Take some storied lovers—say Bogey and Bacall, or Hepburn and Tracy. No, forget them, pampered Hollywood blossoms. Try more storied yet, Heloise and Abelard. Heloise was Abelard’s student, already well-regarded in her own right as a scholar when he moved into her family’s house to become her tutor. Either he seduced her, or they fell desperately in love, or both, eventually got married in secret, she bore his child, and her relatives were so infuriated that they castrated him and sent her to a convent for the rest of her life. Doubtless it’s a lot more complicated than that. What’s obvious is that their relationship involved passion, love, sex, anguish, seduction, mutilation, a child, and letters from the convent. Without that handful of surviving letters, it’s not likely we’d even know much about this 12th century drama. Which is the point. There have been countless millions of love affairs in the world since, and every last one of them was as intense and emotionally consuming for the participants as Heloise and Abelard’s affair, although I’m fairly confident only a tiny percentage of them concluded with a castration. Enough of them did. (Alan Turing, the genius mathematician who cracked the German code in WWII, who did as much any single person to help win the war, also happened to be gay and was chemically castrated by the British government for it. It ruined him. So much for heroism—to be homosexual counted for more against you than being a genius war hero counted in your favor. Humans beings have a disastrously twisted set of priorities sometimes.) The point I’m getting at: Our direst passions mean so much to us at the time. But they’re soon forgotten. The world strays and stumbles on, without us.
That’s what this poem is about. There are references to a woman, and there is desire and passion involved, though who she might be is kept obscure. She causes metaphoric kitties to dig their claws in his back while he’s up on some metaphoric parapet, or something, and his Interlocutor is a bit confused by the whole thing. (I just ran into that phrase for the voice that follows him. I don’t like it. This is the speaking personification of Death following and laughing at Henry, toning him down, like Death follows and laughs at all of us, and tones us down too.) So Death can’t deal with all this crossed up strong emotion—I gotta go. See you tomorrow. You’re not making sense. Henry has him stay, though if he knows it’s really Death he’s talking to, I wonder if that’s such a good idea. Whether he’s making sense or not (passion never makes sense, that’s the whole thing about passion!), Henry finds this way to this moment of wisdom:
Get with it. When’s said & done
all that we did & said
& drank & dreamt, a hundred seasons hence,
who’ll forgive sunspots & the stains of the son
where all we crawled & bled?
I think Macbeth had a similar insight about all the sound and fury he was buffeted by. All this passion—Henry’s passion, Berryman’s abject passion—who’ll “forgive” it? It’s an interesting choice of words! To forgive it, a century down the line, you need first to remember it. Probably, since it has been a half century already, there will still be talk about this person and this work. But forgive? It won’t matter. There will be no need. Forgiveness is immediate except in the most horrific crimes. There’s no call to forgive the Holocaust. American slavery’s legacy hasn’t completely dissipated yet, so it’s not time to forgive that yet. But those are huge, societal movements. The transgressions, the screw-ups and bad behaviors, the passions and life-altering miscalculations, the sins—they last for awhile, but they dissipate. If Abelard seduced his student, Heloise, we can disapprove in theory about how he misused his influence and position of power, and we can note that nothing has changed in human behavior in a thousand years and try to learn from it, but the passions that drove her family to mutilate him so pointedly have long, long since cooled. Henry’s passions will cool, and already have for the most part. Now, these things that so wrenched him, and drove his anguished, twisted poetical confessions, we just watch and shake our heads, and try to learn what we can learn. He knows this. It’s just passion, and even the sins of the father, who so hurt his son when he took himself away, or got taken away, they’ll die with the son. All we get are pictures carved with words set in blocks of stone.