”The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” [E. A. Poe]
It’s a bit morbid, granted, but I’ve been thinking about this statement a good deal over the week. I have an app on my macbook that gives me quotes from Edgar Allen Poe every time I scroll over the particular desktop where it is located. Some are more amusing than the one above. For instance, I just glanced back and read this one: ”If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” It is so true! Annoyingly true!
But as I said, I’d been thinking about the death of a beautiful woman, and considering why that would be a rather poetic thing to consider. Let’s be honest, Poe was a bizarre individual. He wrote beautiful, imaginative poetry and narratives. Some of them are haunting simply because they are so well described and the reader can easily envision the words he tells. I remember having nightmares in high school about The House of Usher. (There is a reason I don’t watch horror movies.)
But there is more to the quote than Poe’s obsession with analyzing, describing and memorializing death. Think of the classics we read in high school: The Killer Angels, Anthem, Animal Farm, Asher Lev, etc. Granted, not all of those listed have death at the focal point, but there is a sense of darkness in all of them, something that pervades the stories and something that we desperately read over and over and over.
I just finished a paper from my Doctrine I class. It’s a doctrinal summaries paper. [Thrilling title, I know.] In essence, I had to choose six doctrines and give three different perspectives on each. If you know me at all, the three theologians won’t be difficult to guess: Wayne Grudem, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Integrative. I wrote on the Trinity, immanence vs transcendence, general revelation, scriptural authority, the imago dei and the transmission of the sin nature. If you don’t know what all those are, or you simply don’t care, bear with me. I won’t give you the 22 pages I’m handing in on Monday. Promise.
The imago dei (image of God) and the transmission of the sin nature were the two most difficult doctrines for me to work with. I think it’s because the compassion in me wants to hope for the best, to pray we aren’t as warped and distorted by sin as Paul claims. But I’m a fairly strict Calvinist most days and last night I whispered to my new nephew that he was beautiful, handsome and perfect–except for being totally depraved. He giggled as I nuzzled his cheek and clucked my tongue and my father roared in laughter. Some of us, I muttered, are obsessed with being theologically correct, even with a nephew who can’t hold his head up.
But it’s true, you know. Did you see that man run the red light on your way home from work last night? Did you hear about the dictator killing his own people? They are broken, ruined by the fall. Yet, there isn’t only that. Did you hear about the people who ave money to Blood Water to build wells for people they’ll never even meet? Did you see the way that teenager held the door open for you as you walked out the door with too many things in your hands?
There is this awkward tension between the goodness of humanity, the reasoning, the grace, the mental abilities, the beauty we can create, the impulse to create and hope and dream–coupled with the tendency to fight, to destroy and use our abilities for creating new, more efficient ways of killing each other, for gaining power and ruining the earth. It is not as though every human being is as bad as they possibly could be. Total depravity simply says every aspect of human nature has been compromised.
Coming back to Poe, we must remember that there is, despite the complications, still beauty in the world. Today the earth is bright and flushed with colours because of the thunderstorm last night. The girls I nanny giggled today, making faces, playing peekaboo and when one cried the other hugged her and found a toy to comfort her. “You’re okay, Lil’” she said, “mommy will be home soon. Don’t cry.” There is tenderness among humans that can not be explained except for our high position, bearing the image of an intrinsically good and relational God.
Poe says the death of a beautiful woman is poetic.
I think he could have said the death of anyone with beauty is poetic. There’s something in human nature that recognizes the problem of death. We see that this is not how things were meant to be and it is most clearly reflected by the death of beauty. In a strange way, we see our depravity, our hopeless state when darkness swallows up fleeting glory and beauty. This isn’t how it was meant to be, our soul whispers, and then we put words around the phenomenon to try and understand it.
In the end, Christians have a sense of hope. We look forward to a time when the image will no longer be distorted and we will not give birth to another crooked generation. Instead, the imago dei and humanity will be renewed at the end of days to our former glory. At that point, in our ontological reformation, we will only produce that which is good, holy and pure as we were originally intended to do.
In that day, we will not need death to remind us that something is missing. Because in that day, it will be missing no longer.