Friday 2 April 2021

Good Friday

The Crucifixion is a subject that was in every visual artist's repertoire for centuries. Visually, it's a gift – the image (much sanitised) of the crucified man rising, dead centre, above the carefully composed scene, his suffering transformed already into triumph, his angled head irradiated by a halo, his arms spread as if to embrace all the world and all time to come. Such images of the Crucifixion are painted from the perspective of Easter and Resurrection, not from that of Good Friday, when what was on show was the cruel and humiliating punishment of a criminal, a supposed prophet whose career had ended in the most abject failure. 
  For poets, even the great religious poets, Good Friday has generally been a subject best avoided, or conflated with Easter (one exception is George Herbert's 'The Sacrifice'). But in the 20th century, in the stark light of that century's terrible events, it perhaps became possible to address the Crucifixion in a different way, and Good Friday occasioned one of the Auden's finest poems: 'Nones' from Horae Canonicae . It's quite a long read, but it is well worth the effort...

What we know to be not possible,
    Though time after time foretold
    By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
    Gibbering in their trances,
    Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
    Like will and kill, comes to pass
    Before we realise it: we are surprised
    At the ease and speed of our deed
    And uneasy: It is barely three,
    Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
    Of our sacrifice is already
    Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
    For silence so sudden and so soon;
    The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
    Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
    What shall we do till nightfall?

    The wind has dropped and we have lost our public.
    The faceless many who always
    Collect when any world is to be wrecked,
    Blown up, burnt down, cracked open,
    Felled, sawn in two, hacked through, torn apart,
    Have all melted away: not one
    Of these who in the shade of walls and trees
    Lie sprawled now, calmly sleeping,
    Harmless as sheep, can remember why
    He shouted or what about
    So loudly in the sunshine this morning;
    All if challenged would reply
    'It was a monster with one red eye,
    A crowd that saw him die, not I.'
    The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat;
    We are left alone with our feat.

    The Madonna with the green woodpecker,
    The Madonna of the fig-tree,
    The Madonna beside the yellow dam,
    Turn their kind faces from us
    And our projects under construction,
    Look only in one direction,
    Fix their gaze on our completed work:
    Pile-driver, concrete-mixer,
    Crane and pick-axe wait to be used again,
    But how can we repeat this?
    Outliving our act, we stand where we are,
    As disregarded as some
    Discarded artifact of our own,
    Like torn gloves, rusted kettles,
    Abandoned branch-lines, worn lop-sided
    Grindstones buried in nettles.

    This mutilated flesh, our victim,
    Explains too nakedly, too well,
    The spell of the asparagus garden,
    The aim of our chalk-pit game; stamps,
    Birds' eggs are not the same, behind the wonder
    Of tow-paths and sunken lanes,
    Behind the rapture on the spiral stair,
    We shall always now be aware
    Of the deed into which they lead, under
    The mock chase and mock capture,
    The racing and tussling and splashing,
    The panting and the laughter,
    Be listening for the cry and stillness
    To follow after: wherever
    The sun shines, brooks run, books are written,
    There will also be this death.

    Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves,
    The shops will re-open at four,
    The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
    Fill up and depart: we have time
    To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
    Mythify, use this event
    While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
    Down wrong turnings, its meaning
    Waits for our lives: sooner than we would choose
    Bread will melt, water will burn,
    And the great quell begin, Abaddon
    Set up his triple gallows
    At our seven gates, fat Belial make
    Our wives waltz naked; meanwhile
    It would be best to go home, if we have a home,
    In any case good to rest.

    That our dreaming wills may seem to escape
    This dead calm, wander instead
    On knife edges, on black and white squares,
    Across moss, baize, velvet, boards,
    Over cracks and hillocks, in mazes
    Of string and penitent cones,
    Down granite ramps and damp passages,
    Through gates that will not relatch
    And doors marked Private, pursued by Moors
    And watched by latent robbers,
    To hostile villages at the heads of fjords,
    To dark chateaux where wind sobs
    In the pine-trees and telephones ring,
    Inviting trouble, to a room,
    Lit by one weak bulb, where our Double sits
    Writing and does not look up.

    That, while we are thus away, our own wronged flesh
    May work undisturbed, restoring
    The order we try to destroy, the rhythm
    We spoil out of spite: valves close
    And open exactly, glands secrete,
    Vessels contract and expand
    At the right moment, essential fluids
    Flow to renew exhausted cells,
    Not knowing quite what has happened, but awed
    By death like all the creatures
    Now watching this spot, like the hawk looking down
    Without blinking, the smug hens
    Passing close by in their pecking order,
    The bug whose view is balked by grass.
    Or the deer who shyly from afar
    Peer through chinks in the forest.

For something shorter, knottier and harsher (if you can take any more), there's this – Geoffrey Hill's 'Canticle for Good Friday' –

The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.

A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He,
As yet unsearched, unscratched,

And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
His brain
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)

In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carrion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation's issue congealing (and one woman's).

(The best thing to do on Good Friday, though, is simply to listen to Bach's St Matthew Passion.)

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful Auden poem. Reminds me of the Musee des Beaux Arts with the same sense of displacement of something happening elsewhere. I wonder how one could put that into words about Auden. It's in The marvellous Fall of Rome too where I think the word elsewhere is used.