These vespers of another year

The sylvan slopes with corn-clad fields
Are hung, as if with golden shields,
Bright trophies of the sun!
Like a fair sister of the sky,
Unruffled doth the blue lake lie,
The mountains looking on.

And, sooth to say, yon vocal grove,
Albeit uninspired by love,
By love untaught to ring,
May well afford to mortal ear
An impulse more profoundly dear
Than music of the Spring.

For that from turbulence and heat
Proceeds, from some uneasy seat
In nature’s struggling frame,
Some region of impatient life:
And jealousy, and quivering strife,
Therein a portion claim.

This, this is holy;—while I hear
These vespers of another year,
This hymn of thanks and praise,
My spirit seems to mount above
The anxieties of human love,
And earth’s precarious days.

But list!—though winter storms be nigh,
Unchecked is that soft harmony:
There lives Who can provide
For all His creatures; and in Him,
Even like the radiant Seraphim,
These choristers confide.

William Wordsworth
September 1819

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon these brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

William Butler Yeats, 1919


If there were dreams to sell,
     What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
     Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
Only a rose-leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the carrier rang that bell,
     What would you buy?

A cottage lone and still,
     With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
     Until I die.
Such pearls from Life’s fresh crown
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
     This would I buy.

But there were dreams to sell
     Ill didst thou buy;
Life is a dream, they tell,
     Waking, to die.
Dreaming a dream to prize,
Is wishing ghosts to rise;
And if I had the spell
To call the buried well,
     Which one would I?

If there are ghosts to raise,
     What shall I call,
Out of hell’s murky haze,
     Heaven’s blue pall?
Raise my loved long-lost boy,
To lead me to his joy.—
There are no ghosts to raise;
Out of death lead no ways;
     Vain is the call.

Know’st thou not ghosts to sue,
     No love thou hast.
Else lie, as I will do,
     And breathe thy last.
So out of Life’s fresh crown
Fall like a rose-leaf down.
Thus are the ghosts to woo;
Thus are all dreams made true,
     Ever to last!

Thomas Lovell Beddoes, sometime 1829-1844

On Monsieur’s Departure

I grieve, yet dare not show my discontent;
I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;
I dote, but dare not what I ever meant,
I seem stark mute, yet inwardly doe prate;
I am, and am not—freeze, and yet I burn;
Since from myself my other self I turn.

My care is like a shadow in the sun—
Follows me flying—flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lives by me—does what I have done;
This too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed.

Some gentler passion steal into my mind,
(For I am soft and made of melting snow),
Or be more cruel, Love, or be more kind,
Or let me float or sink, be high or low;
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die, and forget what love e’er meant.

Queen Elizabeth I, 1581

There is a very catchy tune based upon excerpts from this poem, performed by The Medieval Baebes, written by Michael Phipps and part of the soundtrack to The Virgin Queen.

A Valediction: of Weeping

          Let me powre forth
My teares before thy face, whil’st I stay here,
For thy face coines them, and thy stampe they beare,
And by this Mintage they are something worth,
          For thus they bee
          Pregnant of thee;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblemes of more,
When a teare falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

          On a round ball
A workeman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All:
          So doth each teare,
          Which thee doth weare.
A globe, yea world by that impression grow,
Till thy teares mixt with mine doe overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.

          O more than Moone,
Draw not up seas to drowne me in thy spheare,
Weepe me not dead, in thine armes, but forbeare
To teache the sea, what it may doe too soone;
          Let not the winde
          Example finde,
To doe me more harme, than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one anothers breath,
Who e’r sighes most, is cruellest, and hastes the others death.

John Donne, 1633

The Greatest of these is Charity

A moon impoverished amid stars curtailed,
      A sun of its exuberant lustre shorn,
      A transient morning that is scarcely morn,
A lingering night in double dimness veiled.—

Our hands are slackened and our strength has failed;
      We born to darkness, wherefore were we born?
      No ripening more for olive, grape, or corn ;
Faith faints, hope faints, even love himself has paled.

Nay ! love lifts up a face like any rose
      Flushing and sweet above a thorny stem,
Softly protesting that the way he knows;
      And as for faith and hope, will carry them
      Safe to the gate of New Jerusalem,
Where light shines full and where the palm-tree blows.

Christina Georgina Rossetti. Before 1893.

It’s poems like this one by Miss Rossetti, full of equations of the dark with material existence, and equations of light with release from it, that nearly have me categorize this post (and others) as “Esoterica.” The dualism is noticeable, and appears often in her poetry, and betrays also a certain apocalypticism, the latter of which comes to fruition in her devotional commentary on the Apocalypse, The Face of the Deep. In addition, the strikingly personal ways in which she describes her Saviour and his saving likewise recall the long tradition of western European medieval mysticism with its strong focus on exactly that kind of personal relationship. With her being a staunch Anglican, though quite obviously a high church one, this connection or allusion to the Catholic past is somewhat surprising. I do wonder how familiar she was with works representative of that earlier mystical tradition. I’ll have to look into that.

Classroom wandering

See how my heart runs off, stealing away!
      It flies to a spot it knows,
Going upstream to see Memphis, House of the Spirit of Ptah—
      and I wish I were with it!
But I sit here expecting my heart back
      so it can tell me how it is in Memphis.
No work can be done by my hand.
      my mind cannot concentrate.
O come to me, Ptah, to carry me off to Memphis!
      Let me look about unhindered!
I would spend the day properly
      but my heart is listless;
My mind will not stay in my body,
      and misery seizes all of my limbs!
My eye is exhausted with staring,
      my ear, it will not be filled,
            my voice is hoarse and words become tumbled.
O my Lord, be at peace with me!
      Help me to rise above all these things!

Prayer to Ptah “Longing for Memphis.” From some scribal school exercises in Papyrus Anastasi IV, circa 1279 BC. Translation by John Foster, Hymns, Prayers, and Songs: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Lyric Poetry, from the excellent Society of Biblical Literature Series Writings from the Ancient World.

The Family

What doth this noise of thoughts within my heart,
          As if they had a part?
What do these loud complaints and puling fears,
     As if there were no rule or ears?

But, Lord, the house and family are thine,
          Though some of them repine.
Turn out these wranglers, which defile thy seat:
     For where thou dwellest all is neat.

First Peace and Silence all disputes control,
          Then Order plays the soul;
And giving all things their set forms and hours,
     Makes of wild woods sweet walks and bowers.

Humble Obedience near the door doth stand,
          Expecting a command:
Than whom in waiting nothing seems more slow,
     Nothing more quick when she doth go.

Joys oft are there, and griefs as oft as joys:
          But griefs without a noise:
Yet speak they louder than distemper’d fears.
     What is so shrill as silent tears?

This is thy house, with these it doth abound:
          And where these are not found,
Perhaps thou com’st sometimes, and for a day;
     But not to make a constant stay.

George Herbert. 1633.

Here, Herbert fascinatingly describes his inner life, contrasting sound (bad) and silence (good), of his inhabitants. Shades of hesychasm! Order and stillness permit the divine presence, while disorder and motion drive it away. It really is a striking connection. I suspect the influence of the 14th century Middle English work, The Cloud of Unknowing (“Goostly freende in God….”), which is certainly in the Dionysian orbit. I’ll need to look more into this. I find it unlikely that a direct connection between Herbert and Cloud… occurred, as it apparently wasn’t published until the late nineteenth century. Even more difficult to believe, however, that after the religious troubles of the mid- to late-sixteenth century in England, any sort of popular living tradition of hesychasm/mysticism had managed to survive. It’s puzzling, but of interest.


As men, for fear the stars should sleep and nod
        And trip at night, have spheres suppli’d;
As if a star were duller than a clod,
        Which knows his way without a guide:

Just so the other heav’n they also serve,
        Divinity’s transcendent sky:
Which with the edge of wit they cut and carve.
        Reason triumphs, and faith lies by.

Could not that wisdom, which first broacht the wine,
        Have thicken’d it with definitions?
And jagg’d his seamless coat, had that been fine,
        With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,
        Was clear as heav’n, from whence it came.
At least those beams of truth, which only save,
        Surpass in brightness any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray.
        Do as ye would be done unto.

O dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day!
        Who can these Gordion knots undo?

But he doth bid us take his blood for wine.
        Bid what he please; yet I am sure,
To take and taste what he doth there design,
        Is all that saves, and not obscure.

Then burn thy Epicycles, foolish man;
        Break all thy spheres, and save thy head.
Faith needs no staff of flesh, but stoutly can
        To heav’n alone both go, and lead.

George Herbert. 1633.

Herbert, like Rossetti, brings to the table a particularly Jacobean duality of light and dark, wisdom and foolishness. While this can certainly be drawn out from the canonical Scriptures themselves, Herbert’s seems here to have an extra edge, doesn’t it? There’s something more going on, particularly in the last stanza, where Herbert is effectively telling us that maps of the material world, the planets mapped by Ptolemaic epicycle tables and the Earth by globes, are irrelevant, and, by connotation, the material world itself is irrelevant. Faith goes to heaven and leads there. Yet the body and world remain, requiring some sort of spiritual journey. Is there a hint of visionary journeys here? It is very slight, if so—sub rosa, one might say. It is intriguing to think that just a few decades after John Dee’s wild blend of alchemy-magic-astrology-etc we have the display of a more orthodox sort of mysticism, quite obviously Christian, yet still bearing this strong tendency towards duality and, what?, amaterialism? immaterialism? And that this dualism is found over two centuries later expressed in strikingly similar manner by Christina Rossetti. There’s a striking continuity there, however inexplicable in terms of origins and transmission it might be.

Fallen, fallen . . .


The ruins of Babylon.

Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground.
Isaiah 21.9

The ruins of Nineveh.

Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?
Nahum 3.7

The outline of the ancient Neo-Assyrian walls of Nineveh is clear, even though the suburban sprawl of Mosul has resulted, shockingly, in a swath through the middle of the city being built over. Nearly nothing architectural survives. On the palace mound, a corrugated metal roof protects what’s left of the Assyrian throne room. Good riddance.

The ruins of Babylon are likewise encroached upon, though with more sinister implication. The three round shapes are artificial conical hills that the late, unlamented ruler of Iraq built to accomodate a few palaces for himself, with a view of ancient Babylon’s ruins, which he intended to resurrect to glory. The outline of the ziggurat is perhaps the most striking feature: it is now simply a sodden pit, as after Alexander the Great removed the bricks in order to facilitate its rebuilding, he died, and it was never rebuilt. The glazed and fired bricks were then looted to build various structures nearby. The walls and remains of the ancient suburb to the west across the river are now obliterated, though the moat around the city proper does trace the remnants of the walls.

In both cases, cruel as their masters were, two of the greatest, most beautiful, wealthiest cities in the ancient world are now heaps of mud and sand: ugly, unimportant, and uninteresting aside from their pasts. Who could help but think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poem?

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said : Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear :
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings :
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias, 1817.

Ozymandias is a corruption of the praenomen of Ramesses the Great, Usermaatre, which in his own time would’ve been pronounced something like “Usermāria.” Shelley, here, was indulging in a bit of poetic hyperbole. The statue is indeed fallen, but Ramesses’ statues invariably show him with a slight, mysterious smile, never with a “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” The shattered statue which inspired the poem is now known as the Ozymandias Colossus and stands not where “lone and level sands stretch far away,” but in the very impressive ruins of the Ramesseum, which is the mortuary temple of Ramesses the Great in the necropolis of Thebes.

Lastly, this post is filed in the category Poetry, not only for the poem quoted immediately above, but for the poetic justice meted out to the capital cities of the Assyrians and Babylonians, from which was directed the ruin of so many cities of so many tribes and nations.