Friday, December 12, 2008

Gloria In Profundis


G.K. Chesterton

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
It all started with Chuck, asking me if I could just explain one line of this poem:
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.
To which I said:
Chesterton is talking about the beauty of the world, the "wine" of the world, the gifts of the earth and all its beauty and splendor, and being spilt on the sand, I believe he is saying that we don't know what we've got, we don't appreciate the beauty we have, it's wasted on us who are blind to it (for the most part). We do occasionally partake of the wine of the world, glory in a sunset, stop and wonder at the beauty of a landscape, smell the roses, etc. But most of our lives, that beauty is wasted on us: spilt on the sand.
To which Chuck luckily said, tell me more. So, I asked some other Chestertonians, and a few who are poets, and got some great responses, which I have to share with you, and especially during this time of Advent, when this all seems so profound, as it were.

Peter said:
it is rather like things in The Everlasting Man.... maybe this is a poetic version extended into the prose of The Everlasting Man .... the idea that even pagan Rome, victorious over Carthage, could not fix the Fall. The sand makes me think of the Arena (Latin arena = English sand) see GKC's poem of that name - the scene of battle and death was converted by She who saw her Son die... the paradox in "She whose name is Seven Sorrows and the Cause of all our Joy"...
And Chris said:
I'm really not sure what to say here, except that in the context of the poem, GKC is saying that earthly, material pleasures don't count for much in the long run, since they are innately ephemeral and sometimes self-destructive. Wines can "brim over" when they're improperly stored or contaminated, making them impossible to pour neatly (such as when a heated bottle of champagne is opened- it makes an awful mess). Wines can become unstable due to gaseous accumulation, producing awful smells. "The wine of the world" could contrast with, say, the transubstantiated wine used in the Eucharist.
Sheila said:
had not read this poem before, so I pulled out my Collected Works volume and looked it up. It's amazing! I think I will blog on the complete thing tomorrow. But, in answer to the question about the one line about the wine of the world: I think the "wine of the world" is supposed to be its pleasures and delights. These Chesterton always acknowledged as great things--hence the word "splendour". But he always said we should thank God for wine by not drinking too much of it. When these worldly pleasures are excessive, they overflow their bounds and, as a result, are lost and wasted. A good portion of his book about St. Francis of Assisi discusses this very topic -- how, at the beginning of Christianity, hedonism was at a height, and the only cure for it was asceticism. When the pleasures of the world had been purged of their excess, they could be enjoyed again.
And Rob said:
The whole poem is in praise of humility, using Chesterton's favorite upside down imagery. The main idea is the humility of the Incarnation, contrasted with the pride of the fallen angels. In the first verse, there is a series of contrasting images of something great which God is greater than, and something humble which He is become humbler than: too great for the sky / fallen on earth, burst the bonds of eternity / into the terminal land. The wine and the sand line is one of these. The wine of the world is the same as the blood that is spilt, meaning the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the wine of the world running over is a reference to Psalm 32, so this is the exalted half of the image, whereas the blood spilt of the sand--I say it's a reference to the scourging at the pillar, my father thinks it might be to the martyrdoms and the sand spread on arena floors, though there's no reason it couldn't suggest both--is the humble half.

So then find those same pairs throughout the poem: in the second verse, note that this juxtaposition is what makes the proud ridiculous. In the third, note the reversal of the contrast in the fallen angels: desire to be exalted drives them to debase themselves. In the final verse note the result of all these inversions is the nativity. Note also the first line is an English translation of the title.
Which I think ties it all in nicely.

Thanks, Chuck, for this interesting question, and thanks Chestertonian folks, for providing such insightfully wonderful answers.


  1. I LOVED this poem. I should set it to music someday.

  2. Wow, I had wondered why you wanted anything from me about this, having such eminent people to ask. But you posted something from everyone, and I'm amazed to see what wide (and deep) responses the poem elicited. Very interesting -- and good.

    Wonderful poem, by the way; thank you for introducing me to it.


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