Because of “The Ballad of Barnaby”

At Adoration this afternoon, I thought for the first time in a long while of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Ballad of Barnaby.” Maybe that was because I often spend time at Adoration wondering just what I’m supposed to do down here anyway. Like “Barnaby,” our Adoration Chapel is set in “the crypt.”

This poem has haunted my adult life, and I think I know why. For 25 years, I was a performer in a world-famous stage magic troupe based at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, just two blocks from my new home, St. Mary Star of the Sea. And all the while something deep inside me was fixin’ to go Catholic.

With Katie and our daughters, Martha and Marian, I was a performer in Marco the Magi’s production of “Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company,” a “wonder-making spectacle performed in the style and tradition of the sunrise of the century.” Since the show started in 1977, the publicity materials have always referred to the sunrise of the twentieth century, although time does march on. The show was the brainchild of Cesareo Pelaez (a/k/a Marco the Magi), the archangel who first taught me about Catholicism. I don’t use the term archangel loosely. Cesareo’s middle name is Raphael.

This show was (and is) very successful—seven performances at the White House, major articles in Time and Smithsonian, and more awards from the international magic fraternity than you can shake a wand at. “Le Grand David” continues to this day, after 2,500 performances. But the inner story of “Le Grand David” is, to me, even more remarkable. A student in the 1960s of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, Cesareo conceived our theatre enterprise as a communal adventure of the spirit, in which we would create something beautiful on stage that would simultaneously give praise to God—however each of us might view Him (or Her). Ours was a nonsectarian, ecumenical adventure, wherein the performance was a form of (borrowing a Christian term now) worship. Though we never, ever used that term.

And so “Barnaby.” I thought for many years of memorizing this poem and reciting it at one of the many holiday or birthday celebrations Cesareo was always organizing. The time for this seems to have passed now, as I left active involvement in the company in 2002.

But now I view “Barnaby” differently. As David B. Hart explains in a First Things review (October 2009) of “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright:

If a truly disruptive event occurs within human affairs—a new form of thought, for instance, coming from above or below or beyond the normal course of social causality—it will of necessity determine the shape not only of the future but of the past; for, if it has any large effect on history, it becomes the filter that discriminates between those prior developments that will be preserved and those prior developments that will come to nothing.

My conversion to Catholicism was such a “disruptive event” in my own affairs, one that causes me to look back on “The Ballad of Barnaby” as another reason YIM Catholic. Here is Auden’s poem in its entirety. It is entirely new to me today:

Listen, good people, and you shall hear / A story of old that will gladden your ear, / The Tale of Barnaby, who was, they say, / The finest tumbler of his day.

In every town great crowds he drew, / And all men marveled to see him do / The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne, / The Vault of Metz, and the Vault of Lorraine.

His eyes were blue, his figure was trim,
/ He liked the girls and the girls liked him; / For years he lived a life of vice, / Drinking in taverns and throwing the dice.

It happened one day he was riding along / Between two cities, whistling a song, / When he saw what then was quite common to see, / Two ravens perched on a gallows-tree.

“Barnaby,” the first raven began,
/ “Will one day be as this hanging man.” / “Yes,” said the other, “and we know well / That when that day comes he will go to Hell.”

Then Barnaby’s conscience smote him sore;
/ He repented of all he had done heretofore: / “Woe is me! I will forsake / This wicked world and penance make.”

The evening air was grave and still
/ When he came to a monastery built on a hill: / As its bells the Angelus did begin, / He knocked at the door and they let him in.

The monks in that place were men of parts,
/ Learned in the sciences and the arts: / The Abbot could logically define / The place of all creatures in the Scheme Divine.

Brother Maurice then wrote down all that he said
/ In a flowing script that it might be read, / And Brother Alexander adorned the book / With pictures that gave it a beautiful look.

There were brothers there who could compose /
Latin Sequences in verse and prose, / And a brother from Picardy, too, who sung / The praise of Our Lady in the vulgar tongue.

Now Barnaby had never learned to read,
/ Nor Paternoster know nor Creed: / Watching them all at work and prayer, / Barnaby’s heart began to despair.

Down to the crypt at massing-time
/ He crept like a man intent on crime: / In a niche there above the altar stood / A statue of Our Lady carved in wood.

“Blessed Virgin,” he cried, “enthroned on high,
/ Ignorant as a beast am I: / Tumbling is all I have learnt to do; / Mother-of-God, let me tumble for You.”

Straightway he stripped off his jerkin,
/ And his tumbling acts he did begin: / So eager was he to do Her honour / That he vaulted higher than ever before.

The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne,
/ The vault of Metz and the Vault of Lorraine, / He did them all till he sank to the ground, / His body asweat and his head in a swound.

Unmarked by him, Our Lady now
/ Steps down from her niche and wipes his brow. / “Thank you, Barnaby,” She said and smiled; / “Well have you tumbled for me, my child.”

From then on at the Office-Hours
/ Barnaby went to pay her his devoirs. / One brother thought to himself: “Now where / Does Barnaby go at our times of prayer?”

And so next day when Barnaby slipped
/ Away he followed him down to the crypt. / When he saw how he honoured the Mother-of-God, / This brother thought: “This is very odd.

“It may be well: I believe it is,
/ But the Abbot, surely, should know of this.” / To the Abbot he went with reverent mien / And told him exactly what he had seen.

The Abbot said to him: “Say no word
/ To the others of what you have seen and heard. / I will come tomorrow and watch with you / Before I decide what I ought to do.”

Next day behind a pillar they hid,
/ And the Abbot marked all that Barnaby did. / Watching him leap and vault and tumble, / He thought, “This man is holy and humble.”

“Lady,” cried Barnaby, “I beg of Thee
/ To intercede with Thy Son for me!,” / Gave one more leap, then down he dropped, / And lay dead still, for his heart had stopped.

Then grinning demons, black as coal,
/ Swarmed out of Hell to seize his soul: / “In vain shall be his pious fuss, / For every tumbler belongs to us.”

But Our Lady and Her angels held them at bay,
/ With shining swords they drove them away, / And Barnaby’s soul they bore aloft, / Singing with voices sweet and soft.

  • Mary

    Ahh, so like Barnabus you tumbled right to the feet of Jesus in the Catholic Church. We never know what God will use to bring us home.For each of us it's different and for me it happened over 25 years ago when at college and one music group disbanded for the summer, another which had joined us for a concert, invited me to join them for the summer. Little did I know, I would never leave. They were Catholic and I was soon to be home.

  • Ken

    I just ran across a reference to this wonderful poem in Edward Mendelson’s Later Auden. Thanks for posting it!


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