Posted by: anna | November 1, 2009

Frideswide poem

Saint Frideswida, or, The Foundations of Oxford

Frideswida flies from the pursuit of a wicked king, invoking the Divine aid and the prayers of St. Catherine and St. Cecilia. She escapes ; and at the hour of her death those Saints reveal to her that in that place, near the Isis, where she has successively opened a blind man’s eyes and healed a leper, God will one day raise up a seat of Learning, the light and the health of the realm.

‘One love I ; One : within His bridal bower
My feet shall tread : One love I, One alone :
His Mother is a Virgin, and His Sire
The unfathomed fount of pureness undefiled :
Him love I Whom to love is to be chaste :
Him love I touched by Whom my forehead shines :
Whom she that clasps grows spotless more and more :
Behold, to mine His spirit He hath joined :
And His the blood that mantles in my cheek :
His ring is on my finger.’’

Thus she sang ;
Then walked and plucked a flower : she sang again :
‘That which I longed for, lo, the same I see :
That which I hoped for, lo, my hand doth hold :
At last in heaven I walk with Him conjoined
Whom, yet on earth, I loved with heart entire.’
Thus carolled Frideswida all alone,
Treading the opens of a wood far spread
Around the upper waters of the Thames.

Christian almost by instinct, earth to her
Was shaped but to sustain the Cross of Christ.
Her mother lived a saint : she taught her child,
From reason s dawn, to note in all things fair
Their sacred undermeanings. ‘Mark, my child,
In lamb and dove, not fleshly shapes, she said,
But heavenly types : upon the robin’s breast
Revere that red which bathed her from the Cross
With slender bill striving to loose those Nails!’
Dying, that mother placed within her hand
A book of saintly legends. Thus the maid
Grew up with mysteries clothed, with marvels fed,
A fearless creature swift as wind or fire :
But fires of hers were spirit-fires alone,
All else like winter moon.

The Wessex King
Had gazed upon the glory of her face,
And deemed that face a spirit’s. He had heard
Her voice ; it sounded like an angel’s song ;
But wonder by degrees declined to love,
Such love as Pagans know. The unworthy suit,
She scorned, from childhood spoused in heart to Christ
She fled : upon the river lay a boat :
She rowed it on through forests many a mile ;
A month had passed since then.

Midsummer blazed
On all things round : the vast, unmoving groves
Stretched silent forth their immemorial arms
Arching a sultry gloom. Within it buzzed
Feebly the insect swarm : the dragon-fly
Stayed soon his flight : the streamlet scarce made way :
In shrunken pools, panting, the cattle stood,
Languidly browsing on the dried-up sprays :
No bird-song shook the bower. Alone that maid
Glided light-limbed, as though some Eden breeze,
Hers only, charioted the songstress on,
Like those that serve the May. Beneath a tree
Low-roofed at last she sank, with eyes up-raised
On boughs that, ivy-twined and creeper-trailed,
Darkened the shining splendour of the sky :
Between their interspaces, here and there,
It flashed in purple stars.

Enraptured long,
For admiration was to her as love,
The maiden raised at last her mother s book,
And lit upon her childhood s favourite tale,
Catherine in vision wed to Bethlehem s Babe
Who from His Virgin-Mother leaning, dropped
His ring adown her finger. Princely pride,
And pride not less of soaring intellect,
At once in her were changed to pride of love :
In vain her country s princes sued her grace ;
Kingdoms of earth she spurned. Around her seat
The far-famed Alexandrian Sages thronged,
Branding her Faith as novel. Slight and tall,
Mid them, keen-eyed the wingless creature stood
Like daughter of the sun on earth new-lit :
That Faith she shewed of all things first and last ;
All lesser truths its prophets. Swift as beams
Forth flashed such shafts of high intelligence
That straight their lore sophistic shrivelled up,
And Christians they arose. The martyr’s wheel
Was pictured in the margin, dyed with red,
And likewise, azure-tinct on golden ground,
Her queenly throne in heaven. ‘Ah shining Saint!’
Half weeping, smiling half, the virgin cried ;
‘Yet dear not less thy sister of the West ;
For never gaze I on that lifted face,
Or mark that sailing angel near her stayed,
But straight her solemn organs round me swell ;
All discords cease!’ Then with low voice she read
Of Rome’s Cecilia, her who won to Christ,
(That earlier troth inviolably preserved)
Her Roman bridegroom, wondering at that crown
Invisible itself, that round her breathed
Rose-breath celestial ; her that to the Church
Gave her ancestral house ; and, happier gift,
Devotion s heavenliest instrument of praise ;
Her that, unfearing, dared that Roman sword ;
And when its work was done, for centuries lay
Like marble, mid the catacombs, unchanged,
In sleep-resembling death.

From earliest dawn
That maiden s eyes had watched : wearied at noon
Their silver curtains closed. Huge mossy roots
Pillowed her head, that slender book wide-leaved
In stillness, like some brooding, white-winged dove,
Spread on her bosom : ‘gainst its golden edge
Rested, gold-tinged, the dimpled ivory chin
Loud thunders broke that sleep ; the tempest blast
Came up against the woods, while bolt on bolt
Ran through them sheer. She started up : she saw
That Pagan prince and many a sworded serf
Rushing towards her. Fleeter still she fled ;
But, as some mountain beast tender and slight,
That, pasturing spring-fed lilies of Cashmere,
Or slumbering where its rock-nursed torrents fall,
Sudden not distant hears the hunter’s cry
And mocks pursuit at first, but slackens soon
Breathless and spent, so failed her limbs ere long ;
A horror of great faintness o’er her crept ;
More near she heard their shout. She staggered on :
To threat’ning phantoms all things round were changed ;
About her towered in ruin hollow trunks
Of spiked and branchless trees, survivors sole
Of woods that, summer-scorched, then lightning-struck
A century past, for one short week had blazed
And blackened ever since. She knelt : she raised
Her hands to God : she sued for holier prayer
Saint Catherine, Saint Cecilia. At that word
Behind her close a cry of anguish rang :
Silence succeeded. As by angels help
She reached a river s bank : sun-hardened clay
Retained the hoof-prints of the drinking herd ;
And, shallower for long heats, the oxen s ford
Challenged her bleeding feet. She crossed unharmed,
And soon in green-gold pastures girt by woods
Stood up secure. Then forth she stretched her hands,
Like Agnes praising God amid the flame :
‘Omnipotent, Eternal, Worshipful,
One God, Immense, and All-compassionate,
Thou from the sinner s snare hast snatched the feet
Of her that loved Thee. Glory to Thy name.’
Thenceforth secure she roamed those woods and meads ;
The dwellers in that region brought her bread,
Upon that countenance gazing, some with awe
But all with love. To her the maidens came :
‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘what mystery hast thou learned
So sweet and good ; thy Teacher, who was he ;
Grey-haired, or warrior young?’ To them in turn
Ceaseless she sang the praises of her Christ,
His Virgin Mother and His heavenly court,
Warriors on earth for justice. They for her
Renounced all else, the banquet and the dance,
And nuptial rites revered. A low-roofed house
Inwoven of branches ‘mid the woods they raised ;
There dwelt, and sang her hymn, and prayed her prayer,
And loved her Saviour-Sovereign. Year by year
More high her bright feet scaled the heavenly mount
Of lore divine and knowledge of her God,
And with sublimer chant she hymned His praise ;
While oft some bishop, tracking those great woods
In progress to his charge, beneath their roof
Baptizing or confirming made abode,
And all which lacked supplied, nor discipline
Withheld, nor doctrine high. The outward world
To them a nothing, made of them its boast :
A Saint, it said, within that forest dwelt,
A Saint that helped their people. Saint she was,
And therefore wrought for heaven her holy deeds ;
Immortal stand they on the heavenly roll ;
Yet fewest acts suffice for heavenly crown ;
And two of hers had consequence on earth,
Like water circles widening limitless,
For man still helpful. Hourly acts of hers,
Interior acts invisible to men,
Perchance were worthier. Humblest faith and prayer
Are oft than miracle miraculous more :
To us the exterior marks the interior might :
These two alone record we.

Years had passed :
One day when all the streams were dried by heat
And rainless fields had changed from green to brown,
T’wards her there drew, by others led, a man
Old, worn, and blind. He knelt, and wept his prayer :
‘Help, Saint of God ! That impious King am I,
That King abhorred, his people s curse and bane,
Who chased thee through these woods with fell resolve,
Worst vengeance seeking for insulted pride :
Rememberest thou that, near thee as I closed,
Kneeling thou mad’st thy prayer? Instant from God
Blindness fell on me. Forward still I rushed,
Ere long amid those spiked and branded trunks
To lie as lie the dead. If hope remains,
For me if any hope survives on earth,
It rests with thee ; thee only!’ On her knees
She sank in prayer ; her fingers in the fount
She dipped ; then o’er him signed the Saviour s cross,
And thrice invoked that Saviour. At her word
Behold, that sightless King arose, and saw,
And rendered thanks to God.

The legend saith
Saint Catherine by her stood that night, and spake :
‘Once more I greet thee on thy dying day.’

Again the years went by. That sylvan lodge
Had changed to convent. Beautiful it stood
Not far from Isis, though on loftier ground :
Sad outcasts knew it well : whate’er their need
There found they solace. One day toward it moved,
Dread apparition and till then unknown,
Like one constrained, with self-abhorrent steps,
A leper, long in forest caverns hid.
Back to their cells the nuns had shrunk, o’erawed :
Remained but Frideswida. Thus that wretch
With scarce organic voice, and aiding sign,
Wailed out the supplication of despair :
‘Fly not, O saintly virgin ! Yet, ah me !
What help though thou remainest? Warned from heaven,
I know that not thy fountain’s healing wave
Could heal my sorrow : not those spotless hands :
Not even thy prayer. To me the one sole aid
Were aid impossible a kiss of thine.’
A moment stood she : not in doubt she stood :
First slowly, swiftly then to where he knelt
She moved : with steadfast hand she raised that cloth
Which veiled what once had been a human face :
O’er it she signed in faith the cross of Christ :
She wept aloud, ‘My brother!’ Folding then
Stainless to stained, with arms about him wound,
In sacred silence mouth to mouth she pressed,
A long, long sister s kiss. Like infant s flesh
The blighted and the blasted back returned :
That leper rose restored.

The legend saith
That Saint Cecilia by her stood that night :
‘Once more I greet thee on thy dying day.’

It came at last, that day. Her convent grew
In grace with God and man : the pilgrim old
Sought it from far ; the gifts of kings enlarged :
It came at last, that day. There are who vouch
The splendour of that countenance never waned :
Thus much is sure ; it waxed to angels eyes :
Welcomed it came, that day desired, not feared.
By humbleness like hers those two fair deeds
Were long forgotten : each day had its task :
Not hardest that of dying. Why should sobs
Trouble the quiet of a holy house
Because its holiest passes ? Others wept ;
The sufferer smiled : ‘Ah, little novices,
How little of the everlasting lore
Your foolish mother taught you if ye shrink
From trial light as this !’ She spake ; then sank
In what to those around her seemed but sleep,
The midnoon August sunshine on her hair
In ampler radiance lying than that hour
When, danger near her yet to her unknown,
Beneath that forest tree her eyelids closed
Her book upon her bosom.

Near her bed
Not danger now but heralds ever young,
Saint Catherine, Saint Cecilia, stood once more,
Linked hand in hand, with aureoles interwreathed :
One gazing stood as though on radiance far
With widening eyes : a listener s look intent
The other s, soft with pathos more profound.
The Roman sister spake : ‘Rejoice, my child,
Rejoice, thus near the immeasurable embrace
And breast expectant of the unnumbered Blest
That swells to meet thee ! Yea, and on the earth
For thee reward remaineth. Happy thou
Through prayer his sight restoring to thy foe,
Sole foe that e’er thou knew’st though more his own !
Child ! darkness is there worse than blindness far,
Wherein erroneous wanders human Pride ;
That prayer of thine from age to age shall guard
A realm against such darkness. Where yon kine
Stand in mid ford, quenching their noontide thirst,
Thy footsteps crossed of old the waters. God
In the unerasing current sees them still !
Close by, a nation from a purer flood
Shall quench a thirst more holy, quaffing streams
Of Knowledge loved as Truth. Majestic piles
Shall rise by yonder Isis, honouring, each,
My clear-eyed sister of the sacred East
That won to Christ the Alexandrian seers,
Winning, herself, from chastity her lore :
Upon their fronts, aloft in glory ranged
With face to East, and cincture never loosed,
All Sciences shall stand, daughters divine
Of Him that Truth eterne and boon to man,
Holding in spotless hand, not lamp alone,
But lamp and censer both, and both alike
From God s great Altar lighted.’

Spake in turn
That Alexandrian with the sunlike eyes :
‘Beside those Sciences shall stand a choir
As fair as they ; as tall ; those sister Arts,
High daughters of celestial Harmony,
Diverse yet one, that bind the hearts of men
To steadfast Truth by Beauty s sinuous cords ;
She that to marble changes mortal thought ;
She that with rainbow girds the cloud of life ;
She that above the streaming mist exalts
Rock-rooted domes of prayer ; and she that rears
With words auguster temples. Happy thou
Healing that leper with thy virgin kiss !
A leprosy there is more direful, child !-
Therein the nations rot when flesh is lord
And spirit dies. Such ruin Arts debased
Gender, or, gendered long, exasperate more.
But thou, rejoice ! From this pure centre Arts
Unfallen shall breathe their freshness through the land,
With kiss like thine healing a nation s wound
Year after year successive ; listening, each, .
My sister s organ music in the skies,
Prime Art that, challenging not eye but ear,
To Faith is nearest, and of Arts on earth
For that cause, living soul.’

That prophecy
Found its accomplishment. In later years,
There where of old the Oxen had their Ford,
The goodliest city England boasts arose,
Mirrored in sacred Isis ; like that flood
Its youth for aye renewing. Convents first
Through stately groves levelled their placid gleam,
With cloisters opening dim on garden gay
Or moonlit lawn dappled by shadowing deer :
Above them soared the chapel s reverent bulk
With storied window whence, in hues of heaven,
Martyrs looked down, or Confessor, or Saint
On tomb of Founder with its legend meek
‘Pro anima orate.’ Night and day
Mounted the Church s ever-varying song
Sustained on organ harmonies that well
Might draw once more to earth, with wings outspread
And heavenly face made heavenlier by that strain,
Cecilia’s Angel. Of those convents first
Was Frideswida’s, ruled in later years
By Canons Regular, later yet rebuilt
By him of York, that dying wept, alas,
Had I but served my Maker as my king!

To colleges those convents turned; yet still
The earlier inspiration knew not change:
The great tradition died not : near the bridge
From Magdalen’s tower still rang the lark-like hymn
On May-day morn : high ranged in airy cells,
Facing the East, all Sciences, all Arts,
Yea, and with these all Virtues, imaged stood,
Best imaged stood in no ideal forms,
Craft unhistoric of some dreamer s brain,
But life-like shapes of plain heroic men
Who in their day had fought the fight of Faith,
Warriors and sages, poets, saints, and kings,
And earned their rest: the long procession paced,
Up winding slow the college-girded street
To where in high cathedral slept the Saint,
Singing its Alma Redemptoris Mater,
On August noons, what time the Assumption Feast
From purple zenith of the Christian heaven
Brightened the earth. That hour not bells alone
Chiming from countless steeples made reply:
Laughed out that hour high-gabled roof and spire;
Kindling shone out those Sciences, those Arts
Pagan one time, now confessors white-robed ;
And all the holy City gave response,
‘Deus illuminatio mea est.’

* The motto of the University of Oxford.

-Aubrey de Vere, Legends of the Saxon Saints, 1879.


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