This should come as no surprise but I had never heard of Frederick William Faber until recently. I was playing around while adding titles to the YIM Catholic Bookshelf (250+ titles now!) and discovered this founder of the London Oratory. A former Calvinist and convert to Catholicism, Faber wrote a great number of hymns, sermons, and devotional books in prose as well as poetry. Heck, I added over a dozen of his books to our shelves.
He wrote an epic poem entitled Sir Lancelot: A Legend of the Middle Ages, and writes the following in the preface to the poem,
The object of the poem is not an ambitious one. It has always seemed to me, that a love of natural objects, and the depth, as well as exuberance and refinement of mind, produced by an intelligent delight in scenery, are elements of the first importance in the education of the young. But, a taste for the beauties of nature being a quicker growth than the power or habit of independent thought, it is apt in youth to wander from the right path, and lose itself in some of the devious wilds of pantheism.
What I wished to effect in this poem was, to show how an enthusiastic and most minute appreciation of the beauties of nature might unite itself with Christian sentiments, Christian ritual, and the strictest expression of Christian doctrine.
Sounds good to me. The last epic poem I read from cover to cover was Virgil’s Aeneid. But with an introduction like that one, I’m eager to see how Faber weaves the story of Lancelot around Catholic faith and doctrines. In 1845, he rewrote portions of the poem for a second edition that was published after he crossed the Tiber.
But the main reason I’m looking forward to reading Sir Lancelot is because Faber gives a preview of his ability as a poet when he dedicated his long poem on the heroic knight with a much shorter poem to his friend and colleague Thomas Whytehead. Whytehead, an Anglican priest, as was Faber at the time, and an accomplished poet in his own right, was on a missionary trip in New Zealand when the poem was first published in 1842. He was suffering from an illness and died in 1843, when he was only 28 years old.
This short, personal, poem to a dying friend, as scholar Kristie Blair writes, “repeats the scenario…in which Faber represents himself as passionate, insecure, and troubled before a friend’s poise and stability. But here it is Whytehead’s geographical distance, and the real possibility that he would not live to read Faber’s words, which permit Faber to be more open.”
You can say that again. In the following verses, Faber is joyful upon hearing news of his friend, saddened by the news of his illness, and finally envisions his friend moving on to the Land of the Living and joining the saints in heaven. It appears to me that Faber could give Virgil a run for his money.
Dear Brother! while the murmurs of my song
In refluent waves were dying on my ear,
The spoken music blending with the thrills
Of that unuttered sweetness, which remains
A cherished refuse in the poet’s soul,
Still to distinguish him from all the hearts
To which, by love constrained, he hath resigned
So much of his interior self,—and while
I listened, like a practiced mountaineer,
To my own voice rebounding from the heights
Of song, redoubled and prolonged returns
Of pleasant echoes,—from the far-off South
Came welcome news of thee, my dearest Friend!
Thou spakest in thine own most beautiful way,
And in the sunny visionary style
Of thy strange solemn language, of the lights
In those new skies, the Cross with starry arms,
Palpably bending at the dead of night,
The star-built Altar, Noe’s sheeny Dove
Still winging her incessant flight on high,
The definite Triangle, and other such,
Girt with huge spaces of unstarry blue,
As sacred precincts round about them spread,
Through which the eye, from all obstruction clear,
Travels the heavens at midnight, and salutes
Those orbed constellations hung thereon
Like festal lamps on some cathedral wall;—
Emblems of Christian things, not pagan names
That nightly desecrate our northern skies.
Thus with thy spirit softly overshadowed
By the most brilliant umbrage of those stars,
Thou spakest of the snowy albatross,
Sailing in circuits round thy lonely-bark,
Fondling its foamy prow as if it deemed,
And not unjustly, its companionship
A solace to thee on the desert waves;
And underneath the great Australian trees
A light was in strange creatures’ wondering eyes,—
How solemnly interpreted by thee!
0 it was all so beautiful, so strange,
And with its current intercepted oft
With place for some endearment of old love,
I thought in thy wild strain how passing sweet
The poetry of those far southern seas!
Few days elapsed: there came another strain,
Fresh poetry from those far southern seas!
It sang of sickness and the fear of death,
Of suffering gently borne for love of Christ,
Who calls us to His service as He wills,
Not as we choose; and, mingling with the strain,
Broke forth thy simple and courageous words
And peaceful trust, as happy and as bold
As a child’s prayer. And wilt thou think it wrong,
That, when I prayed and wept and deeply mourned,
There was a pleasure in my mourning, such
As I have never felt in love before?
For who that doth remember thee, how pale!
How gentle! but would smile for very faith,
As Abraham smiled, at thine heroic words,
Which mate thine outward aspect so unfitly?
Ah! that was poetry tenfold more sweet
Than when thou sangst of stars, and ocean birds,
And wandering creatures underneath the trees!
O more than Brother! my impetuous heart,
Nurtured too much on volatile impulses,
In loving thee hath learned still more to love,
And study with a covetous design,
The science of thy quiet nature, calm,
Profoundly calm amid all cares and doubts,
As though thy faculties had never had,
Or left and lost in thy baptismal font,
All power of self-disturbance, so serene
The unsuspicious greatness of thy virtue,
Thy simple-tongued humility, and love
Too self-forgetting to have much of fear!
Like one who sits upon a windy steep,
And looks into a placid lake below
Bright in the breezeless vale, so have I gazed,
With long affection fathomed to its depths,
Into the inspired tranquillity of heart
On thy scarce ruffled innocence bestowed.
Dear Friend! I speak bold words of praise, and
Warrant my boldness, for I know full well
Thine eye will never see what would have pained
Thy lowliness: that supernatural calm
Of thy pure nature will be deeper still,
Unutterably deepened, ere my words,
Not written as to one alive, shall reach
The island of thy gradual martyrdom.
0 no! thou wilt be once more at my side,
A help to my weak purposes, an arm
Invisible, in intercession strong,
No part of this half dead, half dying world,
But to the region of the living gone
To pray for us, and to be reached by prayer.
When these poor lines have travelled to that shore,
Distance and exile will have fallen from thee,
Sun-withered wreaths, before the eye of death;
Thou wilt be in my neighborhood again,
Again come home unto my soul’s embrace,
No more the frail and wasting Missionary,
But the high Mate of Angels and of Saints!