e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Limbo and its literary uses

Our house move part two (into a new home) has not yet happened and we are still in a temporary place. A housing limbo with all mod cons, but not our own.

As a blogger I frequently use my own life as a springboard for posts – so I decided to look at literary uses of the idea of limbo.

Someone told me recently that the Pope has declared that limbo is not something Catholics should believe in, and a check of Wikipedia confirms that it isn’t part of core Catholic belief. But even the Pope can’t do away with something so useful.

A ‘place’ between/outside/on the edge (’limbus’ is Latin for ‘boundary’) – we have a need for that. All of us go there sometimes.

According to theology, this edgy realm is the afterlife home of unbaptised babies and the Old Testament patriarchs. Not much of a place for a good chat; babies have limited vocabularies and the Old Testament people apparently had limited interests.

Dante had a good deal to say about it and IMHO improved on it. He made it an inclusive place with unbaptised babies rubbing shoulders with the great-and-good non-Christians. Not surprisingly he included Classical poets like Homer and Ovid among its inhabitants  – they were, after all, his colleagues.

Searching the web I found a moving poem about slavery by Edward Kamau Braithwaite. This uses limbo as a metaphor for the state the slaves were in. Another of its metaphors is the dance of the same name.

There are other poems making powerful use of the concept. For example John Updike, stuck in an airport – a very limboish experience:

The plane was delayed,
the rumor went through the line. We shrugged,
in our hopeless overcoats.

Also Mary Karr on a flight that actually took off:

No sooner does the plane angle up
than I cork off to dream a bomb blast:

Seamus Heaney upends the traditional purpose of limbo with his sad poem about an unwanted child:

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

Another metaphorical use comes from Dribbling Pensioner’s blog. This time limbo stands for the loss of mental ability.

I like this idea. When I’m old enough to have senior moments shunting nose to tail through my brain, I can say I’m in limbo, chatting to Homer, Ovid, Horace et al.

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4 thoughts on “Limbo and its literary uses

  1. Ooooh I like this literary limbo!

    Like

  2. Thank you for the mention of my poem, Harry.

    Like

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