"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Except Thou Bless Me


"And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth,
and the top of it reached to heaven:
and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it."
Genesis 28:12

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1963
by Marc Chagall, 1887 - 1985

And Jacob said to the angel,
"I will not let thee go, except thou bless me."
Genesis 32:26

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt--a wind to freeze;
Sad patience--joyous energies;
Humility--yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity--reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob's mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel--Art.

Herman Melville
, 1819 - 1891
American novelist, essayist, poet

I first became aware of Melville's mystical wrestling poem in the most interesting way: I saw it inscribed -- painted as a border -- around a prophetic looking, circular ceiling mural in the lobby of an apartment highrise in Chicago. I was in that vestibule a few times many years ago but am now not even entirely sure what building it was. How I would love to see it again! The question is, do I have the courage to approach the door-keeper and say, "Excuse me, I don't live here or know anyone who lives here, but could I please step inside and glance at your ceiling?!" A few friends have suggested that such a request might not be ill - received. Audacity -- reverence. Right? But where to start? I've actually thought of asking a realtor to help me, since agents probably have access to such buildings that are otherwise closed to the general public.

Could it be one of these?

Melville's poem and the following essay by Isak Dinesen are both inspired by the same reference from the Book of Genesis. Biblical scholar, Jonathan Kirsch says that "The same curious phenomenon of God as changeling is found throughout the Hebrew Bible: Is it God, or an angel, or merely a mortal man who wrestles with Jacob by night and is defeated by Jacob at sunrise" (53). This is about all that Kirsch has to say about Jacob's confrontation with the Angel; I was hoping he would explicate this particular story further, as he does with so many others in his fascinating book, The Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Perhaps he does so in one of his other books that I have not yet looked at.

Hopefully, I will find time to read more soon, for Kirsch has a way of retelling a story so that you cannot forget it, even if you want to! And I could not agree more when he says that "the King James Version is a fundamental work of Western literature . . . Some modern translators are much more forthcoming about the 'forbidden' elements of the Bible than the KJV . . . Still, the newer Bible translations that have replaced the stately old KJV have not matched its grandeur and resonance of language. The new translations are more accurate in their scholarship, more forthcoming in their exploration of history, linguistics,and theology, but something has been sacrificed in the process" (330 - 31).

Isak Dinesen applies Jacob's concept of blessing in a thoughtful and thought - provoking way. In this brief and poignant excerpt from Out of Africa, blessing is bestowed not only by gods and angels, but by the sky, the weather, the house, the good times and the bad, the friends and the memories. Dinesen insists that all of these must bless her before they go away:

"I Will Not Let Thee Go Except Thou Bless Me"

When in Africa in March the long rains begin after four months of hot, dry weather, the richness of growth and the freshness and fragrance everywhere are overwhelming.

But the farmer holds back his heart and dares not trust to the generosity of nature, he listens, dreading to hear a decrease in the roar of the failing rain. The water that the earth is now drinking in must bring the farm, with all the vegetable, animal and human life on it, through four rainless months to come.

It is a lovely sight when the roads of the farm have all been turned into streams of running water, and the farmer wades through the mud with a singing heart, out to the flowering and dripping coffee-fields. But it happens in the middle of the rainy season that in the evening the stars show themselves through the thinning clouds; then he stands outside his house and stares up, as if hanging on to the sky to milk down more rain. He cries to the sky: "Give me enough and more than enough. My heart is bared to thee now, and I will not let thee go except thou bless me. . . .

Sometimes a cool, colourless day in the months after the rainy season calls back the time of the drought. In those days the Kikuyu used to graze their cows around my house, and a boy amongst them who had a flute, from time to time played a short tune on it. When I have heard this tune again, it has recalled in one single moment all our anguish and despair of the past. It has got the salt taste of tears in it. But at the same time I found in the tune, unexpectedly surprisingly, a vigour, a curious sweetness, a song. Had those hard times really had all these in them? There was youth in us then, a wild hope. . . . we were all of us merged into a unity . . . That bad time blessed us and went away.

The friends of the farm came to the house, and went away again. They were not the kind of people who stay for a long time in the same place. They were not the kind of people either who grow old, they died and never came back. But they had sat contented by the fire, and when the house, closing round them, said: "I will not let you go except you bless me," they laughed and blessed it, and it let them go. . . .
My life, I will not let you go except you bless me,
but then I will let you go." (285 - 87)

from Out of Africa
by Isak Dinesen, 1815 - 1962
Danish writer (in English), plantation owner (in Kenya)

Jacob's Battle with the Angel, 1893
by Maurice Denis, 1870 - 1843

For more on this topic,
see "The Story I Wrestle With"
by Alissa Goudswaard

And this anonymous quotation:
"The outcome of this first test, then, is a sense of bitter thinking. Wounded in its first upsurge, in its very essence, the heart bleeds and appears torn for ever. And yet you live and you have to love in order to continue living; you love with apprehension, with defiance, and little by little, looking around you, you realize that life is not as sad as you had judged it to be. A steadier heart accepts the obstacles, the sorrows, the disgusts even; sure of itself, it anticipates them, fights them, and sometimes changes them into blessings. Having learned resignation, it enjoys the happy days more fully, expects them with greater ardor, prolongs them with greater care. Finally it reaches the point of telling itself . . . Allow your heart to beat, allow yourself to be loved, allow fate to take its course. There are lovely days on this earth."
(emphasis added)

That bad time blessed us and went away.

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  1. Notes toward a Jacob & Esau Musical:

    "Another Sarah" by Anne Porter
    Birth of Twins: Hear the Voices Singing
    Mother's favorite / Father's favorite: Vickie's Ode
    Mess of pottage: Harder Etude
    Blessing and deception
    Departure of Jacob / Jacob's ladder: Saints of God
    Rachael & Leah: Softly Now
    6 years: Some Say that Ever
    Wedding deception: Christmas Lullaby
    6 years
    Gradual birth of children
    Wrestling with the Angel: St. James Anthem
    Melville's poem

  2. I've been trying to track down the source of that quote "allow your heart to beat, allow yourself to be loved," etc. I first read it in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's memoir, but haven't found a source for it else where. Would you share where you originally read it? Thank you! dokphoto (at) hotmail.com

  3. Deirdre, I too know the quotation only from the footnote given in _Bring Me a Unicorn_ where Anne Morrow Lindbergh attributes it merely to anonymous.