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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

O Holiest Truth, how have I lied to Thee!

I vowed this day Thy festival should be;

Yet I am dim ere night.

Surely I made my prayer, and I did deem

That I could keep in me Thy morning beam

Immaculate and bright.

But my foot slipped, and, as I lay, he came,

My gloomy foe, and robbed me of heaven’s flame.

Help Thou my darkness, Lord, till I am light.

In the verses on Morning an allusion may be observed, to his priesthood. The following lines bear a more express reference to it, and perhaps to Penance also:—

In service o’er the mystic feast I stand,

I cleanse Thy victim-flock, and bring them near

In holiest wise, and by a bloodless rite.

O Fire of Love! O gushing Fount of Light!

(As best I know, who need Thy cleansing hand),

Dread office this, bemirèd souls to clear

Of their defilement, and again make bright.

These lines may have an allusion which introduces us to the following:—

As viewing sin, e’en in its faintest trace,

Murder in wrath, and in the wanton oath

The perjured tongue, and therefore shunning them,

So deem’d I safe a strict virginity.

And hence our ample choir of holiest souls

Are followers of the unfleshly seraphim,

And Him who ’mid them reigns in lonely light.

These, one and all, rush towards the thought of death,

And hope of second life, with single heart,

Loosed from the law and chain of marriage vow.

For I was but a captive at my birth,

Sin my first life, till its base discipline

Revolted me towards a nobler path.

Then Christ drew near me, and the Virgin-born

Spoke the new call to join His virgin-train.

So now towards highest heaven my innocent brow

I raise exultingly, sans let or bond,

Leaving no heir of this poor tabernacle

To ape me when my proper frame is broke;

But solitary with my only God,

And truest souls to bear me company.

6

It so happens that we have a vast deal of Gregory’s poetry, which he doubtless never intended for publication, but which formed the recreation of his retirement. From one of these compositions the following playful extract, on the same subject, is selected:—

As when the hand some mimic form would paint,

It marks its purpose first in shadows faint,

And next its store of varied hues applies,

Till outlines fade, and the full limbs arise;

So in the earlier school of sacred lore

The virgin life no claim of honour bore,

While in Religion’s youth the Law held sway

And traced in symbols dim that better way.

But, when the Christ came by a virgin-birth,—

His radiant passage from high heaven to earth,—

And, spurning father for His mortal state,

Did Eve and all her daughters consecrate;

Solved fleshly laws, and in the letter’s place

Gave us the spirit and the word of grace;—

Then shone the glorious Celibate at length,

Robed in the dazzling lightnings of its strength,

Surpassing spells of earth and marriage vow,

As soul the body, heaven this world below,

The eternal peace of saints life’s troubled span,

And the high throne of God the haunts of man.

So now there circles round the King of Light

A heaven on earth, a blameless court and bright,

Aiming as emblems of their God to shine,

Christ in their heart, and on their brow His sign,

Soft funeral lights in the world’s twilight dim,

Seeing their God, and ever one with Him.

Ye countless multitude, content to bow

To the soft thraldom of the marriage vow!

I mark your haughty step, your froward gaze,

Gems deck your hair, and silk your limbs arrays;

Come, tell the gain which wedlock has conferred

On man; and then the single shall be heard.

The married many thus might plead, I ween;

Full glib their tongue, right confident their mien:—

“Hear, all who live! to whom the nuptial rite

Has brought the privilege of life and light,

We, who are wedded, but the law obey,

Stamped at creation on our blood and clay,

What time the Demiurge our line began,

Oped Adam’s side, and out of man drew man.

Thenceforth let children of a mortal sod

Honour the law of earth, the primal law of God.

“List, you shall hear the gifts of price that lie

Gathered and bound within the marriage tie.

What taught the arts of life, the truths that sleep

In earth, or highest heaven, or vasty deep?

What filled the mart, and urged the vessel brave

To link in one far countries o’er the wave?

What raised the town?—what gave the type and germ

Of social union, and of sceptre firm?

Who the first husbandman, the glebe to plough,

And rear the garden, but the marriage vow?

“Nay, list again! who seek its kindly chain,

A second self, a double presence gain;

Hands, eyes, and ears, to act or suffer here,

Till e’en the weak inspire both love and fear—

A comrade’s sigh, to soothe when cares annoy—

A comrade’s smile, to elevate his joy.

“Nor say it weds us to a carnal life;

When want is urgent, fears and vows are rife.

Light heart is his, who has no yoke at home,

Scant prayers for blessings as the seasons come.

But wife, and offspring, goods which go or stay,

Teach us our need, and make us trust and pray.

Take love away, and life would be defaced,

A ghastly vision on a howling waste,

Stern, heartless, reft of the sweet spells, which swage

The throes of passion, and which gladden age.

No child’s sweet pranks, once more to make us young;

No ties of place about our heart-strings flung;

No public haunts to cheer; no festive tide,

Where harmless mirth and smiling wit preside;

A life, which scorns the gifts which Heaven assign’d,

Nor knows the sympathy of human kind.

“Prophets and teachers, priests and victor kings,

Decked with each grace which heaven-taught nature brings,

These were no giant offspring of the earth,

But to the marriage-promise owe their birth:—

Moses and Samuel, David, David’s son,

The blessed Thesbite, and more blessed John,

The sacred twelve in apostolic choir,

Strong-hearted Paul, instinct with seraph-fire,

And others, now or erst, who to high heaven aspire.

Bethink ye; should the single state be best,

Yet who the single, but my offspring blest?

My sons, be still, nor with your parents strive,

They coupled in their day, and so ye live.”

Thus Marriage pleads. Now let her rival speak;

Dim is her downcast eye, and pale her cheek;

Untrimmed her gear; no sandals on her feet;

A sparest form for austere tenant meet.

She drops her veil her modest face around,

And her lips open, but we hear no sound.

I will address her:—“Hail! O child of heaven,

Glorious within! to whom a post is given

Hard by the throne, where Angels bow and fear,

E’en while thou hast a name and mission here,

O deign thy voice, unveil thy brow, and see

Thy ready guard and minister in me.

Oft hast thou come heaven-wafted to my breast,

Bright Spirit! so come again, and give me rest!”

… “Ah! who has hither drawn my backward feet,

Changing for worldly strife my lone retreat?

Where, in the silent chant of holy deeds,

I praise my God, and tend the sick soul’s needs;

By toils of day, and vigils of the night,

By gushing tears, and blessed lustral rite.

I have no sway amid the crowd, no art

In speech, no place in council or in mart;

Nor human law, nor judges throned on high,

Smile on my face, and to my words reply.

Let others seek earth’s honours; be it mine

One law to cherish, and to track one line;

Straight on towards heaven to press with single bent,

To know and love my God, and then to die content.” etc., etc.

It would take up too much time to continue the poem, of which I have attempted the above rude and free translation (or rather paraphrase, as indeed are all the foregoing); or to introduce any other specimens of the poetical talents of this accomplished Father of the Church.

I end with one or two stanzas, which give an account of the place and circumstances of his retirement. I am obliged again to warn the reader, that he must not fancy he has gained an idea of Gregory’s poetry from my attempts at translation; and should it be objected that this is not treating Gregory well, I answer, that at least I am as true to the original as if I exhibited it in plain prose.

Some one whispered yesterday

Of the rich and fashionable,

“Gregory, in his own small way,

Easy was, and comfortable.

Had he not of wealth his fill,

Whom a garden gay did bless,

And a gently trickling rill,

And the sweets of idleness?”

I made answer: “Is it ease

Fasts to keep, and tears to shed?

Vigil hours and wounded knees,

Call you these a pleasant bed?

Thus a veritable monk

Does to death his fleshly frame;

Be there who in sloth are sunk,

They have forfeited the name.”

And thus I take leave of St. Gregory, a man who is as great theologically as he is personally winning.








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