The power of poetry: a Lenten reflection, and some French music from the Reformation

This is where I ‘fess up to being something of a philistine. I’ve never been much of a connoisseur of poetry. Obviously I’m partial to the odd Shakespeare sonnet, can recall some bits of Tennyson, Wordsworth and similar worthies from school, and like everyone else can’t resist any poem that starts, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” But that’s about as far as it goes. In part I blame Radio 4 and any other such outlet for poems being read out loud. Why by all that is sacred do poets have to read their work with that ridiculous sing-song voice that seems to be saying, “This poem is deep, profound, and brimful of meaning. If that’s not apparent from its banal sentiments or, alternatively, from its opaque mode of expression, then rest assured that this voice is a guarantee in itself.”

So no, poetry is not one of those things without which my life would be merely an empty husk. On the whole I’m more at home with dense prose and complex sentences. Rather like my recent treatises here on free-will and determinism. But every once in a while a poem seems to express with economy and precision a thought, or a perspective, that captures some truth or another in a way that 100 pages of closely argued text could never do. It’s Lent, and as part of my reflections on the season I came across just such an instance. It’s a poem in French written around the middle of the sixteenth century. The poet is Antoine de la Roche-Chandieu. He was part of the Calvinist reformation, and he wrote a collection of poems entitled “Les Octonaires de la Vanité du Monde”, and they were set to music by the little-known French composer, Paschal de L’Estocart.

The particular poem that caught my eye is called, “Mondain, si tu le sçais, di moy” (Earthling, if you know, tell me)

Mondain, si tu le sçais, di moy quel est le Monde ?
S’il est bon, pourquoy donc tant de mal y abonde ?
S’il est mauvais, pourquoy le vas tu tant cerchant ?
S’il est doux, comment donc a il tant d’amertume ?

S’il est amer, comment te va il allechant ?
S’il est amy, pourquoy a il ceste coustume
De tuer l’homme vain sous ses pieds abatu ?
Et s’il est ennemi, pourquoy t’y fies tu ?

(Earthling, if you know, tell me what is the world?
If it is good, then why is there so much evil all around?
If it is bad, why do you search for it so much?
If it is sweet, then why is there so much bitterness?

If it is bitter, how are you so attracted by it?
If it is your friend, then why is it in the habit
Of killing proud men, trampling them under foot?
And if it is your enemy, why do you trust it?)

This poem captures for me the duality of the world and our experience of it. The horrors of life (so poignant now given what’s happening in Japan at this very moment) crowd in on us, and yet we go on regardless. For Christians especially the problem of evil, the seemingly limitless suffering that comes not only from what we have collectively done to the world (the nuclear element in Japan’s current tragedy) but also from what the world does to us (the earthquake and tsunami elements) and how this can be compatible with “a loving God”, has dominated our spiritual and intellectual struggles from the beginning.

I suspect that no amount of analysis, no amount of intellectualising, will get us closer to that dialectic core than this poem does, and which is enhanced even more by de L’Estocart’s haunting setting:

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