Let us raise statues to the Prince of Peace:
__Cain’s monuments are powerless to bind
__Our hearts in summer’s sheaf, or to remind
The world of our first fall through sin’s caprice.

Our monuments recall the gods of Greece
__Whose lifeless looks their marble temples lined:
__Blank, frigid idols of a dead mankind,
In silence waiting for the soul’s release.

Seek not these paynym bronzes to restore,
__But raise the beauty of the arts to Him
__Whose blood from blood’s corruption set us free,

That voice to voice one universal hymn
__Should rival thunder and the ocean’s roar
__To celebrate death’s death upon a tree.


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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21 Responses

  1. David St. John Adams

    What an absolutely beautiful poem! I am awestruck whenever I read your work.

  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Oh, I must tell you I am so very pleased to know of your appreciation! I write primarily for the voice, not the page, so I hope you will also read the poem aloud if you have not already. Some local actors tell me they like how the euphony “sits on the tongue,” my primary concern.

    If you are interested, Mr. Adams, in hearing some of my other poems, may I please recommend: https://open.spotify.com/artist/6ioRUl6SC2LA8lD8gEFaqI

    Please enjoy, and thank you, once again!

  3. Michael R. Burch

    What about truth? Does that matter in religious poetry? The fossil record proves that there never was a “fall.” Trillions of animals suffered and died before man evolved the ability to walk and talk. Even if the Genesis account were true — which it obviously isn’t — the “original sinner” would not be Adam and Eve, but God. The Bible’s God withheld the knowledge of good and evil from human beings, so it was beyond evil to punish them so cruelly for making the wrong choice. And the Bible’s God continued to sin and sin and sin, meaning that he didn’t know good from evil himself. As I once pointed out:

    If God
    is good,
    half the Bible
    is libel.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Mike Burch thinks he’s the reincarnation of Clarence Darrow. His knowledge of poetry is still at the sixth-grade level.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      May I please ask, Dr. Salemi, if poetic knowledge—which, as you say quite beautifully in your essays, is wrapped up in figurative language, metaphor, analogy, symbolism, and so forth—is even possible within the anti-intellectual framework of a crass materialist? In other words, even if Mr. Burch was somehow able to eek out an intellective understanding of poetics, would he not have to discard it in practice? So the question is really something like: Doesn’t modernism in all its aspects utterly depend upon brute materialism and evolution—so that we are not even at a sixth-grade level of poetic knowledge, but something more like a Pavlovian rejection of poetics altogether?

      I offer this simply because I find that what Mr. Burch is ultimately denying is the immateriality of the intellect and is therefore, like all modernists, anti-intellectual—one of the reasons I have always held that Lucretius was the death of Roman lyric verse.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I don’t see it as a question of “brute materialism and evolution.” Persons who are atheists (or adherents to any other kind of materialist philosophy) can write good poetry and have done so. They write good poetry in spite of their deficient ideologies.

        The issue is poetry’s function as an imaginative act, as a “licensed zone of hyperreality.” Whether one takes the Genesis story of creation literally or not, or whether one accepts the reality of evolutionary development or not, are not issues that have anything at all to do with poetry. Poetry is not a tax return or a legal deposition. You don’t need to be scrupulously honest, or connected to a set of “facts,” or anything else.

        I am always amazed that people have not the slightest problem about accepting this in novels (nobody thinks that Jane Eyre is a factual account of historically accurate happenings), but go into a snit if a poet makes up something, or uses a myth, or changes facts to suit an aesthetic purpose.

        In any case, Burch isn’t here to argue any aesthetic point. He has simply come to cause trouble, as usual.

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        I wholeheartedly agree with these opinions, Mr. Salemi. Poetry is about poetry, not poets, and what they believe or don’t believe (which is often very, very strange on both counts) should have nothing to do with the way people read the poems they happen to write.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Hamlet’s entire fate depends on whether his father’s ghost is of hell or purgatory. How then are we to derive any meaning at all from Shakespeare’s verses if we pretend that what Shakespeare and his fellow Recusants believed about the state of the soul after death “should have nothing to do with the way people read” Hamlet?

        Are we to state that the personal beliefs of St. John of the Cross, or Charles Péguy, or Blessed Joseph Mary Plunkett “should have nothing to do with the way people read” their poems? Blake’s formation in the philosophy of Swedenborg must never have anything to do with how we read his poems?

        Why, then, should we pursue any form of scholarship to situate a poem historically if the very consideration of the poet’s beliefs “should have nothing to do with how we read a poem”?

        This is not at all what I took away from Dr. Salemi’s argument which I thought was focused rather more on the question of a false notion of realism that is not part of poetry considered as an act of the imagination.

        I prescind here from my unique belief that deficient ideologies produce only deficient poetry and have learned recently never to expect anyone else to share this notion.

        For me, indeed, a poem is literally only as good as a poet’s beliefs and can only be fully appreciated in the light (or darkness) of those beliefs. Atheism can produce “sufficient” poetry. Pantheism can produce “ok” love poems in a Rumi, until his game wears off after ten verses. Pessimism can produce “ok” verses in a Thomas Hardy.

        But there is only one religion which has produced a Chretien de Troyes, a Dante, and a Shakespeare in poetry, a Donatello, a Bernini, and a Michelangelo in art, a Palestrina, a Mozart, and a Beethoven in music—and the list goes on.

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        The fact of the matter is that we have no idea what Shakespeare actually believed because we know little to nothing about the man– the only biographical statement he ever penned was his will. We can infer what he believed from what he wrote, but such exercises most often teach us more about what we believe & usually have no real illuminative effect on their ostensible subject, because the vast majority of humankind are terrible narcissists & thus believe that the most excellent is just like them.

        Poems stand or fall based on their internal arguments and rhythms, the beauty of their images, and other such aspects of them as poetry. They do not and should not stand and fall based on whether the poet who wrote them was a Calvinist or a Buddhist, an Epicurean or a Flat-Earther. The fact that Shakespeare’s poetry appeals so strongly to so many different people, with so many different religious, ideological, and philosophical beliefs, to the point of being nearly universal in appeal, underlines the fact that ideological tests of purity have no place in assessing the excellence of poetry. Art is not religion. Poetry is not and should not be a Spanish inquisition. If it were, we would be forced to reject the excellent verse of Vergil, Ovid, Homer, the Skalds, and all the poetry of China, Japan, ancient India, and so many other beautiful traditions.

  5. Amy Foreman

    Your final line, sir: “To celebrate death’s death upon a tree” is poetic genius–potent and inspired.

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Well, I think we have to be more flexible about this, Mr. MacKenzie. Mr. Thompson is basically restating something that James Sale said here on another thread — namely, that one can enjoy a poem and appreciate its beauty even if one doesn’t necessarily share the viewpoint of the poem’s author. Sale is not a Catholic, but he was deeply appreciative of your Sonnets for Christ the King. My review of your collection (due out in the next issue of TRINACRIA) is a review written by a fellow Catholic, and is just as deeply appreciative. I as a Catholic may have seen things in in your poems that Sale missed — but then again, I might miss certain things in a book of poems by a Quaker, or by a Buddhist, or a Shinto priest. And please don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not slipping into relativism or generalized indifferentism. I’m just saying that many people of all sort of backgrounds have written fine poetry, and we have to have a certain sympathy for the possibility that even one of our enemies might have been touched by the Muse. Can we refuse recognition of
    some of the brilliant poetry of Milton, even if he was a vociferous anti-Catholic?

    The Protestants in Shakespeare’s audience didn’t believe in Purgatory (it’s specifically repudiated in the 39 Articles of Anglicanism), but they could still understand and enjoy the play Hamlet, could they not? People who don’t believe in witches or witchcraft can still be thrilled and horrified by Macbeth. It’s a question of the willing suspension of disbelief.

    I agree with you completely about the need to “pursue scholarship to situate a poem historically.” Only fake postmodern pseudo-scholars reject that necessity in favor of purely tendentious contemporary reinterpretations of older poems. There are actually some feminist “scholars” who argue that Regan and Goneril are the real heroines of King Lear. We can all see how silly that line of thinking is. But we can’t just dismiss any poetry written by persons who do not share our worldview.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Oh yes, Dr. Salemi, I see your distinction now about enjoyment versus my notion of appreciation. For example, I enjoy Omar Khayyam, indeed, all kinds of poetry many of my colleagues would not expect me to enjoy. Although I do blush at my enjoyment of Victor Hugo.

  7. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Oh, if you only knew, dear Amy Foreman! The genius you speak of is really but the genius of the Redemption itself. Naked of talent, and poor, and groveling, I hold my parchment out at the foot of the Cross, that is all, absolutely nothing more, not even talent! The genius is all there—just look up!—for all of us to gather.

  8. Amy Foreman

    And I must agree with Joseph Charles MacKenzie that the greatest artistic creations of the ages have been executed by those who acknowledge their dependence on a far greater Creator.

    Transcendent art points to the interaction between humanity and Divinity, specifically realizing our particular place as created beings within the cosmos.

    We are not one with the cosmos–or our art becomes blurry and indistinct. We are not the Creator of the cosmos–or our art becomes arrogant and delusional. We are not the product of chance–or our art becomes two-dimensional and absurd. We are individual, unique, expressive creations placed specifically into the realm of time by an eternal, infinite Creator–and, within that framework, our art becomes an extension of His creative Hand, a diminution of the original Creation, a miniature of the Imago Dei.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      And please do not get me wrong, Mr. Thompson, as I understand where you are coming from.

      I fully understand the distinction between the kind of enjoyment you and Dr. Salemi are speaking of and my own predilections. I say enjoy! As for me, I never could stay at that level.

      It is simply that in my particular case—and I have no expectation of others following me in this—and in Donne’s at the end of his life, and Shakespeare’s in the Plays, and in Dante’s in his Comedia, there is absolutely no distinction between poetry and religion. I could say the same of Blake even though his religion is utterly false.

      One does not have to invoke the Inquisition (whose excellent work has been badly misrepresented by 500 years of propaganda) to understand that there is actually no distinction at all between St. Caedmon’s poetry and his religion, between St. Robert Southwell’s poetry and his religion, between Dante and his religion, bewteeen the Casket scene in Merchant of Venice and a perfect Catholic treatise on marriage.

      Some have argued that is was precisely because the Greeks made no distinction between their theatre and their religion that it possessed such enduring integrity.

      If you have time to engage in the kind of enjoyment of which you speak, my answer is: “Good for you!”

      For, me, personally, Shakespeare is an identifiable person about whom we know a great deal. Joseph Pearce and many others would disagree with you that we know “little” about him, on the contrary.

      We know, for example, that the property Shakespeare purchased at Blackfriars was used secretly for the Most holy Sacrifice of the Mass until the end of his life.

      And the idea that all interpretations of literature are categorically a mere reflection of the ideology of the interpreter is beyond cynical to me, given the many fine professors I have worked with in the past who have made substantial contributions to, say, Medieval Studies, without ever imposing their private judgements at all.

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        Respectfully, Sir, I must say that I was not talking about my “enjoyment” of great poetry, but rather of my assessment of it, the particular assessment in question being that of excellence. Again, I say this with the utmost respect, but I feel that I must say that to somehow find fault with the poetry of the Odyssey & the Iliad for believing in the Greek pantheon and not the Catholic pantheon is rather ridiculous. And to further assert that only poets who hold absolutely to the same ideological and religious principles as yourself can be said to be worth reading (or “worthy of God” or however you would phrase it) is also something I find shockingly incorrect. I say all this with the utmost respect, but do you really regard all poetry written by poets who don’t hold a strict Roman Catholic worldview as being somehow incapable of poetic greatness? Do you even view such poetry as being poetry?

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        I would like to thank Mr. Thompson for the opportunity to share the authentic Thomistic approach to poetry (indeed all the arts) by way of responding to his last questions. Respondeo:

        The divine purpose of art is to glorify God.

        The moral purpose of art is to inspire men to goodness.

        The metaphysical purpose of art is to place the intellect in a proportionate relation with things real.

        How, then, do I personally “assess” poetry? Why, “ad mentem Sancti Thomae,” of course! Poetry is more or less great in proportion as it fulfills its purpose.

        And this is truly Thomistic, because this is how we estimate the goodness of all things. The saint, for example, is one who fulfills the purpose of the human soul, which is perfect union with God.

        Do I expect all poets to know Sacred Doctrine or all poetry to be sacred poetry? Absolutely not! This would be foolish, just as Mr. Thompson suggests. It would also be doctrinally incorrect, as Divine and Catholic Faith is a gift whose origin is “ab externo.”


    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      I would like to quote this because it is how poets thought for many centuries, before the dismantling of the human mind taking place in the 16th century.

      “We are not one with the cosmos–or our art becomes blurry and indistinct. We are not the Creator of the cosmos–or our art becomes arrogant and delusional. We are not the product of chance–or our art becomes two-dimensional and absurd. We are individual, unique, expressive creations placed specifically into the realm of time by an eternal, infinite Creator–and, within that framework, our art becomes an extension of His creative Hand, a diminution of the original Creation, a miniature of the Imago Dei.” – Amy Foremam

  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    It’s true that Shakespeare was a Recusant Catholic, from a Catholic family. Recent scholarship leaves no doubt about that. But recall that Shakespeare, while placing some references to Catholic belief in his plays (as Mr. MacKenzie has pointed out), was nevertheless very chary about expressing his religion openly. In fact, he frequently avoids religious issues altogether — no doubt a sensible policy when living in an Elizabethan heresiarchy that executed Jesuits.

    But the larger question is this: must all poetry be religious poetry? Is that a moral requirement for the Roman Catholic poet? I don’t think so, although I have the deepest respect for the world-class quality of Mr. MacKenzie’s sonnets. And when we examine the work of English Catholic poets from the past, we see that this was certainly not the case for them. MacKenzie mentions Caedmon, Robert Southwell, and Dante. Yet these men were exceptions, specifically dedicated to a deeply religious life and perception, and their work is for that reason heavily weighted with devotion.

    Look at other Catholic poets, just as sincere in their faith and just as loyal to it. Look at Alexander Pope, at G. K. Chesterton, at Hilaire Belloc. Look at Ernest Dowson, Coventry Patmore, Lionel Johnson, and Francis Thompson. Was all of their poetry exclusively religious?

    Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” is one of the most significant and beautiful poems in all of English literature. And yet it is hardly Catholic — in fact, it works with a machinery of pagan spirits. Belloc’s satirical poems are not specifically Catholic at all, but simply bitingly sharp. Dowson has some perfectly lovely religious pieces, but others are dedicated to “the viol and the vine,” as well as being sensuously erotic in tone. In short, I just don’t see how we can say that a Catholic poet has to be an on-duty Catholic every time he picks up his pen. How does that differ in basic structure from the politically correct notion that a poet has to be a paragon of left-liberal progressivism whenever he writes?

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      It’s very true what you say, Dr. Salemi, and I do wish more clerics in the so-called “traditional movement” were able to discern this interesting fact: Not all the Catholic poets, however sincere and loyal in their faith, were always and everywhere exclusively religious in their output.

      And you rightly mention Shakespeare as one of these. St. Robert Southwell would be the first to agree with you because this latter had publicly admonished his illustrious cousin for his literally “cavalier” handling of the sonnets and other poems at the height of the sonnet vogue. This is in the preface of the holy martyr’s “St. Peter’s Complaint” in which Southwell makes precisely the case that I am making, albeit in less overtly Thomistic terms.

      I would add that there were many more Catholic poets whose works are exclusively religious than the grand exceptions. I also consider the great Latin hymnists as poets. (Hey, if Bob Dylan is a poet then surely we can admit Adam de Saint-Victor!)

      But how is it that good and loyal Catholic poets of great fame, were not always 100% Catholic in their output?

      My answer, again, can only be “ad mentem Sancti Thomae.” You might find it surprisingly simple:

      Not all Catholic poets are called to be exclusively religious in their works.

      At the height of Christendom, the poet was a cleric, or a monk, whose poetic vocation was discerned and approved by a superior. St. Caedmon fits this mold perfectly as did many, many others. Uomini religiosi for centuries were the stewards of the arts. But as the world became more mercantile, this stewardship is diffused outward, away from the monastery. We see, for example, Buonarroti explaining to the Pope that the taking of Minor Orders was not strictly necessary for either for his temporal or spiritual success. Yet, Ronsard, much later, died a cleric.

      And then those who were called were not necessarily called at the beginning of their lives.

      Corneille, for example, would be the type of the best Catholic poet, moral in his plays, pious and chaste even in the tone of his most non-religious works, but he would have to wait until one of his pièces offended his friend, the Chanclier Séguier, before he would turn to religion by way of penance. Few people these days know that the greatest body of French poetry ever produced, Corneille’s translation of Thomas à Kempis’s “Imitation of Christ” was actually a penance assigned to Corneille during his retreat at the Couvent de Nazareth.

      The Sonnets for Christ the King are also a penance assigned by a priest. In other words, they may not be able to be assessed in quite the same way as poetry produced under more usual circumstances or motivated by more usual considerations. It would take a man of great culture, indeed a Catholic, to perform this critical service.

      The reality is that good Catholic poets are, like the rest of us, works in progress. I hope our readers will keep in mind that the interior life—the attainment of those perfections that render a Catholic poet more and more indifferent to the world, more and more burning with the love of things divine—progresses in stages, or by fits and starts, or even regresses through sin and worldliness, barring, of course, a gratia gratis data, and this occurs more frequently than people suppose.


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