06 May 2009

'O Constant to Thy Vow'—St George, Masefield, & England

I have already referred once on this blog to the English Poet Laureate, John Masefield, of whom I first learned in the writings of Fr Andrew Philips (see for instance, this and this). Here was a modern English poet who, according to Fr Philips, was in touch with England’s spiritual heart, and through it, with the Orthodoxy of her past. I just stumbled onto this little book, A Play of St George (NY: Macmillan, 1948), the first of Masefield’s works I read, at my favourite used bookstore, and I was not disappointed.

Although this is indeed a play, with stage directions and the other expected theatrical accoutrements, it is written largely in verse, and thus reads much like a long poem. Most of the poetry is blank verse, but Masefield utilises choruses in a few places that have rhymed parts. Overall, the verse is quite eloquent, as one would expect from a Poet Laureate.

But the real strength of the work is its spiritual significance. It is true that Masefield has ‘demythologised’ the most famous incident in St George’s Life—his slaying of the dragon—by making the ‘dragon’ in question a fearsome pirate nicknamed ‘the Dragon’. But the poet does not give Christianity short schrift. Quite the contrary. The climax of the play is a wonderful and very moving depiction of St George’s martyrdom, complete with his replies to the attempts to persuade him to renounce his faith by ‘the form of words’. Upon his execution, there is the passage of the Martyr's soul from this life and his reception in Heaven by Christ, the angels, and the Saints, who sing (p. 52)—

O, sing a welcome; sing
To this new friend they bring
Home here to Heaven’s King
And his reward.

O, constant to thy vow
Welcome, thrice welcome, thou,
The Ruler wills thy brow
Shall now be starred.

Finally, the last lines are spoken in prose by ‘A Spirit’ and ‘Dancers’ in Heaven (p. 53):

A Spirit:

O spirits, spirits, come swiftly . . . All the host of Heaven has come with banners for him. O splendour. O beauty.


O come. O come. O come.

How wonderful it is to see major literary figures of modern times becoming so enchanted by the holiness of the Saints that they choose such subjects to write on, rather than wasting their talents with nihilism and libertinism as so many others have.

St George has of course been considered the Patron Saint of England for some centuries now. Hence Henry V’s words (King Henry V, III.i):

. . . The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge,
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

While Fr Philips has argued with his usual eloquence that St Edmund ought to be considered England’s premier patron, another piece on his site admits that St George ‘has acted as our patron-saint for many years, and has fulfilled his charge well’. Masefield himself has written eloquently of the significance of the Dragonslayer to England (qtd. by Fr Philips here):

So, I thought, that today is St George’s Day, and that today—in the far past, that great knight of God rode out, in the Eastern country, and killed a dragon which had been devouring women, and the Englishmen had thought that deed a holy, and most beautiful and manly thing, and had chosen St George from among all saints to be their saint, and had taken his banner to be their banner, and called upon him, century after century, when they went into battle. For they felt that such a man lived on after death, and would surely help all holy and beautiful and manly men for ever and ever. . . . The spirit of England is the something of the spirit of St. George, a manly and beautiful spirit, ready to help someone weaker, and something of the spirit of Shakespeare, a just and tender spirit, fond of fun and kindness and of the rough and busy life of men. That delicate, shy, gentle, humorous and most manly soul is the soul of England. It is in Chaucer, in Shakespeare, in Dickens. It is in the old ballads and tales of Robin Hood, who stood up for the poor, and was merry walking in the green forest. It is in the little villages of the land, in the old homes, in the churches, in countless old carvings, in old bridges, in old tunes, and in the old acts of the English, a shy, gentle, humorous and most manly soul, that stood up for the poor and cared for beauty. No finer thing can be said of men than that, that they stood up for the poor and cared for beauty; that they cared to be just and wise.

So whatever we may say about the prudence of resurrecting St Edmund as England’s true Patron (to which at least one blog is devoted!), we must be careful how we treat the matter. It seems to me we ought to applaud such things as the Royal Society of St George, and the efforts to promote St George’s feastday as an occasion of English patriotism, such as the St George’s Day site.


+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

Dear Aaron,

Christ is risen!

I'm writing to let you know how much I appreciate your blog. My undergraduate degree was in English literature (Colby College, 1979) and I recently committed a year of my life reading all of Shakespeare, in roughly chronological order, while listening to recordings of each play and watching videos of the plays and of films based on them. It was a wonderful twelve months, but I only made it as far as Hamlet, and have yet to resume the project. I hope to do so this summer. Seventeen plays to go!

About St George: do you know about a book called "Severance" by Robert Olsen Butler? It came out in 2006. Here's a description of it from his publisher's webpage: "The human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes after decapitation. In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. Inspired by the intersection of these two seemingly unrelated concepts, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler wrote sixty-two stories, each exactly 240 words in length, capturing the flow of thoughts and feelings that go through a person's mind after their head has been severed. The characters are both real and imagined Medusa (beheaded by Perseus, 2000 BC), Anne Boleyn (beheaded at the behest of Henry VIII, 1536), a chicken (beheaded for Sunday dinner, Alabama, 1958), and the author (decapitated, on the job, 2008). Told with the intensity of a poet and the wit of a great storyteller, these final thoughts illuminate and crystallize more about the characters' own lives and the worlds they inhabit than many writers manage to convey in full-length biographies or novels." I bring this to your attention because one of the stories is about St George. You can hear it read at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6363905. I hope you give it the couple of minutes it takes to hear in its entirety. It ends well.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you, Your Grace, for your kind comment and for this tip. I can't wait to check this out.

By the way, did you happen to notice that I commented on your old 'Sava on a Rolla' blog? Actually, I couldn't remember if I'd checked the 'Notify me' box and I just looked about 5 minutes ago to see if you'd responded!

When I met him in Missouri last year, Fr John Behr suggested that I get in touch with you sometime, and I hesitated (e-mailing bishops I don't know can be intimidating!). It is a pleasant surprise to hear from you here!

Aaron Taylor said...

Oh yeah, truly He is risen!

+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

I just checked my old blog myself and found your post of May 1st! What a happy coincidence!

I hope you weren't scandalized by the tone or content of that blog. I was on sabbatical, and feeling lighter in spirit than I'd had for too many years to count. In any case, my new blog will be less personal, less whimsical.

Aaron Taylor said...

Don't worry, I don't scandalise easily, Theophylestate! It's true though that I can hardly see any of the bishops in Greece keeping such a blog (that is, if they were to keep blogs)!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I wish I had bishops reading my blog. :D

Aaron Taylor said...

I'm actually a little ambivalent about it, Andrew. It actually makes me a lot more self-conscious about what I write!

Anonymous said...

Yes that's true, Aaron.

When I was at somebody from my church's namesday party a week ago, somebody whom I had never spoken to mentioned my blog to me. The first thing I thought was to do a quick scan in my head of everything I had posted. So yeah, it does make one a bit more conscious of what they write, or in my case what I extract from others!

- Andrew

+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

I do read your blog, Andrew, and admire it, but can't find a way to leave comments!

Aaron, please don't be self-conscious! You write well and responsibly. I haven't detected a whiff of the kind of nastiness that sadly emanates from so many ostensibly Orthodox blogs. Blogs like your own and Andrew's are edifying and enlightening. I leave them feeling better, not bruised.

Aaron Taylor said...

I'm glad to hear it, Despota. I make a conscious attempt to avoid nastiness! Well, there was that Calvinist guy I offended that one time...

James said...

Great blog, my friend! Things like this remind us that the internet can be free of guile and ugliness.

God bless,

James L. Kelley

Aaron Taylor said...

James> Thanks, brother. Ironically, though, things have threatened to get a little ugly of late. Let's hope I've nipped it in the bud!