Thursday, July 21, 2016

Snapdragon: Newman and Sayers

I've been completing my preparations for my presentation on Dorothy L. Sayers at Saturday's Inkling Festival and I make some comparisons between Sayers and Newman in the course of my talk. They both tried to make the Gospel real to their audiences; Newman in his pulpit at St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford; Sayers in her essays and the radio play, The Man Born to Be King on the BBC.

Then I was looking at an on-line collection of her poetry and found out that they had another connection: the snapdragon.

Newman thought that he would be living and working in Oxford all his life. He took the presence of the snapdragon growing on the walls of his alma mater Trinity College as the "emblem" of his "own perpetual residence even unto death in [his] University. Joyce Sugg took that image of the "Snapdragon in the Wall" as the subtitle of her biography of Newman originally published in 1965.

Newman wrote a poem about the snapdragon as "A Riddle for a Flower Book":

I AM rooted in the wall
Of buttress'd tower or ancient hall;
Prison'd in an art-wrought bed.
Cased in mortar, cramp'd with lead;
Of a living stock alone
Brother of the lifeless stone.

Else unprized, I have my worth
On the spot that gives me birth;
Nature's vast and varied field
Braver flowers than me will yield,
Bold in form and rich in hue,
Children of a purer dew;
Smiling lips and winning eyes
Meet for earthly paradise.
Choice are such,—and yet thou knowest
Highest he whose lot is lowest.
They, proud hearts, a home reject
Framed by human architect;
Humble-I can bear to dwell
Near the pale recluse's cell,
And I spread my crimson bloom,
Mingled with the cloister's gloom.
Life's gay gifts and honours rare,
Flowers of favour! win and wear!
Rose of beauty, be the queen
In pleasure's ring and festive scene.
Ivy, climb and cluster, where
Lordly oaks vouchsafe a stair.
Vaunt, fair Lily, stately dame,
Pride of birth and pomp of name.
Miser Crocus, starved with cold,
Hide in earth thy timid gold.
Travell'd Dahlia, freely boast
Knowledge brought from foreign coast.
Pleasure, wealth, birth, knowledge, power,
These have each an emblem flower;
So for me alone remains
Lowly thought and cheerful pains.
Be it mine to set restraint
On roving wish and selfish plaint;
And for man's drear haunts to leave
Dewy morn and balmy eve.
Be it mine the barren stone
To deck with green life not its own.
So to soften and to grace
Of human works the rugged face.
Mine, the Unseen to display
In the crowded public way,
Where life's busy arts combine
To shut out the Hand Divine.

Ah! no more a scentless flower,
By approving Heaven's high power,
Suddenly my leaves exhale
Fragrance of the Syrian gale.
Ah! 'tis timely comfort given
By the answering breath of Heaven!
May it be! then well might I
In College cloister live and die.

October 2, 1827.

Eighty-nine years later Dorothy L. Sayers had her first book of poetry published by Blackwell's in Oxford and it includes a poem title SNAP-DRAGONS:

I have the streets in mind
And the yellow sun,--
    Lad, you are left behind,--
    All that is done.

Snap-dragons on the wall
Were homely to see,--
    What was it after all
    But vanity?

Snap-dragons on the wall
In my garden too,--
    There is little to recall
    For me and you.

Dead blossoms adrift
Are falling away,--
    You never gave me a gift
    Would last for a day.

Swift is darkness -- swift
The death of a flower,--
    I never gave you a gift
    Would last for an hour.

Gone is the level light
From the wide lands,--
    I would be glad to-night
    Of the touch of your hands.

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