This coming Thursday Christians celebrate the moment when Jesus, after having spent time with his disciples following the Resurrection, ascended into heaven. This is a prelude to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit, the “advocate with the Father” that Jesus promised his followers, descended upon them, causing them to discover the god within.
One of the best Ascension poems I know is that of the 17th century Welsh mystic Henry Vaughan, who laments that, while others (including his recently departed brother) have ascended, he is still on earth. As is often the case with Vaughan, crystalline imagery contends with “dull and hoary” complaints. (See my post on “The World.”) The dead, he says, are like stars that glow and glitter above “some gloomy grove,” trying to penetrate Vaughan’s “cloudy breast” and ignite his “cold love.” Vaughan laments that, when he tries to look past the dust of death, he has trouble imagining the shining mysteries. It is like looking at a bird’s nest and trying to imagine the fledgling bird that has flown. (“But what fair well or grove he sings in now/That is to him unknown.”)
Unknown, perhaps, but at least Vaughan can catch glimpses. Angels send bright dreams that allow us to peep into glory. It is as though we are tombs in which a star is confined. If we could only fully acknowledge her (Vaughan genders the soul female) “she’ll shine through all the sphere.”
The last stanza has Vaughan begging God to disperse the mists that “blot and fill my perspective.” Either that or allow the poet to ascend, like Christ, so that he may see God face to face.
By Henry Vaughan
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove.
I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.
O holy Hope! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love.
Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
Could man outlook that mark!
He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.
And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into glory peep.
If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
She’ll shine through all the sphere.
O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.
Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.