Coincidentally: Moses and the Muses

The Anglo-Irish critic Robert Wilson Lynd observed that only in literature does coincidence seem unnatural. The literary Detection Club, whose members included Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and G.K. Chesterton, denied their fictitious sleuths access to coincidences, along with divine revelation, feminine intuition, mumbo-jumbo, jiggery-pokery, and an act of God. Synchronicity and other forms of coincidence are not unnatural in the lives of ordinary authors themselves. I list only a few compelling examples.

Pindar is known to us as the Dircaean Swan because he was born about 522 B.C. in Boeotia near the fountain of Dircaea; and swans were sacred to Apollo, the father of the Muses. The humidity of Boeotia made it synonymous with plodding prosaicness. So even now a teacher may insult a dunce with the old Roman aphorism: “Boeotum in crasso jurares aere natum,” which almost translates itself: “You’d swear he was born in the thick air of Boeotia.” In the House of Commons, the Irish national leader Daniel O’Connell accused Disraeli of thickness, brazenly using “Jewish” as an equivalent for “Boeotian.” Disraeli, the Judaean Swan, rose from his bench and declared to the son of Eire: “I am indeed a Jew. And when the right honorable member’s ancestors were savages on an uncharted island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” By this time, Disraeli had succumbed to the rarefied seductions of the Church of England, but this did not completely erase his interest in revealed religion. “Dizzy” became leader of the House of Commons fittingly on the 300th anniversary of the death of Oliver Cromwell from tertian ague. I say fittingly because Cromwell, a man not without arbitrary prejudices, was a hero to the Jews for having let them return from exile on the Continent.

Hebrew is God’s own language just as, according to Shakespeare’s Hotspur, the devil speaks Welsh. But no human race has a copyright on Hebrew. The 17th-century professor of Hebrew at the Roman College was Emil Gustav Hirsch, a Jesuit who, having written at length on the etymology of the Hebrew metaphors for light, coincidentally invented the magic lantern. A professor of Hebrew at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, the Episcopal clergyman Clement Clarke Moore published the ballad Twas the Night Before Christmas in the Troy (New York) Sentinel on December 23, 1823, in which year O’Connell started the Catholic Association in Ireland.

Czech was declared the official language of Bohemia on the 200th anniversary of the burning of John Huss, who used poetic hymnody to spread his religious views. More than one coincidence obtained in Scotland at the apogee of Czech letters. In 1615, Mary Cunningham died on the night before her wedding to Walter Drummond, the royalist poet who had reservations about the succession of the Elector Palatine, Frederic, in Bohemia. His bride’s death makes moving reading of his canceled epithalamium, and Drummond himself died in tears in the year of King Charles’s execution. Drummond was born in 1585 just as Jan Blahoslav was publishing the Kralicka’ Bible in Prague and the Spanish were raising their siege of Antwerp after 14 months: exactly the length of Cardinal Richelieu’s siege of La Rochelle in 1628. This isochronism is matched by the Turkish siege of Kut-el-Amara ending in 1916 and the Russian-Rumanian siege of Plevne of 1877, both lasting 144 days. Such events occasioned lugubrious poetry that has a modern variant in the repertoires of Hank Williams and Willie Nelson.

I trust I am not alone in considering Jose Pereira de Graca Aranha the Paul Claudel of Brazil. Both poets were born in 1868, and both were politically engaged diplomats. This is to be remembered when the daunting and dismaying modern taste for free verse has enlarged the poets’ circle to include antinomian beatniks and habitués of tango palaces. Alexander Pope complained of free verse in Prologue to the Satires. “It is not poetry, but prose run mad.” The 20th century was the anthropological equivalent of free verse. The modern age was not civilization but existence run mad; and modernism was not philosophy but facts run mad. Consequently, the Nobel Prize for literature has become an exercise in the inconsequential trivia all of us viscerally scorn. The philosophical template for literary exposition is in pieces. Time, however, is a prolific poet with a scythe for a pen. One need only consult this fabulous coincidence: Alexander Pope died on the 1,000th anniversary of the death of the Ommiad caliph and amateur poet Walid II, precursor to Yazid III whose death, after four months as caliph, would have excited the suspicions of the above-mentioned Detection Club.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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