Category Archives: Poetry

The Temptation to Despair

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The shadows beckon,

Pledging no expectation

And oblivion.

 

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Cluny Media: Recovering the Catholic Tradition

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If you have read or follow this blog, you have noted that I tend to post a lot about Catholic poets, novelists or theologians, many of whose work has been out of print of late. And I have complained about this more than once.

Well, thankfully, I learned in the last year of a publisher that is bringing many of these titles back into the light.

Cluny Media is a publishing house that, in their words, is “dedicated to promoting the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition and enhancing Catholic education by publishing quality editions of scholarly and popular works of theology, philosophy, literature, history, and science.”

They have reissued many (formerly?) well-known works from the 19th and through mid-20th century in the areas of fiction, poetry, philosophy, and theology.  I have saved myself a fair amount of money already by buying their very affordable and solidly printed editions, as opposed to paying $100 for a used and battered copy.

You will find names such as Bernanos, Bloy, Mauriac, Benson, Maritain, Peguy, etc. among their catalog. I am looking forward to reading several Sigrid Undset novels that are long out of print in America, but apparently will be reissued soon.

You will also find other, respected non-Catholic authors like P.G. Wodehouse or George MacDonald in their catalog.  Apparently the adoption of “print on demand” technology now allows small publishing houses to make long out of print books available for a reasonable price. They are adding new titles at a fairly rapid rate and I am not aware of any similar effort right now in the publishing community.

Their books are available at Amazon too, but it probably helps them if you order directly from their website. I will try to remember to do that too.

http://www.clunymedia.com

 

 

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Heureux Ceux …

This post is in response to a comment and question left by the translator Steve Rawcliffe at my prior post on Eve, a poem written by Charles Peguy.  Mr. Rawcliffe was looking for feedback on and examples of a translation of one of the most quoted quatrains from the poem.

In the French, the section reads:

Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour la terre charnelle,
Mais pourvu que ce fût dans une juste guerre.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour quatre coins de terre.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts d’une mort solennelle.

Heureux ceux qui sont morts dans les grandes batailles,
Couchés dessus le sol à la face de Dieu.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts sur un dernier haut lieu,
Parmi tout l’appareil des grandes funérailles.

Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour des cités charnelles.
Car elles sont le corps de la cité de Dieu.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour leur âtre et leur feu,
Et les pauvres honneurs des maisons paternelles.

 

I am only aware of two previous attempts to translate this section, and Peguy generally, into English. Both occurred in the mid-20th century. I’m not sure whether this is a reflection more on Peguy’s obscurity in the English speaking world or the state of modern poetry.

The excerpt below is free verse translation of this section by Julien and Anne Greene, from their book Basic Verities, which includes samples from many of Peguy’s works. This book is out of print, but Cluny Media (the subject of my next post), will be reissuing it soon.

 

Blessed are those who died for carnal earth

Provided it was in a just war.

Blessed are those who died for a plot of ground.

Blessed are those who died a solemn death.

 

Blessed are those who died in great battles.

Stretched out on the ground in the face of God.

Blessed are those who died on a final high place,

Amid all the pomp of grandiose funerals.

 

Blessed are those who died for carnal cites.

For they are the body of the city of God.

Blessed are those who died for their hearth and fire,

And the lowly honors of their father’s house.

 

The other version is a formal verse translation by Lady Lamb, which was included in The Mysteries of the Holy Innocents and Other Poems (this was reissued just this year by Wipf). Lady Lamb translated several excerpts of Eve, in addition to a translation of the poem named in the title.  She largely preserves Peguy’s paired rhyme scheme and the 12 syllable Alexandrine structure.

Happy are they who die for a temporal land,

When a just war calls, and they obey and go forth,

Happy are they who die for a handful of earth,

Happy are they who die in so noble a band.

 

Happy are they who die in their country’s defence,

Lying outstretched before God with upturned faces.

Happy are they who die in those last high places,

Such funeral rites have a great magnificence.

 

Happy are they who die for their cities of earth,

They are the outward forms of the City above.

Happy are they who die for their fire and their hearth,

Their father’s house and its humble honour and love.

 

Mr. Rawcliffe shared his version of the first quatrain:

Happy are those who die for this our carnal earth,
But let their death have been in a war that was just.
Happy are those who die for four corners of dust.
Happy are those who die removed from wit or mirth.

Mr. Rawcliffe, your  version seems to be a very faithful translation (except for the last line, as you note), arguably more faithful than Lady Lamb’s.  I have observed that in some of her other translations of Eve that she seems to sacrifice accuracy in order to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter. This is not a criticism, as I was forced to do the same in my version in a fair number of places. Your effort sounds fine to my untrained ear. I doubt that the rhythm could be duplicated in English for any length without a superhuman effort.

I find it difficult to advise you much beyond this, as I am not a professional translator (Eve was my first attempt) or fluent in French.  The only alternative that came to me, and this may sound very odd, is to change the last line to:

“Happy are those who die through a solemn rebirth.”

In the Christian faith, death is sometimes compared to a second birth, or being born into the next life, Heaven. And maybe “rebirth” connects in a way with the word “carnal” from the first line of the quatrain, with its association with flesh and sexuality? This keeps the rhyme scheme and the 12 syllable meter. But I think your version is perfectly acceptable, and its often best to go with our original instinct in these matters.

Personally, I am partial to formal verse, yet Eve is just so long that I think it would take a large team of dedicated translators to put together a complete, respectable version that mimics Peguy’s form. It may be easier (and saner) for someone to attempt a free verse version that both accurately conveys the meaning and has a pleasing rhythm.

Thank you very much for sharing your translation and comments. Good luck with your project.

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The Mystery of the Holy Innocents: Reissued

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Its been a good year if you enjoy the poetry of Charles Péguy. In a recent post, I noted how The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc had been adapted into a feature film.  I also just learned that an abridged English translation of the third book in Péguy’s great trilogy, The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, has been reissued for the first time since 1956, by the Wipf and Stock Company. I purchased my copy through Amazon.

The poem was translated by Lady Pansy Lamb, an English noblewoman who released it under her maiden name of Pansy Pakenham.  For whatever reason, she chose not to translate about a third of the poem, so we have yet to see a complete translation in English. Alexander Dru, who translated some of Péguy’s other works, provides a lengthy Introduction.  Lady Lamb also includes translation of four of Péguy’s shorter poems, as well as three excerpts from Péguy’s Eve, which may be the longest poem in the French language.

The Mystery of the Holy Innocents is very similar to The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, the second book in the trilogy. It is a long, free verse poem in which Madame Gervaise, who we meet in the first book, delivers a monologue to Joan of Arc in the voice of the Father.  A wide range of subjects are covered: the virtues, the Cross, prayer, justice, mercy,  the French people, etc. It concludes with a lengthy meditation on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

It begins:

I am, God says, Master of the Three Virtues.

 

Faith is a loyal wife.

Charity is a fervent mother.

But hope is a very little girl.

 

I am, God says, the Master of the Virtues.

 

It is Faith who holds fast through century upon century.

 

It is Charity who gives herself through centuries of centuries,

But it is my little hope

Who gets up every morning.

Lady Lamb states in a translator’s note that she cannot understand why Faith and Charity are capitalized, but hope is in lower case … My dear Lady, its because she is a little girl.  For Peguy, people could not help having Faith given the magnificence of creation, and Charity given our natural affections for one another. Having hope was the real surprise, and the greatest sign of something supernatural, given all the failure and misery in the world.  Why do the poor and oppressed have hope, given what they experience day in and day out? It is a sign of grace.

Now we just need for The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc to be reissued, and all three books will be available to the general public. I would watch the Cluny Media website. They seem to be publishing a lot of out of print works of fiction and non-fiction by Catholic authors.

 

 

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His Forbearance

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His Forbearance

Not to pluck this flower,
Which bides inside this bower,
And lies within his power:
His strangest trial,
Perhaps to smile,
And forbear a little while.

And oh to hear his laughter,
At us who would be master.
Impatiens so sought after
And asters would fly faster.
But too soon a prune, before the bloom,
Not June, but a disaster.

A Shasta seeks a ladder
To scale some frail hereafter.
Yet better stay a daisy,
And linger long and lazy.
For too soon a bloom, before the groom,
Not June, but a disaster.

And Susans may be hasty
To grasp for shady rapture.
Rather black eyes capture,
The patience of Our Lady.
For too soon the groom, before there’s room,
Not June, but a disaster.

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Troll Bridge

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Illustration By John Bauer (Public Domain)

I am the troll of icy fells,
My hole beneath the bells.
What bells disturb my nest?
You ask and seem to jest.
Yet I trow I know your quest,
So I will tell of hellish test
I failed and fell to frozen rest.

I tried to cross that bridge,
A ridge wrapped in mist.
No easy path, I tripped and roared
In wrath and plunged to
Fires cold, not soared
To spires above the blue,
Shores of heaven hue.
But alas, would this tale were true.

The final wall that we
Would scale at last,
I climbed but was too fast
And slipped and missed my grasp,
Slid down to under pass.
A river pouring fast
Lashed and beached me
On this bank at last,
To scrape rank hole,
And roll and roll amid my
Pile of gold, pale and cold.

And now I smell the putrid air
Of self-regard that taints my lair.
Shallow pride I would ascribe
To callow member of your tribe.
Trust much in vestus virum facit?
There is no treasure in your pocket.

Do you think your ore so rare,
A priceless earth without compare?
Mere slag and dross I see,
Not free of flaw, no loss if lost
Among these crags and hoar.

So go from this stronghold
And take your precious quest
Away from here. No bells
Will tell me what to fear.
As if a brass hourglass
Were creeping near, to ware
Me of some ending year,
When shadows no more linger
And even ice despairs.

And would that cold could crack
Those bells. No chimes will
Drive me from these fells,
Or twist my will by spells.
Nor would dread foe come near,
For I hold this hoard so dear,
And yet these words I hear …
I whisper, lean here.

See, I would not pay the toll,
This gold we clutch so bold.
Merits of old we hold as if
To seize a feast we long
To eat, us least who chose
To fast from love, not soar
By trust above, light as sands
That slide from empty hands.

One must let go to pay the toll,
And see fool’s gold slip below,
Down to darken cold so vast,
No concern for first or last.
An old troll swallows whole
The truth that wealth won’t ask:
Two open palms grip the grasp.

Those reaching hands you seek
Wait there the poor and meek.
So go. Leave tarnished gold,
Dull and cold, in this bowl
For sinner low and weak.

No fear? Stand there, before that door,
A bloody badge the bridge of gold
To kingdom last, where bells adore
That master of the silver shore
Who calls to severed souls: Amor

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A Poem for Robert Hubert

Great_Fire_London

The Great Fire of London (artist unknown)

 

No one carved you an epitaph,

For a grave you will never have,

Just a pale pillar raised to the sky,

Until 1830 a bone trophy for a lie.

 

Fair Eden’s breeze did not reach Rouen, 

Where the Maid of Orleans met her end,

For you were a Huguenot, and dare not

Honor her or dream of you her Lancelot.

 

For the watchmaker had a watch for a son.

Slow ticking and from nature’s bag of tricks

Two arms, a big one and a little one,

One moving, the other stuck at six.

 

Your uneven legs were no better,

Left straight and thick, the right a stick.

A watchmaker, a clockmaker?  Never

would Robert be more than ever sick.

 

Nor could you play or run with the other boys

In the lanes. Your mind imbued in a grace

That lay in the sublime ticking of papa’s toys

And the plain charm of your mother’s face.

 

And she died when you were young,

The shield against the city’s scorn and din

of insults that you bore your parent’s sin.

She the patient one that loved so strong.

 

What do we do with a simpleton?

The family mused on their child like son.

Our lame boy is easy prey for a city’s hate,

Do we pay and pray he meets a better fate?

 

Thus sent away to his future dungeon

The target, the joke, and the Huguenot.

Robert Hubert, the unlikely Argonaut,

Seeking a fleece in the City of London.

 

It was said that there you were laborer,

More likely you were just a neighbor.

Our Robert, slow of mind with body tremor,

You never worked, but always labored.

 

They were not seven, your daily needs,

But what a struggle, these mighty deeds,

To dress, eat and pray with only one arm,

To hide ears and tears from worldly harm.

 

In 1666, you changed your fortune,

seeking treasure, you sailed for Sweden.

What you hoped to gain we do not know,

No fleece or gold in this land of snow.

 

A good soul took pity there on your woe,

And paid your passage to Rouen your home.

You called her “Skipper”, the Maid of Sweden,

A name too long for you long to know.

 

A happy reunion was not to be,

For your passage was blocked by war,

You encountered there upon the sea,

A dreaded English Man-Of-War.

 

The Maid was forced to London,

to stay at port a while. For trade

with hostile France and Holland

was by royal order stayed.

 

And standing there on wooden deck

You saw flames begin and spread.

The fire soared and sky turned red,

A glowing oven for the dead.

 

It was the strangest thing you had seen,

This curling, crackling pyre.

But did no one share that children

Should stay far away from fire?

 

Your body fluttered toward the flame,

To those who sought someone to blame,

The mob took you there upon the wharf,

A Frenchman, a fool, a limping dwarf.

 

Good Captain Petersen later swore,

That then and there he washed his hands.

Your keeper no more with you ashore,

The Maid of Sweden left for France.

 

Into the darkness you were cast,

With no friends but fleas and rats.

In filth and slime a month you stayed,

And to our blessed Lord you prayed.

 

The only miracle that did occur,

Your confession to an act of war,

“I, Robert”, set the flames you swore.

(Please do not hit me any more)

 

From France you came with ill intent,

One of twenty three confederates,

No, on further thought it was a trio,

And you of course the lead commando.

 

For but a single coin of gold,

You would set the town aflame,

A plot of cunning by one so bold,

So true to those with no shame.

 

I must admit that most did doubt

the tale of this sad and lonely youth,

But what prevailed were those who spout,

That old line, “What is truth?”

 

Though the great flame had died,

A cloud of hate had spread,

It was best that some had lied,

For a king might lose his head.

 

It was October twenty seven,

Climb the cart, does your stomach churn?

Who knows? (Today you will be in Heaven).

So off you roll to Tyburn.

 

The mob blew you stony kisses,

Some flew true, some were misses.

The red ran down onto the rope,

Coiled round one without a hope.

 

They saluted you with jeers and cheers,

That stung your ears and fed your fears.

For the final ride you were all alone,

You knew at last you would not see home.

 

The wagon reached the triple tree,

At Tyburn where the gallows rise.

The seats are filled though none were free,

All pay when a doomed man dies.

 

And from the hills the shades looked down,

With them the Maid and Thomas More,

Martyrs, scapegoats and many more,

Who drain this drink for strange renown.

 

They stand you up and set the noose,

You have no words to spare them,

The whip is cracked and horse is loose,

It flees the sin and mayhem.

 

You are too light to break your twig,

So you swing your legs about,

The children prance and do a jig,

The adults sneer and shout.

 

When at last your dance is done,

Your face is black and still,

It is a race we all must run,

May our end be not so ill.

 

Jack Ketch laid you out upon the ground,

And stripped your body bare,

Your noose and clothes worth half a pound,

To those who know no prayer.

 

The surgeons came to take you then,

But the final sale was broken.

The mob surged forward in revenge,

To claim a meager token.

 

Hands and knives went to work,

And tore your form asunder.

Your heard came free with a jerk,

Your heart was someone’s plunder.

 

This reddened patch of ugly ground,

With bloody bits spread all around,

Was Robert Hubert’s only grave,

Made by those whom sin make brave.

 

And far away a dream is broken

By knocking hands, a father woken,

Hears the words that drowns his joy:

“The English hanged your boy.”

 


Robert Hubert (those are silent “t”s in French) was a French Protestant who was made the scapegoat for the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Little is known of him, or why spent much of his adult life in England and Sweden.  He most likely was not a watchmaker, despite what Wikipedia might say, though his family included many.

Late 17th century France was a place of rising tension between French Protestants and Catholics.  Many French Protestants emigrated to England, Scandinavia and North America.  My theory is that Robert was sent away by his wealthy family to live among those communities.  A number of French Protestant witnesses participated in his trial, and tried to save him, suggesting he was known to them. One of the many ironies of this scandal was that, though a Protestant, he was accused of being a Catholic spy and received his final absolution at his hanging by a Catholic priest, the Queen’s own confessor.

Based on the recorded descriptions of his appearance and behavior, it seems he was born with cerebral palsy, and had severe motor (hemiplegia) and cognitive deficits. All those in power knew he was innocent, but post-fire, wartime London was boiling cauldron of violence and unrest. Somebody needed to be held accountable for what scholars generally believe was just a tragic accident.

What happened to Hubert was a textbook illustration of the scapegoat concept that French philosopher Rene Girard explored  in his study of mythology, religion and literature.  During a time of an intense cultural or political crisis, some individual becomes the focus of hate and anxiety of the crowd. After his death, the cloud of anxiety dissipates, and society returns to a measure of equilibrium (until the next crisis and scapegoat).  Girard, a believer, wrote that Christ was the ultimate scapegoat since he was completely without blame, and his death was in part intended to point the way for breaking this cycle, which Girard implied was a system of control by the Prince of this World.

Hubert’s family was quite good at watchmaking, and you can find images on the internet of what are either his father or uncle’s watches still present in various museum collections.

I am in a bit of a rut, so say a prayer for me if you have the time.  There may not be any posts for a while.

 

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Knowing God

For a man
To understand God
Is to comprehend
The heart of every woman
That lived and died.

For a woman
To understand God
Is to comprehend
The heart of every child
That died young.

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Do They Love Us?

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The Nine Muses

 

Thinking on Hesperides, Muses

and Graces,

A growing doubt put me through my paces:

Do they love us,

And our pretty faces?

 

For we men are prone to idolatry,

And of that they ask no apology.

See any array of feminine statuary,

They seem content with their mythology.

 

And I would remind the men that marry,

That our brides make no sculptuary,

For the tribe of Tom, Dick or Harry.

Nor do they personify, the virtues masculine

of Guy or guy, in figures legendary.

 

There are no Gracos, Musers or Hesperados,

Our sisters sing no hymns to such desperados.

And while they have many talents to discover,

When will they paint the Mona Lisa’s brother?

 

I wonder.

And why no verse and oratory

To the universe of our glory?

What’s the story,

are we so ordinary?

My reply is negatory.

 

There is no need to bronze a paragon like Ron,

To carve a steed named Hugh into a statue,

Or marble Dave, already suave in his man-cave,

And launch a thousand ships, to bring back Skip.

 

Our poetesses need no such excesses.

For every man is grand,

and when a woman takes his hand,

She is flown to Shang-Ri-Land,

His well earned reward are her caresses.

 

So dear women, do not apologize,

For your failure to mythologize.

For in our natural state,

There is nothing much to hate.

‘Tis your fate to be tongued-tied,

When you contemplate your mate.

 

And so I close this song of Orpheus,

For fear of an approaching chorus,

Some reproach by a throng of Maenads,

Who appear to be quite mad … Egad!

 


Yes, this does rely on some made up words, and incorrect pronunciations. “Guy” should be the French version too.

Here lies my poor homage to Robert Herrick. And my apologies for departing from poems about a more worthy Subject. However, when I read a poet, I find I want to write a poem like they did. When I read Peguy, I tried writing poems like Peguy … And now I am reading Herrick.  And I can’t move onto my next poem until I get an idea out of my system.

Herrick was very witty, and though a minister, he liked to write about the battle of the sexes. So I wrote a poem he might like, if he was around now. I agree with the advice of the poetry teachers I am reading that you shoud read from a great variety of poets. Imitation is a good learning method.

Herrick is very readable, and his entire output, over 1000 poems, is collected in Hesperides and Noble Numbers. They are available in ebook form on Kindle or at iBooks. I would recommend the 1898 combined edition, Volume 1 and 2, with the preface by Swinburne at the iBooks store. That one is free, and has notes to explain archaic words.

 

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For a Child Receiving Their First Communion This Weekend

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Louis Janmot, Première Communion (public domain)

 

Now the time for First Communion,

Join in Eucharistic union.

Bow down low before you greet him,

Then say Amen when you eat him.

On the tongue or on the throne,

In your heart he makes his home.

When you kneel down in your pew,

Thank the one who died for you.

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