Poetry: Keble – Ash Wednesday

“Yes—deep within and deeper yet
   The rankling shaft of conscience hide,
Quick let the swelling eye forget
   The tears that in the heart abide.
Calm be the voice, the aspect bold,
   No shuddering pass o’er lip or brow,
For why should Innocence be told
   The pangs that guilty spirits bow?

“The loving eye that watches thine
   Close as the air that wraps thee round—
Why in thy sorrow should it pine,
   Since never of thy sin it found?
And wherefore should the heathen see
   What chains of darkness thee enslave,
And mocking say, ‘Lo, this is he
   Who owned a God that could not save’?”

Thus oft the mourner’s wayward heart
   Tempts him to hide his grief and die,
Too feeble for Confession’s smart,
   Too proud to bear a pitying eye;
How sweet, in that dark hour, to fall
   On bosoms waiting to receive
Our sighs, and gently whisper all!
   They love us—will not God forgive?

Else let us keep our fast within,
   Till Heaven and we are quite alone,
Then let the grief, the shame, the sin,
   Before the mercy-seat be thrown.
Between the porch and altar weep,
   Unworthy of the holiest place,
Yet hoping near the shrine to keep
   One lowly cell in sight of grace.

Nor fear lest sympathy should fail—
   Hast thou not seen, in night hours drear,
When racking thoughts the heart assail,
   The glimmering stars by turns appear,
And from the eternal house above
   With silent news of mercy steal?
So Angels pause on tasks of love,
   To look where sorrowing sinners kneel.

Or if no Angel pass that way,
   He who in secret sees, perchance
May bid His own heart-warming ray
   Toward thee stream with kindlier glance,
As when upon His drooping head
   His Father’s light was poured from Heaven,
What time, unsheltered and unfed,
   Far in the wild His steps were driven.

High thoughts were with Him in that hour,
   Untold, unspeakable on earth—
And who can stay the soaring power
   Of spirits weaned from worldly mirth,
While far beyond the sound of praise
   With upward eye they float serene,
And learn to bear their Saviour’s blaze
   When Judgment shall undraw the screen?

A friend of mine recently introduced me to a collection of poems by Rev. John Keble for the church year. In all honesty, I hadn’t heard of this person or his poems before, but I like to find new works! I have barely scratched the surface of his collection. It is quite expansive, and each poem is carefully articulated, needing much time to digest. There are a variety of forms, but they all center on the church year, such as this one titled “Ash Wednesday.” This poem took me a couple of read-throughs to really grasp it, and even now I’m pretty sure I’m missing hidden gems in the text. I think this will be one that I will come back to over and over again and find something new and meaningful each time. But I am excited to share it with you. When you read this poem, read it slowly, making sure you have followed the correct sentence, noticed the right direction of the passage, and considered its poetic and scriptural context.

The first speaker is well-known to us all. It is our wayward heart tempting us to despair. Yet I think I read this poem a half dozen times before I realized that those first two stanzas, so familiar, were not to be embodied. Surely I should hide my anxieties and fear, lest God be ashamed of me and another mocks God’s love! But no. God’s loving eyes watch mine, and He has blotted out all my sin. He asks us to cast our sorrows on Him, not to hide our griefs and die without His aid. So we, with our grief, shame, and sin, turn to “Confession’s smart,” throwing down our burdens at the “mercy-seat,” and embrace the “bosoms waiting to receive/Our sighs.”

We are unworthy. Yet like that long-ago tax collector and sickly woman, we hope to get just close enough to be in sight of grace. And in this moment from despair to hope, “Angels pause…/To look where sorrowing sinners kneel.” But not only they, but He with “kindlier glance,” as like that day on Jordan’s shores and those forty days when His Son dwelt in the wilderness, looks upon us in care. We come and are forgiven.

In these few stanzas, we move from guilt and shame to confession and absolution. From despair to hope, fear to reassurance. And there, we move to Ash Wednesday. But the text ends us there, for it starts with us as we are always are before we come to confession and the table. Honestly, the beginning of this poem feels applicable to every week at church rather than preparing us for the forty days Jesus wandered in the wilderness. And yet, we come with washed faces to bear an ashen cross. We come this night as the start of a period of quiet, humble penitence. This fasting should not be done to show off our piety to fellow Christians but to be seen only by loving eyes from above. So we come with heavy but humble hearts to walk the days our Savior walked in grace and thankfulness, knowing that we need not hide or bear this weight alone. For we remember this night that we do so with the care of our Father in heaven.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

One thought on “Poetry: Keble – Ash Wednesday

  1. Karen K Werner

    I thought it was just me having to reread over and over. I was starting to think this was too deep for me to get anything from it but then further in I was getting more and more of it. Maybe I just needed to get used to the style of writing. I love the picture I imagine at “throwing my burdens between the porch and alter.” Throwing my burdens intrigues me for some reason. I agree this command should be considered every week. KW

    Liked by 1 person

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