It has been a while since we had any poetry around here. At the library last week, I found a book of Irish religious poetry, and on a whim took it home. Religious poetry is a somewhat rare sub-genre, I would think: that’s why I had to check out the book. One of the poems seemed written just for me, as I pray each day for the health and holiness of the Catholic Church here in the U.S. and around the world.
During one of the many times of persecution in Ireland by British laws in the early 19th century, the Irish Catholic poet Thomas Moore (most famous for his poem The Harp That Once through Tara’s Halls) wrote the following poem to honor his afflicted Church. According to the late anthologist and literary critic Fr. Patrick Murray, the poem is metaphorically addressed to the Catholic Church in Ireland. It is easy to feel the Irish love and grief for the Church in a terrible time as the poem’s lines flow.
The Irish Peasant to His Mistress
Through grief and through danger thy smile hath cheer’d my way,
Till hope seem’d to bud from each thorn that round me lay;
The darker our fortune, the brighter our pure love burn’d,
Till shame into glory, till fear into zeal was turn’d:
Yes, slave as I was, in thy arms my spirit felt free,
And bless’d even the sorrows that made me more dear to thee.
Thy rival was honour’d, while thou wert wrong’d and scorn’d;
Thy crown was of briers, while gold her brows adorn’d;
She woo’d me to temples, whilst thou lay’st hid in caves;
Her friends were all masters, while thine, alas! were slaves;
Yet cold in the earth, at thy feet, I would rather be
Than wed what I loved not, or turn one thought from thee.
They slander thee sorely, who say thy vows are frail—
Hadst thou been a false one, thy cheek had look’d less pale!
They say, too, so long thou hast worn those lingering chains,
That deep in thy heart they have printed their servile stains:
O, foul is the slander!—no chain could that soul subdue—
Where shineth thy spirit, there Liberty shineth too!
(Ahhhh, the last stanza is the best–especially that second line: “Hadst thou been a false one, thy cheek had look’d less pale!”)
Many of us feel the same way about the Church in this time of slow restoration of the Faith in the West. When I read this poem, I see the Church’s “rival” as our culture’s religion of choice, materialistic modernism; or our worship of science completely untethered from ethics/metaphysics; or simply the apathy amongst so many who don’t care about the things of eternity. But the poem ends, like I want all my melancholy meditations to end, with a tribute to the Church’s enduring beauty and glory. Hopefully you found some insights and consolation in this poem, too!