How brave were our flags as we marched out in the first dawn!
Now we are men bowed in the dust – objects of scorn.
‘Flags’ suggesting the confidence of a crusader army. The ‘first dawn’ is both the new light of our faith and on a cosmic level the shout of triumph as the sons of light burst forth at creation. Being bowed in the dust is the very essence of humility: what a dramatic contrast!
Yet you ask us still to be merry and sing for you!
Pour wine for us, and we may still muster a verse or two.
The ‘you’ of the second stanza is the Beloved. We can’t even sing without His inspiration. ‘Muster’ is a fine word here suggesting getting troops in order ready for inspection or for rounding up wild cattle to yard them.
You would be ill-pleased with the cracked voices of old crows —
You who first taught the nightingale to sing to the rose.
Francis’ voice was no orator’s velvet instrument, (although his grating tone is remarkably effective as he carefully articulates his poetry reading). Our efforts must appear paltry compared to the wonderful lament of the nightingale, that symbolic poetic lover.
We started out singing; we have now travelled song’s road —
Yet greater than ever is the burden of song’s load.
I am old, old. I look at people hurrying by —
And my heart aches at the quick smile that covers their cry.
And things do not get easier as the journey unravels and age adds its burden and we become more aware of the great burden of suffering hiding behind experiences. Here the songs of innocence have given way to those of experience! In Stanza 5 he changes over to the first person singular, intensifying the effect that we are getting a moving personal glimpse in this poem. How effective the full stop is after ‘old’.
I would beseech God-Man to lessen the load of the Law;
But now, even when I raise my eyes, He points to the door.
The law of karma has to be observed and fulfilled, no short cuts of sentimental mercy. ‘Points to the door’ has a nice ambiguity, either pointing the poet to the exit, accept or out you go, or else indicating that the whole purpose of life is to enter that door to the true Self.
I remember stories about a pearl on the ocean-floor
I, too, plunged in. This is my body cast up on the shore.
The pearl to be searched for in the depths is an ancient sacred story. Here it is not that there is no pearl; rather that it is not to be obtained by our own diving. The poet is like a shipwrecked mariner, helpless jetsam, at the mercy of the ocean.
Francis shares many sides of experience with us, not just to be descriptive of his own states but for a performative recognition and participation on the reader’s part as we struggle in the ocean. Note the extra comma giving weight to the last line. By the way we are back in this poem to the more usual five stresses per line.