Sunday, February 11, 2007

The World's Last Night

Today is the Judgment Sunday in the Orthodox calendar, so I thought I'd put up something. John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIII:

What if this present were the world's last night?
Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether His countenance can thee affright.
Tears in His eyes quench the amazing light;
Blood fills his frowns, which from His pierced head fell;
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which pray'd forgiveness for His foes' fierce spite?
No, no ; but as in my idolatry
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty of pity, foulness only is
A sign of rigour ; so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign'd;
This beauteous form assures a piteous mind.

And a bit more rousing and stern, from Michael Wigglesworth's Day of Doom:

Still was the night, Serene and Bright,
when all Men sleeping lay;
Calm was the season, and carnal reason
thought so 'twould last for ay.
Soul, take thine ease, let sorrow cease,
much good thou hast in store:
This was their Song, their Cups among,
the Evening before.

They put away the evil day,
And drown'd their care and fears,
Till drown'd were they, and swept away
by vengeance unawares:
So at the last, whilst Men sleep fast
in their security,
Surpriz'd they are in such a snare
as cometh suddenly.

I don't think Wigglesworth gets sufficient credit for his poetic choices in the poem, which has a rhythm and rhyme scheme that works very well to build the sense of inexorable doom, and has the flexibility needed for carrying a sense of both quiet suspense and sudden destruction (we see a bit of it in the quick transition of the second stanza, which does come suddenly). It would perhaps do better as a shorter poem, and a little more selective deviation from rhyme and meter, which is a little too steady; but I think people get too distracted by the content to recognize the considerable merits of its composition. Perhaps Wigglesworth would be pleased by that, though. In any case, the rest is worth reading. It's often criticized for its judgmental tone, but this comes, I think, from selective reading. Consider, for instance, this stanza:

Christ's Flock of Lambs there also stands,
whose Faith was weak, yet true;
All sound Believers (Gospel receivers)
whose Grace was small, but grew:
And them among an Infant throng
of Babes, for whom Christ dy'd;
Whom for his own, by wayes unknown
to men, he sanctify'd.

And this theme, that God's mercy is greater than we know, or even can know, is actually an important subtheme throughout the poem. After all, Wigglesworth is not writing a poem about the Last Judgment in order to incite people to despair, but in order to make them to reflect on their need for mercy. Reformation comes through recognizing the severity of the offense; and this requires recognizing the severity of a final judgment on it, if nothing is done for it.

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