A meditation on Canticles 4:8
This poem begins with an unmistakable picture of the heavenly Jerusalem come down to earth. In the first stanza, the poet tells us that his soul would become “inflamed” if he were only to see that city filled with saints and angels.
To understand the function and bite of the poem, you must first know what Taylor alludes as he writes:
Revelation 21:9–27 (AV)
9 And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife. 10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, 11 Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; 12 And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which arethe names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: 13 On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 15 And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. 16 And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. 17 And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. 18 And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. 19 And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; 20 The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. 22 And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. 23 And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. 24 And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. 25 And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. 26 And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. 27 And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
It is a city of remarkable beauty. And unlike the Garden of Eden, the serpent (something which would “defile”) the whole cannot enter:
Would God I in that Golden City were
With jaspers walld, all garnish, and made swash,
With precious stones, whose gates are pearls most clear,
And street pure gold, like to transparent glass.
That my dull soul might inflamed to see
How saints and angels ravish are in glee.
If I could only see that joy, how it would overcome my soul. He then begins to imagine what he could do if he were present in the City. “His story” would be his testimony of Christ’s redemption. The poet is unworthy of entrance – and yet his entrance his story would be the greatness not of himself, but of Christ who would love someone like him (as we shall see as the poem progresses):
Were I but there, and could but tell my story
‘Twould rub those walls of precious stones more bright;
And glaze those gates of pearl with brighter glory,
And pave the golden street with greater light.
‘Twould in fresh raptures saints and angels fling.
But I poor snake crawl here, scare mudwalld in.
The bite is in that last line. The poet is the defiled thing which has no right to entrance.
As an aside to the poem, there is the concept of being an imposter. When placed in a position where one is thought well of, where one is given position or power, the person who stops to self-reflect knows himself to be a fraud.
This poem points at a theological basis for that sensation: It is the heart of the Christian religion that human beings are meant to be with God. To be in the image of God is the highest possible conception of a human being. And simultaneously, we understand ourselves to be ruined creatures.
This remarkable inconsistency in our self-understanding creates a tremendous conflict in our self-understanding. As Lewis writes in Prince Caspian:
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”
If only I were to come to heaven, what praise I could bring. But if I were to come to heaven, I would be the serpent in Paradise.