Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reflections on Thompson's "Laus Legis"

IN HIS POEM "LAUS LEGIS," "Praise to Law," Francis Thompson, the poet of the "Hound of Heaven" fame, praises the Eternal Law in its manifestation in the irrational world, in other words, outside of its manifestation in man, either in Divine Law, or in the Natural Law. The poem is structured in the form a dialogue between two voices, the voice of the Law, Vox Legis, and the voice of an inquirer, the Vox Quaerentis.

Thompson's subject matter is the Law that issued forth from the mind of God eternally upon his command "Fiat lux!" "Let there be Light!" (Gen. 1:3) From the unordered chaos, the "growl" and "frowning terror" of a freshly "unleashed Creation" that beckoned "discord," the Eternal Law brought forth order, an order, a ratio or logos, which provided a "rampart round security," within which life could then flourish. This Eternal Law is what gives order to chaos, and without the Eternal Law, the created world and its order would dissolve back into chaos. The Eternal Law exercises its authority over disorder, like a dog's master may "stamp" the ground and cause his "warden-hound of Paradise" to "cower." So disorder cowers beneath the greater authority of the Eternal Law, whose voice commands impersonal fate.

From the ordered world--chaos being held at bay--the Eternal Law follows God's directives: Fiat firmamentum! and Congregentur aquae! and separates the water from the waters, and the land from the waters below. (Gen. 1:6, 9.) So the land comes forth from the lower waters, as if it were the back of a giant, scaly sea serpent, a "Leviathan earth," coming out of the sea. Here come the mountains! The "woody fells," the "Aetnean spiracle"s." All is ordered with the law of "adamantean gossamer," a Law of suave gossamer spirit yet able easy to mold adamantine rock.

Earth and Sea are named, and the command issues from God for grass, plants, and fruitful trees both to be, and from thence to issue forth their prolix fruit and abundant grain. And who to bring forth the "rainbow-rain" required cool the "flame-grassed sod," so that the "paradisal grain" would bear fruit and issue seed? Among the "mailed birds of God," as Dante called the angels (e.g., the l'uccel divino of Canto 2 or the l'uccel di Dio of Canto 4 of the Purgatorio), the Eternal Law cast the first seed "'mid the clangour, clangour, clangour" of the "tinkling justle" of their seraphic silver wings.

The Eternal Law is also "Captain of the stars," those "stellar hordes" that shine in the sable field, the dark sky, the "champain of the night." The Eternal Law, too, orders their intricate form in constellations, those "wheeling ranks intrinsicate," that will forever grace the nights until earth's rotted end.

The Eternal Law is also the enchanter of the skies and their strange electrical potency. It is the unblinking Law with the "moveless gaze" who orders lightning to issue from the dark and "caverned clouds," whose command cause "levins" to "stroke and pause" or "twitch the sting from their hot jaws."

The Eternal Law is what fixes the course of the moon, and manages the regularity of its phases; the same Law who steers the sun from its morning glow, to the "vibrant rays" of noon, to its crepuscular "red" of dusk. And from its sinking, foundering in the West, restores it to the East for the next days' rising, as if the sun embarked on some celestial boat beyond our sight, unmoored from the morning star, and captained with "silver oars" for the new day's dawning.

The Eternal Law brings forth the lily's bloom, and from its hidden shroud in the earth, the "sepulchral mold," brings forth the leafy "green garment," the white-limbed shoot, and the fragrant flower symbol of a Saint's purity, or a Christian death hopeful of the raising of the dead, that day when the "lids o' their golden tombs" will "burst" open.

It is the Eternal Law that one hears behind the "pipings" "so diverse," "who steers the throngs of note on note," of our feathered friends. Can we really fathom the hidden maestro behind the scream of the eagle and hawk, the chant of falcons, the caw of the crow, the fink of the finch, the chatter of the jay, the pipe and warble of the nightingale, the whistle of the blackbird, the boom of the bittern, the chuckle of the linnet, hoot of the owl, the wail of the loon, the coo of the dove, the honk of the goose, the quack of the duck, the cackle of the hen, the twitter of swallows, and the chirp of the sparrow? What marvelous Law is that!

But the Eternal Law is also behind the griefs, the sorrows, that always follow the coat tails of the ephemeral "joyance" in hac lacrimarum valle. Through it, through it--alas--do sorrows come, but sorrow's refining, through God's Eternal Law, also brings forth love. And so the world goes under the Eternal Law's providential guidance on and on and on and on: from joy to grief, and from grief to love. For it is the mystery of this world that "sadness sitteth . . . a portress at the gate of hearts." This is the mystery that Gerard Manley Hopkins's Margaret would experience, and she grew wiser:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
And so deep is this mystery, this "Deep Magic," that even God become Man, had to bow to the Eternal Law, and had to suffer and die. What, after all, is Jesus on the Cross, and what, after all, is Mary's sword of sorrow, her gladius doloris, but the raw, bloody exhibition of the Eternal Law's mystery that joy is short, that grief is long, but that love is longer still?

And when the end of the world arrives, "upon the peal of doom" come from the bells of the Word's belfry, the Eternal Law's restraint, its "pinion" on chaos will be released, the firmaments will collapse in fire, and the whole universe will go "rocking down to night." There shall be no more Providence, at least as we now know it, and the "fates may gorge to their content." The continents, "redly riven, and bleeding fire," shall "drift asunder" and collide in a last pangaea. And the sky, which by then will have tired of witnessing the constant sins of Man against the good God, will droop, turn sick, and like a sickly bird, "moult its stars" as if they were feathers. With the world, time shall end, and the eternal present reign. And then Eternal Law will cry:

By me what sprung, by me shall die:
Back to God's stretched hand I fly,
To perch there for eternity.

And our souls, and those of our loved ones, and those of all who have shunned evil and done good, we hope, shall be with God, and we shall be able to go beyond the Eternal Law, and see God as He is, and live in the Light of Glory, ensconced in the divine rhythm of the Trinitarian Life of God Himself.


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