Columbia: An American Goddess

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, 1883

If you were to ask the average American which mythical figure best represents the national character, most would reply with a household name: Uncle Sam. The genial yet intimidating patriarch has dominated artistic and poetic descriptions of the American nation-state for a hundred years. However there is another, more deeply ingrained avatar of the American populace, the omnipresent Columbia. Most famously depicted as the Statue of Liberty , upon which is inscribed Emma Lazarus’ poem reproduced above, Columbia was the mythical figure adopted by the founding generation of the early United States. After the defeat of the British in 1783, America found itself free from international harassment and a wide open frontier of unknowable bounty. What was needed was an icon, a symbol by which to galvanize and direct the consciousness of the American people. By the late 1790’s, Columbia was born.  Columbia quickly became the patron saint of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine of westward expansion embraced with genocidal fervor by the pioneers and politicians alike.

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Columbia advancing towards the darkness of the West, bringing light and civilization in her wake.

Columbia’s figure appears on or within many state and federal buildings constructed in the 19th century, usually cast in bronze and often pointing or facing West. She adorns the Wisconsin Capitol building, sculpted by the same Daniel Chester French who constructed the greatest rendition of Columbia in history, the 65-foot-tall Statue of the Republic commissioned for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. She reposes atop the Texas Capitol holding the sword of Justice and raising aloft a blazing golden star. She lends her name to numerous towns across America, she is the patron of Columbia University and the seat of governmental power stands in a district built in her honor: The District of Columbia.

Columbia as a symbol is far too complex and deeply-rooted to be ascribed as a creation of political machinations. Columbia is only the latest name given to a goddess who is older than recorded history and can be traced in her modern form to the early Egyptian dynasties. She has been known throughout history variously as Inanna and Ishtar by the Sumerians, Kali by the Hindus, Freya by the Norse and most notably as Isis by the ancient Egyptians. She is the goddess of love, wisdom, warfare and destiny and is venerated by all cultures as the mother of civilization. In the original

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Isis suckling the infant Horus at her left breast.

Egyptian telling of her tale, Isis is also the goddess of magic, friend of slave and aristocrat by equal measure. It was Isis that kept the veil of night cloaked about the light of wisdom and it was her name invoked in the rites and rituals of the numerous fertility cults that sprang up along the banks of the Nile. The pentagram, or five-pointed star, the primary symbol of magical and initiatory societies across the world, is the shape traced in the heavens by the transit of the planet Venus throughout the year. In this Roman context the parallels between Isis and the western conception of the Virgin Goddess in her myriad forms become starkly apparent.

She has also enjoyed considerable veneration throughout history as a figurehead of Freemasonry or as Manly Palmer Hall put it, “The Virgin of The World”. Numerous Masonic writers have expounded lengthy treatises on the Masonic symbolism inherent in the legend of Isis, it being so closely tied to the inner curriculum of Masonry. In the pre-Christian Mystery traditions, Wisdom was always depicted as feminine. In Greece, Wisdom was personified as Athena, Goddess of Knowledge and Crafts. The seven liberal arts are given female representations and the nine Muses invoked by countless artisans and artists are all of female form. For an organization with an historical opposition to the admittance of women, Freemasonry has an oddly persistent fascination with feminine representations of their Craft.

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Freemasonry Instructing The People by Charles Mercereau – 1875

It is often acknowledged that many, if not most, of the founding figures of early America were Freemasons. Could it be that this small group of men, working with the vast repository of Masonic symbolism, crafted a symbol to forge a specific path forward into the future? Is it coincidence that Columbia led the waves of settlers of the New World from ‘sea to shining sea’, transporting the light of civilization from its birth on the Eastern horizon to its maturity in the West? Though she has been subsumed in popular understanding by the withered visage of Uncle Sam, Columbia keeps constant vigil from the forgotten and overlooked corners of American history and geography, a testament to a different time. She may remain cloaked behind the veil she draws so closely to her breast yet the light of her torch still burns for those with eyes to see.

 

Therapeutic Poetry: Connecting with Words

Therapeutic Poetry: Connecting with Words

Poetry: often regarded as the domain of lofty, high-brows: difficult to understand, and even more difficult to write. In its traditional sense, it almost could be argued that poetry has lost its flare, its ability to connect. When I say traditional, I mean rhyming couplets, clear stanzas, sonnets, etc. Stuff dead people write. My response would be that that is absolute nonsense.

Poetry today is dominated by slam poetry. The outcries of the young and the broken, the abused. The neglected. Simply, those who want to be heard. Poets loudly project their stories, and through public events and the power of the internet, people everywhere can listen and appreciate. Now I mention slam poetry not because there is anything wrong with it, in fact one might say that it is the next step in the evolution of poetry.

It has become popular, and it is meant to be heard by many. Some people benefit much from it. But its purpose is to excite–it can be chaotic in its ferocity and passion.

I am not arguing for a step-back in poetic technique, but I do think that some of us could benefit from experimenting with closed form poetry–as a sort of therapeutic device. An almost zen-like state can be achieved through simple, closed poetry.

The Haiku

matsuo-bashoOnce again, I know what your probably thinking: in the first sentence you mentioned that poetry is “difficult to understand” and “difficult to write.” Poetry, in many forms is actually quite simple, at least in a basic sense. And what I am trying to push is not brilliant poetry for the masses, but private, calming poetry. Sort of like knitting or cross stitch. A mix of accomplishment as well as focus and harmony.

Consider this haiku by Matsuo Basho:

Spring going–

birds crying and tears

in the eyes of the fish

This poem comes from Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which he wrote based on his travels through Japan. It might be a tad intimating at first, considering that Basho is considered to be a master of the haiku, but the haiku is one of the most accessible forms of poetry.

A common technique is the first and last lines consist of five syllables, while the middle line consists of seven syllables. Anyone can do it. Many haikus have nature themes, but the syllables are variable. For example, Jack Kerouac wrote hundreds of “American haikus,” which rarely ever followed the rule. Take this one for instance:

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Glow worm

sleeping on this flower–

your light’s on.

Simplicity. That’s the emphasis in these poems. They allow you to simple process the world around you, and document your experience. Poems like this allow one to condense the complexities of life into a few short lines. And I mentioned before, it can be extremely calming.

The Sonnet

Moving towards more complex poetry, one might look at the sonnet–popularized by none other than William Shakespeare. Again, sounds intimidating, but it’s not. A few more rules are required than in a haiku, and it takes more time, but it can be quite a rewarding process.

There are two main types of sonnets: the Shakespearean, consisting of three, four line stanzas, followed by a couplet (two lines), and the Italian, which is broken into two parts, an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). Additionally, both types of sonnets follow specific rhyme schemes.

The Shakespearean: william-shakespeare-portrait11

a b a b

c d c d

e f e f

g g

The Italian:

a b b a a b b a

c d c d c d

Okay. Maybe it’s a tad more complicated than a haiku, but that’s besides the point. Once you get going, the sonnet can provide a frame for your life experience. A meticulous mosaic, simplifying the complicated and providing closer. Sometimes, the best thing for someone is a bit of restriction, some rules to provide organization for the chaos that can be life. The sonnet provides that. For example, here is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73”

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In Conclusion…

Poetry allows for people of all ages to connect with the world around them, and more tradition forms like the haiku and the sonnet allow them to do it simply and privately. It can be a modest form of expression and analysis, and can be done on a personal level.

Poetry can be found in all things. Anything and everything can be poetry if the effort is put in–if the author has purpose. I argue that poetry can be used as a tool to mend, helping one understand that facets of one’s own life and connect with the nuances of others. A means to serenity and awareness, realization and unity.

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