The fresco, "Zachariah in the Temple" (1486 - 1490)
by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486-1490)
Italian Renaissance painter
Detail: Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino,
Angelo Poliziano, Demetrios Chalkondyles
Location of fresco: The Tornabuoni Chapel
in Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence, Italy
Back when I was an undergrad in a class called Major Trends, I was given the assignment to pick a significant historical event before 1550 and provide examples of its effect on literature up to the present day. I seem to recall taking a stair-step approach, starting with
Italian Renaissance (1400 - 1550)
produced humanist philosopher Marsilio Ficino
(Italian, 1433 - 1499)
who wrote Theologia Platonica (1474)
Fun Fact: Ficino coined the phrase "Platonic Love" [to be misquoted several centuries later by one of my Freshman Comp students as "Plutonic Love"]
Ficino's Neoplatonism influenced Edmund Spenser
(English, 1552 - 1599)
who wrote The Faerie Queene (1590)
Fun Fact: Spenser is believed to have crafted the phrase "neither rhyme nor reason"
Spenser's allegorical poem influenced Nathaniel Hawthorne
(American, 1804 - 64)
who wrote Mosses From an Old Manse (1835)
and Twice-Told Tales (1837)
Fun Fact: Hawthorne named his first child Una, after a character from Spenser's "Faerie Queene"
In "Young Goodman Brown," one of Hawthorne's allegorical tales, Young Goodman Brown leaves his young wife Faith for a visit to the Dark Side. As he hurries away to keep his appointment with Fate, he sees Faith's sad face, framed on either side by the pink ribbons of her cap. He is torn between his faith and the insistent call of cynicism. Arriving late for his assignation, he explains his tardiness, "Faith kept me back awhile."
Throughout the story, Young Goodman Brown's spiritual faith, his faith in goodness and humankind, and the person of his wife Faith become one. Should he leave his "dear Faith" to pursue the Knowledge of Good and Evil? He longs to sleep "in the arms of Faith!" Yet he feels compelled to enter the dark wood where he is startled to hear Faith's voice echoing through the trees. When he finds one of her pink ribbons caught on a branch, he seizes it, crying, "My Faith is gone!"
"But where is Faith?" he asks. It appears that Faith has become as jaded as he, and by the end of the evening their mutual disillusion is complete: " . . . ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived."
When I first read this story in 1977, in a unit of literature concerning the theme of Initiation, I attempted to write a poem on the same topic:
I have finally told you about the dot and the line.
The dot, a hard knot, a hurt fist between my breasts.
The crying fingers clinch in painful safety
all that I have loved and lived with and believed in for so long.
The line, a right margin the length of my body.
A fence allowing no escape for the dot,
guarding, keeping it right beside my heart.
when with a wiser hand I force the tear-stained fingers open
I will find, preserved in brine, Faith's pink ribbon.
I hadn't thought about this poem for ages, until driving in the car the other day, I caught the words from Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." The lyrics brought to mind the imagery of my old poem -- the dot and the line, the knotted heart and the fist. I couldn't help wondering if the shallow beating heart, the divided mind, and the border line in their song are similar to those I was writing about so long ago:
"On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams . . .
My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating . . .
I'm walking down the line
That divides me somewhere in my mind
On the border line
Of the edge and where I walk alone . . . ."