Because Kenelm Henry Digby Could Write Such A Poem

Are you interested in Christian chivalry? You could do worse than read the works of Kenelm Henry Digby. Author of The Broad-Stone of Honour or Rules for the Gentlemen of England(1822), he was a Romantic who yearned for the days when knights upheld the honor of kith and kin. And the honor of the Holy Catholic Church as well.

I don’t know much, but I think he may have written the best poem for All Souls Day that I have ever read. Please allow me to share it with you.

It’s a little long, so be warned. But it really helps to explain why the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls, and why we pray for the faithful departed.

It’s simple, really. Because it is the right thing to do.

All Souls

There’s a race that we love, though it thinks it can soar
Above truths that it held to in ages of yore.
We deem it pretension; and we judge it from acts;
Let us single but one out of numberless facts,

Not confined to the circle which doubts or denies
That a prayer can be needed when any one dies,
But e’en showing this error extending as wide
As the nation renouncing the primitive side.

‘Tis the day of the dead, it was once here well known;
Yes, but then all such fancies have hence long flown.
For religion reform’d is now far too wise
To demand of our time such a fond sacrifice.

For suppressing the custom, this way is the first;
But then who can feel certain that it is the worst?
Although heads remain firm, one quickly discovers
That hearts pretty nearly agree with the others.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and it comes once a year,
But sooth few are now found to attend to it here.
For some are too busy, aye with too much in hand,
To suppose that a moment they have at command.

And there’s always some pressure on that very day,
Which must keep both the busy and idle away;
Our profession, affairs, visits—these are supreme—
And to think of suspending them, merely a dream.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and it comes with the cold,
With the fall of the leaf and the soft drench’d black mould;
The long damp waving grass and the tall dripping trees
Would do quite as much hurt as the wild wintry breeze.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and long has it gone by;
Mediaevalists only can like thus to sigh:
If you will talk and have us both pray and feel so,
‘Tis in warm and gay churches we should all of us kneel.

For what can one place be now more than another,
Unless superstition your reason will smother?
These old customs romantic and certainly wild
Belong to the vulgar for too often beguiled.

‘Tis the day of the dead, but then what would they say
Who might hear that through graves thus we too would stray?
You and I, my good friend, must now be like others,
However thus any one talks on and bothers.

‘Tis the day of the dead—but no great bell sounds
To invite us in thought from our brief earthly bounds:
Through the streets one runs hastening, another one stays;
All for business or pleasure; in brief no one prays.

Oh! England, that once wert believing and holy,
So free too from Pagan-like dull melancholy,
Aye so quick to attend to religion’s great voice,
Inviting gravely to mourn or gladly rejoice,

Just behold thy graves now left so lonely ever!
With the tears of fond memory on them never!
So deserted by all their surviving best friends:
And you’ll see at least here where thy long boasting ends.

But the scene changes now to a different shore,
Where religion exists as in ages of yore,
Where no one pretends that men are not clever,
The true and the false to distinguish and sever.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and it comes once a year:
The crowds are now moving, none ashamed to appear.
So the busiest men all engaged in their trade
Leave their shops and their ledgers, and thoughtful are made.

The statesman. the senator, the great and the small,
View the spot loved by each one, and kneeling down fall,
Yet at home much to do! constant work for their head!
But now all is forgotten excepting the dead.

Then the maiden so pale, and the old pensive sire,
With the youth for the day free, in deep black attire,
The widow, the orphan, and the seamstress so shy,
Gently pass to the spot where their loved ones still lie.

The little one grasping, and with such a tight hold,
The frock of sweet sissy, who herself’s not too bold;
Though all walk on order like relatives dear,
By their looks even charity letting appear.

Then some strew their pale flowers, and some light the lamp,
Unlocking in silence the cold monument damp,
And kneel like mute statues, and others stray on,
And all love to linger, and thence none will be gone.

There is woodbine that flourishes best o’er a grave;
Each alley, death’s violets—Pervenche—will pave;
Poet’s fictions of worms all engender’d below
Yield to wreaths of immortals which friends will bestow.

‘Tis the day of the dead; it comes bright or cold,
But all are not nervous like some timid and old;
The slopes amid flowers, and the high stirring breeze,
Have enchantment for him who both feels and who sees.

So the tortuous path and the dark cypress spire,
He will follow half pleased, e’en, and he will admire;
The tombs shining graceful, or the green mossy sod–
Oh, how all of these lift up his heart unto God!

The day of the dead–to our old faith we owe it;
Both dear to the Christian and dear to the poet.
Our fathers they taught us on the graves thus to stray,
Although still in churches each morning we pray.

And the men of our age with their courage so high,
Have yet time thus, and hearts too, to breathe a soft sigh.
And let no one suppose we are sorrowful made
By wandering so thoughtful through this peaceful shade.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and the day of each home,
While recalling each household, wherever we roam;
‘Tis the day of our fathers, of sons, and of brothers,
The day of our sisters so fond, and of mothers.

‘Tis the day for the young, for the old, and for all,
And which needs not of priests the particular call.
Thus domestic, ancestral, the day has its claims
Still on every being who human remains.

See whole families walk in groups as they pass.
Do they weep for a brother, a boy, or a lass?
Do they think of a mother, a sister, or bride?
Oh, then mark with what pains will they seek tears to hide!

And when now fresh processions are seen to arrive,
What a sympathy moves all the rest who survive!
During eight days, from morning till evening ’tis so,
And all raise up to Heaven the hearts from below.

‘Tis the day of the dead, and here no one is found
To take his way reckless to a differnt ground;
It is known, and respected, and honor’d here still,
By all those who have even the faintest weak will

Thus to follow the customs so closely allied
With the faith of the Church that is elsewhere denied;
For the worst and most thoughtless, the wildest here then
Will remember that they too are mortal and men.

‘Tis the day of the dead, do you hear the strange bell?
Hark! it tolls thus all day, through the night too as well:
The guards are there mounted to keep the long way,
Such multitudes hasten to weep and to pray.

O then France, sprightly France, still so faithful and true
To defend what their fathers all believed in and knew,
With soft hearts that are warm, and aye kindled with light,
The same that dispell’d once, the old sad Pagan night,

Now behold thy deck’d graves thus from year unto year,
So bedew’d and refresh’d with poor grateful tear,
Thus frequented at times as the sweetest of fields,
And see there what good fruits now thy old faith still yields.

Thou art praised for thy science, thy art, and thy grace,
For courage so high that belongs to thy race,
But when all is admired, and all has been said,
There is nothing surpasses thy love for the dead.

You can read more of Digby’s poems here. For a further selection of his work click here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09158421880497827083 Athos

    Arright, Frank! Awesome, post! Please remind folk, although I am here, that All Souls' Day is a day on which one may obtain a plenary indulgence for someone in Purgatory, provided one meets all three conditions: sacramental confession, eucharistic communion, and prayer for the Holy Father's intentions for the month (Handbook of Indulgences – Norms and Grants). See esp. # 16 and 67 in the Handbook.This is work I consider chivalrous and in accord with the full teaching of the Catholic Church. Cheers

  • Anonymous

    Beautiful! Thank you for this amazing poem. Wondering why the plenary indulgence is not mentioned from the pulpit?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Frederick Farber on Indulgences.


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