Wednesday, November 30, 2005

By the Babe Unborn

by G.K. Chesterton

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie: dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm-clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

* * *

This poem was brought into mind by the great debate on Fiddleback Fever about NFP. But it's just as pertinent to arguments about abortion and contraception.

I think a large part of why some people think abortion is okay is simply that they don't appreciate the gift of life they themselves have been given. They walk through their lives, glancing at trees and flowers and skies, and see none of them. They don't realise how great and beautiful it is to be alive.

But if, for a moment, impossibly, we could know what it was not to be alive, maybe we'd have the attitude of the child in this poem. How amazing it would be to be alive! And truly, how amazing it is.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Vivien's Song

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

‘In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours,
Faith and unfaith can ne’er be equal powers:
Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all.

‘It is the little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute,
And ever widening slowly silence all.

‘The little rift within the lover’s lute
Or little pitted speck in garnered fruit,
That rotting inward slowly moulders all.

‘It is not worth the keeping: let it go:
But shall it? answer, darling, answer, no.
And trust me not at all or all in all.’

* * *

This poem makes a good counterpart to "Enid's Song," which I posted last spring. This poem can have two meanings, as I read it: either "unfaith" is the lover's lack of faith in her, or it is his lack of faithfulness. She either means, "If you doubt me in one thing, you doubt me in all," or, "If you are unfaithful to me in one thing, you are unfaithful to me in all." I generally take it with the first meaning, because of the last line mentioning trust.

This is on my mind because of my English paper on Cymbeline. Posthumus' lack of trust in Imogen nearly destroys their relationship. Trust is essential in any relationship, especially for those in love. Love without trust is empty.

Monday, November 28, 2005


by Gerard Manley Hopkins

A nun takes the veil

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

* * *

This beautifully worded poem is unlike most of Hopkins's poetry: it could almost pass for someone else's poetry, so free is it of Hopkins's usual oddities.

However, Hopkins's attention to sound is still quite in evidence: "fields where flies no sharp and sided hail," "swell" and "swing" in consecutive lines. There is also plenty of imagery for 8 lines.

I am not the only one of my friends who has desired something like this: to rest in a sweet and quiet place, on the bosom of Christ. A convent sounds, to me, like the most wonderful place on earth. In wordly terms, there is nothing there, but in heavenly terms, it contains everything necessary. Who would not want to sit at the feet of Christ and listen to him speak, away from the noise and bustle of the world?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Thou art indeed just

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum;
verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum
prosperatur? &c.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

Them; birds build -- but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

* * *

Another of Hopkins's darker poems. Here he expresses frustration that, while secular poets find success, he "breeds not one work that wakes."

I had this discussion with a friend a week or so ago: Why do sinners' ways prosper? Why is it that we who love God suffer, while it seems those who don't care about Him never have to do anything hard?

Oddly enough, I think the answer is in the theology paper I just finished. It was about the sections of the Song of Songs in which the bridegroom hides from the bride. My conclusion was that God hides to make us seek Him, to inflame our desire to find Him, and to lead us out of ourselves. Suffering is a gift God gives us for our purification, while He does not give it to the wicked, for they will not let it purify them.

And in the end, Hopkins wrote many works that wake, while most of his contemporaries are long since forgotten. And on a higher level, he is probably shining like the sun in the kingdom of the Father, thankful now that he spent, sir, life upon His cause.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

To a Louse

by Robert Burns

On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church

Ha! whare ye gaun' ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely
Owre gauze and lace,
Tho faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn'd by saunt an sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her--
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar's hauffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle;
Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle;
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there! ye're out o' sight,
Below the fatt'rils, snug an tight,
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right,
Till ye've got on it--
The vera tapmost, tow'rin height
O' Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an grey as onie grozet:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I'd gie you sic a hearty dose o't,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surpris'd to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On's wyliecoat;
But Miss's fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do't?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An set your beauties a' abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie's makin!
Thae winks an finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin!

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea'es us,
An ev'n devotion!

* * *

To see ourselves as others see us . . . that's something none of us could do, but it would change us a great deal. Perhaps it's a blessing we can't know what others think of us, for we would either come to hate them, or hate ourselves.

And always keep your hats, hairbrushes, and pillowcases to yourselves!

Monday, November 14, 2005

I wake and feel the fell...

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

* * *

This is one of Hopkins's most despairing poems. I fell upon it a few nights ago. It is a poem about night, both literal and symbolic. The speaker wakes at night. The night is long and dark, but the speaker has not spent it sleeping, and will not sleep while awaiting "longer light's delay." The night does not end, though the speaker wishes it to.

The second quatrain shows that the night is spiritual as well as physical; it is not a night of hours but of years. He cries out in anguish, but he does not feel he is heard. The "dearest" one to whom he writes "lives, alas! away." He writes the letters, but they are not answered; the loved one must be far away.

"I am gall; I am heartburn." This line signaling the volta is my favorite. Life is bitter to him -- and not just life, but himself. His sorrow is the very thing he cannot flee, his own flesh and blood. God built him a body, and yet he finds it a curse.

He feels himself to be a souring dough: his spirit is the yeast that turns the whole self sour. This explains how God can have made his body and yet have the body turn to a curse: the speaker's sinful spirit has soured it.

He then sinks to the very depths of misery, comparing himself to the sweating souls in Hell. The torment of the damned consists in having to live with themselves, with their own despicable selves -- but worse. Worse how? I believe in the loss of God, in addition to their own hatred of themselves. And the speaker shares this torment, too, because he feels God is "alas! away." In this poem he explains how he has experienced a taste of Hell, even while living on earth.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

From "In Memoriam"

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life will be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream; but what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light,
And with no language, but a cry.

* * *

This is one of the perennial problems of life: what is suffering worth? We trust it is worth something; even in the depths of sorrow we can trust this, and yet we cannot know what it is worth.

What good can possibly come of this evil? Is it not, instead, my own fault, and not God's will, so that only evil will come of it? And yet, even out of our own sins God can draw forth some lesson for us, some good he intends for us.

Yet, in the moment of suffering, this can be little comfort.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Yfele yer hert me to-teneth
It doeth me rye
Waylaway . . .

Evilly I tore your heart to pieces
And now I deeply regret it
Oh woe . . .

But it ne shall him underfynde
Thus to be shent
Waylaway . . .

But you will not understand
To be deceived in such a shameful way
Oh woe . . .

It in wode by fleme
Evere . . .

You have banished me into the woods
For ever.

* * *

I got this from the libretto of a CD; I have no idea where the original words come from. The translation is doubtful; I don't think it's very exact at all, but not knowing Middle English very well, I don't dare try to mend it.

The song begins saying that the speaker has hurt someone, someone who does not understand. But it ends with the speaker himself suffering.

What this reveals is that it can be much more painful to know we have hurt someone we love than to be hurt ourselves. We can always forgive those who have hurt us, but how can we forgive ourselves? How can we live with the fact that we have injured our friends?

Think of Túrin and Beleg in the Silmarillion. Túrin, I am certain, would a thousand times have rather died than done wrong to his friend. Instead he had to live with the guilt of what he had done forever.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Dies Irae

Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla:
teste David cum Sibylla.

The day of wrath, that day
which will dissolve the world to ashes,
as testified by David and the Sybil.

Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando judex est venturus,
cuncta stricte discussurus!

What terror there will be,
when the judge will come
all drawn together tightly to be shattered!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
per sepulcra regionum,
coget omnes ante thronum.

The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
among the graves of all the lands,
will assemble all before the Throne.

Mors stupebit et natura,
cum resurget creatura,
judicanti responsura.

Death and Nature will be astounded
when they see a creature rise again
to answer to the Judge.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
in quo totum continetur,
unde mundus judicetur.

The book will be brought forth
in which all deeds are noted,
for which the world will be judged.

Judex ergo cum sedebit,
quidquid latet apparebit:
nil inultum remanebit.

When the judge will be seated,
all that is hidden will appear,
and nothing will remain unpunished.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
cum vix justus sit securus?

What am I, wretched, to say?
To what advocate shall I appeal,
when the just man is barely secure?

Rex tremendae majestatis,
qui salvandos salvas gratis,
salva me fons pietatis.

O king of tremendous majesty,
who freely saves the elect,
save me, O font of piety.

Recordare, Jesu pie,
quod sum causa tuae viae:
ne me perdas illa die.

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the cause of your journey,
do not lose me on that day.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
redemisti Crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.

You wearied yourself in finding me;
you have redeemed me through the cross;
let not such great efforts be in vain.

Juste judex ultionis,
donum fac remissionis
ante diem rationis.

O judge of vengeance, justly
make a gift of your forgiveness
before the day of reckoning.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
culpa rubet vultus meus:
supplicanti parce, Deus.

I lament like a guilty one;
my faults cause me to blush;
I beg you, spare me.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
et latronem exaudisti,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.

You who have absolved Mary,
and have heard the thief's prayer,
have also given hope to me.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
sed tu bonus fac benigne,
ne perenni cremer igne.

My prayers are not worthy,
but you, O Good One, grant kindly
that I do not burn in the eternal fire.

Inter oves locum praesta,
et ab haedis me sequestra,
statuens in parte dextra.

Give me a place among the sheep,
separate me from the goats,
placing me at your right side.

Confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis:
voca me cum benedictis.

Having destroyed the accursed,
condemned them to the fierce flames,
call me with the blessed.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.

I prostrate myself, supplicating,
my heart repentant, like ashes;
take care of my end.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla

judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

That tearful day,
when from the ashes shall rise again
sinful man to be judged.
Therefore pardon him, O God:

pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.

Merciful Lord Jesus,
give them rest. Amen.

* * *

I have of late been troubled a great deal with thoughts of the things in this poem: sin, God's justice, damnation. The hymn is a cry of man fearing his end, yet trusting in God to order it justly. In the end, that is all we can ask: that God is just with us.

Yet He is more than just with us: He is merciful. He absolved Mary Magdalene, He forgave the penitent thief, and He will not forget us in the last day.

On the last day, we will find that we are not worthy of salvation. We have done what we could, but it can never be enough. Even the best action of our lives is still miniscule compared to salvation. Christ lends us the merit that our action do not in themselves deserve, and by His own free gift allows us to be saved.

An atheist mocked my friend and me last week, saying, "I'm going to go to Hell if I die. That shows how merciful your God is."

Oh, if only she knew how merciful our God is! If she would allow Him to save her, He could have mercy on her. Still, God will not save us against our will. In the end, it is still up to us: will we accept the grace Christ has won for us? or will we reject Him, living the life we choose, until it leads us to perdition?

On this All Souls' Day, let us pray for the souls of all who have died. May they stand at God's right hand, among the sheep.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.