Poems of Decline

Poetry captures the essence of both moments and ages like nothing else can. As Ezra Pound said, poetry is “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

There is power in the just-right words. They can help us see what we only dimly sensed before. And for the poet, or any writer, finding just the right word is deeply satisfying, like the composer finding just the right note and just the right chord, or the painter finding just the right hue.

Like many others I feel the West is in decline, and while I recognize its many flaws and failures, I have yet to see anything better save for dreams and utopias that never come about. So there is a touch of lament in my spirit these days.

Photo by Ryan Lum

As a Christian my hope is not and was never in any civilization or culture – my hope utterly transcends such chaff. But nevertheless I find myself a beneficiary and inheritor of a truly great tradition, the loss of which is no small tragedy, and the death of which will bring about no small amount of suffering and misery for those who come after – most of all my own children.

Unless.

The lament I feel is tempered by a competing spirit of hope. You see, I am Protestant evangelical, which means I swim in the spiritual stream whose headwaters are revival. By revival I mean simply a sovereign (unmanipulated) outpouring of God’s Spirit which fundamentally transforms individuals to the point where they become unrecognizable, and where this is so widespread that communities are changed, cities and counties and even nations are changed.

In the dreary articles I read about the decline and impending fall of our civilization I rarely encounter this touch of hope – a hope which is not without significant historical precedent. I find this curious. Have these people never read Nehemiah 8? Or read about the first Great Awakening or the Welsh revival of 1904? Yes, we are in decline. Yes, the trajectory seems clear. But no, decline does not always lead to disaster.

I recently came across Kipling’s poem Recessional. I resonated with it. Written in 1897, it is situated in a certain time and place, but it speaks beyond those bounds. Here it is:

`God of our fathers, known of old,
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!
`

With Queen Elizabeth’s passing this week, the consensus seems to be that the 20th century is truly over, that we have turned over into a new age that is post-Christian and thus unrestrained by the moral vision and virtues that Christianity made normative.

Photo by Anna Jimenez Calaf

And so, patterned after Kipling’s poem, and prompted by this historical moment, I dipped my pen and tried to capture something of the lament and the touch of hope. I am no Kipling, but here is my poem, titled Unless.

Monarchs pass, the ages turn
What has gone will not return
Unless, unless

Beams have faded into dusk
We are left with only husk
Unless, unless

The cancer is in every joint
The doctor says there is no point
Unless, unless

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