If you’re north of 60, you recall a world in which people read poetry, even if only when forced to in a classroom.
One of the cultural artifacts that may have been dragged before you was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It was a biggie in the 19th century, but chances are the “Ancient Mariner” didn’t float your boat.
The chances were better that you were more intrigued by Don McLean’s more contemporary 1971 pop single “American Pie,” with its equally cryptic, symbolic content.
Of course, be they ancient or modern, you may have felt the same about both — “Who the hell wants to actually understand this crap?”
But understanding takes many paths, and what McLean’s plaintive lyricism and nostalgic imagery certainly made you feel was a sense of loss — of something you probably couldn’t claw your way back to.
At some point the music dies, and as Thomas Wolfe put it, “You can’t go home again.”
This of course is the oldest literary theme there is, but what pulls Coleridge and McLean together is that they’re speaking not of personal loss so much as of civilizational, or cultural, loss.
Written just 9 years after the commencement of the French Revolution, which sought to bury both Christianity and the class structure, Coleridge’s poem puts us on a ship that sails perilously around the Cape of Good Hope to a point where there is no hope, after having lost the benevolent albatross that had sustained its passage. From that point on, “The very deep did rot” and “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung.”
You get the drift.
Similarly, what McLean may have been deeply mourning is not so much the loss of three rock-and-rollers in a 1959 plane crash, nor even the losses incurred in the three momentous assassinations during the 1960s, but rather the loss of “the three men I admire most / The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” who “caught the last train for the coast.”
In our world, of course, one can’t speak of such things, and McLean didn’t. When pressed about the meaning of his poem, he simply said, “It means that I will never have to work again.”
He might have said, it means that nothing will ever work again.
“The church bells all are broken.”
— Chad (“Bitter”) Klinger