One of the most beautiful choral works ever written is “Sure on This Shining Night”: “beautiful” largely because the poem by the southern writer James Agee makes it that way.
Go ahead and YouTube it: everyone should take a listen, especially politicians (and the rest of us who spend too much time in the news).
There are two versions. The more recent (and my favorite) is that of the composer Morten Lauridsen, who lives on Waldron Island off the northern coast of the state of Washington, and works on his lovely compositions “in a rustic waterfront cabin by candlelight on a 50-dollar spinet piano.” The other version is by the great Samuel Barber, who is probably most famous for his “Adagio for Strings,” Opus 11. I’m sure you’ve heard this piece: it reaches down through your ears to the bottom of your soul and taps the well of your tears.
Samuel Barber was a contemporary of James Agee. They met face to face, after a correspondence of mutual fan mail. Their friendship lasted until 1955 (the year Agee died of a heart attack en route to a doctor’s appointment): the composer attracted to the printed word, the poet to symphonic sound.
It’s the poem itself, its mellifluous words, that we need to hear today. As with all poetry, it’s more meaningful to read out loud this first stanza of “Sure on This Shining Night”:
“Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.”
Published 1934 in a thin volume entitled “Permit Me Voyage,” the poem reveals the heart of a young, brilliant, but “flawed recording angel.” Never an exemplar of clean living, Agee dissipated the next two decades of his life in a fog of gin-soaked benders and toxic relationships. Despite this, he became a celebrated journalist, film critic (an inspiration of Roger Ebert), and screenwriter (including the great “The African Queen” and the creepy “Night of the Hunter”).
But he is most famous for his youthful foray into journalism: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” In 1936, Agee traveled with photographer Walker Evans into the sharecropping region of Depression-gripped Alabama. For eight weeks, the two men became intimately acquainted with several cotton tenant families. Evans rendered their pained hardscrabble existence into black and white portraits that, despite everything, displayed luminous human dignity.
Agee went even further. He refused to “use” his new sharecropping friends as political tools for the Left or the Right. He insisted — as the poet of “Sure on this shining night” — that his readers would never lose sight of the humanity of the cotton tenants, and of the divine-giftedness of the land they tilled in pain.
“For one who sets himself to look at all earnestly, at all in purpose toward truth, into the living eyes of a human life,” Agee asks at one point, “what is it he there beholds that so freezes and abashes his ambitious heart?”
He answers his own question: “What is it but … what one may [at least] faintly designate the human soul.”
James Agee was dismissed by both Republicans and Democrats in his day. Republicans — as they usually do — took his sharp social criticism as an incriminating sign of latent Marxism (a charge that was way off the mark). Democrats and Socialists indicted him for his refusal to sign on to revolution. Despite the usual (and supercilious) mis-characterization of Agee, the fact remains that he kept a principled distance from the Left, and harbored a deep distrust of revolution and “social re-engineering.”
The reason why he rejected revolution and, at the same time, fervently opposed injustice and oppression, was because he listened to the language of his soul.
And precisely because he listened to this soulful voice, he was able to recognize the soulfulness of others.
Despite his backsliding from the church, starting in his time at Harvard, Agee never completely departed from his Anglo-Catholic upbringing in Sewanee. His essential compassion for his fellow man was deeply rooted in his essential awareness of God …
… which is writ large and in glowing letters in “Kindness much watch for me/ This side of ground.”
These days, in the overheated punk rock noise of partisanship, politicians (especially DC denizens) are obviously not reading poetry, and they habitually turn away from “kindness this side of ground.” The human soul, and the divinity reflected by this soul, is disregarded and discarded by both and all sides — often despite whatever religious affiliation is claimed. It is difficult to imagine a president, a senator, or a representative, allowing his “ambitious heart” to be “frozen and abashed.”
Soulfulness is crucial for anyone who loves America, her people, and her land. Quiet poetry, not abrasive speechifying, is what’s needed now. Because life is fragile. Souls are fragile. Friendship is fragile. Human dignity is fragile. The land is fragile.
Everything (and everyone) is worth loving, and nothing deserves being “used,” yelled at or about, especially if that yelling is for political carpetbagging gain.
Life is not long enough, as Agee’s poem reveals at the end:
“Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
Of shadows on the stars.”
There are “shadows on the stars.” That is, our time is not forever, and everything we have here is owned by God, and we care for it on behalf of our children and our forefathers.
Everything is lovely. But everything is fragile.
It’s time we speak, act, and think that way.
And that is exactly what the still small voice says between the luminous words of “Sure on this shining night.”