Friday, October 22, 2010

Gloria in Profundis

Carl Olsen, over at Ignatius Insight, the blog of Ignatius Press, the premier Catholic publishing house in the United States, re-ran Chesterton's great poem "Gloria in Profundis" the other day. Ignatius is the publisher of G. K. Chesterton's Complete Works. They're not finished with it, and I expect that it will take quite some time still to complete the set. I don't know, but I am guessing that they consider the project an act of publishing charity, since they can't be making much much money off of it and may even by losing money on the project. I hope they continue to plug along. It is a great work, and the publication of what is now the third book of Chesterton's poetry is not the least important part of it.

The poem itself is simply astounding. There are some lines here that you can just roll over in your mind and simply marvel at how someone could have put it that way. That's the way poetry is: it is a mode of expression, mostly foreign to we modern English who value our scientific abstractions so much, that allows us access to a whole other side of truth that prose can only inadequately negotiate.

Prose is restrictive in that it attempts to stuff all the content of a truth into its own limited mode of expression, lopping some of it off, like the Greek robber Procrustes, when it is too big in order to fit within the constraints of the words by which we may attempt to articulate it. It is prescriptive and reductionist. Poetry, on the other hand, does not require the truth to restrict itself to our own pitiful ability to tell it. It is descriptive and open-ended. It allows us to see, not by shrinking reality to a size that fits our field of vision, but by calling us to an acknowledgment of how great is the world, and how small is our ability to either comprehend or articulate it. The greater the poet, the more inadequate he knows he is before the magnitude of the thing he attempts to express. Through prose we ask truth to bow the knee to our own limitations. Through poetry, we bow the knee before the greatness of all that we know we cannot know.
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
The poem expresses a theme Chesterton returns to over and over again: the unlikely and startling truth of the Incarnation. Read it and marvel:
Gloria in Profundis
G.K. Chesterton

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
Read Carl's post here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for printing that poem. I love Chesterton's poems on the Incarnation. I will be adding this to my list of poems to be enjoyed (and inflicted upon my kids) during Advent.

Eva in AZ