Thursday, October 27, 2005

She Walks in Beauty

by George Gordon, Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that 's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

* * *

This poem always brings to mind the faces of some of my most beautiful friends. I greatly admire black hair and light skin. It reminds me of Gondor -- and the Noldor. I can never quite decide which is better: black hair and light skin, with grey eyes; or chestnut hair and brown eyes. I envy people with each.

The important thing about the lady's beauty, though, is not her physical traits, but her heart. A true, innocent soul always lends a sort of beauty to the face it wears. I used to object to the phrase, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" on the grounds that some beautiful people are bad, and some good people are ugly. But this is not true. Even perfectly-featured people, if they are bad, have a sad and empty look in their eyes. And the faces of good people, however asymetrical and marked with so-called flaws, have smiles and sparkling eyes that make them strikingly beautiful. That is the sort of beauty I aspire to: a beauty that cannot be corrupted by age, illness, or injury, but that will always be mine, and will lead me to behold true beauty in heaven.

"Give back beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God." -- Hopkins

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sonnet XXX

by William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long-since-cancelled woe,
And moan th' expense of many a vanished sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

* * *

The majority of the poem deals with sadness. No new sorrow has come to the speaker; he is only in that sort of mood wherein he calls up everything that makes him sad and weeps over it again.

The only thing that can help one out of a mood like that is the thought of a friend. How can one be sorrowful if one has friends?

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.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

God's World

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this:
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

* * *

This poem came to my mind while on a walk by the Shenandoah River yesterday. The fall colours are just beginning to tinge the edges of the trees, and that, coupled with a sweet, warm breeze, put me in a mood of being too happy, drinking in so much beauty I thought I would burst.

Oddly enough, Millay is considered a modern poet. However, in this poem at least, she avoids those things that most disgust me about modern poetry. She allows herself to be happy; she writes about God's world instead of man's degraded world; she is not afraid of being slightly archaic; she uses quite an interesting rhyme scheme. The result: a sweet, passionate poem describing the emotions all of us have felt, but "ne'er so well expressed."

Monday, October 03, 2005

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

* * *

This is one of those emotional, romantic poems that some people find empty. But, whether it's to someone's personal taste or not, there's more to it than just emotion. It isn't just a blind outpouring of feeling.

For example, there is a specific setting, probably a fictional one. This matches with Tennyson's tendency to use invented people and places in his lyric poetry. It gives a note of nobility to the poem.

There's also an ascendency of images: first, drowsy images, to remind us that it is night. Second, the fireflies bring in the sense of wakefulness. The succeeding metaphors show different aspects of the couple's love. Finally, the last metaphor expresses a hope for union.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

From "Ode to the West Wind"

by Percy Bysshe Shelley


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

* * *

I felt the whole poem might be a little long to blog, but it is worth reading, and can be found here.

Fall is here, and with it that strong wind that tears the leaves from off the trees and quickens the hearts of those who hear it. In this poem is a prayer that the energy and inspiration the wind sends might be truly effective. Certainly the wind makes one's heart beat faster, but will it inspire us to song or action? Shelley hopes so.

Yet I find that the wind, alone, is not sufficient inspiration for a life of labour. One must look beyond the wind to the wind's Source to become forceful and beautiful as the wind is. The wind obtains its beauty and power from God; therefore, if we want to have the same, we must obtain it also from God, and not from the wind.