A Poet under the Mercy
Mercies: Collected Poems
By Sheldon Vanauken
Publisher: Christendom College Press (Front Royal VA 22630)
Pages: 61 pages
Price: $6.95 ($8 by mail order)
Review Author: James E. Person Jr
“While disliking…the title ‘Professor’ and…the title ‘Intellectual,’ I welcome the titles ‘writer’ and ‘poet,'” wrote Sheldon Vanauken several years ago, before retiring from his teaching post at Lynchburg College.
Today a writer and poet he is — with laurels to show for his labors. Vanauken is best known for his autobiographical and poetical work A Severe Mercy, which earned him the 1978 National Religious Book Award for Best Popular Book, the 1978 Gold Medallion Award of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and many other honors. The greatest of his honors, though, may be found in the changed lives of thousands of readers who have read that heartfelt book. Few, I believe, who read A Severe Mercy will come away without being strongly convicted of Reality and Mercy by the Spirit of the living God. “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems,'” wrote Vanauken’s friend C.S. Lewis in his own autobiography. “God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” The watchful dragons that guard the imagination are undone by such works as Lewis’s own Ransom trilogy and by Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy.
Reviewing the latter, William F. Rickenbacker wrote of the “piercing motifs of…this highly personal, irresistibly emotional, disturbingly objective account of a young man’s awesome liberation” from a pagan, solipsistic worldview into the Christian faith. These motifs, including questions as to how love is nurtured to endure, what it means to surrender all to Christ, and why the undeserving and pure of heart suffer unto death, are reflected in Vanauken’s Mercies: Collected Poems. Most of these poems first appeared in A Severe Mercy, its sequel Under the Mercy, and the novel Gateway to Heaven.
“Poetry is my first love, poetry in the Great Tradition, which means form,” Vanauken has written. Here then, in Mercies, are many poems reminiscent of Browning, Donne, and the early Charles Williams (among others) in style, tone, and theme. In addition, there is much similarity in thematic expression between the half-dozen “Oxford Sonnets” and the post-Waste Land work of T.S. Eliot.
The opening section of Mercies, “The Shining Barrier,” contains stirring poems of the insular High Pagan love the poet (Vanauken) and his wife, Jean (“Davy”), celebrated throughout their courtship and early married life. The love story of Davy and Van is familiar to readers of A Severe Mercy — as are the poems reprinted in this section. Of these poems, the short, exemplary “Maytime” speaks of a love that will bloom and continue to blossom in full-to-bursting beauty throughout the lovers’ lifetimes, “Until the lilacs close / Beneath the deathly snows.”
But, as C.S. Lewis later wrote in a letter to Vanauken, “Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You [twain] were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain.” And as evidenced in the poems collectively tided “The Oxford Sonnets” and “The Deathly Snows,” the beautiful but all too fragile Shining Barrier of their love was breached in time: breached not by jealousy or by any human interloper, but by Christ the Tiger. Like any good thing — and all good things are of God — set up and unintentionally molded into an idol, the Shining Barrier had to be surrendered, transformed, and redeemed: first by the lovers’ bowing to the Lordship of Christ and, later, by the insights vouchsafed by the Spirit and grasped by the poet after his wife’s death.
“The Oxford Sonnets,” then, are surprisingly mature meditations of a new Christian upon the meaning of the Incarnation and all it implies to the pilgrim. In “Our Lady of the Night,” Vanauken pleads with the Blessed Virgin to be near us “through the darkness, now / And at the awful hour of the dawn.” For truly, a cold coming we have of it, and accepting the new dispensation is hard, though we are “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien poeple clutching their gods,” as Eliot wrote in “Journey of the Magi.” The spirit of Eliot’s “East Coker” is present in Vanauken’s “The Sands.” Consider Eliot’s lines describing the work of the convicting and purging Holy Spirit in this world, “Wherein, if we do well, we shall / Die of the absolute paternal care / that will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere,” and compare them with Vanauken’s lines describing the human spirit in the grasp of the Tiger: “She twists and turns but finds it vain to flee, / The living Word is in the very air, / She can’t escape a wound that’s everywhere, / She can but stand or yield — to ecstasy.”
Upon reading Vanauken’s sonnets, Lewis wrote to the poet, saying, in part, “I think all the sonnets really good. ‘The Sands’ is v. good, indeed. So is ‘Advent,’ perhaps it is best. (L. 5 is a corker).” I will leave it to the reader of today to confirm or refute Lewis’s opinion, especially as it regards “Advent.” As for line 5 of that poem — “The chilling edge of night crawls round the earth” — Vanauken speaks here of the generations born without, indifferent to, or hostile to the life-giving Son of God, crucifying Him afresh daily — before their own brief days are done and they are themselves whirled in fractured atoms beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear. “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark….”
Ah, but there’s Eliot again, and in taking leave of him now it may be truly said that anyone wishing to understand better his “Ariel Poems” may quite profitably turn to Vanauken’s more accessible (but by no means facile) “Oxford Sonnets.”
Among the autumnal poems included under “The Deathly Snows,” the hopeful “Song of Two Lovers” stands out. Written during Davy’s final illness, the “Song” expresses with wistful tenderness that “to dream can be to pray”: in this case, to dream of the simple and good memories and hopes of life which are never lost to the godly. (For all find what they truly seek and adore, says Aslan, in the last of Lewis’s Narnian chronicles.)
The section “The Desperate Glory” contains poems written in the persona of Mary Vallance, the heroine of Gateway to Heaven. The feminine voice in these poems is hauntingly authentic, testifying to the depth of Vanauken’s co-inherence with Davy — the co-inherence of lovers who have become one in flesh and spirit. Particularly moving here is “Nocturne,” which captures exquisitely the quiet, tearful, and fleeting yearnings of a young woman for a child to be born of her body and nourished at her breast.
“The Blue-Jeaned Brigadiers” comes next. These seven poems of the 1960s reflect, for the most part, Vanauken’s immersion in the Zeitgeist of the peace movement, with a (happily) brief foray into the world of psychedelia. “Portal,” written immediately after an LSD trip, is rich in psychedelic imagery, standing up with the best of, say, John Lennon’s free-associating poetry. It is a troubling poem to read, though, for it is disheartening even to think of Vanauken’s keen mind stupefied by dope.
The final section of Mercies is a mixture of limericks, poetic sketches, and short odes. Vanauken assails with-it, milk-and-water clerics in “The Shepherds’ Reformation” and salutes his famous mentor (himself the scourge of renegade “shepherds” in his own day) in “C.S. Lewis.”
To whom will Mercies appeal? Certainly not to those who claim to enjoy the jumble of fragmented, self-consciously obscure material that clutters literary magazines today in the name of poetic expression. (“I think the people wonder whether the abstract painter could paint a cow and whether the versifier in what appears to be chopped prose could write a sonnet. [I know I do],” Vanauken has written.) No, it will appeal to those who prefer poetry that pleases as it addresses the eternal questions and universal concerns; mature poetry written in the Great Tradition of English verse, varying in form while rhyming, scanning, and tastefully employing poetic diction. Poetry to read and, with the passage of time, reread in moments of contemplation and quiet. To those who enjoy such poetry, to those who are seeking, and to those who are already on the road of Christian pilgrimage, Mercies is highly recommended.
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What willed and wild imagining was born
Williams knew how bored, self-centered, and self-indulgent the rich can be, and how desperately confused, vulnerable, and self-lacerating the poor often are.
And are we still to know that thou art God?