Gamos was written for my wife, Heidi, in recognition of our upcoming “half life” anniversary – i.e., the anniversary where we had been married for half of our lives. We were both 44 years old, and were celebrating our 22nd anniversary.
Two main points about Gamos, before a line by line annotation.
First – the shortest possible summary: From newly wed to present day, there has been change and growth through persistence at the ordinary in pursuit of eternal goals together. From present day to eternity, glory arises out of the ordinary through transformation in Christ together – some of that transformation will be a shock, at an instant. Some of it has fermented for a long time.
Second – a note about the general layout of the poem: Because it was about “half-life” and radiation – or at least that was the original genesis of the idea, I wanted to show how radioactive decay transformed one material/element into another. Then, I wanted to talk about alchemical transformation of lead to gold. But this all tied together into several transformations I tried to pull into the poem, because marriage leads to both short-term and longest-term transformations. Those transformations are represented in the poem as movements from:
1) Greek to Latin;
2) Saturn to Solar (the hermetic tradition of “internal alchemy”) or mortality to immortality;
3) (1 Corinthian 15’s) Corruption to Incorruption and terrestrial to celestial glory;
5) Yeats’ “These two things” to “the world ends” to a “single light.”
Line by line annotation, with line 1 as the title, written as if providing the annotation to my wife (i.e., “we” is Heidi and I, “you” is Heidi):
- Gamos = Greek for marriage. It will later (line 14) be transformed to matrimonium, Latin for marriage. And all will be transformed when “the world ends” (line 28) in perfect union (“a single light” in line 24) and eternal life. This is important, because the word Gamos is also Greek for the Wedding supper of the Lamb in the New Testament. At the end of the poem (line 27) we will be “called from the highway” (Matthew 22:8-10) to join the wedding feast (Revelations 19:7-9). So the Gamos of this poem is not only our unique marriage, but the Wedding feast of the Lamb we hope to join in together through our fidelity to one another.
- “Half-life” = the radioactivity and transformation theme. Where one element literally becomes another. For us, “half-life” is marriage for 22 of our 44 years of age – this is our “half-life” anniversary (these numbers show up in line 14).
- “Perhaps the bride bed brings despair, for each an imagined image brings” – These lines are from a poem by Yeats, entitled “Solomon and the Witch,” that I first learned of in an essay by Wendell Berry called “The Body and The Earth.” The essay was very influential to me early in our marriage when I first was introduced to Berry’s writings. Gamos therefore begins by asking (line 3) if this was my newly wedded (line 5) experience: “Despair? Imagined?” Later in the poem and on our marriage journey, we’ll find that “the world ends” (line 28) when all of the “imaginations” and presuppositions are refined away and we stand together truly “on common ground” (line 28).
- “Hardly bestead and hungry” is a phrase from Isaiah 8:21. It is in the poem as another part of the question that Gamos starts with: Despair? Imagined? Hardly bestead? Hungry? Is that what our new marriage was? Is that what marriage is? But this is also important: Isaiah 8 from which this phrase comes talks about walking in darkness before Isaiah 9 when “the people that walked in darkness” and the “shadow of death” “have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). So this was totally appropriate in the gradual transformation in the poem from mundane and corruption to eternal life and incorruption. This phrase “hardly bestead and hungry” precedes the coming of Christ sequentially in the book of Isaiah in these verses in Isaiah 8 and 9.
- “Two things” is from Yeats again. “Wedded” has the physicality of bringing two people and elements together (thus “Uranium” starts on this line on the left side of the poem). The wedding brings about the radioactive process of this poem, the transformation of the elements here wedded.
As a note – this list of elements actually doesn’t include all of the isotopes between uranium and lead. But that’s a technicality. The idea is there, and each of the elements listed here is in the decay of uranium 238 to lead 206.
- “Temple stretched” and “new cloth” – I liked the idea that the part of the loom that holds the fabric at the correct width is called the temple. It seemed like that was appropriate to the covenants we had made in the temple where our marriage began. But this was also a personal nod to your past love of weaving. The word “taut” had great physicality to it; the physicality of new marriage, as well as all stretching of marriage: emotionally, physically, spiritually. But also, with the “temple” of the loom, that union properly bounded by our promises made to each other and to God in the temple. “New cloth” can simply remind of our new marriage woven together of our separate threads as carried in the word “new,” but can also echo the wedding garment/“linens” of the wedding feast/Gamos (Matthew 22:11) (line 1 and line 27).
- “Oil and wick” – from Yeats again: “when oil and wick are burned in one.” Our union: from the physical union of marriage (and the sometimes lumbering physicality of new marriage to the more knowing physicality of later marriage), to the eventual perfected physicality in “the glory of the sun” (line 19) after experiencing being measured (line 16 and 17) and our eventual kingdom finished (which I am interpreting as “prepared”) (Daniel 5:25-26) (see the explanation in line 16).
- “Shedding time” reminds of radioactive decay in the “half-life” (line 2) – shedding atomic mass. Time and mortality (corruption) are referenced here – but also time/chronos and the echo of the word Cronus, the Greek God the Romans associated with Saturn. So “shedding time” is actually “shedding Saturn” – which is supposed to remind also of the internal alchemy underway in marriage in the hermetic (line 20) tradition, moving from Saturn (line 8) and corruption/flesh/mortality to Solar (1 Corinthinans 15:41) (line 19) and incorruption.
- I liked that “Pluto” sounded like “plutonium,” which was very much in line with the transformation theme of the poem and the radioactive decay process here. But “Pluto” is also Latin for “wealth,” based on the Greek “Plouton.” So the word “Pluto” directly covers the transition from Greek to Latin in itself. Also, the transformation of being a planet and then not being a planet – so transformation theme in this phrase in many ways.
- There is the clocking (line 12) of time in the rhythm of these D-words: “Decades. Dinner. Diapers. Duck-dogs” – each two syllables, hard sounds, sounds like a clock. I liked that “decade” sounds like “decayed” – which fit the half-life (line 2) theme and elemental transformation. Also, “decade” shows time going by – shedding time (line 8). “Duck-dogs” – because of Dr. Seuss’s “ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book” – and all the bed-time and other stories read to the kids.
- “Trousers rolled” – T.S. Elliot!! Both of us love “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – I really wanted to get this image of the “trousers rolled” in the poem. As used here, it reminds that “I grow old.” As we transformed in our marriage, we aged. As the D-word clock of line 10 ticked, and the “kitchen counter” of line 12 tocked, we grew old, and our “trousers rolled.” (Echoing “Prufrock,” we’ll see another, glorious beach later in line 18).
- I liked that “Kitchen counter” was wonderfully mundane and daily, but also could serve as a Geiger counter in the radioactive, elemental transformation described here. “Clocked” also shows the passage of time (line 8). But the regularity of daily life, the altar of daily life and “dinners” (line 10) and dishes where it all happens – the crucible in which all these reactions take place.
- So “Lead” is here on this line – it turns out, all these radioactive elements decay down to lead and stop there, because lead is the first stable isotope. Here, “’til the isotope was stable” – lead is reached. Lead is the finishing point in that radioactive decay process, but it is the start in the alchemical process of transforming (line 15, etc) into gold (line 26). Lead is the end and the beginning, so to speak (hint of Alpha and Omega – the Christ of “chrysopoeia” in line 15 that will turn our ordinary strivings to gold – line 26 – and glory – lines 19, 24, and 28). The regular, the mundane, the ordinary of the first half of the poem and of the marriage journey producing the building blocks (lead/matrimonium) from which glory like the sun (line 19) and gold (line 26) will derive. But that change (the great work of chrysopoeia – line 15) requires panacea in line 16 and agape – the Greek word meaning unconditional love (if “agape” is alternatively pronounced in line 18), used here as the atonement, as the answer to “how?” as asked in line 17.
- “Matrimonium” is Latin for gamos (line 1), representing transformation, here as transformation of Greek to Latin. The isotope, matrimonium 264, represents the length of our marriage at our half-life (line 2), 22 years x 12 months = 264. The finishing product at the end of radioactive decay should be lighter than the “uranium” we started with (on line 5), but I wanted the 264 number for the months.
- “Chrysopoeia” is the great work, the transmutation of lead to gold. This section of the poem is about being surprised by glory, as lead becomes gold. “What comes after physics?” – the answer to that is “meta-physics,” your preferred form of poetry. But also, this kind of transformation, the spiritual and physical transformation of sanctification and resurrection, is outside of physics. The everyday processes in the first half of the poem are now transformed through the great miracle to glory. Somehow, after a mortal journey and the daily grind, we will in the end be “called from the highway” (line 27) to stand “on common ground” at the end of time and end of the world (line 28).
- “Panacea” is the elixir of life – derived from the philosopher’s stone, also used to transmute lead to gold. Here, in line 16, the atonement of Christ is applied as “panacea” at resurrection morning, and we awake “stunned” (line 18) to discover extraordinary “glory” (line 19) upon us “in a moment” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The first word is “mene,” from Daniel 5:25: “Mene. Mene. Tekel. Upharsin.” The word here in the poem is spoken from voice of God, announcing the completion of a work. The word means “dose” in Hebrew, and so I liked that this word echoed the radioactivity referenced in the first half of the poem. As described in Daniel, “mene” means, essentially, measured: “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.” I used it to mean that all the work of our marriage and daily life as described in the first half of the poem was found (at that future day) to meet the measure, and that “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it,” with the word “finished” meaning perfected, polished, completed – the telos of perfection. And at the pronunciation of “Mene,” we wake stunned (line 18), glorious (line 19), radiant (line 24), and exclaim in grateful, overwhelmed shock: “What?”!!! Also – when these words were written on the wall of the temple in Daniel 5– that night Babylon/the world was overthrown – as in an instant. That same shock of the world ending and glory entering is appropriate here.
- And then the voice of God pronounces again: “Mene” – and again, the “stunned” (line 18) shock of glory (line 19) and completed redemption: “How?” The answer, as alluded to in the annotation of line 16, is Christ’s unconditional love, which in line 18, is called (the Greek): agape.
- Agape – as read aloud here, is “a – gape”, meaning stunned (line 18), shocked, overwhelmed (because we are moving past the Greek – but not entirely!). So as an answer to line 17, the reader should also think of “a-gah-pay,” Greek for unconditional love as described in the annotation for line 16 and 17. The atonement underlies this miraculous transformation from corruption to incorruption and saturnal to solar.
“Seaborg” – in 1980, Seaborg was part of a team at Lawrence Berkeley that successfully transmuted one element to another with particle accelerators, and actually got a tiny bit of resultant “gold” (line 26).
“Baikal” – similarly, the Russians were said to have done some experiments with nuclear reactors near Lake Baikal, and found that the lead shielding (line 20) had partly turned to gold (line 26).
This all is to show the transformation, one element actually becoming another – the shock of the mundane and physical and corruptible finding itself glorious, immortal, eternal, and incorruptible as an inexplicable and unaccountable gift – “linen lends” (line 27).
Also, with this glorious transformation, the poem transforms and begins to rhyme from here to the end.
- This is 1 Corinthians 15:29. Waking on resurrection morning, amazed at the completion of the great work (line 15), in gratitude, and realizing that the judgement had come (“mene” – line 16), that our ordinary lives had been measured, and that “our kingdom” was finished by Christ – “called from the highway” to the feast/gamos(line 27 and line 1).
And, I’ll note it here: As said above – this is a stunning (line 18) change. 1 Corinthians 15:51-55 says: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I really wanted to include lots of 1 Corinthians 15 in this poem, even if in the original Greek – instead, it is largely represented by this line. So think when reading this line of how much “glory” (line 19) will happen in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye – and the sting of death removed, and “the glory of the sun in” us (line 19) – all thanks be to God and his Christ.
- With transformation, I needed to have a change in meter and even a visual change. So this line bumps out physically in the middle of a series of couplets (in lines 18-28) (or quadlets 🙂 coming in lines 23-26) – and chops the sentence length before each rhyme in half for just this line.
“A change in the shield” refers to the researchers at Lake Baikal (line 18) who purportedly found that the “lead” (line 13) shield on their reactor had partly turned to “gold” (line 26).
“Hermetically sealed” refers to the sealing of the “temple” (line 6) but also to the hermetic tradition of internal alchemy and the quest for eternal life. That hermetic tradition is one of the overarching transformations in the poem from the saturnian (line 8 with its time/chonos/Cronus/Saturn) to the solar (line 19) and the glorified (line 26).
- Here is Arnold’s Dover Beach, one of my truly all-time favorite poems. I have loved and been moved by this poem since first reading it in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the poem has a similar effect on the protagonist. In that poem – the phrase “ah, love, let us be true to one another!” rivets the reader because Arnold places it as a “shield” (line 20) against the implications of the bleak contemplation of a world seemingly without hope. “Let us be true to one another” – and in our marriage find “certitude” and “help for pain” (both phrases from Arnold here).
An additional important note is that Arnold’s Dover Beach references “Sophocles long ago” – which puts the “Greek” behind us in the ancient past – part of the transformation in this poem from Greek to Latin.
- This line references a personal note – when we were engaged and holding hands while walking, I would say “Bread and Butter” when we had to stop holding hands to walk on either side of an object – like I had seen ants doing in a cartoon when I was a little kid. Then, when we were separated for a month during our engagement while you returned with your family and then to school, you sent me an engagement ring with the phrase “Bread and Butter” inscribed within. Now, in glorified union in this poem, never to be separated in the eternities, we have “buttered bread” – a permanent fusion (also appropriate to the nuclear and elemental transformations described here). “Holy grain” references Christ, the Bread of Life (John 6:35). The “grain” also begins to reference the “kefir” of the following line (line 23).
- “Kefir” – the preserving process of fermentation, tied to the “grain” in line 22 and the preservation of sealing and shielding in line 20. I also wanted this line to show that while we wake up “stunned” (line 18) and glorious (line 19) per 1 Corinthians 15 and the grace of Christ, I also wanted to remind that it stemmed from a long work – “long ferment.” There have been many “prayers” for each other, and for our family, lots of work, daily family prayer and scripture study, regular routine, service and sacrifice, all with an eye “single” (line 24) and with hope in what was believed but not seen, though true (Alma 32:21). That long process bears fruit (Alma 32) in an instant (1 Corinthians 15), when on that beautiful resurrection morning we rise on the “beach” together (line 18) and enter the garden at world’s end (line 28).
- “Single light” is from Yeats. It represents our perfect union – and reminds of the eye single – and whole body full of light (Matthew 6:22). “Radiant” – this beautiful word ties to the radioactivity in the half-life (line 2) of the beginning of the poem, and the extraordinary, resultant “glory” that comes in a shocking moment per 1 Corinthians 15 and lines 18 and 19.
- “Betas and gammas” are what the radioactive elements emit in their elemental transformation. At last when time is done and “the world ends” (line 28), we are “finally in our element” (that’s the next line)
- “Gold” is here – the alchemic end product of “chyrosopeia” (line 15) and of all the ordinary and extraordinary of life and the atonement, of marriage, of our “time” (line 8) and dedication to each other and to our family and to God. “Finally in our element.” The result of the transformation described in Gamos is that we end “in our element,” together where we finally and truly belong: in that garden together – on “common ground” (line 28).
- “Called from the highway” references Matthew 22:8-10 when we are called (in our deepest hope of hopes) to join the wedding feast (Revelations 19:7-9). In this passage in Matthew, those who were originally invited did not attend, so the king sends out into the highways to bring in those who might least be expected to attend. They are provided wedding garments, and they join the Wedding fest of the Lamb. In our hope of hopes, this is where we hope to be together as we keep our promises to each other and to God. And that is the latter half of line 27: “Linen lends” was originally going to be “linens lent” – meaning the linens are given to us, the wedding garment given to us from Matthew 22, tied back to the temple cloth of line 6. But I ended up going with what I liked better: “linen lends” – meaning linen endows or linen imbues. It’s still connected to the wedding garment of Matthew 22, the temple cloth of line 6, and ultimately to Gamos/the Wedding feast of the Lamb. It is emblematic of the covenant of marriage – like all covenants, God sets the terms, we agree to the terms, and if we abide the terms, he provides promised blessings. Through covenants, he endows with power and clothes us in the wedding garment so that we can abide together until, as, and through “the world ends” (line 28). This is the power of eternal marriage. The power of gamos.
- The garden. A phrase you frequently cite is about how “only hand in hand can we re-enter the Garden”: as equals and full partners. On the same note, explicitly referenced here in this line, Wendell Berry talks about us finding true “common ground” in marriage. “On common ground the world ends.” The world is time, and it ends. The world is separation – the world ends. The world is division, the world is corruption, the world is struggle and seeming hopelessness, and everything that ends. “The world ends” in perfect gamos (line 1)– perfect, glorified union: “a single light” (line 24).