Copyright
George MacDonald.

England's antiphon online

. (page 7 of 19)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldEngland's antiphon → online text (page 7 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


First what he is inquire :
An orient pearl is often found

In depth of dirty mire.

Weigh not his crib, his wooden dish.

Nor beasts that by him feed ;
Weigh not his mother's poor attire,

Nor Joseph's simple weed.

This stable is a prince's court,

The crib his chair of state ;
The beasts are parcel of his pomp.

The wooden dish his plate.



1 Silly means innocent, and therefore blessed; ignorant of evil, and in
so far helpless. It is easy to see how affection came to apply it to idiots.
It is applied to the ox and ass in the next stanza, and is often an epithet
of shepherds.



ST. PETER'S REMORSE. loi

The persons in that poor attire

His royal liveries wear ;
The Prince himself is come from heaven :

This pomp is praised there.

With joy approach, O Christian wight ;

Do homage to thy King ;
And highly praise this humble pomp,

Which he from heaven doth bring.

Another, on the same subject, he calls New Heaven,
New War. It is fantastic to a degree. One stanza,
however, I like much :

This little babe, so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold ;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake ;
For in this weak, unarmed wise.
The gates of hell he will surprise.

There is profoundest truth in the symbolism of this.

Here is the latter half of a poem called St. Peter's
Remorse :

Did mercy spin the thread

To weave injustice' loom?
Wert then a father to conclude

With dreadful judge's doom ?

It is a small relief

To say I was thy child,
If, as an ill-deserving foe,

From grace I am exiled.

I was, I had, I could —

All words importing want ;
They are but dust of dead supplies,

Where needful helps are scant.

Once to have been in bliss

That hardly can return,
Doth but bewray from whence I fell.

And wherefore now I mourn.
9*



I02 ENGLAND'S ANTIPHON.



All thoughts of passed hopes

Increase my present cross ;
Like ruins of decayed joys,

They still upbraid my loss.

mild and mighty Lord !
Amend that is amiss ;

My sin my sore, thy love my salve,
Thy cure my comfort is.

Confirm thy former deed ;
Reform that is defiled ;

1 was, I am, I will remain

Thy charge, thy choice, thy child.

Here are some neat stanzas from a poem he calls

CONTENT AND RICH.

My conscience is my crown,

Contented thoughts my rest ;
My heart is happy in itself,

My bliss is in my breast.

My wishes are but few,

All easy to fulfil ;
I make the limits of my power

The bounds unto my will.

Sith sails of largest size

The storm doth soonest tear,
I bear so small and low a sail

As freeth me from fear. ^

And taught with often proof,

A tempered calm I find
To be most solace to itself,

Best cure for angry mind.

No chance of Fortune's calms

Can cast my comforts down ;
When Fortune smiles I smile to think

How quickly she will frown.



DANIEL.—SIR HENRY WOTTON. 103

And when in froward mood

She proves an angry foe :
Small gain I found to let her come,

Less loss to let her go.

There is just one stanza in a poem of Daniel, who
belongs by birth to this group, which I should like to
print by itself, if it were only for the love Coleridge
had to the last two lines of it. It needs little stretch
of scheme to let it show itself amongst religious poems.
It occurs in a fine epistle to the Countess of Cumberland.
Daniel's writing is full of the practical wisdom of the
inner life, and the stanza which I quote has a certain
Wordsworthian flavour about it. It will not make a
complete sentence, but must yet stand by itself:

Knowing the heart of man is set to be
The centre of this world, about the which
These revolutions of disturbances
Still roll ; where all th' aspects of miseiy
Predominate ; whose strong effects are such
As he must bear, being powerless to redress ;
And that unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how poor a thing is man !

Later in the decade, comes Sir Henry Wotton. It
will be seen that I have arranged my singers with
reference to their birth, not to the point of time at
which this or that poem was written or published.
The poetic influences which work on the shaping
fantasy are chiefly felt in youth,, and hence the
predominant mode of a poet's utterance will be
determined by what and where and amongst whom
he was during that season. The kinds of the vari-
ous poems will therefore probably fall into natural



I04 ENGLAND'S ANT IPHON.

sequence rather after the dates of the youth of
the writers than after the years in which they were
written.

Wotton was better known in his day as a politician
than as a poet, and chiefly in ours as the subject of
one of Izaak Walton's biographies. Something of
artistic instinct, rather than finish, is evident in his
verses. Here is the best and the best-known of the
few poems recognized as his :

THE CHARACTER OF A HAPPY LIFE.

How happy is he born and taught,

That serveth not another's will ;
Whose armour is his honest thought,

And silly truth his highest skill ;

Whose passions not his masters are ;

Whose soul is still prepared for death,
Untied to the world with care

Of prince's grace or vulgar breath ;

Who hath his life from humours freed ;

Whose conscience is his strong retreat ;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,

Nor i-uin make accusers great j

Who envieth none wkom chance doth raise

Or vice ; who never understood
How swords give slighter wounds than praise.

Nor rules of state, but niles of good ;

Who God doth late and early pray

More of his grace than gifts to lend ;
And entertains the harmless day

With a well-chosen book or friend.

This man is free from servile bands

Of hope to rise, or fear to fall :
Lord of himself, though not of lands

And having nothing, yet hath all.



SIR JOHN DA VIES, 105

Some of my readers will observe that in many-
places I have given a reading different from that in
the best-known copy of the poem. I have followed
a manuscript in the handwriting of Ben Jonson.^ I
cannot tell whether Jonson has put the master's hand
to the amateur's work, but in every case I find his
reading the best.

Sir John Davies must have been about fifteen
years younger than Sir Fulk Grevill. He was born in
I570> was bred a barrister, and rose to high position
through the favour of James I. — gained, it is said, by
the poem which the author called Nosce Teipsum,'^
but which is generally entitled On the Immortality
of the Soul, intending by immortality the spiritual
nature of the soul, resulting in continuity of exist-
ence. It is a wonderful instance of what can be
done for metaphysics in verse, and by means of
imagination or poetic embodiment generally. Argu-
mentation cannot of course naturally belong to the
region of poetry, however well it may comport itself
when there naturalized ; and consequently, although
there are most poetic no less than profound passages
in the treatise, a light scruple arises whether its con-
stituent matter can properly be called poetry. At
all events, however, certain of the more prosaic
measures and stanzas lend themselves readily, and
with much favour, to some of the more complex
of logical necessities. And it must be remembered

1 See Poems by Sir Henry Wotton and others. Edited by the Rev,
John Hannah.
' "Know thyselC"



io6 ENGLAND'S ANTIPHON.

that in human speech, as in the human mind, there
are no absolute divisions : power shades off into
feehng; and the driest logic may find the heroic
couplet render it good service.

Sir John Davies's treatise is not only far more
poetic in image and utterance than that of Lord
Brooke, but is far more clear in argument and firm
in expression as well. Here is a fine invocation :

O Light, which mak'st the light which makes the day !

Which sett'st the eye without, and mind within ;

Lighten my spirit with one clear heavenly ray,

Which now to view itself doth first begin.
* * * *

Thou, like the sun, dost, with an equal ray,

Into the palace and the cottage shine ;
And show'st the soul both to the clerk and lay, learned and

By the clear lamp of th' oracle divine. \tmlearned.

He is puzzled enough to get the theology of his time
into harmony with his philosophy, and I cannot say
that he is always triumphant in the attempt ; but
here at least is good argument in justification of the
freedom of man to sin.

If by His word he had the current stayed

Of Adam's will, which was by nature free,

It had been one as if his word had said,

" I will henceforth that Man no Man shall be."
* * ♦ •

For what is Man without a moving mind,

Which hath a judging wit, and choosing will ?

Now, if God's pow'r should her election bind.

Her motions then would cease, and stand all still.
* « * *

So that if Man would be unvariable.

He must be God, or like a rock or tree ;
For ev'n the perfect angels were not stable,

But had a fall more desperate than we.



ON THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL. 107



The poem contains much excellent argument in
mental science as well as in religion and metaphysics ;
but with that department I have nothing to do.

I shall now give an outlook from the highest peak
of the poem — to any who are willing to take the
trouble necessary for seeing what another would
show them.

The section from which I have gathered the follow-
ing stanzas is devoted to the more immediate proof
of the soul's immortality.

Her only end is never-ending bliss,

Which is the eternal face of God to see,
Who last of ends and first of causes is ;

And to do this, she must eternal be.

Again, how can she but immortal be,

When with the motions of both will and wit,

She still aspireth to eternity,

And never rests till she attains to it?

Water in conduit-pipes can rise no higher

Than the well-head from whence it first doth spring ;

Then since to eternal God she doth aspire,
She cannot but be an eternal thing.

At first her mother-earth she holdeth dear,

And doth embrace the world and worldly things ;

She flies close by the ground, and hovers here,
And mounts not up with her celestial wings.

Yet under heaven she cannot light on ought

That vrAh. her heavenly nature doth agree
She cannot rest, she cannot fix her thought,

She cannot in this world contented be.

For who did ever yet, in honour, wealth,

Or pleasure of the sense, contentment find ?
Whoever ceased to wish, when he had health ?

Or having wisdom, was not vexed in mind ?



io8 ENGLAND 'S ANTIPHON.



Then as a bee, which among weeds doth fall,

Which seem sweet flowers, with lustre fresh and gay —

She lights on that, and this, and tasteth all,
But, pleased with none, doth rise, and soar away ;

So, when the soul finds here no true content,
And, like Noah's dove, can no sure footing take,

She doth return from whence she first was sent.
And flies to him that first her wings did make.

Wit, seeking truth, from cause to cause ascends,

And never rests till it the first attain ;
Will, seeking good, finds many middle ends,

But never stays till it the last do gain.

Now God the truth, and first of causes is ;

God is the last good end, which lasteth still ;
Being Alpha and Omega named for this :

Alpha to wit, Omega to the will.

Since then her heavenly kind she doth display

In that to God she doth directly move.
And on no mortal thing can make her stay,

She cannot be from hence, but from above.

One passage more, the conclusion and practical
summing up of the whole :

O ignorant poor man ! what dost thou bear,
Locked up within the casket of thy breast ?

What jewels and what riches hast thou there !
W^hat heavenly treasure in so weak a chest !

Think of her worth, and think that God did mean
This worthy mind should worthy things embrace :

Blot not her beauties with thy thoughts unclean,
Nor her dishonour with thy passion base.

Kill not her quickening power with surfeitings ;

Mar not her sense with sensuality ;
Cast not her serious wit on idle things ;

Make not her free-will slave to vanity.



PHASES OF RELIGIOUS POETRY. 109

And when thou think'st of her eternity,

Think not that death against our nature is ;

Think it a birth ; and when thou go'st to die,
Sing like a swan, as if thou went'st to bUss.

And if thou, like a child, didst fear before,

Being in the dark where thou didst nothing see ;

Now I have brought thee torch-light, fear no more ;
Now when thou diest thou canst not hood-wink'd be.

And thou, my soul, which turn'st with curious eye
To view the beams of thine own form divine,

Know, that thou canst know nothing perfectly.
While thou art clouded with this flesh of mine.

Take heed of over-weening, and compare

Thy peacock's feet with thy gay peacock's train :

Study the best and highest things that are.
But of thyself an humble thought retain.

Cast down thyself, and only strive to raise

The story of thy Maker's sacred name :
Use all thy powers that blessed Power to praise,

Which gives the power to be, and use the same.

In looking back over our path from the point we
have now reached, the first thought that suggests
itself is — How much the reflective has supplanted the
emotional ! I do not mean for a moment that the
earliest poems were without thought, or that the
latest are without emotion ; but in the former there
is more of the skin, as it were — in the latter, more
of the bones of worship ; not that in the one the
worship is but skin-deep, or that in the other the
bones are dry.

To look at the change a little more closely : we
find in the earliest time, feeling working on historic
fact and on what was received as such, and the result

10



I lo ENGLAND 'S ANTIPHON.

simple aspiration after goodness. The next stage is
good doctrine — I use the word, as St. Paul uses it,
for instruction in righteousness — chiefly by means of
allegory, all attempts at analysis being made through
personification of qualities. Here the general form is
frequently more poetic than the matter. After this
we have a period principally of imitation, sometimes
good, sometimes indifferent. Next, with the Refor-
mation and the revival of literature together, come
more of art and more of philosophy, to the detri-
ment of the lyrical expression. People cannot think
and sing : they can only feel and sing. But the
philosophy goes farther in this direction, even to the
putting in abeyance of that from which song takes
its rise, — namely, feeling itself As to the former,
amongst the verse of the period I have given, there
is hardly anything to be called song but Sir Philip
Sidney's Psalms, and for them we are more indebted
to King David than to Sir Philip. As to the latter,
even in the case of that most mournful poem of
the Countess of Pembroke, it is, to quite an un-
healthy degree, occupied with the attempt to work
upon her own feelings by the contemplation of them,
instead of with the utterance of those aroused by the
contemplation of truth. In her case the metaphysics
have begun to prey upon and consume the emotions.
Besides, that age was essentially a dramatic age, as
even its command of language, especially as shown
in the pranks it plays with it, would almost indicate ;
and the dramatic impulse is less favourable, though
not at all opposed, to lyrical utterance. In the cases



HISTORIC WA VES OF PROGRESS.



of Sir Fulk Grevill and Sir John Davies, the feeUng
is assuredly profound ; but in form and expression
the philosophy has quite the upper hand.

We must not therefore suppose, however, that the
cause of religious poetry has been a losing one. The
last wave must sink that the next may rise, and the
whole tide flow shorewards. The man must awake
through all his soul, all his strength, all his mind, that
he may worship God in unity, in the one harmonious
utterance of his being : his heart must be united to
fear his name. And for this final perfection of the
individual the race must awake. At this season and
that season, this power or that power must be chiefly
developed in her elect ; and for its sake the growth of
others must for a season be delayed. But the next
generation will inherit all that has gone before ; and
its elect, if they be themselves pure in heart, and indi-
vidual, that is original, in mind, will, more or less
thoroughly, embody the result, in subservience to
some new development, essential in its turn to further
progress. Even the fallow times, which we are so
ready to call barren, must have their share in working
the one needful work. They may be to the nation
that which sickness so often is to the man— a time of
refreshing from the Lord. A nation's life does not
lie in its utterance any more than in the things which
it possesses : it lies in its action. The utterance is a
result, and therefore a sign, of life ; but there may
be life without any such sign. To do justice, to love
mercy, to walk humbly with God, is the highest life
of a nation as of an individual ; and when the time



1 12 ENGLAND 'S ANTIPHON



for speech comes, it will be such life alone that causes
the speech to be strong at once and harmonious.
When at last there are not ten righteous men in
Sodom, Sodom can neither think, act, nor say, and
her destruction is at hand.

While the wave of the dramatic was sinking, the
wave of the lyric was growing in force and rising in
height. Especially as regards religious poetry we are
as yet only approaching the lyrical jubilee. Fact
and faith, self-consciousness and metaphysics, all are
needful to the lyric of love. Modesty and art find
their grandest, simplest labour in rightly subordinating
each of those to the others. How could we have
a George Herbert without metaphysics } In those
poems I have just given, the way of metaphysics
was prepared for him. That which overcolours one
age to the injury of its harmony, will, in the next or
the next, fall into its own place in the seven-chorded
rainbow of truth.



CHAPTER VII.



DR. DONNE.



We now come to Dr. John Donne, a man of justly
great respect and authority, who, born in the year
1573, the fifteenth of Queen EHzabeth, died Dean of
St. Paul's in the year 1636. But, although even Ben
Jonson addresses him as "the delight of Phoebus and
each Muse," we are too far beyond the power of his
social presence and the influence of his public utter-
ances to feel that admiration of his poems which was
so largely expressed during his lifetime. Of many
of those that were written in his youth, Izaak Walton
says Dr. Donne "wished that his own eyes had
witnessed their funerals." Faulty as they are, how-
ever, they are not the less the work of a great and
earnest man.

Bred to the law, but never having practised it, he
lost his secretaryship to the Lord Chancellor EUes-
mere through the revenge of Sir George More,
whose daughter Donne had married in secret because
of her father's opposition. Dependent thereafter for
years on the generous kindness of unrelated friends,
he yet for conscience' sake refused to take orders when

S.L. IV. 10*



1 14 ENGLAND 'S AN TIP/ION

a good living was offered him ; and it was only after
prolonged thought that he yielded to the importunity
of King James, who was so convinced of his surpass-
ing fitness for the church that he would speed him to-
wards no other goal. When at length he dared hope
that God might have called him to the high office,
never man gave himself to its duties with more of
whole-heartedness and devotion, and none have proved
themselves more clean of the sacrilege of serving at
the altar for the sake of the things offered thereon.

He is represented by Dr. Johnson as one of the
chief examples of that school of poets called by him-
self the metaphysical, an epithet which, as a definition,
is almost false. True it is that Donne and his fol-
lowers were always ready to deal with metaphysical
subjects, but it was from their mode, and not their
subjects, that Dr. Johnson classed them. What this
mode was we shall see presently, for I shall be justi-
fied in setting forth its strangeness, even absurdity, by
the fact that Dr. Donne was the dear friend of George
Herbert, and had much to do with the formation of
his poetic habits. Just twenty years older than
Herbert, and the valued and intimate friend of his
mother, Donne was in precisely that relation of age
and circumstance to influence the other in the highest
degree.

The central thought of Dr. Donne is nearly sure to
be just : the subordinate thoughts by means of which
ke unfolds it are often grotesque, and so wildly associ-
ated as to remind one of the lawlessness of a dream,
wherein xnexit suggestion without choice or fitness



DR. DONNE: HIS MODE AND STYLE.



rules the sequence. As some of the writers of whom
I have last spoken would play with words, Dr. Donne
would sport with ideas, and with the visual images of
embodiments of them. Certainly in his case much
knowledge reveals itself in the association of his ideas,
and great facility in the management and utterance
of them. True likewise, he says nothing unrelated
to the main idea of the poem ; but not the less
certainly does the whole resemble the speech of a
child of active imagination, to whom judgment as
to the character of his suggestions is impossible, his
taste being equally gratified with a lovely image
and a brilliant absurdity : a butterfly and a shining
potsherd are to him similarly desirable. Whatever
wild thing starts from the thicket of thought, all is
worthy game to the hunting intellect of Dr. Donne,
and is followed without question of tone, keeping, or
harmony. In his play with words, Sir Philip Sidney
kept good heed that even that should serve the end
in view ; in his play with ideas. Dr. John Donne, so
far from serving the end, sometimes obscures it almost
hopelessly: the hart escapes while he follows the
squirrels and weasels and bats. It is not surprising
that, their author being so inartistic with regard to
their object, his verses themselves should be harsh
and unmusical beyond the worst that one would
imagine fit to be called verse. He enjoys the un-
enviable distinction of having no rival in ruggedness
of metric movement and associated sounds. This is
clearly the result of indifference ; an indifference, how-
ever, which grows very strange to us when we find



I 2



1 16 ENGLAND 'S ANTIPHON.

»

that he can write a lovely verse and even an exquisite
stanza.

Greatly for its own sake, partly for the sake of
illustration, I quote a poem containing at once his
best and his worst, the result being such an incon-
gruity that we wonder whether it might not be called
his best mid his worst, because we cannot determine
which. He calls it Hymji to God, my God, in my
Sickness. The first stanza is worthy of George Herbert
in his best mood.

Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where with the choir of saints for evermore

I shall be made thy music, as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

To recognize its beauty, leaving aside the depth
and truth of the phrase, " Where I shall be made
thy music," we must recall the custom of those days
to send out for " a noise of musicians." Hence he
imagines that he has been summoned as one of a
band already gone in to play before the king of
"The High Countries :" he is now at the door, where
he is listening to catch the tone, that he may have
his instrument tuned and ready before he enters.
But with what a jar the next stanza breaks on heart,
mind, and ear !

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosniographers, and I ^ their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretiun febris — by these straits to die ; —



1 " And I have grown their map.



THE LAND OF THE WEST. T17

Here, in the midst of comparing himself to a map,
and his physicians to cosmographers consulting the
map, he changes without warning into a navigatoj
whom they are trying to follow upon the map as he
passes through certain straits — namely, those of the
fever — towards his south-west discovery, Death.
Grotesque as this is, the absurdity deepens in the
end of the next stanza by a return to the former
idea. He is alternately a map and a man sailing
on the map of himself. But the first half of the
stanza is lovely : my reader must remember that the
region of the West was at that time the Land of
Promise to England.

I joy that in these straits I see my West ;

For though those currents yield return to none,
What shall my West hurt me ? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.

It is hardly worth while, except for the strangeness


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldEngland's antiphon → online text (page 7 of 19)