May 22, 2010
In her 2005 book of poems The Niagara River, Kay Ryan included He Lit a Fire with Icicles, dedicated to W.G. Sebald. It’s a beautiful, brief poem about Sebald’s namesake, who he calls St. Sebolt. In chapter four of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald mentions a visit to Nuremberg, where the grave of “my patron saint” is located. Sebald recounts some of the stories about St. Sebolt, allegedly the son of royalty who fled his wife on their wedding night in order to overcome his sense of unworthiness and fulfill a higher calling. Eventually, he became capable of miracles.
At Regensburg he crossed the Danube on his cloak, and there made a broken glass whole again; and, in the house of a wheelwright too mean to spare the kindling, lit a fire with icicles. This story of the burning of the frozen substance of life has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now whether inner coldness and desolation may not be the pre-condition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one’s own wretched heart is still aglow.
The three pages that Sebald dedicated to St. Sebolt are curiously self-revealing. The narrator The Rings of Saturn, who, after all, is in the hospital for “ailments of the spirit and the body” when the book begins, is clearly wondering about his own fate and he seems to identify his melancholy with this “inner coldness and desolation.” Is this the price that has to be paid to follow a true path and create something worthwhile? The passage continues and Sebald next describes at length the large and elaborate sarcophagus created between 1507 and 1519 for St. Sebolt’s remains. At the base of the tomb are animals and fabulous creatures along with the “four cardinal virtues of Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude. Higher up are mythical figures (Nimrod, Hercules, Samson, Apollo), “apostles with their emblems and the instruments of their martyrdom,” representations of miracles (including the burning icicles), and the celestial city. It seems to me that the narrator gazes upon the sarcophagus and relics of his namesake with a potent blend of wistfulness and hope for his own reward and redemption.
And in the heart of this reliquary cast in a single piece, surrounded by eighty angels, in a shrine of sheer silver, lie the bones of the exemplary dead man, the harbinger of a time when the tears will be wiped from our eyes and their will be no more grief, or pain, or weeping and wailing.
Only Sebald (and now Kay Ryan in her poem) seems to refer to this saint, an 8th century hermit, missionary, and now patron saint of Nuremberg, otherwise commonly known as St. Sebald or St. Sebaldus, by the name of St. Sebolt. Sebald doesn’t mention it in The Rings of Saturn, but most of the city of Nuremberg was destroyed by Allied bombing between 1943 and 1945, the topic he will cover in On the Natural History of Destruction.
Ryan’s poem may be read online in several locations, but the best is at the Poetry Archive, where there is also a recording of Ryan speaking briefly about her fascination with Sebald and then reading the poem aloud. The Poetry Archive site also includes a nice sidebar “About the Poet.”