Yesterday I said I was looking for poems that were new to me, and this morning when I started glancing through The Oxford Book of English Poetry to find a poem for today, I read half a dozen new ones but none of them attached to me.
Is the verb ‘attached’ ? The experience is this: I am flicking through, reading titles and the first few lines, searching for something. Searching isn’t the word – it’s casting about, but not desultorily, more like prospecting. The key to the nature of the rummaging is that I don’t know what I am looking is for, I don’t know yet, but I’ll know it when I see it, and if not at first glance, I’ll know it when the lines, or even some individual words begin to attach. I’ll know it by what happens. The connection is a matching: something in the poem connects to some part of me, my inner weather, which might be mood or thoughts or feelings or problems.
No new poem had attached in that way though I’d enjoyed reading them, and then I turned the page to find Fulke Greville’s poem, which I’ve read many times over the last thirty-five years. It attached alright. It struck me with a force of recognition – my god, but this man is fed up and struggling and tired and nearly done in. This is Poem of the Day. Its been a tough couple of weeks.
Don’t be put off by the title. It’s a ‘chorus’ because it was originally part of a play. And ‘sacerdotum’ means ‘of the priests’.
It’s rather long for Poem of the Day, so I might read it over a few days.
The first moment where a connection snapped into place was at the line ‘Created sick, commanded to be sound.’ I thought ‘I know that feeling.’ I don’t believe in original sin or any of the Christian doctrine that might have been in Fulke Greville’s mind but I do know that things have a tendency to go wrong, that ‘nothing gold can stay‘ as Robert Frost put it.
What this line connected to was the feeling that we are all struggling with our messy f****ed up selves, each of us in her or his own individually messed up way. That’s what I take ‘created sick’ to mean. I’m thinking of my own difficulties with discipline or with being brave, of places where I am weak or shaky, and I’m thinking also of other people I know struggling with similar or different personal problems of being. So the words ‘created sick’ connect, and I recognise the connection and something in me locks on to the poem. If it was a sound it would be a click. Me and this poem -we’ve clicked.
Then I get the next bit. We are also all ‘commanded to be sound’ – doesn’t matter what you believe about God or if you believe nothing at all in that dimension. The word ‘command’ could easily put you off, and off onto a wrong track, but I think of it as a sort of law of the universe. It’s what Doris Lessing in Shikasta calls ‘the necessity’. Whatever you call it, law, God, necessity… the fact remains, we have to live the best lives we can. We have to make the best of ourselves, and the emphasis must be on ‘make’. You have to get your sick old self to be as sound, as healthy, as integrated and complete and whole as you can. The sick and the sound are intertwined, not so much in a body, as in a moving dynamic relationship. That’s our daily fight, the fight to be better. ‘Fail better’ as Samuel Beckett famously wrote. I get all this in one line. And that’s as far as I get in my allotted morning time.
O wearisome condition of humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity;
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
What meaneth nature by these diverse laws?
Passion and reason, self-division cause.
Is it the mark or majesty of power
To make offenses that it may forgive?
Nature herself doth her own self deflower
To hate those errors she herself doth give.
For how should man think that he may not do,
If nature did not fail and punish, too?
Tyrant to others, to herself unjust,
Only commands things difficult and hard,
Forbids us all things which it knows is lust,
Makes easy pains, unpossible reward.
If nature did not take delight in blood,
She would have made more easy ways to good.
We that are bound by vows and by promotion,
With pomp of holy sacrifice and rites,
To teach belief in good and still devotion,
To preach of heaven’s wonders and delights;
Yet when each of us in his own heart looks
He finds the God there, far unlike his books.