a year of morning thanks
An old letter of sympathy (viii)
I know that Grandpa's father-in-law, a seminary professor, frequently penned what some call "doggerel," poems written in rhyming verses and traditional meters. Grandpa too had a penchant for such things too. Perhaps in the days before TV, many did. My father inherited the same poetic wit and agility, and often wrote epic stanzas for weddings and banquets and what not else. Funny things. He was good at it.
The note my grandfather sent to grieving parents is five pages long, three of which are poetry. It's remarkable to hold that note in your hand and realize he took the time to write out eight four-line stanzas of poetry that, he says, meant a great deal to him and to Grandma. But he did.
For a time, I hoped that maybe the verses were his own work, but they aren't. They belong to a 19th century Scotsman named John Dickie, who has his own story. Google him sometime. The poem is five stanzas long, has no title. Here's the first stanza:
I am not sent a pilgrim here,
My heart with earth to fill.
But I am here God's grace to learn,
and serve God's sovereign will.
Sure feels like a Calvinist's poem. There's more.
He leads me on through smiles and tears,
Grief follows gladness still;
But let me welcome both alike
Since both work out his will.
The strong man's strength to toil for Christ,
The finest preacher's skill
I sometimes wish,--but better far
To be just what God will.
Why?--I don't know, but Grandpa chooses to fill the page with this poem. The paper is lined, and on all the other pages he observes the boundaries; but here--see the page above--for some reason he fills the page by writing top to bottom. I don't know why.
But there's more to this title-less, author-less poem.
I know now how this languid life
My life's vast ends fulfil;
He knows,--and that life is not lost
That answers best his will.
No service in itself is small,
None great, though earth it fill;
But that is small, that seeks it own
And great that seeks Gods' will.
The word doggerel has an elitist edge to it--the word carries with it some defamation. Doggerel implies silly, cheap, elementary poetic practice. But poems, originally, were little more than memory devices, means people used to remember significant stories or sentiment because rhythm and rhyme helped people hold on to what they chose not to forget. It's obvious to me that that's why Grandpa spends almost two pages copying out this one poem.
But why this poem?
It reminds me of an old American poem from the Puritan era, a poem by Anne Bradstreet, our first poetess--in all likelihood our first poet. Bradstreet's poetry shows up in anthologies because she spun her work from her ordinary life. In it, we not only see craft, but also history.
Contemporary critics laud Ms. Bradstreet for her scrappy nature, her soul's rebel character. They claim she couldn't buy the rigorous Puritan way. I'm not so sure. In a poem she wrote about the death of a grandchild, contemporary critics locate that unrulyness in the fabric of the lines.
No sooner came, but gone, and fall'n asleep
Acquaintance short, yet parting caused us weep;
Three flowers, two scarcely blown, the last i' th'bud,
Cropt by th' Almighty's hand, yet is He good.
With dreadful awe before Him let's be mute.
Such was his will, but why let's not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let's say he's merciful as well as just. . .
Here's the proof: See the way "Cropt" breaks the iambic rhythm? In her anger at God, she pushes that word up to the front of the line, snarling. Three times, she seems to want to rally the troops, using the same command form: "let us." Internally, she's undoubtedly rallying her own doubt. Either that or simply echoing what she's been told by her preacher, "Well, Anne, let's be sure we see this for what it is--God's own will"--the smarmy and generic editorial we. So argue the critics.
When I read this poem Grandpa thought so much of, I feel a similar kind of tethered anger because every last stanza marches the reader relentlessly back to God's will. Time and time and time again, the poem corrals unrulyness, as if should it not, the human soul would simply take some other path, some profane path. And the truth is simple--life is all about God's will.
Yet, some readers might say this poem deconstructs its own theology, urging a degree of comfort it can't quite accept itself.
Here's the final stanza of the poem Grandpa sends to the child's grieving parents, and note the way he underscores bear in the final line:
Then hold my hand, most gracious Lord,
Guide all my goings still;
And let this be my life's one aim:
To do or bear thy will.
Grandpa underlined that word, the time he underlined anything in the poem. That punctuation feature itself underscores the unavoidably resolute character of the poem--it's all a matter of God's will: sign on or your lost. Bear it.
Look, that bothers me--that driving pressure to conform to something I don't know well or understand. And it likely wasn't easy for that grieving family to accept either; in fact, it may well have been hard for Grandpa too.
Here's what I'm thinking. Perhaps my grandpa's real humanity is on display here, in his use of this particular poem because what he's telling those grieving parents is exactly what he's felt ever since the death of his own six-year-old--that he must--he simply must--herd his own doubt and anger onto the corral of God's own will.
Theologically, Grandpa had to have told himself that this poem's obvious theme was absolutely right; but it's own relentless rhetorical style suggests the immense difficulty of some quick and easy reception. Its theme is probably as true-to-life as its form.
I treasure this poem--and I'm thankful for the note itself--because it offers the truth both theologically and emotionally. If you doubt it, "Read the psalms," as another grieving father once told me.
In this poem I see my grandfather and likely my grandmother too more clearly, 90 years later. And myself.