Poetry is “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.” Poetry tends to be those written works which are short in phrase or sentence and long on emotion, wanting to evoke sympathy or empathy in the reader. Poetry may take stiff, rhythmic inflection or it may be flowing, more akin to prose. From Auden to Shakespeare to Solomon, poetry has struck a chord in human consciousness for thousands of years and its popularity has not waned in modernity.
Poetry, in a modern mindset, may not feel very relevant. We have, literature-wise, moved from very constructed and structured forms of poetry to the later 20th and early 21st century use of exploded syntax, compound words, and disjointed phrasing. Modern poetry uses the impact of singular language to convey emotions based on the listener’s personal experience. While this is true of all poetry, the poetry of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were far more lyrical and visual, wrapping the listener into not only the emotional impact of words but drawing them into a mindset where those emotions were relevant.
An example is the poem “Victor” by W.H. Auden. It is a ballad form to tell the story of one man’s life journey. It starts thus:
Victor was a little baby,
Into this world he came;
His father took him on his knee and said:
Don’t dishonour the family name.
Victor looked up at his father
Looked up with big round eyes:
Victor, my only son,
Don’t you ever tell lies.
This is a very rigid structure, true to Auden’s voice and style and while it does evoke very specific emotions, it does so in the context of a very visual story.
Over the past three centuries, there have been many writers who have joined the Masonic Fraternity: Robert Burns, Joseph Fort Newton, Manley Palmer Hall, Carl H. Claudy, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Swift, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Walter Scott, Oscar Wilde, and Alexander Pope. Very few of these authors wrote directly about Freemasonry and even fewer were poets.
In reading some Masonic poems, it is clear that while there is form and structure, there are varying degrees of illustration. Brother Robert Burns, who wrote specifically about becoming a Mason, has a lyrical style and dancing emotion, with little meaning to the non-Mason:
A Mason’s Song (excerpt)
I cryed and wailed but nought availed
He put a forward face on
And did avow that he was now
A free accepted Mason.
Still doubting if the fact was true
He gave me demonstration
For out he drew before my view
The Jewels of a Mason.
Rudyard Kipling, known for his beautiful and insightful poetry, penned this, “A Pilgrim’s Way,” specifically about Masonry. The first stanza is below.
A Pilgrim’s Way
I do not look for holy saints to guide me on my way,
or male and female devilkins to lead my feet astray.
If these are added, I rejoice — if not, I shall not mind
So long as I have leave and choice to meet my fellow-kind.
For as we come and as we go (and deadly-soon go we!)
The people, Lord, Thy people, are good enough for me!
While I find such poetry easy to relate to as a Freemason, I struggle with the idea of Masonic poetry bringing about the same emotions as the actual experience of Freemasonry. Metaphysical or esoteric poetry of the Age of Enlightenment seems to be more fitting to stimulating the Masonic ideals that the ritual may provide. Think, John Donne or John Davies. Yet, there can be some Masonic Poetry which stirs the ideals in the listener, be they Freemason or not. Take this example, from 1915 by Freemason C. M. Boutelle, entitled “In Fellowship.”
My foot to thy foot, however thy foot may stray;
Thy path for my path, however dark the way.
My knee to thy knee, whatever be thy prayer;
Thy plea my plea, in every need and care.
My breast to thy breast, in every doubt or hope;
Thy silence mine too, whatever thy secret’s scope.
My strength is thy strength, whenever thou shalt call;
Strong arms stretch love’s length, through darkness, toward thy fall!
My words shall follow thee, kindly warning, fond,
Through life, through drear death-and all that lies beyond!
Masons and non-Masons alike can relate to this kind of call of strength in character and love; however, the Freemason will find it particularly significant due to his or her experiences within Freemasonry. There are many beautiful examples of poetry of Freemasons which can be both affecting and lyrical, pleasant to the soul and to the ear. A good deal of Masonic poetry espouses the ideals of the Order in many ways which do not specifically discuss ritual. Even Albert Pike, a thorough ritualist and writer, brought a Freemason’s ideals to poetry. An example of one of his poems is below.
The Struggle for Freedom
The Ancient Wrong rules many a land, whose groans
Rise swarming to the stars by day and night,
Thronging with mournful clamour round the thrones
Where the Archangels sit in God’s great light,
And, pitying, mourn to see that Wrong still reigns,
And tortured Nations writhe in galling chains.
From Hungary and France fierce cries go up
And beat against the portals of the skies;
Lashed Italy still drinks the bitter cup,
And Germany in abject stupor lies;
The knout on Poland’s bloody shoulders rings,
And Time is all one jubilee of kings.
It will not be so always. Through the night
The suffering multitudes with joy descry
Beyond the ocean a great beacon-light,
Flashing its rays into their starless sky,
And teaching them to struggle and be free, —
The Light of Order, Law, and Liberty.
Take heart, ye bleeding Nations; and your chains
Shall shiver like thin glass. The dawn is near,
When Earth shall feel, through all her aged veins
The new blood pouring; and her drowsy ear
Hear Freedom’s trumpet ringing in the sky,
Calling her braves to conquer or to die.
Arm and revolt, and let the hunted stags
Against the lordly lions stand at bay! —
Each pass, Thermoplæ, and all the crags,
Young Freedom’s fortresses! — and soon the day
Shall come when Right shall rule, and round the thrones
that gird God’s feet shall eddy no more groans.
Poetry specific to the Masonic experience can be found mostly in the 20th Century, and on several Freemasonry websites. The goals and ideals of Freemasonry can be found throughout these sites as well, and perhaps even more so in the actual writings of Freemasons, like Pike. It’s worth the journey to see what might speak to the modern mind.