Saint Augustine       

 
At Carthage

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.

 

His Glory

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.