Sunday’s Poem 4/12/09

Alice Meynell – “Christ in the Universe”

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.
But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.
Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.
No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.
Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.
But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The million forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

Commentary
How’s this for an Easter poem?

I’m already intrigued by the first line. Ambiguous earth? How so? Because we cherish the story of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection so, yet keep it secret? But how do we keep it secret? Because we don’t tell other planets? Come now; that’s only because we haven’t found life on other planets. (Other than some possible microscopic life from Mars; and the origin of that life, or even if that rock truly bore evidence of life, is debated. And even so, you can’t preach to microbes and expect converts.)

Maybe that’s the point, though. Perhaps that despite the majesty of the rest of the galaxy, the poem is suggesting that, in cosmic terms, Christ’s sacrifice for us is secret, because it does not really impact the Milky Way, or the Pleiades, or even Mercury or Venus. Just Earth.

I like that she refers to Jesus’ tomb as “one forsaken grave,” as if his resurrection somehow insulted the grave.

With the end, I’m left scratching my head. Maybe she’s referring to the fact that God did in fact intervene on other planets, in other cosmic places; but we’ll have to compare our secret with theirs, because it won’t be the same. In “eternities,” we can only begin to imagine the workings of the divine in comparison to our own planet. If there are truly divine forces, Meynell’s poem reminds us that it doesn’t make sense that they would act on Earth alone, and that their activity would no doubt be beyond the comprehension of human minds.

Only after death, having ascended to the “heavens” of constellations and quasars, will we know the workings of Christ in the universe.

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One Response to Sunday’s Poem 4/12/09

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    Another poem by a Catholic convert, albeit of a different age and time than Denise Levertov. (Levertov was born in England in 1923, the year after the English Alice Meynell died.)

    Why have a number of writers converted to Catholicism, wonders this cradle Catholic? The iconography, the ritual, the mysticism?

    So, “ambiguous earth.” Ambiguous in the sense of being inexplicable, or ambiguous in the sense of being divided between the realms of the mortal and the divine? The earthly “race” of this poem “have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word” only because they have not yet had the opportunity to communicate with other sentient beings in the universe, as you pointed out.

    Yet my imagination is caught by the speaker’s fascination with the bigness-within-littleness of “our wayside planet.” (“[T]his terrestrial ball” reminds me of my grandmother’s statue of the Infant of Prague, the goregously robed child-Christ who holds in his hand a blue ball surmounted by a cross, which represents the world.)

    I also see a connection between the speaker’s description of the “secret” unknown to extra-terrestrials,

    “Of His earth-visiting feet
    None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
    The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet
    Heart-shattering secret of His way with us…”

    and her conversion experience, during a time in England in which the Catholic minority–although no longer persecuted–was mocked, dismissed, and barred from certain positions within Anglican society.

    Perhaps “Christ in the Universe” is a plea for religious tolerance. If “…in the eternities,/
    Doubtless we shall compare together, hear/
    A million alien Gospels”–could this “inconceivable” revelation have an impact on those still dwelling on earth?

    Thanks for including this Victorian poem, with its rhymed internal quatrains, among modernist and post-modernist works.

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