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(See an explanation on what Sibyls are here.)

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The Tyburtine Sibyl

The Tyburtine sibyl has the iconographic attribute of a hand, indicating her foreknowledge of insults suffered by Jesus.

Not from my heart’s imaginings do I
(A Sabine woman of the waterfall
Crashing at Tivoli as a crazed cascade)
Envision hands upraised to horrify
The world, for haughty handslaps vilify
Creation’s Emperor, and thus appall
The universe to wamble retrograde
While slaves abhorrent smite the Lord of all,
Spit in His face, and taunt Him, “Prophesy!
Who strikes you in this hateful high priest’s hall?”
I say, “Christ’s Holy Face is bruised and flayed,
His Church disfigured by her shepherds strayed.
Let fly the Golden Arrow to forestall
Harsh vengeance from the hand of God on high.”

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wamble: move unsteadily as if nauseous
Golden Arrow: prayer of reparation dictated by Jesus to Carmelite visionary Marie de Saint-Pierre

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The Egyptian Sibyl

“Scourges and doctrine are wisdom at all times.” —Ecclesiasticus 20:6

The Egyptian sibyl’s attribute is the scourge, sometimes along with the crown of thorns. Through faith and obedience to God’s commands, Joshua’s people with piercing horns brought about destruction of the fortified pagan city of Jericho.

He will be handed over by the traitor,
And mocked and scourged and crowned with thorns before
He dies and rises as our vindicator;
I hear this in His own prophetic lore.
Let me, Egyptian Agrippina, roar
Within my heart His valor to attack
Hell’s demons and their allied carnal corps,
Forewarning that His faithful must take back
The discipline and armor they now lack.
Entrusted with the scourge and crown of thorns,
I see stupendous force against them hurled
In war that calls for Joshua’s piercing horns.
Scourges and doctrine wisely thrash the world
When stalwart troops advance with martial flags unfurled.

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The Hellespontine Sibyl

Bleak agony—the Cross—is mine to speak.
Laid on Him, taken up, He bears our own,
Meek Man who represents a race too weak
To battle for beatitude unknown.
“Come down,” howl enemies, “and claim your throne,
O King of Jews!” The scurrile guards straightway
Hoist gall and vinegar; His thirst has grown
For souls! A few stand near in stark dismay.
I too, among them, cannot think or pray,
But sense His act renewed at every shrine,
The solemn darkness for three hours midday,
Tree hung with bread-to-be, and dripping wine,
The greatest Tree, to which birds of the air
For shelter, shade, and nurture all repair.

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scurrile: scurrilous, coarsely abusive

The sibyl’s vision of the Cross Tree alludes to the baker hanged by Pharaoh in Genesis 40:19, and to Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed, from which the greatest of trees grows. It identifies the Cross Tree with the Kingdom of God and the Church providing the Holy Eucharist.

Note on the forms of the sonnets: Each sibyl (in this group and in the poet’s other sibylline sonnets) speaks through her own kind of sonnet. The Tyburtine sibyl uses a sonnet of only three rhyme sounds, rather than the usual four, five, or seven. The Hellespontine sibyl employs a Spenserian sonnet, and the Egyptian sibyl uses the first sonnet form known to have been used by an American author, David Humphreys, who composed his first sonnet in 1776. The American form seems to be a variation on the Spenserian, and it concludes with a hexameter line.

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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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36 Responses

  1. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, thank you for each of these intriguing and meaningful sonnets! Thank you as well for your explanatory notes – especially those which clarify the sonnet forms for each (I certainly would have inquired if you hadn’t preemptively done so!) Your use of different sonnet forms skillfully imbues each of the sibyls with her own unique personality and vision.

    The Tyburtine is a most clever poem in its use of only three sounds – a subtle homage to the Trinity, perhaps? There are terrible images of Christ humiliated and his face bruised and flayed. The Passion is there in all its pathos, but there’s more – I infer here a veiled railing against current church leadership which culminates in the description of “His Church disfigured by her shepherds strayed.” These are times in which that golden arrow would be most welcome.

    I also hear a modern message in the Egyptian (“allied carnal corps” is a wonderful phrase) for the faithful to take back discipline and armor to be ready for spiritual warfare. I think this is my favorite of the three sonnets because it challenges the reader to actually take action. I very much like your invocation of Joshua’s “piercing horns” a) because they are desperately needed now and b) because there is no small irony in having a pagan Egyptian sibyl reference Joshua who was, of course, a Hebrew enslaved by the Egyptians and later raised to be Moses’s general. That final line of hexameter to close the poem is a powerful amplifier of a call to arms which is accompanied by a nice right-left-right-left-right-left military march.

    The Hellespontine carries the most pathos of the three as well as the most direct meaning as we are brought forward in time. Not only are we are witnesses to Christ’s agony – we see its monumental significance both to those who are His contemporaries — the tormentors and “Meek Man,” the beneficiary, just as we see His agonized thirst for water pale in comparison to the glory in His thirst for souls. The poetic camera then pans from the Cross to those who bear witness and their sure knowledge that Christ’s sacrifice will transform into sacred rituals – the Eucharist – and that His sacrifice will actually carry great healing force – perhaps for the broken sparrow, but just as truly, for an entire broken world.

    In this set of poems we see Christ’s pain, we see how we are meant to react to it, and we finally see why. There’s a whole theology in this set, Margaret. These are magnificent. Well done indeed!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Many thanks, Brian, for your careful reading and perceptive comments. One advantage of taking the sibyls as speakers is that I can move from the historical events of the Passion to situations far in the future, since the sibyls were said to have thousand-year lifespans–and they could see even beyond that through the inspiration given them as prophetesses. Thus the first two poems here do speak of things I observe today, and the third goes beyond that to the eternal present we receive a taste of in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Our meditations in the present season of Passiontide should be informed by theology, so I thank you all the more for finding some in these works.

      There is a wealth of information online about the Golden Arrow and Holy Face devotions. Christ’s face in any age is the Church and her leaders, and it is always a tragedy when these fail to represent Him well. Prayers in reparation were revealed to Marie de Saint-Pierre (a sort of sibyl herself) in the 1840’s, but the best known Christian to practice and promote them was Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose full formal name as a nun was “Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face.”

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, jd. The Cross as the sheltering Tree is truly something to love!

      Reply
  2. Mia

    I feel very fortunate and humbled to be able to read these three sonnets.
    Although I am not able to give knowledgeable commentary I appreciate them very much. Your sonnets just dazzle with knowledge and ability as well as amazing faith. They have certainly helped me to try and put things in perspective. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Mia, I cherish your expression of appreciation. To know that my words can lend perspective to anyone who reads them is helpful and humbling to me as we go through these holy days together. Thank you!

      Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    All three sonnets show great complexity, both of poetic craft and religious reference. With Margaret’s other two Sibylline sonnets here at the SCP, they make up a kind of poetic “pentateuch” of pagan prophecy and Christian fulfillment.

    I’m happy to say that all three of these pieces will appear in the upcoming issue of TRINACRIA.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Joseph, for your favorable judgment of these pieces and for concurrent publication of them in TRINACRIA. Their tone owes something to your note on the three poems having to do with religion that you published here at SCP on January 20. As I was composing this group of sonnets, I could not help but keep in mind your idea that religious poetry in our times demands something other than “the mild-mannered resignation, irenicism, and wistful dreaming that are content with silence and acquiescence.” The sibyls are strong speakers by the nature of their gifts and vocation, but they became still more forceful.

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, firstly thank you for taking the trouble to provide us with the knowledge to appreciate these beautifully crafted and impacting “Sibylline Sonnets for Passiontide” to the full.

    Upon reading them the words rose from the page as tangible scenes that touched my heart with their message. I love the way the language rolls off the tongue with a smoothness that never detracts from the points. I especially like the terms: ‘wamble retrograde’ (thank you for the wonderful new word), ‘allied carnal corps’, and my favorite: ‘Tree hung with bread-to-be and dripping wine’ – a superlative linguistic nod to the sacrifice Jesus made for us and our homage to the magnitude of this awesome act.

    It’s been a privilege to read these poems. Margaret, thank you very much.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Susan, thank you! Your favorite line is mine, too. In the above picture by the Flemish painter Abraham Janssens, the sibyl seems to be right there at the Cross with John, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, but she is not a historical witness, and didn’t get there the same way as the others. I had to imagine what she saw. With her special broad perspectives, it turned out to be the crucified Jesus with a collage of associated images from Genesis and the Gospel parable to the foresight of the one-and-only sacrifice of the Eucharist constantly made present again in future churches. An overpowering vision! I am so glad you can see it, too.

      Reply
  5. Nicole Hofmans

    Margaret, thank you for sharing these beautiful sonnets! Not only was it educational to learn about Sibyls and their history, but it was also deeply moving. These pieces take the reader inward to reflect upon one’s faith and relationship with the divine.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Nicole. In general, we don’t hear much about the sibyls today, which is one reason I decided to bring them up again. I am glad the poems are able to provide inward reflection, especially at this holy season.

      Reply
    • Jonicis Bulalacao

      Thanks, Margaret, for these beautiful poems that greatly aid meditation on the Passion of our Lord for our spiritual nourishment.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        Thanks still more, Joni, for the deeply meditative music we couldn’t make without you.

    • Margaret Coats

      Happy to have some new poems suited to the season–and hope to see you as it proceeds!

      Reply
      • R M Moore

        You are welcome. Hope to see you, when I am able. The crucifix is in the Mother’s Chapel which also doubles as an Adoration Chapel…Fr D is greatly impressed and grateful to you. Please let Joni know of my gratitude for his Pie Jesu for JP.

      • Margaret Coats

        Of course. And thanks for your re-touching work as painter on the crucifix. I’m sure it is vibrantly renewed.

      • RM Moore

        Thank you, Margaret. Yes to an Easter pilgrimage..let me know. Now this is the goal: ”that I should go, and bring forth fruit, and that my fruit should remain…” John 15:16. Til that occurs, will remain in the desert.

      • Margaret Coats

        The destination has to be a holy place, like Chaucer’s Canterbury, and it’s good to go with a group as he did. A small group is enough, as at the Cross. There will be a fitting place and time in your domain.

  6. Shaun C. Duncan

    These are stunning, both in terms of the prosody and the depth of meaning. It is sadly rare to encounter modern religious art of any great profundity but your sibylline sonnets demand and will reward multiple close readings. Truly timeless art. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Shaun, for reading closely and taking an interest in the depths of these poems. There is, of course, great profundity in the subject matter, but to find a means of approach for so short a form as the sonnet, I have taken to studying the visual art of the sibyls. As a framer and printer yourself, I thought you might be interested to know how much spirit I find in some of the early (15th to 17th century) prints of the sibyls, even when the design or execution is not the finest. Paintings too offer inspiration, until the sibyl painting becomes merely an exotic secular portrait of a daring lady. I know you are right about modern religious art, and I think the reason is that artists strive more for contemporaneity than for deep spirituality in their presentation. Again, thank you for giving me encouragement in this aspect of my work.

      Reply
  7. Mike Bryant

    Margaret, these poems are beautifully wrought. Academically, of course, I’m out of my depth, but, as Mia said, your careful explanations make it easily understood. I love the lush language and the history.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Glad you like the poems and the history, Mike. You show what an aficionado of current events you are with the amazing amounts of information you supply to threads where it is needed. After keeping your eye on everything else, I’m very happy you took time to comment here!

      Reply
  8. Tom Rimer

    Three remarkable poems, differing in vocabulary and structure, but all created using a consistent elevated and elegiac tone that matches so well the powerful subject matter. As a reader, I find each a subject for profound and grateful personal meditation. Several of your responders have pointed out the special skills employed, both in poetic structure and in the plethora of intellectual references provided. But what comes forth to this reader at least is the strong unwavering emotional force of each. That urgency comes across so well, whatever intellectual equipment the can reader can bring, or not bring, to her or his reading of each of these poems.

    And thanks as well for introducing (to me, at least) the artist Abraham Janssens, who work I did not know. Googling his name brings forth dozens of striking images.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Tom. Considering the most important subject matter, I’m glad that I was able to give it a fitting emotional force from three somewhat different perspectives, and to do it in a way you find suitable for different kinds of readers.

      Abraham Janssens is a remarkable painter whom I did not know before searching for an illustration to suggest to our editor. You must have seen the “Agrippine Sibyl” attributed to him, for which an African woman was the actual model (he didn’t simply put darker skin on a Flemish face). He places both the crown of thorns and the scourge in her hands. Accordingly, I gave my Egyptian Sibyl both those iconographic attributes. I had been concerned at finding an Agrippine sibyl in my lists, because Agrippina is a feminine personal name, rather than a place name such as those by which most sibyls are known. Solved that difficulty by letting her be the Egyptian sibyl with the personal name of Agrippina. Some of the others have both place name and personal name, or even several alternate personal names.

      Reply
  9. Jim Hofmans

    Beatifully well done. Thank you for sharing, keep up the good work.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      It takes two to share, Jim, and I thank you for being one of them. Glad you liked the poems.

      Reply
  10. Robert Hofmans

    Thank you for these wonderful sonnets, so timely for this Lenten season. Each one succeeds as a proclamation of the Eternal Power of Christ’s Passion and His crushing Victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil. Thank you, Margaret.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      You get it, Bob! Christ’s Passion is what empowers the Church Militant and assures victory over those foes, however long they may continue their losing tactics. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  11. Laura Deagon

    Admittedly my knowledge of poetry is poor, but this introduction by your sonnets truly drew me in. They are beautiful and conjured images of ancient times. I will return to read more of your works.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Laura. I know it took some study and meditation to absorb these, and I much appreciate the effort you made to read and to comment. Hope you will come back and look at other poems!

      Reply
  12. Yael

    Thank you for the Sibylline sequel Margaret! I waited until I had some quiet and unhurried moments to savor these, as I really enjoy the poetic as well as the historic and religious aspects of your Sibylline Sonnets. They are very engaging and provide a well-rounded and edifying reading experience which I appreciate.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Yael, for letting me know how you experience these works. I am most grateful for your time and thought. You inspire me to continue devoting a great deal of care to pieces like these, that deal with the most important subjects.

      Reply
  13. Phil Escandon

    JMJN

    Thank you, Margaret, for these well written and thought provoking sonnets. A few thoughts.

    I say, “Christ’s Holy Face is bruised and flayed,
    His Church disfigured by her shepherds strayed.
    Let fly the Golden Arrow to forestall
    Harsh vengeance from the hand of God on high.”

    Though it is both just and salutary to consider one’s owns sins as responsible for the pain Our Lord suffered when crowned with thorns and mocked, the perspective provided by these verses helps one to discern a more compete picture of His suffering.

    As the Church may be considered, in some sense, the “Face of Christ,” since it is in her outward hierarchical and doctrinal aspect that men see Christianity, and thus a reflection of Christ himself, it seems appropriate to consider here, particularly, how the perfidiousness and wickedness of the shepherds disfigure Christ’s serene and beautiful countenance, that is, the Church, to the eyes of onlookers. Her doctrines, rather than radiating grace and truth, seem to bow to the vicissitudes and selfish agendas as any mere human, and Her hierarchy, rather than being examples and ministers of that grace and truth, seem an even more perverse political body than others in bearing the semblance of a divine commission as if to shroud with indemnity it’s underhanded workings.

    “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh.” (Matt 18:6-7)

    But of the Church Our Lord also recounts that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Eventually her beauty will no longer be obscured by the sinfulness of men. To that end prayer and penance must be offered.

    It is nice that an illness is not named without also a remedy, as is found by reference to the Golden Arrow prayer, which is much in line with the spiritual militancy expressed in the following poem.

    In war that calls for Joshua’s piercing horns.
    Scourges and doctrine wisely thrash the world
    When stalwart troops advance with martial flags unfurled.

    Ii is good that both faith and fervent works are mentioned here. Much can be said about the spiritual combat a Christian must constantly wage vis-à-vis his own soul. For this, constant prayer, good works, and humble dependence upon God is necessary. Though for the Christian, following the path of holiness and truth oneself is not sufficient; nor could one ever become truly holy just looking to oneself. Telling others about that path is also necessary. So we unfurl the shinning standard of the loving Savior of all and march forward for the sake of others, who themselves may end up being better and more faithful Christians, confident only in the Lord, who is with us, and who alone can gain the palm of victory.

    “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matt 19:20)

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Phil, for this profound comment with further explanation and Scriptural support for what my sonnets have said. The first four lines you quoted are perhaps my boldest leap in poetry. Our Lord himself said nothing in response to the demand that He “prophesy” in the high priest’s hall. In effect, I am putting words in his mouth by having the sibyl respond for Him. But she speaks in the third person, for sibyls do not claim to channel words of any deity. They tell what they have seen, and in her vision of Christ mocked and insulted, she sees the crime committed by men who hold positions of spiritual leadership. Insofar as a sibyl can be inspired by the true God (as Christian tradition has long accepted), she can see even farther into the history of Christianity to times when a failed hierarchy bruises the Holy Face as you explain.

      This makes the need for “discipline and armor” in the Church Militant all the more evident. Individuals must take responsibility for themselves, but again as you say, it is wrong to retreat into pious obscurantism and worldly weakness because leaders like Joshua seem to be lacking. I am still working on Eastertide sonnets, where I find the Resurrection demands militancy under the risen Christ’s command. Your final quote from the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel says so, too!

      Reply

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