Wednesday, April 07, 2010

GKC: the Phoenix and the Mass

When I returned after Mass, on that last amazing Sunday in the Phoenix Park, to the house that had so nobly entertained me, I walked about for hours in long avenues or large quiet rooms, worrying and trying to resolve a certain problem. It was the highly practical problem of how, or whether, it was possible to convey to the world at large what an astounding thing had just happened in the Phoenix Park; a sensational event much more truly sensational, and properly much more of an event than the Phoenix Park Murders. I was not specially thinking of writing it then, as I am writing it now, for Catholic readers. Catholics know that the Mass is the Mass and in a sense can never be more magnificent than the Mass; but they would understand every attribute that made the magnificence more apparent. But though we walk the world as three hundred millions, I sometimes feel that we are still in the Catacombs; we still talk by signs like the Cross and the Fish, or at least with a secret language. And I sought in vain a language that would tell ordinary outsiders of something not in the same world with their normal notions of a sect or even a service; something which must either be expressed in the august theology they have forgotten, or in some sort of epic poetry which nobody now can write. The only thing I could think of was the parallel with the whole Pagan tradition and its witness to the world's need, not of worship, but of sacrifice. It was under the weight of these speculations that I wrote down the words that follow.

* * * * *

I cannot trace the name of the Phoenix Park, but it is quite certain that it contained a Phoenix. If I were simply to say, in the old straightforward style of the storytellers that we assembled to see the burning of a gigantic golden bird, as big as an orc and as beautiful as a hundred peacocks, who was consumed to ashes before our eyes; after which the golden feathers sprouted again out of the golden flames, and that vast and radiant monster rose again and ascended visibly into heaven - if I were thus to fulfil my duties as a conscientious reporter, there would be some so mean and small-minded as to complain of errors of detail in the report.

But it would be a very much more vivid and solid statement of what actually did happen, than if I merely stated that a Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin and attended Mass in the large park round the Vice-Regal Lodge. The very nature of the neighbourhood was a reminder that something quite extraordinary had been completely burnt out and had somehow survived its own burning, and that on the very place where a strange spiritual monstrosity was destroyed because it was incredible, it had proved itself undeniable by proving itself indestructible. For the bird called the Phoenix was the ancient symbol of resurrection, as the bird called the pelican was the symbol of charity. It was merely a trivial accident that the Phoenix never existed and the pelican never was particularly charitable to anybody; so much the worse for the pelican.

* * * * *

But the figure of the Phoenix will serve as a symbolic introduction; because it has been used more than once by Irish poets even of the more Pagan school. Mr. W. B. Yeats recently wrote very touchingly of one of those beautiful women of Ireland who have done so much for her liberty, and been the muses of her poetry, and threw a tolerant encouragement to younger men innocently contented with younger women; saying: 'I knew a Phoenix in my youth; so let them have their day.' Even in reading that spirited poem, I was struck with a certain inconsequence in the image. For the Phoenix of legend is not merely a dog who has his day. He is a bird who very much outstrips the cat, in the possession of nine lives. But the pagan poet, by the very nature of paganism, called the dead lady a Phoenix, in the sense that she was as unique and marvellous as a Phoenix; not in the sense that she was as immortal as a Phoenix; certainly not in the sense that she would instantly rise from her ashes like a Phoenix. It is not a lack of sympathy, but rather a sign of sympathy, with Mr. Yeats' intensely imaginative and individual magic and power, to say that all such praises from him have a burden of finality, if not futility; and he does really regard love as 'a perpetual farewell.'. The extraordinary thing we have to deal with here is a belief as defiant as the most literal fable; a bird that can be burnt to ashes and continue to fly. For those who disbelieve in it, even more than for those who believe in it, it is an astounding historical fact that a poem can be acted before millions, as a fact and not a fiction: by which is truly killed and made alive, not one woman who lives in the memory of one man, but one Man who has lived in the memories of men since He died in the most distant days and regions of the Roman Empire. This is that part in poetry which is played by memory, multiplied on so colossal a scale that even a pagan may well admit that it is something of a portent in the midst of modern society.

[GKC Christendom in Dublin, beginning of chapter 4]

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