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Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Causley poem for Holy Week

Composer Jussi Chydenius's 
setting of "I Am the Great Sun" by Charles Causley,
a poem inspired by a seventeenth-century Normandy crucifix.
Hofstra Chamber Choir
David Fryling, Conductor

* * *

          I AM THE GREAT SUN

          I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
          I am your husband, but you turn away.
          I am the captive, but you do not free me,
          I am the captain you will not obey.

          I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
          I am the city where you will not stay,
          I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
          I am that God to whom you will not pray.

          I am your counsel, but you do not hear me,
          I am the lover whom you will betray.
          I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
          I am the holy dove whom you will slay.

          I am your life, but if you will not name me,
          Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

* * *

Thanks to a years-back recommendation from editor John Wilson, I've long been fond of Cornish poet Charles Causley--loved and admired in his lifetime by Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin--and this poem is one of my favorites. The sonnet is simple and profound, using a parallelism that invokes the Hebrew poetry of the Bible, particularly the beautiful language of the King James version, but also grasps at the idea of God as "the great I AM." 

Its Elizabethan-sonnet rhyme scheme is curious, eight of its lines depending on final identical rhyme that again invokes God. The six remaining lines add only one more final rhyme sound, so Causley gives us only two sets of end-word rhymes, both ending the lines on long vowels. Each line is a full, complete thought, framed by "I am" and one of those two long-vowel rhymes. 

Looking closer, we see that Causley has chosen to expand the scheme by rhyming the words that precede "me," the identical rhyme sound of eight lines. So we meet internal rhymes "see/free," "believe/leave," "hear/cheer," and "name/blame." The accent falls strongly on those penultimate words. Identical sounds also occur inside quatrains; particularly noticeable is the repetition of "do not" and "you will not" and "you will," reinforcing the idea of human free will, choice, and the swerving away from God that marks and informs the poem. 

The tightness of the rhyme scheme makes the couplet feel especially surprising because it breaks the shape of prior lines, completing the thought in two lines, and tying up the poem with another two-word rhyme-plus-identical-rhyme in "name me" and "blame me." In those last lines, the poem enters--just barely, and not with confidence--into a realm where another path is possible.

On the other hand, "if you will not name me" is an interesting thing to say in the final turn of thought. Recalling that "I AM" is one of the names of God, the reader may well think that he or she has indeed been naming God, though in fact naming God and admitting the rejection of God at once.

If you don't perceive why this is a remarkable poem, I suggest that you try reading it aloud three times. (Remember that you are speaking in the voice of God. As the poem was inspired by crucifix-and-inscription, you can even imagine that you speak the words from the cross.) And then if you don't feel in your bones that the poem is good, well, I guess it is not for you. Or as we might say, "I am your poem, but you do not know me."

* * *

Donation site for The Friends of Notre Dame: 


  1. As I near The Great Departure I regularly test my unbelief for fitness for purpose. So far it's holding up. However unbelief should never be preached and it doesn't necessarily preclude admiration for some of those who cleave to revealed religions. For instance, I rather envy Evelyn Waugh's adamantine catholicism and his scholarship thereof.. And I always read the News Statesman book reviews (the books are never less than serious) written by Rowan Williams, our former Archbishop of Canterbury.

    I think - I cannot be sure - I must split this poem into two parts. As a technical jeu d'esprit it is fine. Paradoxically the pounding rhythm helps make the repetition acceptable even if the varying syllable count is hard for me to swallow. I take it WS didn't write Elizabethan sonnets.

    But am I really to accept this as the voice of God? The last line is both dismissive yet authoritarian - the sinner proves to be beyond redemption yet is in receipt of further instruction. Am I then to think the poem is good or otherwise? You offer a kind option that it may not be for me. Perhaps. But I wanted it to be. Poetry is a fairly recent enthusiasm.

    The setting transforms the poem into a multi-layered and multi-voiced proclamation in which repetition finds a natural home. The "I ams" become more insistent and thus more consonant with a deity. I am less inclined to pick. Might the voice of God be musical and thus elevational? I am vulnerable to the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei but protected by the Latin; an immediacy of meaning is lost.

    1. Can't say that I like or judge people based on their beliefs--I just have a tendency to like people and (less positively) to be curious about their inner workings. Well, that's the curiosity of the novelist, I guess.

      I don't mind the metrical variation from the norm here, but I can see why you don't. It is a surprise to have the accent so strongly on the penultimate syllable. Certainly the rhythm would be more expected (and the "me" much more pounding) if the final accent landed on "me."

      "I am your life" tends to transform the voice speaking. If it is, indeed, your life--if God and the larger life one lives with the lover, husband, truth, sunlight, etc. is also "you," well, the voice speaking merges with the reader.

      Names are a mythic thing. Naming is claiming. And the whole poem is naming. The whole poem claims. So it works, paradoxically, as a finding of lack and a claiming of what is missing. I find that strange and compelling.

      Now I need to race out, ducking the rain drops... Talk later!

  2. Ah, I should have been in your classes .... i sputter without good senses about poetry .... you would have taught me to see and hear better ....

    1. You love and read it. That is surely always enough because rereading brings the knowledge.

      I have just been looking at photographs and film of Notre Dame collapsing, here at the start of Holy Week. My heart has a crack. Such a loss.

    2. Yes ... the human heart aches ... yet there is this:
      2Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 3What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? 4One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. 8All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

      And so it goes ....

    3. There's always another slant... How about Philippians: "whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

  3. “Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! this our fathers did for us." For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age.”
    ― John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

    1. I keep thinking about the concert of Baroque hymns that Mary and I attended five years ago at Notre Dame. We sat in the nave and a few minutes before the music began I looked up at the ceiling, and above our heads was a mosaic of the Virgin, so lovely and surprising. It's just glazed tile, I know, but when I realized that the mosaic is probably gone forever, I got a little weepy.

    2. Yes, I shed tears and know others who did as well--I was there two years ago in March. So beautiful. To think of all those tiny treasures and splendiferous ones...

  4. The symbol for Paris, perhaps for France in general, is the Eiffel Tower. Yet in comparison with Notre Dame it's a mere toy. ND took 200 years to complete. It has grown into adulthood with the city and its appeal crosses any or all boundaries. I tried to imagine an equivalent loss for Britain but couldn't. London has two major cathedrals and the key to an icon is its singularity. I shuddered at the thought of losing either the Tate or the National but only on behalf of their contents, neither have the same architectural splendour.

    Perhaps if the White Cliffs fell into the Channel.

    Both BBC reporters noted the same thing: the silence of the crowds watching.

    1. Yes, it has seen so much human history and transformation. And tears, but never so many as yesterday.

  5. On an entirely different theme I note I've been somewhat churlish, given your aim was to enhance the sense of Holy Week. For two years when I was a very junior newspaper reporter that period had a very elevated feel to it. On two consecutive Maundy Thursdays (ie, today) I reviewed performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion in Bingley Parish Chuch. One thousand words on each occasion and an identity with that magnificent work that lasts even now. Thereafter the weekend beckoned as the beginning of the rock-climbing season. A secular celebration, I know, but completely free weekends were rare at the newspaper and the mountains were an especially intense way of celebrating an end to winter. My boots were long ago hung up but I still have Bach for solace.

    1. Perhaps I'll let a famous atheist, later agnostic, answer. After all, he's intricately wound into the church's music. "Before going any further may we take it that the object of art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties – of that, in fact, which is spiritual? And that the means which we employ to induce this revelation are those very senses and faculties themselves?"

      Never worry about being churlish. I am not of temperament inclined to resent! Besides, we all have body and soul and spirit, so why should you not be moved by Bach and by mountains?

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.