light of philosophical reason. The central theme is the acceptance of adversity in the spirit of philosophical detachment, and that the only consolation is not in emotion, but logic. Pretty stoic for a guy about to get his head chopped off.
Yet, the poets, faced with an insane universe rail on, despite the protestations of a few of their traitorous own that give comfort to the enemy, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who once said, “The Helicon of too many poets is not a hill crowned with sunshine and visited by the Muses and the Graces, but an old, mouldering house, full of gloom and haunted by ghosts”. Is this not what poets are for? To offer the possibility of some sort of gestalt that explains the inexplicable, articulates the inarticulatable, and bridges the many gaps in our experience, abundantly evident when reason fails.
This is why I have a particular fondness for strange phenomena reported by poets. I realize it’s a very specific fetish, but who better to contemplate something outside the confining bounds of regular experience, to attempt to apprehend that which defies reason. Put on your beret, follow me down to the coffeehouse, and hear now the tale of Alice and Phoebe Cary.
American poet Alice Cary (1820-1871) and her sister and fellow poet Phoebe Cary (1824-1871) were poetic prodigies, jotting down critically acclaimed verses (effusively praised by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and Horace Greeley) beginning in their teens. They were raised just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, eventually migrating to New York City where they were prominent figures in the literary and social scene, busily hobnobbing with prominent figures of the era from P.T. Barnum to suffragist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The Cary family (Phoebe and Alice had seven other brothers and sisters), a moderate bunch of fairly liberal and reform-minded Universalists lived on the 27 acre Clovernook farm in North College Hill, Ohio, purchased by their father Robert in 1813. In 1832, they decided it was time to build a new house in full view of their old house, and a few days before they were to take up permanent occupancy in their brand-spanking new domicile, a bizarre incident occurred (Alice Cary related the story directly to the noted spiritualist Robert Dale Owen, and Phoebe Cary’s niece Ada Carnahan similarly recounted it in a biography of her aunt).
It was late in the afternoon, a sudden thunder-shower which had brought Robert Cary (the father) in from the field had driven every one under shelter, but the storm was over and the sun shining when one looking across the hollow saw a woman with a child in her arms standing in the open door of the new house, and called the attention of the others by asking how Rhoda and Lucy came to be over there and how the door of the new house came to be open. Rhoda was the third daughter, fifteen years of age, and Lucy a child of two. But even as they were talking, Rhoda joined them and the child Lucy was found to be playing within. By this time all the household were out gazing at the apparition, which at last was seen to walk back into the house and disappear. Robert Cary started out to see what it was. Keeping the house in sight and seeing no one leave it, he found the door open, but found nothing more. Diligent search upstairs and down, on the clean floor or soft soil without, discovered no footprints or other signs of human presence. Within the first year of their occupancy of this new house, Rhoda and Lucy died within a few weeks of each other, carried off by a virulent fever…When the fact is added that the child Lucy has been seen to flit about the old farmhouse (the last time a few years ago, when a boy who had been guarded from a knowledge of the story came running with a white, scared face, saying: “There’s a little girl up-stairs in a red dress”) it will be seen that the belief of Alice and Phoebe Cary in the supernatural began before modern Spiritualism was talked of (Prince, 1928, p133-134).
Why an entire family should witness and faithfully attest to observing the apparitions of two living daughters (who were standing next to them) in an unoccupied house defies explanation, finds no susceptibility to logic or reason, yet has to be understood in some way, as the poetry of the universe, speaking to us about some as of yet unidentified relation between our past, present, and future – this is eloquently captured in Phoebe Cary’s most revered poem, “One Sweetly Solemn Thought”.
One sweetly solemn thought
Comes to me o’er and o’er;
Nearer my home today am I
Than e’er I’ve been before.
Nearer my Father’s house,
Where many mansions be;
Nearer today, the great white throne,
Nearer the crystal sea.
Nearer the bound of life
Where burdens are laid down;
Nearer to leave the heavy cross,
Nearer to gain the crown.
But lying dark between,
Winding down through the night,
Is the deep and unknown stream
To be crossed ere we reach the light.
Father, perfect my trust!
Strengthen my pow’r of faith!
Nor let me stand, at last, alone
Upon the shore of death.
Be Thee near when my feet
Are slipping o’er the brink;
For it may be I’m nearer home,
Nearer now than I think.
(Phoebe Cary, One Sweetly Solemn Thought, 1852)
One wonders what sort of illuminating results we would produce, if only we could encourage more poets to become ghost hunters. And I say to the poets, “Rock on,” for as noted by Greg Bear, “Once, poets were magicians. Poets were strong, stronger than warriors or kings — stronger than old hapless gods. And they will be strong once again”. But can somebody please feed them?
Boethius, d. 524. The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius. London: E. Stock, c1897.
Carnahan, Ada. “Phoebe Cary”. The Ladies’ Repository v48 (July). Boston: A. Tompkins, 1872.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences: Incidents And Biographical Data, With Occasional Comments. Boston, Mass.: Boston society for psychic research, 1928.