Vale of tears

There is a very old legend that relates that the crocodile would cry in order to disarm its victims, human or otherwise, which would be moved out of curiosity to watch the sight, then suddenly devoured by the cunning reptile when they were least expecting it. This has given rise to the idiomatic expression for insincere displays of sincerity: crocodile tears.

Tears hold a special place in spirituality, particularly for the Eastern branches of Christianity. While there has been, and still is,  much discussion on whether Christ laughed -for laughter is considered by some authorities to be a sign of human imperfection as we laugh, in Aquinas’s opinion, at the unexpected- He is recorded as having wept following the death of Lazarus. One of the most haunting biblical scenes involving lachrymosity occurs in Psalm 137 when the Israelites, being held in captivity in Babylon, are depicted as going to the river and crying at the memories of their homeland, a literal and metaphoric image to which many can relate:

By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat down, yea, we wept

when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps in the willows thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;

and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,

Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

(Psalm 137:1-4; King James Version)

There are two very different yet beautiful versions of this psalm that I love very much. Palestrina’s sixteenth-century polyphonic setting, Super Flumina Babylonis, is moist with melancholy; hear it here. The other version is by Boney M entitled By the Rivers of Babylon, and was a chart success in 1978, and may be listened to here.


The psalm, a painting of which by Harold Copping is above, and the concept of exile hold a special place in Rastafarianism. I don’t think that it is only religious-minded folk who are moved by the poem’s sentiments, for we are all under the domination of our passions, addictions, and frail natures. The only difference is one of degree.


If boys are not supposed to cry (and this makes me think of a song from my youth by The Cure), then how much more must kings never do so.  Louis XIV was a young man of twenty years old when he was passionately in love with Marie Mancini (pictured above), the sultry niece of his prime minister and father-figure Cardinal Mazarin.  Tears would figure prominently in their relationship as Louis first noticed her passion for him when she cried during a serious illness that threatened the young sovereign’s life. Despite his love for Marie, a marriage was not possible. The young woman brought no political advantage and was not of the blood royal. Moreover, her familial ties with the detested minister meant that such a union would always remain suspect and worse still, sullied. Initially, Louis determinedly fought to change his mother and Mazarin’s refusal as well as attempting the even more impossible task of convincing public opinion, but sensing the inevitable, he resolved to send her away from the court and had one final interview with her on 22 June 1659 before she left to her exile. She was in many respects not only his first love but also his true great love and, standing before her while saying farewell, tears streamed down his cheeks. Even though this was a day of deep sadness for Marie that would radically change her life, she was shocked at the ruler’s signs of weakness, and the last words she said to him were: “Vous êtes roi, vous pleurez et je pars” – “You are the king, yet you are crying and I am going to leave”. The lines would be immortalized eleven years later in Racine’s play Bérénice, albeit as a paraphrase, a tragedy about Emperor Titus renouncing his lover, whom as a Queen the Roman people will never accept, in a drama that also functions as a crafty homage to Louis’s youthful sacrifice in the interests of state. This is the only time that Louis would cry in public yet literature was able to transform the apparently emasculating experience into a political triumph. This episode and the notion of the king crying interested me so much that I wrote an article related to these issues: “‘Le roi pleurera’: Liturgy and Performance in Bossuet’s Oraison funèbre d’Henriette d’Angleterre,” in Formes et formations au XVIIe siècle: Actes de Columbia, ed. Buford Norman, Biblio 17 Series, 168 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2006), 225-36 (available here).

I find it interesting that tears themselves are not only associated with sadness or grief but that we can also shed tears of joy or laugh so much that we cry. They remain one of the greatest challenges to actors and they have the power to move spectators when we see them in artists or even politicians, as evidenced in the iconic video to Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U (1990), at the end of which two tears slowly make their way down both cheeks. We might be hardened, we might be inured to the bittersweet vicissitudes of life, and yet there seems to be part of us that cannot resist the sight of genuine tears. In this, they are a necessary reminder of the goodness that lurks beneath the veneer of our egocentricity.

jan 2012 805

Today’s cufflinks suggest teardrops. They are made out of sterling silver and opaque champleve black enamel and bear the maker’s mark of MEKA. They were crafted by the Danish designer Meka Reklamegaver who was active from 1951 to 1989 and it is likely that they date to the early to mid-1960s, though I would think more towards the beginning of that decade. I find them very beautiful, reflecting the beauty of the tears that humanize us in this, our exile, in the vale of tears.


2 comments on “Vale of tears

  1. Mary m says:

    Lovely and eduacational as always xxxx
    Your cuff links also remind me of the teeth of a stylised or cartoon skull!
    I have heard that Sinéad O’ Connor was in mourning at the time the video to Nothing Compares 2 U was shot; the tears are totally genuine. The film’s producer (or whatever they have) later regretted the scenes which cut away to moody city-scapes, thinking that it would have been better to linger over her face for the whole song.

  2. Thanks Mary! I was tempted to go with teeth but tears won out! I hadn’t heard that about the video but it’s very interesting and a remarkable one at that.

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