How Hollywood Built a Golden Age in Five Easy Steps

I have a date with Alexander Nevsky this coming week–if all goes well, with both the film and a symphonic performance of Prokfiev’s score. This has gotten the wheels in my head spinning about two of my favorite subjects: my inexplicable fascination with Soviet-era art (which I will spare you any further discussion of in this post), and the overwhelming number of amazing films produced in the 1930s. Almost any movie you decide to download from the second half of that decade will not disappoint. Here is the list of Best Picture nominees from the 1940 Oscars, honoring films released in 1939:

Winner: Gone With the Wind

Dark Victory

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Love Affair

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ninotchka

Of Mice and Men

Stagecoach

The Wizard of Oz

Wuthering Heights

That was all just in one year. They followed on the heels of earlier ‘30s films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, A Star Is Born, and Mutiny on the Bounty. If you don’t mind extending the Golden Age into the early 1940s, you can throw in Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, and many more. No other era of cinema comes close to producing the same number of classics per films released–but why? What made these films so great, and how did Hollywood manage to make so many of them at the same time?

We here at Dappled Things take the business of culture-building seriously, but thus far, the only model I have seen proposed for the modern development of Catholic art and literature to follow is the mid-twentieth century flourishing of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, et. al. A good place to start, certainly, but it need not be an end. The Golden Age of Hollywood inundated the collective American consciousness with stories–works of art–that continue to shape our national imagination three-quarters of a century after they were made. Isn’t that what our current renaissance seeks to do? The fact that these films did not usually feature religious elements is no reason we cannot learn from them.

There are plenty of differences between literature and film, but at their core, they are both ways of telling stories, and stories shape our culture in ways that are deeper and more profound than today’s “cultural arena” of politics. Did the financial crises of the ‘30s, the government’s many social programs, the battle over the Supreme Court, leave a lasting impact on American society? Absolutely. But let me ask: which of these iconic lines from the ‘30s is indelibly embedded in your mind?

Let’s Get Another Deck

or

There’s no place like home

Quite probably, you’ve never heard Alfred M. Landon’s slogan from his presidential campaign against Roosevelt in 1936. But I’m betting you have watched Dorothy click the heels of her ruby slippers.rubyslippers

So, to return to the question at hand: how did Hollywood create its Golden Age, and what can we learn from it? Here are some of the answers:

1. They did not try to reinvent the wheel.

Notice how many of those amazing movies are literary adaptations. The silent film era had already begun adapting classic novels and plays, but the advent of sound allowed the words of the originals to take on new life. Because sound film was a new medium, the entire canon of world literature was its oyster. To see Wuthering Heights on a screen was to experience the story in a whole new way. Filmmakers also incorporated existing traditions from theater, music, dance, and visual arts. To this day, the most widely-credited film score composer in the world is Richard Wagner, who died before the invention of the motion picture camera. Filmmakers understood that the elements of good storytelling never change, and they could cast a wider net if they stood on the shoulders of giants.

2. They helped people escape from reality.

MutinyontheBountyNo one wanted to spend his paltry paycheck from his WPA job to go see a film about miserable people standing in bread lines. Escape is a word that has been much maligned among “serious” artists, who often eschew it as the stuff of mere entertainment. But people crave it–so why not put it to good use? The actors were beautiful and romance abounded. And then, once the audience had left the gray Depression to arrive on the deck of a pirate ship or in the office of some gumshoe private-eye…

3. They tugged the audience’s heartstrings.

LoveAffairMr. Smith Goes to Washington allowed every “little guy” in America to go take a swing at Washington fat cats. Dark Victory and Love Affair both involve couples rent apart by illness or injury. Golden Age movies gave us genuinely sympathetic characters, and also celebrated the fact that those characters were flawed humans. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very far from being saints, but no one can help rooting for their sheer determination.

4. Innovation was the norm.

SnowWhiteCoupled with an adherence to the time-honored rules of storytelling came an anything-goes race to experiment. What happens when you add singing to the plot of a novel? Can I make a fairy tale into a cartoon and then let the heroine sing English words over a Tchaikovsky ballet? Without computers to make the special effects, the art of filmmaking itself required constant creativity. How do you put a tornado on screen? Or film a burning plantation? At the same time that filmmakers remained true to many artistic traditions, they were also fearless in their desire to surprise because…

5. They wanted everyone to buy a ticket. 

ScarlettandRhettThe wonderful thing about the film market of the 1930s was that it was not fractured into the thousands of sub-markets we are accustomed to thinking about in 2015. Theaters typically only had one screen, and many towns only had one theater. If you wanted a return on your investment, you’d better make your film appeal to people in many different walks of life, often including children. Did this marginalize the stories of minority members of the population? Absolutely. That was the down side. The up side was that the stories had to appeal to what is most basically human in all of us, or else be financial failures. Our modern marketing “wisdom” likes to target every imaginable niche, selling us ways to further divide ourselves from the rest of humanity, but the fact is that the stories we cherish as a culture are the ones that speak to the greatest possible number people. No story will speak to everyone, but it is never wrong to try.

It is important to note that later Hollywood classics deviated widely from this this Golden Age formula. The Godfather has no sympathetic characters; the battle scenes in Braveheart are anything but an escape; The English Patient certainly did not have universal appeal–I could go on ad nauseam. It is impossible to peg down criteria that apply to all classics, especially since few people agree about which movies (books, plays, etc.) qualify for the title. My goal is not to define what makes a classic, nor to limit the scope of what ought to be included in our present cultural revival. Rather, I hope that by discussing the trends that made the movies of the Golden Age golden, the Catholic literary world can find a way to emulate its success. We might tell ourselves that the culture and the market have changed since the 1930s, but a 2014 nationwide poll still named Gone With the Wind as the most popular movie in America seventy-five years after its release. And in second place… Star Wars, which fits all of the above criteria for a Golden Age movie, even if it was not made during the Golden Age.

The Unsheathing of Dante

The invocation of the Muse has a long and storied history, dating back at least to the ocularly challenged Homer. In later times it would become a poetic tradition with Vergil and all his Medieval and Renaissance imitators. The poet would make a show of humility, acknowledging his debt to the divine bestowers of poetic genius. The nine daughters of Memory were the movers of the human mind, raising men up into greatness of science and song.

Dante Alighieri, writing in the Vergilian tradition and willing to use the pagan deities as poetic metaphors even in a Christian era, was aware that his Roman forerunner invoked the Muse to tell him “the reasons why / a wounded power divine, a queen of the gods” would condemn Aeneas to fruitless wandering. The Florentine poet similarly understood his debt to the celestial powers, and the figure of an inspirational heavenly woman—Muse or otherwise—resonated strongly with the maker of the Sweet New Style.

It takes Dante until the second canto of his Inferno to invoke the Muse, however briefly: “O Muses, O high genius, help me now! / O memory that engraved the things I saw, / here shall your worth be manifest to all” (II.7-9). In Hell, he asks Vergil for help more than the divine ladies: “you who guide my steps, / see to my strength, make sure it will suffice” (II.10-11). Hell is a worldly place, full of obvious imagery and well known monstrosities, and the Muse is not much needed to inspire a description of the damned.

In the Purgatorio Dante wastes less time admitting his need for divine inspiration:

My little ship of ingenuity
   now hoists her sails to speed through better waters,
   leaving behind so pitiless a sea…
Here rise to life again, dead poetry!
   Let it, O holy Muses, for I am yours,
   and here, Calliope, strike a higher key. (I.1-3, 7-9)

The realm of Purgatory is one of greater stature and importance than Hell, and as such it requires a greater genius of poetry—a “higher key”—to properly sing of it. Calliope is the mother of the doomed poet Orpheus and is the Muse associated with epic poetry, also invoked by Vergil in book nine of the Aeneid. Her inspiration is required to sing of the quasi-celestial realm of the ascending dead.

When Dante begins writing the Paradiso he fully acknowledges his dependence on heavenly assistance, but now instead of the Muse he invokes the sun god himself, Apollo. As a symbol of Christ, the bright Apollo is needed to inspire “this last work of art” (I.13) that will win Dante the poetic laurel. He had few worries about doing justice to Hell and Purgatory, but Heaven is so far above the experience of our sinful, earthly lives that he is desperate to receive the god of music’s help. The Muses are daughters of Memory, but Heaven is a place where “memory cannot follow” (I.9). Dante’s memory of his time in Heaven is insufficient because that is a place of pure ideas and spirits, where the sensory phantasms of human memory are of little use.

Till this hour
   one peak of twin Parnassus has sufficed,
   but if I am to enter the lists now
I shall need both. (I.16-19)

The sacred Thessalian mountain of Parnassus was the home of the Muses and the stomping grounds of the winged horse Pegasus. One peak of Parnassus was sufficient to inspire a poetry of Hell and Purgatory, but not of Heaven. A more worldly poet would be obsessed with damnation and punishment, pouring all of his genius into a description of the vile and base, while finding the subject of a blissful paradise too dull and abstract to take seriously.

But the most vivid image Dante uses to request poetic inspiration comes just after Parnassus:

Then surge into my breast
   and breathe your song, as when you drew the vain
   Marsyas from the sheath of his own limbs. (I.19-21)

In classical mythology, Marsyas was the satyr who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, lost, and was rewarded for his hubris with a thorough skinning. For Marsyas this was a cruel punishment, but Dante uses it as an image of mystical ecstasy. In writing about his journeys, Dante is daring to challenge the inscrutability of Heaven with verse, and hopes thereby for a future release from worldly things, one much like the transport he already received when Beatrice toured him amongst the heavenly spheres. It is a grotesquely violent image, not unlike the alien figures Dante recently watched parade through the paradise at the top of Purgatory.

The satyric unsheathing is not for the sake of poetry itself. He does not want to be in ecstasy beholding the beauty of the art, but hopes that his fumbling art will be received as a request to allow him to behold Beauty itself in the highest Heaven. It is the antithesis of art for art’s sake. It is rather art for the sake of God as man’s final end.

Poetry thus becomes a kind of penance, a purification of the soul and preparation for death. Dante is challenging Christ to a singing contest, knowing that he will fall very short, and is prepared to lose his skin in exchange for a heavenly reward.

[The quotes are from Anthony Esolen’s recent translation published by The Modern Library.]

The Devil’s Truths

I should have destroyed them. Who needs them? What good are they going to do the world? I had painted them; wasn’t that enough? No, it wasn’t enough. They had to be moved into the public arena. You communicate in the public arena; everything else is puerile and cowardly.

-My Name is Asher Lev

Dante's Francesca and Paolo, falling for the same old story.

       Dante’s Francesca and Paolo, falling for the same old story, and ending just exactly where you imagine.

The devil’s best lies are almost entirely true.

God made sex, and it’s one of my favorite things. I was designed for it, among other things, and I’m good at it. At least, I’m pretty sure I will be. Because, I’ve gotten close to it, and I know how to move, and what sounds to make, and what to hold onto, and what to say to let him know he’s doing everything just how I want it. I know how to do all of that because God made me knowing it. No one had to tell me how; I knew it even when I didn’t know I knew it. I was built for it, built to give it all, to make it all, for the man I love, for the man who loves me, who, just by being what he is, opens up all the strange wildness I’ve kept tucked out of even my own sight. He has opened me to a part of me I didn’t know, helped me to be more who I am than I’ve ever been, and the most natural thing in the world is to give him my whole self—the core of myself— that I only know because of what he’s done for me, what he’s given to me.

God calls us to complete surrender, to a surrender of generous love, to a giving over of ourselves to something outside of ourselves. And in that surrender, that going out of ourselves, He tells us we’ll find more joy than we’ve known in anything in our whole lives. We’ll find ourselves—lose ourselves—in ecstasy. So now I’m going to go show this man, this man who is not my husband, how utterly I love him; I am going to surrender my innermost self to him and accept his outpouring of love for me. God designed us to give love, to make love, and now we will.

Right. Why wait, after all? We know we’re going to be married. It’s the one Sacrament that lovers give to one another, rather than receiving from God’s ordained. All of that grace is already here, surrounding us, flowing back and forth between us. This will make us whole, this will make us holy. So say the murmuring voices, and they’re absolutely right. It will make us truly ourselves. Ninety-nine percent exactly right. . . . And then, they add, there is no need to wait. Simeon didn’t wait—never put in decades of patience to earn the right to say, “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart.” And even if he did, that waiting made sense; this doesn’t. Did Mary really keep her secret quiet, wait eighteen years to say, “Whatsoever He tells you, do.”? And Jesus didn’t wait, or work, or suffer, to smash the gates of Hell. It all came easily, void of sacrifice, just like sex.

The devil is intimately acquainted with the truth. And he is a liar.

Contributing author: J.B. Toner

April is Grilled Cheese Poetry Month

Grilled cheese is, of course, the perfect food with which to celebrate Poetry Month, combining as it does those two ingredients both universal in their appeal and infinite in their variety. As poetry transforms and elevates language, so the grilled cheese sandwich transmutes the humble elements of bread and cheese into a golden unity. Indeed, in the realm of edible alchemy it would not be unfair to draw a comparison with the mythical Philosopher’s Scone.

It’s no surprise, then, that many poets have turned their hands to the subject of grilled cheese. Most famous, perhaps, was Robert Frost, who saw so clearly the transience of earthly things in “Nothing Grilled Can Stay”:

So curds go down to whey.
Nothing grilled can stay.

W.B. Yeats saw all too well the limitations of earthly food, but he also saw a promise of transcendence. These lines recall another famous verse about a grain of wheat.

A grain of wheat is but a paltry thing,
A tattered groat upon a stalk, unless
Mill turn its wheel and sing, and louder sing
For every kernel in its stone compress.

“Grilling to Byzantium” gives eloquent voice to his desire for immortality, for “monuments of melted magnificence” that stand beyond the natural world and its ceaseless cycle of death and rebirth.

O bread-loaves standing by the flour mill
As in an old prosaic pastoral,
Come from the flour mill, burn on a grill,
And be the sandwich-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dieting animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artistry of the panini.

For Wallace Stevens, though, there is nothing beyond the circle of the dinner plate.

Let catsup be finale of squeeze.
The only emperor is the emperor of grilled-cheese.

These lines place the grilled cheese squarely within the philosophical traditions and concerns of the twentieth century. But the concept of heated sandwiches long predates these poets, and has hardly been limited to poems in the English language. Grilled cheese may be a quintessentially modern and Western food, but scholars have traced the genre back as far as Bashō.

ホット鉄板 や
ブレッド飛び込む
バターの音

The hot grill–
Sandwich jumps on,
Sound of butter.

This too has found its twentieth-century adherents. It was from the quasi-Imagist manner of this haiku that Ezra Pound derived “In a Station of the Food Court”, with its arresting vision of

Cheeses on a hot, black grill.

And no one who has heard these lines of Octavio Paz can ever forget his idea of a midnight snack:

Si abres los ojos,
se abre la noche de tostado de queso,
se abre el reino secreto del sopa
que mana del centro de la noche.

Y si los cierras,
una sopa, una corriente dulce y silenciosa,
te inunda por dentro, avanza, te hace hambre,
la noche calienta emparedados en tu alma.

In nineteenth-century France, Baudelaire himself was not immune to the seductive lure of the cheese sandwich, but in “Fromages du Mal” his imagination, unsurprisingly, takes a surreal turn.

On dirait ton sandwich d’un fromage couvert;
Fromage mystérieux (est-il bleu, jaune ou vert?)
Alternativement tendre, crémeux, cruel,
Réfléchit le splendeur et l’éclat du ciel.

In the midst of these competing visions and interpretations, Archibald MacLeish pleaded for simplicity and a return to basics in “Ars Sabulovica”.

A sandwich should not go to waste
But taste.

But the last word, of course, must belong to Elizabeth Bishop who alone had the courage to transform grilled cheese into an imperative and a formula for living.

The art of grilling isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be grilled that their loss is no disaster.

Grill something every day. Accept the fluster
of melted cheese, the sandwich badly burnt.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.

Then practice grilling farther, grilling faster:
flatbread, pizza, and what it was you meant
to stir-fry. None of these will bring disaster.

I grilled my tuna melt. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three grilled reubens went.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.

I grilled two burgers, lovely ones. And, after,
some cheddar cheese, two pickles, a condiment.
I grilled them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even grilling this, (the turkey club, a sandwich
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of grilling’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Grill it!) like disaster.

Domine, non Sub Deaconus

Good Friday reflections on my not being a priest.

Imagine it’s the World Cup final and Messi pulls you from the stands, throws a jersey on your back, and subs you in as Argentine goalie, when all you’ve ever done is watch from the stands, armchair coach, and read about soccer strategy.

Imagine being sent into an operating room as a surgical nurse for a heart transplant, when all you’ve ever done is watch from the operating theatre while perusing Gray’s Anatomy.

Imagine Virgil grabs you (instead of Dante) for a stroll through a divine comedy. Here’s some Italian history…read up!

Excitement grips you. Exhilaration enlivens you. Awe fills you. Fear shakes you. At once you realize your dream has come true yet perhaps you’d rather it hadn’t. Like a man at a wedding without a wedding garment, you are out of place. You are, in a word, incompetent.

Such was my experience this Holy Week while serving as “straw” sub deacon for the Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday masses in the extraordinary form at my parish. As if by an infusion of spiritual caffeine, when the procession from the sacristy began I awoke to a heightened awareness of my own proper place in liturgy as a lay person. I thought I’d have it pat. I’m a theology professor, after all! I’ve read the rubrics. I’ve practiced my chant. We even did a run-through the day before. Plus, I’ve seen this a hundred times (at least). In fact, I did not have it pat. In fact, I didn’t even deserve a pat on the back. Having messed up the epistle chant, moved where I should have stood still, stood where I should have sat, and doffed where I should have donned, I understood for the first time the enormous distinction between my normal full, conscious, active participation in the pew, and the priest’s ministry at the altar of the most holy Trinity.

I am not a priest.

Yes, I am baptized priest, prophet and king in Christ (as are all the baptized), but I have not the vocation, office, or sacramental ordination to holy orders. I do not enjoy that sacred consecration and share in the ministry of the sacraments handed on to the Apostles. On any given Sunday (and weekdays for that matter) I may be assisting at the mass, praying the mass, but the priest, in persona Christi, makes present again the one sacrifice of Calvary. This is no dramatic re-enactment. This is a solemn participation in the one and perfect sacrifice of Christ, who is at once both high priest and sacrifice.

I never really understood the world that lay beyond the altar rail. I still don’t. But I now know that the sanctuary is the place where a person is at once closest to and farthest from home. It was a land at once alien and familiar. To see up close the mass, the source and summit of my life in Christ, was like staring a fire hose in the face. Who could dare to drink? It’d be like stealing a sip from Niagara Falls!

My failure as “straw” subdeacon was (after my matrimonial mass) among the most important liturgical moments of my life. A strange sense of joy overtook me in my incompetence. Praise be to God that he was able to play the symphony of that mass with broken instruments. Praise be to God for revealing to me how necessary is the grace of sacramental ordination for the priesthood, how uniquely consecrated priests are for the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the mass. The phrase “Domine, non sub dignus…” took on new meaning for me this week, as I discovered that whatever it is I do in the pews, it stands a far cry from the priest’s action at the altar. Standing behind the deacon, behind the priest, hearing the choir sing the credo just after the three of us spoke it, knowing that the laity sat praying the creed themselves, amidst squirming babies, aching knees, tittering toddlers, I saw and heard in my soul the polyphonic yet univocal prayer of the liturgy. The celebrant’s voice, the choir’s voice, the voice of the faithful always different yet the same. The incense, as our prayers arising to heaven, a sweet aroma before the Lord, finally made sense; for the first time I felt the swirling, rising presence of each of the many and varied participations in the miracle that was taking place before me without me. Amidst so many imperfect, broken efforts the perfect one deigned to make himself present to us.

Let me give you a brief tour of some of the subdeacon’s activity. Apart from the chanting of the Epistle, the subdeacon spends much of the mass as a living bookstand, and a blind man. For the Gospel, the subdeacon and deacon process to the nave, where the subdeacon stands between the acolytes (with candles), behind the MC and thurifer (incense on the rise), with the Evangelarium open and resting on his head at the service of the deacon. After the deacon sings the Gospel, the subdeacon immediately proceeds back to the altar where the celebrant reverences by kissing the divine name at the Gospel’s beginning. As for being a blind man: at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist the subdeacon carries the chalice over to the high altar after donning the humeral veil. Having delivered the chalice, and participated in the offering of wine and water, the subdeacon awaits to receive the paten from the deacon. The subdeacon covers the paten in the humeral veil, returns to his place in line behind the deacon, and holds the paten up before his face for the majority of the liturgy of the Eucharist. So, here I am, standing behind the deacon, who’s behind the priest, able to see only the gold veil an inch in front of my face. Before I know it we’re kneeling. Before I know it, bells ring. Before I know it, the consecrated host rises above me, elevated to the heavens in the hands of the celebrant. Elevated above the paten that blocked my view, the host commands upward my eyes, lifts my heart, yet humbles my soul. My Lord and my God! My arm seemed a thousand pounds under the weight of the humeral veil and the paten (which should have been quite light). As I returned the paten to the deacon for use in the priest’s communion and the communion of the faithful, the weight of participation in a ministry alien to me was lifted.

Serving as servant to the deacon (who serves the celebrant) was, as I’ve said, both enobling and humbling. I would do it again any day. How about Easter Sunday? More than anything, though, the liturgical role revealed to me just how great a distinction exists between the laity’s and the celebrant’s role at the mass. Praise God for it. The peace, contemplation, and activity of the soul available to the laity during the mass are not the priesthood-lite; they are a gift and opportunity made available to us by the ministry of the ordained priesthood. Glory be to God for the gift of the priesthood.

I’ll end with this anecdote. Remember when you were a kid taking your first airplane ride? Remember when the pilot of the big airplane invited you to sit (for a moment) in the cockpit, then gave you the plastic wings to pin on your shirt? You were both frightened and exhilarated, and somewhat relieved when the cockpit tour had ended. Serving as subdeacon this week I’ve been that kid, and the sanctuary of my parish was that cockpit. As a child struck in awe at the hundreds of lighted buttons and dials, at the pilot’s mastery of the seeming mystery of flight, I stood in awe of the priest’s ministry before me–a ministry not only of a seeming mystery but the real, paschal mystery.

May God bless you on this Good Friday and bring you to the joy of Easter!

Come Rack! Come Rope!

[I promise, in spite of the, lets say, offbeat quality of my writing this essay is not an April Fool’s joke!]

Robert+Hugh+Benson

Robert Hugh Benson

All things being equal, would you prefer 1) to be set upon a torture rack until you lose all strength in your limbs and the pain radiates throughout your whole being, 2) immediately suffer death by hanging and subsequent disembowelment while thousands ogle, or 3) be sentenced to an indefinite prison sentence of solitary confinement in a dank, dark cell infested with rats and food of a quality such that your health slowly declines in a long, drawn out demise while your faith is snuffed out as a candle in the night? This is the question at hand for three priests in Robert Hugh Benson’s novel Come Rack! Come Rope! The men are resident in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom and by virtue of the fact that they happen to also have souls permanently altered by the sacramental grace of Holy Orders, they are in her domains illegally. In Elizabethan England, a land of revolt by the Crown against the faith and of the pitiless social climbers who ascend by means of torturing the innocent, a priest is liable to a painful death simply by the fact of having been ordained a priest. Merry England has fallen under a shadow.

My own answer to the question, by the way? None of the above. I would swiftly collapse like the comfort-addicted aesthete that I am and make haste to the nearest Protestant prayer service to save my sorry neck. I would explain to myself that there is always confession and recusancy later when the stakes are not so high. A person’s entire body shivers at the situation in which these Catholic priests found themselves. I am in awe of the faith and strength of all of the martyrs and am being quite honest when I doubt that I would have similar courage. Soon after a torture session in the Tower of London, St. Edmund Campion assures his friends that he has not and will not reveal any secrets that would compromise the faith, “come rack, come rope.” His resolve is more powerful than a mighty monarch. God’s honest truth about the salvation of mankind will not be turned into a lie.

There is enduring power in the history of the saints. The martyrs linger under our altars yet and their prayers continue to mingle with our own. The Scriptures assure us that there is no death for those who are gathered into the unity of the Body of Christ, the setting of the story simply shifts heavenward. The story of Campion becomes the story of Christ and this one, limited man sees the expansion of his singular witness into the vastness of the eternal Word. Campion has forever altered the shape of history.

St. Edmund Campion

St. Edmund Campion

 

Earlier, as a young student, it was said to be a fine celebration and an honor when he was chosen to deliver a debate before Her Majesty at Oxford. Campion was a rising academic star and it is said that the keys to the kingdom were offered if he would only remain an Anglican cleric. His rhetoric rang off the stone of the colleges and all men stopped to soak in his eloquence. Oxford was at his feet.

 

It is not enough, and in this Campion judges rightly. Few of us today remember that he gave a lauded speech at Oxford as a young man, fewer of us are aware of the actual content of it, but his choice for faith continues to preach. For the sake of faith he leaves England to join the Society of Jesus. He is not content to remain abroad as an exile but returns home to the Catholic land of his birth where he will either convert the Queen to the Gospel or die trying. If his speech as a young student at Oxford brought the whole of the upper classes to admiration, his masterpiece is his death at Tyburn. As his half-dead body swings from a rope, Our Lord himself is on full display, lifted above the crowds by a slender thread,  and the sacrificial nature of God’s love is preached not only in word but with the whole of the man, body and soul. All that is in Campion proclaims a loving Father’s desire for his children, that God never gives up on a land or a people. Perhaps England was in the grip of madness; counterfeit religion was afield and seemingly victorious, but Campion’s triumph at Tyburn says otherwise. His death, along with those of so many other martyrs, is on their own terms and for their own purposes. No one is able to take that away from them.

Actor Brian Wilde portrays chief torturer Richard Topcliffe applying the rack

Actor Brian Wilde portrays Elizabeth’s chief torturer Richard Topcliffe applying the rack

In the weeks leading up to his hanging, Campion may, at any moment, consent to walk to the nearest Protestant Church and kneel down in submission. Doing so will spare him. His life, however, contains a meaning beyond the physical heart that keeps it tumbling along, or the creature comforts that many of us mistake for success.

Perhaps this is what frightens me so much about the fortitude of such men. It is not so much the courage they show as it is the content of their communication. Here is Gospel truth stripped down of all the niceties. The faith is about love and kindness and little lambs, yes, but it is at heart based upon blood, and sacrifice, and a headlong, maniacal taunt of death. Are we able to embrace the darkness of the faith? Welcome death itself into the soul so that Christ might enter in and completely overcome, not only death but also the soul itself? I quaver at the thought, and yet, I am assured that baptism has accomplished precisely this and that I carry about the sufferings of God himself within me. Further, I am assured that each day at Mass, I eat and drink Our Lord’s death and resurrection and am ever more conformed to his likeness. If this is the case, and I do believe it to be so, it sounds like Good News indeed but there is certainly no accompanying consolation.

Benson’s novel is historical fiction and Campion makes an appearance, but the protagonist, Robin Audrey, who is both priest and impending martyr, feels no consolation, either, at the approach of death. Earlier, it is said that a fellow priest, Mr. Ludlam, died differently. He,

 stood by smiling while all was done; and smiling still when his turn came. His last words were “Venite benedicti Dei”; and this he said, seeming to see a vision of angels come to tear his soul away.

But it is different for Robin. No choirs of saints beaming down from the clouds for him, no angels holding out their hands to grasp him, only gaping crowds and the silent pain of his Passion.

Really, all that any of us can do is struggle along and give our best. There is dignity in a slow, daily martyrdom in the little things. If I am not destined to be a great martyr like Campion, all the better, for Our Lord knows of what sort of stuff I am made. Thank God, though, that such men and women exist, whose word is an unanswerable argument that we can, indeed, become like Our Lord in every aspect. I suspect that they do not simply gather the strength to become martyrs out of nowhere, but that their steadfastness is on a continuous line with the way they lived their lives up to that point. They were already in training to become martyrs well before the fact.

Benson relates Robin’s reaction to the murder of three priests who were friends of his:

 …and there came on him in that hour one of those vast experiences that can never be told, when a flood rises in earth and air that turns them all to wine, that wells up through tired limbs, and puzzled brain and beating heart, and soothes and enkindles, all in one; when it is not a mere vision of peace that draws the eyes up in an ecstasy of sight, but a bathing in it, and an envelopment in it, of every fibre of life; when the lungs draw deep breaths of it; and the heart beats in it, and the eyes are enlightened by it; when the things of earth become at once eternal and fixed and of infinite value, and at the same instant of less value than the dust that floats in space; when there no longer appears any distinction between the finite and the eternal, between time and infinity; when the soul for that moment at least finds that rest that is the magnet and the end of all human striving; and that comfort which wipes away all tears.

Benson considers each of his fictional priests in turn, how these men have been utterly changed by the Mass, the one is all sporting gentleman outside the chapel but is tamed and humbled at the altar; the other a timid, sensitive soul who is as sharp as a knife in his sacrificial duties. In the Mass, we pull on Christ more closely than the clothes we wear; his identity overlays our own, not destroying it but refining it like a blazing fire reveals a precious metal. As we take Our Lord’s death into our very being, we are ennobled.

As Benson puts so eloquently, the virtue of peace goes well beyond a feeling of well-being, or a state in which conflict is absent. God desires to draw us out through a single moment wherein we experience peace and into the vast heavenly plains, to pour into us not external gifts but to become the very gift inside of us. Not a “mere vision of peace…but a bathing in it.” The gift, like the waters of baptism, overwhelms us. It destroys us. This is the truth for which the martyrs give their lives. In their opinion, they have become forfeit long before the rack and the rope finish the work.

 

Robert Hugh Benson’s classic novel Come Rack! Come Rope! is in the public domain and a quick internet search will find many copies online for free. I cannot recommend it enough, but prepare to shed a tear or two while reading.

 

 

Hail, Mary, Queen of the Arts

Michael Crotteau, a guest contributor, has graciously offered this post on Mary, Queen of the Arts.

This past July, inside of a warm candle-lit grotto in my home parish, I consecrated myself to Jesus through Mary, the Mother of God. It has been, without a doubt, the greatest step that I have ever taken thus far in my faith journey, providing within me innumerable spiritual graces and a much stronger connection not only to Mary, but also to Christ and the entire Communion of the saints. However, had I been told just half a year before my consecration that I would call myself the servant of Mary, I would have laughed and passed the idea by without a second thought. This is due to the fact that I was once a Marian skeptic, but not in the sense that I doubted Church doctrine on Mary. I was concerned, however, that if too much emphasis was placed on Mary, then it would draw one’s attention away from God. Sadly, I believe that many Catholics today hold true to this belief, and place Mary as one devotion among many. After all, what Catholic doesn’t have a rosary dangling from his or her rear-view mirror or store one in a purse, pocket, backpack, or suitcase?

So what was it that so quickly snatched me from this very plain understanding of Mary and placed within me such a profound desire to be her servant? What was it that caused me to cease thinking of the Virgin Mary simply as St. Mary, and to begin a new life with the Mediatrix of all Grace as my spiritual mother?

During Lent last year, I came upon a book filled with historical representations of Mary through art. Some of the images I found no interest in, but there were several that mesmerized me and continue to do so. They caused me to reflect on who Mary truly was and is, not only for Christ, but for all of us. The following three images were specific depictions which greatly expanded my understanding of Mariology.

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OUR LADY OF MERCY, by Jean Mirailhet

It is easy to misinterpret this piece of art as material which supports the idea of Mary as a goddess, and thus not an authentic presentation of orthodox Mariology. However, we should ask what is really going on in this image before we assume that it is as sketchy as it may first appear. Mary stands still, waiting patiently with her arms spread out, opening her mantle so that all of the people in the image may come closer to her. She is much taller than all of them: royalty, priests, bishops, sisters, and laity. Mary’s eyes look out to the viewer, and she offers us an invitation to become closer to her as well. Needless to say, there are a lot of red flags at first glance.

Then we find something odd, very odd, which transforms the entire work of art. Notice the cincture around Mary. Strange… why is it placed that high and not around her waist? That is because there is someone very important hidden in this image, within the womb of Mary. Also, notice the place to where all the saints have locked their eyes: the womb of Mary. This image reflects Mary as the first Tabernacle of the New Testament, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies, where the saints have gathered round just to be in the presence of Christ. And now, we can accept Mary’s invitation, to be wrapped in her mantle so that we may become closer to her son.

Immaculate Conception Zurbaran

THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, by Francisco Zurbaran

While the first illustration presented Mary dressed eloquently in royal colors, here she is clothed in humble garments: a white gown and a blue cloak. Instead of people gathered around Mary, there are faces of small children, both underneath her feet and circling her head. These represent cherubs, which in both Jewish and Christian history have been used to symbolize not only the presence, but also the throne of God, his full glorification. It is odd that in this image they are presented as if they are the throne of Mary. However, it was Mary who was the earthly throne of God, before, during, and after her pregnancy with Christ. Her humanity, immaculately saved from the stain of original sin, was esteemed as “full of grace” in her meeting with the angel Gabriel. Furthermore, Mary was the first and the last person in Christ’s life, there at his birth and there at his death. In that sense, she is the frame of Christ. Just as the tabernacle is the sacred vessel which houses the mystery of God, so Mary is the sole person, the sacred vessel, whose life perfectly frames the mystery of God, so that she may bring his presence to all people.

In the image above, Mary’s hands are not spreading out her mantle, but are empty and facing upward. Her eyes do not look out to the viewer, but gaze above her. In this image, Mary is praying, and she is an exemplar for us on how to pray. She needs nothing in order to pray, and she holds onto nothing as she prays. All she does is recognize that she is God’s creation, “the handmade of the Lord,” and submits to his divine will, “according to your word.” It is a simple prayer, much like the clothes she wears. She prayed this prayer not only at the conception of our Lord, but also at every moment of her earthly life. We should do the same.

Coronation of the Virgin - Velazquez

THE CORONATION OF THE VIRGIN, by Diego Velazquez

This image is quite different from the other two. While in the first two images, Mary was the primary figure within the work; here, she is one of several distinct persons. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seated upon the heavenly throne and bestow a crown upon Mary’s head. This is to represent her heavenly coronation, which is easy for Catholics to hear and pass by without a complete understanding. Notice how close Mary is to God, as if one could not possibly get any closer. She is not placed at the same level with God, but she is respected by him as the highest of all creation, even higher than the cherubs of the holy throne of God. If God sees this reverence as proper, then without question we should be willing to give such a reverence to Mary as well.

I am drawn by how Mary so humbly accepts the crown, almost as if she is not even concerned about it, or at least does not appear to be. Rather, she looks down, with one hand upon her heart and the other facing downward. She looks down to earth, praying and asking that all the graces which she receives be passed down to all who look up to see God. This symbolizes the continuation of her earthly role, which she has never ceased to fulfill, the Mediatrix of all grace. She is truly deserving of this title, because all the graces known to man have been bestowed upon her, and she is more than willing to bestow them upon whoever seeks her aid. Why wouldn’t we honor her as Queen, for in doing so, our eyes are drawn to God, who chose her of all women to be his mother, theotokos.

Holy Mary, Queen of the Arts…Pray for us.

Biffed: or, The Strange Death of Evelyn Waugh upon the Thunder-Box

Greetings, Deep Down Things readers. As a new editor on the Dappled Things staff, I have given some thought about how to best introduce myself to our web readership. Should I talk about my favorite writers? Should I offer a spiritual reflection on the upcoming Holy Week? Should I make tasteless bathroom jokes? But why choose one when I could do all three?

Evelyn Waugh fills a sort of archetypal role in our collective memory of the last century’s Catholic literary movement. Starting his career as an overgrown enfant terrible of English letters, he blossomed into a choleric defender of western tradition and satirist of all things modern. As a Catholic, Waugh was faithful to a fault, however poorly he lived up to the Church’s moral ideals. In this collective memory, Flannery O’Connor fills the archetypal role of a desert prophet, Graham Greene is the prodigal son, J.R.R. Tolkien the tragic dreamer, and G.K. Chesterton the jolly prankster. One could easily carve a set of allegorical statues based on their likenesses for a cathedral. Waugh’s particular archetype is somewhat more contested.

His most popular novel Brideshead Revisited is oddly the least “Wauvian,” in part because it heralds the advent of a new novelistic spirit he was trying to embody, and also because its baroque prose style is something Waugh had never achieved before and never truly attempted again. His pre-Brideshead writing embodied the authorial archetype of the smirking cynic, his later novels that of the sentimental religionist. (I am speaking of perception more than reality, for Waugh never truly lost his cynicism.)

Evelyn’s brutal sense of humor dished out some unfortunate fates even to benign characters. From Tony Last’s Dickensian imprisonment in A Handful of Dust to Aimée Thanatogenos’ tail-wagging farewell in The Loved One, Waugh was kind to as few fictional characters as he was to his real-life friends. As we come up on the 49th anniversary of his death, it is worth remembering Evelyn Waugh’s own bizarre end.

In the years leading up to his death, Waugh had become increasingly disenchanted with the management of the Catholic Church. One of the early modifications of the liturgical movement (which still moves regularly to this day) was the refashioning of the Holy Week liturgy by Pius XII in 1955. Papa Pacelli’s massive edits, described by Waugh as “obnoxious,” were publicized as an attempt at reviving the ancient liturgies of the Roman Rite. “The Church rejoices in the development of dogma,” Waugh complained, “why does it not also admit the development of liturgy?”

These were but the heralds of liturgy in the vernacular and other modifications to the Roman Missal which came long before the Novus Ordo Missae was to perform a clean sweep in 1969. Frequently reassured by high-ranking clerics like Cardinal Heenan that the chaotic liturgical changes were at an end, Waugh was repeatedly affirmed in his cynicism when these promises proved to be false. He confided to his friends in 1965 that he worried about temptations toward apostasy.

Combe Florey

All these things came to a head in 1966 when Holy Week terminated in Easter morning Mass on April the tenth. Waugh assisted at the locally celebrated Latin Mass–even then a dying liturgical specimen–and returned to his Combe Florey home. Many friends and family were gathered there: wife, children, grandchildren, and the local priest Fr. Caraman. Evelyn was reportedly in good humor, disappeared into the library sometime in the morning, and was never seen alive again.

He was found in the lavatory, a gash on his forehead, and (according to a rumor perpetuated by Graham Greene) with water in his lungs. Rumors of foul play never gained much traction, in spite of the doubtless dozens of people who would have been ready to perform the deed. Unless there was a massive conspiracy and coverup among the family to give their literary patriarch the what-ho, it seems that Waugh died from natural causes and the fall that ensued.

Death on the toilet immediately after attending a traditional Mass was a more fittingly ironic end than any of Waugh’s fans could hope to expect. One is reminded inevitably of the Thunder-box–the portable toilet carried about by the hapless Apthorpe in the first novel of the Sword of Honour trilogy–and its ignominious end by explosion with Apthorpe astride the thing:

Apthorpe removed his steel-helmet, recovered his cap, straightened his uniform, put up a hand to assure himself that his new stars were still in place. He looked once more on all that remained of his thunder-box; the mot juste, thought Guy.

He seemed too dazed for grief. Guy was at a loss for words of condolence. “Better come back to breakfast.”

They turned silently towards the house. Apthorpe walked unsteadily across the wet, patchy field with his eyes fixed before him. On the steps he paused once and looked back. There was more of high tragedy than of bitterness in the epitaph he spoke.

Biffed.”

Men at Arms, p. 214

For all his choleric intolerance of his fellow human persons, one still prefers to think of Waugh’s end as one of high tragedy rather than bitterness. With a pen whose sharp point constantly pricked those he blamed for the sorry state of the world, he might have been one of those who met his end with a mind weighed down with anger and despondency. Instead, the Easter liturgy had lifted him to good spirits, and the manner of his death doubtless brought a chuckle to his throat.

His last word, I would like to think, was “Biffed.”

Going to Canossa

In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II established an exception in the discipline of the Church regarding married men serving as priests. Although a priest is never free to marry, a man who is already married may, under certain conditions, be made a priest. Roughly speaking, the conditions are that a man has been born into a non-Catholic ecclesial tradition, had been ordained a pastor in the Anglican tradition, and converted to the Catholic faith. In the Church’s generosity and mercy, these men may be considered for ordination to the priesthood. This is, and will remain, an exception, for the celibate priesthood is a sign of the mystical reality of God and Man made one flesh. Priests are heroes who are quite literally grasping heaven and dragging it into the present day. To lose this in the name of cultural relevance, a misunderstanding of the joy of the celibate vocation, or misguided notions of equality would be a great disaster. In any event, I am glad that a small exception is made, for I fit it and am endeavoring to walk through that narrow door.

In order to be sure there are no lingering oddities from my prior theological education (Good luck. It would be safer to pry open Pandora’s Box), I am required to pass a general exam. I am currently in the midst of it, and to this end, I have been re-learning old lessons and studiously applying myself to new ones (readers of good will, please pray for me!).

This is all a terribly rambling prelude to beg prayers but also to mention that during my studies I have been reading about and contemplating the events leading up to a far more powerful man than I begging for a far greater mercy.

Canossa-gate It is a snowy day in the northern Italian town of Canossa. The Emperor on his knees begging forgiveness is surely serious, for he has also removed his shoes. For years now, he has followed the practice of lay investiture, the common feudal abuse of a monarch “investing” the bishops in his land as his subjects, often through the gift of a royal ring. Well, the ring is not so much a gift, actually, as it is an obligation. The jewelry is bought with the price of a vow of eternal loyalty to the State. The bishops have access to land and income and the Emperor demands his share. This is no sin, thinks the Emperor, after all this is how the medieval world goes round. Not a bad system, really, unless you happen to consider the Church to be of more import than the State. In the case of investing a bishop it erodes the freedom of the Church and subjects it to the State. The monarch wants his own chosen men holding the episcopal sees and is willing to usurp the Holy Father to make it so. Perhaps the Emperor is confused about he ended up kneeling in the snow for a crime he does not consider a crime at all.

Pope Gregory VII, in a previous life the fiery monk, Hildebrand, has brought the issue to a crisis when in the year 1076 he excommunicates Emperor Henry IV for appointing his own bishops and usurping the Church’s authority in the realm of Holy Orders. If the threat of eternal damnation isn’t enough to change Henry’s mind, the revolt of his nobles certainly is. The Empire begins slipping out of his hands.

Henry travels to Canossa where he intercepts the Pope on his way north. He waits shoeless and clad with hairshirt in the snow for three days, begging for reconciliation with the Church. Based on his later actions, we can guess that his unstated, primary motivation is to return to Germany with the blessing of the Church and reassert his power through violence. Perhaps he also wants forgiveness and eternal life, who knows? We know that he asks for the latter. We can also guess that Pope Gregory suspects the former, thus the waiting in the snow for three days.

Pope St GregoryIt seems to me that we misread these events if we consider them merely a matter of pride between two great men. Gregory is first of all a bishop in Christ’s Catholic Church. He is duty bound to absolve any penitent who requests it, for Our Lord always forgives with no conditions. Gregory stays inside and hopes that Henry will get cold and go away. He does not want to meet this man because to do so will be have his own faith wielded against him as a weapon. This is clear from what follows.

Eventually Gregory relents, absolves Henry of his sins, and restores him to full communion in the Body of Christ. Henry returns to Germany, regains control of the Empire and returns to his previous abuses. Eventually he turns on his confessor and appoints an anti-pope, attacks Rome, and Gregory VII flees into exile. The Pope of the Catholic Church dies outside of Rome. He is personally ruined (not without having made his own series of mistakes as well). As he lies on his deathbed, does he have any regrets about having absolved the Emperor years before?

What really interests me, and the reason I am rehearsing all of this, is the price of forgiveness. For Gregory VII, forgiving another is not free. It requires that he personally sacrifice on behalf of another. Most people do not consider priests to be formidable, they are thought of as gentle and weak and harmless. Henry does not take Gregory seriously. He knows that he can manipulate the compassion of the Church against him. But does it ever occur to anyone how much it costs a priest to hear a confession? The sheer weight of the sins of an entire parish thrust upon him? Many priests I know do not sit idly in the confessional while waiting for the next customer, or simply head over to the rectory to watch television afterwards. Many penitents are surprised at how light their penance is, perhaps they ought to know, not that the priest would tell them, that the priest shares the penance with them. While they wait in the confessional or before they turn the lights off in the sanctuary, they offer a bit of themselves in exchange for their parishioners.

GK Chesterton’s Father Brown explains his ability to solve murders. “You see,” says the priest, “It was I who killed those people.” He has virtually experienced every sin that man commits in the confessional. He knows sin. In “The Chief Mourner of Marne,” Father Brown encounters a group who wish to succor their friend, who has been in mourning ever since he killed a man in a duel. Ever since, he has been in voluntary confinement in his country castle. It is high time to put past sins aside and be merry, and his friends intend to help him do so. Father Brown has anticipated them, however, meets them at the gate of the castle, and advises them to leave.

“Trust a priest to have to do with a private occasion,” snarled Sir John Cockspur. “Don’t you know they live behind the scenes like rats behind a wainscot burrowing their way into everybody’s private rooms.”

The party accuses the priest of lacking charity for refusing to assist the pardoned man out of his depression. Suddenly, in a narrative shift, the truth is made known: Upon finding that their friend is not merely a mourner or the victor of a duel but a cold-blooded murderer, the attitude quickly shifts to condemnation. A lynching is proposed. Then the most damning condemnation comes in all its simple modesty, “There is a limit to human charity,” said Lady Outram, trembling all over.

“There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions…You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”

“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”

“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it…We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”

The priest must forgive every single sin that is brought to him, even if the confessor is an Emperor who will leverage his forgiveness into personal revenge. Perhaps we ought to take priests very seriously, indeed. Their gentleness comes at a great, hidden cost.

Confession2This is the heroism of the imitation of Christ. Our Lord forgives the very men who kill him. St. Stephen the Protomartyr does the same. So many times I have pictured the scene at the Cross and felt contempt for those people who placed Our Lord there. As if their sins are any worse than mine. It pains me very much when I realize that my more commonplace, socially acceptable sins help pin him to his death. I may as well hold the nail in place while it is hammered in. Along with Father Brown, we may very well look to the Cross and say, “It was I who killed this man.”

Perhaps we do not take priests seriously because we do not take our sins seriously. Our forgiveness is offered to us freely, yes, but let us not forget that a man died that it might be so. Our Lord may be as innocent as a lamb, but he is not weak.

I will remove my shoes and walk to Canossa. May the frost seep into my bones and blood and freeze me from the inside out so that the hidden cost exacted by sin is exposed. Let us make our way to Canossa, bow low, and beg mercy, knowing full well that forgiveness comes only with great suffering. This is not a reason to avoid asking. Rather, it is a reminder that the God to whom we offer penitence is not to be rebelled against later when we feel pride again run like ice through our veins, that Our Lord suffers more than we could ever imagine and the forgiveness he offers is all the more a sign of his love. He will suffer again and again not only for the murderers but also for my simple, conventional sins. It is all the more reason to love him in return.

6 Things We Get Wrong About The Road Less Traveled

Ours is not a poetry-reading culture, but then again, it’s not like we’re total illiterates. There are still a few poems out there that just about everyone seems to have read, and “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost is probably the king among them. Its famous last lines–“I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference”–have entered so deeply into the popular culture that you can find them anywhere from coffee mugs to motivational posters. The poem is so popular that taking the road less traveled has almost become an imperative. And it’s no wonder, really. What poem has better captured the American spirit? As everyone knows, “The Road Less Traveled” is the anthem of the rugged individualist, of every rebel who has ever walked outside the mainstream. It is a celebration of the courage of making the difficult, unpopular choice, of eschewing convention and truly being an individual. Right?

Wrong.

The fact is that this may be one of the most misunderstood poems of all time. Here are 6 things that show you have probably been reading Frost wrong all along:

6. “The Road Less Traveled” doesn’t exist.
Poetry buffs among you probably picked up on this already. The truth is that while many people refer to Frost’s famous poem as “The Road Less Traveled,” the real name of the poem is “The Road Not Taken.” In other words, Frost titled the poem after the road he didn’t take, the road more traveled! This is a huge deal if we want to understand the poem correctly. But why would he name the poem after the lame, mainstream road?

hipster barista

5. The road “more” traveled is actually not very traveled at all.
The second stanza of the poem makes this very clear. Right after saying that the road less traveled had “perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear,” he turns back around and states that “as for that [as for it wanting wear] the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” As if that weren’t clear enough, he adds in the third stanza, for good measure, that “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, no one had been down either road that morning, and all it took for the road “less” traveled to become about as worn as the other was for one more person to go down it! The roads were nearly identical! Where on earth did we get the idea that the road he didn’t take was some sort of major highway? We’re talking about two road diverging in a yellow wood, after all.

4. The speaker describes the road more traveled as beautiful.
Contrary to the popular reading of the poem, the speaker has no contempt for the road more traveled. At the beginning of the poem, he looks down it as far as he can, “[t]o where it bent in the undergrowth,” and then he states that he “took the other, as just as fair” (emphasis added). Fair–not as in just, but as in beautiful. Both roads are calling out to him.

3. The speaker hasn’t yet forgotten the road more traveled, and he knows he never will.
The final stanza of the poem plasy around with time in a very interesting way. “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” says the speaker, “Somewhere ages and ages hence.” While it is clear that the choice between the roads is already in the distant past (it has already “made all the difference”), the first two lines of the final stanza point to the distant future–a future in which the events of that day will make him sigh. Clearly, the speaker has not gotten over the road more traveled, and it doesn’t appear he ever will.

2. The poem is entirely suffused with ambiguity.
The most common interpretation of the final line of the poem is that taking the road less traveled ended up changing the speaker’s life for the better. That may be, but to casually assume that’s the case is to read into the poem something that simply isn’t there. All we know is that it “has made all the difference.” Was it a positive, or a negative difference? He doesn’t say. All we know from the poem is that it was an important difference. But then again, wouldn’t the same have been true of the other road? It would have been a different difference, if you will, but a difference no less. And if ambiguity is present in that final line–one so often read as straightforwardly celebratory–the rest of the poem is absolutely dripping with it. Take the sigh mentioned above. What kind of sigh is it? A sigh of nostalgia? Of regret? Of relief? Of satisfaction? A case could be made for any of those options. Then there’s the fact that the speaker says “long I stood,” when he is trying to decide between the roads. And even when he makes a decision, he can only muster the will to say that the road less traveled had “perhaps the better claim” (emphasis added), a statement he then further undermines in the lines discussed above stating that “as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” To top it off, he then tells us that he “kept the first for another day,” and then turns right back around and explains that returning to it is probably impossible after all (“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”). This guy is clearly very conflicted about something.

1. The poem is about economics.
OK, I admit that sounds outrageous, but hear me out. As an economics teacher, I enjoy upending the students’ expectations–call it taking the road less traveled–by beginning every semester with Robert Frost. Before I’ve even introduced myself, I place a piece of paper with the familiar lines on every desk, and we begin: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” The students always think I’m trying to inspire them (I wouldn’t be so cruel as all that), but I’m actually just getting down to business, teaching them, in a way that I know will stick, the foundational concept of economics: opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is formally defined as “the next best alternative forgone when an economic decision is made.” The fact that it exists is the whole reason we have economics. Despite the convoluted definition, what it really means is simple: opportunity cost is the road not taken, it is what you must inescapably give up whenever you make a choice. Most people think economics is about money, but money is just a convenient tool for trading goods and services. The real cost of what you buy (or more generally, what you choose) is not the money it costs you, but what you could have used that money for instead. What economics is really about, in other words, is choice.

we're all individualsBut what sort of thing is choice, and what role does it play in our lives? This is the key to Frost’s poem, explaining the sighs, the ambiguities, the inner conflict. What Frost’s speaker is conflicted about is not his decision. Whatever its consequences, the tone of the last stanza does suggest that he stands by his choice. Rather, what the speaker is conflicted about is having to decide in the first place. There is, in the poem, a strong sense of sadness about the fact of human limitation (“I could not travel both / And be one traveler”), alongside a realization that it is precisely that limitation that gives meaning to our lives and makes us human (“And that has made all the difference.”). Instead of pushing some cliché about being an individual, “The Road Not Taken” is getting at something that is both universal and profoundly human: the fact that there is loss in every decision, that choosing means not choosing everything else.

In their typical dull way, economists call this “the problem of scarcity,” a classification that can easily make students yawn. It’s a pity, because what they are really standing before is one of the deepest paradoxes of human existence, the fact though we are limited beings, the entire universe is not large enough to contain our desires. In confronting the problem of scarcity, every economist stands with his graphs on the threshold of poetry–not to speak of philosophy and theology. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that the problem of scarcity, translated into the language of Augustine’s Confessions, would have sounded something like this: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

For today, however, Frost’s own translation is enough: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .”