Madonna with Child, Two Poems, Repetition

January 8, 2004 | no comments
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We talked below about the LDS vogue for portraying the vision of the Tree of Life, and the Renaissance vogue for Madonna’s with Child. Well right thereafter I discovered at my Mother-in-law’s a book of paintings of Madonna with Child. They included a smattering of everything—medieval miniatures to Chagall—but emphasized Pre-Raphaelite and Renaissance masters. O lovely, lovely!

Some of the paintings that most moved were
Madonna di Loreto, by Caravaggio


An 1872 painting by a man named Hébert, in the Church at La Tronche, France
The Black Madonna, which although an icon more than a masterpiece, has an appeal all its own
Madonna and Child with Angels, Fra Filippo

The book accompanied each picture with a some verse in the Authorized Version, a poem, or an oratorio excerpt. These two poems particularly moved me:

Christ my Apple Tree
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

This Fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive:
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive:
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree
-Joshua Smith

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath,
such a truth as ends all strife,
such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast,
such a feast as mends in length,
such a strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move,
such a love as none can part,
such a heart as joys in love.
-George Herbert

Both poems gain strength from repetition. Look at the last line in Herbert’s, for instance. I know that repetition is a popular feature of popular musical taste these days, both in lyrics and in tune; I wonder if modern poets have been missing the boat by not making more of it in their work. Nor need repetition be just a pander to the common taste. Repetition is, of course, a reminder, and in that sense often more important than learning new things. Repeating does more than remind. It also invests the repeated concept with a kind of transcendence and special character all its own. A phrase, properly repeated, can become a phrase to conjure by.

For the Herbert poem set to Vaughan’s music, go here.

For another favorite example of repetive poetry, see Browning’s Boot and Saddle. In this case, the repetiion is clearly linked to the popular tradition of ballads.

For a lament for the death of allegory and metaphor in everyday religous life, see here.

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