This evening of your festive day I pray
_Oh Agnes, little model of the pure,
_Oh girl with smiling eyes, and faith so sure:
They won for you the martyr’s palm this day.
For neither threat nor coaxing in the fray
_Of that heroic battle was to lure
_You to a wedding couch or a life obscure
Within a strangers arms… Better, away

Oh little lamb of white, to run and play
_Within the fields of heaven and the spring
__Of all that simple smiles has this age surprised
With innocence; and waken to the day
_That only eternity can see and sing,
__And flee into the arms of Jesus Christ.

 

Fr. Bruce Wren, born in 1962 in the small town of Cottonwood, Idaho, current serves as Chaplain of the Chicago Chapter of the Lumen Institute, Section Director to the Chicago Regnum Christi Men’s section, chaplain to the Catholic Professionals of Illinois, spiritual director for many religious and lay people, and helps regularly at several parishes in the Chicago Diocese. He also devotes regular time to the feminine congregations of the Missionaries of Charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Rosary Hill Dominican Sisters. He has published one book of poetry, “Fending off the Dragon Fire”, available at Amazon.


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26 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    How beautiful is this!

    Thank you, Father Bruce, for a simply charming way to start the day!

    Reply
  2. James Sale

    Thanks Bruce. This sonnet has a lovely, lilting simplicity about it which is very beguiling. The ‘strangers arms’ in the octave turning to Christ’s in the sestet is a nice turn indeed (and just for the purposes of perfection: you obviously have simply overlooked the apostrophe for strangers arms, as you have it for the ‘martyr’s palm’). I like this very much indeed. Well done.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Mr. Wren,

      You should not be embarrassed in the least, but complimented: James Sale is a recognized reviewer who also happens to be a feature writer for one of my favorite news venues, The Epoch Times.

      While Mr. Sale and I diverge in a number of ways and do not agree on everything, Mr. Sale happens to know a thing or two about lyric poetry, as we see in his delightful collection “The Lyre Speaks True”—the work of a man who came into poetry in his maturity. Sale has also published several interesting essays on poetry which manifest years and years of serious thought on the matter.

      The fact that Mr. Sale enjoys your sonnet shows that it appeals even to non-Catholics, even as Mr. Sale’s first collection is easily be enjoyed by everyone.

      Mr. Sale’s cultural breadth also includes a profound engagement with Dante. Even if we are free to question the fruits of that engagement, one of the great problems with the traditional poetry movement today is a lack of serious engagement with the lofty truths the great masters.

      Salemi, Sale, Yankevich, yourself certainly, we all of us worked in our separate worlds, at slightly different times, within what I call the Ars Poetica Nova, each in his unique way through very different realms of experience.

      And this is why Jame Sale’s name is placed right next to yours in the preface of my book.

      Reply
      • Bruce E. Wren

        Thank you, Joseph. Ah, Dante! I am currently rereading the Commedia, and meditating on it: surely one of the greatest literary works of all time. It has taught me many things over the years.

        I can only thank you for your encouraging words. If it were not that once we knew each other, many years ago, and thus I accustomed myself to your wit and friendship, I would be abashed by your erudition and praise. As it is, I simply count myself privileged to be on your list of admirers, and, hopefully, friends.

        I would go on, but “I have promises to keep…” and they press. God bless!

      • Charles Southerland

        Mr. Sale,

        If you believe a word that that guy just said, I’ve got some beachfront property in New Mexico to sell you. He even dares to place himself in the company of Dr. Salemi and Leo Yankevich. He has no publications anywhere to justify that false assertion. Geez…

      • James Sale

        Dear Mr Southerland,
        Thank you for your comments. I can only speak personally, but of course I do not put myself in the category of Joseph Salemi and Leo Yankevich. My review of Joseph Salemi’s three books on these website pages should more than prove just how highly I rate his poetry; he is one of the greats. The important thing is to discuss poetry qua poetry. Which leads me back to drawing attention to Bruce Wren’s lovely sonnet. To my English ears I have to say this is standard iambic pentameter with some expert variations. But I would not say you are wrong in asserting tetrameters in this case. It may simply be a pronunciation issue. You are from the Southern States, which certainly emphasise certain words differently. Take the word Oregano for example. To my English ear this is OR-e-GAN-o: basically a two foot trochee, with the second foot slightly more emphasised than the first. But whenever I hear Americans pronounce this, I hear: or-REG-gan-o, which I consider to be one iamb followed by a spondee. Given that Bruce is in the North and you the South, does the metrical conundrum come down to this? All the best and looking forward to more poetry from you.

      • Charles Southerland

        Dear Mr. Sale-

        Thank you for your response. The offending comment was not of your making, which makes you blameless, an innocent. The idea that: “we all of us worked in our own separate worlds”, was his attempt to appropriate fame for himself where none had been earned. To grovel at your feet was merely a device to wriggle his way into esteemed company. It is not the first time he’s tried it. He has made it an art form on these pages, one way or another. You must remember “Catholic Mom” from another thread that’s since been deleted. Or K. Kyntale from an early appearance back in 2016. It’s all been a lurid self-promotion campaign at the expense of other honest people. He has used many other avatars for his benefit. One only has to ask why? if he were truly a legitimate poet of standing. It is trolling, plain and simple. Who does that if one seeks legitimacy? Who?

        Regarding Mr. Wren’s work; I have commented that his poem has good sentiment, and I stand by that. I agree that differences in dialect can sometimes distort the ear in a perfect way. I am a Southerner, but I certainly don’t speak like one. I have lived all over the western states and a few states east of the Mississippi. I lack nearly all accent. Whether one scans Mr. Wren’s work as IP or IT, the sentiment still remains what it is. It is a decent poem that could be made a little better, just like all poems. I believe that balanced critique benefits everyone. A one-sided jaundiced religious diatribe does no one any favors. Telling a person that they can’t understand fully one’s self-absorbed view/critique of a matter is not helpful. It is a grave error to listen to or read such sophistry, no matter how flattering of the poet it may be. It is crippling, in fact.

  3. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Bestselling author Robert E. Woods in his popular book, “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” shows how gifts such as modern science, free-market economic, art, music, and the idea of human rights all have their ultimate source in the Church’s irrevocable doctrine. Poetry is no different than these other gifts.

    Bruce Wren’s “Saint Agnes,” is a fine example of great Catholic poetry and can only be fully appreciated from a Catholic perspective. Note my adverb “fully.” For, this is not to say that others cannot appreciate the sheer beauty of this poem on one level or another because, as Mr. Tessitore suggests, it is indeed charming. But because the poem itself arises from that free illumination of the intellect which theologians call “fides divina et catholica,” the critic who does not possess a Catholic culture to the same degree as the author, would be at a complete loss to explore the poet’s own understanding of St. Agnes, to include her very special status in the Christian Church. As long as the “critique littéraire” has not been divorced from the question of authorial intention, my statement holds true.

    Take, for example, the sonnet’s second verse, “Oh Agnes, little model of the pure.” Already, this one verse is very densely packed with almost all the fundamentals of Christian doctrine concerning the veneration of St. Agnes, a veneration which began as early as the day of her martyrdom in 304 AD. Who shall unpack the package: someone who shares the poet’s illuminated understanding, or someone who is almost completely estranged from it?

    This point can be emphasized simply by looking into this verse’s three adjectives: “little,” “model,” and “pure.” The poet addresses St. Agnes as “little,” knowing that she was martyred at the age of 12. This littleness is also a feature of a sermon by St. Ambrose indicating how the saint’s wrists were too thin for the iron cuffs that were placed on them by the Roman guards, such that she was reduced to holding them awkwardly in place as they dragged her through the streets. Wren, because he is writing from contemplation, would have the entire picture of this event formed in his imagination.

    But we must also understand this adjective within a biographical context. Our amazing poet had spent a significant part of his clerical life in France and had doubtless made, as I have, the usual pilgrimage to Lisieux where, from her tubercular bed of sickness yet another devoted admirer of St. Agnes, Thérèse de Lisieux, set down her magnificent revelation of spiritual littleness, earning thereby the soubriquet of “the Little Flower.” It is the solemn responsibility of any critic approaching this poem, to state that St. Thérèse’s older sister, teacher, and mentor, Marie-Pauline, took the religious name of Agnes in the same Carmelite convent of Lisieux. How often, in their epistolary exchanges, do the sisters of St. Thérèse refer to their darling little one as a “lamb” which is precisely what “agnes” means in Latin! And lest anyone suppose that St. Thérèse does not hover above the littleness Wren as both poet and teacher is indicating here, we have simply to consider “Fending Off the Dragon Fire” in its totality. For, it also includes two superb pieces honoring St. Joan of Arc, written at Le Crotoy within a two-year span. Given that St. Joan’s French nickname is nothing other than “la Petite Pucelle,” we are back again to heroic littleness, only to return once more to St. Thérèse who, like Wren himself, was also devoted to the Maid of Orléans to the extent of producing poetry in her honor.

    But why would the true critic bring such things to light in the first place? Simply to state that the poet’s indicating St. Agnes’s littleness, by a kind of paradox arising from the fullness of the poet’s faith, at one and the same demonstrates her greatness. Here we enter the spiritual realm in which St. Agnes, to use the poet’s second adjective, is now a “model.”

    And so it gradually becomes more clear how the traditional critique of poetry proceeds. “Model” is no small word, as it goes directly to the reason for which the Christian Church has always venerated saints in the first place and, in many ways, the motive and impetus of the poet in producing this gem of devotion.

    Without my giving a complete examination, I believe the reader is able to grasp something of how the traditional critique functions, and how it has, by definition, the “analyse du text” as its foundation, a form which requires that every single word of a poem is accounted for fully. Whether the “analyse” is fleshed out or not in the final product or to what extent (which will depend on several external factors), it is the absolute responsibility of the critic to complete it as an initial exercise. Where it yields fruit and wonderment, there it is to appear in the final critique, allowing the reader to glean what treasures he chooses.

    Great poetry, poetry in the grand manner, which, in my mind—as I have stated many times—is nothing other than Catholic poetry, is always pregnant with galaxies of connotations, networks of associations—what our Catholic Baudelaire referred to as “les correspondances.” Such poetry arises from a religious, liturgical, moral, historical, and cultural richesse of long standing. The very function of criticism is to situate the poem within these considerations or he has accomplished little to nothing. If writing a review, these considerations must be always in the background to inform it.

    And to think! I haven’t even mentioned how the sacred pallia, worn by popes and those archbishops who are also metropolitans and primates, is woven from the wool of sheep that are raised by nuns of the convent of St. Agnes, and how these nuns, on the feast of St. Agnes, solemnly present the lambs whose wool is destined for the making of said vestments, at the altar. This would be my lead-in to the third adjective of the second verse, “pure,” as the wool of the pallia symbolizes not only the purity of Holy Church but also the purity of Christ and his Most Blessed Mother, a purity proposed to her faithful for their perfection, yet another ascetic-mystical fundament which Bruce Edward Wren, in his other vocational functions, has doubtless taught many times.

    Wren’s “Saint Agnes” is a cohesive unity serving its propaedeutic function to perfection. Its parts are interwoven, like the wool of the unblemished lamb is the very symbol of the poet’s subject.

    Obviously, I have spent a great deal of time in the Wren’s verses and sincerely hope that readers everywhere will enjoy “Fending Off the Dragon Fire” which is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Fending-off-Dragon-Fire-Selected/dp/151213144X

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Distinguo:

      My post (supra) refers to criticism, its forms, and techniques, as criticism in se, id est sensu stricto, as opposed to ordinary reviews or social commentary.

      If I am alluding, sotovoce, to anyone at all, it is none other than Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the modern founder of the “critique littéraire” who was most vociferous in promoting the idea that the literary critic must possess as much as the poet whose works he undertakes to present and, if not, must then labor to acquire through the most rigorous and thorough research what is lacking.

      Reply
    • Charles Southerland

      Your critique focuses on lambs when it should focus on iambs. Metrics are a crucial feature at The Society of Classical Poets, which seems to have escaped your notice. A critique without meter is no critique at all.

      Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    Mr. McKenzie, Your analysis (a la “critique littéraire”) of Mr. Wren’s beautiful poem is tautological, insofar as what you write is exactly what you are writing about. It is, in fact, propaedeutic in the fullest, positive sense of that marvelous word (a word, by the way, I had never seen before and had to look up to get its proper meaning). Your commentary has, for me, at least, made the poem even more interesting, rich, and vibrant than it was on my first reading. The words, “elucidating” “enlightening” and “illuminating” come to mind, each of which derive from various forms of the word, “light,” itself a word central to the the Christian faith and descriptive of both the poem and your response. I am grateful to you both . . . and edified.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Oh, Mr. Tweedie, it’s all there in Wren’s collection! Its very fine and classic, the tone is really lovely throughout, and very personal as well—even and consistent and enduring, that sort of thing. Such a pleasure to pick up this book, each and every time!

      My apologies for droning on and on about the literary critique, but Mr. Mantyk so often speaks of a “new age” being initiated by the work of our best poets, so my point was simply that “academic” criticism must respond appropriately—so I tried to give a wee taste of what it might look like.

      Reply
  5. Monty

    I imagine that it was for one of the following two reasons – a/ He got so absorbed in writing his own soap-opera in reply.. b/ He was wearing green-tinted glasses – that the above commenter failed to notice the elementary diction-flaw in the following sentence from the above poem: ” . . . and the spring of all that simple smiles has this age surprised with innocence”. If that, as he proclaims, is a “fine example of great catholic poetry”, then his further claim – that it “can only be fully appreciated from a catholic perspective” – may well be true!

    The sentence in question would make more (not total, but more) sense if the word ‘that’ was replaced with ‘those’. And in line 8: the comma should be after the word ‘away’.. not ‘better’. Other than that, I was on my way to concluding that it was a fairly well-written piece until I got to the very last line; and noticed the attempted union of the words ‘christ’ and ‘surprised’ . . and that was it for me.

    One would surmise that in the confines of a room, surrounded by real, live human-beings, the same commenter would decline to utter the childishly-absurd claim that “great poetry is nothing other than catholic poetry”; in fear of the obvious and meritorious ridicule, even pity, that would be directed his way . . . but oh, for the internet; the bravery of being out of range.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      We don’t hear from you nearly enough, but when we do, we realize that it’s well worth the wait.

      You’ve got me laughing out loud.

      “but oh, for the internet; the bravery of being out of range” indeed!

      Reply
    • Bruce E. Wren

      Monty, I agree that the line “the spring / __Of all that simple smiles has this age surprised” is awkward and probably only works in my own mind. I should have reworked it.

      Reply
  6. Charles Southerland

    The poem has a nice sentiment to it. To be fairly critical of it though, it must be approached with an metric eye.

    Some lines appear to be trimeter, others, tetrameter. I think, clearly, Mr. Wren meant it to be iambic pentameter. One can argue with promotion of stress in certain lines, and with substitutions in others. So, at the risk of being labeled “anti-catholic”, perhaps a better critic than I should deconstruct or reconstruct the ambiguous lines presented in the poem. There are other issues, as Monty has pointed out that could be resolved fairly easily, although the last line is a stinker when trying to rhyme “surprised” with “Christ”. My brothers; that is a bridge too far.

    On another note: I would re-write this poem as a Spenserian sonnet, God knows that it calls out for it and could far better hold up under scrutiny, giving the poem a fair chance at a closing couplet that removes the error of the not-so-near rhyme.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Charles, here I only wish to comment on your criticism of the final rhyme, leaving the analysis of literary criticism to others who know more about this than I ever will (or hope to).

      I have found, over the years, that pairing voiced and unvoiced consonants (b/p, d/t, v/f, g/k, z/s, etc.) in a rhyme regularly yields a near-perfect rhyme.
      For example: grieve/brief, hidden/mitten, please/release. In this case, Wren has doubled up, employing both the z/s & the d/t similarities to bring the rhyme home. A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but very inventive, in my opinion. And I approve.

      Reply
      • Charles Southerland

        Kip-

        I would normally agree with you on this, but not this time, in light of the writer’s intent. I am not a perfectionist, by any stretch, but the writer’s intent is clear and established with perfect rhymes in his Petrarchan octet. He also establishes perfect rhyme in the first five lines ( ‘surprised’ remains to be paired) of the sestet. This is a fundamental flaw and egregious. The writer set the the rule and expects the reader to gloss over the breaking of the rules he wrote by. It’s like feeding a person honeycomb and then slapping him for eating honeycomb.

        Furthermore: The Jesus Christ/surprise rhyme has additional issues.

        In L11, ‘age surprised’ is disconnected from any linkage to ‘Jesus Christ’ either in sound, lyrically speaking, or allusion. The writer, Mr. Wren, must have realized that there ain’t that many rhyme pairs either with Jesus ‘Christ’ or ‘surprised.’ He has to make a choice whether to re-write the lines, which is harder in a Petrarchan sonnet than say, a Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnet, or resolve the issue with a rhyme pair with a totally rhyme-driven solution which drags the poem further down, or settle for what he used, a slant/near rhyme which breaks his self-declared intention. All of the above are the worst possible scenarios. He would have been better off in the long run on a re-write. You can fault me for lots of things, Kip, but not my ear. My ear doesn’t lie. I ALWAYS re-write when I’ve put myself in that position. Always. There is no other way out of the dilemma, unless, of course, I run slant rhyme all the way, which is essentially the same thing as a re-write.

      • Joe Tessitore

        I think the Christ/surprised thing was indeed what Mr. MacKenzie was writing about – a Catholic thing.
        I’m sure we all noticed it (including Bruce), but by then the spirituality and charm of the poem was the major concern.

  7. Bruce Wren

    Thank you all for your careful reading of the poem. I certainly appreciate the praise from those who praised it… I am quite critical of my own work, and never know quite what to make of it, so encouraging words are always welcomed with gratitude by this amateur poet, who must eke out his writing among a thousand other responsibilities. On the other hand, I also appreciate honest criticism… I don’t think we learn much without it.

    That being said, a little “apologia pro opera mea”:

    I scan the poem as follows (so I don’t quite understand the “trimester or tetrameter” comment of Mr. Southerland): stressed syllables in capitals, unstressed in small case:

    This EVEning OF your FEStive DAY i PRAY
    _Oh AGnes, LITtle MOdel OF the PURE,
    _Oh GIRL with SMIling EYES, and FAITH so SURE:
    They WON for YOU the MARtyr’s PALM this DAY.
    For NEIther THREAT nor COAXing IN the FRAY
    _Of THAT herOic BATtle WAS to LURE
    _You TO a WEDding COUCH or a LIFE obSCURE
    WithIN a STRANgers ARMS… BETter, aWAY

    Oh LITtle LAMB of WHITE, to RUN and PLAY
    _WithIN the FIELDS of HEAven AND the SPRING
    __Of ALL that SIMple SMILES has this AGE surPRISED
    With INnoCENCE; and WAken TO the DAY
    _That ONly eTERNnitY can SEE and SING,
    __And FLEE inTO the ARMS of JEsus CHRIST.

    I think the iambic pentameter is sufficiently established to provide the basic rhythm, while the variations are, as in all iambic poetry, purposeful and (I had hoped) appropriate (for example, at the “volta” in line 8, where I purposely used a trochee before the last iamb, to underline the “turn”, the “fleeing away”, etc.). But perhaps my ear failed me. I do understand that many will not approve of my scansion, but I am quite sure that adding stress symbols “a la Hopkins” would be unbecoming in more ways than one.

    As for the last rhyme “surprised-Christ”, it is evidently not a perfect rhyme, nor was it meant to be, but I do agree with Mr. Anderson. In fact, the sudden appearance of a “slant rhyme” (if we want to call it that, or imperfect, or whatever you wish to name it) was also intentional, as it seemed to me that this appearance of a totally different kind of “bridegroom” for our little martyr could logically call for the appearance of a “break” in the rhyme scheme, just as the appearance of the supernatural in our lives often jars (fortunately) with our normal experience of the world as it rolls incessantly on its course.

    Salvo meliori iudicio!

    Again, I sincerely thank all who have commented on the poem.

    Reply
    • Charles Southerland

      L1. This EVE-n-ing of your Festive Day oh Agnes

      While I hate elisions, you should elide ‘evening’ in practice, not only aurally, but with regard to spelling. I scan the line as more naturally Tetrameter. I’m being a bit picky here but the reader can logically assume that you are ‘evening’ (‘the score’: for example) or you are ‘evening your festive day.’ You might also consider a comma after Day and another comma after pray. It helps the transition to the next line. Otherwise, the enjambment is left out there hanging all by itself.

      L2. oh AGnes, little MOdel of the PURE,

      This line scans as more naturally, trimeter. Yes, you can scan it tetrameter, pentameter or hexameter as well. The line is ambiguous.

      L3. Oh GIRL with SMILing EYES, and FAITH so SURE:

      This line is I.P. but oddly constructed even in a classical sense.
      It should read: ‘Oh girl with smiling eyes, so faithful, sure;’

      L4. They WON for YOU the MARtyr’s PALM this DAY.

      This line is I.P. but I would remove the period after day to enjamb naturally into the next line.

      To clear up “what day?,” I would insert an epitaph after the title so one who might not be a catholic would know what day it really is/was.

      L5. For NEIther FRET nor COAXing in the FRAY

      I scan the line as Tetrameter but “in” is a weak syllable to promote as a stress for I.P. It’s not all that uncommon to do it.

      L6. of THAT herOic BATTle was to LURE

      I scan it as tetrameter but it can scan as I.P. with the same reservations as the previous line.

      L7. you TO a WEDDing COUCH or a LIFE obSCURE

      This line can go a couple of different ways because the construction attempts to (but fails) mimic classical speech. Nearly everyone who tries to groggily go in and out of classical/neo/classical to modern speech fouls up their lines, somewhere, somehow. Why not stick with one or the other?

      The line scans (most probably) as I.P. if the first stress is on “you” followed by an anapest. It could also scan as six beats or seven beats or only four. Geez…

      L8. withIN a STRANGers ARMS, better aWAY,

      Another strong vote for strange construction.

      I would scan it tetrameter for sound and flow.

      L9. Oh LITTle LAMB of WHITE, to RUN and PLAY

      It scans as I.P.
      however, I would rewrite the line to read: Oh little lamb so white, go run and play

      L10. withIN the FIELDS of HEAven and the SPRING

      This line scans as Tetrameter but the line is really seriously tortured. I’d think about rewriting the entire line for sense because the next line is even more tortured.

      L11. of ALL that SIMple SMILES has this AGE surPRISED

      I can’t scan this line because it’s nonsense, pure nonsense.

      L12. with INNocence and WAKen to the DAY

      It scans as Trimeter naturally, but can be contorted to Tetrameter. Why though? What’s wrong with ‘wakened?’

      L13. that ONly eTERnity can SEE and SING,

      The line scans naturally as Tetrameter.
      Eternity, in context, can see what, and how does eternity sing? It’s a really nondescript word without an ounce of sense or power.

      L14. and FLEE inTO the ARMS of JEsus CHRIST.

      The line scans as I.P. most naturally.

      Dear Bruce, I too, am an amateur. I am puzzled though how you meant to construct the slant rhyme (which even pros hardly ever do) when there are so many other problems with the construction of the poem? You use words like: appropriate, purposeful, purposely, intentional, supernatural, logically and normal. The Bridegroom is for all believers, not only for a martyr. That aside, I am amazed at your aplomb with pairing the slant/near rhyme as an amateur. I could not not have done it. Kudos!

      Reply
      • Charles Southerland

        L1 should have ended: I pray (instead of oh Agnes…)

        Still scans Tetrameter though.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Perhaps you remember, Mr. Wren, one of the myriad proverbs you had to learn in the seminary, including the one that I think most applies to the “stulti” on this thread who don’t know a lick about meter—for all their puffy self-superiority:

      Tantum praecederet sapientia stultitiam quantum differt lux tenebris.

      And these guys wouldn’t even be able to read the inscription you placed at the head of your book!

      Reply
  8. Charles Southerland

    Monsieur Kyntale, crétin-clown- Mon ami’, I can’t help but giggle. Oui?

    Reply

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