Christopher Smart's A Song to David
"But stronger still, in earth and air, / And in the sea, the man of prayer" a man with
such a vision would be regarded as a saint or sage in India, but in the West we call him insane.
A. E. Housman considered Christopher Smart a mad poet (p. 38 of The Name and Nature of Poetry) as well as
many of Smart's contemporaries. Smart's religious fervor landed him in a mental asylum (1757-1763), during which
two of his widely-known works "A Song to David" and "Jubilate Agno" were partly written. The first time I heard
a Christopher Smart poem was when Galway Kinnell read
"For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry" at
Squaw Valley (July 1989). Robert Pinsky also said this poem was one of his
gave it to his Stanford Poetry Workshop students (January 2007).
Christopher Smart, "A Song to David"
lines 445-462 (1763)
Strong is the horse upon his speed;
Strong in pursuit the rapid glede,
Which makes at once his game:
Strong the tall ostrich on the ground;
Strong through the turbulent profound
Shoots Xiphias to his aim.
Strong is the lion like a coal
His eyeball like a bastion's mole
His chest against the foes:
Strong the gier-eagle on his sail,
Strong against tide the enormous whale
Emerges as he goes.
But stronger still in earth and air,
And in the sea, the man of prayer,
And far beneath the tide:
And in the seat to faith assigned,
Where ask is have, where seek is find,
Where knock is open wide.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Daniel in the Lions' Den (1616)
Oil on canvas (88 1/4 in. x 130 1/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Kay clued us on several words in this poem glede
is a bird of prey, (kite);
turbulent profound is the ocean;
Xiphias is a swordfish; and
bastion's mole is not some burrowing animal but a drill machine that
bores through a medieval stone fortress. Kay called attention to the lion's strength, pressing his chest through his enemies (prey).
I mentioned to the class Rubens' Daniel in the Lions' Den (1616), a huge painting that covered a wall in National Gallery of Art.
When I saw this painting in Washington D.C. around 1966, I didn't know the Biblical story of Daniel. I was awed by Daniel praying
fervently to God so the eight lions won't eat him up! Kay liked my example of "stronger than the lion is the man of prayer".
Back in 1966 at Cornell, I was an agnostic, not knowing anything about prayer. Later when searching for creativity,
Isaac Newton's biographies, and learned that
the discoverer of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion (1687), spent his last years writing
commentaries on the
Book of Daniel (Newton's religious views).
Reading Daniel years later, I learned that King Nebuchadnezzar summoned
his court magicians, astrologers, and sorcerers to tell him his disturbing dream and interpret it. If they fail, they'll be cut to pieces
(Daniel 2). Only Daniel ventured forth and told the King his dream and
interpreted it. Later Daniel advised King Darius successfully too. The court ministers knowing that Daniel prayed daily, sought Darius
to sign a decree forbidding prayers or be thrown into the lions' den. That's how Daniel was cast into the lions' den, but his prayer
kept him safe. King Darius was amazed when Daniel was alive and threw his accusers into the den where the lions devoured them instantly
Kay said "If you have faith, you're the strongest "Where knock is open wide". Joscelyn then told the class
that Smart has borrowed the line from Gospel of Matthew 7.7:
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."
Kay was surprised that Smart was quoting Matthew and said "I didn't know that. I'm admitting ignorance on
something I should have known, had I read the Gospels." At the top of this essay, I have placed Christopher Smart's
portrait and Chagall's painting of King David to honor these two poets. Is not King David's Psalm 23 pure poetry
when he sings "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters." The word "prayer" is cited 27 times in Psalms as David
sings "Give ear to my prayer, O God... Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice."
(Psalm 55.1, 55.17). While compiling quotes from the Bible on
gratitude, I found 22 citations in Psalms of David giving thanks to God in prayer.
Poetry & Prayer
The Chinese word for poetry, shih () is composed of yen ():
"word; language" and szu (): "temple, monastery". Hence, poetry is a "temple of words".
Yen is composed of t'ou () "above" (heaven, Tao), erh "two"
() (earth, duality),
and k'ou () "mouth" (passage).
Shakespeare must have intuited the Chinese ideogram for poetry in
A Midsummer Night's Dream, V.i.15-19 (1595):
"The poet's eye... doth glance from heaven... the poet's pen turns them to shapes."
Denise Levertov had a similar vision: "The poet when he is writing is a priest;
the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion takes place within it... Writing the poem
is the poet's means of summmoning the divine" (The Poet in the World).
Kathleen Raine says that "Poetry is the resonance of the eternal in and through the temporal."
Gary Snyder says "Poetry is an expression touching our higher self." If poetry is summoning the divine,
resonating with the eternal, and touching our higher self these are calls for prayer
or contemplation to tap into the heavenly realms. Poems of prayer are rare in the 20th century,
however two modern poets do invoke prayer in their poems that I'm citing below.
I know this happiness
the looming presences
great suffering, great fear
into peripheral vision:
but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:
this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:
this need to dance,
this need to kneel:
Denise Levertov (1926-1997),
Oblique Prayers, "Of Being"
New Directions, NY, 1984, p. 86
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowy learning.
Mary Oliver (born 1935)
Beacon Press, Boston, 2006, p. 69
Denise Levertov in her poem "Of Being" from Oblique Prayers (1984) ends with
"this need to kneel: / this mystery:", for it is a mystery to kneel down and
pray to that invisible and infinite power that sustains our life.
Mary Oliver's poem "Thirst" is the last poem in her book of the same title.
Buddha says that it's thirst (trisna) or desire which draws our ego
back to earthly life again. But Mary Oliver's thirst is not for material things
of this world, but prayers for goodness of the spirit, which is admirable.
Gary Snyder in his "Prayer for the Great Family"
from Turtle Island (1974), expresses gratitude to Mother Earth, Plants, Air,
Wild Beings, Water, Sun, and Great Sky after a Mohawk prayer.
"A Celebration of the Life and Work of Emily Dickinson" (2008),
and on February 13, 2008 presented
"The Music Emily Heard".
Emily often played the piano for her father's delight. She was inspired by many
hymns and wrote poems to their rhythm but with her point of view. In Poem 476,
Emily prays to the Great Spirit, saying she has "but modest needs" to be content.
Her request for "A Heaven not so large as Yours, / But large enough for me"
struck me as amour-soi rather than
amour-propre the latter love
comparing oneself to others according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the cause of evil.
Amour-soi or self-love without comparing to others is the cause of goodness,
since we care just for basic needs to be content. By not pursuing superiority over
others, Emily was content and focused in writing poetry that made her poems
immortal. Emily's modesty is similar to that of Socrates who at the end of Plato's
Phaedrus prays to the Gods for beauty within, and that he has enough
gold to carry with him for his moderate necessity. Because Emily and Socrates lived
the simple life, they were blessed to have their works of poetry and philosophy
to be everlasting for us to read and treasure.
I meant to have but modest needs
Such as Content and Heaven
Within my income these could lie
And Life and I keep even
But since the last included both
It would suffice my Prayer
But just for One to stipulate
And Grace would grant the Pair
And so upon this wise I prayed
Great Spirit Give to me
A Heaven not so large as Yours,
But large enough for me
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Poem 496 (1862)
(first 3 stanzas cited in 28-lines poem)
|Socrates Prayer to Pan
Oh dear Pan and all the other Gods
of this place, grant that I may be
beautiful inside. Let all my external
possessions be in friendly harmony
with what is within. May I consider
the wise man rich. As for gold,
let me have as much as a moderate
man could bear and carry with him.
Anything more? The prayer, I think,
is enough for me.
Phaedrus: Ask the same for me, for friends
should have all things in common.
Socrates: Let us go.
Socrates (470 BC-399 BC)
Sages on Prayer
Swami Chinmayananda had an insight about prayer during his lecture at MIT
(circa 1974) on the Bhagavad Gita that remained vivid with me.
He said "God is infinite Pure Consciousness while most of us are in
limited ego consciousness with our petty worldly desires. So when we
petition God to grant our wishes, it's as though Pure Consciousness
doesn't already know what we wish for." After hearing this revelation,
I told myself that it's not necessary to pray any longer, since God
knows my needs even before I ask for them (Matthew 6.8). So I meditated in earnest
to experience cosmic consciousness to better my scientific research
in protein structure as well as to live in peaceful harmony. Nevertheless
I was curious whether sages who are in pure consciousness pray at all
since they are free of desires, always in a state of bliss. We have seen
the sage Socrates praying to the Gods. Let's look at some other cases.
"And the moon and the stars are the same ones you see, it's the same old sun up in the sky.
Jesus who is one with the Father in Heaven
(John 10.30), prays often:
" And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him
unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent the multitudes away,
he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone."
(Matthew 14.22-23) *
"Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples,
Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder." (Matthew 26.36) *
"Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves."
"And when he rose up from prayer, and was come to his disciples, he found them sleeping for sorrow,
And said unto them, Why sleep ye? rise and pray, lest ye enter into temptation."
In Leaves of Grass (1855)
"Song of Myself" (line 398) Walt Whitman writes:
"Shall I pray? Shall I venerate and be ceremonious?"
This line sounds like Confucius (551 BC-479 BC). From
Lun Yu, VII.35:
The Master being seriously ill, Tzu-lu asked leave to pray for him.
The Master said "May such a thing be done?" Tzu-lu said, "It may.
Prayer has been made for thee to the spirits of the upper and lower
worlds." The Master said, "My praying has been for a long time."
From Lun Yu, III.17:
Tzu-kung wanted to do away with the sacrificial sheep at the announcement of the new moon.
The Master said, "Ts'ze, you love the sheep; I love the ceremony."
Whitman probably read Analects of Confucius, especially VII.35 & III.17
when he wrote line 398 about prayer and venerating ceremony. My Dad and Mom taught us the ethics of this Chinese sage. They were surprised
when I showed them Confucius saying "My praying has been for a long time."
Plotinus (204-270 AD) is an enlightened
sage who has delved into the soul's mysteries more than any other philosopher. His Enneads has
inspired Saint Augustine as well as philosophers (Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola), and poets
(Coleridge, Yeats, Kathleen Raine). Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained a union with the One
four times during the years he knew him. Here is Plotinus on prayer: "In venturing an answer,
we first invoke God Himself, not by uttering word but by way of prayer, leaning the soul towards
Him by aspiration, alone toward the Alone."
Saint Evagrios the Solitary
(345-399 AD), also known as Evagrios Pontikos was ordained reader by St. Basil the Great.
He accompanied St Gregory the Theologian to the Council of Constantinople in 381.
He draws upon the living experience of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, mainly Copts,
among whom he spent the last years of his life. Here are some insights from his On Prayer: 153 Texts: *
"Prayer is the fruit of joy and thankfulness." (15) *
"Prayer is the ascent of the intellect to God. If you long for prayer, renounce all to gain all." (36-37) *
"The state of prayer is one of dispassion, which by virtue of the most intense love transports
to the noetic realm the intellect that longs for wisdom." (53) *
"He who prays in spirit and in truth is no longer dependent on created things
when honouring the Creator, but praises Him for and in Himself." (60) *
"Pray gently and calmly, sing with understanding and rhythm; then you
will soar like a young eagle high in the heavens." (82) *
"If you seek prayer attentively you will find it; for nothing
is more essential to prayer than attentiveness. So do all you can to acquire it." (149) *
"If when praying no other joy can attract you,
then truly you have found prayer." (153) *
(from The Philokalia,
compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, 1979, pp. 55-71)
My first spiritual mentor Anthony Damiani regarded
Paul Brunton (1898-1981) as a sage who is always in
pure cosmic consciousness. When I visited Paul Brunton (PB) in his home at Corseaux sur Vevey
in September 1979, he received me warmly as always. On the walls of PB's living room were
large tankas of Oriental sages whom he admired the Neo-Confucian sage
Wang Yang Ming,
and "Confucius Holding a Cherry Branch". There was a smaller scroll with
Lao Tzu riding a water buffalo. But in PB's bedroom he just had a small postcard propped
up on his dressing bureau Jean François Millet's
I told PB about seeing this
painting at the Louvre when in Paris a month ago, and had bought a similar postcard.
PB said "Look at this couple simple farm folks, yet how humble, thanking the earth
for their daily food. We should keep our heart always simple and sincere just like that."
Whenever we ate together whether it's lunch or dinner, PB would always say
a short prayer: Thank you for this food on the table. May it nourish our
body, illumine our mind, strengthen our spirit O Mind of the World.
Now whenever I eat, I'm reminded of PB's prayer and Millet's L'Angelus.
PB's World Mind is similar to Emerson's
Over-Soul (1841) the Supreme Spirit that
transcends all duality (Emerson's essay).
Poems on Prayer
Let us look at two sage-poets in pure consciousness, Dante and Rumi, writing on prayer:
Paradiso, Canto 33.28-39
And I, who never burned for my own vision
more than I burn for his, do offer you
all of my prayers and pray that they may not
fall short that, with your prayers, you may disperse
all of the clouds of his mortality
so that the Highest Joy be his to see.
This, too, O Queen, who can do what you would,
I ask of you: that after such a vision,
his sentiments preserve their perseverance.
May your protection curb his mortal passions.
See Beatrice how many saints with her!
They join my prayers! They clasp their hands to you!"
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
Paradiso 33.28-39 (1321)
translated by Allen Mandelbaum
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You're covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
The Essential Rumi (1995), p. 22
translated by Coleman Barks
A Concordance to the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1965) reveals one citation of prayer (preghiera) in
and one in Purgatorio 11.22,
and none in Paradiso. Does this mean that Dante upon his arrival in paradise needs no longer
pray to the heavenly host? However a survey of the word "pray" (pregare, precare) shows Dante is continually praying in his
pilgrimage to paradise Inferno (10), Purgatorio (24), Paradiso (8). Praying occurs most in Purgatory
as this is the realm of the soul's purification in prepartion for paradise. I've cited Paradiso 33.28-39
as Saint Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary on Dante's behalf in his final beatific vision.
I've cited Rumi's "Quietness" as a poem on prayer since in his contemplative
state of illumination, Rumi has escaped "the prison wall" of his ego and was "born into color"
of cosmic consciousness. The "full moon" is out and his mind is fully awakened.
Moon in a Dewdrop
is a 1985 book on Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253). The Moon symbolizes enlightenment in Zen:
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet,
nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even
in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on
the grass, or even in one drop of water. Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the
moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water
does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon.
Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the
dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.
It's interesting that Dogen & Rumi were contemporaries. They are seeing the same
full moon in Japan and Turkey shining in the night sky. While Zen master Dogen
writes about the moon symbolizing enlightenment, Sufi master Rumi does likewise
in his "Quietness" poem as his mind leaps to the other side and becomes the sky.
John Denver had an epiphany when he was on the phone in Shanghai talking to his
wife in Minnesota, and realized that though they were a half a world away, they
were seeing the same full moon in the sky. This inspired his song
And your voice in my ear is like heaven to me like the breezes here in old Shanghai."
When I see the nine sages cited above living in pure cosmic consciousness
still in a state of prayer, who am I to be so presumptuous to claim of no need
for prayer? I now realized that my writing poems began in August 1972 during my first trip
to Europe. I had written a letter to the sage Paul Brunton (PB)
requesting a meeting,
and sought to purify my mind by meditating
on sunsets and artworks that inspired me.
When I did meet PB, he told me that he was not a guru, but the guru is within me. I made
my lab at Brandeis a garden of meditation and made the 20 amino acids my elfin friends.
Hence I was able to predict protein structures from their amino acid sequences and
delve into the language of nature without computer calculations. After changing my
career from biochemistry to poetry in 1987, it took awhile to learn and write free verse.
I learned that my best poems are those that end in surprise which I didn't anticipate
when writing them. Here are two such poems ending in prayer:
"The Study of Transformation" (1992) and
"Speculations on the Soul" (1993).
I thank Kay Ryan for bringing Christopher Smart's "A Song to David" for reading and discussion in class.
It triggered these ruminations about poetry and prayer as well as revisiting sages and poets whom I hold so dear.
Peter Y. Chou, February 9, 2010