Mantegna 466

At the very end of his life, Andrea Mantegna inscribed the answer to the question on the tree in this delicate cameo-painting of Delilah snipping away at Samson’s hair — as if the fountain next to the tree weren’t clarification enough.

If it’s hard to read the words on the tree, you can click on the tree itself to read them more easily — and if that’s still not enough you can click yet again on the bigger picture. Then it’s a piece of cake — that is, the riddle’s a piece of cake, not the beautiful, dignified, introspective young woman trimming the hair of her grizzled, old, pumped-up and psyched-out lover, the act that reduces all men to the divine fools they are destined to be. Because the Divine Fool is the true message of the Samson story, it seems to me, that is if you read the details of the story very carefully — or, alternatively, if you carefully and exhaustively read your own life, or even read me if you know where to look — which is why I am writing what follows, to find out.

I’m going to leave some space on that now, for reflection.


My reflections on Mantegna’s dictum, foemina diabolo tribus assibus est mala peior, are developed day by day in the Comments below, and if you are interested in such things I hope you will be able to read them with as much hope for an answer as I posted them. On the other hand, if you’re impatient you can skip ahead to a specific discussion of HOW BAD IS THE DEVIL IN THE END.  But fasten your seat belts as you scroll down, because jumping ahead is going to make for a very fast ride!

And those of you who start at the beginning, be warned as well: the discussion that follows thrives on hair-pins and other sticky corners, and very often paints itself into untenable places as well — I do hope you’ll be charitable and forgive me for all the dead-ends. I’m an Old Father William, and all I can tell you is that this is how it goes. Indeed, that’s part of the riddle of knowing where you are in the space you inhabit, and it doesn’t much matter whether it’s on earth, in space, buried in your own person or in some other idea or dimension, or perhaps even suited up in a New Age space-vehicle transitting infinity to arrive where you actually are, like in Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Wrapped up in your own cocoon like Eve, in other words, even if you’re a man and not yet ready to be that beautiful, powerful, and fey. Or a snake with your own tail in your mouth like Satan in the Garden of Eden — indeed, you may even be impatient enough to want to go straight to the discussion for men and women who are no longer inhabitants of the Garden of Eden but would like to know what really happened back then.


Or if, like most of my friends, you’re more interested in my own demise as a soi-disant angel and poet yet again you can begin at that end:


Or if you’re really impatient and just want to know what happens at the various ends:


And finally, if you don’t want to begin at any end but just keep on fooling around like Old Father William:


Christopher Woodman,
Chiang Mai, March 3rd, 2016




“Having seen one such cave, having seen three, four, fourteen, twenty-four, the visitor returns…uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull experience or any experience at all. He finds it difficult to discuss the caves, or to keep them apart in his mind…”……………………………………E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

Click on the cave to expand it, and give thanks to Tim Makins for his beautiful and informative site. This particular cave is called ‘Vadathika’ and is at Barabar north of Gaya in Bihar State, one of four carved in granite at the behest of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka (269-232 B.C.).

…………………….what are they?

…………………who goes into them?

………………what comes out of them?

“… An entrance was necessary, so mankind made one.

“…But elsewhere, deeper in the granite, are there certain chambers that have no entrances? Chambers never unsealed since the arrival of the gods? Local report declares that these exceed in number those that can be visited, as the dead exceed the living – four hundred of them, four thousand or million. Nothing is inside them, they were sealed up before the creation of pestilence or treasure; if mankind grew curious and excavated, nothing, nothing would be added to the sum of good or evil. One of them is rumoured within the boulder that swings on the summit of the highest of the hills; a bubble-shaped cave that has neither ceiling nor floor, and mirrors its own darkness in every direction infinitely. If the boulder falls and smashes, the cave will smash too – empty as an Easter egg. The boulder because of its hollowness sways in the wind, and even moves when a crow perches upon it; hence its name and the name of its stupendous pedestal: the Kawa Dol.”
………………………………………………………….E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

……“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man
…….as it is, infinite.  For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ 
narrow chinks of his cavern.”.
…………….                            …
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

My mind enters here, William Blake’s ‘Sconfitta,’ among many other dark cavern-like places — including the cave in A Passage to India, of course, and still asking not just about Adela and Dr Aziz but about Morgan. For this was in fact E.M.Forster’s last novel, as hard as that may be to believe. 1924.

In 1964 I was a Research Student at King’s College and he sat at the High Table every evening. Everyone called him just “Morgan,” and I wondered at his smallness, availability and shyness. Or 1965, maybe, or 1966? — I was so troubled with entrances, with drugs, sex, music, speed as in over the ground, and children, lots of them, and of course Leavis, Lewis, Yehudi Menuhin playing all six Solo Sonatas and Partitas in King’s College Chapel, visions in Fiesole in August and nightmares in the orchard at Grantchester in October, Beatles-live the same evening at a cinema on Regent St. with the locals — no, I don’t remember when. And even more important, my first entrances elsewhere and beyond, as troubling as any Marabar Cave and as easy to get into yet hard to get out of in one piece.

So what happens anyway?

Christopher Woodman



March Madness has been a study as much as it has been an intoxication; the New Critics erred in thinking the emotive and the cognitive could not be combined; of course they can, by any astute critic (Poe is a shining example, who the New Critics, from Pound to Eliot to Warren to Winters to Brooks to Wimsatt carefully ignored or played down.). The New Critics made no satisfactory criticism; they merely introduced mumbo-jumbo, mere terms, such as paradox, ambiguity, irony and symbol and nothing about it was original or coherent, it was finally nothing but mumbo-jumbo for the self-elected priesthood.

The professional priest will lord it over the mere amateur, but such religious hierarchies do not belong in poetry, not artificially, anyway; Letters is not science, but finally morality for the many, and this is the ugly, primitive secret which the sophisticated modernist Oxford erudite fop dare not face.

……………………………………………………………..………….Thomas Brady


………..The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
………..And then forgot to tell us why.

……………                        ………                      …………Ogden Nash


The paradox here lies not in the fly or in the Lord’s wisdom but in what a poem can say that ordinary language can’t. You don’t need Pound, Eliot, Warren or Winters, or anyone from Oxford for that matter, to help you out with that, or even a High School diploma. Indeed, “The Night Before Christmas” is loaded with paradox, as is Pooh’s poetry, the Beatles, nursery rhymes, limericks and gospel. You can laugh or cry as much as you like, but still you can’t say what it  is without saying what it isn’t.

The ambiguity in this poem lies in the absurdity that gets to the very heart of what bothers human beings about life, the complexities of it – how a creature so indispensable to the health of the planet should be so small, for example, yet so insistent, fickle, and in your face, so disgusting yet impossible to swat.

The irony lies in the fact that the Lord in His wisdom forgot to tell us just about everything, and even when the scientist has done his or her very best to remedy that, and even shown us photos of the fly’s eyes and cultivated its filth in a petri dish so we could actually see the link between flies and disease, and then gone on to save lives by cleansing wounds with maggots, we still can’t decide who we are. And then along comes poetry, of all crazy stuff, and tells us!

Love hurts. Grief heals. The meek inherit the earth.

As to symbols, there are none in this poem in the usual sense. Indeed, symbols are rare in poetry worth reading because the whole idea of poetry is to rewrite the comfortable shorthands, cultural icons and codes we depend on. Indeed, when poetry is most effective even the symbols come off the rails, so to speak, and wreck our understanding of everything. For a moment we just have to stop — my God, my God, what is it?

Take the Rose in William Blake’s poem, “O Rose Thou Art Sick,” for example, or the Tiger in “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.” Only beginners talk about either as “symbols,” because the moment you think you know what they mean you’re lost. You lose the thread, you lose the argument, you lose your soul to the facts already stuck in your head. And you can’t move on.

Symbols are for simpletons, not for Ogden Nashes!

Had Ogden Nash written a whole series of poems about flies, as Yeats did about towers, for example, then we might want to consider “why” in a broader sense, and “the fly” might even be considered a symbol in the little poem above. And hey, why not? Life’s too complex not to accept what little help we can get from the way we human beings use language!

But we don’t need a Professional Priesthood for that, though sometimes we get one, boo hoo. Then abuses do follow, and yes, we do get Reformers, Counter-reformers, New Critics, Anti-new-critics, Pound-profs or Poe-profs or Flat-earthers, you name it.

Fortunately,  most of us move on with the baby still in our arms and not lying there blue on the floor with the bathwater.

Most of us also examine our lives in privacy too, I might add, even if we also love frisbee and beer. And the best poetry, of course, remains private in public.

Christopher Woodman