It could be a book l would write. I have thought about it enough—the artist, memory, and selective vision—but there is little point in laboring over words few will ever read. And so I ramble among all three, avoiding cynicism, by meditating instead on T. S. Eliot’s rose.
Artists grapple with two deaths: the death of the person and the death of the memory. It may be Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, or Kierkegaard, or Gerard Manly Hopkins, or William Faulkner, or just about anyone who ever set pen to paper or brush to canvas in the cause of memory.
My historian son has observed, as have many others, that when an old historian dies, a world dies with him.
When anyone dies, a piece of the world fades away. We can no longer find it in our puzzle box. We stare at an empty space memory and imagination must now fill in. As years pass, there are more missing pieces, so many that what is left is mostly imagined.
When an artist dies, we lose a personal universe, except for that part of it that bled from the point of a pen or a paintbrush. This has often led me on literary pilgrimages to the graves of favorite authors. I usually try to recite at each a fragment of what I remember. It’s a silly exercise, I suppose, but truly great writing makes me feel helpless. The folks remembered at my feet would chuckle at the thought of five-star reviews, but if we can take Dante’s word for it, they love to be remembered.
I am not one to make a life out of following footsteps, though I have found Eliot’s profoundly inspiring and coincidentally near. I like to believe that I have seen seen his rose –it grows yet in a London Kensington walkway, along a path he would have taken to St. Stephen’s Church on Gloucester Road where he was for many years a church warden, and where he is remembered. I have been to East Coker, at the other end of his life’s trail.
I lived in St. Louis where Eliot was born in my neighborhood, and where local legend says that in his day there existed a trucking company by the name of Prufrock, a name from his well-known poem. I first heard this in a university classroom from a most enthusiastic Jesuit by the name of Maurice B. McNamee, S.J., once a Wisconsin farm boy. You could ask this most affable Jesuit, except he also is gone. He said it, though. I believed it, and I remember.
This is where memory and selective vision come in, the determination and plain luck to be gripped by certain things, no matter how incidental and trivial, over a lifetime, connecting to form a pattern, real, or imagined. A new puzzle piece is created to take the place of one it loses year by year.
Here is the miracle and baffling contrariness of faith and persistence. Ezra Pound, a fellow poet of Eliot’s age, said it so well:
What thou lovest well remains. The rest is dross.
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.
You have to believe something to embrace it. Only then can it become your rose, a memory we all share, yanked from the memories of others, and made our own in poem, painting, and sometimes stone.
The rose can be the word of a teacher, the last recalled sentiment of someone you loved, or a village in southwest England where Eliot’s ashes are encased in a wall of a grey stone church. “In your charity, please pray for the soul …”
The rose encloses more than you can see.
In your charity remember…. I did not go to the last place of writers’ places as a tourist. It has always been a pilgrimage, not to men but to what drove them to preserve what one day would otherwise die, the rose I would never have seen but for them. I felt that I owed them that much, and so day by day when I lived in Kensington, I peered over a fence, into a garden, at what must have been Mr. Eliot’s rose, the rose that had the look of being looked at.
In St. Louis I chat with old friends, the few left who remember what I remember. There are fewer and fewer of them, until no one remains who remembers. From that hour forward, memories can be labeled nostalgia and perhaps ridiculed—the rose. It is the cruel joke at the heart of being the last of the Mohicans, experiencing the pangs of longevity, in isolation and regarded as sentimental.
At the end, there is only the rose.
Memories can live if you can get them into something as trite and incidental as a classroom lecture when a teacher pauses to reminisce. You can preserve the rose in a little novel or in a stupendous poem like The Four Quartets, or even in something as brave as a perennial garden.
People wander through art museums gazing at landscape paintings of centuries past: Cézanne, Monet, Constable, Samuel Palmer, Van Ruysdael, and Bruegel. In such places memories live, the rose, scenes no one alive could remember, preserved and repeated, lest we forget—as so many monuments suggest.
Today more than ever the world as Hopkins saw is it seared with trade, bleared, and smeared with toil. How could it ever have been any other way? How could it ever have been the rose, the dearest freshness, deep down things of a poem called God’s Grandeur? Hopkins is remembered in a Dublin Jesuit cemetery. From a hotel window, I once looked into a rear garden to see a tree he sat beneath. I repeated those lines.
Are painters mere tricksters? Do poets jest in speaking of roses or daffodils or hollyhocks that leap too high? You can bet they all ignored certain contexts to preserve the vision, the factory smokestacks creeping along the horizon of a moment caught by Van Gogh. The vision had to be selective, and in that sense a scene that never existed. The world is so changed. Could it possibly have been a memory or was it an opium effect or a daydream? As Keats once wondered, Do I wake or dream? In London Hampstead you can step into a garden in a house where he lived, into a garden, miraculously preserved among today’s millionaires.
Read Audubon’s diaries of his travels in North America. Could that possibly have been Ohio and Illinois less than two centuries ago? You can still see Audubon’s name on roadside signs and at freeway exits. Is this what remains at the end of the path—signposts, hints, and suggestions, the rare bird, Robert Frost’s Ovenbird, and the rose?
You can still find flowers growing somewhere in New England precisely where Henry David Thoreau described them, but you have to have read his Journals to take notice. And you can lean over a river bridge somewhere in Dorset to see weeds like tresses flowing in the current, just as Hardy described them in a novel.
But for the artist and his rose, we would never know where to look for what little remains.
When you are as old as I am, you will soon discover that fewer people recall what you recall and will begin to suspect that you made up most of it, and that somehow you are imagining what never was. Your memories begin to seem unreal, and you feel yourself hardly real, as Eliot must have felt as he wrote The Four Quartets, mere tenuous fabrications of someone with too much imagination and perhaps too much whiskey. It could not have been so—mere sentimentality and romantic longing for a non-existent world; he takes himself far too seriously for certain, etc. You stand accused of practicing nostalgia.
You also have taken Norman Rockwell far too seriously, and Maxfield Parish. Mere chuntering, all of it, an old man in a corner somewhere mumbling approval of a world he only imagined existed.
And yet you know it was there, the gift of old memories, and responding to the heart’s stirrings, no matter how faint in comparison to great poets of power, you leave behind at last a version of Mr. Eliot’s rose, and you are grateful to think, as Tennyson once had Ulysses consoling himself as he recalled his amazing odyssey, “Though much is taken, much abides.”
At least for a time—as long as you remain true to the memory—the rose, no matter what anyone thinks, by any other name is still your rose …