Saturday, December 3, 2011

A lost sonnet of St. Augustine

A Lost Sonnet of Saint Augustine
This fragment, never published, was found among the late Saint’s papers.
 It appears here for the first time,  translated by your servant  from the original Latin.
Remarkably for a medieval work, it treats of the topic -- a favorite of the ancients, but much neglected since -- of the place of the woodchuck, in God's scheme of things.

Sanctus Augustinus Cantuariensis

Instructed readers will immediately recognize this as the work of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, the Apostle of England, where woodchucks -- or something very like them -- wondrously abound;  and not that of his name-mate, late of Hippo,  where God’s humblest creature, the groundhog, is seldom to be found.
It treats of the thesis of the Scala naturae -- the Great Chain of Being  -- and indeed seems destined to become the definitive statement of that worthy doctrine.  Specifically it asserts the notion  later put thus by Pope:

            From Nature’s chain  whatever link you strike,
            tenth, or ten-thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

Or,  more analytically:

The chain of being … made vivid  the idea of a related universe  where no part was superfluous.  It enhanced the dignity of all creation, even of the meanest part.
-- E. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (1942)

Hi ma its me  down there at the bottom somewhere! -- Mr Bug

And so to the sonnet -- and the linguistic sensation of this century.

Not by Pride

‘Twas not by Pride he sank to ’s low Estate,
the Humble Woodchuck  lowly  hugs the ground,
not curs’d to limblessness for serpent’s sin,
for he was thus   since e’er the world began.

Not for him the proud cock’s rooftop crow,
nor raptor’s roar :  all mute  he chews the weeds.
No rainbow like the peacock's  bears our friend,
though he, like him, was once hand-crafted too.

From ants to angels  reacheth Nature’s scale.
Each creature decks the rung that him befits.
Aloft, the sounding choirs of Seraphim;
Beneath, the groundhog  creeps along the mold.

Yet this I say to you, and speak it true:
Not Solomon in all his glory  was e’er arrayed like one of these.


“I have examined this sonnet in every detail, and concluded, without a doubt, that it is genuine.”
-- Prof. Ernest “Ern” Malley,  gentleman and scholar

Update:   The extraordinary scholarly controversy that has arisen over this remarkable poem  is given a judicious summary here.

[Update April, 2014]  Note:  The greatly overrated Appalachian poet J. Francis Shade  cribbed extensively, shamelessly, from St. Augustine’s unpublished works.  We won’t detail his many “borrowings” (larcenies, would be more like it);  we merely wish to set the record straight.