In Dante’s journey through the circles of hell, he encounters dozens of sinners who are getting what they deserve. Hypocrites are given garments that are rich and luxe on the outside but leaden on the inside. Gluttons are forced to eat excrement ceaselessly. Those who sowed discord and division are cut into pieces with swords. These instances of poetic justice are all punishments that fit the crime.
Poetic justice isn’t the right term for what happened to the two artists you see above. “Ironic” sort of fits, but it feels mean-spirited. “Apropos” works, but doesn’t quite lend enough sting. The circumstances that greeted these men, these artists, these sculptors of words and notes, were poetic injustice.
In his forties, the poet John Milton went blind. He continued writing, but had to dictate all of his words to his daughters and a series of aides, who would copy and publish them.
By his forties, Ludwig van Beethoven was completely deaf. His hearing loss began almost a decade earlier, and in letters to friends he bemoans the slow, painful loss of the thing most precious to him. Though he gradually stopped performing and conducting, he never stopped composing.
Both men left records of their struggle with disability. Beethoven’s is in the form of a despairing letter to his brothers (now called the Heiligenstadt Testament, after the town where he lived). The letter was never sent but was discovered in his room when he died at age fifty-six, after nearly fifteen years of increasing silence. He recognizes the poetic injustice of the situation, lamenting that he has developed “infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection.” He is “compelled early to isolate myself,” “harshly…repulsed” and “misunderstood.” The letter’s tone is forlorn and achingly sad, full of “O!”s and long sentences of comma-ed clauses. The music he has surrounded himself with and become master of is fading away, and he is “humiliat[ed] when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.”
I first learned about this letter at choir rehearsal. Our director was talking about a performance he had heard earlier that week at a conference. It was a new piece by the composer Jake Runestad called “A Silence Haunts Me.” The piece uses lines from the letter as well as a poet Todd Boss’ added imaginations to dramatize Beethoven’s experience of hearing loss. (The poem itself is a work of art, as well.) (If you have fourteen minutes, even a vague appreciation for choral music, and are looking for something more fulfilling to do than watch a Friends rerun, I would highly suggest you find yourself a quiet place and click that link. Don’t peek at the comments first.) I scribbled “Hileegestat” on my hand, went home to read it, and immediately thought of Milton.
Milton’s melancholy appears in his sonnet “When I Consider How My Light is Spent.” His first two lines describe a world that is now “dark” and “wide” for him, and he considers whether he spent his time in the “light” judiciously. He shares Beethoven’s chagrin about losing his most precious sense: “that one talent which is death to hide / Lodg’d with me useless.”
I expected to find connections between the two artists and their fading physical prowess, but what I read sent an uncanny shiver down my spine. Milton speaks rather optimistically about his blindness, believing that it makes his “soul more bent / To serve therewith my Maker, and present / My true account.” Beethoven, too, believes that God knows his soul and his intentions, writing, “Divine One, thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein.”
But what struck me most is that both artists choose the same virtue as their guide through their newly dark and silent worlds—Patience. Milton is haunted by a fear that he’s no longer doing the Lord’s work, but “Patience, to prevent / That murmur,” quells his worries. Capital-P Patience reminds Milton that it’s not only the ostentatious leaders who fulfill God’s calling—the humble, quiet supporters do, too. The sonnet ends with the famous line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Beethoven, too, names capital-P Patience specifically as a balm for his tortured, miserable existence. “Patience—it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so,” he writes. “I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae [fates] to break the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. He needs patience because he feels he still has something to contribute to the world. Though he has considered suicide, “it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.” Patience is required.
Milton wrote his most famous work, Paradise Lost, while completely blind. Beethoven’s most renowned works were composed in the last fifteen years of his life while deaf and suffering from tinnitus.
So who are we—writers, artists, musicians, accountants, physicists, teachers, parents—who are we to despair about busy schedules, lack of resources, drying streams of inspiration? If these men, who were blessed with gifts so much larger and so much more tragic than ours to lose, could soldier on with patience toward their masterpieces… what’s your excuse?
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.