3.--AN HYMN ON THE NATIVITY OF MY SAVIOUR.
I sing the birth was born to-night,
The author both of life and light;
The angels so did sound it.
And like the ravished shepherds said,
Who saw the light, and were afraid,
Yet searched, and true they found it.
The Son of God, the eternal King,
That did us all salvation bring,
And freed the soul from danger;
He whom the whole world could not take,
The Word which heaven and earth did make,
Was now laid in a manger.
The Father's wisdom willed it so;
The Son's obedience knew no No;
Both wills were in one stature;
And, as that wisdom had decreed,
The Word was now made flesh indeed,
And took on him our nature.
What comfort by him do we win,
Who made himself the price of sin,
To make us heirs of glory!
To see this babe, all innocence,
- martyr born in our defence!--
Can man forget this story?
Somewhat formal and artificial, no doubt; rugged at the same time, like
him who wrote them. When a man would utter that concerning which he has
only felt, not thought, he can express himself only in the forms he has
been taught, conventional or traditional. Let his powers be ever so much
developed in respect of other things, here, where he has not meditated,
he must understand as a child, think as a child, speak as a child. He can
as yet generate no sufficing or worthy form natural to himself. But the
utterance is not therefore untrue. There was no professional bias to
cause the stream of Ben Jonson's verses to flow in that channel. Indeed,
feeling without thought, and the consequent combination of impulse to
speak with lack of matter, is the cause of much of that common-place
utterance concerning things of religion which is so wearisome, but which
therefore it is not always fair to despise as cant.
About the same age as Ben Jonson, though the date of his birth is
unknown, I now come to mention Thomas Heywood, a most voluminous writer
of plays, who wrote also a book, chiefly in verse, called The Hierarchy
of the Blessed Angels, a strange work, in which, amongst much that is
far from poetic, occur the following remarkable metaphysico-religious
verses. He had strong Platonic tendencies, interesting himself chiefly
however in those questions afterwards pursued by Dr. Henry More,
concerning witches and such like subjects, which may be called the shadow
I have wandered like a sheep that's lost,
To find Thee out in every coast:
Without I have long seeking bin, been.
Whilst thou, the while, abid'st within.
Through every broad street and strait lane
Of this world's city, but in vain,
I have enquired. The reason why?
I sought thee ill: for how could I
Find thee abroad, when thou, mean space,
Hadst made within thy dwelling-place?
I sent my messengers about,
To try if they could find thee out;
But all was to no purpose still,
Because indeed they sought thee ill:
For how could they discover thee
That saw not when thou entered'st me?
Mine eyes could tell me? If he were,
Not coloured, sure he came not there.
If not by sound, my ears could say
He doubtless did not pass my way.
My nose could nothing of him tell,
Because my God he did not smell.
None such I relished, said my taste,
And therefore me he never passed.
My feeling told me that none such
There entered, for he none did touch.
Resolved by them how should I be,
Since none of all these are in thee,
In thee, my God? Thou hast no hue
That man's frail optic sense can view;
No sound the ear hears; odour none
The smell attracts; all taste is gone
At thy appearance; where doth fail
A body, how can touch prevail?
What even the brute beasts comprehend--
To think thee such, I should offend.
Yet when I seek my God, I enquire
For light than sun and moon much higher,
More clear and splendrous, 'bove all light
Which the eye receives not, 'tis so bright.
I seek a voice beyond degree
Of all melodious harmony:
The ear conceives it not; a smell
Which doth all other scents excel:
No flower so sweet, no myrrh, no nard,
Or aloës, with it compared;
Of which the brain not sensible is.
I seek a sweetness--such a bliss
As hath all other sweets surpassed,
And never palate yet could taste.
I seek that to contain and hold
No touch can feel, no embrace enfold.
So far this light the rays extends,
As that no place it comprehends.
So deep this sound, that though it speak
It cannot by a sense so weak
Be entertained. A redolent grace
The air blows not from place to place.
A pleasant taste, of that delight
It doth confound all appetite.
A strict embrace, not felt, yet leaves
That virtue, where it takes it cleaves.
This light, this sound, this savouring grace,
This tasteful sweet, this strict embrace,
No place contains, no eye can see,
My God is, and there's none but he.
Very remarkable verses from a dramatist! They indicate substratum enough
for any art if only the art be there. Even those who cannot enter into
the philosophy of them, which ranks him among the mystics of whom I have
yet to speak, will understand a good deal of it symbolically: for how
could he be expected to keep his poetry and his philosophy distinct when
of themselves they were so ready to run into one; or in verse to define
carefully betwixt degree and kind, when kinds themselves may rise by
degrees? To distinguish without separating; to be able to see that what
in their effects upon us are quite different, may yet be a grand flight
of ascending steps, "to stop--no record hath told where," belongs to the
philosopher who is not born mutilated, but is a poet as well.
John Fletcher, likewise a dramatist, the author of the following poem,
was two years younger than Ben Jonson. It is, so far as I am aware, the
sole non-dramatic voice he has left behind him. Its opening is an
indignant apostrophe to certain men of pretended science, who in his time
were much consulted--the Astrologers.