Commonplace Book: September 2002 Archives

John Keats


John Keats

I find sometimes the need of great calmness. Sometimes I retire to the psalms, sometimes, to bad vintage television. But here I post one of the most delightful and relaxing ways I come to terms with the world. I don't post the entire poem, merely for length. If you wish to find it, visit the Representative Poetry On-Line and Look for Keats. His poetry, even though he isn't 17th century, is among the very best in the language.

from "Ode to a Nightingale"
John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,--
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

I don't know what I find so calming--perhaps it is just the loveliness of some of the image, or some of the words. "A drowsy numbness pains/ My sense." Say it aloud, let the words roll over the tongue and echo in the brain. "With beaded bubbles winking at the brim. . ." Just be lulled by the gentle language, the beautiful images and let the blood pressure drop. The very best of the Romantic Era of poetry seems to do this as a matter of course. Yes, you have Shelley occasionally railing away, and Byron tends to be more sardonic than pastoral. But Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge all seem to have a sense of the beauty of nature that is embedded and inextricable from their beautiful language. Read "Kubla Khan" or "Ode: Intimations of Immortality Recollected from Early Childhood."

You know, until you get to the modern era I like more poetry than I dislike. And perhaps with such an able guide as Dylan I can even convert my anti-modernism.

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From One of My Favorites


From One of My Favorites

Okay, you've already noticed that I tend to favor seventeenth century poetry--American or European. But another of my favorite schools of poetry is the imagist school, largely derived from the very compressed ultimately imagist poetry of China and Japan. So, without further ado, a tanka from Ogura Hyakunin Isshu or One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets (See the left-hand column for a link to the entire work.)

Ono no Komachi

Color of the flower
Has already faded away,
While in idle thoughts

My life passes vainly by,
As I watch the long rains fall.

The gentle melancholy of this particular tanka appeals to me. Many of these poems have references to places that must conjure images for the Japanese, but for Westerners they serve only to produce some distance. But here, there are no such references. This could occur on the slopes of Fujiyama, or in Indiana. The universalilty of the thought and experience causes this poem, among many others, to really speak to the human heart.

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More from the AVP


There are some advantages to the small domestic disturbances that of an evening cause us some loss of sleep. The discovery of the huge collection of poetry at the AVP is one of these. Among the collections is a book of verse by Jones Very, a poet with whom I am little acquainted, having heard the name and seen a few poems at Dylan's site one time.

Jones Very

I cannot tell the sorrows that I feel
By the night's darkness, by the prison's gloom;
There is no sight that can the death reveal
The spirit suffers in a living tomb;
There is no sound of grief that mourners raise,
No moaning of the wind, or dirge-like sea,
Nor hymns, though prophet tones inspire the lays,
That can the spirit's grief awake in thee.
Thou too must suffer as it suffers here
The death in Christ to know the Father's love;
Then in the strains that angels love to hear
Thou too shalt hear the Spirit's song above,
And learn in grief what these can never tell,
A note too deep for earthly voice to swell.

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Adelaide Crapsey


Okay, okay, okay. I need to curl up with my Luci Shaw, but first I needed to post a couple of things by this poet whom I have only recently discovered. She apparently wrote in the early part of the twentieth century and composed many different types of poems. Some of the most effective are reminiscent of the poetry of our own Mr. Core, q.v. I find it very similar to one of my favorite schools of more recent poetry--imagist. (Of course no one can even hope to equal the grandeur of the Cavalier and Metaphysical poets.) Here's a couple of short pieces by Ms. Crapsey.

Poems by Adelaide Crapsey

The Warning

Just now,
Out of the strange
Still dust . . . as strange, as still . . .
A white moth flew . . . Why am I grown
So cold?

The Guarded Wound

If it
Were lighter touch
Than petal of flower resting
On grass, oh still too heavy it were,
Too heavy!

There is a haiku-like simplicity and a sheer joy in careful creation and cultivation of image. There is an oblique relation between title and poem that sets up a kind of dynamic tension. What precisely is the guarded wound? We might never know, and yet the image puts us tantilizing close to grasping the reality the poet was trying to convey. In short, I have found another poet I need to study in depth. There is a brilliant, subtle, quiet, passionate, and sad beauty in these two short pieces.

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More Wisdom from St. John


More Wisdom from St. John of the Cross

This short excerpt from his letters provides us with a glimpse into heaven.

Letter 3
St. John of the Cross

[To Madre Ana de San Alberto, prioress of Caravaca7

Granada, 1582]

...since you say nothing to me, I tell you not to be foolish and not to walk with fears that intimidate your soul. Return to God what he has given you and gives you each day. It seems you want to measure God by the measure of your own capacity, but it will not be so. Prepare yourself, for God desires to grant you a great favor.

There are two things I love about this letter--it's straightforward simplicity and its firm direction. "Return to God what he has given you and gives you each day." That is, don't store it up and plan to return it at some other time. Don't hoard the treasures God showers on you. Every day as you receive, give out. As you are blessed, bless those around you. As God graces you, let the graces flow through you and out to grace the entire world. In a small sense, I suppose, we are all distributors of God's grace, we all act in miniature as the Blessed Mother. People who are ignorant of Christ can be blessed and "graced" by us. The starving, the thirsty, the poor, the downtrodden, even the merely sad or grieving can be lifted up by the spirit of Christ within us and graced by the same Holy Spirit--if we choose to allow it. Mother Teresa was a prime example of someone whose very presence lifted up God's people, because she gave back to Him, in the persons of all those around her, all that she received in a day.

The second wonderful moment in this brief letter is, "It seems you want to measure God by the measure of your own capacity," this is powerful beyond words, and true for every one of us. We, most unconsciously, put limits on what God can accomplish. We are not big enough, so God cannot do what is needed. We are so inelastic, so inflexible, so rigidly set, that we restrict the channels of grace through which God may work. If you recall Jesus could do no miracles in His own home town, "A prophet is without honor in his own country." This is not because He could not work miracles, but the stubborn unbelief and inflexibility of the inhabitants restricted God's action. He will not force us to accept any of His gifts. He may plead, cajole, and offer, but He will not force. So, if we measure God by the narrow margins of our own human hearts, we are casting out the wonderful possibilities inherent in His grace, because God came not to fit into the narrow boundaries of the heart, but to expand our hearts into His own. For that we need to accept the radical necessity for a fundamental change in our outlooks.

And we are told, "Prepare yourself for God desires to grant you a great favor." What greater favor could there be than to replace our stony hearts with hearts of flesh (to quote Ezekiel, I think)? What greater favor than to take away our human limitations to love and replace them with His own love? In so doing, He removes our self-involvement, our self-centeredness, our fear. We must cooperate in this work, we must prepare ourselves. We do so through the sacraments, through prayer, and through actions in the world that let God speak to others. We do so in putting ourselves aside and "putting on Christ." We do so whenever we break out of ourselves enough to breathe the air of heaven and when we use that to change the world in which we live, be it ever so slightly. When we smile at someone who has grown accustomed to our scowl, when we wave at someone to thank them as we drive our cars, when we share a cup of coffee, or listen to someone who desperately needs an ear. All of these things, small though they seem, prepare the way of the Lord.

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Hallmarks of a Beginner in Prayer


This is from a study of the works of St. John of the Cross available at ICS (see left column).

from The Contemporary Challenge of St. John of the Cross--Chapter 4 Leonard Doohan

The pride of beginners leads to spiritual avarice. Their attachment and possessiveness of heart centers on "hearing counsels," "learning spiritual maxims," and accumulating religious objects. Nowadays, for example, this spiritual avarice can lead beginners to an attendance at innumerable prayer workshops, the needless accumulation of books on prayer, and the constant comfort and consolation of ever longer retreats and workshops.
Spiritual gluttony is also a common failing of beginners. Some manifest spiritual gluttony in seeking only the comfort, consolation, and satisfaction that involvement in the spiritual life can bring. "All their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation" (N, 1, 6, 6).

Two other weaknesses follow from those already mentioned, namely spiritual envy and sloth. Beginners often become dissatisfied with the comfort they experience and are envious at anyone else's spiritual growth. Moreover, emphasis on the consolations that sometimes accompany the early stages of spiritual growth leads beginners to a distaste for the unpleasant sacrifices needed to advance. "Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of the pleasure and delight of their own will" (N, 1, 7, 3).

The cryptic numberings simply refer you to the correlated sections of Dark Night of the Soul. What I find most interesting here is the pattern I have observed in myself. I used to spend a tremendous amount of time poring over all the new spiritual books and guides and looking for the latest in self-help prayer books. I still spend far more time than may be helpful doing the same. I have longed to attend workshops and retreats on prayer and have attended an extended (32 week) Ignatian Retreat. All of these things convict me. And yet, when I settle down with the Bible or with St. John of the Cross, this impulse seems to fade away. I haven't scoured shelves in months. Now I look at all those things I've accumulated and wonder why I ever thought the book was useful.

One of the more important things indicated in the passage is the "wrong reason" for mysticism. Many people undertake the prayer of St. John and St. Teresa for the consolation involved--the feeling that they are becoming connected to God. While consolations are wonderful gifts that should be accepted and appreciated, both St. John and St. Teresa note that the consolation should be forgotten as soon as it passes--that consolations, be they visions, locutions, levitations, simply good feelings of accomplishment, should be let go as soon as they are apprehended. One should not dwell on these minor things that are to feed the faltering soul. The reason for prayer is far beyond mere consolation, and pausing there causes you to lose the momentum toward your ultimate destination--Love.

Now, I've not had a whole lot of consolations in prayer, but as I've indicated, I am probably not even truly a beginner--I'm standing in the vestibule and timorously approaching the somewhat daunting oak doors that seal me off from true prayer and reflection. But I have had a few, and unfortunately, part of what happens--without willing it, is a feeling of accomplishment as though one had achieved some sort of status in the prayer world. As soon as that creeps in a sort of spiritual pride begins to take form and take over. The only cure--acknowledge the phenomenon and confess it.

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A 17th Century Wonder I Stumbled Onto


A 17th Century Wonder I Stumbled Onto

I found this poem while looking through the Classical Christian Poetry Site. The poet was unfamiliar to me--I knew John Fletcher of Beaumont and Fletcher fame, but I had not heard of Phineas. I don't know the relationship, if any, between these two.

A Litany
Phineas Fletcher

Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

There is a very gentle rhythm here and a beauty in the pleas of the the poet. "Nor let His eye/See sin, but through my tears," is a beautiful evocation of what every act of contrition begs of Jesus.

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Thomas Hardy as Poet


The purveyor of the largest number of the most completely depressing novels written in English (note, by number we eliminate Malcolm Lowry, and by Enlgish we eliminate Celine and Zola) also wrote some of the most depressing poetry in English. Here's an example. Down, but lovely.

At a Lunar Eclipse
Thomas Hardy

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

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St. Francis Borgia


St. Francis Borgia

Here's a mind-boggling concept from the Life of St. Francis Borgia.

From the time that he began to give himself totally to the divine service Francis Borgia, who was canonized in 1671, learned the importance and difficulty of attaining to humility, and he tried unremittingly to humble himself in the divine presence and within himself. Amidst the honours and respect that were shown him at Valladolid, his companion, Father Bustamante, noticed that he was not only quiet but more than ordinarily self-effacing, for which he asked the reason. "I considered", said St Francis, "in my morning meditation that Hell is my due. I think that all men and even dumb creatures ought to cry out after me, 'Hell is your place'." He one day told the novices that in meditating on the actions of Christ he had for six years always placed himself in spirit at the feet of Judas; but then he realized that Christ had washed the feet even of that traitor, so that he thenceforth felt unworthy to approach even him.
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Loving Love from Nicholas of


Loving Love

from Nicholas of Cusa
But to love Christ most ardently is to hasten toward him by spiritual movement, for he is not only lovable but is love itself. When by the steps of love the spirit hastens to love itself, it is engulfed in love itself not temporally but above all time and all worldly movement.

Love of God is entry into the eternal. We pass from the linear, temporal movement into eternity when we abandon ourselves entirely to God. Abandoning to God means entering Love. To do so means leaving the self behind in a radical way. We cannot enter Love wrapped with all the things normally use to protect ourselves. Among these are the masks, the lies, the stories we tell about ourselves. These must be purified and burned away. The last vestige of them must be eradicated. The Holy Spirit within works with each of us to purify and refine. Trials, temptations, adversity, turmoils, and all manner of difficulties prove us. They transform us (if we are faithful) gradually into the image of Love--for only Love can enter Love. This indeed is the principle of purgatory--nothing "unclean", nothing that is not pure Love can enter heaven because it would be destroyed and with it the soul that bears that impurity. It is not a punishment, but a spiritual law. So, in our earthly lives, we need to recognize and embrace the trials sent us--they are the gifts God has seen fit to give us to make us more like Him. When we do so we being to live a mysterious life of grace. The world is transformed (more accurately our ability to perceive is transformed) and suddenly, we can see God in places where we would never have thought to look for Him. St. Francis saw Him in nature and the world around Him. Mother Teresa recognized Him within the persons of the impoverished and dying. This gift is the gift of eternity, of heaven on Earth, of love and transformation, and of enthusiastic service of God toward our fellow human beings. This gift is, as Ms. Knapp so aptly described the other day, "The Pearl of Great Price" which once purchased does not count what was spent, but merely exults in the magnificence and beauty of the Pearl.

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Philip Freneau


Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau was once one of the most famous poets in America. For the most part, his poetry has, unjustly, been forgotten. The following elegy, written for those who died in a battle of the Revolutionary War is distinctive, but much of what it has to say works well to commemorate this day.

To the Memory of the Brave Americans
Philip Freneau

Under General Greene, in South Carolina,
who fell in the action of September 8, 1781

AT Eutaw Springs the valiant died;
Their limbs with dust are covered o'er--
Weep on, ye springs, your tearful tide;
How many heroes are no more!
If in this wreck or ruin, they
Can yet be thought to claim a tear,
O smite your gentle breast, and say
The friends of freedom slumber here!
Thou, who shalt trace this bloody plain,
If goodness rules thy generous breast,
Sigh for the wasted rural reign;
Sign for the shepherds, sunk to rest!
Stranger, their humble graves adorn;
You too may fall, and ask a tear;
'Tis not the beauty of the morn
That proves the evening shall be clear.--
They saw their injured country's woe;
The flaming town, the wasted field;
Then rushed to meet the insulting foe;
They took the spear--but left the shield.
Led by thy conquering genius, Greene,
The Britons they compelled to fly;
None distant viewed the fatal plain,
None grieved, in such a cause to die--
But, like the Parthian, famed of old,
Who, flying, still their arrows threw,
These routed Britons, full as bold,
Retreated, and retreating slew.
Now rest in peace, our patriot band,
Though far from nature's limits thrown,
We trust they find a happier land,
A brighter sunshine of their own.

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Edwin Arlington Robinson


Certain forms of poetry constitute a challenge all their own. The sestina, which has an elaborate rhyme scheme that retains the same six end-rhymes but rotates them from stanza to stanza. The villanelle must be one of the most difficult such forms. One of the most famous of these is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle." The scheme of the villanelle isn't to keep simply an end-rhyme, but to retain one full line of the original triolet in each subsequent stanza and then in the final stanza to repeat all three lines with one additional line.

Here's an example from Edwin Arlington Robinson which is quite pleasing.

Villanelle of Change Edwin Arlington Robinson Since Persia fell at Marathon, The yellow years have gathered fast: Long centuries have come and gone.

And yet (they say) the place will don
A phantom fury of the past,
Since Persia fell at Marathon;

And as of old, when Helicon
Trembled and swayed with rapture vast
(Long centuries have come and gone),

This ancient plain, when night comes on,
Shakes to a ghostly battle-blast,
Since Persia fell at Marathon.

But into soundless Acheron
The glory of Greek shame was cast:
Long centuries have come and gone,

The suns of Hellas have all shone,
The first has fallen to the last:—
Since Persia fell at Marathon,
Long centuries have come and gone.

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Christ Altogether Lovely


John Flavel who lived (as though there is some other century in this blog) in the seventeenth century was an English Presbyterian minister. Some of his works are still extant, most particularly his sermons. There are many very beautiful things in them. But I often think about this one sermon, and I am over and over again carried away by the beauty and truth of what Flavel teaches us.

from "Christ Altogether Lovely" John Flavel

Let us consider this excellent expression, and particularly reflect on what is contained in it, and you shall find this expression "altogether lovely."

First, It excludes all unloveliness and disagreeableness from Jesus Christ. As a theologian long ago said, "There is nothing in him which is not loveable." The excellencies of Jesus Christ are perfectly exclusive of all their opposites; there is nothing of a contrary property or quality found in him to contaminate or devaluate his excellency. And in this respect Christ infinitely transcends the most excellent and loveliest of created things. Whatsoever loveliness is found in them, it is not without a bad aftertaste. The fairest pictures must have their shadows: The rarest and most brilliant gems must have dark backgrounds to set off their beauty; the best creature is but a bitter sweet at best: If there is something pleasing, there is also something sour. if a person has every ability, both innate and acquired, to delight us, yet there is also some natural corruption intermixed with it to put us off. But it is not so in our altogether lovely Christ, his excellencies are pure and unmixed. He is a sea of sweetness without one drop of gall.

Secondly, "Altogether lovely," i.e. There is nothing unlovely found in him, so all that is in him is wholly lovely. As every ray of God is precious, so every thing that is in Christ is precious: Who can weigh Christ in a pair of balances, and tell you what his worth is? "His price is above rubies, and all that thou canst desire is not to be compared with him," Prov. 8:11.

Thirdly "Altogether lovely," i.e. He embraces all things that are lovely: he seals up the sum of all loveliness. Things that shine as single stars with a particular glory, all meet in Christ as a glorious constellation. Col. 1:19, "It pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell." Cast your eyes among all created beings, survey the universe: you will observe strength in one, beauty in a second, faithfulness in a third, wisdom in a fourth; but you shall find none excelling in them all as Christ does. Bread has one quality, water another, raiment another, medicine another; but none has them all in itself as Christ does. He is bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, a garment to the naked, healing to the wounded; and whatever a soul can desire is found in him, 1 Cor. 1:30.

Fourthly, "Altogether lovely," i.e. Nothing is lovely in opposition to him, or in separation from him. If he truly is altogether lovely, then whatsoever is opposite to him, or separate from him can have no loveliness in it. Take away Christ, and where is the loveliness of any enjoyment? The best creature-comfort apart from Christ is but a broken cistern. It cannot hold one drop of true comfort, Psalm 73:26. It is with the creature--the sweetest and loveliest creature--as with a beautiful image in the mirror: turn away the face and where is the image? Riches, honours, and comfortable relations are sweet when the face of Christ smiles upon us through them; but without him, what empty trifles are they all?

Fifthly, "Altogether lovely," i.e. Transcending all created excellencies in beauty and loveliness. If you compare Christ and other things, no matter how lovely, no matter how excellent and desirable, Christ carries away all loveliness from them. "He is (as the apostle says) before all things," Col. 1:17. Not only before all things in time, nature, and order; but before all things in dignity, glory, and true excellence. In all things he must have the pre-eminence. Let us but compare Christ's excellence with the creature's in a few particulars, and how manifest will the transcendent loveliness of Jesus Christ appear!

Christ is altogether lovely. Altogether lovely. Lovable, loving, Love Incarnate, altogether lovely. Are any other words necessary or meaningful in this relation?

In His humanity--altogether lovely,
In His divinity--altogether lovely,
In His humility--altogether lovely,
In His devotion--altogether lovely,
In His speech--altogether lovely,
In His appearance--altogether lovely,
In His life--altogether lovely,
In His words--altogether lovely,
In His sacrifice--altogether lovely,
In His death--altogether lovely,
In His friendship--altogether lovely,
In His anger--altogether lovely,
In His generosity--altogether lovely,
In His teaching--altogether lovely,
In His subservience--altogether lovely,
In His transcendence--altogether lovely,
In His apostles--altogether lovely,
In His saints--altogether lovely,
In His people--altogether lovely,
In all people--Christ is altogether lovely,
In His creation--Christ is altogether lovely.

Lord, teach me always and everywhere to live in awe, wonder, and constant attention to your loveliness--the loveliness of the most beautiful of God's creations or man's cocreations pales in comparison. Teach me to look upon this and desire this alone. Teach me to let go of everything that is not You--for in you alone is there anything worthwhile.

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Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is considered amongst the finest flowering of the "graveyard school" of poetry. Yes, there is such a thing--fortunately a phenomenon relatively short lived, but giving rise to this one great elegiac tribute. Here is an excerpt that gave us another famous work.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Thomas Gray . . . Th' applause of list'ning senates to command, The threats of pain and ruin to despise, To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land, And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
. . .

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Selections from Japanese Poetry


Selections from Japanese Poetry
Just a couple of short pieces:

Lady Heguri
A thousand years, you said,
As our hearts melted.
I look at the hand you held,
And the ache is hard to bear.

from Six Tanka for Yakamochi
Lady Kasa

Like the pearl of dew
On the grass in my garden
In the evening shadows,
I shall be no more.

Even the grains of sand
On a beach eight hundred days wide
Would not be more than my love,
Watchman of the island coast.

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One for Dylan


One for Dylan

Here's a relatively contemporary poet whom, I imagine, even Dylan has not had much of an encounter with. I knew this man personally and his poetry was potentially some of the very finest I have ever set eyes on. The only problem is that he did not believe in revision or revisiting in any extensive sense. It gave rise to some infelicities in language. But, all that can be forgiven for some of this beauty:

The Moon Has No Motion I Can Move
Jay Bradford Fowler Jr.

The moon has no motion I can move
Nor the trees in the night can I have
As my green leaves.

The moon made a soft motion
In the night and the leaves
Whispered closer to themselves.

My dream turns as softly
As the moon and thought, like leaves,
Grow in peace among their branches.

The moon is no maker. It does not mean.
And the leaves in the wind I cannot do.
The moon is no maker but for me to make

The letting of the moon grow soft
Upon my shoulder. The leaves are no wisdom.
They do not speak, but for saying
my prayers as I sleep.

from "When the Secret Taper Descends

When the secret taper decends
And holds steady on the tips of the phlox
Until they burst into blooms of pink
The man on the porch opens the door
To the yard and walks out into
The dark garden to hold his face among
Their blooms and smell their incense. . .

from "A Straight Line of Love

My father will not ascend into heaven.
He will drive there in his Packard.
And the drive will be north, through
Connecticut and New Hampshire, to Maine,
And beyond. One night my father will rise
From his bed and leave the little
Room with the chest of drawers and its wild
Garden of photographs. . .

Jay was a beautiful and unique voice in poetry. It is a shame he is no longer with us. It would be a greater shame if his poetry, which he loved as nothing else, were to be utterly unremembered.

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More Modern Christian Poets


More Modern Christian Poets

I've long wanted to blog some of the poetry of Luci Shaw. You can find one here. Search the index for this site to find other, she is often published in magazines such as First Things.

Sister Miriam Pollard O.C.S.O. is another fine poet. Here is a short excerpt from her poem "Elijah in December." Many of her poems follow this pattern of prosody. The book is available from Ignatius Press.

from "Elijah in December"
in Neither Be Afraid
Sr. Miriam Pollard OCSO

Nothing now sparkles and flashes,
Notheing here thunders or rings.
There's only the silvery rustle
Of something like wings.

Not in the sky's explosion,
Not where the mountains fall--
Stand and cover your face
Where a hush is all.

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Loreena McKennitt


Loreena McKennitt

Mr González very generously responded to my plea for help and then gave me a surprising bonus--a comment to comment upon.

Odd coincidence: I intended to comment in my weblog about some some english translations of "En una noche oscura ... " Perhaps next week... (did you hear the -somewhat 'new-age' but not bad- Loreena McKennit version?) If you know of some good english versions, please tell me.

I love the music of Loreena McKennitt, and while I can't claim to have been with her from the very beginning, I started loving her when I heard the fantastic song, "All Soul's Night" from The Visit while listening to my local classical music station. Loreena does vaguely Enya-like stuff--but the emphasis seems more Celtic than New Age--though I suppose the two are so closely allied in most aspects that they are difficult to separate.

What I particularly like about Loreena McKennitt's albums is that each one has one "Narrative Poem" set to music. On The Visit we have "The Lady of Shalott," on The Book of Secrets we have "The Highwayman," and on The Mask and the Mirror we have two: "The Dark Night of the Soul" and "The Bonny Swans." Actually "The Bonny Swans" is an old song, so the lyrics have entered the world of poetry by the back door.

The music is that lovely, largely minor key Celtic-themed material played largely on traditional instruments and Ms. McKennitt's voice is a beautiful accompaniment. I cannot say enough good about her, even though I have not of recent date picked up her albums. I will have to remedy that as soon as I have a chance.

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The Poetry of Science


I was seeking to regale you with the delightsome poetry of Erasmus Darwin and I stumbled upon this wonderful site. It contains something close to 100 poems and I include a couple of highlights here.

from The Botanic Garden
Erasmus Darwin

She comes!--the Goddess!--through the whispering air,
Bright as the morn, descends her blushing car;
Each circling wheel a wreath of flowers intwines,
and gemd with flowers the silken harness shines;
The golden bits with flowery studs are deck'd,
And knots of flowers the crimson reisn connect.--
And now on earth the silver axle rings,
And the shell sinks upon its slender springs;
Light from airy feat the Goddess bounds,
And steps celestial press the pansied grounds.

In my years as geologist one of the great prizes in fossil collecting was a trilobite. I did much of my work in areas where these were not uncommon; however, you often found only bits and pieces. I found a single sclerite (body plate) of the Ohio State fossil--Isotelus gigas (for a photograph see this site)that was more than an inch across it's anterior-posterior dimension. Estimating the overall size, the trilobite would have been on the order of three and a half feet long. Hence this excerpt:

Lay of the Trilobite May Kendall

A mountain's giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.

So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him even with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!

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More Early American Poetry


More Early American Poetry

Here's another I stumbled upon in my reading which I find "rich and strange" by its juxtaposition of Christ and, or all possibilities, an apple tree.

Christ the Apple-Tree
Anonymous circa 1761

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compared with Christ the apple-tree.

His beauty doth all things excel;
By faith I know, but ne'er can tell,
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the apple-tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I miss'd of all; but now I see
'Tis found in Christ the apple-tree.

I'm weary'd with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest a while:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple-tree.

With great delight I'll make my stay,
There's non shall fright my soul away:
Among the sons of men I see
There's none like Christ the apple-tree.

I'll sit and eat this fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spirit'al wine;
And now this fruit is sweet to me
That grows on Christ the apple-tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my would in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple-tree.

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Shaker Songs and Poetry


I have a very soft spot in my heart for both Shakers and Quakers. Shakers particularly grab my imagination, as they were the closest thing the protestant faiths had to a monastic, contemplative society. Founded by Mother Ann Lee in England, quickly transported and rooted in American soil--Shakers have left a lasting mark on the landscape, furniture, faith, and music of America. Here's one of their hymns.

Walk Softly
Shaker Hymn

When we assemble here to worship God,
To sing his praises and to hear his word
We will walk softly.

With purity of heart; and with clean hands,
Our souls are free, we're free from Satan's bands
We will walk softly.

While we are passing thro' the sacred door,
Into the fold where Christ has gone before,
We will walk softly.

We'll worship and bow down we will rejoice
And when we hear the shepherd's gentle voice
We will walk softly.

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Melville's Poetry


Melville's Poetry
As a general thing, I'm not overly impressed with Melville either as a prose stylist or as a poet. However, all rules (except this) have their exceptions and I was reading through some Early American poetry and stumbled on this delightful ditty.

The Maldive Shark
Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghostly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and fiendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat--
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargie and dull,
Pale raverner of horrible meat.

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I fear I may have been misinterpreted because my language was so lax. When I indicated that I would "not go there" with respect to Edwin Arlington Robinson, I meant merely that I would not defend the following two poems, which, while not in my top Ten, are very, very high indeed in my estimation. But I leave it at that. I can't "justify" my liking on literary merit or poetic merit (not because they lack it, but because I simply don't see them in those ways any more, they are too close.) So, without further ado--"Miniver Cheevy" (spelled it incorrectly in prior post) and "Richard Cory."

Edward Arlington Robinson Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Richard Cory
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Mr. Robinson endeared himself to me as a poet with his remarkable Arthurian Poetry. It may be finer than nearly everything (post Medieval/Renaissance). I would prize only Tennyson's remarkable "Lady of Shalott" above Arlington's quite remarkable "Merlin." If you can find it, highly recommended. (I like long narrative poetry A LOT--it is conceivable that I am the only living fan of Alexander Pope (love almost everything) and John Dryden (in part).)

[Note: correct Edward to Edwin above in response to Dylan's note. Thank you.

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Countee Cullen Revisited


Some days or weeks ago, Dylan included Mr. Cullen in a list of underrated poets. The name rang a bell although I don't know that I had read anything by him before that time. I recognized the name as one of the "Harlem Renaissance" school of poets (although labels tend to get in the way of the real power of any poet). I picked up a thick volume of his work and started to read--I was surprised by the power and the beauty of the poetry. A poem from Mr. Cullen is, perhaps, a good introduction to the thoughts on my mind for the day.

Any Human to Another
Countee Cullen

The ills I sorrow at
Not me alone
Like an arrow,
Pierce to the marrow,
Through the fat
And past the bone.

Your grief and mine
Must intertwine
Like sea and river,
Be fused and mingle,
Diverse yet single,
Forever and Forever.

Let no man be so proud
And confident,
To think he is allowed
A little tent
Pitched in a meadow
Of sun and shadow
All his little own.

Joy may be shy, unique,
Friendly to a few,
Sorrow never scorned to speak
To any who
Were false or true.
Your every grief
Like a blade
Shining and unsheathed
Must strike me down.
Of bitter aloes wreathed,
My sorrow must be laid
On your head like a crown.

There are two points I'd like to make about this wonderful little poem. First, the comparison with John Donne's remarkable "No man is an iland" meditation is immediate and interesting. The themes of both are the shared burden of each individual--what affects one affects all through our incorporation in the Body of Christ. These meditations are sisters.

But the Cullen piece adds a unique interpretive twist. Because there is no audience and the title "Any Human to Another" opens up the possibility that we have at points the poetic voice speaking to Christ, and Christ returning that speech. The final seven lines are indicative of the possible fruitful ambiguity of the poem. I could see the lines "Your every grief/ Like a blade/ Shining and unsheathed/ Must strike me down.", as spoken by Jesus, and I think particularly of the scene at Mary and Martha's before the tomb of Lazarus. Or for that matter, weeping for lost Jerusalem. Every grief weighs heavily of Christ's head. The last three lines, I speak to Him, "Of bitter aloes wreathed,/ My sorrow must be laid/ On your head like a crown." My sorrows, and particularly those sorrows and sicknesses of spirit that we call sins helped to form the crown of thorns (I imagine that this crown of aloes is little less painful) pressed down upon the sacred brow.

Now, I don't insist that this is what Countee Cullen was trying to do, nor is it an exposition of the fullness of the poem. But good poetry and good poetic language gives rise to "fruitful ambiguities" that allow a reader to , in Harold Bloom's famous phrase, "be read by the work of literature." I see in this poem, in part, what I bring to it. The poem acts as a partial mirror, as any great poem will. We can find within its structure things that may not have been intended by the poet, but which naturally arise because the poet is communicating with a vast audience all of whom have different backgrounds, and so different interpretive texts. In good poetry, all interpretive texts will find a key in the words. I believe this to be not merely a good poem, but truly a beautiful poem, and ultimately a truthful poem. Mr. Cullen has opened up a rich storehouse of meaning and possibility in a very simple, very streamlined poem. And he notes a truth--whatever happens to any one of us ripples out and touches all of us, directly or indirectly.

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The Amazing Margaret Cavendish


Now, here's a poet who would give the Sitwell Family a run for its money (although her poetry is, shall we say, not of the first water). Ms. Cavendish was not what we would call a happy person. She was one who felt the oppression of her sex more than many others. She wrote a great many poems, here's a couple of poems from a series called "The Atomic Poems."

from "The Atomic Poems"
Margaret Cavendish
What Atomes make Life.

ALL pointed Atomes to Life do tend
Whether pointed all or at one end.
Or whether Round, are set like to a Ring;
Or whether Long, are roul'd as on a String.
Those which are pointed, straight, quick Motion give;
But those that bowe and bend, more dull do live.
For Life lives dull, or merrilie,
According as Sharpe Atomes be.
The Cause why things do live and dye,
Is, as the mixed Atomes lye.

What Atomes make Death.

LIfe is a Fire, and burnes full hot,
But when Round watry Atomes power have got:
Then do they quench Lifes Atomes out,
Blunting their Points, and kill their courage stout.
Thus they sometimes do quite thrust out each other,
When equall mix'd, live quietly together.
The cause why things do live and dye,
Is as the mixed Atomes lye.

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Still Searching


My search continued, and in so doing, I stumbled across the first chapter of a book on the Psalms by Rowland E. Protheroe. This passage spoke to me:

from The Psalms in Human Life, Chapter 1 Rowland E. Protheroe Above the couch of David, according to Rabbinical tradition, there hung a harp. The midnight breeze, as it rippled over the strings, made such music that the poet-king was constrained to rise from his bed, and, till the dawn flushed the eastern skies, he wedded words to the strains. The poetry of that tradition is condensed in the saying that the Book of Psalms contains the whole music of the heart of man, swept by the hand of his Maker. In it are gathered the lyrical burst of his tenderness, the moan of his penitence, the pathos of his sorrow, the triumph of his victory, the despair of his defeat, the firmness of his confidence, the rapture of his assured hope. In it is presented the anatomy of all parts of the human soul ; in it, as Heine says are collected `sunrise and sunset, birth and death promise and fulfilment-the whole drama of humanity'.
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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from September 2002.

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