Tenderness and Rot (from Poetry)
Tenderness and rot
share a border.
And rot is an
keeps creeping over.
can be drawn
from this however.
One is not
One is not meat
It is important
to stay sweet
1. “One is not meat corrupting,” claims the poem. It’s a noble sentiment I’d like to immediately indulge. Unfortunately, Yeats has his narrator in Sailing to Byzantium pray for his heart to be “consumed:” “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is.” To be sure, Yeats follows Augustine in this sentiment. From Book 1 of the Confessions: “For what would I say, O Lord my God, but that I know not whence I came into this dying life (shall I call it?) or living death.”
So much profundity, so little time. A decision must be made, somehow, to afford a reader just a smidgen of clarity. Yeats’ narrator and Augustine himself have grand ambitions; their saintliness bespeaks a tragic heroism. The speaker of Sailing to Byzantium sees his frustration with the world as nothing less than the call to eternal life. He sounds childish and petty while following Christ’s dictum all too perfectly. For him, the dead might as well bury themselves, if not the living. The world has been renounced so much that it actually elevates. In the end, he can only speak of himself as a mechanical bird, an artifice lasting forever, a thing.
Augustine is a more complicated case, and I am no Augustine scholar. I will say that what impressed me most with what I’ve read is his earnestness. He really wants the truth of Christianity, the truth reason uncovers, and his self-knowledge to coincide. He can identify points in his own life where he has become better from this combination working in concert. I’ll just state that his is a rather large project, and if it did work for him, it may not be quite as applicable to anyone else. Which might be a problem if you’re a bishop preaching this not as an understanding of the world, but as the understanding of the world.
In the face of not being our ideals, or from crafting ideals so perfect they become remote, we are “meat corrupting.”
2. The poem employs different reasoning, starting from somewhere different. Ryan’s speaker watches rot develop upon a formerly fresh, beautiful object. “Tenderness and rot share a border:” you can’t separate the beautiful from the ugly, or virtue from vice, or the high from the low. This is not to declare that all things one does are destined to collapse, that there is some ironclad law of irony which should prevent anyone from doing anything. It is to say that things are stranger than we anticipate. Rot, of all things, is a beauty all its own, maybe richer and more compelling than what we saw as beautiful before: “rot is an aggressive neighbor whose iridescence keeps creeping over.”
And that’s it. That’s as far as Ryan will go. Rot has an “iridescence,” marking it as subtle and deep as any enlightenment received from more celebratory experiences. Still, no more searching is necessary: “No lessons can be drawn from this however.”
I’m tempted to say this is an incomplete poem, shifting abruptly to an end instead of probing for a deeper question. That maybe this poem isn’t ambitious enough. Certainly, the last two stanzas look on their own like conventionality made epigrammatic:
One is not
One is not meat
It is important
to stay sweet
One must keep in mind the drama of the poem. The speaker is watching rot occur and is transfixed. When she declares “one is not two countries,” she has to be rebelling against that darker vision. The meat itself is not two countries, though it appears so. If I am tempted to think of myself as either my failure or my success, I’m wrong on both counts. I am both my failure and my success, whatever that mixture is. Employing the distinction cancels out me.
That points to the deeper reason why this can’t be thought through for lessons’ sake. It might be said that it is the nature of all things to ripen and then decay. Fine, but there are two problems. First, the more one uses that as a governing thought, the more one turns oneself into an object. Second, to reaffirm the above, note that Ryan is emphatic with the term “one.” In order to understand the objects in the world, we knowers must treat each of them as one, not two. Inasmuch rot points to the dissolution of the object, it forces us to treat it as two or more.
All the same, there is no knowledge in the strict sense without considering how the good can go bad, or how what we conceive good actually is more of a trade-off to begin with. Ryan’s point stands: no lessons can be drawn from simply seeing tenderness and rot share a border. A far more complicated and thorough inquiry may yield another set of concerns and questions. But that means being able to trust oneself to see, then work through what that seeing actually is.
Therefore, an ironic lesson of sorts. Not really a lesson, more a reaction, more an assumption of the speaker: “It is important to stay sweet and loving.” This seems too simplistic, and it is. Morality isn’t the same thing as being nice. Yet there are people who do horrific, unspeakable things. They don’t find redemption, they may not be redeemable, but they go on. Sometimes, they’re remembered by others as quiet, sometimes even at moments as sweet and loving. I don’t quite know what to say about the human encompassing the inhuman.