Sacred Teachings of the Ancient Victorians

This entry is part 2 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems

Deep in our oughts

What did the Victorians know that we have forgotten? That sorrow is a strong medicine with dangerous side-effects. That all our crops are grown in linear graves. That the angels’ only super-power is empathy. That ruins can be beautiful because they are free of their original purpose. That a camera can impart something like second sight. That the devil too quotes scripture. That sex is inherently scandalous. That bad air can kill you & pine-scented air can prolong life. That the grave is a kind of well that never runs dry.

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10 Comments


  1. What they did not know? Is that next, with green Morris wallpaper killing the children and so on?

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    1. No, that would be too easy. All the ancient peoples whose sacred wisdom we are continually urged to study were profoundly ignorant about, well, most things. But they knew what they knew.

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    2. Which is to say, they were in touch with certain earthly realities in a way that most of us today, sadly, are not.

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      1. Which may also say that their view of these realities may have been reactions born of “prudery’ and strict moral standards based on accepted theodicy.

        Though given to ornate style recalling the Renaissance and neo-Classicism, Victorian art seemed to have been a reaction to the expedient expression in art nurtured under the sway of industrial and scientific advancement. Artists rejected the demands of mass-production; viz., the photographs vs. paintings (specially portraits, say—more-rather-than-less-but “well-made”, etc.).

        Yet, it seems the well-springs of “sex being scandalous” are religious “manners” attached to the Fall of Man and his rejection of a provident landlord in his lost Paradise. (The residue, of course, is viewing sex as dirty, and the worst curse of the “modern” man is to yell F–k, (as an expletive for intercourse, disgust, anger, impatience, condescension ad nauseam, a catch-all word for all that is repulsive to the four-letter word user.) Poverty of language. Sloth in the choice of specific words for specific thoughts and emotions.

        [That Bronx resident who was kicked out of an airplane for complaining about “how f…g long it was taking for the plane to depart”, (his defence was to say that they “use the word as an adjective all the time in their conversations to describe a lot of things”) is a case in point. ]

        The elegance of Victorian expression has died with the hurriedly-written and mass-produced pulp books. Pity. There. A four-letter word. But this is becoming prolix (and I am afraid Victorian. ) The Internet’s emails have also introduced “emoticons”. Soon adjectives and adverbs would die, but verbs may become nouns, and vice versa. Quo Vadis literature? Back to comic books with emoticons, I bet.

        With Internet-nurtured pornography comes an almost universal disregard for the sacredness of man’s body as a” vessel for the divine” in him. Will sex remain scandalous? (When a US President could not be impeached for sexual dalliance, society may have effectively thrown out a Victorian guidepost. That persons-in-authority could be shamed into political suicide (Cong. Weiner, say) appears to be a rearing of this standard’s “ugly head.” ) We’re neither here nor there, are we?

        Thanks for the summary of Victorian world-view, Dave. You’d give Will Durant a run for his money.
        (:– )]

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        1. Thanks for the comment. I don’t agree that using fuck and other curses invariably stems from laziness or poor vocabulary, though. Like George Carlin — a master wordsmith if there ever was one — I feel that curse words are like hot peppers: not to everyone’s taste, but very much to mine, albeit in smallish doses. See also Stephen Fry. If I don’t use profanity more often on my blogs, it’s mainly because my mom is a regular reader. :)

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  2. Very well-written short essay, Dave — I’ve long had an empathy with the British Victorian era.

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  3. I haven’t been able to get your Highgate photo essay out of my mind since one of your qaartsiluni pals sent me the link a couple weeks ago.
    Mt. Auburn Cem used to be our main hangout, her with the birds and the art, me with just the art, the stories in it. I thought Mt. A was lush till I saw Highgate through your eyes and gasped aloud. Repeatedly.
    I think what the Victorians knew that we’ve forgotten is how to be intimate with death, with intolerable loss. It was everywhere, especially at home, where they were saturated with disease let alone industrial accidents and violence–and they had no escape. They couldn’t just park Granny in an assisted living facility and wait for a phone call from a stranger. Victorians were the first generation to be made aware of evolution, germ theory, and photography, all pretty stunning developments, especially for the spiritually-minded, when people were dying all over each other, not out of sight but in the house, and they had a lot to think about it, or more to think with, than any of their ancestors had. Death was a way of life, or it *was* a kind of life, to them; they put all that life into their cemetery art, then went out on nice days and picnicked with their all-too-real dead loved ones. I imagine watching someone die makes them real to anyone watching in ways nothing else can. And I think that’s what that art reveres.

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    1. RJR – Thanks for the great comment! I say “great,” of course, because it mirrors my own thinking. :) And as I have nothing further to add, I won’t. (Unless there are more poems in this series, I suppose.)

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