Last week I wrote about Tessimond’s mistrust of man seeking permanence through building. Today’s poem informs that view, but suggests something more complex:
In Canterbury Cathedral
Trees, but straighter than birches, rise to the sky
Of stone. Their branches meet in the sky of stone.
Stone fountains leap and meet: their traceries are
As light as lace. These prayers of stone were prayed
To a God I can’t believe in, but were made
By Man, men almost gods, in whom I can
Believe: were made as strong, to last as long
As time. I stare and pray to Man alone.
It is a small poem, but the weight of that final sentence: ‘I stare and pray to Man alone’, is nonetheless very forceful. Here, we are concerned with the separation of the sacred and profane in church architecture, and beyond that, the sense of atheistic belief in man.
The composition of the poem is fundamental to the expression of this view. ‘Trees’, the poem states, ‘rise to the sky / Of stone’. Not ‘Tree-like pillars’, but ‘Trees’. Whereas the idea of gothic architecture mimicking plant forms is not new (it builds upon the thoughts of Ruskin in The Stones of Venice), here the metaphor is absolute. The pillars do not resemble trees, but are trees; a transfiguration has taken place – stone has become tree, stone has become sky.
This repetition of the word ‘stone’ is sombre in the poem. In such a short piece it is carried out to a huge degree, to the point of repeating the phrase ‘sky of stone’ twice over within two sentences, and placing the word next to itself between lines 2 and 3. The effect is to ground the poem. The description of the architecture’s transfiguration is fanciful, it is ‘fountains leap’[ing] and ‘light as lace’; but the repetition of ‘stone’, reminds us of the true quality of this material. It is earthly, heavy. It suggests the near miracle that this structure should hold up at all.
This is very much the nature of the poem’s argument about the cathedral’s architecture. Though it might appear that these pillars are trees, the fact is that they remain as stone. Just as there might be an appearance of a God, the poem suggests that ultimately man is all there is. This is picked up in the rhyme of the final word of the poem. Resonance is given to the word ‘alone’ because we have read the word ‘stone’ so many times over before it. The poem’s prayer does not simply go out to Man’s achievements with the exclusion of a God, but to ‘Man alone’ as in ‘Man on his own’ – without a God above him.
Yet there is a respect for belief in this poem. The poem stands in awe of the cathedral, and acknowledges that it came about through ‘prayers of stone [...] prayed / To a God’, and to a large extent it seems to trust this building more than man’s personal desire for statuary, because it isn’t created to edify man himself. It is ‘a God I can’t believe in’; again an almost personal assumption of deficiency on the narrator’s part. It is the narrator who cannot believe, not necessarily the God that doesn’t exist. The indefinite nature of ‘a God’ implies a sense of this, and the notion of men being ‘almost gods’ evokes a terrific faith in mankind, a distinct sense of humanism in the poem. Man has created this amazing building, and if there is a God, then Man has achieved just as much as him: Man’s trees are ‘straighter than birches’ and they will ‘last as long / As time’.