Furious Fancies: The Musings of a Traditional Catholic Poet
Poetry is a young man’s game. That is not to say that older people (and women) can’t write fine poetry. They can and do. But there is something about a man’s youth — his late teens and early twenties that lends itself to poetry. As my friend Richard Cowden-Guido puts it, “It is easy to be interesting when you are young; you’ll spend the rest of your life struggling against being a bore!” It is obvious that most of us are not equal to the struggle. Dr. Johnson preferred the sins of youth to those of age, because they are not coupled with sanctimony.
It is not merely that one is physically stronger or more attractive in one’s youth than he will likely become; it is that everything is new — romance, politics, even war. The blush is not yet off the apple. Ideas are important, as are art, conversation, wine and moonlight. Who has not had an all-night bull session in college, at the end of which the world’s problems are solved? When you are young you believe that, given the right chance, you can conquer the world!
And what a world it is — filled with joy and horror, with wrongs to be righted and avenged, with glorious causes to be fought for! “To be young was very Heaven!” Shelley said of the age of Revolution in the 18th century, and so, in some aspects, it always is for the young. Their ardor and passion can lead them on the High Crusade — or into the Red Guards.
But the flip side is one of fear and doubt. What is my place in the world? Will I ever find it? Will I grow old without success? Will my life be a waste? Does she really love me? Is she the one? Will I ever find love? — and on and on. Middle Age may be duller and less fiery, but generally, for good or ill, those questions have been answered.
So it is that most of my poetry was written in my youth; some when I was a cadet at New Mexico Military Institute, others when I was struggling as a comic in Hollywood, still others when I was a novice writer looking for my voice. In earlier days, the great shadow was the Mordor-like Soviet Union; in the later poems, the joy and anticipation launched by the fall of that “Evil Empire” was uppermost, and for very different reasons I felt like Shelley.
All of that has changed since, and both of the political sources of fear and elation have passed away, taking my youth with them. This writer has generated oceans of print since he penned those lines, and his contents and discontents are those of Middle Age. Yet he still finds that his views in art, religion, and politics have not changed. As the Russian song says, “oh my friend, we’re older, but no wiser, for in our hearts our dreams are still the same.”
We live in a time of uncertainty, or rapid change. Not merely of technologies and ideas, which have shifted throughout this century, but, as I write, in the political sphere. But history records many such shifts in the world of men. While important in the day-to-day conduct of affair, they are not immutable. No matter how earth-shaking these events appear, they are not permanent, and will one day affect man only in a distant, barely perceivable manner. There is more to life than these.
Despite the seeming chaos of this world, there is an order above, beyond, and throughout it. In the changing of the seasons, the nature of the heavens, in all creation, it may be seen. It is clearer yet in Man’s art, music, legend, myth, and folklore. But it is most clearly seen in Revelation. To be more specific, in the doctrines and sacraments of Catholicism. The nature of this order is best exemplified, perhaps, in the old rites of Baptism of an infant, Consecration of a bishop, and Coronation of a king.
This order is today under attack. Indeed, after being assaulted for several centuries it is almost invisible in the affairs of men. Gone is the sense of the sacred, gone is the sense of objective truth, gone are eternal values. So it is that my generation is one “lost in time and lost in space – and meaning.” Between the eternal order and the institutionalized disorder and anarchy of spirit which reigns today, we are suspended. Without examples, without encouragement from these generations which preceded us, we must somehow find our way back to that order. In this quest, our major weapon must be, perforce, the imagination,
Men like J.R.R. Tolkien have contributed mightily to this quest. In writings such as his we may see that love, honour, piety, truth, valour, and the like are not contradictory, but tightly united. The soul is naturally Christian, as Tertullian tells us, and so will respond to truth automatically – if the will is not malformed. Beauty, and that not least in literature, can help orient the soul in the proper manner. This is important today as never before, when the structures in Church and State often point in quite an opposite direction.
While Communism enjoyed its triumph in the East, continuing secularization and technologization in the religious and moral spheres advanced, resulting in the spiritual vaccum we presently enjoy in the West. The only area where some remnant of communion with the real order of things may still be experienced is in the artistic realm. This is the importance of men like Tolkien. Or so it seems to me. But with such a worldview, you must not be surprised if your poet loves legendry, and herb-lore, and craft in artwork, and the Latin Mass, and folk customs of farm and wood.
My heroes are the men who fought for Christendom, like the Crusaders. Jacobites, Tories, Miguelists, Carlists, Legitimists – these attract my admiration. Whether one talks of Patrick Sarsfield at the Boyne, or Denikin on the Volga, or Jan Sobieski at Vienna, I believe it is ultimately one conflict that he is speaking of, really.
As a writer, though, it is the work of artists and philosophers in defending the right which has particularly inspired me. Chesterton, Belloc, Machen, Scott, Williams, and of course, Tolkien are a few of those who wrote in English who are of this breed. But Goerres, Chateaubriand, Novalis, De Maistre, Schlegel, and a host of others complement them in French and German; not least of whom is the towering figure of Franz von Baader. In other arts, the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, the Nazarene Brotherhood, the Blue Rider group, and William Morris’ Arts-and-Crafts folk are all proponents of these ideals.
It will be readily apparent that there is here encompassed an enormous variety of artists. But despite their differences in style, all reflect to a greater or lesser degree the same order. You will see it in Classicists like T.S. Eliot and Charles Maurras, and in Neo-Romantics like Stephen George’s circle and the Inklings. No one is perfect, and all the men and groups to which I have referred often did not live up to their ideals. But they at least had them, bright and shining as the sun on a pool in a green wood.
It may be objected that the poet’s ideas are impractical, dreamy, and impossibly Romantic. Yes, well, maybe so. But practical, clear-eyed men have held sway for ever so long, and have only the present system to show for it. As signs of hope have arisen from the wreck of the Soviet bloc, perhaps something similar may one day come from the stultified culture, abused environment, and graveyard of the unborn we call the West. At least, one can hope.
These then, are the attitudes which gave rise to the verses that I have written. Perception and love of the Divine order of things, a sense of the supernatural, a preference for the colorful, are their traits. They have preserved in your poet a belief in the power of truth, goodness, and beauty, despite the proliferation of ugliness. I make no pretense of infallibility in the matter we have discussed, but I do claim a sense of taste, at least enough to discern where lies the good, the true, and the beautiful.
But if I have seen these items reflected in all the things we have just surveyed, they have been demonstrated to me by my friends. God has blessed me with quite a number of them, and all have been most helpful in the development of my poetic voice and vision. Most do not share all of my opinions, but then, love is rarely based on unanimity, as may be seen from any corporate boardroom. But they all share one trait, a trait which I wish at least to imitate. They are all questing for truth and beauty. In my own opinion, despite their wide variety and sometimes inimical interests, they are as grand a company as ever flourished this side of Camelot.
Having concluded this overview of my poetic rationale, I will send you off with a bit from one of my favorite anonymous ballads “Tom O’ Bedlam’s Song,” that epitomizes to me the quest that all of us who live must undertake:
With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon’d am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world’s end.
Methinks it is no journey.
By Charles A. Coulombe
(This article was adapted from the Prologue and Epilogue of The White Cockade, a collection of poetry by Charles A. Coulombe available from Tumblar House Publishing.)