Tuesday, November 09, 2010

No Chivalry Braver than His Precision

Duns Scotus
by Thomas Merton


Striking like lightning to the quick of the real world
Scotus has mined all ranges to their deepest veins:
But where, oh, on what blazing mountain of theology
And in what Sinai's furnace
Did God refine the gold?

Who ruled those arguments in their triumphant order
And armed them with their strict celestial light?
See the lance-lightning, blade-glitter, banner-progress
As love advances, company by company
In sunlit teams his clean embattled reasons,

Until the firmament, with high heavenly marvel
Views in our crystal souls her blue embodiment,
Unfurls a thousand flags above our heads -
It is the music of Our Lady's army!

For Scotus is her theologian,
Nor has there ever been a braver chivalry than his precision.
His thoughts are skies of cloudless peace
Bright as the vesture of her grand aurora
Filled with the rising Christ.

But we, a weak, suspicious generation,
Loving emotion, hating prayer,
We are not worthy of his wisdom.
Creeping like beasts between the mountain's feet
We look for laws in the Arabian dust.
We have no notion of his freedom

Whose acts despise the chains of choice and passion.
We have no love for his beatitude
Whose act renounces motion:
Whose love flies home forever
As silver as felicity,
Working and quiet in the dancelight of an everlasting arrow.

Lady, the image of whose heaven
Sings in the might of Scotus' reasoning:
There is no line of his that has not blazed your glory in the schools,
Though in dark words, without romance,
Calling us to swear you our liege.

Language was far too puny for his great theology:
But, oh! His thought strode through those words
Bright as the conquering Christ
Between the clouds His enemies:
And in the clearing storm and Sinai's dying thunder
Scotus comes out, and shakes his golden locks
And sings like the African sun.

Hopkins's Scotus poem, which I recently posted, is a great poem; this is, I think, an almost-great one, a non-great poem that could have been great. The idea behind the line "Nor has there ever been a braver chivalry than his precision" is well-nigh perfect: Hopkins has nothing approaching it. But it's an extraordinarily clunky way of making the point. Hopkins's works better not merely because Hopkins is a greater poet (although he certainly is); it works better because a great poem about the Subtle Doctor must have more subtlety than this. But the ideas are right and linked in about the right way. A problem with Merton in general, I think: lots of Idea, lots of Power, surprisingly little Energy.

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