Monday, June 1, 2009

Goethe and Saint Philip Neri

When Philip Neri walked abroad
Beside the Tiber, praising God,
They say he was attended home
By half the younger set of Rome.

Knight, novice, scholar, boisterous boy,
They followed after him with joy.
To nurse his poor and break his bread
And hear the funny things he said.

For Philip Neri (by his birth
A Florentine) believed in mirth,
Holding that virtues took no harm
Which went with laughter arm in arm.

Two books he read with most affection -- 
The Gospels and a joke collection;
And sang hosannas set to fiddles
And fed the sick on soup and riddles.

So when the grave rebuke the merry,
Let them remember Philip Neri
(Fifteen-fifteen to ninety-five),
Who was the merriest man alive,
Then, dying at eight or a bit,
Became a saint by Holy Wit.

The poem about Philip Neri (1515-1595) is by Phillis McGinley, than whom Goethe could not have been a more different poet. Goethe, however, who lived in Italy under the disguise of "Filippo Miller, pittore tedesco," also wrote about the man he called his own "patron saint" in Italian Journey.

The first mention is from Naples, on May 26, 1787, which is the feast day of Saint Philip Neri. It is a short account of the characteristics captured by McGinley's verse, in particular the saintly balance of sanity and enthusiasm. Goethe also seemed impressed with Philip Neri's gift of combining what Goethe calls the spiritual, indeed the holy, with the worldly (das Geistliche, ja das Heilige mit dem Weltlichen). Indeed, until he was thirty-six Philip carried out his works of charity and mercy without taking priestly orders. Goethe makes what might seem an indirect comparison of northern and southern temperament with a reference to Luther, who was active at the same time. And this is Goethe's sane commentary on tales of Philip's levitation while offering mass:

Even if we are justly doubtful about his miraculous levitation, in spirit he was certainly raised high above this world; and therefore nothing repelled him as much as vanity, pretense, and arrogance, which he always vigorously combated as the greatest hindrances to a truly God-pleasing life. But he always did this in a good-humored fashion, as many a story tells us.

The picture here of Philip holding a fox refers to a story reported by Goethe: a young Roman prince came to Philip asking permission to join the congregation that he founded and was told he had to pass a test. 
Philip "produced a long foxtail and demanded that the prince have this attached to the back of his long frock and then walk quite gravely through all the streets of Rome." The young prince was horrified, saying he had "come forward to reap honor, not shame," to which Philip replied that in his circle self-denial was the rule. "Whereupon the youth took his leave."

His second and much longer essay on "Filippo Neri, the Humorous Saint" (thus the cartoon at the top of this post, courtesy of "Yaholo"; click on image to enlarge), in the "Second Roman Residence," has always puzzled me. It shows that he went back to the original sources, including Pietro Giacomo Bacci's Vita di S. Filippo Neri (Rome 1745). Goethe was no slouch: I found an English translation of this work online, and it runs to several hundred pages. Goethe even seems to have done research concerning Philip's appearance, mentioning at the outset that his portrait is contained in "Fidanza 'Teste Scelte,' Tom. V, Bl. 31," referring to this volume by Raffaello Sanzio dUrbino, published in Rome in the years 1757-59.

My puzzlement revolves around Goethe's aversion to much Christian doctrine and, especially puzzling while in Italy, to painting on Christian subjects. Julie Prandi, however, in her study "Dare to be happy!" A Study of Goethe's Ethics, devotes a section to "Filippo Neri, the Humorous Saint," in which she links Philip's "voluntary resignation" to Goethe's ethics of "Entsagung." Moreover, though Neri denies the flesh, Goethe stresses that "he is neither a misanthrope nor an irrational mystic." She quotes Goethe crediting the saint with "a happy disposition, good common sense" (den klarsten Menschenverstand) and "a practical rationality" (So finden wir zwar immer einen verständig-praktischen Mann).

The stories about Philip Neri stress his opposition to spiritual complacency in himself and others, which he countered with very strict self-renunciation. Goethe of course never went to such lengths as Philip, but he was able to immerse himself in the historical situation -- the Roman Catholic Church was fighting to regain its direction -- that might have produced such figures as Philip as well as Francis Xavier:

Let us put ourselves back into the second half of the 16th century, and into the devastated situation in which Rome, under various popes, resembled a stormy sea. Then it will be easier to grasp how this method could not fail to be effective and powerful. Through inclination and fear, devotion and obedience, it lent great strength to man's inmost wish to preserve himself in spite of all external conditions, to withstand everything that could occur, since it enabled him to renounce absolutely even what was reasonable and sensible, what was conventional and proper.

In this terrible period -- the sack of Rome (as pictured above) occurred in 1527 -- Philip gathered numbers of men to minister to the poor pilgrims who flocked to Rome, to care for the sick in hospitals, and to pray, sing hymns, and study Scripture informally in a hall, or Oratory. Thus, the name of the order founded by Philip, Oratorians. The movement spread after his death, chiefly in Italy and in France. Among its famous members were the rationalist philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) and John Henry Newman (1801-1890).

To return to Phyllis McGinley: I cannot now recall what I once knew about her, but as a teenager I read many of her essays. Interestingly, an essay by Ginia Bellafante on McGinley appeared last December in the New York Times, in which it is mentioned that McGinley received a Pulitzer Prize for poetry the year that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road appeared, 1961. Again, a writer more different from McGinley cannot be imagined. It was probably McGinley's optimism that appealed to me when I was a teenager (and indeed still does). As Bellafante writes: "In 'The 5:32,' a poem about a woman meeting her husband at the train, she proved again that she seemed to find roses where so many others were turning up crabgrass." There is much to be said for that sentiment. I'm sure Goethe would likewise have approved of McGinley over Richard Yates.

Credit for translation: Robert H. Heitner

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