Sunday, May 09, 2021

Poem a Day 9

(This is a sort of precis and adaptation of a truly beautiful fourteenth-century poem of the same name, probably written to commemorate a re-building of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.)

St. Erkenwald

Erkenwald was bishop, under Augustine, of London;
a holy man, he taught Christ's path and the truths of New Law.
The Christians in his day tore down a temple of old ways
that they might build a church in which Christ's Temple might worship.
The rough and merry masons sang hymns as they hewed the stones.
The pick-men in plenty bent their backs without stopping,
and, as they mined, a murmur went up at a great marvel:
their picks found an ancient tomb and a coffin of marble,
like that of a king, lettered around with strange script in gold.
Astonished, a crowd soon gathered and grew to catch a glimpse,
laborers, lads, maidens, the mayor and the sacristan,
all amazed at this ancestral splendor brought to their sight.
Curious but cautious, they carefully lifted the lid,
eager to see what splendor might under that cover lay.
All the sides were gold, but at the bottom was a body,
a man in suit of pearl and gold with a bright golden belt,
a miniver mantle, and on his head a crafted crown.
He held a scepter, and the cloths were of brightest colors.
But the greatest wonder was that his flesh was clear and fresh,
ruddy with life as if he had just lain down or fallen.
The people said, "A king he must be, but what is his tale?
We have not heard it told; it is not in our traditions."
Then Erkenwald, hearing the story, came down to that place;
beside the body, all night, the primate knelt in prayer.
The next morning the holy man prepared to sing the Mass,
then after the liturgy processed with the town's mayor
and a great mass of people to the great ancestral tomb.
"By ourselves we surely cannot know the truth of this tale,"
the bishop said; "we must to God, whose wisdom knows no bounds."
Then he spoke to the corpse; that it would give answer he bade.
Then the body stirred and spoke with a reply deep and sad:
"Bishop, you adjured me by Christ; His command I will serve.
I was but a lawyer who spoke the law; I was made judge,
and then master of judges. I sought to render justice
according to the pagan laws of my pagan people,
even though a great war arose then between the princes.
I kept the forms and held the rites; I sought to teach virtue.
Many great harms I endured when the people turned vicious.
My conscience I would never turn aside for any man,
but tried for rich and poor to judge each case on its merit.
At my death, the people of New Troy with bitter tears wept,
and they clothed my corpse like a relic to honor my ways:
gold cloth for honesty, crown for eminence, and for right
they set in my hand a scepter like that of one who rules."
"This is not the whole tale," said the bishop; "the cloth remains,
pure and untattered, and your skin is glowing and ruddy,
and the colors in your coffin are like none we have seen."
"You know, O bishop, that this is God's work," the body said,
"for God loves a just man greatly, and thus has let me last."
"This is not the whole tale," said the bishop; "what of your soul?
The just and incorrupt rise to God, says the Psalmist,
and surely to the just he will give some measure of grace,
so tell us what was given to your pagan soul by God."
Then the man moaned, and said, "O God, great is your high mercy!
A heathen in a heathen age, I did not know your might.
The Lamb's blood did not redeem me; I did not have Christ's help,
but could only hold to the right with a strength merely human.
When Christ harrowed hell, I was left to wander in limbo,
rewarded but damned, and pining in never-ending dark,
unilluminated by baptism in life and in death."
The people wept, and, unspeaking, sobbing, the bishop wept.
Then after prayer, he said, "I will bring holy water
and baptize you with proper rite and form and holy words;
perhaps God has kept you that you might now enter his way,
and if not, there is no harm; at least you have our prayers."
Sprinkling the corpse with water and word, the holy primate
continued to weep; his tears also baptized the body.
Then the corpse said, "O holy Erkenwald, may you be blessed!
By word and water and tears a sacrament was given,
and from the first drop I received the endless grace of God."
With that, he spoke no more, and he crumbled to dust.
The people all marveled that God had granted them this deed;
they lifted praise and sweet worship to God with hands held high
and, weeping but merry, they returned to their own houses.
In honor of the new stone in Christ's Temple they rejoiced
and in thanks the bells of the city were loud and ringing.

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