Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reformer and Poet

One day in 1548, soon after Theodore Beza arrived in Geneva, John Calvin entered Beza's room, unbeknownst to his friend, and found lying on a desk a draft versification of Psalm 16 by the young Reformer. He took it, and with the agreement of other ministers to whom he showed the paper, succeeded in persuading young Beza to try his hand at further poetic versifications of the Psalms. This lead to the completion of the Genevan Psalter (1551-1562) following Clement Marot's early death (he died in 1544 having put 30 psalms to metre).

Earlier that year, before his conversion and arrival at Geneva, Beza in fact had published his Poëmata, or Juvenilia, a collection of poems written mostly before he turned 20 (he was 28 or 29 when they were published) dedicated his mentor (and Calvin's), Melchior Wolmar, that were more elegant and more innocent than later critics would assume. Beza would later describe his Latin epigrams as being "in imitation of the ancient poets," naming elsewhere Catullus and Ovid. He would later express regret for writing these particular poems, identifying them with the errors of his youth, though his opponents took occasion to ascribe a corruption to them which was not there. Henry Baird writes: "On that score, nothing more need be said than that not many of the Juvenilia are open to the charge of indelicacy, while many are above reproach" (Theodore Beza, Counsellor of the Reformation 1519-1605, p. 30).

But in his new life after conversion, he embraced the psalmody of Geneva, and tried to redeem his poetic gift. Thus, the Huguenot Psalter was completed and Reformation Psalmody was strengthened.

All his life, Beza retained a love of poetry. He regretted some of his youthful poetic labors and the fact that, rightly or wrongly, they became the basis of certain calumnies leveled against the Reformation. He would mainly write prose thereafter, but the Genevan Psalter is a shining example of how he would redeem his noteworthy poetic gifts. He continued to write poetry from time to time, as well as a play, Abraham Sacrifiant, published in 1550. It was translated into English in 1575 (published in 1577) by Arthur Golding under the title The Tragedy of Abraham's Sacrifice. It is available to read online in modern spelling here (and in the original spelling here).

Beza has been often quoted as saying, "I have never been able to repent of my love of poetry." The context of this statement is worthy of elaboration. It was in the preface to his play that he wrote:

I admit that by nature I have always delighted in poetry, and I cannot yet repent of it; but much do I regret to have employed the slender gifts with which God has endowed me in this regard, upon things of which the mere recollection at present makes me blush. I have therefore given myself to such matters as are more holy, hoping to continue therein hereafter.

There is in this statement some measure of guilt it seems, and there is a sense in which his religious poetic and playwright efforts are an expiation, or an atonement, for youthful misdeeds, real or perceived. Talents wastefully employed by him in younger days were applied to more serious and eternal endeavors. But the gifts themselves were not to be denied, and the poetry in Beza would flow all throughout his life.

He wrote an epigram upon the death of his dear friend, John Calvin, originally in Latin, which reads:

Rome's greatest terror he, whom now being dead
The best of men lament, the wicked dread:
Virtue itself from him might virtue learn; -
And dost thou ask why Calvin did not earn
A place more splendid for his last repose,
Than that small spot which does his bones inclose?
But know, that modesty even from the womb
Had been his guest, - and she has built his tomb.
O happy clod! thy tenant, great was he;
The gorgeous shrines may justly envy thee.

Not long after his wife Claudine died in 1588, he wrote a poem for Jacques Lect, a Councilman in Geneva who likewise lost his wife, in which he honored Claudine and expressed his own grief while consoling his friend.

In 1595, he wrote a poem to his friend Grynaeus, pastor of Basel. Henry Baird writes (ibid, pp. 341-342:

But up to the end of his life the passion for letters continued, and now that the time for sustained labours had clearly passed, it was chiefly in poetry that he continued to divert himself, the epigram which had been the pastime of his youth thus becoming the solace of his old age. The homeliest circumstance of every-day life afforded subject enough for verses — Latin verses, of course—in which the trivial occurrence was turned to spiritual account and made to bear a higher interpretation. In the freedom of familiar correspondence with his old friend, Grynaeus, the pastor of Basel, he jots down, for example, the fact that that very morning of his seventy-sixth birthday, his aged servant had greeted him on awaking with news from the poultry- yard. A hen had been bought a month before and had been lost sight of at once; she just now appears, but not alone; fifteen little chickens, her progeny, follow and crowd about her.

"You see," he writes to Grynaeus, "by this homely incident how unconventionally I treat you. I gave thanks for this increase of wealth to the Author of all good, and I saw in it—shall I tell you ?—without regarding myself in this as being guilty of superstition—the presage of some special favour. I even composed on this subject an epigram, and I send it to you, in order not to leave you a stranger to these light relaxations of my mind." Heppe, 315.

The eight verses enclosed were of faultless Latinity, but need not be transcribed here. The thought was simple but pious. The hen bought but a month ago rewards her purchaser, who expended for her but ten sous, with a whole brood of young. "And I, O Christ full of benignity, what fruits have I returned to Thee in the seventy-six years that I have lived until now?"

In the late 1590's, a curious rumor was spread that Beza was at death's door, and that indeed he had died, having returned to the Roman fold on his death-bed. Beza himself was very much alive and found it amusing (one may well imagine he would appreciate Mark Twain's remark that "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated") but found it necessary to dispel the rumor with a letter and satirical epigram.

There is a story told about a famous visitor who visited him around the year 1600 and found him busily scratching out and re-working poetic verses to which Beza pleasantly responded by saying "This is the way that I beguile my time!"

The last poem he published was a tribute to King Henry IV, who visited him in Geneva in 1599. "It was a poem of six stanzas, Ad inclytum Franciae et Navarrae regem Henricum IV. ("to the renowned King of France and Navarre, Henry IV.") 'It was his last, his swan song.'" (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8 § 175, quoting Heinrich Heppe, Theodor Beza. Leben und ausgewählte Schriften, p. 310).

Beza's poetry was a pleasant diversion or pastime for him, but a gift to the church, especially in the form of the Huguenot Psalter. He will always be remembered for his prose writings, but he was a poet and a playwright too, and if I may be permitted a brief allusion to a modern composer, Alan Lerner, "Don't let it be forgot / that once there was a spot" where poetry and the Reformation came together in Beza's Geneva.

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