Friday, December 18, 2009

Chesterton on Holidays

The Christmas celebrations will certainly remain, and will certainly survive any attempt by modern artists, idealists, or neo-pagans to substitute anything else for them. For the truth is that there is an alliance between religion and real fun, of which the modern thinkers have never got the key, and which they are quite unable to criticize or to destroy.

All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises, promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified. [...] But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation. [...] Religion is much nearer to riotous happiness than it is to the detached and temperate types of happiness in which gentlemen and philosophers find their peace. Religion and riot are very near, as the history of all religions proves.

Riot means being a rotter; and religion means knowing you are a rotter. Somebody said, and it has often been quoted: 'Be good and you will be happy; but you will not have a jolly time.' The epigram is witty, but it is profoundly mistaken in its estimate of the truth of human nature. I should be inclined to say that the truth is exactly the reverse. Be good and you will have a jolly time; but you will not be happy. If you have a good heart you will always have some lightness of heart; you will always have the power of enjoying special human feasts, and positive human good news. But the heart which is there to be lightened will also be there to be hurt; and really if you only want to be happy, to be steadily and stupidly happy like the animals, it may be well worth your while not to have a heart at all.

Fortunately, however, being happy is not so important as having a jolly time. Philosophers are happy; saints have a jolly time. The important thing in life is not to keep a steady system of pleasure and composure (which can be done quite well by hardening one's heart or thickening one's head), but to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter, and a kind of young reverence. This is why religion always insists on special days like Christmas, while philosophy always tends to despise them.

Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he is tickled. That is the best of Christmas, that it is a startling and disturbing happiness; it is an uncomfortable comfort. The Christmas customs destroy the human habits.

And while customs are generally unselfish, habits are nearly always selfish. The object of a religious festival is, as I have said, to find out if a happy man is still alive. A man can smile when he is dead. Composure, resignation, and the most exquisite good manners are, so to speak, the strong points of corpses. There is only one way in which you can test his real vitality, and that is by a special festival. Explode crackers in his ear, and see if he jumps. Prick him with holly, and see if he feels it. If not, he is dead, or, as he would put it, is 'living the higher life.'

--G.K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, 11 January 1908.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If My Head Hurt a Hair's Foot (and a contest)

by Dylan Thomas

'If my head hurt a hair's foot
Pack back the downed bone. If the unpricked ball of my breath
Bump on a spout let the bubbles jump out.
Sooner drop with the worm of the ropes round my throat
Than bully ill love in the clouted scene.

'All game phrases fit your ring of a cockfight:
I'll comb the snared woods with a glove on a lamp,
Peck, sprint, dance on fountains and duck time
Before I rush in a crouch the ghost with a hammer, air,
Strike light, and bloody a loud room.

'If my bunched, monkey coming is cruel
Rage me back to the making house. My hand unravel
When you sew the deep door. The bed is a cross place.
Bend, if my journey ache, direction like an arc or make
A limp and riderless shape to leap nine thinning months.'

'No. Not for Christ's dazzling bed
Or a nacreous sleep among soft particles and charms
My dear would I change my tears or your iron head.
Thrust, my daughter or son, to escape, there is none, none, none,
Nor when all ponderous heaven's host of waters breaks.

'Now to awake husked of gestures and my joy like a cave
To the anguish and carrion, to the infant forever unfree,
O my lost love bounced from a good home;
The grain that hurries this way from the rim of the grave
Has a voice and a house, and there and here you must couch and cry.

'Rest beyond choice in the dust-appointed grain,
At the breast stored with seas. No return
Through the waves of the fat streets nor the skeleton's thin ways.
The grave and my calm body are shut to your coming as stone,
And the endless beginning of prodigies suffers open.'

* * *

This poem was sent to me by Meredith. Unfortunately Dylan Thomas has never made a whole lot of sense to me: the general gist I get, but many of the individual metaphors puzzle me.

Meredith's explanation: "Basically it's a dialogue: the child speaks in the first three stanzas, and then the mother answers. The child says that if he's going to cause his mother so much trouble, he'd rather not be born at all, but the mother comes back and tells the child to be born and live and rest in her arms."

Thanks, Meredith!

All right, having posted all the poems for unborn children that I can find, I still want more. Time for a contest! The theme is unborn children -- by, about, and to them. You can write in any form, including those we've done on here before -- sonnets, ballades, triolets. It can be serious or funny (or both). Leave them in the comment box or email to enchiridion1 at yahoo dot com.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Four by G. K. Chesterton

A Grace

You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.


I thank thee, O Lord, for the stones in the street
I thank thee for the hay-carts yonder and for the houses built and half-built
That fly past me as I stride.
But most of all for the great wind in my nostrils
As if thine own nostrils were close.


Once I looked down at my bootlaces
Who gave me my bootlacees?
The bootmaker? Bah!
Who gave the bootmaker himself?
What did I ever do that I should be given bootlaces?


Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

* * *

Of all the virtues GKC had -- and he had quite a few, from a talent with words to some excellent common sense -- I think my favorite is his gratitude. He honestly was grateful for everything. For haycarts in the street, and for bootlaces. Every little thing proved to him the loving care of God. In this way, he was like a guest who arrives at a house and carefully notices everything that has been done for him: "Oh, I love the little soaps you put out! Why, there are flowers in my room! A mint is on my pillow! You didn't have to go to all this trouble!"

Why is it that we are thankful for the towel left folded on the foot of our bed when we are staying at someone's house, but we are not thankful for the dew left on the grass in the morning? Both were done because someone was excited to have us here.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

You Ruined Everything

by Jonathon Coulton

I was fine
I pulled myself together
Just in time
To throw myself away
Once my perfect world was gone I knew
You ruined everything
In the nicest way

You should know
How great things were before you
Even so
They’re better still today
I can’t think of who I was before
You ruined everything
In the nicest way

Bumps in the road remind us
The worst of the best's behind us
Only good things will find us
Me and you

Days will be clear and sunny
We’re gonna need more money
Baby you know it’s funny
All those stories coming true

Despite my better efforts
It’s all for you
The worst kind of cliche
I’ll be with you till the day you leave
You ruined everything
In the nicest way

* * *

I admit that this is a song lyric and not, technically, a poem in the strict sense. However, for all I generally don't post song lyrics on here, I do believe that some of them can be appreciated as poems in their own right. Most things I listen to, I listen to for the lyrics.

This song is by Jonathan Coulton, a musician John introduced me to. His songs are generally funny, but they often have real meaning behind them. (Admittedly, the one about the zombies in the office building, or Leonard Nimoy and the Sasquatch, might not have the same depth.) He wrote this song about the birth of his daughter. To quote his explanation,

"I was having a conversation with a friend who had recently become a parent, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten about since my daughter was born. She was describing this what-have-I-done feeling - I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don’t feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning."

I sing this song to the baby a lot, on the way home from work. I know that nothing will be the same after the little stranger is born. But I don't mind all that. In fact, even at the moments when I'm lying around moaning because I feel wretched, I tend to add, "But I don't regret being pregnant! I know having a baby is worth this!" (See if I shout the same in labor. ;) )

I feel like I'm coming to love this little mystery, even though I don't know him or her at all. All I have to go on is a fuzzy 7-week ultrasound (looks like a blob, though when you could see it moving and the heart beating it looked a bit more human. (Note: 7-week babies are pretty well-developed -- just too small for an ultrasound to show in any detail.) ), two times of hearing the heartbeat, and my own symptoms. For instance, I know, based on my weird and varied cravings, that this will not be an easy kid to please. Also that, so far at least, there is no suggestion that this will be an "easy baby."

If anyone knows of any poems about unborn babies that I haven't posted yet (and are any good) please do email me. (The address should be posted someplace: at any rate it is enchiridion1 at yahoo dot com.) I really like those poems these days, and want to post more of the same, but so few people have written on this topic. (Does anyone sense a contest coming?)

Monday, October 12, 2009


by G.K. Chesterton

I would say to all parents
Do you take things equally
How do you know you are not
In the place of Joseph and Mary?

* * *

I have a few important things to say, but felt it would be unfair to leave you without a poem, after you've gone so long without any. So here is a very nice one, one of GKC's early poems.

The important thing I have to say is the same as my excuse for not blogging. My new husband and I are part of a miracle -- a miracle that's been going on for 13 weeks and which we won't get to see the fruit of until April 16th. In short, there is a baby on the way.

My main reason for not blogging has been sickness ... the continuation of the human race is a miracle that sometimes comes with some suffering. Along with that, I have been working again, so I am as busy as can be, so my motto to "keep poetry as a moment of peace" has not exactly been adhered to very well. I can't guarantee things will be better from here on out, though I can promise to try, and I can also direct you to my other blog, which hopefully will be updated a bit more often: A Gift Universe.

So, in case there are any readers who haven't given up on me -- that's my news, and hopefully I'll find a way to blog every week or two at least. Meanwhile, those of you who are parents, take a moment to reflect on what a miracle and mystery that is. If you knew you were in the place of Joseph and Mary, how would you do things differently? I know none of us is perfect, but at the very least, it is good to realize, from time to time, the massive, amazing mission we are a part of.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Love's Trappist

by G. K. Chesterton

There is a place where lute and lyre are broken,
Where scrolls are torn and on a wild wind go,
Where tablets stand wiped naked for a token,
Where laurels wither and the daisies grow.

Lo: I too join the brotherhood of silence,
I am Love's trappist and you ask in vain,
For man through Love's gate, even as through Death's gate,
Goeth alone and comes not back again.

Yet here I pause, look back across the threshold,
Cry to my brethren, though the world be old,
Prophets and sages, questioners and doubters,
O world, old world, the best hath ne'er been told!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Creation Day

by G. K. Chesterton

Between the perfect marriage day
And that fierce future proud, and furled,
I only stole six days--six days
Enough for God to make the world.

For us is a creation made
New moon by night, new sun by day,
That ancient elm that holds the heavens
Sprang to its stature yesterday --

Dearest and first of all things free,
Alone as bride and queen and friend,
Brute facts may come and bitter truths,
But here all doubts shall have an end.

Never again with cloudy talk
Shall life be tricked or faith undone,
The world is many and is mad,
But we are sane and we are one.

* * *

Our honeymoon was six days like the Chestertons' -- our wedding day was the day before their anniversary. May we have as many happy years as they had.

So far, I am terribly happy. My love is expansive and goes out to all of you.

Friday, June 26, 2009

From Chesterton's letters to Frances

... I am looking over the sea and endeavouring to reckon up the estate I have to offer you. As far as I can make out my equipment for starting on a journey to fairyland consists of the following items.

1st. A Straw Hat. The oldest part of this admirable relic shows traces of pure Norman work. The vandalism of Cromwell's soldiers has left us little of the original hat-band.

2nd. A Walking Stick, very knobby and heavy: admirably fitted to break the head of any denizen of Suffolk who denies that you are the noblest of ladies, but of no other manifest use.

3rd. A copy of Walt Whitman's poems, once nearly given to Salter, but quite forgotten. It has his name in it still with an affectionate inscription from his sincere friend Gilbert Chesterton. I wonder if he will ever have it.

4th. A number of letters from a young lady, containing everything good and generous and loyal and holy and wise that isn't in Walt Whitman's poems.

5th. An unwieldy sort of a pocket knife, the blades mostly having an edge of a more varied and picturesque outline than is provided by the prosaic cutler. The chief element however is a thing 'to take stones out of a horse's hoof.' What a beautiful sensation of security it gives one to reflect that if one should ever have money enough to buy a horse and should happen to buy one and the horse should happen to have a stone in his hoof - that one is ready; one stands prepared, with a defiant smile!

6th. Passing from the last miracle of practical foresight, we come to a box of matches. Every now and then I strike one of these, because fire is beautiful and burns your fingers. Some people think this waste of matches: the same people who object to the building of

7th. About three pounds in gold and silver, the remains of one of Mr. Unwin's bursts of affection: those explosions of spontaneous love for myself, which, such is the perfect order and harmony of his mind, occur at startlingly exact internals of time.

8th. A book of Children's Rhymes, in manuscript, called the 'Weather Book' about 3/4 finished, and destined for Mr. Nutt. I have been working at it fairly steadily, which I think jolly creditable under the circumstances. One can't put anything interesting in it. They'll understand those things when they grow up.

9th. A tennis racket - nay, start not. It is a part of the new regime, and the only new and neat-looking thing in the Museum. We'll soon mellow it - like the straw hat. My brother and I are teaching each other lawn tennis.

10th. A soul, hitherto idle and omnivorous but now happy enough to be ashamed of itself.

11th. A body, equally idle and quite equally omnivorous, absorbing tea, coffee, claret, sea-water and oxygen to its own perfect satisfaction. It is happiest swimming, I think, the sea being about a
convenient size.

12th. A Heart - mislaid somewhere. And that is about all the property of which an inventory can be made at present. After all, my tastes are stoically simple. A straw hat, a stick, a box of matches and some of his own poetry. What more does man require? ...

* * *

When we set up a house, darling (honeysuckle porch, yew clips hedge, bees, poetry and eight shillings a week), I think you will have to do the shopping. Particularly at Felixstowe. There was a great and glorious man who said, 'Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities.' That I think would be a splendid motto to write (in letters of brown gold) over the porch of our hypothetical home. There will be a sofa for you, for example, but no chairs, for I prefer the floor. There will be a select store of chocolate-creams (to make you do the Carp with) and the rest will be bread and water. We will each retain a suit of evening dress for great occasions, and at other times clothe ourselves in the skins of wild beasts (how pretty you would look) which would fit your taste in furs and be economical.

I have sometimes thought it would be very fine to take an ordinary house, a very poor, commonplace house in West Kensington, say, and make it symbolic. Not artistic - Heaven - O Heaven forbid. My blood boils when I think of the affronts put by knock-kneed pictorial epicures on the strong, honest, ugly, patient shapes of necessary things: the brave old bones of life. There are aesthetic pattering prigs who can look on a saucepan without one tear of joy or sadness: mongrel decadents that can see no dignity in the honourable scars of a kettle. So they concentrate all their house decoration on coloured windows that nobody looks out of, and vases of lilies that everybody wishes out of the way. No: my idea (which is much cheaper) is to make a house really allegoric-- really explain its own essential meaning. Mystical or ancient sayings should be inscribed on every object, the more prosaic the object the better; and the more coarsely and rudely the inscription was traced the better. 'Hast thou sent the Rain upon the Earth?' should be inscribed on the Umbrella-Stand: perhaps on the Umbrella. 'Even the Hairs of your Head are all numbered' would give a tremendous significance to one's hairbrushes: the words about 'living water' would reveal the music and sanctity of the sink: while 'Our God is a consuming Fire' might be written over the kitchen-grate, to assist the mystic musings of the cook - Shall we ever try that experiment, dearest. Perhaps not, for no words would be golden enough for the tools you had to touch: you would be beauty enough for one house..."

... By all means let us have bad things in our dwelling and make them good things. I shall offer no objection to your having an occasional dragon to dinner, or a penitent Griffin to sleep in the spare
bed. The image of you taking a Sunday school of little Devils is pleasing. They will look up, first in savage wonder, then in vague respect; they will see the most glorious and noble lady that ever lived since their prince tempted Eve, with a halo of hair and great heavenly eyes that seem to make the good at the heart of things almost too terribly simple and naked for the sons of flesh: and as they gaze, their tails will drop off, and their wings will sprout: and they will become Angels in six lessons....

* * *

I cannot profess to offer any elaborate explanation of your mother's disquiet but I admit it does not wholly surprise me. You see I happen to know one factor in the case, and one only, of which you are wholly ignorant. I know you ... I know one thing which has made me feel strange before your mother - I know the value of what I take away. I feel (in a weird moment) like the Angel of Death.

You say you want to talk to me about death: my views about death are bright, brisk and entertaining. When Azrael takes a soul it may be to other and brighter worlds: like those whither you and I go together. The transformation called Death may be something as beautiful and dazzling as the transformation called Love. It may make the dead man 'happy,' just as your mother knows that you are happy. But none the less it is a transformation, and sad sometimes for those left behind. A mother whose child is dying can hardly believe that in the inscrutable Unknown there is anyone who can look to it as well as she. And if a mother cannot trust her child easily to God Almighty, shall I be so mean as to be angry because she cannot trust it easily to me? I tell you I have stood before your mother and felt like a thief. I know you are not going to part: neither physically, mentally, morally nor spiritually. But she sees a new element in your life, wholly from outside - is it not natural, given her temperament, that you should find her perturbed? Oh, dearest, dearest Frances, let us always be very gentle to older people. Indeed, darling, it is not they who are the tyrants, but we. They may interrupt our building in the scaffolding stages: we turn their house upside down when it is their final home and rest. Your mother would certainly have worried if you had been engaged to the Archangel Michael (who, indeed, is bearing his disappointment very well): how much more when you are engaged to an aimless, tactless, reckless, unbrushed, strange-hatted, opinionated scarecrow who has suddenly walked into the vacant place. I could have prophesied her unrest: wait and she will calm down all right, dear. God comfort her: I dare not....

* * *

The first time he spent an evening at the Bloggs there was no one there. That is to say there was a worn but fiery little lady in a grey dress who didn't approve of 'catastrophic solutions of social
problems.' That, he understood, was Mrs. Blogg. There was a long, blonde, smiling young person who seemed to think him quite off his head and who was addressed as Ethel. There were two people whose meaning and status he couldn't imagine, one of whom had a big nose and the other hadn't.... Lastly, there was a Juno-like creature in a tremendous hat who eyed him all the time half wildly, like a shying horse, because he said he was quite happy....

But the second time he went there he was plumped down on a sofa beside a being of whom he had a vague impression that brown hair grew at intervals all down her like a caterpillar. Once in the course of conversation she looked straight at him and he said to himself as plainly as if he had read it in a book: 'If I had anything to do with this girl I should go on my knees to her: if I spoke with her she would never deceive me: if I depended on her she would never deny me: if I loved her she would never play with me: if I trusted her she would never go back on me: if I remembered her she would never forget me. I may never see her again. Goodbye.' It was all said in a flash: but it was all said....

Two years, as they say in the playbills, is supposed to elapse. And here is the subject of this memoir sitting on a balcony above the sea. The time, evening. He is thinking of the whole bewildering record of which the foregoing is a brief outline: he sees how far he has gone wrong and how idle and wasteful and wicked he has often been: how miserably unfitted he is for what he is called upon to be. Let him now declare it and hereafter for ever hold his peace.

But there are four lamps of thanksgiving always before him. The first is for his creation out of the same earth with such a woman as you. The second is that he has not, with all his faults, 'gone after strange women.' You cannot think how a man's selfrestraint is rewarded in this. The third is that he has tried to love everything alive: a dim preparation for loving you. And the fourth is - but no words can express that. Here ends my previous existence. Take it: it led me to you.

* * *

Dear readers, here ends my former existence. Tomorrow I will be another person, with a new state in life and a new name. Pray for me as I pass over the threshold. --Sheila

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sonnet Contest Winners

Signing in, I discovered it has been a month and a half since I last blogged! Time has been flying at an even faster clip than usual. Between end-of-year grading and last-minute wedding planning, the days barely have time to be noticed before they slip by.

But, since I said I would announce the winners "a little after Easter," I will announce them today, on Pentecost. It's close enough, I suppose.

Unfortunately, there were fewer entries than usual. On the bright side, all of the entries were quite good.

Here they are: the top poems from the contest.

First place: Embrethiel

How Many Sunsets

How many sunsets have there ever been?
How many banners of defiant light
Before the pyrrhic victories of night?
How many sunsets have you ever seen
And have remembered? Glory does not stay
Long in the mem'ry if short in the day,
And splendour loses beauty when spread thin,
Like many colours running down to grey.
There is one sunset I will not forget,
When no one else was there with me and yet
I felt the world was watching with my eyes
And that my heart was beating for each one
Whose thousandth sunset moved him so to rise
And silently salute a dying sun.

An excellent poem, one I identify strongly with. Note the volta, at "There is one sunset..." That is a perfect example of what a volta can be. Embrethiel's use of questions is also very good; it draws you in, doesn't it? And all her word-painting ("banners of defiant light," "many colours running down to grey") paints a sunset in my mind.

Second place: Dylan


Their cloaks lay piled before him as they stoned
One of those wild blasphemers. He looked on
Approvingly as the business was done:
Limbs blood-stained and a brain mortally stunned.
Stopping those upstarts, that hot-headed band
Who placed faith in a cross-killed Nazarene,
This was his duty as a citizen.
So, to Damascus, where more could be found.

Struck by a fearsome flash, he fell prostrate
And felt the full voice of divinity:
"Why do you persecute Jesus the Christ?"
For three days, Saul was blind; scales kept the light
From entering his eyes. Love's mystery
Involved his heart, restored the sight he'd lost.

I like this one. It peers a little into Saul's head, with language suggesting his practical disdain of the Christians. My favorite line: "One of those wild blasphemers." It sounds right. Also, it's a nice break in the rhythm when you run a sentence across a line, because so many lines in sonnets naturally tend to be end-stopped.

Third place: Dr. Thursday

All of the Above

"Any topic will do -- romantic, religious, philosophical, funny. All four would be great. " --Sheila of Enchiridion, March 9, 2009

Adventuresome, I hack through verbal vines
And word mounds melt, to forge the chain of love,
I scan the stars, yet look for One above,
And drop the plumb-bob down the deepest mines.
With compass, integral, and high-speed lines
I seek solutions which fit like a glove,
And spend some moments laughing with the Dove
Who gives Wit sevenfold in hidden signs.

What joy to take up verbal tools to weave
A rhyme on cheese from spoons of chicken-gold;
The scented walnut from the Scrabble box
Deals pork or pyrotechnics - I believe -
All point to One Beauty (so new, so old)
Through keys which open Reason's many locks.

(Note: Dr. Thursday's poetry is always allusive and sometimes a little hard to get. The line which puzzled me was "spoons of chicken gold." He explained that he is speaking of alphabet soup. The rest I think you can puzzle out on your own.)

Honorable Mention: Paul Stilwell


As wide shores are rained with feeding dunlin,
so every place our drumming sin persists:
depot, hearth, school; our tenor-tide consists
so much of sin, needs we bury it in
a din, heirloomed from stranger, friend and kin;
while those appear upended that resist,
for by fulsome sin we make our sheen subsist:
we winnow, grind, knead digestible, sin.
Still the price of light's our stain's exposure;
but little demarked of our sins' bored tread,
spells some exposed, freely, on another:
as he who accepts light's light imposure
can no longer be the counterweight lead
that holds at mid-height, sister or brother.

Rather Hopkinsian, isn't it, with the swift repetitions of rhyming words? This one, like the previous one, took me a couple of readings. Don't slack off, but read it a few times yourself.

Congratulations, winners! I don't dare announce the next contest yet, because I know I'll be too busy getting married next month to judge them, but here's a hint: Don't worry, I will find a use for all those cheesy poems I was sent. ;) Turns out these poets aren't so mysteriously silent after all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Loveliest of trees,, the cherry now

by A. E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

* * *

Cherry blossoms always seem to spark meditations on time. Each year, we only get about a week of them. If you miss them, they're gone.

I walked by the cherry blossoms every day for a week, saying to myself, "Tomorrow I'll come out with a camera, and get some pictures. Tomorrow, I'll stop and enjoy them." But of course it was grade week, and day after day they hung in my path to tempt me, but I passed them by. Finally, on Friday, I had a little time. Only it was sunset, so I didn't get all the sunshiny pictures I'd hoped for. Over the weekend I had company, and only had a moment to glance at them. I awoke Monday morning to pouring rain. The petals lay in soggy masses on the ground and stuck themselves to the cars in the parking lot. I had let the week slip through my hands, and there was no extension -- no hope for another chance. They were gone, and the pictures and memories I'd gotten of them would have to suffice.

Every year it's like that. The short moment we have with the blossoms is almost painful in its ephemerality. You're so eager to enjoy them while they last, but there's a sadness in it, too -- every moment you enjoy them, you think of their fall. The poet might easily have said, "Where are the cherry blossoms of yesteryear?" Robert Frost did say of Nature, "Her early leaf's a flower, but only so an hour." Their transience makes them so precious, but at the same time, it's almost easier to pretend you don't care -- to pass them by, for fear they will make your heart ache when they fall; to feel a sense of relief when they're gone, because at least the tension of their impermanence won't trouble you anymore.

Yet I resolve not to let myself do that. I will instead take the time it requires to capture things that are fleeting. Fifty springs is a short time to see the blossoms in -- but it is worth taking that time.

How often I disparage the time I live in. "Oh, if only I were grown up -- if only I were in college -- if only I had graduated -- if only I had married." I always look toward the future, and I suspect I always will. But it should never be at the cost of the present. The present only comes once, and only lasts a moment.

I got an extension on the cherry blossoms, by the way. I flew to Seattle, where the blossoms are still on the trees -- even despite a hailstorm yesterday. I took a detour across a parking lot today and let them brush against my face. Thank you, God, for a second chance to marvel at your creation.

* * *

Editorial Note: Sorry for the hiatus in posting. I've been waiting for more entries on the poetry contest, and of course running myself to the ground with busy-ness. But try to get your submissions in by the end of the week, so I can finish judging them. I've been getting some lovely sonnets! And I finished mine, too.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Sonnet contest

Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room
by William Wordsworth

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

* * *

All right, you've seen the sonnets I've been putting up. Your turn -- write me some! I'm working on one in praise of cheese. What will you do?

Any topic will do -- romantic, religious, philosophical, funny. All four would be great. For tips on sonnet structure, read the most recent sonnet posts.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Love Is Not All

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by need and moaning for release
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

* * *

I don't think I would, either. Love is more practical than people take it for, which I think is definitely a part of what this poem is about. Here's is the question for you, though: is this sonnet romantic, or anti-romantic?

What I like about it (along with everything else) is that it proves that the sonnet is not dead. I do not believe that the sonnet will ever die. Why, I've even caught E. E. Cummings at it! He tried to sneak it by me, but I caught him. I like it when these modern poets do them as if they're not trying, as if the rhymes just happened. They never contort their sentence order or switch between you and thee so that they can rhyme with more things. They just chat away like they were shooting the breeze over the fence, and the next thing you know, there's a sonnet. It takes a lot of work to make it look this easy.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sonnet 130

by William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak,--yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground;

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

* * *

An English, or Shakespearean sonnet. I've added spaces so you can see the different structure. Instead of an 8-line point and a 6-line counterpoint, we have three 4-line points and then a couplet which either contrasts with the rest (as here) or concludes it.

English sonnets are a little easier in terms of rhyme: abab cdcd efef gg. That leaves you with only two of each rhyme. However, that means the sonnet is a little less firmly linked together. English sonnets are also, because of their looser, more rational logical structure, not quite as fierce or intense as Italian sonnets. So, if you want to make a philosophical point, perhaps an English sonnet is the way to go. Imagine you're St. Thomas, writing objection one, objection two, objection three, and then "I answer that ..." Or making an official statement, "Given one, two, and three, it is RESOLVED that ..." But if you want to express something a little bit more emotional, something uncomplicated, with only two steps, I would advise the Italian sonnet.

Many people just pick one or the other and use only that one -- the reasoning for this being that sonnets are addictive, and you start to hear the rhythm and rhyme in your head. The more of one kind you write, the more you want to write. However, I would advise that all prospective sonneteers learn both: that way you have a tool for whatever kind of topic you're dealing with.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

To Althea, From Prison

by Richard Lovelace

When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair
And fetter'd to her eye,
The birds that wanton in the air
Know no such liberty.

When flowing cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty grief in wine we steep,
When healths and draughts go free—
Fishes that tipple in the deep
Know no such liberty.

When, like committed linnets, I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how great should be,
Enlargèd winds, that curl the flood,
Know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

* * *

A break from our sonnet theme to post a poem that's been floating in my head lately, as I reflect on the notion of freedom. I think we are too accustomed to freedom -- so accustomed to assuming we have it as not to notice when it is taken away. I rejoice in my freedom every day, for I have lived without it -- even without that interior freedom which no one can take from us without our permission.

Yet how often we give that permission! We take dictums and short, easy answers and accept them without thinking. People assume that because we are Catholic, naturally we must just take things "on faith" and not think about them. No! Faith has its basis in reason. We choose to believe because reason tells us the authority is trustworthy. Reason tells us that God can neither deceive nor be deceived. If reason told us otherwise, God could not and would not expect us to believe Him. He allows us to come to Him through our reason.

What, then, should happen when something we take on faith (either faith in God, or in trustworthy men) seems wrong? I may get some objections when I say this, but I still say -- go ahead and question it! If it is true, it can handle the questioning. Go back to the very beginning if you need to -- take the effort you need to go back to square one and prove what you know to yourself. While you're taking that effort, still abide by what you believe, because you believe it, but don't stop there -- examine. If you keep having questions and doubts and refuse to entertain them, they will only grow, until you're years down the line saying, "I guess I doubted even then, but didn't dare say anything." Don't let that happen. Ask the questions now -- trust that there is an answer to every one of them.

If you were in a relationship, and something appeared "off" to you, you would sit down and ask why -- try to discover what it is and whether it's going to be a problem. Otherwise you might find yourself years later saying, "Well, I always assumed it wouldn't be a big deal, but it turned out it was." Instead, you examine the problem, turn it all around and upside down, and once you know it, choose whether to accept it as it is. If you do accept it, you'll know later on that it was with your eyes open, and you will be better prepared to deal with it.

Similarly, if you are in a religious group that you've always assumed you were specially called to by God, and recent events are casting doubt on that group, go ahead and entertain that doubt. It's all right. Don't you trust that the entire basis for your faith in God won't crumble even if you do ask yourself if there might be something wrong?

The truth sometimes hurts, but it will always set you free.

And that is all I am going to say about the recent news. If you know me well, you might know why I'm thinking about it so much ... but I have promised someone that I won't obsess about it, so here's me trying.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The world is too much with us; late and soon

by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The Winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

* * *

Another sonnet. Pay attention to the form. Metrically speaking, it's an Italian sonnet, rhyming abba abba cdcdcd. (Italian sonnets can have a number of different rhyme schemes for the sestet.) But structurally, notice that the volta does not take place at the end of the eighth line, as usual, but halfway throught the ninth line (where the dash is). That may seem a small thing, but for a sonnet, that's a huge innovation. After all, there's not much room for variation in a sonnet. More on that point later. First, we'll do an English sonnet for next week. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

From The Ballad of the White Horse

by G.K. Chesterton

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.

When Caesar's sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.

* * *

In the river island of Athelney,
With the river running past,
In colours of such simple creed
All things sprang at him, sun and weed,
Till the grass grew to be grass indeed
And the tree was a tree at last.

Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
Like the child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
He looked; and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.

Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.

She spoke not, nor turned not,
Nor any sign she cast,
Only she stood up straight and free,
Between the flowers in Athelney,
And the river running past.

One dim ancestral jewel hung
On his ruined armour grey,
He rent and cast it at her feet:
Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
Men came from hall and school and street
And found it where it lay.

"Mother of God," the wanderer said,
"I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
To see a secret thing.

"The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.

"But for this earth most pitiful,
This little land I know,
If that which is for ever is,
Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
Seeing the stranger go?

"When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?"

And a voice came human but high up,
Like a cottage climbed among
The clouds; or a serf of hut and croft
That sits by his hovel fire as oft,
But hears on his old bare roof aloft
A belfry burst in song.

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

"And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

"The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.

"The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

"The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

"The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

"The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.

"But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

"Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?"

* * *

And slowly his hands and thoughtfully
Fell from the lifted lyre,
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees
Till Alfred caught it to his knees
And smote it as in ire.

He heaved the head of the harp on high
And swept the framework barred,
And his stroke had all the rattle and spark
Of horses flying hard.

"When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;

"He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.

"But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

"What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero's throne
And asks if he is dead?

"Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,

"I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord's broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.

"That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.

"That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.

"That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.

"Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;

"Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

"Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

"Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.

"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

"For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow."

* * *

And when the last arrow
Was fitted and was flown,
When the broken shield hung on the breast,
And the hopeless lance was laid in rest,
And the hopeless horn blown,

The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For Our Lady stood on the standards rent,
As lonely and as innocent
As when between white walls she went
And the lilies of Nazareth.

One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly--
But she was a queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart--
But one was in her hand.

Then the last charge went blindly,
And all too lost for fear:
The Danes closed round, a roaring ring,
And twenty clubs rose o'er the King,
Four Danes hewed at him, halloing,
And Ogier of the Stone and Sling
Drove at him with a spear.

But the Danes were wild with laughter,
And the great spear swung wide,
The point stuck to a straggling tree,
And either host cried suddenly,
As Alfred leapt aside.

Short time had shaggy Ogier
To pull his lance in line--
He knew King Alfred's axe on high,
He heard it rushing through the sky,

He cowered beneath it with a cry--
It split him to the spine:
And Alfred sprang over him dead,
And blew the battle sign.

Then bursting all and blasting
Came Christendom like death,
Kicked of such catapults of will,
The staves shiver, the barrels spill,
The waggons waver and crash and kill
The waggoners beneath.

Barriers go backwards, banners rend,
Great shields groan like a gong--
Horses like horns of nightmare
Neigh horribly and long.

Horses ramp high and rock and boil
And break their golden reins,
And slide on carnage clamorously,
Down where the bitter blood doth lie,
Where Ogier went on foot to die,
In the old way of the Danes.

"The high tide!" King Alfred cried.
"The high tide and the turn!
As a tide turns on the tall grey seas,
See how they waver in the trees,
How stray their spears, how knock their knees,
How wild their watchfires burn!

"The Mother of God goes over them,
Walking on wind and flame,
And the storm-cloud drifts from city and dale,
And the White Horse stamps in the White Horse Vale,
And we all shall yet drink Christian ale
In the village of our name.

"The Mother of God goes over them,
On dreadful cherubs borne;
And the psalm is roaring above the rune,
And the Cross goes over the sun and moon,
Endeth the battle of Ethandune
With the blowing of a horn."

* * *

Last week, a few days before the March for Life, I found myself surrounded by a number of my friends, sitting and talking about the pro-life movement. It seems so discouraging these days, that everything we pushed so hard to achieve is being swept away like so many leaves.

In the midst of this my friend Sean stood up. He walked purposefully to the bookshelf and came back with a small, worn book. He opened it and began. It was The Ballad of the White Horse, and it fit perfectly with our own situation. Night is thrice night over us ... and yet, do we have faith without a hope?

So we took turns, reading the parts that inspired us, and this is pretty much what we came up with. I will leave you with the words of another ballad, The Battle of Maldon:

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorteþe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlađ.

The mind must be tougher, heart the bolder,
resolve must be greater, as our strength becomes less.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art

by John Keats

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

* * *

I'm starting a series on sonnets today, in the hopes I will post a little more frequently if I have a theme. Also, I have plans for sonnets in the future ... but for now, just take a look at the form. Notice especially the "volta," or turn, where I left a space. This is de rigeur for Italian sonnets. The octave, the first eight lines, presents the subject, and the sestet, the last six, presents a contrast, conflict, or change. Here the contrast is between the pure steadfastness of the star (this purity emphasized by words like "Eremite" (hermit), "priestlike," and "ablution"), and the more fleshly steadfastness the speaker wants to practice. No lone splendor for him! He prefers his lady's bosom -- yet there is a kind of purity in faithfulness as well. Purity is not solely based on the rejection of earthly pleasures, but on utter faithfulness in those called to enjoy them.

I am not quite sure Keats had the same ideas on faithfulness as I. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. I also don't much like a man saying he's going to "swoon to death" -- it's a bit much! But he was a Romantic, and they do it all the time. (Say they will, not actually do it!)

Altogether, I like this poem. It continues Keats' habit, which I discovered in "The Eve of St. Agnes," of using the repetition of words similar in meaning to emphasize a point. Here it is purity. At the beginning of "Eve of St. Agnes," it is cold. Look it up and see what I mean!