An Uplifting “Descent”

 

An Uplifting “Descent”

By Andrew Lazo

In the summer of 2011, it fell to me to welcome the talented and award-winning singer / songwriter Steve Bell to the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute (aka “Oxbridge”). He’d just arrived from Canada; we met and decided to walk around Oxford. Over a pint, we discovered many mutual friends with the promise of meeting many more, a promise soon kept when he encountered the inimitable Malcolm Guite at the Bag End Café. For a number of years I’ve been privileged to host this open mic / poetry reading / ersatz talent show held each night of C. S. Lewis Foundation events.

During Oxbridge, Malcolm held forth in great glory at Bag End. Steve Bell relates how meeting and subsequently sharing time with Malcolm led to a number of songs on his brand new album, Keening for the Dawn. To my surprise and great pleasure, one of those new songs arose from one of my favorite of Malcolm’s poems, a little gem called “Descent.” I first heard that poem on Audioboo two Christmases ago and quickly committed it to memory.

Steve tells me that when he went to England last summer to record that poem as a song for his new record, he and Malcolm added some new verses. He also related to me that when he reads the expanded poem in concert before playing the song, people audibly gasp. So here’s the entire poem. The verses in italics constitute Malcolm’s original.

Descent (Song version)

They sought to soar into the skies

Those classic gods of high renown

For lofty pride aspires to rise

But you came down.

 

You dropped down from the mountains sheer

Forsook the eagle for the dove

The other Gods demanded fear

But you gave love

 

Where chiseled marble seemed to freeze

Their abstract and perfected form

Compassion brought you to your knees

Your blood was warm

 

They called for blood in sacrifice

Their victims on an altar bled

When no one else could pay the price

You died instead

 

They towered above our mortal plain,

Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,

Aloof from birth and death and pain,

But you were born.

 

Born to these burdens, borne by all

Born with us all ‘astride the grave’

Weak, to be with us when we fall,

And strong to save.

 

Now (to use Billy Collins’ phrase) let’s “drop a mouse into this poem” stanza by stanza:

 

They sought to soar into the skies

Those classic gods of high renown

For lofty pride aspires to rise

But you came down.

 

This first stanza establishes a key technique of the poem: the use of consonance, assonance, and alliteration. Notice all the “s” and long “ī” sounds, which sweep us up into the pantheon of those classic gods, lofty indeed and above us all. These techniques deftly serve to set up the last line of the stanza, enunciating an enormous contrast signaled by “But.” The vowels in the last line of the stanza have nothing to do with those above them; even this line’s position in the stanza itself, coming lowest, least, and last, conveys the humble meaning Malcolm infuses into the contrast of the classical gods with Christ.

“But you came down,” with its earthy English monosyllables, contrasts with the Latinate polysyllables such as “aspire” and “renown.” It also contrasts the distant third-person “They” and “those gods” with the staggering theological intimacy that arises from calling God “you.” In four simple syllables, Malcolm manages to embody the whole meaning of the verse.

 

You dropped down from the mountains sheer

Forsook the eagle for the dove

The other Gods demanded fear

But you gave love

 

Next we have a pattern from the original poem reproduced in this more recent verse as Malcolm and Steve repeat words from the previous line (“you” and “down”) in the first line of the next stanza. This pattern appears between three of the six stanzas, further indicating a unity belied by the few and simple words that make up the architecture of this wonderfully constructed poem.

The contrast of the eagle with the dove bears a bit of fleshing out, perhaps: the Roman eagle was the symbol of Jupiter and also a prophetic sign from Zeus. Indeed, the Eagle and Child pub, home to so much creative merriment, draws its name from the story of Zeus and Ganymede. In place of the war-like eagle from the imperious Jupiter, we have the dove, full of blessed and peaceful implications from Noah to Christ’s baptism, to our current cries for peace as once again the missiles fly. Again the sounds of the last line contrast with those that come before in the verse; Steve Bell’s plaintive singing of the line about fear perfectly captures the sense of the poetic comparison.

 

Where chiseled marble seemed to freeze

Their abstract and perfected form

Compassion brought you to your knees

Your blood was warm

 

While this stanza does not reproduce the word-link between stanzas as the first two do, it does introduce Malcolm’s redoubtable gift for puns, which also help to tie the poem together. They intensify the initial contrast between cold marble of the carved gods and Christ’s warm blood by the repeated technique of using the Latinate polysyllables “abstract,” “perfected,” and “compassion.” “Compassion,” as we shall see in the final verse, has more work to do, and Malcolm and Steve set up a brilliant comparison here.

But the big pun in this stanza comes at the end of its first line. When talking of the carved gods in marble, they contrast that freezing marble with Christ’s warm blood—but why “freezing”? Though I haven’t confirmed this with Malcolm, I’d bet good money that he intended us to think of a “frieze,” that part of a Greek or Roman temple where the gods are carved in bas-relief. The fact that cold and static gods made by hand would appear in a stanza that pictures a bleeding Christ on his knees (likely on the Via Dolorosa) seems to me a masterful stroke of lyric genius, full of meaning.

 

They called for blood in sacrifice

Their victims on an altar bled

When no one else could pay the price

You died instead

 

In this stanza, we return to the word-link between stanzas with the mention of “blood.” It also demonstrates a further progression of Christ down his painful path. I may be mistaken, but I cannot help but hear echoes of Malcolm’s magnificent and searing sonnets on the Stations of the Cross, links to which Holly Ordway has posted here.

In this stanza, as with the one previous, we find the contrast growing. The first two stanzas restrict the contrast to the last line, but with these stanzas about blood, the power of that contrast begins to dominate the poem more, much as the potency of Christ’s offering overwhelms the vague and ineffectual shadows of all previous sacrifice. The overwhelming superiority of Christ’s life and saving death overpower all of the anticipatory echoes of Christ’s offering that came before him in every faith and mythology. And so here too in this poetry.

And now we return to Malcolm’s original verses:

 

They towered above our mortal plain,

Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,

Aloof from birth and death and pain,

But you were born.

 

If the enormity of Christ’s death begins to dominate more lines in the middle two stanzas, the littleness of Christ’s birth seems to reduce the contrast between the classic gods and Christ once more to a single line. But does it? For by reminding us that those ineffectual and man-made gods did not experience “birth, and death, and pain,” the poem smuggles into this line the central and saving realities of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. And so perhaps we must credit also to Christ this third line. And I think we’re meant to, if by nothing else than by that lovely word “aloof,” which comes from Middle English, rather than Latin.

And here we have once again the lovely balance of sounds in the beginning of the stanza. Pay attention to how “tower” and “mortal” hold up the ends of the line with their “t”s as tent-poles, setting up the “s” and “t” sounds in the next line: “dismissed” “this” “restless” “flesh” and “scorn.” Notice too the nicety that the “t” in the middle of the second line, positioning itself in between the “t”s in the line above it. These little lines contain a subtle craftsmanship that might evade our first glance, but, upon examination, show such wisdom of language and meaning that the poem easily astounds those who listen closely to it. And “mortal” does more work in setting up the final stanza, reminding us as it does of the centrality of the theme of death in the poem.

 

Born to these burdens, borne by all

Born with us all ‘astride the grave’

Weak, to be with us when we fall,

And strong to save.

 

This final stanza, the only one completely devoted to Christ, subtly ties the whole of the poem together with such deftness and impacted meaning that it always makes me catch my breath. First, we have the alliterated “b” sounds that set up the pun of “born / borne.” Next, we have a deeply-embedded allusion in the phrase “born with us all.” Malcolm confirmed to me that, inasmuch as this verse talks of the birth of Christ, “to be with us” echoes Matthew 1:23, where the Evangelist, invoking Isaiah 7:14, calls Christ “Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’” (emphasis added). If my memory of a long-ago conversation with Malcolm serves, “‘astride the grave,’ refers to a quote from Lancelot Andrewes that Samuel Beckett picks up in Waiting for Godot.

And finally we have a subtle drawing together of the strings with Malcolm’s repeated use of “to be” verbs. Writers often eschew such verbs because of their weakness; indeed, they often give rise to the passive voice (e.g. “to be brought down”). Passivity in verb as well as in implication here reigns, because “passive” comes from passus, the past participle of patior, “to suffer.” Malcolm nodded knowingly when I asked him if he intended this language to imply Christ’s Passion, his permitting of terrible things “to be done” to him. And here we find the “compassion” that brought Christ to his knees from stanza three fully completed as he suffered and died. These uncharacteristic “to be”s, far from weakening the poem, point to the weakness of Christ in his suffering and death. And that weakness, that death, of course, makes him “strong to save” us all.

As T. S. Eliot explicitly states in “The Journey of the Magi,” Birth and Death go hand in hand when it comes to Christ. He came to be born, to suffer and to bleed, and to die for us all. This descent, this unfathomable divine condescension and coming down to die, might well light our dark nights as we journey again towards Advent. Certainly we can hope in the darkness of these days, even as we begin to wait once more for a Child to be born unto us, for a Son to be given.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “An Uplifting “Descent”

  1. Steve Bell says:

    Andrew – thanks so much for this. What a delight to read. But I must correct an impression I obviously mis-communicated. I had nothing to do with the added stanzas other than I encouraged Malcolm to come up with three more simply because the song would otherwise have been too short. Malcolm took the challenge with a wink and emerged shortly after from his writing lair with the extra stanzas. Simply astonishing really…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s