Monday, October 10, 2005

In the Balance

by G.K. Chesterton

A poet scrawled upon a page of verse
Wherein a priest and king battled: whose bones
Are grown to grass for eight dead centuries
The words that through the dark and through the day
Rang in my ears.

Even as Becket, graced
By perilous pleasure of the Angevin --
Cried out "Am I the man for the cross of Christ?"
In the vast fane filled with one presence dark
That spoke and shook the stars . . . "Thou art the Man."
So do I stand.

A mitre and a cross!
God's blood! A cross is but a pair of sticks,
A mitre is a fool's cap out of school,
Candles are fireworks -- fling them in the street --
Why should he fear to fill so poor a place?
When I stand up 'neath seven staring heavens,
Naked and arrogant and insolent
And ask for the crown jewels of the Lord

Lord I have been a Waster of the sun
A sleeper on the highways of the world
A garnerer of thistles and of weeds
A hewer of waste wood that no man buys
A lover of things violent, things perverse,
Grotesque and grinning and inscrutable
A savage and a clown -- and there she stands
Straight as the living lily of the Lord.
O thy world-wisdom speak -- am I the man?

Lo: I am man, even the son of man
Thou knowest these things: in my blood's heritage
Is every sin that shrieked in Babylon,
All tales untold and lost that reddened Heaven
In falling fire above the monstrous domes
Of cities damned and done with . . . there she goes
White in the living sunlight on the lawn,
Alive and bearing flowers . . . My God . . . my God,
Am I the man?

Strong keeper of the world,
O King thou knowest man of woman born,
How weak as water and how strong as fire,
Judge Thou O Lord for I am sick of love
And may not judge. . . .

* * *

I simply had to type this poem up out of an anthology (Volume X of Ignatius Press's Collected Works), because I googled it and found that the poem is nowhere online.

This is a continuation of the sentiments expressed in the poem "Joseph": the uncertainty a man must face when he knows he is unworthy, the awe he must feel at the responsibility laid before him, and the desire he has to rise to that responsibility.

The first two stanzas refer to St. Thomas a Becket, who was martyred by Henry II of England. Becket did not think he was worthy enough or strong enough to be a witness for God. In the same way, the speaker feels unequal to the choice set before him.

The next two stanzas deal with the speaker's defects. He lists out all the reasons why he is unworthy. On the other end of the balance -- "there she stands /Straight as the living lily of the Lord."

Just the fact that he is man is enough reason to consider himself unworthy. He has not personally committed every sin, but man's heritage includes every sin imaginable. His imagination turns dark picturing all that evil. Again the vision of the woman comes into play, again balancing the dark vision of sin.

Christ knows the answer: for He is man and knows what is in man, both good and bad. The speaker is too much in love to trust himself, but he trusts Christ to judge the matter for him.


Sheila said...

P.S. Does anyone know what a "fane" is? That's clearly what the book said, but I don't know what it means.

Santiago said...

Just the fact that he is man is enough reason to consider himself unworthy.

But also, just the fact that he is a man means he is made in God's image, and carries a dignity that makes him open to grace. He can't become "worthy" through his own efforts.

Anonymous said...

The Concise Oxford gives "fane" as an archaic word for temple or shine. From the Latin fanum, presumably.