April is National Poetry Month, so even though Alice Christina Meynell did not write fiction, I’m going to recommend her Catholic writings anyway. The first time I ran across Meynell, I was in a gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I discovered a delightful little book of love poems illustrated with paintings from the museum. I didn’t buy the book because it was too expensive, but I quickly memorized Meynell’s name and the first lines of her two poems in the collection and found them the next day using Granger’s Index of Poetry. They became two of my favorite poems. I give them to you here:
I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,
I shun the love that lurks in all delight–
The love of thee–and in the blue heaven’s height,
And in the dearest passage of a song.
Oh, just beyond the sweetest thoughts that throng
This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;
But it must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long.
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away,–
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gather’d to thy heart.
Farewell has long been said; I have forgone thee;
I never name thee even.
But how shall I learn virtues and yet shun thee?
For thou art so near Heaven
That Heavenward meditations pause upon thee.
Thou dost beset the path to every shrine;
My trembling thoughts discern
Thy goodness in the good for which I pine;
And, if I turn from but one sin, I turn
Unto a smile of thine.
How shall I thrust thee apart
Since all my growth tends to thee night and day–
To thee faith, hope, and art?
Swift are the currents setting all one way;
They draw my life, my life, out of my heart.
Meynell converted to Catholicism in 1868, and there is a romantic story that she fell in love with the priest under whom she received her instruction and that these poems are addressed to him. We do like our poets and their poems to have such tender stories attached to them. How delightfully melancholy to be torn by the paradox of a love which makes you a virtuous person (as true love should) but a love that you cannot as a virtuous person have. Most of Meynell’s poetry is Catholic in subject matter and “closely examines the human role in constructing and celebrating the Catholic faith, and it repeatedly explores the relationship of faith and art.”* Meynell married her husband Wilfred Meynell in 1877 and together they edited and wrote for the Catholic publications The Weekly Register and The Tablet. Meynell also contributed essays to The Spectator, The Saturday Review and The National Observer. Her poetical output was actually rather small and during her life she was admired as much as an essayist as a poet. She counted among her close friends the other members of the Catholic Literary Revival of the 1890′s including G.K. Chesterton, Francis Thompson, and Hilaire Belloc among others.
Doherty Library has two collections of Meynell’s poetry and one collection of her essays. I haven’t read her essays yet, but intend to do so this weekend.
* Gray, F. Elizabeth. “Alice Meynell.” The Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature. Ed. Mary R. Reichardt. ( Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 462.