Friday, April 21, 2017

The Fool by Patrick Pearse

Patrick Pearse was the most prominent leader of the 1916 Rising, a central figure in the Gaelic revival, and a very estimable poet. At least, in my view he is a very estimable poet.

He has the distinction of being the only free verse poet whose poetry I like. Even though his poetry is free verse, it does have a kind of internal metre to it.

"The Fool" is one of his most famous poems-- perhaps even his most famous. I knew it by heart in my teens, and it expressed perfectly my view of life-- at some points, anyway. (Although I've always felt the last couple of lines are weak.)

One aspect of the poem which rather bothers me now is the invocation of Christ to justify a violent insurrection. I by no means believe it impossible that a violent insurrection might be morally permissible, perhaps even a moral duty, in some circumstances. And, as C.S. Lewis said, all duties are ultimately religious duties. Of course, Pearse is not just talking about the 1916 Rising in this poem, but his vision as a whole. (I don't actually know when it was written.) Even still, I'm not sure what to make of the way Pearse repeatedly compared the Irish struggle for independence to Christ's passion. I suppose Christians should see everything through that prism, but it also seems potentially idolatrous.

The lines that have always moved me the most are:

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.

In a future post, I intend to refer to this poem, so I'm posting it partly for that reason. But it's worth posting anyway.

Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool;
A fool that hath loved his folly,
Yea, more than the wise men their books or their counting houses or their quiet homes,
Or their fame in men's mouths;
A fool that in all his days hath done never a prudent thing,
Never hath counted the cost, nor recked if another reaped
The fruit of his mighty sowing, content to scatter the seed;
A fool that is unrepentant, and that soon at the end of all
Shall laugh in his lonely heart as the ripe ears fall to the reaping-hooks
And the poor are filled that were empty,
Tho' he go hungry.

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.
Was it folly or grace? Not men shall judge me, but God.
I have squandered the splendid years:
Lord, if I had the years I would squander them over again,
Aye, fling them from me!
For this I have heard in my heart, that a man shall scatter, not hoard,
Shall do the deed of to-day, nor take thought of to-morrow's teen,
Shall not bargain or huxter with God; or was it a jest of Christ's
And is this my sin before men, to have taken Him at His word?

The lawyers have sat in council, the men with the keen, long faces,
And said, `This man is a fool,' and others have said, `He blasphemeth; '
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.

O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Lord, I have staked my soul, I have staked the lives of my kin
On the truth of Thy dreadful word. Do not remember my failures,
But remember this my faith.

And so I speak.
Yea, ere my hot youth pass, I speak to my people and say:
Ye shall be foolish as I; ye shall scatter, not save;
Ye shall venture your all, lest ye lose what is more than all;
Ye shall call for a miracle, taking Christ at His word.
And for this I will answer, O people, answer here and hereafter,
O people that I have loved, shall we not answer together?