Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Hugh Glass--epic hero

Clear as a friend's heart, 'twas, and seeming cool--
A crystal bowl whence skyey deeps looked up.
So might a god set down his drinking cup
Charged with a distillation of haut skies.
As famished horses, thrusting to the eyes
Parched muzzles, take a long-south water-hole,
Hugh plunged his head into the brimming bowl
as though to share the joy with every sense. 
And lo, the tang of that wide insolence 
Of sky and plain was acrid in the draught!
How ripplingly the lying water laughed!
How like fine sentiment the mirrored sky 
Won credence for a sin of alkali!
So with false friends. 

Pretend this is Lit 101. What on earth is going on here?

Students schooled in regional history might have a leg up. After all, this parched soul who stumbles blessedly on "a crystal bowl whence skyey [is that a word?] deeps looked up" is named Hugh, and he's alone and in very tough shape. If you've not been able to forget the violence of The Revenant, your nightmares might just lead you to believe "Hugh" is the bear-torn hero of that movie. And he is. 

But the rest of the class may need some background.

Hugh Glass has been left for dead. If you saw The Revenant or read the novel by Michael Punke or Lord Grizzily, by Frederick Manfred, you know the brutal story of Hugh Glass, beaver trapper, circa 1830, left for dead after being mauled by a she-bear. 

That helps. Hugh Glass is really, really, really thirsty; but what's with those "parched muzzles. . .thrusting"? What's that about? And what kind of "lying water laughed" anyway?--and "ripplingly"? Seriously? "The sin of alkali" does a ton more than suggest that the crystal bowl so long-sought (I'm picking up the bug) turns out, tragically, to be "acrid in the draught!" It ain't good--that's for sure. But isn't it all a little ridiculous?

"The Song of Hugh Glass" is an ancestor to Manfred's Hugh, as well as Punke's and Leonardo DiCaprio's. What we're reading is the verse of John Neihardt, who was once himself a legend in Nebraska, and left a state monument in Bancroft. Neihardt penned his version of the Hugh Glass saga in an epic poem that sounds for all the world like William Shakespeare or John Milton, the John Milton of Paradise Lost. That's a really long haul from Bancroft.

When Neihardt took Lit 101, what he learned was that true literary stardom, a readership across the ages, needed to be housed in a peculiar style, something called epic poetry. Think Homer--The Iliad and Odyssey. Maybe Beowolf?  So right out here in our world, a world or two away from Aegean fields or Stratford-upon-Avon, John Neihardt figured the Hugh Glass saga was just as great a story as any other--lengthy narrative poems about heroic figures absolutely central to a nation's identity. 

"Why not?" Neihardt must have told himself. What America needs is its own Epic of Gilgamesh or Divine Comedy. Why not start with a wilderness hero like Hugh Glass? 

You got to love the aspiration, don't you? John Neihardt argued for world-class heroism right here on the Plains.

Plunged deeper than the seats of hate and grief,
He gazed about for aught that might deny
Such baseness: saw the non-committal sky,
The prairie apathetic in a shroud,
The bland complacence of a vagrant cloud--
World-wide connivance.

Wow. Amazing. In his deprivation, Glass looks to nature for sweet solace and gets "the prairie apathetic" and a "vagrant cloud." It's "World-wide connivance" because, dang it! no one cares.

Okay, let's be forthright. A full century after Neihardt outfitted Hugh Glass in a Grecian wardrobe, the overblown style seems dead wrong, doesn't it? 

Maybe. But you got to love John Neihardt. What he was doing was something we may well need more of. He was cheerleading. He truly believed our stories ranked with anyone's anywhere in time and space. 

And he was right. Last year, The Revenant was awarded three Oscars. Wasn't the same Hugh Glass story, wasn't set in Siouxland; but Neihardt was without a doubt on to something when he sang "The Song of Hugh Glass," something that began here, a story first written in Siouxland.

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