Calderon in the Woods

From the Book of All Saints by Adrienne von Speyr, a reflection on the 17th-century Spanish poet and playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca (my comments bracketed):

“The poetic element in him was strongest when he first began to write poetry, in the sense that he possessed a limitless love for the stuff of poetry, for the language, and for giving things form, [this love is, I think, a primary driver for most artists: the joy of seeing something come into being] . . . But he did not grasp at success for its own sake — ‘success’ here understood as the effect of his work on another’s soul [a very rich definition of artistic success!, especially considering what follows] — but saw it rather as a result of God’s task, as a grace, indeed even as a permission: the permission to push things farther, beyond the success that had already been achieved. . . . He himself is an instrument, and he is aware of his instrumentality. And he is increasingly convinced that God gave him this gift for the work, and that therefore the work is something God wills. He is the craftsman for this work and for no other. There is a great dissolution of his ego and his will in all of this. If he always grows stronger in God, it is primarily because of his work, but then also — especially in his later years — through all the discoveries that it is given to him to make in Christian matters. Brand new fundamental words and truths that had been unexplored until then constantly open themselves up to him, and his work becomes the way he can make these truths known. He makes discoveries. [What follows is particularly striking] He is like a child who has been given a candle and who makes a voyage of discovery with this little light through a huge, familiar forest at night and sees things in the half-dark that, with the approach of the candle, suddenly take on contours, unexpected forms, in order finally to become beautiful — so beautiful that the child remains standing for sheer joy in the middle of this miraculous wood with his candle and does not realize that it is not possible to live completely in the night in order to be able to wander around constantly with this life. [Art as a candle that shifts the contours of a dark wood — oof. Wonderful.]

“His prayer is simple, and ultimately all his works strive for simplicity of heart, even when they touch on the most varied of themes. [There seems to be a very practical virtue to this as well] The complicated theme he discovers provides him with simple novelty; the hidden truths provide him with the evident ones. And the entire unfolding of the game and his movement here and there is always a transformation into the true, into the good, into love. When he becomes a priest [which he did later in life], he does so in order not to stand in any contradiction to the truth that is known [compare this to some modernist poets like Wallace Stevens who saw poetry as a replacement for religion. See especially the wonderful poem ‘Sunday Morning’], in fact, in order to support God in his design, to give his truth to the world through beauty and through his poetry.” [This last point strikes me especially, perhaps since I am teaching a lot of 20th Century literature right now. Modern and postmodern writers famously work in ‘fragmentation’, their works often being a variation on the theme ‘things fall apart’. But the medieval mind was one who believed in the unity of all things, the solidarity of all being, and the the source of this unity being itself love. It may not be precise to refer to Calderon as a medieval (though he’s much closer to that than we are), but regardless, there is a lot to be reflected upon in that juxtaposition, both in regards to the art itself but also, more importantly, how we approach our own art.]


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