Friday, June 5, 2009


Then the voice said aloud to him, “When you are arrived at Palodes, take care to make it known that the great God Pan is dead.” Epitherses told us this voice did much astonish all that heard it, and caused much arguing whether this voice was to be obeyed or slighted.
— Plutarch, The Morals

Oh, wise Plutarch, the voice lied! All these centuries of mourning, a dreamless age, all sparked by a misapprehension, a falsehood, a monstrous hysteria. Why was this voice given credence, calling from the devious shores of Paxi, summoning that obscure Egyptian, Thamus, to report to the world the death of Pan? Why did Thamus proclaim the sinister news to the heartbroken Palodeans? If only he had held his tongue! If only that fire of innuendo, speculation, and gossip had not been lit, leaping from ship to shore and from village to city until the arson rumor burned into the very ears of the Emperor, filling the years with blinding smoke. Some say Epitherses heard the voice himself. Others say they heard the report from Epitherses’ son, the orator Aemilianus, and still others heard it from Cleombrotus, that superstitious fool, who believed Saturn himself could be held prisoner by daemons.

Pan is alive. Again and again, the poets have seen him, since the inspired days of Pindar, the first poet who sighted Pan when the god was an attendant of Cybele, the Earth Mother. Surely poets’ words hold more power than accounts from Thamus the dupe or Cleombrotus the scandalmonger? Of course I don’t include those credulous scribes like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote “The Dead Pan” in 1844, perpetuating two thousand years of grief:

Gods of Hellas, gods of Hellas,
Can ye listen in your silence?
Can your mystic voices tell us
Where ye hide? In floating islands,
With a wind that evermore
Keeps you out of sight of shore?
Pan, Pan is dead.

Pan is alive. In fact, by the nineteenth century he held communion with poets more often than he had since his golden age in Arcadia, when the goat-footed god taught Apollo the art of prophecy, and he ruled the fields and forests, honoured by shepherds in the hills and theatre critics in the cities. In those ancient days Pan inspired erotic joy and thrilling fear, playing his supple flute, crafted from the body of Syrinx, the beauty who escaped the god’s passion by transforming into a reed. His music, still heard in hushed forests, in secret clearings and abandoned groves, aroused John Keats to celebrate the god in Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818). Counting himself among “many that are come to pay their vows”, Keats affirms the potency of the “satyr king”:

Strange ministrant of undescribed sounds,
That come a swooning over hollow grounds,
And wither drearily on barren moors:
Dread opener of the mysterious doors
Leading to universal knowledge …

And indeed many others paid their vows, including Percy Bysshe Shelley with “Hymn of Pan” (1824), Oscar Wilde with “Pan—Double Villanelle” (1913), Bliss Carman with his five-volume Pipes of Pan series of poems (1902-1905), as well as famous depictions in prose, such as the momentous chapter entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale, The Wind in the Willows (1908). Reading Grahame, I wonder whether Pan himself may have played a role in cultivating the myth of his demise, perhaps in an effort to protect those mortals who have been fortunate enough to experience his presence:

“For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.”

Not everyone forgets. I have heard his music myself, echoing through the halls of the Writer’s Pantheon. Pan is alive. The poets have heard him too, and they remember, for truly they are the Children of Pan:

The Poets
By Archibald Lampman (1888)

Half god, half brute, within the self-same shell,
Changers with every hour from dawn till even,
Who dream with angels in the gate of heaven,
And skirt with curious eyes the brinks of hell,
Children of Pan, whom some, the few, love well,
But most draw back, and know not what to say,
Poor shining angels, whom the hoofs betray,
Whose pinions frighten with their goatish smell.

Half brutish, half divine, but all of earth,
Half-way ’twixt hell and heaven, near to man,
The whole world’s tangle gathered in one span,
Full of this human torture and this mirth:
Life with its hope and error, toil and bliss,
Earth-born, earth-reared, ye know it as it is.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “The Dead Pan” (accessed 5 June 2009)

Bliss Carman. Pipes of Pan (accessed 5 June 2009)

Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows (Chapter 7: “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”) Project Gutenberg (accessed 5 June 2009)

John Keats. “Endymion: A Poetic Romance” Project Gutenberg (accessed 5 June 2009)

John Keats. “Hymn to Pan” (accessed 5 June 2009)

Archibald Lampman. “The Poets” (accessed 5 June 2009)

“Moralia” Wikipedia (accessed 5 June 2009)

“Pan (mythology)” Wikipedia (accessed 5 June 2009)

“Pindar” Wikipedia (accessed 5 June 2009)

Plutarch’s Morals. Translated from the Greek by Several Hands. Corrected and Revised by William W. Goodwin, with an Introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson. 5 Volumes. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878). Vol. 4. (accessed 5 June 2009)

“Poems to Pan” The Great God Pan

Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Hymn of Pan” Representative Poetry Online (accessed 5 June 2009)

Oscar Wilde. “Pan—Double Villanelle” Read Print (accessed 5 June 2009)

Saturday, May 9, 2009


I who now bid thee on this errand forth
Am Beatrice; from a place I come
Revisited with joy.

— Dante, Inferno, Canto II

As I contemplate the inscrutable courts and customs of the Writers Pantheon, I often wonder whether there is a hierarchy, or precedence, or protocols, or some convention the great powers use to acknowledge the status due to one divinity or another. Surely the elder gods are feared and revered by the lesser courtiers, and surely there are recognized and respected spheres of influence, a sort of architecture of inspiration among these literary governors.

I turned to Dante Alighieri for clues. Clearly this great Italian poet, who was able to map the relative topographies and internal workings of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, had special access to what he called “the high chamber to which all the spirits of the senses carry their perceptions”. That high chamber was revealed to him at the very moment he first encountered Beatrice Portinari, his life-long muse, the woman he elevates to the ranks of the Writers Pantheon in La Vita Nuova (1295), a series of sonnets and commentaries documenting his timeless affection. He is only nine years old, she is eight, when he first catches sight of her. In spite of their youth, in spite of her general disregard as they grow older, in spite of their arranged marriages to other people, Beatrice would forever occupy the supreme place in Dante’s imagination, particularly in the decades after her death at age 24, when Dante wrote one of the greatest works in world literature, The Divine Comedy (1308-1321).

Considering Dante’s age at the time his passion for Beatrice was ignited, I consulted my nine-year-old daughter. I described to her Dante’s experience and achievement and asked for her thoughts on someone her age discovering a muse and dedicating their literary efforts to that inspirational figure for life. I admit, I was hoping she would see herself as a potential Dante, rather than a potential muse, but in fact she had no reverence for either party: “I think he’s an idiot,” she said. “He should have written about other stuff too.”

Of course he did write other stuff, but nothing to match the achievement of the Divina Commedia, in which Beatrice is presented as the motivating force, the poet’s point of reference for love, inspiration, and guidance. The poem recounts Dante’s epic journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In order to record this ineffable experience in language worthy of the endeavour, early in the poem Dante appeals to a number of higher authorities, and in so doing I believe he provides the clue I was searching for: an outline of the division of powers within the Writers Pantheon, or what I will call the Courts of Inspiration.

Three of the four Courts of Inspiration are identified in a concise series of invocations just as Dante is about to set off on his journey into Hell, led by the spirit of the Latin poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid. Here is Dante’s plea for divine assistance, not for safety on the road ahead, but for the ability to recall and write down his experience properly:

O Muses! O high genius! now vouchsafe
Your aid! O mind! that all I saw has kept
Safe in a written record, here thy worth
And eminent endowments come to proof.
I thus began: ‘Bard! thou who art my guide,
Consider well, if virtue be in me
Sufficient, ere to this high enterprise
Thou trust me. … (Inferno, Canto II)

Dante reveals that the first Court of Inspiration is that of High Genius, the realm of the classical muses, the jurisdiction of Thoth, and Inanna, and Odin, and the Archangels, and all of the eminent deities who are the very originators and eternal sovereigns of the literary arts.

The second Court of Inspiration is that of the Mind, the domain of pure invention and of memory, the site of internal access to creative power, enabling mere mortals to invent alphabets, to recall imagined realms, to conceive and construct a Tower of Babel both in stone and in text.

The third Court of Inspiration is that of the Bard, the place of veneration and of influence achieved by figures such as Virgil, Homer, Shakespeare, and those other rare beings whose works transform the historical literary figure into a venerated literary icon.

The fourth Court of Inspiration is revealed by Virgil after he has heard Dante’s appeal for divine guidance. He explains that his role as the poet’s guide in fact was commanded by Beatrice herself. She had seen that Dante was lost in the underworld, and so instructed Virgil to provide assistance, making her own motives clear: “Love brought me thence”.

Thus the fourth Court of Inspiration is that of Love, the high chamber where the earthly muse, beatified by a writer’s affection and devoted literary practice, serves as that writer’s personal patron.

Long after her death, Beatrice continued to be the source for Dante’s most inspired writing. His imagined encounter with her in Paradise is unequivocal:

... I faced Beatrice, who quickly signaled,
with a glance, that I should now pour forth
the waters welling from the source within me.
(Paradiso, Canto XXIV)

Has any muse ever inspired such faithful industry or such a high degree of literary achievement? If my interpretation of the Courts of Inspiration mapped by Dante is accurate, surely Beatrice Portinari presides as a Queen where Love rules in the Writers Pantheon.


“Beatrice Portinari” Wikipedia (accessed 9 May 2009)

“Dante and Beatrice” Fascinating History (accessed 9 May 2009)

“Divine Comedy” Wikipedia (accessed 9 May 2009)

The Divine Comedy The Electronic Literature Foundation (accessed 9 May 2009)

La Vita Nuova. The ‘New Life’ of Dante Alighieri. Translated by A.S. Kline. (accessed 9 May 2009)

Princeton Dante Project (accessed 9 May 2009)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wen Chang

The Master said, “The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.”
The Analects of Confucius, Book 14

Surely one of the radiant gates of the Writer’s Pantheon—one of the earthly points of entry where the literary arts in their elemental state have been conveyed to humankind—is located in China. A writing system emerged as one of the earliest and most powerful expressions of the Chinese civilization, a system with such an ancient legacy that even the divine queries written on ox bones and turtle shells—the Shang Dynasty “oracle bones” dating back at least three-thousand years—are recent in comparison with evidence of proto-writing from Neolithic China. No surprise, then, that this is the land where paper and movable type were invented, and where a number of eminent members of the Writer’s Pantheon continue to influence the efforts of students, public servants, and other literary labourers.

Among those Taoist immortals, the “hsien,” who preside over China’s literary arts, Wen Chang is foremost as the lord of academic and professional composition, literacy, education, and scholarship. Wen Chang is recognized as a historical scholar, often identified as Chang Ya Tsu, whose powers of divination and mastery over the written word elevated him to the realm of the hsien, where he continues to be called upon by parents, students, and clerks to ensure successful studies, passing grades on exams, and prosperous careers. For the edification of believers, Wen Chang also conveyed his biography to scribes through spiritual writing in the late 12th century.

The deity’s name connotes “literary prosperity”, as “Wen” refers to writing, culture, and language, while “Chang” signifies good fortune and success. Wen Chang usually is depicted with an entourage of supporting deities, including Kui Xing, the patron of written examinations, and Zhu Yi or “Red Coat,” the god of luck.

Entreaties to Wen Chang in Taoist practice include offerings of paper, food, and incense. His attributes also are embodied in temples and pagodas throughout China. These multi-level pagodas, such as the Ming Dynasty Wen Chang Pagoda in the city of Beihai, are especially significant, as they reappear in miniature form in offices, study areas, and on writing desks, strategically placed to channel academic and professional success according to the architectural and spatial traditions of Feng Shui.

As architectural sites consecrated to literary success (the antithesis of the Tower of Babel, which embodies the chaotic proliferation of language and—through the Sumerian tale of Enmerkar—the ad hoc invention of writing), the Wen Chang pagodas recall the classical ars memoria, in which students of rhetoric purposefully imagined architectural structures in order to organize and memorize information. Frances Yates describes this technique in The Art of Memory:

In order to form a series of places in memory ... a building is to be remembered, as spacious and varied a one as possible, the forecourt, the living room, bedrooms and parlours, not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated. The images ... to be remembered ... are then placed in imagination on the places which have been memorised in the building. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits demanded of their custodians.

In the nineteenth century, the classical ars memoria gained a new popularity among European students and writers alike, with poems such as Tennyson’s “The Palace of Art” describing the architecture of the imagination, and works such as Francis Fauvel-Gouraud’s Phreno-Mnemotechny; or, The Art of Memory combining classical mnemonics with the pseudo-science of phrenology. Phrenologists, of course, believed a person’s mind and character could be understood by interpreting the shape that person’s skull. In essence, the architecture of someone’s head would convey information about their personal traits, including their literary talent, amorous inclinations, and even their potential to commit murder—as though the human skull itself is an “oracle bone.”

But wait ... all of this seems way too academic. How did I get into at a meditation on phrenology? How did my list of sources get so ridiculously long? Clearly Wen Chang is at work, urging me to seek obscure sources of information, directing me to be comprehensive, inspiring me to be scholarly and erudite.

With thanks to this great lord of knowledge, I have to admit my preference for the indolent western approach to learning—the instinct that inspired William Wordsworth to proclaim: “Up! up! my friend, and quit your books”. Or, even better, I’m captivated by the haunting presence and elusive wisdom portrayed in Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar Gipsy”:

... the Gipsy crew,
His mates, had arts to rule as they desired
The workings of men’s brains;
And they can bind them to what thoughts they will:
‘And I,’ he said, ‘the secret of their art,
When fully learn’d, will to the world impart:
But it needs Heaven-sent moments for this skill!’

So, with apologies to Wen Chang (and, for good measure, to Confucius), I will end my academic rummaging for now, quit my books, and await a full report from the Scholar Gypsy. However, for anyone with more immediate intellectual needs, whether you are writing an exam, a test for promotion, a scholarly essay, or other composition that would benefit from divine guidance, apply yourself energetically to Wen Chang, and you’ll be sure of good literary fortunes.


The Analects of Confucius. Translated by James Legge. University of Adelaide Library. (ebooks@Adelaide) (accessed 5 April 2009)

Ancient Scripts: Chinese (accessed 5 April 2009)

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Francis Fauvel-Gouraud. Phreno-Mnemotechny; or, The Art of Memory. New York and London: Wiley and Putnam, 1845. (accessed 5 April 2009)

“History of Writing.” Wikipedia (accessed 5 April 2009)

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Frances Yates. The Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Leanan Sidhe

This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone
Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water
Feb 24th 1821

It’s hard to argue with an epitaph, but I’m certain “the Malicious Power of his Enemies” had less to do with the death of John Keats at age 25 than the seductive power of a leanan sidhe. Sure, the facts show he was done in by tuberculosis, but I’m fairly certain he could have shrugged it off if he wasn’t busy being devoured by a fairy muse. Fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley championed the notion that Keats wasted away as a result of a bad review (hence the inscription on Keats’ grave in Rome), but that was just a way for Shelley to divert attention from the fact that he too was in the grip of a leanan sidhe, one that carried the poet off a month shy of his 20th birthday.

Thomas Chatterton, poet, died age 17. Christopher Marlowe, poet, died age 29. George Gordon Byron, poet, died age 36. Arthur Rimbaud, poet, died age 37. Archibald Lampman, poet (the “Canadian Keats”), died age 37. Robert Burns, poet, died age 37. Forget natural causes, unfortunate accidents, and deliberate self-destruction. Brilliant young dead poets get that way because of the leanan sidhe.

W.B. Yeats—certainly a brilliant poet—lived to the ripe old age of 73, thanks to his intimate knowledge of Irish folklore, which presumably made him immune to the affections of the creature he called Lianhaun shee. Yeats understood this alluring fairy could inspire men to become “great poets or musicians”, but only at a cost, “for the Lianhaun shee lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.”

Yeats grouped the leanan sidhe with witches and malevolent spirits, though her attributes in Manx and other Celtic lore emphasized inspiration, passion, and beauty as her key attributes. Her name means “beloved of the fairy mounds”, and any mortal who returned her affection was certain of realizing creative genius in direct proportion to an intense and abridged life span.

While poets will find a relationship with the leanan sidhe both rewarding and fatal, there is evidence to suggest the poet’s vocation inherently is hazardous, even in the absence of a fairy lover. In “The Cost of the Muse: Poets Die Young,” published in the November 2003 edition of Death Studies, James Kaufman of California State University looks back at several centuries of writers from a cross-section of cultures, and establishes that poets, on average, have a shorter life span than other writers. The score card: poets average 62.2 years, playwrights average 63.4 years, novelists average 66 years, and nonfiction writers average 67.9 years. The study supported earlier research on the subject, including Keith Simonton’s 1975 analysis of 420 past and present “major writers”, which determined that writers (non-poets) live an average of six years longer than poets.

At issue in these studies are important concerns about the social, physical, and psychological well-being of writers. Kaufman states: “this study may reinforce the idea of poets being surrounded by an aura of doom, even compared with others who may pick up a pen and paper for other purposes. It is hoped that the data presented here will help poets and mental-health professionals find ways to lessen what appears to be a sometimes negative impact of writing poetry on mortality and mental health."

I would recommend that doctors look for signs of the leanan sidhe when treating poets. Perhaps specialists should have Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” on hand as a point of reference. Similar themes present in your patient’s writing sample? Diagnosis: leanan sidhe.

La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful — a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I sat her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said —
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep
And there I dreamed — Ah! woe betide! —
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried — ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.


“10 Great Writers Who Died Young” The List Universe (accessed 4 March 2009)

“Dead Poets: Poetry Hazardous to Lifespan” Gawker (accessed 4 March 2009)

“Going Early into that Good Night” New York Times (accessed 4 March 2009)

“He died from a love of poetry” The Guardian (accessed 4 March 2009)

John Keats. The Complete Poems. Edited by John Barnard. London: Penguin Books, 1982.

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W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore. New York: Avenel Books, 1986.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


To You whom the wise exclaim
as the single-syllabled, Supreme sound,
stainless and peerless,
bliss, formless, unconditioned—
the Indweller in the core of
sacred tradition—to that
Primeval One I bow in adoration.
— Shri Adi Sankara, Ganesha Bhujangam

When I began my record of the Writer’s Pantheon, maybe I should have started with Ganesha, lord of beginnings. Maybe then I would know how to begin to write of your greatness—Ganesha, Ganapati, Vigneshvara, Pillaiyar—majestic god of writers and scribes, infinite source of wisdom and learning, supreme patron of artists, divine remover of obstacles. How do I begin to write of you now? Do I begin with your birth, as Dickens did in the archetypal opening lines of David Copperfield (1850)?

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born ...

If I start with an account of your birth, surely my words will be insufficient to depict the way in which Parvati, your divine mother, lovingly fashioned you from her bath oils and commanded you to stand guard while she bathed. In your first moments, in your filial devotion to your mother, how were you to know the face of your father? When Shiva returned and demanded entrance you faithfully barred his way, and paid for that duty with your head. Parvati, enraged, demanded that your head be restored. The first creature at hand was an elephant, and with its head joined to your body you assumed your vast comprehension, your splendour and grandeur.

But what of your many other beginnings, the eminent variations and alternative versions of your nativity? And surely there is no doubt that you are the hero of your own life, Oh Ganesha. Perhaps I should overturn convention, and begin with the assured, iconoclastic voice of Holden Caulfield in the opening lines of The Catcher in the Rye (1951):

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

No, not reverent enough. Perhaps I should simply begin in medias res, that ancient literary technique of beginning a tale in the midst of the action, epitomized in the opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308-1321): “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” This is the technique you sanctioned in the Mahabharata, the epic text for which you agreed to act as scribe, in that magnanimous agreement with Vyasa when, some say, you broke off your own tusk to employ it as a pen, the emblem of your support for all writers as they embark on their difficult work:

Then Vyasa began to call to mind Ganesa. And Ganesa, obviator of obstacles, ready to fulfil the desires of his votaries, was no sooner thought of, than he repaired to the place where Vyasa was seated. ... Ganesa having signified his assent, by repeating the word Om! proceeded to write; and Vyasa began; and by way of diversion, he knit the knots of composition exceeding close; by doing which, he dictated this work according to his engagement.

If I begin in the midst of your story, Ganesha, perhaps I could write of your contemporary veneration. As one of the most sacred figures in Hindu religious practice, your relevance and vitality are reflected everywhere in your popular iconography. Your image adorns school text books, currency, jewellery, sculpture, t-shirts, tattoos, corporate boardrooms—anything and anywhere that may benefit from your wisdom, creativity, and grace. The annual Ganesha Chaturthi is your most elaborate and beautiful celebration, a 10-day festival in the Hindu calendar dedicated to your worship, culminating in processions to the sea, to waterfalls, to pools and other bodies of water, where brilliant statues of you are immersed, a symbol of cleansing, rebirth, a new beginning.

Ganesha, I don’t know how to begin to praise you. In the absence of a beginning, I will end with borrowed words, words you have inspired, words to inspire infinite beginnings:

O Lord and ruler of many ganas, O Peaceful One who loves pomp and ceremony, patron of the arts and preserver of the best of ancient cultures, the one worshiped by all sages, use Your mighty trunk to hold us close to Your majestic mind, our purest state. Respond to our entreaties for clarity and direction, for this we supplicate. Protect us from beguiling ways and sternly direct us in the ways of our forefathers' traditions, forging for us new patterns to bring forth the old in the world of today. Keep us resolute to live the Sanatana Dharma. We prostrate at Your holy feet. Please grant us Your grace. Ganesha sharanam, sharanam Ganesha.


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Saturday, January 10, 2009


I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
— Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

How is it that writers always seem to locate the height of inspiration in the depths of misery? And aside from the infinite scribblings of teenage angst (those covert rhyming pages, the prolific and aching pop-song apprenticeship of every author), how is it that the truly inspired writers manage to convey the depths of misery in such alluring terms? Who wouldn’t want to be counted among the best minds immortalized in Ginsberg's “Howl”? So what if you had to qualify through an epic act of self-destruction? Sign me up as an angelheaded hipster; I’m ready for hysterical, naked, but surely noble dragging, burning, and angry fixing. And who doesn’t want to express “the wakeful anguish of the soul” the way Keats did, or taste the fruit he crushes in the last stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy”?

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Keats understands that Delight and Melancholy are roommates and, like Ginsberg, he suggests they only hang out with an in-crowd of inspired sufferers. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton described melancholy as a disposition that “goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dullness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing forwardness in us, or a dislike.” Admit it, writer: just reading that gloomy list gets the creative black bile flowing, doesn’t it? The Beat Generation of Ginsberg, the Romantic generation of Keats, they all had melancholy in common, a pose of aestheticized alienation that has fuelled literary fires since the craft of writing was first delivered to earth by the inscrutable inhabitants of the Writer’s Pantheon.

In “The Poets”, the great Canadian poet Archibald Lampman described his fellow writers as:

Half brutish, half divine, but all of earth,
Half-way ʼtwixt hell and heaven, near to man,
The whole world’s tangle gathered in one span,
Full of this human torture and this mirth ...

Which brings us to Phenex, a figure who, as a fallen-angel-poet presiding in Hell, definitely burns for the ancient heavenly connection, half brutish, half divine. Sometimes identified as Phoenix, this being is associated with the legendary bird of the same name, understood to be reborn again and again out of an inferno of its own making, the ultimate expression of creative agony. Historical sources attest to the fallen angel’s literary skill, as well as his willingness to do the bidding of those able to summon him. Here’s how Johann Weyer described Phenex (Phoenix) in his “Pseudomonarchia daemonum” (1583, translated and published in English by Reginald Scot in 1584):

Phoenix is a great marquesse, appearing like the bird Phoenix, having a child’s voice: but before he standeth still before the conjuror, he singeth manie sweet notes. Then the exorcist with his companions must beware he give no eare to the melodie, but must by and by bid him put on humane shape; then will he speake marvellouslie of all wonderfull sciences. He is an excellent poet, and obedient, he hopeth to returne to the seventh throne after a thousand two hundreth yeares, and governeth twentie legions.

The description was plagiarized in the 17th-century text, The Lesser Key of Solomon, issued in English by Samuel Mathers and Aleister Crowley in 1904 (though the description is derivative, The Lesser Key of Solomon depicts the angelic Seal or sigil of Phenex, which I’ve appropriated in turn for the illustration):

The Thirty-Seventh Spirit is Phenex (or Pheynix). He is a great Marquis, and appeareth like the Bird Phoenix, having the Voice of a Child. He singeth many sweet notes before the Exorcist, which he must not regard, but by-and-by he must bid him put on Human Shape. Then he will speak marvellously of all wonderful Sciences if required. He is a Poet, good and excellent. And he will be willing to perform thy requests. He hath hopes also to return to the Seventh Throne after 1,200 years more, as he said unto Solomon. He governeth 20 Legions of Spirits. And his Seal is this, which wear thou, etc.

If you’re a writer looking for an angry fix, or if you’re eager to pen the contemporary equivalent of Arthur Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer (1873), you’ll be keen on the recurring indications that Phenex is “obedient” and “willing to perform thy requests”. At the very least, you’re sure to have an eloquent companion in your misery. In fact, some occult texts describe the Phoenix as a protector of humanity, spreading its wings before the sun, ensuring mortals below are not consumed by the heat. Keep in mind, however, the warnings against the creature’s beguiling voice (I suddenly hear “Sympathy for the Devil”, Mick Jagger singing “I laid traps for troubadours ...”) and the need for the demon to maintain at least a semblance of humanity to ensure you make it out of the transaction alive—all an indication, perhaps, that in the process of burning for the ancient heavenly connection in the company of this particular character, you’re more than likely going to get burned.

Writers with a more developed sense of self-preservation who are determined to enlist a literary patron-angel may want to consider the less diabolic—but, thanks to Edgar Allen Poe, no less melancholy—Israfel or, even better, the wholly consecrated literary powers of angels such as Vretil, Pravuil, Uriel, or Gabriel. Still, if you’re shorn of loved ones, if you’ve made a mess of familiar routines, if you’ve embraced melancholy, abandoned hope, or finally yielded to inner demons, then Phenex may help you compose that broken-hearted, inebriated, resigned, and tormented masterpiece you’ve been stoking in the midst of your creative misery, syllable by searing syllable.

I know the feeling. I was in the company of Phenex when I started writing this essay, but now that I’m finished, I’m pretty happy with the words I’ve strung together. How the hell could I possibly keep writing?


“The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton” Project Gutenberg

A Dictionary of Angels, Including the Fallen Angels. Gustav Davidson. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

“Howl” Allen Ginsberg (accessed 10 January 2009)

“Melancholia” Wikipedia (accessed 10 January 2009)

“Ode on Melancholy” John Keats. (accessed 10 January 2009)

“Phenex” DeliriumsRealm (accessed 10 January 2009)

“The Poets” Archibald Lampman. Canadian Poetry (accessed 10 January 2009)

“Seal of Phenex” Liam’s Pictures From Old Books (accessed 10 January 2009)