The Planctus


Do quietem fidibus;
vellem ut et planctibus
sic possem et fletibus.
Abelard: Planctus 6, IV, B.


Time be my Fulbert, history your Paraclete,
And Astrolabe though yours, not mine, alas!
Those two our palimpsest, we their looking-glass,
In essence, if not in accidents, complete;
No detail matches, yet the patterns repeat:
Thrice crows the cock as introit to the mass;
Buridan in his sack sees Buridan’s ass
Stuck between wild oats and domestic wheat.

Were all their letters genuine? Who can tell?
Though ours authenticate the text at need,
Christ’s cross for Adam’s tree no more stands bail.
Tell-tale, tell-tale, tell-tale! tolls the bell,
While bill-boards outside Paradise now read:
“This Most Desirable Property, for Sale!”


The Faith is dead; the men are gone; their graves
Remain: these two byzantine churches and
The bones of those who built them. Silt and sand
Choked this proud city whose life was from the waves.
Lost Adam, lost Eve from a lost world, the nave’s
Mosaics show us naked, hand in hand,
Fixed where now only tourists drift or stand,
The culture-addicts and the camera-slaves.

Who will remember our city in its grace?
Only ourselves, survivors, each inside
A separate ark, lost on the endless flood,
Posting each other at random on the wide
Waste waters, raven or dove to ask: What good
Will Ararat be, if Babel takes its place?


Angels of stone, great mountains, flash their brands
Of lightning round St Peter’s tower, whose stone
Was cut when Peter, Berengarius’ son
Was born; a house of grief not made with hands,
Set on that rock, is now my house; his lands
Of exile I inherit; the Sic et Non
Of mind and heart drags on; I sit alone
Petrus in vinculis …
suddenly his bands
Lie loose; a voice dispels the prisoner’s sleep;
Domine suo … writes Heloissa’s pen;
trouvère’s aubade finds his exiled King,
The lion-heart fretting in the Styrian Keep,
And this grey hillside glows as bright as spring
With autumn crocus and wild cyclamen.


A horror of great darkness, in that dark
The furnace and the lamp between the slain
And, lastly, the Shekinah shining plain
Upon the friend of God, the patriarch.

I know the horror: I cannot find the friend;
I see the mysteries, but I miss the light.
Bear with me now: against myself I fight:
Cannot go on, yet cannot make an end.

His enemies, when he visited her would laugh
And say: the old Adam draws him to her still!
Fierce in his right, he gave them all the lie.
Had he been in my case, had he known half
The agony of my divided will
Lama sabachthani must have been his cry.


My plane comes in to land and now I see
As angels on their errands see, the bay,
And Palo Alto and the Royal Way,
The hills beyond where grew our fatal tree.
Almost I could believe we stand there now
In that first flash of vision, when the eyes
Take in what still they cannot realize,
Our fingers meeting round its golden bough.

Ten years ago! A sorry angel, I
Too late to an abandoned hearth descend.
The Palatine Peripatetic, having come
To such a point as this wrote: When I die,
No matter where, for my poor body send.
To that at least I shall not grudge its home!


Dimisit eam: knowing it was too late
He preached on these two words from Genesis.
Abraham loved Sara still, he said, but his
Whole soul was Agar’s, and, as they relate,
Having driven her out to satisfy the Lord,
His heart rebelled and, grim for her distress,
He ran to find her in the wilderness,
And met an angel with a flaming sword

Who said: Turn back! This desert was Paradise.
But showed him by a well where Agar slept
Safe with her child. Far off a ghost crowed thrice.
Because he loved her more than all beside,
There Abraham fell upon his face and wept.
But Peter faced the brethren stony-eyed.


In his last years, they say, a gentleness
Fell on this second Petrus, this rolling stone,
On whom, for all that, Thomas built the throne
Of doctrine. Peter of Cluny none the less
Was not deceived by this apparent peace.
He mourns beside the Burning Bush, he said,
That was his love. And, when the man was dead,
He sent the body back to Héloïse.

I am not gentle; I know (I shall not yield)
Time’s rage; the cock may crow: I cannot weep;
This body rebels and lives, but moves apart
Not towards its Paraclete, but some Potter’s Field.
Yet in your unconsuming flame, this heart
Rejoices and this spirit you have and keep.


Near death at St Marcel, he loosed his tongue:
Once when they asked his age, he said: I am
Older than wandering Caym, than Abraham
When he betrayed his love. … Yet I am young!
Seven years for Leah—they were years, no more,
The seven for Rachel were the seven days
Of the Creation, the renewal of grace
In that new testament beyond the law.

The seven that followed, and all that follow those
Cannot be told for they are not in time
But in the eternal sabbaths of the song
I sent her for her nuns; for that I chose
A metre from the love-songs of my prime
Since in that heaven of heavens all things belong.
Quis rex, quae curia, quale palatium,
Quae pax, quae requies, quod illud gaudium,
Hujus participes exponant gloriae,
Si quantum sentiunt possint exprimere.

IX (Epigraph)


(another version of the Fall)

Adam, indignant, would not eat with Eve,
They say, and she was driven from his side.
Watching the gates close on her tears, his pride
Upheld him, though he could not help but grieve

And climbed the wall, because his loneliness
Pined for her lonely figure in the dust:
Lo, there were two! God who is more than just
Sent her a helpmeet in that wilderness.

Day after day he watched them in the waste
Grow old, breaking the harsh unfriendly ground,
Bearing their children, till at last they died;
While Adam, whose fellow God had not replaced,
Lived on immortal, young, with virtue crowned,
Sterile and impotent and justified.

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