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.

Silence: A Way to Wisdom

Silence: A Way to Wisdom

What happens in silence? Many argue that silence can invite reflection, contemplation, and discipline. In other words, silence  — along with inquiry — engages learning. It makes you wise. The significance of silence has been highlighted in practically all mystery traditions. Secrecy and silence play a big part in the masonic teaching. Pythagoras, one of the best known champions of silence, is thought to have said:

Silence is the first stone of the temple of wisdom. Listen and you will be wise; the beginning of wisdom is silence.

Silence is generally considered to mean quietness or not making any sound. And while this is indeed silence, I do not think it is everything silence is. It can also mean to preserve a secret, calm the emotions, or still the mind. There is no real silence when emotional tides are raging within us and when we find our monkey mind chattering to itself. 

Is cultivating silence a way to becoming wise?

I think it would be fair to say that for many Greek philosophers, the quest for wisdom was the be all and end all of philosophy. Basically, many of us want to be wise. To know the truth. To know thyself. To know others. To know our beliefs. To know answers Silence 2to questions. To know, know, know.

However, I am not sure we all want to know silence. Why?

The practice of silence invites us to not-know. Is there room in our seeking for not-knowing? Is there space in our pursuit for un-knowing? Listening? Unlearning? For dumping how we have come to cherish our beliefs? To dismiss the knowledge that we carry in our small boxes of understanding? To be open to a magnificent, wondrous world of undiscovered realities? To hold a mystery?

Can we embrace a secret? Can we live in the question?

The Pythagoreans were huge advocates of secrecy and silence. A wonderful little book called Divine Harmony describes the Pythagorean way of life as it is thought to have existed, although we know little for sure. To become a member, an Initiate took an oath of silence for two to five years. Novices were called “listeners” and were not permitted to partake in class discussions. The ancient brothers were quite serious about silence, believing it develops powers of attention and memory.

The school curriculum consisted of developing a host of virtues in the students. Silence 3Knowledge was transmitted symbolically, through cryptic statements and riddles.

The Pythagorean Y

One of the symbols studied was called the “Pythagorean Y.” Manly P. Hall explains:

The famous Pythagorean Y signified the power of choice and was used in the Mysteries as emblematic of the Forking of the Ways. The central step separated into two parts, one branching to the right and the other to the left. The branch to the right was called Divine Wisdom and the one to the left Earthly Wisdom.

This symbol reminds me of the fork in the road that Robert Frost talks about in his poem,  “The Road Not Taken.” Earthly wisdom or Divine Wisdom? Each path corresponds to a different direction his life may take. He must choose carefully. Left turn or right turn? Mundane or spiritual?

I look back on my own life, wondering how many times I have faced that fork (and still do). I do not always take the road “less traveled.” Sometimes it is just easier to be busy with the mindless daily grind. Wise people are people who make the hard choices, who know things – things that matter. They put that knowledge to good use in practice. I saw a saying the other day on someone’s T shirt that said:

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

Confucius, another wise person, once said that there were three ways to learn Wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and

Third by experience, which is the bitterest.

As we can see the ancient philosophers thought a lot about the nature of wisdom and silence. But what relevance does it have for our modern times?

Silence in a Modern World

First, it seems to me that silence is a very good thing. The powers of observation can lead to truth and wisdom. Moreover, seeking truth and finding wisdom both have Silence 4instrumental value to the modern world.

On the other hand, not all silences are created equal. Some silences don’t lead to truth. We could, I suppose, spend all our time in silence seeking to know every possible truth, but that does not seem like the path of wisdom. What we want to know are silences that matter, that lead to those truths that are relevant to our practical projects and society. Some truths are clearly more actionable than others.

I find encouragement in the exemplary lives of those who have practiced silence, people like Gandhi, the Indian civil rights leader. He is one of the wisest people I know that did great things while being dedicated to spending one day a week in silence. For him, it was a choice to continue to redeem the world and to save the world from our own selves. He knew that a person cannot be wise if he arrogantly over-estimates the power of his own beliefs and judgments. There needs to be humility: to listen and learn, and to give other voices their due.

Thomas Carlyle, philosopher and writer, speaks of a Ghandi type of silence in Sartor Resartus:

Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.

The great things are not “over there” somewhere. They are all right here, where we are, waiting in silence, the element of not-knowing. Vast. Majestic. Subtle. No knowing them. No rushing them. No trapping them. Only accepting the silence for what it is. And what it will become.