Welcome to day 10 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted
We’re in the midst of a dozen days or so playing with some of the lyrics and elements in the song “China Roses.” It’s packed with interesting plants and allusions, and since I don’t know what was in lyricist Roma Ryan’s head when she concocted this magic, I feel I can construe the lines as I wish (“who can say the way it should be?,” after all).
Yesterday, the topic was a thousand nights and one night. Today, the topic is Earth’s last picture.
As I mentioned at the start, taken as a whole, the lyrics span time from dawn through day to evening, night, and moon rise, evoking an exotic Eden, mythic and romantic, scented with heady fragrances, planted with unusual specimens made lush by rain and river, under a swirl of celestial motion. Explicit in the words and implicit in the connotations, histories, and mythologies are repetitions and reverberations of these conjurings, a journey through time in a day, time in an eon, eternity in the cosmos.
Here again are the lyrics:
Who can tell me if we have heaven,
Who can say the way it should be;
Moonlight holly, the Sappho Comet,
Angel’s tears below a tree.
You talk of the break of morning
As you view the new aurora,
Cloud in crimson, the key of heaven,
One love carved in acajou.
One told me of China Roses,
One a thousand nights and one night,
Earth’s last picture, the end of evening:
Hue of indigo and blue.
A new moon leads me to
Woods of dreams and I follow.
A new world waits for me;
My dream, my way.
I know that if I have heaven
There is nothing to desire.
Rain and river, a world of wonder
May be paradise to me.
“Earth’s last picture” is such an evocative phrase. It opens the mind to questions like “Who is taking this picture?” and “Last?” It elicits loneliness, an aching emptiness, a sense of failure and loss, a melancholy tinged with horror, never-ending grief.
Where my heart and mind don’t go is here:
When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted
by Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
When Earth’s last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it — lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets’ hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from — Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
I’m not sure what to make of this poem. To my modern ear, it sounds ironic. The last line of the poem, which has each person drawing “the Thing as he sees it for the God of Things as They are” brings to mind first Wallace Stevens’ (1879-1955) lines, “They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.’ // The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar’ from (the ineffable) “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” and then “I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things” (Henri Matisse, 1869-1954). Both Stevens and Matisse flourished around the same time Kipling did.
Where is the place for imagination in the God of Things as They Are?
The history of Kipling’s poem is enlightening, though it doesn’t give any answers. The poem was published originally, with somewhat different wording, in the New York Sun on 28 Aug. 1892, title-less, following Kipling’s article “Half-a-Dozen Pictures,” which “describes a visit to an art gallery and Kipling’s reflections on the failure of most painters to match the beauty and vitality of the world around them.” The original poem’s third stanza was:
“And only Rembrandt shall teach us and only Van Dyck shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!”
It wasn’t until four years later that he changed that first line to “And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame,” which ends up transforming the poem from “a manifesto for realism in art” to “a romantic encapsulation” of the view that “true joy in life comes from dedication to whatever work is in hand, and that the task of the Artist is to convey to others the excitement and wonder of an expanding world.”
But back to Earth’s last picture …
As far as I know these are not Earth’s last pictures, just not-last pictures of this familiar, mysterious home we know.
“Algebra applies to the clouds, the radiance of the star benefits the rose — no thinker would dare to say that the perfume of the hawthorn is useless to the constellations. Who could ever calculate the path of a molecule? How do we know that the creations of worlds are not determined by falling grains of sand? Who can understand the reciprocal ebb and flow of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, the echoing of causes in the abyss of being and the avalanches of creation? A mite has value; the small is great, the great is small. All is balanced in necessity; frightening vision for the mind. There are marvelous relations between beings and things, in this inexhaustible whole, from sun to grub, there is no scorn, each needs the other. Light does not carry terrestrial perfumes into the azure depths without knowing what it does with them; night distributes the stellar essence to the sleeping plants. Every bird that flies has the thread of the infinite in its claw. Germination includes the hatching of a meteor and the tap of a swallow’s beak breaking the egg, and it guides the birth of the earthworm, and the advent of Socrates. Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has a greater view? Choose. A bit of mold is a pleiad of flowers; a nebula is an anthill of stars. The same promiscuity, and still more wonderful, between the things of the intellect and material things. Elements and principles are mingled, combined, espoused, multiplied one by another, to the point that the material world, and the moral world are brought into the same light. Phenomena are perpetually folded back on themselves. In the vast cosmic changes, universal life comes and goes in unknown quantities, rolling everything up in the invisible mystery of the emanations, using everything, losing no dream from any single sleep, sowing a microscopic animal here, crumbling a star there, oscillating and gyrating, making a force of light, and an element of thought, disseminated and indivisible dissolving all, that geometric point, the self; reducing everything to the soul-atom; making everything blossom into God; entangling from the highest to the lowest, all activities in the obscurity of a dizzying mechanism, linking the flight of an insect to the movement of the earth, subordinating — who knows, if only by the identity of the law — the evolutions of the comet in the firmament to the circling of the protozoa in the drop of water. A machine made of mind. Enormous gearing, whose first motor is the gnat, and whose last is the zodiac.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
TOMORROW: The end of evening: hue of indigo and blue
Featured image: ice, Kezar Lake, Sutton NH, 27 Feb. 2017