Masonic Poetry

Masonic Poetry

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

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.”

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.

What is Literature? Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

What is Literature? Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

In 2016,  Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, sparking controversy as to whether song lyrics constitute literature. What is literature, and does Bob Dylan’s work qualify him for the Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prize in Literature

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “literature” as “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” When Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament in 1895, he bequeathed the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes now referred to as the Nobel Prizes. As stipulated in his will, one of the prizes would be dedicated to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Instituted in 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 109 times to 113 Nobel Laureates, a group which includes the Freemasons Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, and John Steinbeck.

nobelprize2016-litIn 2016, the Swedish Academy stated that they chose Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Following the announcement, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Professor Sara Danius, provided further explanation as to why Dylan was selected stating, “He is a great poet in the English speaking tradition.” When asked if the Academy had widened the horizon of the Nobel Prize in Literature, she replied, “It may look that way, but really we haven’t.” Professor Danius further compared Dylan’s work to that of Homer and Sappho, which were “meant to be performed,permanent-secretary-of-the-swedish-academy-sara-danius2016 often together with instruments.”

Bob Dylan: Lyrical Poet

Born in 1941, Bob Dylan has been influencing popular music and culture for more than five decades as a songwriter, singer, and artist. In the 1960s, Dylan’s work channeled America’s social unrest, and his songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin,” became anthems for the American Anti-War and Civil Rights movements. Dylan’s songwriting incorporated controversial subjects such as politics, race relations, philosophy, and religion. His music changed established pop music conventions and expanded the influence of music on the American public. As one of the best-selling artists of all time, Dylan has sold more than 100 million records. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Bob Dylan’s songwriting has also been recognized by the Pulitzer Prize Jury, who awarded him a special citation in 2008 on account of “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

With thirty-seven released studio albums, the list of songs credited to Bob Dylan is extensive and diverse. Below are lyrics from a few of his most celebrated works.

Every Grain of Sand

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake. Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break. 

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand. In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

All Along the Watchtowerevery-grain-of-sand

“There must be some way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” 

“No reason to get excited,” the Thief, he kindly spoke. “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

Blowin’ in the Wind

How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free? How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Shelter From the Storm

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood. When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud. I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. “Come in,'” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line. Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine. If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born. “Come in,'” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.'”

Literature and the Masonic Philosophical Society

The Masonic Philosophical Society was created to destroy ignorance through enabling greater understanding of the sciences, arts, and humanities. Each Masonic Philosophical Society Study Center is designed to ignite discussion centered on nine topics of study, one of which is Literature which is described on the MPS website as “one of the most enduring of man’s creations, giving us glimpses masonicphilosophicalsocietyof our past, present and future.” When Professor Sara Danius compared Dylan’s lyrics to the works of the ancient poets Homer and Sappho, she demonstrated how poetic works can transcend time and connect the ancient past to our current world. Is it too far a stretch to compare Bob Dylan’s lyrics to Homer’s “Be still my heart; thou hast known worse than this” from The Odyssey? Could the lyrics from Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” be considered similar to Dylan’s ballads when she wrote, “come to me once more, and abate my torment; Take the bitter care from my mind, and give me all I long for?”

The question remains for many as to whether Bob Dylan’s work qualified him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The album lyrics published do, indeed, meet the criteria of “written works” mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary albeit most people are more familiar with hearing Dylan’s songs rather than reading his lyrics. In my opinion, the question as to whether Bob Dylan’s musical lyrics constitute “superior or lasting artistic merit” is a somewhat subjective determination,  which the Swedish Academy is at liberty to decide as they see fit. What do you think?