Saturday, May 10, 2014

Stevenson's Impossible Dream: "If This Were Faith"

Is there anyone who hasn't shivered with joy listening to the great song "Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha? (If you haven't heard it, go find a recording of it right now--you need to shiver with joy.) I cannot hear it without being lifted up and rejuvenated to my own quest for truth as a writer and a Catholic. Don Quixote may have been mad, but he was righter in his spiritual world than most of the rest of us. There's only one way to dream the impossible dream, fight the unbeatable foe, bear with unbearable sorrow, and reach the unreachable star--by submitting ourselves to God's grace and love in our daily lives (in this I am still a very novice page!). 
However, in this post I'd like to direct your attention to a non-fictional but no less unlikely Don Quixote, a skinny Scot with a penchant for words--Robert Louis Stevenson. RLS was a fine writer and poet, but he also loved people, and had a strong sense of right and wrong. A description of him written by his wife, Fanny, shows this better than any words of mine:
...[T]he path for himself showed plainly enough before him, and it was his duty to swerve neither to the right nor the left. He believed he had no rights, only underserved indulgences. He must not eat unearned bread, but must pay the world, in some fashion, for what it gave him,--first, materially, then in kindness, sympathy, and love. Class distinctions, so strictly observed in England, he could not tolerate and never gave the slightest heed to their limitations. "Ladies?" he said in reply to an observation by a visitor, "one of the truest ladies in Bournemouth, Mrs. Waats, is at this moment washing my study windows." Once, coming upon a crowd of young roughs who were tormenting a wretched drunken creature of the streets, he pushed his way through them, and amid their jeers offered his arm to the woman and escorted her to the place she called home. "Don Quixote," he once said to my son, with a startled look, "why, I am Don Quixote!" Too much ease frightened him; he would occasionally insist on some sharp discomfort, such as sleeping on a mat on the floor, or dining on a ship's biscuit, to awaken him, as he said, to realities; and nothing pleased him more than to risk his life or health to serve another. [...] Meanness or falsity or cruelty set his eyes blazing, and his language on such occasions became far from parliamentary.
So we even see that Stevenson explicitly identified with Cervantes' mad knight.
Recently while reading through RLS's poetry collection Songs of Travel (during breaks at driver's ed class, to keep my imagination from going totally dead), I encountered what seems like Stevenson's own "Impossible Dream". Written over a hundred years before the acclaimed song, "If This Were Faith" expresses the same sentiments in very stirring verse:
If This Were Faith
God, if this were enough,
That I see things bare to the buff
And up to the buttocks in mire;
That I ask nor hope nor hire,
Not in the husk,
Nor dawn beyond the dusk,
Nor life beyond death:
God, if this were faith?
Having felt Thy wind in my face
Spit sorrow and disgrace,
Having seen Thine evil doom
In Golgotha and Khartoum,
And the brutes, the work of Thy hands,
Fill with injustice lands
And stain with blood the sea:
If still in my veins the glee
Of the black night and the sun
And the lost battle, run:
If, an adept,
The iniquitous lists* I still accept
With joy, and joy to endure and be withstood,
And still to battle and perish for a dream of good:
God, if that were enough?
*lists=  jousting arena
If to feel, in the ink of the slough,
And the sink of the mire,
Veins of glory and fire
Run through and transpierce and transpire,
And a secret purpose of glory in every part,
And the answering glory of battle fill my heart;
To thrill with the joy of girded men
To go on for ever and fail and go on again,
To be mauled to the earth and arise,
And contend for the shade of a word and a thing not seen with the eyes:
With the half of a broken hope for a pillow at night
That somehow the right is the right
And the smooth shall bloom from the rough:
Lord, if that were enough?
The rhythm of this poem is the most jagged I have ever seen from Stevenson; I feel he must have written it in one of his high passions against meanness or falsity or cruelty. But read the last stanza again. It is so rich I cannot take it all apart. It's not just the ode of the knight. It's the cry of the artist, seeing beauty transpierce--(what a word!)--transpierce and transpire our fallen world. It's the song of the sinner, being mauled to earth by passions only to rise again. It's the joy of the saint--to contend for that lovely Thing not seen with eyes, but with the soul.
Let us all take hope in God's "impossible" dream for us that is the most real thing in the world.