What is One to do with a Useless Man?: Philoctetes: A Myth Retold is a poetic play by Fr. Bruce Wren.

 

Act 5 Scene 2

Philoctetes alone (singing the first quartet softly, then soliloquy)

If solitude comes knocking on your door,
____Accept her as a strange but lovely guest
Just come from foreign lands, a princess poor
____And pure: her face you’ll learn to love the best.

If solitude is then to be my lot
will I endure or put it to an end?
The substance of a living man is love,
affection, friendship, family, but here,
these things inanimate and sure as death,
the stars that turn, the sun that warms, the moon
that lights a pathway in the night, care not
a whit. The screeching bird and slavish ant,
the wolf that fills the dark with lonely howls,
the flies, and pests, and spiders, the scurrying
sea-bed vermin, all these that move and live
in creaturely existence are mute to me.
What good are they to an abandoned man?
And so, alone again, Philoctetes,
without the matter that would give you hope?
Ah, that’s the trick, for hope is clad in green
and grows its vegetable life in spring,
but I’ve become the whistling winter’s child,
and wander in a landscape white and cold,
whose only occupation, that to preserve
my life, I’ve learned is but insanity,
a way without an end, a narrow cave
forever open to the north and south,
a corridor for the passing of the wind.
Preserve what must soon die? Where am I to hoard
the fleeting years? What good is that to me?
I will not live the life of Sisyphus.

Yet here within me lives a ghost who feeds
on some unfading amaranthine weeds,
and binds my eager self-destructing hand
with mystic grace I do not understand.

Oh, heart so fixed in years of solitude,
so frantic for a sign of any joy,
it seems a wane and pale response, and yet
at least one lesson of this suckling isle
comes plodding ponderously to your pain:
that naught becomes a lonely man but thought,
and imagination people nothingness.
Perhaps you’d make your occupation thought,
and learn your lesson from our mother isle,
that words alone give bread to broken hearts?

Oh Lemnos, my solitude! Oh, wrap me in
your pale white arms, and whisper once again
your lullaby that as the seasons passed
did cradle me in truths that can be learned
but when our inner dragons suffer them.
And you, my rocks, my shorelines sandy white,
my birds and creeping beasts, my snow and sun,
and even you, my sister wind, to you
I humbly bow, and lay my thought before
your fleeting feet. ‘Tis not for you to glean
my kernel from its shell, but even you
will calmer be, be softened by this Muse
most powerful of all; to it e’en you
will kneel, and infusèd be by its light.
I offer you my word, my god-like shield,
and on this word, I swear that come what may,
I’ll be alone, but still Philoctetes.

 

 

Fr. Bruce Wren, born in 1962 in the small town of Cottonwood, Idaho, current serves as Chaplain of the Chicago Chapter of the Lumen Institute, Section Director to the Chicago Regnum Christi Men’s section, chaplain to the Catholic Professionals of Illinois, spiritual director for many religious and lay people, and helps regularly at several parishes in the Chicago Diocese. He also devotes regular time to the feminine congregations of the Missionaries of Charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Rosary Hill Dominican Sisters. He has published one book of poetry, “Fending off the Dragon Fire”, available at Amazon.


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14 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    Congratulations on publication of the drama! The beginning (which I saw at Amazon, thanks to the link above) is very beautiful, and this concluding portion succeeds in making a resolution in favor of human personhood. Good to see art like this in the face of present challenges so damaging to mental health.

    Reply
  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Wren is primarily an exceptional lyric poet of Catholic inspiration, and yet this wonderful incursion into classicism excerpted from his remarkable retelling of the myth of Philoctetes, succeeds on many levels and fails in none.

    While completing the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, Mr. Wren would have had to read Sophocles in the original Greek and quite possibly translate, as an exercise, a good many of the Greek choruses from the Athenian plays. Wren’s perfect understanding of how the Greek chorus functions as a moral component of the tragedies could not be more evident than in his own “Philoctetes.”

    The poet has directly stated the intentions underlying his 106-page, blank verse masterpiece: “The underlying themes touch on the ethical question our contemporary society faces concerning the rights and value of the most vulnerable : the poor, those suffering from discrimination or abuse, the elderly, the handicapped, and the unborn.”

    Nevertheless, if not precisely because of these intentions, a return to the Greek text of the play by Sophocles (even if one must blow more than a layer of dust off one’s Liddell and Scott), will prove most useful. Indeed, Wren has not failed to take up the play’s original themes, in particular those contrasting the moral obligations of the individual with the pressing needs of the state in times of crisis. Never does Wren neglect the human questions raised by Sophocles. On the contrary, he has considered them more deeply than any other poet I know.

    In reading, and happily rereading, Wren’s stunning poetic play, one recalls John Donne’s statement that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” Wren’s “Philoctetes” explores this truth as no other modern poet has done, and at a time when the question of social abandonment could not be more relevant.

    For, we can all of us remember how the great Athenian playwright centers his Philoctetes around the operative pun νόσος, “disease” and νήσος, “island.” Wren “unlocks the gold from this rich vein” of sickness and isolation.

    Mr. Wren has moreover set the bar for the classicizing side of modern poetry, beyond mere translations and vapid Juvenalian satire, certainly beyond the reach of stale “formalism.”

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      An approach through the classics to urgent human themes certainly offers richer room for thought and art, than does a contemporary narrative of shocked outrage, however well done. Thanks for providing this finely considered review of Father Wren’s accomplishment.

      Reply
  3. C.B. Anderson

    It’s lovely, Wren, how you manage to interject blank verse with sporadic rhymed quatrains — it’s the speaker unable to repress the lyric poet within.

    In the 19th century it was expected that all undergraduate students in venerable institutions such as Harvard should master Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Hebrew was the first to go. And not long after that, so did Greek. Nowadays even Latin is optional. There is still a Latin tradition at Harvard however. When I attended the Commencement there upon my graduation from Harvard University Extension, there was, in the ceremony, a valedictory oration by the top Latin scholar in that class. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, it consisted mostly of derogatory statements about Yale (I think the word “Yalensis” was used). I didn’t understand any of it, and that’s all my own fault.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Language traditions (including Latin) are something that I most appreciate from my Harvard education–and I would be most interested to see if you had any such requirement as an Extension student. As an English literature graduate student I was required to qualify in three languages (one needed to be ancient Greek or Latin, and qualifying in Latin meant being able to read the Aeneid and scan its verses). There was also a required course in History and Structure of the English Language, replacing the earlier requirement of studying the varied stages in the development of our native tongue, starting with Old High Gothic!

      This kind of thorough language education, like education in the hard sciences, demands that a student have the humility to acquire knowledge with an objective content. No one can interpret it away. And of course it makes us better readers, which is a necessary step to being a better writer.

      Reply
      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        In other words, Mme Coats, you benefitted from a truly humanistic education in the best sense of the word. I believe this shows clearly in your work, as indeed it must. It was my old professor and friend, Mortimer J. Adler, that great popularizer of philosophy, who told me that he could discern in a person’s very manner of speech if he or she had a humanistic education or had read the requisite books.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Well, Margaret, there wasn’t and isn’t and never will be any kind of language requirement at Harvard Extension; nor do such burdens exist anymore for students at Harvard College. They call it progress; you may call it something else. The loss to humanity, never mind the Humanities, is immense, but Harvard is a business, and the only exotic letters they acknowledge are $$$.

  4. Bruce E. Wren

    Thank you to all for your thoughtful and generous comments. I must especially thank Mr. MacKenzie, whose work I admire greatly (I recently bought several copies of his Sonnets “For Christ the King” and “For the Queen of Heaven” for Christmas gifts.) I am perhaps the worst critic of my own writing, and I still find this play quite flawed in many aspects, but I do enjoy rereading it, and, like Mr. Sale found with his own “Hellward,” often wonder how I wrote it. Merry Christmas to all.

    Reply
  5. James Sale

    Yes, one does wonder Bruce, but then one also knows: the Muse! Or, to use another kind of language, submission to a transcendental power – the not-striving, the negative capability – and the stillness in which creativity is born. The Spirit of God, if you will, brooding on the face of the deep and us in that image. I am so glad you mention the Muse in your poem – very fine indeed, as is dealing with the lesser known story of Philoctetes! Thanks.

    Reply
  6. S. G. Keeney

    Fr. Wren, I have read, re-read, and read again your stunning poem. It has enriched the last days of this year by filling my eyes, mind, heart, and soul as if I were at a feast with the gods. It has been shared with others and will be an introduction, for them, to the Society of Classical Poets.
    Thank you, Philoctetes, we shall hold you to your oath.

    Reply
    • Bruce Wren

      Thank you so much for your encouraging comment, Mr. Keeney, always welcome to us amateur poets. Happy and blessed New Year 2021!

      Reply

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