“Some things are too great to come at directly. Just as we may weave back and forth as we climb a hill, and appear to be going round in circles, yet all the while are coming closer to the summit, so in our religious and spiritual life things may seem circuitous; we may think we have come back to the same spot, but always, if we press on, it is a little higher, a little closer to the truth.”
The Anointing At Bethany
by Malcolm Guite
Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,
The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.
A friend asked me recently, “Do any of us really see what is going on in another person’s life?” It was in reference to an unimaginable tragedy, the death of a beloved spouse. My answer was yes we do. Its what death brings, a spotlight into the reality of our friends and families lives. There’s no hiding in death for the grieving. Grief is a public, communal act. An act of giving to each other the gift of remembrance, support, and sharing of sadness. But that spotlight doesn’t last very long before the community moves on, because it must move on, beyond the place of just love and loss, and back to the place of love and life, to see beyond the cross.
Malcolm Guite is one of those big minds whose energy comes through his poetry, his oratory, his intention. He is a fellow lover of sonnets. The video below is an example of his clever wisdom and a good reminder on the power of words.
The words of the true poems give you more than poems,
They give you to form for yourself, poems, religions, politics, war, peace, behavior, histories, essays, romances, and everything else,
The balance ranks, colors, races, creeds, and the sexes,
They do not seek beauty-they are sought,
Forever touching them, or close upon them, follows beauty, longing, fain, love-sick.
They prepare for death-yet are they not the finish, but rather the outset,
They bring none to his or her terminus, or to be content and full;
Whom they take, they take into space, to behold the birth of stars, to learn one of the meanings,
To launch off with absolute faith-to sweep through the ceaseless rings, and never be quiet again.
by Oscar Williams
He sees the world, a trek of values, ply
Its trade of waysides to a common view;
The sun and moon are blinkers to his eye;
That head on wisdom’s shoulders is askew
From watching dread dimensions crossroads lock,
Collision of directions so intense
The hands and face slip from the circled clock,
The atoms statue melts the niche of sense.
Aye, root and flower swordplay in his rhyme
And judgments parry their high blades of light –
The lightning from the bush of thunder fleeing
Kindles a home of symbols with the height –
And in his song is etched the blanch of time,
The fatal flash catastrophe of being.
‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed…’ – Shakespeare’s Will
The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, cliff-tops, seas
where he would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.
by Guido Cavalcanti (1250 – 1300)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation
To a Friend who does not pity his Love
IF I entreat this lady that all grace
Seem not unto her heart an enemy,
Foolish and evil thou declarest me,
And desperate in idle stubbornness.
Whence is such cruel judgement thine, whose face,
To him that looks thereon, professeth thee
Faithful, and wise, and of all courtesy,
And made after the way of gentleness?
Alas! my soul within my heart doth find
Sighs, and its grief by weeping doth enhance,
That, drowned in bitter tears, those sighs depart:
And then there seems a presence in the mind,
As of a lady’s thoughtful countenance
Come to behold the death of the poor heart.
To Dante, rebuking him for his way of life after the death of Beatrice.
I DAILY come to thee uncounting times
And find thee ever thinking over vilely;
Much doth it grieve me that thy noble mind
And virtue’s plenitude are stripped from thee;
Thou wast so careless in thy fine offending,
Who from the rabble alway held apart,
And spoke of me so straightly from the heart
That I gave welcome to thine every rime.
And now I care not, sith thy life is baseness
To give the sign that thy speech pleaseth me,
Nor come I to thee in guise visible,
Yet if thou’It read this Sonnet many a time,
That malign spirit which so hunteth thee
Will sound forloyn* and spare thy affrighted soul.
Never be a cynic, even a gentle one. Never help out a sneer, not even at the Devil.
To the God of Opportunity
by Susie Frances Harrison (1859 – 1935)
Strange, that no idol hath been roughly wrought,
Or fairly carven, bearing on its base
A name so potent! Strange, no ancient race,
Workers in whitest Parian, ever sought
To reproduce thy beauty, slyly fraught
With vast suggestion! Strange, thou couldst not brace
The dull Assyrian, didst not tempt from chase,
Trophy and battle, the sons of literal thought.
We who are tired of gods must yet to thee
Render allegiance. Chance and Love are blind,
And Cause is soulless, Art is deaf and vain,
All unavailing looms the God of Pain
Disclaiming these, we choose with prescient mind
The unknown God of Opportunity.
Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight
by Vachel Lindsay (1879 – 1931)
(In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:
A league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.
It breaks his heart that things must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?
“There is a comfort in the strength of love; ‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else would overset the brain, or break the heart.”
Sonnet on Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep At A Tale of Distress
by William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)
SHE wept.–Life’s purple tide began to flow
In languid streams through every thrilling vein;
Dim were my swimming eyes–my pulse beat slow,
And my full heart was swell’d to dear delicious pain.
Life left my loaded heart, and closing eye;
A sigh recall’d the wanderer to my breast;
Dear was the pause of life, and dear the sigh
That call’d the wanderer home, and home to rest.
That tear proclaims–in thee each virtue dwells,
And bright will shine in misery’s midnight hour;
As the soft star of dewy evening tells
What radiant fires were drown’d by day’s malignant pow’r,
That only wait the darkness of the night
To cheer the wand’ring wretch with hospitable light.
Wordsworth penned and published this sonnet when he was 16 years old. It was his first published sonnet. It’s clear he had a bit of a crush on the older more worldly Williams, nine years his senior, the two sharing a common sense of romanticism, evident in Williams poem below.
by Helen Maria Williams
No riches from his scanty store
My lover could impart;
He gave a boon I valued more —
He gave me all his heart!
His soul sincere, his generous worth,
Might well this bosom move;
And when I asked for bliss on earth,
I only meant his love.
But now for me, in search of gain
From shore to shore he flies;
Why wander riches to obtain,
When love is all I prize?
The frugal meal, the lowly cot
If blest my love with thee!
That simple fare, that humble lot,
Were more than wealth to me.
While he the dangerous ocean braves,
My tears but vainly flow:
Is pity in the faithless waves
To which I pour my woe?
The night is dark, the waters deep,
Yet soft the billows roll;
Alas! at every breeze I weep —
The storm is in my soul.
The Night is dark, the waters deep, Yet soft the billows roll; Alas! at every breeze I weep – The storm is in my soul.
Helen Maria Williams
Sonnet On Reading Burns’ To A Mountain Daisy
By Helen Maria Williams (1759 – 1827)
While soon the “garden’s flaunting flowers” decay,
And, scatter’d on the earth, neglected lie,
The “Mountain Daisy,” cherish’d by the ray
A poet drew from heav’n, shall never die.
Ah! like that lovely flower the poet rose!
‘Mid penury’s bare soil and bitter gale;
He felt each storm that on the mountain blows,
Nor ever knew the shelter of the vale.
By Genius in her native vigour nurst,
On Nature with impassion’d look he gazed,
Then through the cloud of adverse fortune burst
Indignant, and in light unborrow’d blaz’d.
Shield from rude sorrow, SCOTIA! shield thy bard:–
His heav’n-taught numbers Fame herself will guard.
Described during her lifetime by her detractors as politically radical and sexually wanton, Helen Maria Williams sounds like my kind of woman, a poet with a mind of her own and the will (and means) to do what she wanted. I find it a bit humorous that part of her sentence during a brief stay in prison in France included the ominous warning that she was only allowed to write sonnets and do translation work while behind bars. The judge apparently feeling that penning sonnets was sufficient punishment for a writer.
Helen’s sonnets were not so magical as to launch a thousand ships, but she has a certain flair and the chops to have lived a bona fide poetic life, such that her writing has managed to avoid the dust bin of history. I find her defense and admiration of Burns’ poem charming.
I read Burns’ poetry aloud much more convincingly if I drink a bit of whiskey before hand. I recommend you try a single malt aged for 10 years or more of anything that costs at least $35/bottle USD and whose brand is difficult to pronounce on the bottle, it will be good practice for Burns. My pro tip, is like all good fake speakers of a foreign language, when you get to a sticky wicket of a word and don’t know how it’s pronounced, don’t slow down, do your best and say it loudly with confidence and with your own version of a fake Scottish accent and you’ll fool most everyone but a real Scot.
To A Mountain Daisy
by Robert Burns (1759 – 1796)
On Turning One Down with the Plow, in April, 1786
Wee, modest, crimson-tippèd flow’r,
Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure .Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow’r, .Thou bonie gem.
Alas! it’s no thy neibor sweet,
The bonie lark, companion meet,
Bending thee ‘mang the dewy weet .Wi’ spreck’d breast,
When upward-springing, blythe, to greet .The purpling east.
Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
Upon thy early, humble birth;
Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth . Amid the storm,
Scarce rear’d above the parent-earth . Thy tender form.
The flaunting flowers our gardens yield
High shelt’ring woods an’ wa’s maun shield:
But thou, beneath the random bield . O’ clod or stane,
Adorns the histie stibble-field . Unseen, alane.
There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
Thy snawie-bosom sun-ward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head . In humble guise;
But now the share uptears thy bed, . And low thou lies!
Such is the fate of artless maid,
Sweet flow’ret of the rural shade!
By love’s simplicity betray’d . And guileless trust;
Till she, like thee, all soil’d, is laid . Low i’ the dust.
Such is the fate of simple bard,
On life’s rough ocean luckless starr’d!
Unskilful he to note the card . Of prudent lore,
Till billows rage and gales blow hard, . And whelm him o’er!
Such fate to suffering Worth is giv’n,
Who long with wants and woes has striv’n,
By human pride or cunning driv’n . To mis’ry’s brink;
Till, wrench’d of ev’ry stay but Heav’n, . He ruin’d sink!
Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine—no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s ploughshare drives elate, . Full on thy bloom,
Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight . Shall be thy doom.