The Great Metaphysicians

by Matthew Koslowski on December 3, 2009
in Anecdotes

Whenever I first think about traveling, I am struck with the horror that I cannot bring my whole library with me. How do I decide which books to bring? When I travel, I am on a strict budget. I could easily spend my entire budget on books. That’s true at home as well as abroad.

So, I try to bring books with me. Enough books to keep me entertained for the entire trip. I always resolve that I am not going to buy a single volume while abroad. This is a resolution that I know I am going to break even as I am making it; however, in making this resolution, I buy fewer books than I otherwise would.

I had begun to explore the poetry of W.B. Yeats before I went to Rome in 2004. Reading Yeats, I felt I found someone of a similar bent of mind, who looked for the mythic elements of life but also saw that the mythic elements are not enough to strip life of its banalities. Perhaps I had not realized that when I was packing for Rome. Whatever my reasons were, I decided not to bring The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats to Rome.

And that may have been a blessing in disguise.

Mystery and Melancholy of a City

When I traveled to Rome, I felt more homesick than I had expected to feel. The summer before when I traveled to Florence, I had the time of my life. I felt alive in Florence in a way that I never had before.

For my senior capstone project in art history, I had decided to study Giorgio de Chirico. He did not stir me as greatly as some other figures did. But at that time I was looking to blend two of my interests: Italy and Surrealism. Although I thought of myself, and still do think of myself, as a Renaissance art historian — such as I am allowed to call myself an art historian after being out of practice for four and a half years — I wanted to stretch my mind and work on a project beyond my primary interest.

I had expected to find myself a home in Rome the way I had in Florence. And although I knew Rainer Maria Rilke and had read his Letters to the Young Poet, I had somehow glossed over what Rilke wrote of Rome:

…Rome (if one has not yet become acquainted with it) makes one feel stifled with sadness for the first few days: through the gloomy and lifeless museum-atmosphere that it exhales, through the abundance of its pasts, which are brought forth and laboriously held up (pasts which a tiny present subsists), through the terrible overvaluing, sustained by scholars and philologists and imitated by the ordinary tourists of Italy, of all these disfigured and decaying Things, which, after all, are essentially nothing more than accidental remains from another time and from a life that is not and should not be ours. Finally, after weeks of daily resistance, one finds oneself somewhat composed again, even though still a bit confused, and one says to oneself: No, there is not more beauty here than in other places, and all these objects, which have been marveled at by generation after generation, mended and restored by the hands of workmen, mean nothing, are nothing, and have no heart and no value; — but there is much beauty here, because everywhere there is much beauty.

– Rainer Maria Rilke from The Letters to the Young Poet (Stephen Mitchell, trans.), pages 46 to 47

I have a lot for which to thank Rome. I saw my first operas — Carmen and Don Giovanni — in Rome. My first night of salsa dancing was in Rome, organized of one my language teachers for the school.

And I discovered a poem by W.B. Yeats that I had not known before, and may never have otherwise discovered.

Nostalgia for the Finite

I spent a fair bit of time at a bookstore that had an English section. Although I thought about buying volumes of my favorite works in Italian — in fact, I did buy Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair — I felt stupid whenever I tried to read in Italian.

The project of learning Italian had taken on such immense proportions that I had began to feel as if I were lost at sea. I slipped into melancholy in one of the world’s greatest cities. I slept for twelve hours a night, often arriving late for the lessons for which I had already paid.

With the discontent I was already feeling, I decided to retreat to English-language books. I bought The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III and W.B. Yeats: Selected Poems edited by Timothy Webb.

Despite this, I did make progress in Italian that summer.

The Disquieting Muse

The back material for The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats states that it

…includes all of the poems authorized by Yeats for inclusion in his standard canon.

I had read that several times. But somehow the words had never really set in. There are poems that Yeats himself abandoned, discarded saying that although his mind had made them and he had toiled to make them seem of a moment, they were not worthy of him.

As I read through Selected Works, I came across a poem that delighted me:

The friends that have it I do wrong
When ever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.

–William Butler Yeats from W.B. Yeats: Selected Poems, page 62.

This poem brought me a lot of comfort. In going to Rome, I was trying to remake myself, to expand my horizons, and learn about other people and other cultures. Some of my friends were jealous that I was traveling abroad, that I had won an award from the Humanities-Classics Department to help with the trip, and I felt that they wanted me to stay in the United States. Yeats helped me realize that some of my jealous friends were afraid that I would leave them behind.

But I also realized that even as he approached death, Yeats was trying to create himself.

I picture him sitting alone in his tower, a pen in his hand, going through each volume of his works striking out those poems that he did not want to be canonical. Did he agonize over the choices? How many poems did he strikeout? Did he revise poems that he’d already published?

“This,” he mutters to himself in between coughs, “is my last chance to remake my song book. This is my last chance to remake myself.”

All the headings in this essay are variations on titles of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.


One Response to “The Great Metaphysicians”
  1. lee marcotte says:

    Unfailingly authentically you. Great!!