Between the boneyards and the ruined sea,
Dido, suburban queen of history,
Once more receives a man whom no one knows,
Once more is left to burn - in Latin prose.
His Early Life
The bird that sings by moonlight sings to him:
‘Be loved, be loved, let no deflection dim
Your face forever in the face you love:’
And where he looks the fixed eyes do not move.
He becomes a Leader among the Manichees
‘That I am always right and others wrong,
That wisdom separates me from the throng,
That what I do my genius justifies,’
He teaches, and the new sect multiplies.
His Change of Heart
Among these bleached burnt pleasure palaces
He walks, where the rose fades on analysis,
And a dry tongue exhausts the fountain of water,
And feeling is not found in a stone satyr.
He hears Saint Ambrose preach in Milan
Mark the exordium! Hortensius could
Not better this subjunctive Asian mood;
And though that vocative he uses should
Be varied more, the rhetoric is good.
Later he listens to the Ambrosian Chant
These placid voices, speaking simpler verse
Than Ovid’s, charm; and yet the serpents nurse
Their young among the flowers; such beauty takes
More than it gives; for left alone, love wakes.
He reads Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans
Beyond the apple tree he wanders, where
A child is singing: ‘Take it! Read it, there!’
Across the garden table, words unroll,
And the long silence ends within his soul.
At Ostia he says Goodbye to Saint Monica
‘Ruins are what we walk among,’ he tells
His mother, as they pass the bright hotels.
She smiles, and does not prophesy, but knows
That she must die in one before he goes.
Her last Will
‘It does not matter where I die; in that
Place bury me, and do not sorrow at
My death. Instead of grief, give me a share
Of happiness at Mass - pray for me there.’
At Rome he studies under Pope Saint Siricius
Beside the Fisherman he learns to be
Watchful of every stately heresy
That comes to grief against the simple rock:
Later, the Donatists receive a shock.
He writes his Confessions
The desert capitals, the roads of sand,
The sterile water-courses, camel-land;
Beyond, the sea of tears that took him home -
He draws the map which brings a world to Rome.
He contends against the Pelagian Heresy
Not now for nothing had he taught his boys
The ins and outs of writing that annoys
By being graceful just as much as true:
No need of grace, Pelagius, for you?
De civitate Dei
He hears the trousered soldiers prize the gate
Which, falling open, gives away the state;
But sees beyond those armies made of men,
Peace at the point of this endangered pen.
He corresponds with Saint Jerome
Without a beast about the house, he keeps
Both friends and temper in their place, and sleeps
Unworried by the loss of Hebrew vowels:
In time the answering hermit briefly growls.
He tries to understand The Most Holy Trinity
‘How can you hope to bucket up the sea?’
He asks the Christ Child, absent-mindedly.
‘Lo, all My oceans,’ says the Child, ‘shall be
In holes before you solve my mystery.’
He composes his Retractions
Here he was wrong, and this was badly said;
Those words unchanged, the sense would run ahead
Of what he thinks he must have meant to write
A hundred books ago one hurried night.
He leaves Hippo
His sins, like Vandal bishops, count each breath;
Lest, dying, he bequeath them only death:
‘Your books,’ Pride whispers, ‘took us by surprise:’
A Roman saint, he wills them burnt, and dies.
One with Aquinas in the splendid West,
Yet lesser, since he lacks the virgin’s best;
But still with Magdalen he shares the place
God loves to give to those who ask for grace.