Monday, August 4, 2008

Understanding the lay of the land...

In this week's New Yorker, there is a lengthy and insightful article re: Emily Dickinson and her spiritual suitor (of sorts) that contains lots of wisdom about this place we call New England. One particularly powerful quote, from Samuel Ward to Ralph Waldo Emerson after reading sister Dickinson's poems, is worth repeating in light of my quest for finding uplifting and joy-filled songs about this beautiful place.

She is the quintessence of that element we all have who are of the Puritan descent pur sang. We came to this country to think our own thoughts with nobody to hinder... we conversed with our own souls till we lost the art of communicating with other people. The typical family grew up strangers to each other... it was awfully high but awfully lonesome.

Her poem, "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," captures something of her dilemma in excruciating detail:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum
Kept beating -beating - till I thought
My Mind was going numb -

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space -began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here -

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing -then -

Juxtapose this high lonesome intellectual and spiritual angst with the passionate fervor and joy of the First Great Awakening and the work of William Billings and Jonathan Edwards. A wise and learned colleague recently noted that Edwards was never able to get a handle on the emotional power of the religious revivals he supported - people rarely translated their spiritual passion into beautiful and ethical living - which may speak to Dickinson's and Emerson's dilemma - a legacy that continues to exist 278 years later.

I came across a Billing's song, however, that blends both the high commitment of right thinking/living with a sense of God's lovely and passionate spiritual presence called, "Africa."

Now shall my inward joy arise
And burst into a song
Almighty Love inspires my heart
And pleasure tunes my tongue.

This same composer wrote "When Jesus Wept," which captures such depth of feeling that it warrants a regular hearing. This performance by Owen/Cox dance group give it a social context that moves me beyond all words.

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