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Encounter with Unicorns

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DP118983 Healing croppedA unicorn uses his horn to purify a stream of water.
Section of a tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For about two years I was obsessed with unicorns.  Not just any unicorns.  I was studying, writing about, responding to, two sets of unicorn tapestries from 500 years ago.  These are the Hunt of the Unicorn series in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris.

These unicorns are a different species (yes, species) from those imagined in our time.  Today’s unicorns look like horses.  The unicorns of circa 1500 are goats, with beards and cloven hooves.

They also can be dangerous.  They have magic as well as physical power, and complex symbolic meaning.

Their horns were believed to heal.  For lack of actual unicorns, the tusks of narwhals, creatures who live in the north Atlantic sea, were sold as unicorn horns.

In A Natural History of Unicorns Chris Lavers has identified some one-horned animals in east Asia.  After discounting a number of theories about the origin of unicorns as errors and mistranslations he cites a 19th century letter from an English explorer who recounts how unicorns are created by humans: the herders choose a newborn goat and bind his horns together.  Having one horn in the center of his head instead of two angling out apparently gives this kid an advantage and he becomes a leader.

When did these feisty beasts turn into gentle horses?  Was it Disney, with his stuffed animal creatures in Fantasia, or did it happen earlier?  I see it as part of a modern human tendency to reject mystery, and to insist that nature, even imaginary nature, can be tamed.  Another loss from the so-called Enlightenment.

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Introducing My Current Obsession

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“Obsession,” one of my poems in Ascent (see Books page) begins:

I’m fixed on this book
like a three-year-old on trucks,
a five-year-old on dinosaurs.  You could
make it my motif, were I young
enough for birthday parties.

The book I refer to is William Paley’s <i>Natural Theology</i>, published in 1802.  This book from a long past era presents nature, particularly the human body, as evidence not merely that there is a God but that this God is wise and good.   The eye, the ear, the joints: each is a sufficient example, in design and practicality, of the skill of the Maker.  While I soon recognized that Paley’s world view was one of fixed order, incompatible with my awareness of evolution and change, his delight in all levels of creation was contagious.

The watch with which Paley begins his discussion is a controlling metaphor: as a watch must have had a maker, so the forms of nature must have been designed.  Paley is drawn to and impressed by all manner of mechanics, of which the watch is just one example.  He equally admires mills, telescopes, the new iron bridge he sees over the Wear River, and other human inventions, especially those in which he finds a parallel to some natural form.

Having spent two years in this man’s company (the man is actually hidden behind the book, but I have come to talk as if this is as a personal acquaintance) I am now in the process of sorting and sifting the pieces that came out of this “time together” to create a book―my book in response to his book.

I have decided that obsession is a good thing for a writer.  Perhaps it is even a necessary thing in the development of one’s art.