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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Faulkner: Poetry is Restorative

I'm near the end of Light in August and have finally almost come to the conclusion that I have absolutely no excuse for favoring Joe Christmas in anyway. I don't want to say anymore than that as I do of course want you to go and read it yourself.

One of the side characters of the novel is an old man, Hightower, who used to be a preacher. As a result of an embarrassing series of events involving, among other things, the suicide of his wife, he has for many years lived in chosen seclusion as a regular fixture of the town. The only visitor he ever sees is Byron Bunch (who, yes, still seems to be just as wonderful as I suspected). The following passage begins as Byron is leaving Hightower's home, having just talked out his intentions towards Lena.
From the window again Hightower watches him pass and go on up the street toward the edge of town and his two mile walk, carrying his paperwrapped packages of food. He passes from sight walking erect and at a good gait; such a gait as an old man already gone to flesh and short wind, an old man who has already spent too much time sitting down, could not have kept up with. And Hightower leans there in the window, in the August heat, oblivious of the odor in which he lives -- that smell of people who no longer live in life: that odor of overplump desiccation and stale linen as though a precursor of the tomb -- listening to the feet which he seems to hear still long after he knows that he cannot, thinking, 'God bless him. God help him'; thinking    To be young. To be young. There is nothing else like it: there is nothing else in the world    He is thinking quietly: 'I should not have got out of the habit of prayer.' . . . 'Yes,' he thinks. 'I should never have let myself get out of the habit of prayer.' He turns from the window. One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wants. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand. (Vintage, 1987, 348-350).

The next time we see Hightower, he is wearing, for the first since we've met him, a clean, white shirt.


  1. Ah, Ellen, So nice to accompany you through Light in August. Please keep us posted as often as you can. I read it (mostly) many years ago and do believe I will pick it up again soon and, by golly, read all of it this time.

    Would love to read how you like Flags in the Dust.

  2. .....Huh. I guess if the effect of the poetry is positive, why then the effect is positive--by their fruits ye shall know them, and so forth. For my part, I love Tennyson. But, boy!--to judge of Faulkner's description, it sounds as if he utterly despises him. Gutless swooning? Dehydrated lusts? Eunuchs too indifferent to understand their own words? It seems curious that the big F would describe the poetry in such scathing terms and then depict it restoring a man's soul. Or is there some kind of irony here that I'm missing? I haven't read the book, of course. I'm starting to think that if we ever find a book we've both read, it will create some kind of universe-destroying paradox.