That dolphin's day was one that made the adjective "halcyon" concrete. The fetch of the sea was frothed in mirth, not unsettled, but laughing with its cousin, the azure firmament. The sun gleamed blue and silver, and the tangible light called up the crest, racing toward the strand in imposing, impossible arches of childlike complexity. Every wave is magic manifest. Every gleam and song is a fairy tale come true. The old bedtime stories were not false. They were simply not true enough.
"Why are you talking to me?" I asked my argent, seaborne friend. "There are so many others with better questions."
He laughed with the thunder of the surf. "That is not your question: you never really wonder 'why me?' For you, it is more like 'why not me?'"
The jig was up.
He continued: "No, your real question is about the future. You may think your question is from having spent too much time with superstitious people who believe in evil eyes and the falling of the other shoe."
"Huh?" I asked, eloquently.
"But really, everyone asks your question. You are worried about what will happen next. You think, like most of your friends, that beauty must be succeeded by ugliness, that bad things will always lap at the heels of good."
"Well, yes, doesn't it?"
"In this world, it is often the way of things. But this vision is not to be followed by ugliness ... but by a storm."
"Storms are ugly."
"No, not always. There is glory in lightning at sea, the snow-capped mountains in watery procession, and the waterspouts -- all of which are inhabited by the Nereid. Ah, now there's a beauty that is terrible -- a juxtaposition you moderns cannot begin to understand.
"But more to the point. Things will change. There will be upheavals, even in your present history which doesn't notice much. The earth will become less accommodating, warmer, stormier. Populations will continue to migrate. Powers will rise on the other side of the world. People will get technically smarter, but the wise men will be eclipsed by fools. Your church will become even less appealing."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"All right, I will." He brought out another silken scroll, which I took to be apocalyptic.
It wasn't. It was merely a screed from a little literary journal with a circulation of only eight thousand.
"Read this. It is good."
Has something in the culture put poetry ... out of bounds, so that even those who wish to be receptive find it difficult, if not impossible, to have much enduring feeling for it? Might it be that the culture has been speeded up beyond the point where the repose required for absorbing poems is no longer possible? (1)
"So people don't read modern poetry: when has that not been the case? I can't stand it myself: no rhyme, no reason. Always whining about being bourgeois, always playing with words like playdough."
The dolphin smiled, then shook his head. "No, it is not just that. No one reads any poetry anymore except for a few self-anointed eccentrics. No one memorizes poetry ..."
I raised my hand, wanting to say something.
"... No, I know what you're going to say. You were about to point out that there is nothing modern worth memorizing. But there you're wrong. There are a number of decent modern poets. Wilbur is one. Certainly Auden, though I wish he kept a cleaner flat. And Ben Downing is another. I like his 'Calligraphy Shop' the most.
"As I was saying. No one reads or understands poetry anymore. It is not important at all. The only memorization that occurs is with the lyrics of popular music -- and that tradition proceeds from a regrettable priapic worldview, and a silly attempt to make coitus a sacrament. No wonder your music is deranged. You should be appalled that pop music is the religious text undergirding your modern literature and art. Popular culture used to be derivative, erotic stuff. Now it is foundational."
I attempted to bring him back to the theme: "I memorized Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 in tenth grade."
"But have you recited it since then? Did you savor the words? Did you permit the poem to mold your own words, to structure your own thoughts? Do you know that poetry cannot be read silently, that it must be read out loud? Did you ever even understand it?"
"I thought so," he murmured as he realized that I was one of those who had shelved my KJV and had surrendered to the invasion of Today's English, and I shook my head with self-loathing. Instantly, I realized that a better word nowadays for "sinner" is "loser" -- it has a much more poignant cachet of shame and humility, as in "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a loser."
"Epstein, who wrote this paragraph, was not exactly right about the cause of poetry's decline."
The dolphin was clearly building up to his peroration.
"Culture has speeded up, and poetry is disappearing from the language. But neither one is the cause of the other."
"And? What is it?"
"The Resurrection of Christ is the foundation of all true poetry. The Second Adam is the Restorer of all true names, and the Rhetor of all true words. His Resurrection is the opening of life into eternity.
"That is why true prayer must always become poetic, for when speech and thought reverberate with that Ineffable Rising, then there must follow the shining marks of prosody and symbol, like sea spray from wind and wave. Poetry, for it to exist at all, began as prayer.
"Poetry started with prayer. It started when prayer was articulated into speech. Grace illumines the nous, and Divine Speech orders the thoughts and spoken word of man. Prayer must always tend toward poetry, as it cannot avoid symbol, meter and trope. Divinity will always affect humanity with poetry, in every Chalcedonic interaction between the two natures. The Gospels are full of parable and metaphor. The Church's epistemology is inherently symbolic. The scandal of Christianity is that its mystical truth is also hard historic fact, and thus real people can really pray. The soul is home in concrete particularity, and in prayer, the soul stretches beyond its psychic horizon.
"Every prayer is standing on the strand, such as we are, and looking across the sea to the sun."
"My head hurts," I whined.
"Pray through your headache," he snapped. "That single advice would go a long way toward healing a lot of mental illness."
He continued, placidly. "True poetry is good medicine for any passion, and especially old age. Your old people despair mainly because they do not reason with pain in story and rhyme.
"As the Resurrection is to poetry, the Incarnation is to story. You humans have never taken seriously the Incarnation of the Son of God. If the Advent into Creation of the Second Person of the Trinity is possible at all, then everything in His Name -- especially language -- is renewed.
"But today, poetry is disappearing mainly because of such little real belief in the Resurrection. Some of us think -- I am one of these -- that the converse is also true. Belief in the Resurrection is scarce as poetry is scarce."
"What does this have to do with storms?" I queried nervously, as the clouds now blanketed the sun, and the sea had turned from true blue to slate.
"Ah, yes," he lifted his long snout in the freshening breeze. "Tell me: if you wanted to hide your activities in the spiritual dark, but wanted to act without constraint in this world, how you would go about making it so?"
"I would squelch any mention of the Incarnation and the Resurrection," I said without hesitation.
"Yes, certainly, and what else?"
"I would remove form and truth from poetry, life and spirit from story, because true poems and stories are rumors of the light. I would devalue beauty into pornography. I would give everyone careers, so they could forget."
"And then," he sounded mournful, "you'd be left with a Sargasso Sea of flotsam and jetsam, adrift with no anchor and no heading, no harbor or port. The stars shine, but they have no meaning. The sun is no longer a father, but just a heartless orb of radiation, burning the sky. The moon becomes a cold mistress of nightmare, instead of the tidal pole of mystery she was created to be. Every story becomes a narrative of self-justification, every poem a tatter of pathoneurological rhetoric that might as well have been uttered on a sigmundian couch.
"It would be like dying, but not knowing when, because you couldn't tell the difference. Then the False Adam will come, when death becomes a way of life, when poetry and story are forgotten, and language becomes a caricature, a transmission of mere information, and nothing more.
"When he comes, no one will know the difference."
The storm's chill acquainted me with grief, and with those troubling psychic winds that Chrysostom justly feared. The dolphin continued his threnody: "Seek the antichrist, and you will never find him, but he is always around when you don't want him, always at the hook end of every glistening line. But seek Christ and you will always find Him, as He is always waiting for when you want Him, as the Fisher of Men, Whose nets never break."
"You, modern friend, should learn the discipline of staying calm through the storm. Your generation of Orthodox Christians is singularly maladroit at sea. Listen for peace through the groaning of Creation: the storm is only the protest against antichrist. Look for the sun in the darkness ..."
And I looked: there was Phoebus riding, soaring through the tempest.
"Look for the sun in your little ship, for He has booked passage with you. He is the Master, not just of the boat, but of wind and wave. In Him, and Him alone, will you hear peace, and be still."
(1) Joseph Epstein, 'The Literary Life' at 25 (The New Criterion, September 2007).