Tag Archive | Christian spirituality

A Passion poem

(National Poetry Month, Day 17)

red rose

During Holy Week each year, I like to read “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” a poem by Irish nationalist poet Joseph Mary Plunkett. Plunkett was an eccentric character: a sickly young man who traveled around Dublin in medieval-esque costume. A leader of the Easter Rising in 1916, he was arrested by British troops and married his fiancée Grace Gifford in jail on the night before his execution. Although Plunkett was not the most practical person, his mystical poetry is artistic and provides evidence of his great faith. I’d like to share Plunkett’s “I See His Blood Upon the Rose” with you, and immediately below the poem, you’ll find an adaptation of a short section of my dissertation in which I discuss this poem.

 

I See His Blood Upon the Rose
by Joseph Mary Plunkett

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of His eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but His voice — and carven by His power
Rocks are His written words.

All pathways by His feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

 

In “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” Plunkett reveals the holiness latent in the humanity of Christ. In this poem, which is perhaps best-known and most widely anthologized work, is clear evidence of Plunkett’s mystical vision of the nearness of Christ in the natural world. Plunkett ties national aspirations and religious devotion are closely together, creating a seamless effect. In an uncritical 1918 assessment, Peter McBrien wrote of Plunkett: “That flexibility, that combination of strength and sweetness…, that sunlit sense of the nearness of God which irradiates all his work and shone from the man himself, the white-heat intensity of his love of God and man and Ireland, which spelt its winning graciousness over everything he did, all that will bear witness, in the poems he has bequeathed to us, a soul of Spanish steel tempered in icy water” (36). The natural imagery in this poem is evocative, although simple, since it involves multiple senses. The language that the persona uses to describe the admired Christ is very similar to that which could be used in the description of a beloved. Although this poem is about the constant reminders in the natural world of Christ’s Passion, it is not foreboding, but comforting. The constant presence of Christ in nature is a source of solace for the persona.

It seems as though a concluding stanza could be added to the poem in order to provide a sense of closure; perhaps a discussion of the reminders in nature of the Resurrection would round out the poem. Yet Plunkett chooses not to include a stanza of this sort, possibly because he intends the poem to indicate the constant significance of Christ’s sacrifice for man.

And if Christ’s sacrifice is omnipresent, it can be emulated. Beginning the poem with the image of the rose, a symbol for Ireland, Plunkett ties the sacramental nature of this poem to his denominational and national experience. Further, the Passion of Christ is evoked not only in the beauty and power of nature, as in the rose, the stars, snow, rain, flowers, thunder, birds, and rocks, but also in “every thorn” (ln. 11); that is, Christ’s suffering is tied to the suffering of his followers. For someone of Plunkett’s mindset and political bent, this statement has implications for the nationalistic movement, as well as for religious expression.

This poem hinges on the acceptance that God is present and active in the world, and on the assumption that the Incarnation and Resurrection have sanctified the universe. One might explain the permeation of nature by God’s love in this poem by applying a principle that Steven J. Brown, SJ discusses in “Personification”: “it is one thing to think of various separate objects as endowed with personality; it is quite a different thing to see all nature pervaded by one great Presence and Personality, to see it as a manifestation of its Maker” (416). “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” we see an overall infusion of God in nature, leading not to pantheism but to a reminder of Christian spirituality through what Plunkett considers to be God’s strategic placement of natural symbols, which function as God’s “written words” (ln. 8).

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One of the best poems you’ve never read

(National Poetry Month, Day 16)

Patrick Kavanagh, a farmer-turned-poet of mid-20th century Ireland, created some really remarkable verse. His poetry has a refreshing quality. It’s unpretentious, exuberant, and earthy; it shows keen awareness of the physical experience of life on earth and of the Divine light that shines through even the most opaque substances. The bifocal view of the earthly and the divine, which I think characterizes much of Irish literature, is exemplified exquisitely in Kavanagh’s poetry.

Is it any wonder that Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney named Kavanagh as one of his strong influences?

You be the judge.

The One
By Patrick Kavanagh

Green, blue, yellow and red – God is down in the swamps and marshes,
Sensational as April and almost incredible the flowering of our catharsis.
A humble scene in a backward place
Where no one important ever looked;
The raving flowers looked up in the face
Of the One and the Endless, the Mind that has baulked
The profoundest of mortals. A primrose, a violet,
A violent wild iris – but mostly anonymous performers,
Yet an important occasion as the Muse at her toilet
Prepared to inform the local farmers
That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.

Violet

A Perspective on W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

One of my favorite poets is W.B. Yeats (you’re shocked, I know)—and one of my favorite of his poems is “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I’m not alone in liking this poem—in fact, for quite a few years, Irish schoolchildren were required to memorize it, as it is aesthetically beautiful and contains nationalist overtones.

I’d like to share with you both the poem and my interpretation of some aspects of the poem.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

by W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

It’s short and sweet, but we can say so much about it!

Here’s what I have to say about this poem, in the context of the medieval Irish tradition of Green Martyrdom. This article was published in 2009 in Volume 26, Issue 1 of the Yeats-Eliot Review.

“A Millennium’s Journey Into ‘The Deep Heart’s Core’:
William Butler Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and Green Martyrdom”

by Maura Grace Harrington

Most readers agree that the persona in William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is longing for and celebrating his mental return to a bucolic setting, despite his physical presence in a modern city. First published in 1893 in Yeats’ second poetry collection, The Rose, the poem reflects the isolation and exile that the poet felt in his surroundings in London. He would feel more at home on a comparatively deserted island, Innisfree, likely based on the island of the same name in County Sligo, near where he grew up. Through his mind’s journeying to this place, where he can be alone and attain “some peace” (ln. 5), the persona of the poem hopes to fulfill a vocation that he “hear[s] in the deep heart’s core” (ln. 12). This poem carries universal meaning as a statement of an individual isolated by the hustle and bustle of modern urban life who wishes to return to the natural world and therefore to return to himself, in a Wordsworthian sense. However, the poem also has a particularly Irish flavor in its references to the medieval Irish practice of green martyrdom.

Because at the time of Ireland’s wholesale conversion to Christianity there was a dearth of opportunity for physical blood (or red) martyrdom, the faithful often sought other ways to make penitential sacrifices to God. Strongly influenced by the asceticism of St. Anthony of Egypt and of the desert fathers, who chose to deny themselves physically in order to grow spiritually, a crop of Irish hermits sprang up, secluding themselves in the wilderness in order to enhance their religious devotion. Poetry was written by the hermits themselves and by others about the hermits’ affinity with nature, as experienced through this green martyrdom. Though written in Irish, these poems have enjoyed frequent translation into English. The themes of peacefulness, order, slowness of pace, and an almost mystical natural beauty are evident in the medieval poems, and also find their way into Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Not only are the tropes and themes of the medieval poems updated for a modern audience through Yeats’ poem but the medieval and modern counterparts also share specific word choice and imagery, which indicates similarity in purpose and kinship in attitude and taste.

Drawing out the similarities among three medieval poems, “The Hermitage” attributed to St. Manchan of Offaly and “The Hermit” and “The Hermit’s Song” by unknown writers, and comparing these to Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” will demonstrate that Yeats’ poem, though singularly beautiful, is by no means the first of its tradition in Irish poetry. Indeed, it is perhaps because Yeats so adeptly translates the controlling ideas in the earlier poems into those suited to a modern audience that ever since the work’s composition, this poem has been so highly esteemed as representative of its nation of origin. The three medieval poems focus on the benefits to the Christian faith of experiencing nature, although the speaker in “The Hermit’s Song” does not explicitly invoke God. While Yeats’ poem includes no direct reference to God, the poem’s other components, when taken together, indicate, as do the three medieval poems, a desire to retreat to nature in order to experience peace, order, a slowing down, and nature’s beauty and plenitude, all of which phenomena are considered, in the medieval poems and in the Irish Christian tradition generally, as stepping-stones to the experience of God.

Perhaps the logical place to embark on an investigation into the similarities among the poems is at the beginning of these works. In all cases, early in the poems the speakers describe the physical habitations that they will enjoy in their retreats into the wilderness. All of the personae describe humble dwellings, some of which are constructed by nature itself, others of which are constructed from unadulterated natural materials. Yeats’ speaker, for example, will construct “a small cabin…of clay and wattles” (ln. 2). The simplicity of the edifices that will protect the retreatants from the elements of nature implies a trust that they will be safe, regardless of, or perhaps because of, the lack of fortifications constructed against nature. Significantly, Yeats’ persona describes his cabin immediately prior to the line in which he explains that he wants to have “a hive for the honey bee” (ln. 3) and two lines before he praises the virtues of “the bee-loud glade” (ln. 4). By juxtaposing his simple dwelling and his appreciation for bees, Yeats’ persona brings to mind the beehive huts that medieval Irish hermits often crafted in the woodlands so that they could encounter God in solitude. In a similar vein, in “The Hermit’s Song,” the persona praises “Bees and beetles” as “music-makers” (ln. 41) and St. Manchan esteems “Salmon and trout and bees” (ln. 40) as a source of wholesome food. In addition to evoking the beehive huts through his placement of the lines on bees, then, Yeats also situates his work on the praise of nature in the tradition of the mystics who appreciated bees, which creatures could be considered pesky but were not believed to be so by the green martyrs, who were happy to use all of the resources with which God had provided them.

Other natural imagery is common among the poems. Additional animals, for example, are mentioned in the poems, almost in catalog fashion. The linnet is mentioned as a staple of the milieu in both “Innisfree” and “The Hermit’s Song.” Also, there is consistency in the plant names in the poems. In “The Hermit’s Song,” the persona notes that the landscape is marked by “upland heather” (ln. 51), and he relishes the “Heathberries and whortleberries [that he eats] / For a sweet” (ll. 27-28). The speaker in “The Hermit” celebrates the fact that flora compose parts of his abode: “The doorsteps are of heather, / the lintel of honeysuckle” (ll. 5-6). Additionally, the persona is aware of the heather that provides him with berries to eat and that marks the landscape of the area surrounding him (ll. 36 and 56). More obscurely for those who do not speak Irish, “Innisfree” includes a mention of heather in its very title. P. W. Joyce, author of Irish Names of Places, originally published in 1869 and commonly read by the Irish at the time of Yeats’ composition of the poem, provides the etymology of locations in Ireland. Joyce notes that “Innisfree” in Lough Gill in Co. Sligo is named “heathy island,” from “Inish” for “island” and “fraeigh,” the genitive form of the word for “heather” (520). It is reasonable to expect that Yeats, well-read in Irish cultural history, would have been aware of the derivation of the name of his title location. A place named after such foliage fits in well with the loci described in the medieval predecessors of the poem.

In the medieval poems and also in Yeats’ “Innisfree,” order and harmony contribute to a sense of peace that the personae feel or anticipate feeling in their bucolic abodes. St. Manchan and Yeats refer to order in nature in an explicit manner in their numbering and clearly laid-out plans for their habitations. St. Manchan, who will not be entirely alone but seems to be planning to form a monastic community in the wilderness, has a plan for how many of his companions will be in each row in their simple chapel. In a less rigorous sense, the anonymous authors of “The Hermit” and “The Hermit’s Song” imply the order of nature by virtue of the fact that the disparate elements of nature provide for the needs of the hermits. “Sparkling wells and water-torrents, / best for drinking” (ll. 21-22) abound in “The Hermit,” and the green martyr is a guest at “meals [to which] the woods invite [him]” (ln. 21), featuring such delicacies as “water, herbs and cresses, / Salmon, trout” (ll. 23-24). Having one’s needs met leads to a feeling of peace, as expressed more or less explicitly by each of the four personae. For the speaker in “The Hermit’s Song,” the slowness of pace and softness of sound of his surroundings contribute to the peace he feels. For the persona in Yeats’ poem, “peace comes dropping slow” (ln. 5), tying together peace and a slowing of pace. For two of the three medievals, of course, the peace is also induced by Christian meditation on God, while in Yeats’ poem religious devotion is not explicitly described.

However, the four poems might in fact share a similar religious impulse. St. Manchan hears the call of God to “pray in every place” (ln. 44), and is actively engaged in seeking out a natural setting in which to pursue spiritual fulfillment (ll. 1-4). The speaker in “The Hermit” celebrates the solitude of his abode by virtue of the fact that “none knows it but the Lord, my God” (ln. 2), and in the final three stanzas of the poem, he acknowledges Christ as the source of all of the bounty from which he benefits in his “bothy” (ln. 72). The speakers in both “The Hermit’s Song” and “Innisfree” experience a calling in their bucolic bungalows. The persona of “The Hermit’s Song” proclaims that “in wreathed boughs the wind is whispering” (ln. 57) and that “river water falling / Is calling too” (ll. 59-60). While the least explicitly Christian in religious bent of the four poems, Yeats’ work is perhaps the one most strongly influenced by the notion of vocation. In declaring at the beginning of the poem “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” (ln. 1), the speaker conjures up the image of rising above his current circumstances. Additionally, the use of the word “go” twice in this first line gives the word emphasis, and highlights the movement to which the speaker feels compelled. This incipient movement suggests that he is on a mission and aligns him with the green martyrs who left their homes and families to venture into the wilderness. The repetition, in the first line of the final stanza, of the clause “I will arise and go now” (ln. 9) serves to give further emphasis to this impetus of motion for a higher cause. The persona in this poem is, of course, in the middle of a modern city at the time of his recitation of the virtues of Innisfree, but despite his physical location, he has a deep connection with the island, so deep that he can assert: “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; / … / I hear it in the deep heart’s core” (ll. 10-12). Such a statement indicates that the persona experiences a vocational call to the island where he can experience the order and bounty of nature, which will give him peace. Although he does not claim a specifically Christian mission, this modern speaker is acting on the precedent of his early Christian compatriots who sought to “arise and go” in order to hear Him who speaks “in the deep heart’s core.

Acknowledgement
Access to rare texts provided by M.J. Mac Manus Collection, Seton Hall University Archives and Special Collections Center.

Works Cited

“The Hermit.” Medieval Irish Lyrics. Ed. James Carney. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967. 66-73.
“The Hermitage.” Kings, Lords, and Commons: An Anthology from the Irish. Ed. Frank O’Connor. New York: Knopf, 1959. 5-6.
“The Hermit’s Song.” Trans. Frank O’Connor. The Penguin Book of Irish Verse. Ed. Brendan Kennelly. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. 48-50.
Joyce, P. W. Irish Names of Places. Vol. 1. Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co, Ltd., 1869.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996. 39.

Now, here’s the fun part: What do YOU think of this poem? Do any lines or images strike you? What about this poem is meaningful to you?

beehive huts on island

A St. Patrick’s Day Gift for You!

st patrick at st patricks edited

In my neck of the woods, St. Patrick’s Month is in full swing. Parades have begun, the rush of Irish events is keeping all calendars full, and yes, the Harrington house is decked out for the big day.

Since St. Patrick’s Day is only two weeks away, I’d like to share with you an article about the legacy of St. Patrick’s spirituality in 20th century Irish poetry The Catholic Advocate in 2012. I know that it’s not specifically about writing, but it’s something that I wrote—so I hope that you don’t mind seeing it from the Graceful Grammarian. It’s my early St. Patrick’s Day gift to you.

Enjoy and share!

“Deciphering Poetry and Legacy that Traces Life of St. Patrick.”

Who would expect a young man who had not completed his education, was kidnapped by pirates, enslaved, and forced into years of servitude in a foreign and barbaric land to lead the charge in evangelizing a fiery people living on the edge of the known world? As St. Patrick would learn, and as he teaches us, God is full of surprises, and one of the lasting legacies of St. Patrick in our faith is to expect and gratefully welcome the unexpected as opportunities for us to be more fully human.

The man we now know as St. Patrick never dreamed that evangelizing the Irish would be his mission, but, when prompted, he undertook it with great zeal. Much of the little we know about the life of St. Patrick comes to us through his Confessio, one of his only two extant writings. Written to defend himself against charges (of what, we do not know), the Confessio tells us little about the events of St. Patrick’s life, but reveals much about his attitude of humility and awe. Certainly, while forced to herd sheep for years on the land of his slavemaster, the future St. Patrick had no designs on becoming one of the world’s best-loved saints; he must have been very concerned about surviving from day to day. Yet this time in solitude afforded him the chance to learn about God and about himself, and to appreciate life in a way that he never imagined. Instead of seeing his enslavement as a curse, St. Patrick welcomed his time to meditate, as it reawakened his Christian faith, which he had learned in childhood but had not yet fully taken as his own.

Further, his time to reflect heightened his awareness of what he called “the great acts of goodness and the great grace which the Lord generously gave me in the land of my captivity.” To St. Patrick, the mundane was anything but; all experiences, however quotidian, pointed him in the direction of God’s plan for him—and he listened. Seeing himself as “a stone that lies in deep mud” that God “raised…up and exalted…very high and placed…on top of the wall,” St. Patrick became attentive to the promptings of God in his life. For St. Patrick, this process was facilitated by God’s direct messages to him in dreams; from time to time, at crucial moments, God would let him know what to expect, and in what time frame. But more significantly, God’s addresses to St. Patrick not only reassured him but also challenged him, and motivated him to take action. They guided him on his escape from slavery and led him to return to Ireland to free the pre-Christian Irish from their enslavement to pagan beliefs.

While “The Breastplate of Saint Patrick,” one of the best-loved medieval Irish poems, was almost certainly not penned by the saint himself, it certainly is in his tradition of attending to and heeding the challenges issued by the transcendence of God in the visible world. Beginning most stanzas with “I arise today,” this poem reflects the call to action issued by our faith. The poem begins with theological reflections on God and articles of faith, and then a transition occurs. Upon brief reflection on the natural world: “light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendor of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock,” the persona (Patrick or the individual praying this prayer today) is emboldened to invoke the direct presence and participation of God in his own life, noting that he derives strength from God working to “pilot,” “guide,” “hear,” “guard,” protect,” and “secure” him. This sense of transcendent spirituality and the connection between the Trinity and the human experience comes through a reflection on the visible world: God surprises us through reaching us on our own level and bringing us to higher ground. Located between the pre-Christian Irish before him and the Christian Irish after him, St. Patrick is on a continuum of individuals who see not a wall between the natural and supernatural worlds, but a mist.

We could review tomes of poems, from “The Breastplate of St. Patrick” to today’s literature, in which we see the tradition of St. Patrick brought to life, again and again. Finding God in the unexpected, God’s promise giving hope, and the concept of retreat to make the unfamiliar familiar and vice versa figure prominently in Irish poetry and thought, and doubtless they sustained the Irish through years of hardship and uncertain temporal future. The fact that these themes have persisted through Irish literature of the modern period reveals the staying power of St. Patrick’s spirituality in the Irish imagination.

Two 20th-century Irish Catholic poets, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Kavanagh, demonstrate nicely the sacramental nature of the experience of the visible, hearable, tangible world, and the staying power of St. Patrick’s legacy of finding and appreciating God’s surprises for us.

Plunkett, a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, which touched off the War of Independence and led to a chain of events that established an Irish Republic (a seemingly very unlikely prospect after more than 700 years of foreign rule), was a sickly man who knew his days were numbered, even before he undertook his military maneuvers and was executed. His poems reveal great depth of emotion and his mystical spirituality, always connected to stimuli present to him in the natural world. For Plunkett, his love for Grace Gifford, whom he married in prison on the night prior to his execution, was a source of great inspiration, as were the wonders of the natural world. His most famous poem, “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” reflects his self-imposed retreat upon his full experience of elements of nature, and provides him—and us—with an impetus to action. Cataloging natural things that reveal to him the presence and action of Christ, Plunkett mimics a common practice in love poetry. But this particular love poem, about agape, specifically, takes the reader by surprise right away with the unexpected take on the familiar image of the rose in a poem. The speaker sees echoes of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ everywhere he goes, to the point that he visualizes Christ’s blood when he sees a rose, “And in the stars the glory of his eyes.” While these are perhaps standard poetic images, the impetus behind the poem becomes stronger when the persona reveals that “carven by his power rocks are [Christ’s] written words.” The activity of God in the world and in human experience is highlighted in the image that “His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea.” The pulse behind all movement in the world stems from God. Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection have transformed Creation, to the extent that all elements of the visible world bear the indelible mark of the divine presence among us. How we respond to God’s personal message to each of us, revealed through our encounters with the everyday, is the challenge that both St. Patrick and Plunkett issue to us.

Writing during the mid-20th century, Patrick Kavanagh, a farmer by trade, further explored the Irish Catholic imagination in his poetry, reminding us in a rapidly secularizing world that Creation itself denies secularization, and that God’s surprises for us are around every corner. Using a refreshing mix of high poetic diction and simple, awe-inspired speech, Kavanagh begins his poem “The One”: “Green, blue, yellow and red – God is down in the swamps and marshes, / Sensational as April and almost incredible the flowering of our catharsis.” God’s presence springs forth from the unlikeliest of places; His renewing action is unfathomable and life-giving. And in Kavanagh’s schema, God’s outreach to us is not something that we should simply look at from afar; instead, it gives us life and cleanses us, allowing us to flower, in our new cleanness (catharsis): our rebirth. As St. Patrick experienced his conversion while, as a slave, tending sheep, in “The One” we read of God being present today in “A humble scene in a backward place / Where no one important ever looked.” In his reference in the poem to the “local farmers” who will be called out to witness God’s manifestation for them, Kavanagh emphasizes the humility tied to the appreciation “That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God / Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.” Even in an area in which the turf has been cut away, repeatedly, for generations, in order to create fuel, God regenerates life by means of his love, as demonstrated in the springtime of each year.

While we make the extraordinary ordinary by our lack of awareness and by our rushing through life, St. Patrick’s legacy invites us to take a step back: to appreciate the miracles that we witness every day. God is active in our world today, through the resiliency of nature, through our relationships with each other, and through the Sacraments; and He is active not so that we can merely admire him and move on with mundane existence, but so that He can call us into the action. As St. Patrick’s legacy teaches us, we should not limit ourselves by disbelief or worry about our inadequacy; instead, we should accept with gratitude God’s surprises for us.

As we honor the feast of this great saint with parades, family dinners, and other celebrations, let us keep in mind why we celebrate: because St. Patrick points us in the direction of Christ, whose Resurrection, which we will celebrate in just a few short weeks, is the greatest surprise gift of all.