Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/09/2010

Susan Boyle, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and My Friend Richard Chase

In which I bounce from subject to subject and finally sound like a sentimental old fool without a cynical bone in my body.

Remorse—is Memory—awake—
Her Parties all astir—
A Presence of Departed Acts—
At window—and at Door—

Its Past—set down before the Soul
And lighted with a Match—
Perusal—to facilitate—
And help Belief to stretch—

Remorse is cureless—the Disease
Not even God—can heal—
For ’tis His institution—and
The Adequate of Hell—

(Emily, of course, Dickinson)

He gave me books

He gave me books

Last night Dish Network repeated for the—what, the 1000th?—time the program in which tiresome Piers Morgan documents the career of Susan Boyle from her audition on Britain’s Got Talent to, well, I’m not sure where it ends. (I notice the program only at 9 PM when I’m flicking through channels to find something not-idiotic to watch.) There’s no definitive word what she’s up to now. Is she already a has-been? Have the predictions of her implosion materialized?

I’ll admit it. I fell for Susan Boyle as completely as any of the other 100,000,000 people who have watched her BGT audition on YouTube. I was hooked. I love her cheekiness and her hidden talent and her Cinderella story. I’ll admit even more. When I am in a certain kind of funk (not a full bipolar or whatever-it-is depression), watching her BGT performance can get me out of whatever emotional hole I’m in. I don’t care (obviously) who knows my secret softness.

“Remorse is memory awake.”
“Remorse is cureless, the Disease not even God can heal.”

In the spring semester this year, my students read an essay in which John W. Shepard (former Southern Baptist Missionary and professor at Baylor University) avers that

The spokesman of the [English Puritan] Revolution was the poet John Milton, whose doctrine of liberty showed both Puritan influences and those of the “natural rights” philosophy. . . . According to Milton, all men are naturally born free, being in the image of God, and remain so until. . . they begin to do violence among themselves. . . . Milton emerged with a two-sided view of liberty, the “liberty to serve God and to save his own soul” and “the civil rights and advancements of every person according to his own merit” (1).

When we discussed Milton to try to understand the background of the First Amendment, Richard Chase always came to my mind. Not the serial killer, the Appalachian folklorist (2). One Sunday in about 1970 a somewhat decrepit old man showed up in the organ loft at Christ Church in Ontario, CA, after service and demanded to know where I had found the hymntune “Deirdre” which we had sung (from the hymnal—I didn’t print it). Uncle Richard gave me a music history lesson about the tune, perhaps the oldest extant Irish folk tune. Then he introduced himself as “something of a historian and an atheist.” He became, if not a member of the parish, one of its most regular attendees, and in many ways my mentor.

(Apropos of nothing: my favorite memory of him is standing together waist-deep in the Pacific Ocean at some sheltered nook at a California beach naked at midnight in the light of the full moon and his reciting Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” A moment to which I refer myself when I doubt the existence of something greater than myself.)

Apollo overthrown

Apollo overthrown

Milton and Richard Chase. One day he invited me up to his wonderfully disheveled apartment to see his illustrations. Illustrations, that is, by William Blake. He had a very old copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, with Blake’s illustrations. Not a first edition, but very old. I was, of course, enthralled. He also had a copy of Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” with Blake’s illustrations. I remember nothing of how he came to own those books. I remember only the visual imprint in my mind and the mystery—to me—why he wanted me to see them.

He gave me other books. His books. Somewhere in my disheveled apartment are my autographed copies of his Jack Tales and Singing Games and Play Party Games (3), which had been published only a couple of years before I met him. I have often used his copy of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, bruised and battered when I received them, with Uncle Richard’s scrawling of my name on the edges of the volumes.

Milton. The stanza of “Christ’s Nativity” for which Blake painted the illustration, “The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods.”

The Oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving,
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trans, or breathed spell,
Inspires the pale-ey’d Priest from the prophetic cell.

It is a mystery to me where my memories of Uncle Richard, Milton, Blake, Deirdre, and Whitman are stored that they come so easily to mind simply by discussing the background of the First Amendment with my students. And they all merge thinking about Susan Boyle. Yikes!

It’s also a mystery how all of those memories can be rolled into one feeling that sometimes masquerades as remorse—remorse for wrongs done to myself and others, remorse for accomplishments unfulfilled, remorse for [put your own list here]—but that is, more likely, not remorse. Dickinson describes “remorse.” She says that remorse is the “adequate” (equal) of hell. But she also says that “remorse” “help[s] belief to stretch.” It is, she says, instituted by God.

I’m not a Dickinson scholar. I don’t have any idea what the poem “means.” I can read my own meaning into it as well as the next person. Remorse helps my “belief to stretch” beyond what I can remember or understand. The etymology of “remorse” is, essentially, to “bite back.” My memories bite back.

You can’t get from Susan Boyle to Dickinson’s “remorse” this way. The connection is through Milton.

The Oracles are dumb. . .
Apollo from his shrine Can no more divine. . .

Shepard asserts that Milton wrote of the “liberty [of every person] to serve God and to save his own soul.” Last night I paused for perhaps ten seconds on Piers Morgan prattling on about Susan Boyle, missing, I think, completely who she is (I, of course, know who she is). At least he misses completely why her “story” (is it a story or is it her life?) affects so many people.

The Organ Loft

The Organ Loft

Her accomplishment, for me, is about remorse—that is, the remorse that “help[s] belief to stretch.” I’ll be corny. Watch the video of her, unemployed, never having been kissed (she says), living alone with her cat, walking out onto that stage. Do I need to say the obvious? Her belief stretched.

Think of Apollo—cornier still. Watch the oracle Piers Morgan turn “dumb.” Susan Boyle certainly had (has) the “liberty to serve God and to save [her] own soul.” I’m not speaking theologically (or even religiously—remember, Uncle Richard was an atheist). That Uncle Richard wanted me to see—because he intuited that I’d remember them forever and they’d “help [my] belief to stretch”—Blake’s illustrations for Milton is part of my “remorse,” the “remorse” Susan Boyle and I—and everyone else—have in common. Remorse that helps belief to stretch.

I’m as cheeky pretending all of the stuff rattling around in my brain on any given day fits together as Susan Boyle is singing “I dreamed a dream.” Liberty to serve [even an atheist’s] God and to save our own souls. See, I said a sentimental old fool.
__________
(1) Shepard, John W., Jr.  “The European background of American freedom.”   Journal of Church and  State 50.4 (Autumn 2008): 647(13).
(2) See http://www.ferrum.edu/applit/bibs/chasebib.htm for information about Richard Chase’s work.
(3) Chase, Richard. The Jack Tales: Told by R. M. Ward and His Kindred in the Beech Mountain Section of Western North Carolina and by Other Descendants of Council Harmon (1803-1896) Elsewhere in the Southern Mountains: With Three Tales from Wise County, Virginia. Illus. Berkeley Williams, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943. Chase, Richard. Singing Games and Playparty Games. Illus. Joshua Tolford. New York: Dover, 1967.

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Responses

  1. The photo of the books Richard Chase gave you reminded me of your playing the piano from old sheet music and folks gathering around to sing. (My mind wanders where it will.) Richard does cross my mind once-in-awhile.

    There was a fine exhibit of Blake’s works at the Huntington a few years ago.

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  2. I fear “my remorse” is more commonplace and akin to regret. I DO love your connecting Susan Boyle with Dickinson, though, even if it takes Blake to “tie the strings to…” lives in which “Fame is a bee,/It has a song – /It has a sting/Ah, too, it has a wing.” (ED, undated/#F1788)
    MmmmWaaa

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  3. I love the synchronisity of having read the following article after yours.

    The New Yorker
    Aug. 9, 2010
    Critic’s Notebook by Joan Acocella

    Mark Morris’s “L’Allergo, il Pensersoso ed il Moderato” (1988), based on poems by Milton and painting by Blake, and set to an oratorio by Handel, is widely considered one of the great dance works of the twentieth century. In the course of it thirty-two sections, goddesses give birth; birds fly; two little foxes outrace a hunt; people have nightmares and dreams; they sit by the fire and listen to a cricket on the hearth; they visit a field of flowers, then a great city; they go to church; they grow old; they go to sleep. It’s as if you opened a box and all of life hopped out. The only thing missing is sorrow, and it’s nice to do without that once in a while. “L’Allegro” will be revived by the Mark Morris Dance Group as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, Aug. 5-7, at the David H. Koch Theatre. If you go, look especially for the long section with the lark and the nightingale, in Part One; the dance on book-reading (right after the intermission); and the beloved “Thracian dance,” in Part Two, which is just a matter of line and rhythm.

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  4. I danced with Richard Chase’s group of folk dancers at the Renaissance Faire in 1967. I just finished Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids”, and reading about Harry Smith, folklorist, I wanted to google Richard Chase. He spoke to one of our high school classes, (Chaffey High in Ontario), and we learned the country dancing by the Claremont “Jungle” by a little amphitheater. I wish I had some pictures. He had a great costume, a wonderful cape as I remember. Such a long time ago… He turned us on to a wonderful book, James Stephen’s Crock of Gold, which became one of my lifetime favorites.

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    • Ah, yes! Uncle Dick’s cape!
      I’m going through many boxes of “stuff” these days—one of my hopes is to find some of those pictures. I’ll keep your email address and let you know if I find any!
      Thanks for the comment.
      History is a good, good thing!

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  5. […] influenced you—and your memory is jogged in bizarre ways. I’ve written here before about Richard “Uncle Dick” Chase, folklorist extraordinaire. Years ago I was teaching some kids the old English round, “Rose, […]

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