Ever think about all the art that has been lost? Beowulf comes out of an oral tradition of scops singing from a trove of texts. We have this manuscript, which fortunately survived the fitting-yet-sad fire at Ashburnham House, but what about all the other poems? Or what about all the ephemeral moments when a scop arranged memorized texts in an exciting way?
What about all the lost manuscripts of countless different tales that served in the chain to bring us Odysseus, Aeneas, or Arthur?
In two of his dream visions, Chaucer imagines seeing two depictions of the whole story of Troy. In The Book of the Duchess, his speaker has a dream where he sees a window that depicts the Matter of Troy:
And sooth to seyn, my chambre was
Ful wel depeynted,and with glas
Were al the wyndowes wel yglased
Ful clere, and nat an hoole ycrased [broken],
That to beholde hyt was gret joye.
For hooly [wholly] al the story of Troye
Was in the glasynge ywroght thus,
Of Ector and kyng Priamus…
And then in House of Fame, he sees the Aeneid depicted by a tablet in a temple of Venus:
But as I romed up and doun,
I fond that on a wall there was
Thus writen on a table of bras:
“I wol now synge, yif I kan,
The armes and also the man
That first cam, thurgh his destinee,
Fugityf of Troy contree,
In Itayle, with ful moche pyne
Unto the strondes of Lavyne.”
And tho began the story anoon,
As I shal telle yow echon.
Here Chaucer is just summarizing Virgil, but there’s still something tantalizing about a celestial temple containing a mirror of a text we’ve preserved or of a tale being “hooly” preserved in glass. Could there be somewhere too like this for lost works?
And speaking of Chaucer, what about the unfinished works? We have so many fragments from brilliant minds over the centuries. The Canterbury Tales are unfinished and so is The Legend of Good Women. The House of Fame that we’ve just looked at ends famously with the arrival of a “a man of gret auctorite” without telling us who he is. Though beautiful in its own right, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” is unfinished. It was meant to be the chorus in a larger work about St. Winifred rather than a standalone work.
All of this is just a sliver when we think about all the lost works the world over.
And what about all the ephemeral works of the moment? What about extemporaneous poetry and music that is never written down?
Robert Browning wonders about this in his poem, “Abt Vogler.” In the poem the organist, Georg Joseph Vogler, is just finishing extemporizing a musical piece. Here’s one of his overtures to get a feel for the abbé:
Sitting at his organ Vogler says “Would that the structure brave, the manifold music I build…would it might tarry” like a physical palace. But the music necessarily fades: “Well, it is gone at last, the palace of music I reared.”
As a priest, Vogler turns to “the ineffable Name,” and realizes that “there shall never be one lost good!”
And here’s his ecstatic reflection that follows:
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by and by
Not just the semblance of the good thing, but itself. Not just what has been made, but also “willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist.”
Since Chaucer dreamed that he saw the story of Troy in stained glass, it is fitting that in a modern temple to Athena, the Armstrong Browning Library, this moment is preserved in stained glass. You can see it here.
Everything sent up by “the lover and the bard” is “kept…with fonder a care” by the same yonder that Hopkins writes about in his “Golden Echo”:
I do know such a place / Where whatever’s prized and passes of us…is kept with fonder a care / Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it…Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.— / Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, / Yonder.
So maybe we can relax about all those moments when we have the right story or the right phrase on the tip of our tongues, but it never fully coalesces. Or those moments when the argument seems to build itself in our minds and then fade away like the last note of an organ.
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