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Thomas International Center
April 2007


Ralph McInerny


Perishable Crowns,
And The Other



Each of the arts has its saints and ascetics, practitioners so totally dedicated to their craft that they seem to have little time for anything else-or even interest, for that matter. There are ignoble instances of this, of course, and only an enthusiast would maintain that excellence in art trumps and negates all moral fault. And only a prig would hold that, since human perfection cannot be identified with excellence in art, then art is only a trivial pursuit, best eschewed altogether.

When Paul compared athletes and Christians, he spoke of perishable and imperishable crowns, but perishable crowns can be the means of attaining the imperishable. Isn't it silly to think that anyone could live without engaging in some if not all of the ordinary, mundane activities? We have here no lasting city, but it is here that we earn our passport to the next.

In a recent and fascinating biography of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Scott Donaldson makes a convincing case that Robinson was not only a wonderful poet but also a good man. Such judgments are rare in literary biography. A new life of Robert Louis Stevenson - Myself and the Other Fellow - gives a more clouded expression of this matter. Both writers did little else than write and the few other things they engaged in were ordered to their art. Their common aim was fame and glory.

There is a type of fame such artists would disdain. Being on the lips of many who had not read them, their names bruited about, notoriety, considered 'very important persons' - this was not their goal. Rather they wanted readers who would see that they had made something good, achieved in an excellent way the goal of their art. Such acknowledgment is related to their achievement, as fame in the first sense is not. Horace wanted a monument 'more enduring than bronze'; that is, to exist for future readers who would appreciate the intricate artistry of the odes.

The poet retains his kinship with the philosopher; in a secularized culture he is still allowed to ask out loud what it all means. The answers are often gnomic and oblique.  Stevenson shucked off the Calvinism of his youth and considered himself an atheist, but this seems a pose; Robinson, on the other hand, though no church goer, throughout his long career pondered the transcendent point of ordinary human lives. He wrote largely of life's losers, as if the question was inescapable there. No easy answers, of course: the poet deals with wonder but does not assuage it. Is our culture such that it is the role of the poet to provide, however enigmatically, nostalgia for what has been lost? Attaining the perishable crown is perhaps the surest way of sensing its inadequacy.


Ralph McInerny