Monday, March 31, 2014

Ode - David Lehman

People in the middle ages didn't think they were living
Between two more important and enlightened eras;
Nor did they see themselves as the players
In act three of a tragedy in five acts.
It was not always late winter in the middle ages.
People in the middle ages were not all middle-aged
Though it is enjoyable on occasion to assume that they were.
The sun was as bright in the dark ages
As it is now - maybe a fraction brighter, in fact.

Think of the middle ages and what do you see:
Gloomy cathedrals, students dressed like monks in the rain,
Or a band of drunken pilgrims telling obscene jokes,
Or heroes embarking for the nearest wilderness come April?
Your answer will reveal yourself to yourself
But you may not know it - may choose to hide
In hazy visions of a serene and indescribable paradise.
And paradise, as we all know, may be paradise when we're dead,
But it is boredom on earth, alas.

We never think of ennui in relation to the middle ages.
Should we?  Did Thomas Aquinas never get bored
Cooking up elaborate refutations of diminutive heresies?
No, and you shouldn't either.  Nor did the clerks
of Oxford tire of the sin against the Holy Ghost,
Trying to figure out what it was.

On chill September mornings when
I smoked too much the night before
And I drank too much the night before
And a sinister cough rises up
From the depths of the belly of my being,
I like to imagine living in Provence
Or even in Rheims during the middle ages.

It's one of my least favorite common cultural assumptions that the Dark Ages or Middle Ages were somehow dreary or stagnant in terms of achievement.  Some of the greatest architectural feats of that time are still proudly standing, well-deservedly drawing attention and admiration.  The flowering of literature and philosophical thought in those centuries was also profound, as was the development of social orders, nations, and commerce.  It's a silly notion to assign them the name "The Middle Ages" as if there was nothing much going on and that time period just acted as a bridge to the Renaissance.

Lehman does a good job making the reader feel ridiculous for the assumptions they likely hold.  I like his imaginative exercise, wherein you are asked to envision what life was life back then.  I also like the not so subtle reference to Chaucer with the "band of drunken pilgrims telling obscene jokes."  Bringing Chaucer, who is considered one of the figureheads of English literature into the mix is a good way to remind the reader that the middle ages were hardly the bland, uneducated time we often assume them to be.

I too like to imagine what daily life must have been like in the past.  What were the hopes and fears of the average person?  They loved, had kids, wept, worked, feared, and played like anyone else.  It's easy to forget the human aspect of history amidst the myriad list of dates and achievements.

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