We are a literary family. My mother and father both read to us, each from their favorites: from my mother we got Lewis and Salinger and MacDonald, before we were old enough for any of them. From my father we got Tolkien and Homer, for whom one is never too young or too old.
The most brilliant images I have from my childhood are the ones that formed in my head while they read. I remember Cornelius waking Caspian to gape at the midnight conjunction of Tarva and Alambil, which is mixed up in my head with the times when my own father would take us out to a remote, cow-smelling field to see the Perseids, or just to learn the stars. I remember the birth of gray-eyed Athena, who is the first woman I ever fell for, as if I had been there. And the arrival in Lothlórien, where rest and beauty are one, is lodged in my head like a vision.
My father excels at Voices, so much so that my younger sister once woke up screaming in the middle of the night, convinced that she had heard the hissing whisper of a Nazgûl: Open in the name of Mordor. But he can do an excellent Samwise Gamgee, too, mingling affability, earthiness, and a homely sort of nobility.
My mother was my first model of a real teacher, sensitive to the bits of story where the ideas were too complex or the language too elevated, always stopping to make sure we understood, teaching with questions rather than lectures: Do you know what this means? What do you think it sounds like?
Later on, in home school, we made an official study of poetry, and didn’t skimp on substance. Silverstein and Nash and Lear were all right, but we were mainly left to consume them on our own time; during school, it was all Frost and Hopkins and Blake and Coleridge. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was one of my favorites, and is still a paradigm for me of that mix of beauty and terror which I look for in all art. I remember listening with mingled disgust and awe when my mother explained this bit:
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! A sail!
— (YOU MEAN HE ACTUALLY, yep, he did) — and helped me wrap my head around this one:
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
‘The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.
She explained how it would’ve been bad enough if Death had won rights over the Mariner, but for Life-In-Death to win was even worse. The Mariner was condemned to be somehow dead while still alive, or alive in the midst of death. It’s a perfect image of damnation: to be deprived of the very ground of your existence, yet somehow to go on existing. I didn’t know what that could mean, then. Later I would discover depression, which at its worst – I mean the grinding, tormenting spells, not the dull ache – is the closest most people can come to damnation this side of the grave, emotionally speaking.
Is it safe to expose children to such dark images? I think so, or as safe as any real poetry can be; poetry is no tame lion. At that age, I had no categories in my mind for real darkness, and so the darkness couldn’t get in to do me damage. But the image stayed; which meant that when the reality showed up years later, I was not defenseless.
Then again, maybe children know more about both darkness and light than we give them credit for. A secular friend of mine recently wondered aloud why on earth Catholics start children on Confession so early. “What do you have to confess at that age?” she asked. “Do you just go in there and say ‘I was mean to my sister?’”
But I remember childhood differently. I remember enduring an agony of guilt for days or weeks, in first grade, because I had upset a friend’s Sea Monkey tank and let him take the blame. Ten-year-old me could’ve given Graham Greene a run for his money, guiltwise.
I doubt children experience emotions any less intensely than adults do. If anything, they experience emotions more purely, since their emotional lives are not tempered by the control, sophistication, and self-deception that we learn as we grow. If they experience these things at provocations that seem slight to us, their experience is no less real for that.
My mother told us that it was worthwhile to memorize poetry and scripture even if we didn’t understand what we were memorizing. The idea was to populate our minds with these words and phrases — the valley of the shadow of death, and wine and milk without money and without cost, and the deer that pants for running streams, and deep calls to deep — so that, when they were needed, they’d come more readily to hand.
She was right. Now when I flail out into the darkness I can come back with thy waves have all gone over me; or I can grin at a bleak December and shout cold and chill, bless the Lord! or go out stargazing in rural New Hampshire and whisper look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
I still remember the moment when the simple phrase “born again” suddenly, for the first time in my life, meant something palpable. It was like a flood of molten metal. Would the experience have been the same without the phrase to express it? Where might that metal have overflowed without a vessel to contain it — or would it simply have been lost?
For that matter, which came first, the experience or the phrase? Did the phrase only express what I felt, or did it, like a kind of Sacrament, help to bring into being that which it signified, ex opere operato?
Depression was my first experience of life-in-death, but for every human, disorientation and loss and heartbreak and unrequited affection are simply, sooner or later, par for the course. These things are very bad, but without poetry and Scripture, they would be intolerable. Psalm 130, the Book of Job, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot — not only were they my companions in grief and rejoicing, but they even taught me how to grieve and rejoice.
In Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books, magic consists in knowing the true names of things. For us humans, poetry is our magic, and images are a kind of true name: a truer kind, actually, than names that are only made of sounds. If we want to contain the darkness, we need images of the darkness, lest the darkness be all.
Images give us a way into beauty, too, not just a way to keep the darkness at bay. Whenever I feel myself most in danger of losing sight of my first love, I turn in my mind to the images I have known since childhood, those great mines of life to which I was introduced and given membership before I knew how life could burn and glow: to — God bless you, George MacDonald — the fire of roses, the Wise Woman, and the country whence the shadows fall.