For Elizabeth

If charm were a country, then you would be
Its capital of many domes and spires
Gilded and gleaming off a crystal sea,
And graced with every art that love inspires.

If beauty a nation, then you, its queen,
Would wield the scepter of love’s dazzling power
Beguiling all thy subjects with serene
And regal allure from a silver tower.

Alas, the fairest flow’rs remain unknown
Behind the garden walls of married life;
And thou, the loveliest, shouldst not bemoan
The humble title of a poet’s wife:

To capitals yet made these lines proclaim
Eternal love, and gild thy beauty’s fame.

 

Saint Denis, Priez pour Nous! (Pray for Us!)

Montjoie Saint Denis*! The cry of times past
Is heard no more upon the Martyrs’ Hill:
The people have expelled their faith at last
And demons fall on Paris for the kill.

The regicidal nation now endures
The Terror she brought down on Christian souls;
The city of Saint Louis teems with Moors
And France’s name is struck from Honor’s rolls.

No knees remain to bend, nor hands to fold,
In prayer among the tombs of France’s kings:
The great basilica stands dark and cold,
Bereft of angels and their guardian wings;

For, here, where sects and antipopes hold sway,
Are left for Huns but other Huns to slay.

 

*Montjoie Saint Denis: A traditional French battle cry.

 

Joseph Charles MacKenzie is the first and last American to win First Place in the Long Poem Section of the Scottish International Poetry Competition, Henry M. Austin Poetry Prize.

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18 Responses

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you, Sir. You have found the most important verses of Sonnet V. The poem was written for my wife on the occasion of her birthday. The sonnet overturns a false image of the poet promoted by the Romantics, in particular the French Romantics, according to whom the poet is somehow exempt from the moral laws which apply to other men. Romanticism attacked sacramental marriage, opting for the old “Bohemian” notion of the poet. The idea of the poet as puerile and weird was continued by the modernists.

      One of the worst features of modernism was its prohibition of the moral principle in art, contrary to the principles employed by traditional poets, such as Corneille, Boileau, Moliere, Southwell, Dante, Petrarch, all writing from a perspective of moral rectitude. Among the Romantics who defended the moral principle was Alphonse de Lamartine, the very father of French Romanticism.

      Today, the very idea of a poet celebrating the beauty of his wife, as opposed to a paramour or concubine, flies in the very face of modernism.

      Reply
  1. dddd

    Every morning I print off at the library 20 pages for free of what attracts me most this morning. Not only your poems themselves, but the comments were attractive.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you for your very edifying comment. Saint Denis Priez Pour Nous! was composed on the occasion of the Paris terror attacks last November 2015. “Montjoie Saint Denis!” as the editor notes was indeed a battle cry, that of the French Crusaders who made pilgrimage to the Mons Martyrium, or Martyrs Hill, which we know as Montmartre in Paris. It was here that St. Denis, Archbishop of Paris, having been decapitated during one of Decian’s persecutions circa 250 AD, carried his own head while preaching for some 10 kilometers before dropping at the spot where the great basilica of St. Denis now stands. The basilica is also where all the kings of France since Clovis were buried. My sonnet comments on the moral and spiritual dissolution of modern French society as a result of its vile and ongoing Revolution and the consequences of being a regicidal nation (referring to the decapitation of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793 during the Terror). The final couplet refers to the way in which modern Frenchmen are the coreligionists of their own attackers.

      Reply
      • G. M. H. Thompson

        I’m sorry, but I’m not really sure of what killing some fat, incompetent despotic king has to do with France’s admittedly pronounced moral and spiritual deficiencies (and I’m not debating the consequences of the revolution aside from its regicidal elements here). Do pray enlighten me.

  2. Fr. Francis

    To those who can follow the meaning of the lines there is serene joy in their beauty. To those who stumble but enjoy an inquiring mind, is given understanding.
    To all is given the sense that this is worthy of my effort.
    Such beauty always attracts,

    Congratulations Joseph, good work.

    Reply
    • K. Kyntale

      I meant to say that the poems are the work of a true master. But your comment is more meaningful. The ending couplets all by themselves, given their craftsmanship, really do inspire joy in the beauty of these poems. “If charm were a country, then you would be” has got to be one of the great first lines of all time.

      Reply
      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Yes, these poems are indeed the work of a true Master, the Master who has given me all that I have and all that I am and without whom all my works are as chaff. And that Master is the Master of all creation, the King to whom my sonnets are offered.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Your comment summarizes, I think quite perfectly, how poetry is received, but even more, it shows that reading itself is an endeavor of gifts, and this is something which opens a new discussion of great importance. Because ultimately beauty is truth, and where truth is the end of poetry, Truth itself will bestow the gift of receiving, as important as that of the poet’s giving. So there is quite possibly a dimension of seeking and asking for understanding implied in the act of reading, as there is in the act of composing?

      Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      I realized this very thing of which you speak, this idea of lyric verse as a “refuge” last February when I was working with a Broadway director on a stage production of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (in collaboration with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s National First Folio Traveling Exhibit). Many of our audience spoke of a sense of “respite” from modernism.

      So you have put your finger on exactly what I want my verses to be, a refuge for my readers, exactly that! But with the term refuge is the connotation of “escape,” even “fantasy;” for, “For Elizabeth” does possess this aspect. It begins with an ideal city, a crystal sea, silver towers, a beguiling scepter, and so forth. These elements of the fantastical create an otherworldly mood which is suddenly brought down to reality at the all important “volta” or “turn” in the first verse of the sestet (keeping in mind that the sonnet is always a duality). From the fantasy elements which would have been perfectly at home in late Romantic poetry, we move to the reality of marriage. Where the Romantics oppose marriage to love, I unite the concepts in my couplet. I have no choice, really, as the sonnet is informed not only by my own experience as a husband, but also by the real perfection of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony itself, a divinely instituted springboard of ascent to the highest love of all, the love that nourishes, like a great river, its human tributaries of earthly love.

      Reply
  3. Ruth Asch

    Joseph, both your poems strike a chord with me – as a fellow poet who has written more than one poem about my husband, and somebody who mourns the loss of faith, not only in France. The first poem is really charming – and more because the spirit behind its words is a one elevated to ideals of true love. My own view of the situation described in the second might not be quite so bleak and brutal – but then in the symbolic terms of poetry, it does what is needed, strikingly and elegantly…

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Well, you certainly raise a question behind your very kind and gracious comment, and that would be the same question I asked myself about “Saint Denis, Priez Pour Nous,” namely: Is lyric verse capable of mirroring, if even symbolically, the brutality of history?” It’s a good question and I am glad you indirectly raise it. My first answer was, well, perhaps not. But then I remembered that the passage of time, the foremost element of the lyrical in art, is also an aspect of history. And so, I dared myself to complete “Saint Denis, Priez Pour Nous!” It shocked many of my beta readers by its boldness. Ultimately, however, the lyricism triumphs, I am told, making it fit well within the larger sequence which I have entitled “Sonnets for Christ the King.” And it is this larger context which one must be aware of to fully evaluate the sonnet. That France is now a regicidal nation has everything to do with the rejection of Christ’s kingship—so the overarching theme of kingship is operative throughout. And we see, we Americans, where this rejection has left us today. But I applaud your evaluation because you really indicate quite well the contrast between the poems and this, too, is important. Because the question I started out with was even broader: Can the Shakespearean sonnet in its pure, traditional form, successfully take on a much greater variety of themes than poets have generally imagined? I stand back and look at my finished sequence as a whole, and, even to my great surprise, the answer is yes, the Shakespearean sonnet, in its purest form, is almost infinitely adaptable and flexible. Thank you for your very kind thoughts and the thoughts behind them.

      Reply
  4. Teri

    ” . . . graced with every art that love inspires” perfectly captures the powerful and natural outcome of pure love, whether of a person or the Creator who first loved us. Joseph, one cannot help but be lifted up by your sonnets borne of Love.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you, Teri, for your very kind comment. You have fully understood how it is possible that a love sonnet could fit into the context of a mystical sequence ultimately dedicated to God. Obviously, because earthly love, via the sacrament of holy matrimony, is brought into a direct relation to God, who is Love, as He is Truth. But this very relation happens to be one of the defining notes of Christian lyric verse. In a non-Christian context, the two loves are irreconcilable, if not conflictual and mutually opposing. So, in some way, I am correcting Petrarch’s excesses in that the earthly object of his love, the famous Laura, is seen as a conflict within the poet’s spiritual pilgrimage. But again, Laura has only the poetical status of the “unattainable lady,” and Petrarch’s love is therefore in some way beyond the reach of the sacrament, which explains his agony. Nothing of the sort in marriage, which is a felicitous state par excellence. Dangerous, indeed, was the ground Petrarch set forth for himself to stand upon. And even more dangerous for his English imitators during the tyranny of Elizabeth I, a pagan queen whose contempt for marriage extended to her denying England a direct heir, as she never married. The courtier poets of her reign reflected her spiritual barrenness in their praises, and Shakespeare, through immaturity, did very badly to imitate them in so many of his sonnets, despite the craftsmanship thereof. But here, you have rightly discerned the relation between matrimonial love and its divine origin. Now why is the discernment of this relation important? Well, think of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” I maintain that this sonnet refers to both conjugal and divine love at the same time. I also maintain that, unlike the sequence from which it clearly stands out, Sonnet 116 was written shortly after Shakespeare witnessed the public drawing and quartering of his cousin, friend, and confessor, St. Robert Southwell, at Tyburn. “Love is not love that altars when it alteration finds…” Southwell, after two years of physical torture, appeared on the scaffold at Tyburn very altered indeed, and the sonnet is non-specific enough to cover exactly this event. And so, with this unusual historical precedent, Shakespeare leaving for us to discover the same relation you have discovered in my Sonnet V, I made the decision to include all of four love sonnets to my wife in a sequence which I have placed before the feet of Christ. (Friends are clamoring for a whole new sequence consisting of love sonnets alone.) Many are the loves the poets of Christendom have rightly celebrated, always relating them to the highest. So the history of lyric verse has come full circle, and I am grateful to be able to seize an opportunity which Shakespeare egregiously missed in his sequence. And yes, how can that be other than uplifting? I can assure everyone reading this post that the poet himself is merely one among the other uplifted! Great is the kingdom of lyric verse.

      Reply
      • G. M. H. Thompson

        Elizabeth I may have been a pagan (but I am not in the slightest convinced that she was), but she saved England. If Mary had survived her false pregnancy in 1558, she may well have eventually had a true pregnancy and the Hapsburgs would have ruled England for who knows how long. The world would be a very different place had this transpired, and I think not for the good, for a independent England under its own monarch (and yes, I know that the Stewarts ruled Scotland simultaneously when they were the monarchs of England, but to equate Scotland with Spain, the crown lands of Austria, Hungary, vast swaths of what is today Germany, the Spanish Netherlands, and nearly half of Italy is a false equivalency, to say the least; Scotland was a relatively minor backwater when compared to England, which itself was a minor backwater when compared to the rest of Europe at the time of the Virgin Queen’s ascension; her brilliant leadership was in no small part responsible for altering that state of affairs– it is not an overstatement to suggest that she was the greatest and most influential monarch England has ever been lucky enough to have at its helm) was essential for it to become the world-conquering dynamo it transformed into starting during the time of her goodly reign.

        Perhaps more importantly, without Queen Elizabeth I, the singular phenomenon that we know as “Elizabethan Drama” would probably never have occurred, which is not to say that no poetry or drama would have been produced in England in the mid to late 16th and early 17th centuries, but it is to propound that that which would have been would have been minor in comparison to that which was, both in volume, in popularity (both then and now), and in objective aesthetic quality. Elizabeth was an avid and wealthy patron of the dramatic and poetic (really the same thing, but there’s no pleasing pedants) arts who fostered an environment that favored them, and also one that avidly delved into the dusty pages of antiquity for direct inspiration (dare I say “divine”? I think I will not, for I do not need to– : the results say so self-evidently).

        Now, it is true that both Lope de Vega and Cervantes, to name the biggest names, though there were others, both flourished under the Spanish Hapsburg throne, but I would argue that the joint throne of Philip and Mary, had their union been cemented with the blood of an heir, would not have offered a similarly verdant patronage environments to English Hapsburg artists, as the court probably would have been in Spain, only visiting England occasionally, as Spain in the 16th century was the number one superpower in the world, with the silver of the America’s in its right hand (insured by the Papal Bull of 1493 no less) and a sizable piece of the spice trade in its left in its ownership of the Philippines, among other spice island holdings. And I certainly do not think that Queen Mary, or her heir, or any Hapsburg, for that matter, would have been as good for English poetry and verse as Queen Elizabeth the First was (or even James the First, who was a good king, despite filling his son’s head with nonsense theories about divine right and other such claptrap that eventually resulted in poor Charles I (not a bad man, but a demonstrably terrible monarch) losing that aforementioned head), and I say once again, the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare, and those Shakespearean Sonnets you so rightly love would not have been without this Queen, Elizabeth Tudor, first queen of her name to rule England, pagan or not, child or not (she assured that a peaceful transference of power occurred to a 1st cousin of hers (twice removed), James I; perhaps more important than the fact that they were closely related was the fact that James I was a good king who had competently ruled Scotland for decades; furthermore, like Elizabeth, James was a strong patron of great literary art), married or not. To cast such a monarch aside so haphazardly betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of history.

  5. Alexander Heard

    Hi, Joseph Charles MacKenzie. Are you the author of the Donald Trump poem everybody has been talking about?

    Reply

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