For Nantes Cathedral

Ravaged by Arson in July 2020, a Tribute 

This holy place, where the enthusiasm of builders was succeeded by doubt following catastrophe, then hope expressed in restoration, is it not the symbol of the Church of Christ, and of our own history? – 2015 cathedral brochure

Saint Clair, first bishop here, caused vast sensation
As Christ in clear, cured eyes of blind men shone;
The martyr youths, Donatian and Rogatian,
Spellbound the town with courage not their own.
Its civic heart was claimed, a place whereon
Saint Peter’s gate to heaven could rise anon,
When wood had been well structured to reveal
God’s Eden, and Saint Felix’ flock might kneel:
Terribilis, the blessing antiphon.

It tells the marvel of a consecration,
The awe surrounding the Almighty’s throne,
But terrifying was the devastation
Three centuries from then. A traitor lone,
Perfidious count, brought Northmen down upon
The church with fiery brands and Viking brawn;
Saint Gohard’s Mass became doom’s grave ordeal,
And charred though holy ground could scarce conceal
A hundred sixty years’ oblivion.

The year one thousand started fabrication
Of Europe’s cloak, cathedrals of white stone;
Her Val de Loire tuffeau formed Nantes’ oblation,
A sacred space on earth, in which alone
Mankind can breathe, and be an orison
Of chosen, living stones. True built thereon,
It brought the region’s pious commonweal
Through arches Romanesque, with stalwart feel.
New eras passed. “Too small,” said wise Duke John.

He laid a more magnificent foundation,
A Gothic fane that heavenward has grown.
Françoise d’Amboise nearby gave habitation
To Carmel’s nuns, the first the realm had known;
Good Breton Anne in marble wrought hereon
Her parents’ tomb beyond comparison;
In Pity’s chapel glowed Christ’s presence real,
A church’s corporal yet mystic seal;
Tones flowed from organ pipes in echelon.

Much revolutionary consternation
But strengthened many willing to atone
With works of art in fresh accumulation,
Though bombs marked Saint Anne’s apse a battle zone,
But Satan’s modernist phenomenon
Smashed faith as France became the Hexagon:
Confusion’s catechesis spread piecemeal;
Lost sheep and tourists knew its scant appeal;
The organs (angels’ voices) now are gone.

Bishop, no novelty but ancient zeal
Can sweep out sacrilege, and blindness heal.
Let missionary spirits hope for dawn:
Tradition’s faith, old Latin rites ideal,
The lex orandi here to sing, “Live on!”


Time Line

*Clair, first bishop of Nantes, lived in the 3rd century or earlier.
*Donatian and Rogatian, called “children of Nantes,” were martyred in 289.
*Nantes’ first cathedral, dedicated like succeeding ones to Saints Peter and Paul, was consecrated by Felix, bishop between 550 and 582.
*The introit antiphon Terribilis begins the traditional Roman Rite consecration of a church, quoting Genesis 28:17, “How terrible is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and gate of heaven.” According to Jungmann’s definitive study, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origin and Development (1948), this particular Roman ritual is “the old Gallican rite [used in France from the 4th to the 8th century], still retained in today’s Pontificale Romanum.”
*In 843, Viking raiders killed Bishop Gohard and many others at Mass, and burned the cathedral.
*The millennial year 1000 inspired construction of splendid churches in stone rather than wood, leading Raoul Glaber, a monk of Cluny, to write a famous passage about the world donning “a white mantle of churches.”
*Tuffeau is an extraordinarily fine limestone, with smooth and velvety texture more like a fabric than a mineral.
*In 1434, Duke John V of Brittany, finding the Romanesque cathedral too small for the city’s increased population, embarked on the building of a larger Gothic cathedral, not finished until 1891.
*Blessed Françoise d’Amboise (1427–1485), duchess consort of Brittany, established a Carmel at Vannes, and when widowed herself took the veil, becoming prioress at Nantes, where she is honored by a chapel in the cathedral.
*Duchess Anne of Brittany (1477–1514), last reigning ruler of that independent state, and Queen of France, commissioned a Renaissance masterpiece group of sculptures in Carrara marble to honor her parents. Anne’s features appear on a figure of the cardinal virtue, Prudence (sometimes incorrectly identified as Wisdom).
*The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Chapel of Our Lady of Pity.
*The grand organ was constructed in the 17th century. It survived the Revolution called French because a quick-witted organist suggested that it could be used for revolutionary ceremonies.
*Among the treasures acquired by Nantes Cathedral during the 20th century was a second organ, noteworthy as the largest choir organ in France.
*In 1944, a wartime air raid destroyed a portion of the cathedral, including a statue of Saint Anne, one of the patron saints of Brittany. The damaged area was restored over time, and a new statue placed in 1995.
*Following World War II, France’s borders were changed to a shape that fits neatly into a regular hexagon, and “the Hexagon” is a modern nickname for the country.
*Modernism, “synthesis of all heresies,” was condemned in the earlier 20th century, but later overpowered much Catholic teaching, leading to a drastic decline in Catholic practice. Since the introduction of a new liturgy, many parishes in France (and elsewhere) have been closed or combined with others for fewer services.
*In July 2020, a trusted church volunteer (who has repented) used the two Nantes Cathedral organs as tinder to start a conflagration that entirely destroyed the grand organ and the roof. The building will be unusable for years.
*Nantes was without a bishop when the fire took place, but in August 2020, a new bishop was appointed.
Lex orandi, lex credendi is a historic motto that means, “The law of praying is the law of believing.”



Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  

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23 Responses

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Leo. This is my first poem of such scope, and your first comment with the word “majestic” is a valued token of success.

  1. Peter Hartley

    I must admit I didn’t know of the destruction of Nantes Cathedral, and so recently too, but I have the lame excuse of self-isolation and the fact that I seldom have the TV on. This long and very informative narrative poem, is headed by fine photos of the west and east ends, outside and in, for which for once we can’t give Evan the credit. But it is authoritative too, having been written by somebody who knows infinitely more about the ancient and early mediaeval church than most. Isn’t it strange how a single word can set off long rambles in the imagination? I haven’t seen the word “fane” for a temple for many years but the first time was in 1966 in a book of poetry (my first) by an Aberdonian professor called James Beattie, bought for no other reason than that it was the same date as the Battle of Trafalgar. The timeline is a great help.

    • Margaret Coats

      I’m glad you appreciated “fane.” Poets do have some responsibility to keep poetic words in use as appropriate. And Evan does deserve credit for bringing out this historical poem that would run to boring length if I had versified the time line!

  2. Tom and Laurence Rimer

    This is a beautiful poem, encompassing not only the history of Nantes cathedral but, by extension, the whole history of the Christian church in Europe.That fact, in turn, makes the burning of this sacred space all the more poignant, a fact rendered here with great poetic skill.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Tom and Laurence, for doing the very valuable work of pre-publication reading. You and Bruce and a few others gave me pointers, and thereby demanded my time to develop the poem into what you kindly describe now.

  3. JamesA. Tweedie

    Margaret. I hope you share this poem with the cathedral and or the Bishop’s office with or without permission for them to use it (for fundraising, etc). No doubt there are many beyond theSCP who would find comfort and inspiration in your good words.

    • Margaret Coats

      Your suggestion shows your high opinion, thank you! On September 20, Bishop Laurent Percerou will take office in a formal ceremony on the open space before the cathedral, meaning that I have time to send him the gift by post, as well as referring to this publication.

  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, this insightful and admirable poem has immortalized the wonder of Nantes Cathedral. The accompanying pictures are an added treat. Thank you for preserving history in poetry so beautifully.

    Now for my funny story regarding your poem. I was most intrigued by the rhyme scheme as I couldn’t work it out. Some of the end rhymes confused me and appeared wrong. How could that be, I thought, when Margaret has an eagle eye for such detail? I asked Mike to read it aloud, and the problem came to light immediately. For example, in my London dialect, “shone” rhymes with “anon” not “own”. You can now see how confused I became with shone/whereon/anon/antiphon. The same occurred with “brawn”. For me, “brawn” rhymes with “mourn” not “upon”. Oh the dilemma. I am sure some of my poetry has caused much the same problem for American readers. Mike tries to help, but he speaks Texan… and when it comes to stressed and unstressed syllables… I’ve never been so confused in my life!

    On a serious note. I love the poem. I love the chosen form, and I love the fact that every day I learn something new.

  5. Margaret Coats

    Thanks, Susan, for your appreciative comments and for reminding me about pronunciation variations! The form is chant royal, in its earlier guise with an envoi but without a refrain. The 9-line stanza and rhyme scheme ababccddc come from an example by Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), an authority on chant royal because he wrote at least 120 of them, with great variety in this supposedly fixed form. I am glad it is able to convey some of the wonders at Nantes.

    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Margaret, having educated myself on the origin and nature of the Chant Royal, which was the most intricate form in Northern France during the 1400s, I can now appreciate how apt it is for your poem. I admire the thought behind this shining tribute and echo Mr. Tweedie’s suggestion. This poem appeals on many levels and begs for a wider audience – very well done, indeed.

  6. Jeff Eardley

    Margaret, thank you so much for this excellent piece which brought back memories of our visit to this wonderful building two years ago. We had, on that trip, been enthralled earlier by the huge, mechanical, steam belching elephant that trundles around the Island of Machines in Nantes. The Cathedral was the perfect end to our day here and we were horrified by the news of the fire. Thank you for the history of this special place which we read with great interest.

  7. Sally Cook

    Dear Margaret —
    Any poem that rises to Heaven in imitation of a magnificent cathedral deserves my respect and admiration. Your scholarship makes it even better. Like Susan, the photos of that fantastic vision in stone enhance everything about the Nantes Cathedral.
    Thank you for writing this.

  8. Margaret Coats

    Jeff and Sally, I’m happy to know that the poem and pictures help readers share this sacred space, whether or not they’ve been there. I seem to remember everything better now, even those crazy creatures on the Isle of Machines in the Loire.

  9. Claude I. S. Weber

    Although it may seem unpolished, what I like about Ms. Coats’ poem are its depth, its sound, its length, its ground, and rich detail found within its strength; so much so, I was inspired to write a brief, prosaic poem for her.

    At Nantes Cathedral
    for Margaret Coats

    Two towers stretch up high above the terrace top at Nantes.
    It is so bright, so white, in heaven’s light—majestic vaunt.
    Late Gothic and Flamboyant, Romanesque, it rises up;
    its brilliant, tall facade amazes, and surprises us.
    How godly could its builders be whose lives were poor and mean.
    How could they make its hard, cold stone appear so pure and clean?
    The strong, foundation stone was laid, a song of praise to God
    by John V Duke of Brittany and Bishop Malestroit.
    Begun in 1434, it wasn’t finished till
    the year of 1891, with mighty love and skill.

    • Margaret Coats

      Claude, I see you did some research as well, to get the name of the bishop who began building the Gothic church along with Duke John V. In what I read, some stress was laid on the fact that Francoise d’Amboise (isn’t her name lovely?) was present at the laying of the foundation stone. She was, of course, just seven years old at the time, and thus merely one of the crowd whose future role at Nantes was yet unknown. Thank you for noticing as well the unknown workmen who helped give this beautiful place to future worshippers and visitors. And thank you for the honor of your poem.

  10. Claude I. S. Weber

    If I seem crude or rude; I am; mainly because I am human. I appreciate Wilde’s comment that we are all in the gutter, though some of us are looking at the stars. Be alert of that when I am making comments on your poetry.

    First off, I think all poetry (architecture, science, mathematics, music, etc.) is flawed. That does not mean that I think there is no good, or great poetry. I do. It’s just that, so aware of flaws within my own poetry, I see flaws everywhere else, as well. And I am critical of even the greatest of words and works.

    I don’t like the title “For Nantes Cathedral”; it seems odd to write a poem for a thing; but I can’t argue much against that, being plagued with titles as I am and so have been.

    But let me concentrate upon what I find promising about your poem. It is thoroughly researched, it is factual, it seeks important historical moments it strives with beauty, tragedy, etc. I know you (and others) will not see it as I do; but I feel you’re working to move beyond the poetry of T. S. Eliot. In that I can embrace your work, as a fellow pioneer and artist. I hope you aren’t offended, when I say your poem’s a failure, as I consider my attempts as well, including my recent response to the “Four Quartets”, “Coronal”.

    As I pointed out to you in our discussion on the bilding, I am ever seeking a line I can be satisfied with. To lean upon the ballad as I have done seems very odd to me, and yet, what else can I do, so tired as I am of short lines, like the iambic pentameter? [At least Shakespeare made it visionary and Milton made it strong.]

    I also liked your notes; though there too they could be improved. I’m ever working on my prose, here even as my vision’s going. I think my tennos nice and neat; but you tried so much more in “For Nantes Cathedral.” If it were polished verbally and metrically it could rival the musicality of Tennyson.

    I too did pause at the loveliness of “Francoise d’Amboise”.

    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Rude as Ice Blew
      in the voice of Crude Bi-Weasel

      I am a son of Adam so you must excuse my sin,
      My flair for condescension is attributed to him.
      When I utter from the gutter don’t look up at the stars;
      You’ll never find the ugly truth on Venus or on Mars.
      I’m here to tell you that your worth resides down here on earth;
      My odes have flaws and so do yours – that’s why my praise is dearth.
      You lack a lick of polish on your stanzas and your prose;
      Just buff your stuff and it will snuff out all the best of Poe’s.
      Your work’s a fault-filled failure and I say this for my good –
      I’m cursed with spite, if I can’t write no other sucker should.

      • Margaret Coats

        Thank you, Susan! I’m surprised and pleased to find others still listening. It seems that someone else considered the coast clear for an opposing vote under the same name. I see potential for ballot harvesting here!

    • Margaret Coats

      Claude, I am not surprised that you find flaws everywhere, as we live in a fallen world. I am surprised that, believing my poem to be a failure, you can point only to one specific fault concerning the title, namely that I wrote a poem for a thing. This is worth examining. Let’s read. The epigraph calls the cathedral a holy place and a symbol of Christ’s Church and of Nantes’ history. This gives it a meaning spanning time and eternity. In the first stanza, I imagine that the first cathedral was “well structured to reveal God’s Eden,” thus satisfying what one anthropologist has called a “nostalgia for Paradise.” In the second, I call the burned site “charred though holy ground,” suggesting that the desecrated space was nonetheless
      further consecrated by the blood of those who died on June 24, 843. In the third, I say that the Romanesque cathedral offered the city “a sacred space on earth, in which alone/Mankind can breathe.” A church may not always be necessary for worship, but most human cultures have found or built sacred spaces, reflecting a desire to transcend the flawed human condition by means natural and material. Sacred spaces help fulfill a desire to live at the center of reality, through a sacramental economy, like that of human nature itself, incomplete without both body and soul. In our time, this desire is often not recognized, or it is opposed. Materialists value things only, and fail to achieve their goals because their aims never satisfy the human spirit. Others overspiritualize human desires, leaving no place for any contribution by the world or the body to their fulfillment. A sacramental economy, though, can manifest holiness of universal value, sanctifying life without allowing elemental forces to run wild, and fully empowering the spirit without denying the real conditions of human existence. God sets His own bodily seal on earthly sacred space in a Catholic church, with the reservation of His real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. This is how I write “for” Nantes Cathedral, in favor of its present manifestation of sacred space, and with hope for its future restoration.

  11. Wic E. Ruse Blade

    To Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Hooray—another tennos! and though awkwardly arrayed,
    I’m thankful for the picture of the person that’s portrayed!
    Its voice is entertaining, laughable, filled with elan,
    much like the very understated essence of the man!
    I am reminded of the words of Aristophanes
    on figures as diverse as Aeschylus and Sophocles.
    Forsooth, the tennos is a vehicle for comedy,
    spot on, it seems, for British wit or Texan drama queen.
    High standards often come off as disdain to those who pose
    as social justice arbiters of poetry and prose.

    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Wic E. Ruse Blade, thank you for replying in tennos form. In spite of the glitches in meter and clunky rhymes, I romped along with you all the way to the perspicacious closing couplet. I’m thrilled you recognize your contentious alter ego as a “social justice arbiter of poetry and prose.” Bravo!

  12. Claude I. S. Weber

    The only reason I dared to write what I wrote to you was because you have been the only person (other than Burks! around 1980) to have asked me about one of my poetic inventions—the bilding. Certainly writers like Wilbur, Gioia, and so many others—the names are legion, and include all other contributors to SCP, [Though I must admit, that the tennos has at least seen a lukewarm respose @ only SCP.

    Perhaps you will understand what I mean, if I draw your attention to a quote from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”. Perhaps not.

    “Trying to use words, and every attempt
    Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
    Because one has only learnt the better of words
    For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
    One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
    Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
    With shabby equipment always deteriorating
    In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
    Undisciplined squads of emotion.”

    Or if I point out, that at the end of his life, Vergil desired to dispose of his unfinished “Aeneid”.

    But if not, I shall assume that you, as nearly all of the contributors @ SCP, will continue in their unwarranted praise.

    There is perhaps one other way, you may understand what I am trying to say. Perhaps it is easier to see in a field, like mathematics. No mathematician encompasses all; and in that respect, even the greatest of mathematicians has flaws. [Though it is interesting to me that Mr. Mantyk will not publish any of the many poems of Euclidrew Base on mathematics and/or mathematicians, I still regard him as one of America’s finest editors.]


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