I have to thank Elliot Milco for soliciting, editing, and publishing a short review I wrote in the April 2018 edition of First Things. It is my first appearance in that great publication. I have the privilege of sharing the page with a few other really stellar pieces; among others, Mr. Joshua Kenz and Ms. Emily Sammon have written particularly outstanding reviews of very different books. My own work covers a recent Taschen publication that examines the William Blake illustrations of Dante. Go give it (and the book in question) a read!
R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), the Welsh nationalist, Anglican minister, and consummate poet belief and doubt has recently become a favorite. Here is a poem of his that, I think, is worth pondering in Lent.
It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?
Since multiple friends have told me how much they enjoyed the Ernest Dowson I posted earlier this week, I thought I’d furnish them (and all of you, dear readers) with a remarkable Decadent poem by Lionel Johnson which I have recommended as follow-up reading. It strikes a rather different spiritual vein. If Dowson’s spiritual theme is the retreat into silence and ascesis in the face of the world’s vanity, Johnson’s is the lure of temptation. Like Dowson, Johnson was a Catholic convert.
DARK Angel, with thine aching lust
To rid the world of penitence:
Malicious Angel, who still dost
My soul such subtile violence!
Because of thee, no thought, no thing,
Abides for me undesecrate:
Dark Angel, ever on the wing,
Who never reachest me too late!
When music sounds, then changest thou
Its silvery to a sultry fire:
Nor will thine envious heart allow
Delight untortured by desire.
Through thee, the gracious Muses turn,
To Furies, O mine Enemy!
And all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.
Because of thee, the land of dreams
Becomes a gathering place of fears:
Until tormented slumber seems
One vehemence of useless tears.
When sunlight glows upon the flowers,
Or ripples down the dancing sea:
Thou, with thy troop of passionate powers,
Beleaguerest, bewilderest, me.
Within the breath of autumn woods,
Within the winter silences:
Thy venomous spirit stirs and broods,
O Master of impieties!
The ardour of red flame is thine,
And thine the steely soul of ice:
Thou poisonest the fair design
Of nature, with unfair device.
Apples of ashes, golden bright;
Waters of bitterness, how sweet!
O banquet of a foul delight,
Prepared by thee, dark Paraclete!
Thou art the whisper in the gloom,
The hinting tone, the haunting laugh:
Thou art the adorner of my tomb,
The minstrel of mine epitaph.
I fight thee, in the Holy Name!
Yet, what thou dost, is what God saith:
Tempter! should I escape thy flame,
Thou wilt have helped my soul from Death:
The second Death, that never dies,
That cannot die, when time is dead:
Live Death, wherein the lost soul cries,
Dark Angel, with thine aching lust!
Of two defeats, of two despairs:
Less dread, a change to drifting dust,
Than thine eternity of cares.
Do what thou wilt, thou shalt not so,
Dark Angel! triumph over me:
Lonely, unto the Lone I go;
Divine, to the Divinity.
Recently, I have discovered the work of the poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900). He has swiftly become a favourite. His Decadent verse originated the phrases “gone with the wind” and “the days of wine and roses.” He was also a Catholic convert. His poetry often explores the contrast between the perishable delights of the world and the undying realm of the supernatural. In Dowson, we see the forked path that comes with the recognition of the world’s vanity: the choice lies between hedonistic decadence and the rigors of ascesis and contemplation. These two monastic poems express precisely that tension in his sad life as well as his powerful artistic vision.
Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration
Calm, sad, secure; behind high convent walls,
These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray:
And it is one with them when evening falls,
And one with them the cold return of day.
These heed not time; their nights and days they make
Into a long, returning rosary,
Whereon their lives are threaded for Christ’s sake;
Meekness and vigilance and chastity.
A vowed patrol, in silent companies,
Life-long they keep before the living Christ.
In the dim church, their prayers and penances
Are fragrant incense to the Sacrificed.
Outside, the world is wild and passionate;
Man’s weary laughter and his sick despair
Entreat at their impenetrable gate:
They heed no voices in their dream of prayer.
They saw the glory of the world displayed;
They saw the bitter of it, and the sweet;
They knew the roses of the world should fade,
And be trod under by the hurrying feet.
Therefore they rather put away desire,
And crossed their hands and came to sanctuary
And veiled their heads and put on coarse attire:
Because their comeliness was vanity.
And there they rest; they have serene insight
Of the illuminating dawn to be:
Mary’s sweet Star dispels for them the night,
The proper darkness of humanity.
Calm, sad, secure; with faces worn and mild:
Surely their choice of vigil is the best?
Yea! for our roses fade, the world is wild;
But there, beside the altar, there, is rest.
Through what long heaviness, assayed in what strange fire,
Have these white monks been brought into the way of peace,
Despising the world’s wisdom and the world’s desire,
Which from the body of this death bring no release?
Within their austere walls no voices penetrate;
A sacred silence only, as of death, obtains;
Nothing finds entry here of loud or passionate;
This quiet is the exceeding profit of their pain:
From many lands they came, in divers fiery ways;
Each knew at last the vanity of earthly joys;
And one was crowned with thorns, and one was crowned with bays,
And each was tired at last of the world’s foolish noise.
It was not theirs with Dominic to preach God’s holy wrath,
They were too stern to bear sweet Francis’ gentle sway;
Theirs was a higher calling and a steeper path,
To dwell alone with Christ, to meditate and pray.
A cloistered company, they are companionless,
None knoweth here the secret of his brother’s heart:
They are but come together for more loneliness,
Whose bond is solitude and silence all their part.
O beatific life! Who is there shall gainsay,
Your great refusal’s victory, your little loss,
Deserting vanity for the more perfect way,
The sweeter service of the most dolorous Cross.
Ye shall prevail at last! Surely ye shall prevail!
Your silence and austerity shall win at last:
Desire and mirth, the world’s ephemeral lights shall fail,
The sweet star of your queen is never overcast.
We fling up flowers and laugh, we laugh across the wine;
With wine we dull our souls and careful strains of art;
Our cups are polished skulls round which the roses twine:
None dares to look at Death who leers and lurks apart.
Move on, white company, whom that has not sufficed!
Our viols cease, our wine is death, our roses fail:
Pray for our heedlessness, O dwellers with the Christ!
Though the world fall apart, surely ye shall prevail.
Today may be the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution, but I just found a wonderful poem about His Majesty Charles I that I wanted to share with my readers. Something to meditate upon before the 30th.
By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross
To William Watson
Sombre and rich, the skies,
Great glooms, and starry plains;
Gently the night wind sighs;
Else a vast silence reigns.
The splendid silence clings
Around me: and around
The saddest of all kings,
Crowned, and again discrowned.
Comely and calm, he rides
Hard by his own Whitehall.
Only the night wind glides:
No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.
Gone too, his Court: and yet,
The stars his courtiers are:
Stars in their stations set;
And every wandering star.
Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal King:
Dark night is all his own,
That strange and solemn thing.
Which are more full of fate:
The stars, or those sad eyes?
Which are more still and great:
Those brows, or the dark skies?
Although his whole heart yearn
In passionate tragedy,
Never was face so stern
With sweet austerity.
Vanquished in life, his death
By beauty made amends:
The passing of his breath
Won his defeated ends.
Brief life, and hapless? Nay:
Through death, life grew sublime.
Speak after sentence? Yea:
And to the end of time.
Armoured he rides, his head
Bare to the stars of doom;
He triumphs now, the dead,
Beholding London’s gloom.
Our wearier spirit faints,
Vexed in the world’s employ:
His soul was of the saints;
And art to him was joy.
King, tried in fires of woe!
Men hunger for thy grace:
And through the night I go,
loving thy mournful face.
Yet, when the city sleeps,
When all the cries are still,
The stars and heavenly deeps
Work out a perfect will.
Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was most famous for his publications in Weird Tales and his consequent literary association with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. He had a profound talent and produced copious work in the Eldritch School of American Decadence. In Smith’s work one can easily discover similarities with both Lovecraft, his more famous colleague, and greater predecessors like Poe and Baudelaire. The violent inventiveness of his language calls to mind a demon-crazed Hopkins. I have selected five representative poems that all treat a common theme: beauty.
A Dream of Beauty
I dreamed that each most lovely, perfect thing
That nature hath, of sound and form and hue—
The winds, the grass, the light-concentering dew,
The gleam and swiftness of the sea-bird’s wing;
Blueness of sea and sky, and gold of storm
Transmuted by the sunset, and the flame
Of autumn-colored leaves, before me carne,
And, meeting, merged to one diviner form.
Incarnate Beauty ’twas, whose spirit thrills
Through glaucous ocean and the greener hills,
And in the cloud-bewildered peaks is pent.
Her face the light of fallen planets wore,
But as I gazed, in doubt and wonderment,
Mine eyes were dazzled, and I saw no more.
The Refuge of Beauty
From regions of the sun’s half-dreamt decay,
All day the cruel rain strikes darkly down;
And from the night thy fatal stars shall frown—
Beauty, wilt thou abide this night and day ?
Roofless, at portals dark and desperate,
Wilt thou a shelter unrefused implore,
And past the tomb’s too-hospitable door
Evade thy lover in eluding Hate ?
Alas, for what have I to other thee ? —
Chill halls of mind, dank rooms of memory
Where thou shalt dwell with woes and thoughts infirm;
This rumor-throngèd citadel of Sense,
Trembling before some nameless imminence;
And fellow-guestship with the glutless Worm.
The Mirrors of Beauty
Beauty has many mirrors to ensphere
Her presence or her passing: orbs of dew;
Far-flooding Amazons with margents new;
The narrowing circlet of the desert mere;
Deep wells on which the ruby planets rear;
Blades from Damascus; gems of Xanadu;
And pools that hold a falcon-hovered blue
Or eves whereon the ghostly owlets veer.
Often, upon the solitary sea,
She lieth, ere the wind shall gather breath—
One with the reflex of infinity;
In oriels filled with some conflagrant sky
Her vision dwells, or in the ring-dove’s eye,
Or the black crystal of the eyes of Death.
The Orchid of Beauty
Beauty, thou orchid of immortal bloom,
Sprung from the fire and dust of perished spheres,
How art thou tall in these autumnal years
With the red rain of immemorial doom,
And fragrant where the lesser suns illume,
For sustenance of Life’s forgotten tears.
Ever thy splendor and thy light appears
Like dawn from out the midnight of the tomb.
Colors, and glints, and glamors unrecalled,
Richly thy petals intricate revive:
Blossom, whose roots are in eternity,
The faithful soul, the sentience darkly thralled,
In dream and wonder evermore shall strive
At Edens lost of time and memory.
You are not Beautiful
You are not beautiful; but, ah, too long
I sought, and found a slowly growing grace;
Till fairer now than beauty is your face,
And all your silence dearer than a song.
To the Name above every Name, the Name of Jesus
By Richard Crashaw
I SING the Name which None can say
But touch’t with An interiour Ray:
The Name of our New Peace; our Good:
Our Blisse: and Supernaturall Blood:
The Name of All our Lives and Loves.
Hearken, And Help, ye holy Doves!
The high-born Brood of Day; you bright
Candidates of blissefull Light,
The Heirs Elect of Love; whose Names belong
Unto The everlasting life of Song;
All ye wise Soules, who in the wealthy Brest
Of This unbounded Name build your warm Nest.
Awake, My glory. Soul, (if such thou be,
And That fair Word at all referr to Thee)
Awake and sing
And be All Wing;
Bring hither thy whole Self; and let me see
What of thy Parent Heaven yet speakes in thee,
O thou art Poore
Of noble Powres, I see,
And full of nothing else but empty Me,
Narrow, and low, and infinitely lesse
Then this Great mornings mighty Busynes.
One little World or two
(Alas) will never doe.
We must have store.
Goe, Soul, out of thy Self, and seek for More.
Goe and request
Great Nature for the Key of her huge Chest
Of Heavns, the self involving Sett of Sphears
(Which dull mortality more Feeles then heares)
Then rouse the nest
Of nimble, Art, and traverse round
The Aiery Shop of soul-appeasing Sound:
And beat a summons in the Same
To warn each severall kind
And shape of sweetnes, Be they such
As sigh with supple wind
Or answer Artfull Touch,
That they convene and come away
To wait at the love-crowned Doores of
This Illustrious Day.
Shall we dare This, my Soul? we’l doe’t and bring
No Other note for’t, but the Name we sing.
Wake Lute and Harp
And every sweet-lipp’t Thing
That talkes with tunefull string;
Start into life, And leap with me
Into a hasty Fitt-tun’d Harmony.
Nor must you think it much
T’obey my bolder touch;
I have Authority in Love’s name to take you
And to the worke of Love this morning wake you;
Wake; In the Name
Of Him who never sleeps, All Things that Are,
Or, what’s the same,
Answer my Call
And come along;
Help me to meditate mine Immortall Song.
Come, ye soft ministers of sweet sad mirth,
Bring All your houshold stuffe of Heavn on earth;
O you, my Soul’s most certain Wings,
Complaining Pipes, and prattling Strings,
Bring All the store
Of Sweets you have; And murmur that you have no more.
Come, né to part,
Nature and Art!
Come; and come strong,
To the conspiracy of our Spatious song.
Bring All the Powres of Praise
Your Provinces of well-united Worlds can raise;
Bring All your Lutes and Harps of Heaven and Earth;
What ére cooperates to The common mirthe
Vessells of vocall Ioyes,
Or You, more noble Architects of Intellectuall Noise,
Cymballs of Heav’n, or Humane sphears,
Solliciters of Soules or Eares;
And when you’are come, with All
That you can bring or we can call;
O may you fix
For ever here, and mix
Your selves into the long
And everlasting series of a deathlesse Song;
Mix All your many Worlds, Above,
And loose them into One of Love.
Chear thee my Heart!
For Thou too hast thy Part
And Place in the Great Throng
Of This unbounded All-imbracing Song.
Powres of my Soul, be Proud!
And speake lowd
To All the dear-bought Nations This Redeeming Name,
And in the wealth of one Rich Word proclaim
New Similes to Nature.
May it be no wrong
Blest Heavns, to you, and your Superiour song,
That we, dark Sons of Dust and Sorrow,
A while Dare borrow
The Name of Your Dilights and our Desires,
And fitt it to so farr inferior Lyres.
Our Murmurs have their Musick too,
Ye mighty Orbes, as well as you,
Nor yields the noblest Nest
Of warbling Seraphim to the eares of Love,
A choicer Lesson then the joyfull Brest
Of a poor panting Turtle-Dove.
And we, low Wormes have leave to doe
The Same bright Busynes (ye Third Heavens) with you.
Gentle Spirits, doe not complain.
We will have care
To keep it fair,
And send it back to you again.
Come, lovely Name! Appeare from forth the Bright
Regions of peacefull Light,
Look from thine own Illustrious Home,
Fair King of Names, and come.
Leave All thy native Glories in their Georgeous Nest,
And give thy Self a while The gracious Guest
Of humble Soules, that seek to find
The hidden Sweets
Which man’s heart meets
When Thou art Master of the Mind.
Come, lovely Name; life of our hope!
Lo we hold our Hearts wide ope!
Unlock thy Cabinet of Day
Dearest Sweet, and come away.
Lo how the thirsty Lands
Gasp for thy Golden Showres! with longstretch’t Hands.
Lo how the laboring Earth
That hopes to be
All Heaven by Thee,
Leapes at thy Birth.
The’ attending World, to wait thy Rise,
First turn’d to eyes;
And then, not knowing what to doe;
Turn’d Them to Teares, and spent Them too.
Come Royall Name, and pay the expence
Of all this Pretious Patience.
O come away
And kill the Death of This Delay.
O see, so many Worlds of barren yeares
Melted and measur’d out is Seas of Teares.
O see, The Weary liddes of wakefull Hope
(Love’s Eastern windowes) All wide ope
With Curtains drawn,
To catch The Day-break of Thy Dawn.
O dawn, at last, long look’t for Day!
Take thine own wings, and come away.
Lo, where Aloft it comes! It comes, Among
The Conduct of Adoring Spirits, that throng
Like diligent Bees, And swarm about it.
O they are wise;
And know what Sweetes are suck’t from out it.
It is the Hive,
By which they thrive,
Where All their Hoard of Hony lyes.
Lo where it comes, upon The snowy Dove’s
Soft Back; And brings a Bosom big with Loves.
Welcome to our dark world, Thou
Womb of Day!
Unfold thy fair Conceptions; And display
The Birth of our Bright Ioyes.
O thou compacted
Body of Blessings: spirit of Soules extracted!
O dissipate thy spicy Powres
(Clowd of condensed sweets) and break upon us
In balmy showrs;
O fill our senses, And take from us
All force of so Prophane a Fallacy
To think ought sweet but that which smells of Thee.
Fair, flowry Name; In none but Thee
And Thy Nectareall Fragrancy,
Hourly there meetes
An universall Synod of All sweets;
By whom it is defined Thus
That no Perfume
For ever shall presume
To passe for Odoriferous,
But such alone whose sacred Pedigree
Can prove it Self some kin (sweet name) to Thee.
Sweet Name, in Thy each Syllable
A Thousand Blest Arabias dwell;
A Thousand Hills of Frankincense;
Mountains of myrrh, and Beds of species,
And ten Thousand Paradises,
The soul that tasts thee takes from thence.
How many unknown Worlds there are
Of Comforts, which Thou hast in keeping!
How many Thousand Mercyes there
In Pitty’s soft lap ly a sleeping!
Happy he who has the art
To awake them,
And to take them
Home, and lodge them in his Heart.
O that it were as it was wont to be!
When thy old Freinds of Fire, All full of Thee,
Fought against Frowns with smiles; gave Glorious chase
To Persecutions; And against the Face
Of Death and feircest Dangers, durst with Brave
And sober pace march on to meet A Grave.
On their Bold Brests about the world they bore thee
And to the Teeth of Hell stood up to teach thee,
In Center of their inmost Soules they wore thee,
Where Rackes and Torments striv’d, in vain, to reach thee.
Little, alas, thought They
Who tore the Fair Brests of thy Freinds,
Their Fury but made way
For Thee; And serv’d them in Thy glorious ends.
What did Their weapons but with wider pores
Inlarge thy flaming-brested Lovers
More freely to transpire
That impatient Fire
The Heart that hides Thee hardly covers.
What did their Weapons but sett wide the Doores
For Thee: Fair, purple Doores, of love’s devising;
The Ruby windowes which inrich’t the East
Of Thy so oft repeated Rising.
Each wound of Theirs was Thy new Morning;
And reinthron’d thee in thy Rosy Nest,
With blush of thine own Blood thy day adorning,
It was the witt of love óreflowd the Bounds
Of Wrath, and made thee way through All Those wounds.
Wellcome dear, All-Adored Name!
For sure there is no Knee
That knowes not Thee.
Or if there be such sonns of shame,
Alas what will they doe
When stubborn Rocks shall bow
And Hills hang down their Heavn-saluting Heads
To seek for humble Beds
Of Dust, where in the Bashfull shades of night
Next to their own low Nothing they may ly,
And couch before the dazeling light of thy dread majesty.
They that by Love’s mild Dictate now
Will not adore thee,
Shall Then with Just Confusion, bow
And break before thee.
Here are XVII things for which I am grateful in the year of Our Lord MMXVII.
2. All of the friends I have left behind in Virginia, and all of the friends I have made at Oxford—from Staggers, my Ecclesiastical History cohort, and the Companions of Malta. Also my wonderful family who have been there for me throughout the transition.
3. Everyone who has taken the time and effort to read, share, and respond to what I have written at this blog. As of this writing, I’ve gotten 44,127 views.
4. All of the support I received when my grandmother died right before Holy Week.
5. The fact that I have several friends who have started the process of entering or returning to the Church.
7. Rekindling my love of creating art.
8. The new basset hound my family got this winter and the rabbits we received in the spring. Not to mention the continued good health of our other pets.
9. Gin and Tonics, Whiskey Sours, and St. Germaine.
10. All the museums I have worked in or visited.
11. Discovering the joys of sticky toffee pudding.
12. My Marian consecration. The continued friendship of many saints, including St. Philip Neri and the Blessed John Henry Newman. Also the many beautiful liturgies I had the chance to attend this year.
13. The memory of those warm and golden weeks on the Lawn between the end of Spring exams and the beginning of final exercises.
14. All of the great music I have come across this year (The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, David Lang, a few pieces by John Tavener and Zbgniew Preisner, George Jones and Monteverdi, Bernstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, Chrysta Bell, James Carr and Pokey LaFarge, Gaelynn Lea, Jackson C. Frank, and so much more).
15. A new appreciation for William Blake and an introduction to the poetry of R.S. Thomas.
16. The fact that we haven’t all been nuked to kingdom come yet.
17. The laughter I have happily shared with friends and family.
May the good Lord bless all of us in the coming year of His grace!
It’s that time a year again. The Feast of St. Thomas Becket, Martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, defender of the Church’s independence from the Crown. Which means we get to watch that fantastic and ever so Catholic film, Becket (1964). For those without access to the full movie, you can watch the very best scene here.
Let me also add in a great excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s classic 1935 verse drama about the Archbishop, Murder in the Cathedral. It comes from the most climactic moment of the play, when Thomas is about to be killed. His priests have barred the doors of the cathedral to the four assassins, but Thomas will have none of their worldly prudence. His speech presents a brief theology of martyrdom that must stir the heart of any Catholic.
You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Unbar the door! unbar the door!
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR!
May we so speak in the many trials of our own lesser martyrdoms.
Duns Scotus’s Oxford
Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ
Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and posed powers;
Thou hast a base and brackish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping — folks, flocks, and flowers.
Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veined unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.