Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wide, Wide in the Rose’s Side

We went to the cathedral for Mass today, which we hadn’t done for some time. For a while we were going there every Sunday, though it’s a 20-mile (32km) drive. When gasoline was so expensive a year or two ago we stopped, and got into the habit of going to the 5:30pm Mass at our local parish. Not being a morning person, I rather like going to Mass on Sunday evening; it’s nice not to have to get up and be in a hurry to get somewhere, and most of the day can be quite leisurely, with Mass as the late afternoon-early evening main event.

But we went to the cathedral today, partly because we’re going to be out of town on Christmas Day and won’t be able to go then. One of the main attractions there is the choir, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, and they sang a really striking piece today: it’s by Joel Martinson and is a setting of this text:

Wide, wide in the rose’s side
Sleeps a child without sin
And any man who loves in this world
Stands there on guard over him.

The music was beautiful, but the text really knocked me out. “Wide, wide” is obscure, but in the rest of those lines you have in a few words something important about the essence of manhood. I could say more but I’m afraid it would be clumsy; just read the verse again, and think about it.

The text was not attributed, and I had to know where it came from. I supposed it must be medieval, though rendered in modern English; that might, I thought, account for the strangeness of the first line. And “in the rose’s side” is very beautiful, and the sort of almost shocking image that one finds in old Christian poetry.

So as soon as I got home I got on the computer and searched for it, and could not have been more surprised when I found the name of the author: Kenneth Patchen, a 20th century American who wrote in a sort of beat/surrealist manner. I had a brief enthusiasm for his work when I was in my early ’t20s but haven’t read him since.

There is no mention in the Wikipedia bio of Patchen being a Christian, and I wouldn’t have guessed it from what I remember of his work. But it sure seems like he was when he wrote those lines.

You can read more about the piece here, and hear a 30-second sample of it here (it’s track #22).