The first life, in the mother’s womb is spent,
Where she her nursing power doth only use;
Where, when she finds defect of nourishment,
She expels her body, and this world she views.
This we call Birth; but if the child could speak,
He Death would call it; and of Nature plain,
That she would thrust him out naked and weak,
And in his passage pinch him with such pain.
Yet, out he comes, and in this world is placed
Where all his Senses in perfection bee:
Where he finds flowers to smell, and fruits to taste;
And sounds to hear, and sundry forms to see.
When he hath past some time upon this stage,
His Reason then a little seems to wake;
Which, though the spring, when sense doth fade with age,
Yet can she here no perfect practise make.
Then doth th’aspiring Soul the body leave,
Which we call Death; but were it known to all,
What life our souls do by this death receive,
Men would it birth or gaol delivery call.
In this third life, Reason will be so bright,
As that her spark will like the sun-beams shine,
And shall of God enioy the real sight.
Being still increased by influence divine.
O ignorant poor man! what dost thou bear
Locked up within the casket of thy breast?
What jewels, and what riches hast thou there!
What heavenly treasure in so weak a chest!
Look in thy soul, and thou shalt beauties find,
Like those which drowned Narcissus in the flood:
Honour and Pleasure both are in thy mind,
And all that in the world is counted Good.
And when thou think’st of her eternity,
Think not that Death against her nature is;
Think it a birth: and when thou goest to die,
Sing like a swan, as if thou went’st to bliss.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
We think of birth as a beginning, and indeed it is, but for the child it is also an ending. When a baby emerges from the safety of the womb, she finds her tears quickly. The travails of her transposition are quickly assuaged by the new dimensions in which she experiences her mother, for where once she knew her in a darkened place, she now resides face to face in the loving embrace of her arms.
We likewise embrace this womb of earthly life without appreciation or understanding of that which is to come. As Malcom Guite writes in The Word in the Wilderness:
If you could talk to a babe in the womb and tell it what was about to happen at birth, it would quite understandably fear it and say ‘No thanks! I’m quite comfortable where I am, I don’t want to lose everything I know!’ And it would take a great act of faith for the babe to trust that far from losing the mother who has wombed him there in the familiar darkness, he is now going to have a whole new adventure in which, at last he will see that mother face to face! But first must come the trauma of birth. And so it is with us, contemplating the time when we too will leave the womb of this world.
What will it be like to see God face to face?
1 Corinthians 13:12
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
(1569–1626). The Englishman John Davies distinguished himself as a poet and as a statesman. His famous work Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing reveals a typically Elizabethan pleasure in the contemplation of the correspondence between the natural order and human activity.
Davies was born in April 1569 in Tisbury, Wiltshire, England. Educated at the University of Oxford, he was called to the bar in 1595. On the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, Davies was one of the messengers who carried the news to James VI of Scotland, who succeeded Elizabeth as James I. James received him with great favor, sent him to Ireland as solicitor general, and conferred a knighthood on him. In 1606 Davies was made attorney general for Ireland. He took an active part in the Protestant settlement of Ulster, a province in the northeastern part of the island of Ireland, and wrote several tracts on Irish affairs. He entered the Irish Parliament and was elected speaker in 1613, and after he returned to England he sat in the English Parliament of 1621. He was appointed lord chief justice in 1626 but died later that year, on December 8, before taking office.
Much of Davies’ early poetry consisted of epigrams. Epigrammes and Elegies by J.D. and C.M. (1590?) contained both Davies’ work and posthumous works by Christopher Marlowe; it was one of the books the archbishop of Canterbury ordered burned in 1599. Orchestra (1596) is a poem in praise of dancing set against the background of Elizabethan cosmology and its theory of the harmony of the spheres. In Nosce teipsum (1599; Know Thyself), he gave a lucid account of his philosophy on the nature and immortality of the soul. In the same year he published Hymnes of Astraea in Acrosticke Verse, a series of poems in which the initials of the first lines form the words Elisabetha Regina in honor of Queen Elizabeth. A volume of his collected poems was published in 1622.
“Davies, John,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.
Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.