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Archive for September, 2010

Marilynne Robinson on Total Depravity

Posted by Remy on September 16, 2010

CT : Over against the popular science writers, you write, “I believe it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses.” How do you reconcile this belief with what Calvin’s followers have called total depravity (“No one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God,” Ps. 14)?

MR : I am happy to welcome the psalmist to the ranks of Calvinism. “Total depravity” means that the effects of the Fall are felt through the whole person and that this is always true. It is a rejection of the pre-Reformation teaching that after baptism, sin is localized in the lower functions of the body, in “concupiscence.” The effects of Calvin’s teaching are to remove the special opprobrium that attached to the flesh and to draw attention to the complexities and fallibilities of consciousness.

Calvin celebrates the brilliance of mind and body, as any reader of The Institutes is aware. Over against this is his insistence on our tendency toward error, toward sin. So human life is full of the potential manifest in the gifts God has given us, and full of our inevitable falling short. This is a very dynamic understanding of the self. I find no difficulty in accepting both of its terms as true. Pressed for evidence, I would point to the history of civilization and the present state of the world. Calvin offered human brilliance as proof of divinity in humankind. If we accepted this, there would be a great enhancement of respect for ourselves, and, crucially, respect for others, that could only make us better citizens of earth.

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Dust of Snow : a close reading

Posted by Remy on September 2, 2010

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Robert Frost

As in many of Frost’s poems the spectre of Death is never far off and this poem seems no different. At the first level of meaning is a crow shaking snow from a tree on top of the speaker, an event that changes his mood.

Part of understanding poetry comes from asking the text questions, such as: how does snow falling on someone change his mood? Why dust of snow, an image important enough to be used as the title? Is the type of tree significant? Is the type of bird significant?

Often to ask the question brings ready answers. Wintry settings are often pictures of Death. Perhaps the dust of snow invokes the dust to dust-ness of life. Crows are often harbingers of death. And while a hemlock tree isn’t poisonous, the very mentioning of hemlock is enough to bring up ominous overtones. But the chief question remains, how does a light fall of snow change the speaker’s mood?

We could answer that the levity of the situation is enough to lighten his mood. Or perhaps so many symbols of death have reminded him that life is short. But there’s more to notice here. In the latter half of the poem we have a gift, a change of heart, and the salvation at the end of the day. Of course, being covered with snow is itself often used as a symbol of forgiveness (matched with the repentance in line six), perhaps too snow falling has some baptismal element. These details indicate a deeper change of heart than a simple carpe diem dictum.

There are still two critical details that we haven’t discussed. The first is just a little trinket of a word that is the thread that will unravel this poem for us. It is the final word, rued, meaning to suffer, to loathe, to grieve. It comes from the old English word meaning sorrow and repentance. But not only that, it does double duty, it is also a pun for rood, a cross or crucifix.

The final critical detail is how the heart is changed. It is not the crow that gives the new heart, it is not the snow that gives the new heart, it is the way the crow shakes down the snow that changes the speaker’s heart. The question then is: what is that way a crow shakes snow from a tree? It is here that a knowledge of the rest of Frost’s poetry serves us well. Frost is a walker, a vigorous, relentless walker of the woods, and often his poems are in that very setting. Even apart from that it makes sense to see that while the man in the poem is walking, he is ruing the day. There is some turmoil or disdain that he carries with him as he walks the woods. Coming around a tree he startles -above him- a crow, which, squawking loudly no doubt, causes the bird to leap from his perch and fly away, thus sending down a light sprinkling of snow. This is the way a crow shakes down snow. The change of heart comes from both seeing the crow fleeing and the act of flying, the ascension itself.

This epiphany is echoed in its meter. Written primarily in iambic dimeter, there are three lines that break the pattern, lines four, five, and eight. The appearance of the hemlock tree calls for an anapestic interruption: “from a HEMlock TREE”.  This ramps up the energy of the line causing it to spill across the stanza into the next line: “has GIV -en my HEART”. These two lines, anapest iamb// iamb anapest, emulate the change of heart, the increased heartbeat of the surprise gift. It is a cacophony, followed by the cadence of the sixth and seventh lines, which return to iambic dimeter. But the final line reminds us of the transformation with a rambunctious anapest -of a DAY-, a little skip at the end that reveals reality is forever changed.

Suddenly our apparition of death loses its strength; it flies away in fear. It is this flight, Death itself running away, this method, that changes his heart; it is ascension, a glimpse of resurrection, that drives off death; it is the gift, the baptismal rain, that has brought salvation.  On a day both rued and rood-ed, the crux of joy and sorrow, comes an unexpected gift, the day of death from which flows all life. Even a man of such tattered faith as Robert Frost knew that on the heels of death, in the very dust, beneath the cawing carrion bird, resurrection rises.

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