Week 4: Know Thyself: John Davies and Tennyson

As we continue our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.

The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith

Last week we walked with Dante, and I want to develop this sense of our ‘companioned journey’ this week by drawing alongside two other poets who may help us with our reflections on the way. In particular I want to share with you some gems from their longer poems which, precisely because they occur in the midst of long poems, are very rarely anthologized, but which have a great deal to offer us. The twin themes which I hope these poets will open for us are self-questioning on the one hand and self-knowledge on the other. Anyone who has taken a long pilgrimage, or even just a long walk, such as we are doing through Lent, will know that there comes a time when, as other concerns subside, the big questions arise: Who am I? How much do I really know myself? What can I really know about God? How can I trust that knowledge?

but first we start with our Sunday poem, this time for Mothering Sunday, as always with al; these poems you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

 

Mothering Sunday   Malcolm Guite

 

At last, in spite of all, a recognition,

For those who loved and laboured for so long,

Who brought us, through that labour, to fruition

To flourish in the place where we belong.

A thanks to those who stayed and did the raising,

Who buckled down and did the work of two,

Whom governments have mocked instead of praising,

Who hid their heart-break and still struggled through,

The single mothers forced onto the edge

Whose work the world has overlooked, neglected,

Invisible to wealth and privilege,

But in whose lives the kingdom is reflected.

Now into Christ our mother church we bring them,

Who shares with them the birth-pangs of His Kingdom.

 

Monday

 

Why did my parents send me to the schools?   John Davies

Why did my parents send me to the Schools,

That I with knowledge might enrich my mind?

Since the desire to know first made men fools,

And did corrupt the root of all mankind:

Even so by tasting of that fruit forbid,

Where they sought knowledge, they did error find;

Ill they desir’d to know, and ill they did;

And to give Passion eyes, made Reason blind.

For then their minds did first in Passion see

Those wretched shapes of misery and woe,

Of nakedness, of shame, of poverty,

Which then their own experience made them know.

But then grew Reason dark, that she no more,

Could the faire forms of Good and Truth discern;

Bats they became, that eagles were before:

And this they got by their desire to learn.

All things without, which round about we see,

We seek to know, and how therewith to do:

But that whereby we reason, live and be,

Within our selves, we strangers are thereto.

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,

And the strange cause of th’ebs and floods of Nile;

But of that clock within our breasts we bear,

The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint our selves with every Zone

And pass both Tropics and behold the Poles

When we come home, are to our selves unknown,

And unacquainted still with our own souls.

We study Speech but others we persuade;

We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;

We interpret laws, which other men have made,

But read not those which in our hearts are writ.

 

Is it because the mind is like the eye,

Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees −

Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly:

Not seeing itself when other things it sees?

No, doubtless; for the mind can backward cast

Upon her self her understanding light;

But she is so corrupt, and so defac’t,

As her own image doth her self affright.

TUESDAY

 

What It Is To Be Human   John Davies

She within lists my ranging mind hath brought,

That now beyond my self I list not go;

My self am centre of my circling thought,

Only my self I study, learn, and know.

I know my body’s of so frail a kind,

As force without, fevers within can kill:

I know the heavenly nature of my mind,

But ‘tis corrupted both in wit and will:

I know my soul hath power to know all things,

Yet is she blind and ignorant in all;

I know I am one of nature’s little kings,

Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.

I know my life’s a pain and but a span,

I know my Sense is mockt with every thing:

And to conclude, I know my self a man,

Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

The Light which makes the light which makes the day   John Davies

That Power which gave me eyes the World to view,

To see my self infused an inward light,

Whereby my soul, as by a mirror true,

Of her own form may take a perfect sight,

But as the sharpest eye discerneth nought,

Except the sun-beams in the air doe shine:

So the best soul with her reflecting thought,

Sees not her self without some light divine.

To judge her self she must her self transcend,

As greater circles comprehend the less;

But she wants power, her own powers to extend,

As fettered men can not their strength express.

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

Which set’st the eye without, and mind within;

‘Lighten my spirit with one clear heavenly ray,

Which now to view it self doth first begin.

But Thou which didst man’s soul of nothing make,

And when to nothing it was fallen again,

To make it new the form of man didst take,

And God with God, becam’st a Man with men.

Thou, that hast fashioned twice this soul of ours,

So that she is by double title Thine,

Thou only knowest her nature and her pow’rs,

Her subtle form Thou only canst define…

But Thou bright Morning Star, Thou rising Sun,

Which in these later times hast brought to light

Those mysteries, that since the world begun,

Lay hid in darkness and eternal night;

Thou (like the sun) dost with indifferent ray,

Into the palace and the cottage shine,

And shew’st the soul both to the clerk and lay,

By the clear lamp of Thy Oracle divine.

 

THURSDAY

 

Death as Birth   Sir John Davies

The first life, in the mother’s womb is spent,

Where she her nursing power doth only use;

Where, when she finds defect of nourishment,

She expels her body, and this world she views.

This we call Birth; but if the child could speak,

He Death would call it; and of Nature plain,

That she would thrust him out naked and weak,

And in his passage pinch him with such pain.

 

Yet, out he comes, and in this world is placed

Where all his Senses in perfection bee:

Where he finds flowers to smell, and fruits to taste;

And sounds to hear, and sundry forms to see.

When he hath past some time upon this stage,

His Reason then a little seems to wake;

Which, though the spring, when sense doth fade with age,

Yet can she here no perfect practise make.

Then doth th’aspiring Soul the body leave,

Which we call Death; but were it known to all,

What life our souls do by this death receive,

Men would it birth or gaol delivery call.

 

In this third life, Reason will be so bright,

As that her spark will like the sun-beams shine,

And shall of God enioy the real sight.

Being still increased by influence divine.

 

Acclamation

 

O ignorant poor man! what dost thou bear

Locked up within the casket of thy breast?

What jewels, and what riches hast thou there!

What heavenly treasure in so weak a chest!

Look in thy soul, and thou shalt beauties find,

Like those which drowned Narcissus in the flood:

Honour and Pleasure both are in thy mind,

And all that in the world is counted Good.

And when thou think’st of her eternity,

Think not that Death against her nature is;

Think it a birth: and when thou goest to die,

Sing like a swan, as if thou went’st to bliss.

 

FRIDAY

 

Faith in Honest Doubt   Alfred Tennyson

You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.

 

I know not: one indeed I knew

In many a subtle question versed,

Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,

But ever strove to make it true:

 

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,

At last he beat his music out.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

 

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

 

To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,

 

But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

 

Saturday

 

Strong Son of God, Immortal Love               Alfred Tennyson


 

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

By faith, and faith alone, embrace,

Believing where we cannot prove;

Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

 

We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.

 

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before …

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