Monday, May 07, 2007

A rare and ingenious poem

While browsing through the collected works the other day, the following piece caught my eye. It was simply a good poem in its own right, but was distinctive in its use of Islamic tropes in a way not always common in Chesterton's poetry. It brings to mind Belloc's The Mercy of Allah or some notable elements in Chesterton's own The Flying Inn. There will be much to be said about that particular novel later (it's coming up on my summer reading rotation; first I must get through J.B. Pick's The Fat Valley, Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot and G.K.'s Manalive), and the links between it and this poem, but for now, here's the text:

The Philanthropist (c. 1918-21)

(With Apologies to a Beautiful Poem)

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe decrease
By cautious birth-control and die in peace)
Mellow with learning lightly took the word
That marked him not with them that love the Lord,
And told the angel of the book and pen
"Write me as one that loves his fellow-men:
For them alone I labour; to reclaim
The ragged roaming Bedouin and to tame
To ordered service; to uproot their vine
Who mock the Prophet, being mad with wine;
Let daylight through their tents and through their lives
Number their camels, even count their wives;
Plot out the deserts into streets and squares,
And count it a more fruitful work than theirs
Who lift a vain and visionary love
To your vague Allah in the skies above."

Gently replied the angel of the pen:
"Labour in peace and love your fellow-men:
And love not God, since men alone are dear,
Only fear God; for you have cause to fear."

There is a wealth of Chestertonian material in this short piece. The subversion through contraception of the old directive to be fruitful and multiply is a particularly effective way to begin the poem, and the indictment of how "lightly" the over-educated man blasphemes is well-placed. Which itself highlights something of a paradox. The Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris brands of atheist are troubling in these modern times for their intense and ungovernable anger, but there is something just as worrying in those who cast God to the side without consideration or comment. Both the atheist and the pious alike react to Christ because they recognize His power, but that other man... Consider the difference between the pugnacious atheist Turnbull in The Ball and the Cross and the Tolstoyite lunatic in the same book who tries to calm the duel. Though the Tolstoyite advocates all sorts of generally good things, taken in purer forms than he puts them, I doubt very much that one would rather spend an hour in his company than in Turnbull's.

The poem continues with a short list of instances of the philanthropist "helping" his fellow man by "improving" them in various ways that are actually quite unhelpful, a conceit common in Chesterton's work (see Mr. Higgins in "The Song of the Strange Ascetic" or Mrs. Hagg in "How I Found the Superman"). All of this leads into the familiar assertion that such endeavours are somehow more righteous than the simple worship of God. In this we see all the marks of heresy as Chesterton conceived of it: one piece of the structure (love of fellow man) wrenched from its place and used against the rest.

And it concludes, fittingly, with the calm thunderclap that is the angel's pronouncement. Man alone is dear... we have seen such sentiments before, as regard love; in Orthodoxy, if memory serves, Chesterton (perhaps rightly) expounds on the theory that we may only really love that which can be lost. What, then, are we to do with God?

The final line speaks for itself, and is a thing of ominous beauty.

1 comment:

rubix71 said...

Just wanted to show the poem to which gk is answering as a reference:

Abou Ben Adhem

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

James Henry Leigh Hunt