My trouble began when a madman whispered a word in my ear –
A word, a name – and I became mad that its form should appear.
How long ago this was, how many forms I’ve chased in love and fear,
Is known only to the Person of that name; I have no idea.
All I know is that I have a Beloved to whom love is a game;
Who once, on a whim, sang a song that caused Space to burst into flame.
This flame, cooling, broke into suns, and men who love in hope and fear–Lunatics dreaming that one day the Beloved will appear.
I have become old and cunning; I know that every appearance
Is nothing but a signature on a this-time life assurance.
I have landed myself in a sort of star-bubbling cosmic soup.
Well, I cheated in the beginning – and have become my own dupe.
But I don’t want any more assurances or promises,
For the logic of both is founded upon false premises.
This poem is mysterious, disconcerting, radical and even baffling, and well worth struggling with before turning to any specious explanations, such as those that follow.
Sometimes God has to be wrestled with. And quite often poetry gets much of its power from its riddling quality.
What is the word or name in stanza 1? Was it Love, Logos, Jesus, Islam, or Enlightenment? Whatever lit our fuse in many, many past lives is a mystery to us and to Francis himself. God alone knows. And just how long have we been chasing some transcendent goal? Why ‘a madman’? Because the whole enterprise seems crazy and impossible, now that he has a Beloved who runs the whole game. Our past hopes and fears dwindle into insignificance next to the picture of the whole creationary evolution. Our imaginations of the goal were just ‘lunatics dreaming’.
A lot of religiosity is sometimes spoken of as life-assurance for the future post-mortem life.
Francis struggles with the process of living still in a world of ‘appearance’ where he must trust in his this-time life assurance. We can sense the strain in the second last couplet. The whole poem has a delirious quality because it is about a throwing away of the mind. The rational mind wants assurances and promises, founded on the ‘false premises’ that our separate striving selves are real. We all have ‘cheated’, fallen into motivated quest, into grasping faith or complacency.
Realization of the real situation is painful and even devastating. The powerful honesty of this poem can be a shrill awakening call. The solution is not here given, otherwise the poem would blunt its edge. However the next poem deals with the same situation but from the point of view of happy acceptance.