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Genres of eternity

January 13, 2013

I apologize for the recent lack of posts. For those unaware, the reason is: I got married, last Saturday. This past month has been rather hectic for that reason.

I want to talk about marriage in particular at some point, but for now, here are some thoughts I’ve had for a while about eternity in general–marriage being a particular way of binding oneself not just for a period of time, but until death.

Yeats, as we all know, proposed to transform himself into a golden bird, and thus to become immortal through his poetry. (Cf. “Sailing to Byzantium.”) The metallic gold gives the image the quality of permanence; the organic bird gives it life. This is true of pretty much all such icons. The type of eternity being revealed depends on the way the two parts are put together. Here permanence has replaced life: the gold is cast in the shape of a bird, and the bird itself has been discarded. This happens also, for example, with Valery’s bronze rose. Both are rather gnostic takes on immortality.

Contrast this with the pearl icon, whether from the medieval poem Pearl or from “those are pearls that were his eyes” (Shakespeare, Eliot). Here the permanence is produced by life. The living oyster makes the pearl out of itself, and when it decays, the pearl remains. Coral (“of his bones are coral made”) can achieve the same effect, as can bone itself, and ivory, and tortoiseshell. Melville often ends his works with such images, as with the underwater bones of Billy Budd and the tortoiseshells in The Encantadas. Oil, spermaceti, and coal could even be included here, though they feel less stable and more energetic. Other biogenic substances include amber, nacre, and ammolite; have they ever been used in this way?

Diamonds are an interesting third case, as in Hopkins’ “That nature is a Heraclitean fire”: “This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond.” Diamonds come from organic coal subjected to geological pressure; they’re not produced by life but transformed by an external agent. Few other poetic images share this quality. (Perhaps because the idea, for example, of a book made from human skin, is overly grotesque.) The closest I can think of is the tree that grows out of the grave, as in Cinderella. But the tree itself dies eventually, and so does not get at permanence, really, only perseverance. We might consider the diamond to be a complication of the pearl rather than something wholly separate–a complication, incidentally, made possible by advances in geological knowledge. That diamonds are transformed coal was simply not known to the author of the poem Pearl. If it has been, I suspect the Pearl poet would have appreciated its greater theological subtlety.

There’s also the burning bush from Genesis, Dante and Eliot’s fiery rose, the phoenix, the crucifixion: the living proven by exposure to forces of decay. Its survival demonstrates its permanence. This and the transformation of the diamond can be complementary; the diamond, after all, is an image of the imperfect perfected, of the glorified body, while the fiery rose is an image of perfection proven through imperfection, of God glorified.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this both because I recently read Pearl and because my wife’s ring has diamonds on it. Mine does not; it’s a simple gold band, itself a symbol of eternity, but of a purely mathematical kind. Diamonds are unreasonably expensive, but they are at least symbolic in interesting ways. The same can be said of weddings in general I suppose.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Micah Teller permalink
    January 13, 2013 10:58 pm

    Joseph, this is just to say that I very much enjoy reading this blog. Also, congratulations to you and Mary on your marriage!

  2. CJ Wolfe permalink
    January 16, 2013 1:33 pm

    Interesting post Joseph, and Congratulations to you and Mary.

    I was thinking about the difference between how a diamond develops and how a pearl develops, and remembered that clams produce pearls in response to irritants. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Steinbeck’s “Pearl,” so I don’t know whether he explored that aspect of pearls symbolically or not. Perhaps the wealth introduced into the lives of the characters could be seen as a kind of irritant (Mo’ money, mo’ problems)

  3. Rumplestiltzkin permalink
    January 21, 2013 10:30 am

    Loved this post. Keep up the writing!

  4. January 29, 2013 8:04 pm

    Congratulations and God bless your marriage!

  5. January 31, 2013 2:32 am

    Thanks everyone!

    CJ–the irritant aspect of pearls is another good thing to bring up. I’ve always wondered whether the medievals, for example, would have known how pearls form around irritants. If not, it would seem perverse to bring it up, but if so, don’t we have to? Unfortunately this is the kind of thing it’s difficult to look up. I’m not really sure how one would begin to go about doing so.

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