Certain readers have requested in various ways (pseudonymous emails, menacing telegrams delivered in the dead of night, and so on) that I supply a few more details from the biography of my great uncle Aloysius Bentley (1895-1987). As you may recall, he was the last practicing pagan in my extended family; once his obsequies had been performed, and the last flickering embers of his funeral-bark had disappeared beneath the waves of the Chesapeake, the old faith had no remaining votaries in the clan.
I am not sure, however, that I have much to tell—at least, not without excessive preliminary explanation. It occurred to me, however, that I might say something about a particularly significant episode from his life, and provide a few specimens from his own poetic record of those days. You see, Aloysius Bentley was a poet of sorts, and I am (by default) his literary executor. His verse, of which he published only a few samples in his lifetime, was of a fairly traditional and formalist kind. Most of it was written in heroic couplets, probably because of his special devotion to Pope (“The only Pope to whom I would bend my knee,” he would quip in his rare fractiously sectarian moments).
By far, the longest poem he ever produced was his immense, unfinished discursive epic (about 38,000 lines as it stands), Theophaneia, whose title was a reference to the yearly unveiling of the sacred images in the inner sanctuary of the Apolloneion at Delphi, to celebrate the god’s return at the end of winter. He wrote most of it in the summer of 1920, when a fit of deep depression had driven him into retreat at the Bentley summer home in Dorchester County, out on the Eastern Shore. I know I have said that his conversion to paganism from Quakerism was, in his eyes, a natural and largely uneventful transition; but he did mention now and then that his complete commitment to “the way of the gods” was occasioned by a brief “passage through dejection.”
He was twenty-five, and he was suffering from an acute abhorrence of what he saw as the special evils of modernity: the disenchantment of nature, the reduction of the world to a soulless machine, the hideousness of modern architecture, the decline of the arts, the rise of a crass materialism. His mood had been exacerbated, moreover, by any number of recent events: the Great War, the Spanish Influenza, the Volstead Act, and so on. And he had come to believe that the pathologies of modern society could not be healed by what remained of “cultural Christianity,” which he saw as a paradox that had always been imperiled, from its inception, by internal forces of dissolution.
Only if the old gods returned, he concluded, would the world speak to Western humanity again. But an intellectual conviction is not yet faith. When he arrived on the Eastern Shore, he was a pagan merely by disposition; by the time he left, he was a pagan in his heart; and his poem describes how he emerged from doubt and despondency into that condition of radiant cheerfulness that characterized him throughout his later life.
Unfortunately, only the roughly 1400 lines of the poem’s prelude in three cantos, entitled “Melancholy,” are written out in a final fair copy. The rest of the chapters exist as a tumult of variant texts, festooned with revisions and often illegible marginal notations. To extract something like an authoritative text from those pages will require a slow and laborious process that I have not yet had the time or courage to undertake. But the “Melancholy” section is a rather wonderful portrayal of the state of mind that carried my great uncle across the bay, as well as of the first faint glimpses of that “heathen grace” that he believed was beckoning him out of his despair. It is worth quoting at some length.
Part One is called “The Fall of Night,” and begins by setting the scene:
The lambent sapphire of the sky of day
In trembling streams has melted quite away;
The West now dons crepuscular attire
And wraps himself in gold and crimson fire;
The chaste moon through the turquoise twilight pours
Her pearl-pale light upon our lustrous shores,
And by her glassy essence opaline
Makes strand and surf with iridescence shine;
Now silver stars, cold, fair, and wanly bright,
Are scattered on the sable cope of night.
Eternal order rules despotic time:
The sky is beautiful, the sea sublime—
On high, the primum mobile rotates,
In my great clock the moment pendulates—
And ever down the scale of nature flow
Sidereal magics, guiding earth below.
The westward wind is fragrant with fresh brine
And perfumes from the swaying groves of pine;
Here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,
Where mighty trees above flat acreage stand,
The stridulations of the insects make
A music full of bliss and ardent ache;
Gold fireflies glisten on the wine-dark night,
And float, and burn: small gems of ghostly light.
I take up—hearing ocean’s surge afar—
My ruddy wine, my dusky sweet cigar;
My great bay windows open lie—I gaze
Out over fields dissolving in a haze,
And silhouetted on night’s blue I see
The stern colossus of my black gum tree;
The rarest airborne orchid of the night,
A Luna moth, floats by, jade-green and white.
All should be peace within, the fretful heart
Should rest in idle calm, and fears depart—
And yet it is not so: my thoughts are grave;
I find that I am melancholy’s slave.
The poet now ponders the causes of his disaffection, but can find no diagnosis in the books he consults (“Hermetic manuals, treatises on sin…”). Then he considers what cures he might attempt, quickly dismissing pharmacology, psychiatry, and “positive thinking”; he lingers over the possibility of contemplative prayer, but ultimately concludes he is not equal to its demands:
So many demons vex the mystic’s night—
Pride, sadness, wrath, the worm of appetite,
The noonday devil (akedia), desire,
And visions of the everlasting fire—
Were I to contend with that chthonian host,
Ingloriously the field would soon be lost.
And so he resigns himself to a state that today, I suppose, we might call “bi-polar”:
I am a ship adrift on passion’s seas,
My every want I’m eager to appease:
I am a roisterer, a sybarite,
Orgiastic Bacchus, drunken, all delight . . .
And then Prometheus, torn by eagle’s claws,
Not knowing my transgression, or God’s laws . . .
Finally he begins to fall asleep:
Tobacco’s opiate, abetted by drink,
Makes me vertiginous, my senses sink;
Fatigued, lulled by dark nepenthes, I feel
A languid Ixion on a sluggish wheel.
There follows a long allegorical dream that concludes with a vision of the old gods departing into a hidden realm (“From the barren earth, through the empty heavens”).
Part Two, “Late Morning,” resumes the narrative the next day, in a voice that seems a little, so to speak, hung over:
Drunk with the torpor of midsummer light,
I should be free from demons of the night—
The throbbing bombinations of the bees,
The treetops swaying in the humid breeze,
As woodbine’s balm comes dropping through the air—
A day too heavy for such heavy care . . .
Yet still the shadow lurks within and tells
My secret mind of all its million hells.
This section is the poem’s longest, and contains a remarkably exhaustive survey of my great uncle’s indictments of the modern world’s morals, arts, and politics, including a now rather dated critique of Spengler’s recently published Der Untergang des Abendlandes. At the end of this elegant rant, the poet grows calm by looking at the beauty of the countryside around his house:
. . . I require no device
Of art to praise this earthly paradise.
Just now a citron-blazoned swallowtail
Across my garden flutters, starts to sail,
Then vanishes amid rose-haunted shadows,
To float off to his honey-colored meadows.
Part Three, “Late Afternoon,” merely recounts a long walk the poet takes “Between the river and the skirting woods,” to clear his thoughts before dinner. Here the poem continually wavers back and forth between frank examinations of the poet’s state of mind and fleeting reveries. In one of the more charming passages, the poet imagines himself as Actaeon hunting in the forest:
The flush, the quickened, then the slackened pace,
And all the sweet elations of the chase:
Dew-silvered woods, the mist-gray light of dawn,
The violet shade, the grazing doe and fawn—
Then morning’s sky puts off its somber hue
And through the branches breaks a fiery blue—
The mournful belling of the stag, the bays
Of loping hounds, the sun’s green-golden rays,
The plash of ferns, the splash of blood, the gleam
Of dancing daylight in a stony stream,
The arrow loosed, the dreadful wound, the horn
Whose echoed note grows ever more forlorn,
Until at last the quarry’s flight is stayed,
And silence fills the green sun-dappled glade . . .
He adds that, could he be vouchsafed a glimpse of Artemis, he would happily then submit to her wrath, to be “rent asunder by the hounds of love.”
The canto ends with the poet arriving at the shore’s edge (actually the shore of the Choptank, an estuary of the bay, but here he takes a few geographic liberties):
Continuing on, I see the sprawling ocean,
The surge of its eternal massive motion.
From here, sky’s blue looks richer on the waters,
Like the Aegean, where sport Poseidon’s daughters;
Upon its pearled horizon billows coil
And glimmer in the sun like silver foil;
The nymphs sing sweetly in their limestone caves,
While ceaseless thunders roll across the waves;
I see beyond a gauzy mist of rain
A rainbow’s gleam, a sky like cymophane . . . .
At this moment, the poet confesses, he cannot tell if he is on the edge of madness or at the threshold of some transforming revelation. After a short, probably ill-advised discourse on the delightful cuisine of the bay region (“The fair rockfish whose flesh could not be moister,/ The succulent blue crab, the mollid oyster…”), he leaves the reader with an image of himself standing upon the shore:
A melancholic, but not lame or halt . . .
The air is sharp with the cruel tang of salt . . .
How fierce my demon when he vaunts and raves . . .
How wild the joyous sparkling of the waves . . .
I shall be well, if I can only sleep . . .
A crystal swell unfolds the azure deep . . .
Anyway, for what it may be worth, I hope some day to have time to produce a proper edition of as much of the poem as Great Uncle Aloysius completed. I was very fond of him, whatever doubts I may have entertained regarding the cogency of his personal philosophy, and so I hope the poem’s appearance might constitute something of a literary event.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.
David Bentley Hart, Great Uncle Aloysius
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