All those girls who have beguiled me through the ages:
They have been scrupulously excluded from history’s pages.
Nowhere do they reach towards the sun from beds of green rushes,
Nor emerge triumphant from carefully laid ambushes.
Nowhere is described their opal finger-nails smouldering
Under the roots of my skull; and their eye-lids shouldering
The burden of spring’s bud-breaking,
And my for-you-Beloved heart-waking.
History is really a denial of our pilgrimages
To your white feet; a refusal to record our huge courages.
It has burnt down the crops for Jesus-bread, and given us stones
Of the baked blood of people and the dust of ambitious princes’ bones.
Nowhere in its pages have I found descriptions of the girls’ eyes
That lit my path to you, of hands that fanned the singing of my sighs.
Francis finds with a note of mock surprise that his love objects of past incarnations have been excluded from the history books! The next couplet helps us share the beauty and power of these encounters. After this he reminds us of the bewitching and devouring nature of love, not for the faint hearted. ‘Opal finger-nails’ suggest the ever changing opalescent nature of Maia, mastering the mind with its drive. The startling image of ‘eye-lids shouldering’ flows on to link these ladies with the power of nature’s renewal, to “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” as Dylan Thomas puts it. Notice how all the hyphens here help accentuate the flowing movement of coming to the Master’s feet.
Then a daring jump to link these passion-surrenders to the pilgrimage to the Beloved. How vivid and pure the ‘white feet’ makes it. Real History should of course be centred upon the surrenders to love made as we struggle through our sanskaras, facing all the risks and mortal uncertainties which are part of our preparation for Him. The real history is the long pilgrimage that awakens the heart.
Instead of presenting living life, as the poem does, history like religion gives us abstraction and the relic stories of outer power. Here as so often the poet makes original use of the words of Jesus – “Or what man is there of you, when if his son ask bread, will give him a stone?” (Mt.7.9) Crops (natural impulses) have been destroyed to give Jesus-bread, (religion but no wine); the real living bread of Jesus’ sacrifice has become the baked blood of the exploited and the record of the exploits of the powerful. Just look at how effective and much concentrated stuff Francis can pack into two lines.
The poem ends on a gentle and comic wistful note which offsets its stridency perfectly. How memorable!