It’s not clear if I can. In a French town
where the grand cathedral stands, Henry’s mental gown
amazed the residents, and his mental forces
But he was not up to that ancient sculpture;
cold & uneasy witnessed he them scenes:
the figures put him down.
The figures figure what the lost soul means,
so long ago, in an acre of sepulture
insisting on the verb, not the noun.
I wanted so to go to the Windward Islands,
and I will never make it, stuck in this French
vaulting cathedral thought.
We’ve been here long, long, lowlands & highlands
but not as they have. Draw on your mere mensch
for the benefits we sought.
Poets do words, it’s what they do. “Sepulture” is related to “sepulcher” (or “sepulchre”), in that both mean “tomb”, but as B. notes, while “sepulcher” is only a noun, “sepulture” is a noun as well, meaning the same thing, or it can be used as a verb which would mean something like to entomb. Use it in a sentence? Okay, let’s try it: “The ancients felt that God sepultured lost souls, so their art depicted vast emtombments meant to serve as a warning to the unfaithful.”
In looking at this poem, I’m going to go ahead and skip that opening bit about Henry’s “mental gown” amazing the locals and his “mental forces” exceeding Verdun (the brutal, appalling WWI battle, with industrialized casualties inflicted on an inconceivable scale. Autun is about 200 miles south of Verdun, but they rhyme nicely). He’s being arrogant enough about his lecturely superpowers, which were indeed considerable, but the real purpose is rhetorical, to set up a pronouncement about the significance of the cathedral, so no problem. The key line: “The figures put him down.” Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals (Autun is Romanesque) writhe with figurative art, all of it in service to teaching. Medieval cathedrals were always destinations for pilgrimages. (Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is set on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, and it is a magnificent treatment of a cathedral pilgrimage.) The pilgrims would pray, socialize, suffer the dangers and discomforts of travel together, and when they arrived at the cathedral, they would engage in detailed prayerful attention to the architecture and the art, which was put there as a teaching tool. Most people couldn’t read, but they could study the biblical scenes and interpret them, and no doubt there were priests, teachers and guides to show them around, help them study, lead discussion sessions, conduct seminars, etc. The town surrounding had inns, taverns, street vendors, etc., so a cathedral was an economic engine as well as a spiritual emblem. As much as anything else, though, it was a demonstration of power. In our day, industrial corporations are the dominant autocratic power institutions. They build great skyscrapers with gigantic fluorescent logos on top to remind us of that fact. In the past, monarchies or Fascist or Communist dictatorships were often the wielders of power, and they had palaces, castles and monumental sculptures to remind their people of who’s in charge. In Medieval days, it was the Church, and the Church built cathedrals.
I wrote a poem as an undergrad about a cathedral, full of the rebellious reaction to authority that affected my thinking in those days. (Still does, to be honest.) I remember these lines pretty clearly from my poem, “The Cathedral at Rouen”: “It dominates the French countryside / and squats on the town / like a pig in the turnips.” I think it’s a pretty good line for a beginner. One of my profs even wrote a poem in response to mine, which I was stupid enough for a second to not be sure how to take, but which I realize now was an honor. This is the take Berryman has as well, the art and the presence of a great cathedral in an impossibly picturesque French town serving as a means of domination, control and warning. The catechism teaching how to behave, how to think, and the spiritual consequences of rebellion, this can be an honest depiction of sincere belief, but it can easily be turned toward control as well. You fear for your soul if you screw up, with the spiritual torments of hell in store, and if there’s any doubt left, then there are immediate threats against one’s bodily life here on earth to help drive home the point through terror. Call it heresy, and meet heresy with the dungeon, fire at the stake, etc., and the populace in general figures it had best toe the political/religious line quite acceptably, enough to keep the Church firmly in power for centuries.
When I got to France, though, something else happened. I adored the cathedrals, adored them as monumental and ravishing works of art. They took centuries, in some cases, to complete, and they were entirely built by hand. And they were not built, say like the pyramids, by slaves, or more simply by workers doing a job for more prosaic reasons—this is what the economy in this culture offers to make a living, so you sign up and do your job cutting and hauling blocks of stone, and you get paid for it. Look, there may be office workers nowadays in some cubicle thrilled with the job they’re doing so much they’d do it for free, but I daresay it’s much more about a paycheck, then home for TV on the big flatscreen, a couple beers, family cookouts on the weekend, and maybe a boat. And of course, there were certainly enough workaday stone masons in Medieval France too. High Medieval cathedrals, though, it seemed to me, were really legitimate eruptions of a deep, genuine and massive faith. So I found Chartres, Amiens, Rhiems, Laon, Rouen, Bourges, Notre Dame, Beauvais, to be incredibly moving and inspirational. Yes, I understood them to be economic engines and declarations of power within the culture that erected them, but I thought of the architect and the artist. The stained glass designers and the glass blowers, the painters and sculptors, stone masons and carpenters, I knew of course that they worked a job, had careers, and were concerned with feeding their families, but much of what I saw meant to me that reverence, awe, and humor, all of it, had to have played a huge role in the motivation of these artists. I couldn’t get enough of them. I still think that, and I don’t think I’m being naïve. I think they concentrated on their tasks with love, and like the Shakers here in Kentucky, centuries later, they understood work as prayer and they believed it. For the Shakers, to make a sound and lasting chair was a both a declaration and a demonstration of reverence. For a Medieval glass blower, that perfect piece of cut blue glass, that was pure, that snugged into its assigned space, and that in its small blue way added to the total effect of the magnificent rose window it was part of: That’s what mattered. It was a metaphor for how the worker and his work fit into his milieu, and I believe he understood that, wanted no credit except for the satisfaction of doing and producing reverent work, and felt blessed to be part of something so grand. And there was no irony involved. This was simple, sincere and reverent life.
So, here is poet Berryman, in France, faced with Autun Cathedral, and what is his response? It’s very telling: “Draw on your resources. Draw on your resources.” It’s the opposite of what a cathedral is meant to remind us! And we actually don’t even need God to be part of the message. The point is about how we tiny individuals, with our focused and reverent, but tiny works, fit into the vast goals and glories of our communities. We’re part of something amazing! But when you see this and in a panic remind yourself to draw on your resources, well you’ve missed the point, and what will happen is that you’ll get overwhelmed. Because no matter how famous or talented you are, and no matter how fortuitous the cultural circumstance that may amplify your talent into fame and into genuine influence, you will still never approach the collective magnificence of what a cathedral embodies, and you damn well know it. You don’t participate in the communal exaltation, you get flattened by it, and of course you will begin to see it as a declaration of power.
So the poet rejects it, and in his way, says as much that the cathedral squats on the town like a pig in the turnips. And what he’s rejecting, along with a resistance to power, is as well everything that power purports to represent. So the poem ends with another, very telling couplet: “Draw on your mere mensch / for the benefits we sought.” “Mensch” is a Yiddish word; it refers to a person who is admirable and strong, who is honorable and capable. Something along those lines. And it’s about the individual. So B. is telling himself here to buck up and resist what it is this cathedral stands for. Salvation will come through personal integrity, and it will come through individual achievement. That’s the best you can hope for.
B. seems sincere in his invocation of individuality as the root of salvation. In opposition to that, there are certain high-influence voices in our politics right now, and in his day as well, who are liars, frankly, out to undermine the individual and individual achievement in service to an authoritarian corporate ideology, where individual persons aren’t fulfilled individuals, and they’re not contributing members of vital communities, they’re controllable collections of atomized units. In the end, in rejecting the cathedral, B. means to reject autocratic authority, but instead he rejects the vitality of community along with it. A mistake, I think.
Yes, except for one thing: He does recognize something when he says, “We’ve been here long, long … but not as they have.” One could read this as saying we haven’t been here as long as they have, but the stress in meaning of this passage, I believe, is not on “long, long”, which would stress time, but rather we haven’t been here as they have, which is to say, the mode of our being here is not what theirs was, the builders of this cathedral. B. actually recognizes the production of a vital community in the cathedral, but he acknowledges that the community that achieved this amazing thing operated in a world fundamentally different from the one he lives in. The community has been destroyed. He lives in a world of atomized units. So his choice is to join and, further atomize, or to resist through genuine individuality, the best option in our degraded authoritarian world.
In the end I think this is a great and thought-provoking poem. What do you think?