Tag Archives: religious

On the Mighty Man of Valor

In my last post on my other blog (which discusses elements in fantasy literature), I proposed that one of the reason that combat/war motifs are so popular is that man have an innate desire to see good triumph over evil, as well as a drive to participate in that personally. However, in our modern civilized world, most people occupy positions that have little need for physical combat, and so many men feel a little alienated from this aspect of their psyches. And being placed at a distance from physical conflict, we are also distanced from some opportunities to cultivate courage. Now we may still learn how to be courageous; but it is not one of top priorities among our life lessons, which may be focused more upon such things as how to please the popular and how to be recognized by your peers. So many a school boy may have a somewhat vaguer notion of courage—what does it look like? and where does it come from?

 

Of the Mighty Man of Valor

He stands beside me on the battle-line
And scans the ranks of men opposing us,
His mind and body tense and ready.  Mine
Are shaking, and I wonder if we must
Go forth to fight—perhaps the foe will yield,
Or send a representative to duel.
But no: they have no champion to field—
Only greater numbers.  Fear would rule
Me save for him beside me, sword and shield
In hand and set to challenge any who’ll
Approach.  Together, he has promised me,
We’ll go to battle ‘gainst the Philistines,
Together we will fight; together we
Intend to leave the battle-scene.

He stands above me never giving ground,
Engaging all who dare to challenge us,
His body hot and tiring.  Mine was downed
With injury and plunged into the dust,
Just moments after we’d begun to fight.
I am not dead; for hope I may be healed
I’m faithfully defended by this Mighty
Man.  But now the sword of bronze he wields
Against the foe begins to dull—he might
Do better here if only I could steel
Myself to move and hand him mine.  But fear
Restrains my arm, and I remain upon
The earth while he endures, remaining near
Me as the battle rages on.

He stands beneath me on the bloody plain,
With me upon his shoulders.  Both of us
Have lived, the consequence of all the pain
He has endured to satisfy my trust:
Together we will fight; together we’ll
Depart.  Pity such a Mighty Man
Of Valor had no partner for his zeal,
Instead of fighting next to me.  I can
Not understand what peace resides concealed
Within his breast, that he could calmly stand
Immune to fear of pain and dread of death.
I cannot understand how he retains
The strength to bear my injured form, when left
On him are twice my bloody stains.

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A Christmas Poem by C.S. Lewis

The Turning of the Tide

Click on the picture for the video.

I mean to post this poem right after Thanksgiving, but I haven’t been attending this blog recently. Sorry.

Faerie Queene (excerpt)

Last week I shared an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem Lord of the Isles; this week I mean to take you further back in time for another narrative poem, the renowned Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser. This one you are like to find a little more difficult to read, on account of the archaic language (in fact, some of Spenser’s stylistic choices were archaic even by the standards of his own time, as he was purposely writing for a more medieval flavor than a Renaissance one), but the poem is well worth the effort. But as it is the single longest poem in the English language, spanning several books (and had even planned to be much longer still!), I shall only be introducing you to a tiny sliver of the poem here.

The Faerie Queene is a fantastic and allegorical tale–or several tales–following the adventures of various faerie knights, each of whom represent different Christian virtues. In the magical world of faerie, they do physical battle with the manifestations of different vices, including Error (whose vomit full of bookes and papers was), Lust, Furor, and Despair. The excerpt below is from the Redcross Knight’s encounter with Despair, who has just talked another knight into suicide, and proceeds to attempt the same with the hero:

 

That darksom Cave they enter, where they find
That cursed Man, low sitting on the ground,
Musing full sadly in his sullen Mind;
His greazy Locks, long growen, and unbound,
Disordred hung about his Shoulders round,
And hid his Face; through which his hollow Eyne
Look’d deadly dull, and staréd as astoun’d;
His raw-bone Cheeks, through Penury and Pine,
Were shrunk into his Jaws, as he did never dine.

His Garment, nought but many ragged Clouts,
With Thorns together pinn’d and patched was,
The which his naked Sides he wrap’d abouts;
And him beside there lay upon the Grass
A dreary Corse, whose Life away did pass,
All wallow’d in his own yet luke-warm Blood,
That from his Wound yet welled fresh, alas;
In which a rusty Knife fast fixed stood,
And made an open Passage for the gushing Flood.

Which piteous Spectacle, approving true
The woful Tale that Trevisan had told,
When as the gentle Red-cross Knight did view,
With fiery zeal he burnt in Courage bold,
Him to avenge, before his Blood were cold:
And to the Villain said; Thou damned Wight,
The Author of this Fact, we here behold,
What Justice can but judg against thee right,
With thine own Blood to price his Blood, here shed in sight.

What frantick Fit (quoth he) hath thus distraught
Thee, foolish Man, so rash a Doom to give?
What Justice ever other Judgment taught,
But he should die, who merits not to live?
None else to Death this Man despairing drive,
But his own guilty Mind deserving Death.
Is then unjust to each his Due to give?
Or let him die, that loatheth living Breath?
Or let him die at ease, that liveth here uneath?

Who travels by the weary wandring way,
To come unto his wished Home in haste,
And meets a Flood, that doth his Passage stay,
Is not great Grace to help him over-past,
Or free his Feet, that in the Mire stick fast?
Most envious Man, that grieves at Neighbour’s good,
And fond, that joyest in the Woe thou hast,
Why wilt not let him pass, that long hath stood
Upon the Bank, yet wilt thy self not pass the Flood?

He there does now enjoy eternal Rest
And happy Ease, which thou dost want and crave,
And further from it daily wanderest:
What if some little Pain the Passage have,
That makes frail Flesh to fear the bitter Wave?
Is not short Pain well born, that brings long Ease,
And lays the Soul to sleep in quiet Grave?
Sleep after Toil, Port after stormy Seas,
Ease after War, Death after Life, does greatly please.

The Knight much wondred at his sudden Wit,
And said; The term of Life is limited,
Ne may a Man prolong, nor shorten it:
The Soldier may not move from watchful sted,
Nor leave his stand, until his Captain bed.
Who Life did limit by almighty Doom
(Quoth he) knows best the Terms established;
And he, that points the Centinel his room,
Doth license him depart at sound of morning Droom.

The longer Life, I wote the greater Sin,
The greater Sin, the greater Punishment;
All those great Battels which thou boasts to win,
Through Strife, and Bloodshed, and Avengement,
Now prais’d, hereafter dear thou shalt repent:
For, Life must Life, and Blood must Blood repay.
Is not enough thy evil Life forespent?
For he, that once hath missed the right way,
The further he doth go, the further he doth stray.

Then do no further go, no further stray,
But here lie down, and to thy Rest betake,
Th’ Ill to prevent, that Life ensuen may:
For, what hath Life, thee may it loved make,
And gives nor rather cause it to forsake?
Fear, Sickness, Age, Loss, Labour, Sorrow, Strife,
Pain, Hunger, Cold, that makes the Heart to quake;
And ever fickle Fortune rageth rife,
All which, and thousands more, do make a loathsom Life.

Thou, wretched Man, of Death hast greatest need,
If in true Ballance thou wilt weigh thy State;
For, never Knight that dared warlike Deed,
More luckless Disaventures did amate:
Witness the Dungeon deep, wherein of late
Thy Life shut up, for Death so oft did call;
And though good Luck prolonged hath thy Date,
Yet Death then would the like Mishap forestall,
Into the which hereafter thou mayest happen fall.

Why then dost thou, O Man of Sin, desire
To draw thy Days forth to their last degree?
Is not the measure of thy sinful Hire
High heaped up with huge Iniquity,
Against the Day of Wrath, to burden thee?
Is not enough, that to this Lady mild
Thou falsed hast thy Faith with Perjury,
And sold thy self to serve Duessa vild,
With whom in all abuse thou hast thy self defil’d?

Is not he just, that all this doth behold
From highest Heaven, and bears an equal Eye?
Shall he thy sins up in his Knowledge fold,
And guilty be of thine Impiety?
Is not his Law, Let every Sinner die?
Die shall all Flesh? What then must needs be done,
Is it not better to do willingly,
Than linger till the Glass be all out-run?
Death is the end of Woes: die soon, O Fairy’s Son.

 

 

Faye (video)

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Narrative poem in anapestic meter by the Bearded Poet. Enjoy!

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The Bottle, by Ralph Knevet

The poem below is an example of why formal poetry is not much read today. For reasons connected with both its virtues and its vices, this poem has not aged well: it is, for most of today’s readers, difficult to read—but if you’ve found your way to this site, you may have an advantage over most readers, and find it accessible enough. Give it a try; and then we’ll consider some of the difficulties of this poem (and style of poetry).

 

The Bottle
by Ralph Knevet

Thou bearst the bottle, I the bag (oh Lord)
Which daily I do carry on my back,
So stuffed with sin, that ready ‘tis to crack:
I have no unfeigned nectar for thy gourd,
Mine eyes will no such precious drink afford:
Yet both my heart, and eyes, are deserts dry,
Even Lybian sands, where serpents crawl and fly.

Yea the two extreme zones took up my heart,
For unto good, as cold as ice, I am:
But unto evil, like an Etna’s flame:
I paralytical seem in each part,
One utterly deprived of strength, and art,
When I should execute my master’s will,
But active am as fire, t’accomplish ill.

I bear the bag like Judas: (Lord) do Thou,
From this unwieldy burden me dismiss,
And this bag empty, which so heavy is:
Then shall my tears into thy bottle flow;
Not only tears, which do from sorrow grow,
But cooler drops, which do from joy distill,
And to the brim, these shall thy bottle fill.

 

Congratulations to you for making it through this poem; and bonus points if you got the imagery—which is the first difficulty here: for the primary image is no longer familiar to people today. “The Bottle” refers to a Lachrymatory, or tear-bottle, which captures and holds the tears of a mourner. Yes, these things did exist (in fact they still do), and would have been known to the original audience of this poem (though perhaps better-known in ancient times). And even if the reader had not ever used or seen a tear-bottle, they were expected to know the Biblical reference:

“Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou my tears in Thy bottle; are they not in Thy Book?” –Psalm 56:8

So the poet, whose original readers were familiar with both Biblical and classical imagery, would have easily discerned what the poet is saying: the Lord counts my every tear, but alas! I fail to mourn my sin; therefore deliver me from sin, o Lord, and I will both weep for my sin and cry for joy at my deliverance! Now today’s readers, unfamiliar with the Lachrymatory, can still pick this up (for the poet is not opaque); but it is with greater difficulty.

Speaking of original versus modern readers, the two groups tend to have much different tastes in subject matter. In Knevet’s time, religious poetry like this was more popular, for the religious community and the literary community had significantly more overlap than today; and in the last century, the dominant literary institutions have rather discouraged such themes (or at least, have been more given to praise other themes).

But the biggest problem with this poem is actually the syntax: Knevet’s word order is so far from natural speech it makes some of the lines rather difficult (and unpleasant) to read. Even granting that poetic diction allows for greater freedom in word order, Knevet has gone rather beyond the boundaries. His rearrangement of subjects, verbs, objects, and clauses may serve his rhyme, but they fail to serve his meaning (or clarity).

Now this is probably a greater poetic vice today than in Knevet’s time: for just as readers were once more familiar with classical imagery, so also were they once more familiar with classical languages—and in Greek and Latin, word order is much less strict than in English. Readers who were familiar with the freedom of word order in those languages may well have has a higher tolerance for such contravention of English syntax. But as poetic readership moved away from those languages, this tolerance fell; and by the beginning of the free verse era, such tortured word order was one of the significant reasons formal poetry was rejected.

Consider just that last stanza again, compared to natural syntax:

 

I bear the bag like Judas: (Lord) do Thou,
From this unwieldy burden me dismiss,              Dismiss this unwieldy burden,
And this bag empty, which so heavy is:               And empty this heavy bag,
Then shall my tears into thy bottle flow;             Then my tears shall fill your bottle—
Not only tears, which do from sorrow grow,     Not only tears of sadness,
But cooler drops, which do from joy distill,       But also tears of joy—
And to the brim, these shall thy bottle fill.         These shall fill your bottle to the brim.

 

Of course the natural syntax is not in meter. The challenge for a formal poet today would be to take the text on the right and re-work it into something metrical that is no less natural, so that it is readable as opposed to decipherable, and so that it can be spoken aloud and understood without having to be carefully repeated two or three times. But if a poet today wrote the text on the left, I would be rather inclined to call it bad poetry—at the very least, I’d have to say that the poet was writing for a very small audience (or for a dead one).

I still like this poem, by the way; for a poem does not have to be faultless to be enjoyable. But the faults ought to be recognized, so that we when we write, we do not make the mistake of throwing out the baby (poetic meter) with the bathwater (tortured syntax).