Bursts of Inspiration in Other Directions

Christian Response to ‘When forty Winters Shall Beseige Thy Brow’ – William Shakespeare

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d where all they beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praised deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer–‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse–‘
Proving this beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new-made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st cold.

The physical beauty of womanhood serves many purposes in the economy of God. Primarily it anticipates the beauty of the church, the blood-washed bride of Christ. In addition, it ensures that men are attracted to a mate so that families are created, and the human race is perpetuated. Feminine beauty can also add an aesthetic dimension to relationship; it is important to look fresh for the sake of others. If the physical beauty of youth is depended upon, and attention is not given to inner graces (like long-suffering, patience, kindness, etc.), then a woman’s attractiveness has an end. Age will not be avoided, nor shall its imprint be erased. It shall appear as “deep trenches in … beauty’s field.” Shakespeare addresses the inevitable by suggesting that beauty can be reproduced in offspring. For Shakespeare, then, it is essential that a young woman make it her duty to marry and prove “beauty by succession.”

As the inevitable is painted in word-pictures, there is a sense of hopelessness which is characterized by such words as: “winters shall besiege thy brow,” “dig deep trenches,” “tatter’d weed of small worth,” “deep sunken eyes,” and “all-eating shame.” This changes at the volta, however:

“How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,”

The tone now becomes one of potential solution. Although, the poem finishes with a melancholy note: a feeling of coldness prevails in the presence of new blood; the death of personal beauty is guaranteed, but beauty as a form continues in progeny.

Sonnets have always been the favoured form of poets to express love, and the more important issues of life. The theme of Shakespeare’s verse is better served in the genre of the sonnet. As mentioned before, Shakespeare’s use of words contrasts sharply with his theme of physical beauty. There is a steady down-ward progression of images, moving towards the grave coldness of the final couplet. However, imposed upon this down-ward movement is the sense of resurrection, or at least a sense of hope in the midst of the unavoidable.

The last line of the second quatrain suggests personal responsibility for the loss of physical beauty. The dissipation of youth creates a guilty conscience that is plagued by “an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.” Procreation, therefore, sports an element of penance for youth’s wantonness.

When read aloud, the words of the poem make their passage with difficulty. Facing up to the consequences of our youthful indiscretions, and the steady encroachment of old age, is a very difficult and painful process.

Shakespeare has a point, if the poem is considered from a purely humanistic perspective. Physical beauty does fade, and more quickly if it is through foolish youthful dissipation. There is a sense of physical beauty having its regeneration in our progeny. However, it is not physical beauty which is eternal. The real beauty of a woman is described by the Apostle Peter as “the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”

Bursts of Inspiration in Other Directions

Response to John Buyan’s poem “Sin”

Sin is the living worm, the lasting fire;
Hell soon would lose its heat could sin expire.
Better sinless in Hell than to be where
Heaven is and to be found a sinner there.

One sinless with infernals might do well,
But sin would make of heaven a very Hell.
Fools make a mock of sin, will not believe
It carries such a dagger in its sleeve.

How can it be, say they, that such a thing
So full of sweetness ere should wear a sting?
They know not that it is the very spell
Of sin to make men laugh themselves to Hell.

The Apostle Paul, in the seventh chapter of the book of Romans, writes that “sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.”  Man’s struggle with sin has been the focus of much thinking and writing over the centries.  Bunyan himself has also written comprehensively on the topic.  His poem, bearing the title ‘Sin’, expresses his conviction in regards to the exceeding sinfulness of sin.  Much of modern Christendom has lost its hatred of sin.  There exists a flirtation with, and casualness about, the malady that riveted our Lord to the cross, causing Him to suffer the cruelest death ever experienced in the history of mankind.

Sin is the living worm, the lasting fire;

From the first line, Bunyan would have us imagine the worst concerning sin.  His intention is to evoke a fear that hopefully would shake the fool from his complacency.  Such complacency, if not arrested, causes men to “laugh themselves to Hell.”

Buyan’s use of words like ‘fire’, ‘Hell’, ‘infernals‘, ‘dagger’, etc., is designed to evoke in the reader a sense of the torment of Hell.  This is the destination of all who die in their sin.  Jesus described Hell as a place where the fire shall never be quenched, and where the worm never dies.  It evokes the imagery of never-ending, excruciating pain: a constant gnawing, with no let-up forever and ever.

The poem is written in the style of the Heroic Couplet, each line constructed with an iambic pentameter.  This poetic form is reserved for those themes that are lofty and of grave importance.  The issue of the sinfulness of Man, and God’s total abhorrence of sin, is perhaps the greatest question to be addressed in the universe.  God clearly resolved the issue at Calvary.  Three stanzas, each containing two sets of rhyming couplets, carry the theme.  The choice of three stanzas is an interesting one.  Three is the number of the Godhead.  Sin is the great issue that God in Christ has addressed through the Cross.  There were three crosses at the scene where Christ made the redemptive transaction, taking upon Himself the sin of the whole world, and making available to all who would believe, His own gift of righteousness.  Jesus was three days and three nights in the grave, triumphing over Satan the author of sin, and triumphing over death, the just wages for sin.  On the other hand, two reflects the dual nature of Christ the Sin-bearer, who was both God and Man at the same time — two natures in one Person.

Bunyan’s choice of language is deliberate and carefully executed.  His use of contrast, amplifies the intensity of his description of sin.

One sinless with infernals might do well,
But sin would make of Heaven a very Hell.

Hell is made to sound even more Hellish when contrasted with Heaven.  The sting of death is made more real when held against the misapprehension of ‘sweetness’, by the fool.  ‘living worm’ and ‘lasting fire’ are juxtaposed against the mockery and laughter of utter fools.  Malevolence is suggested by the image of ‘a dagger in its sleeve’, which is an image common in clandestine and violent scenes.  Paul, elsewhere in the Scriptures, quotes the Old Testament passage, “O death where is they sting?”  Bunyan, on the other hand, attributes this deathly sting to sin, as a precursor to Hell.  The poem is full of ‘s’ sounds, thirty-three in such a short poem.  This adds to the Hellish tone of the poem.  It underscores the sound of sin, but subtly introduces the hiss of the Serpent, the original author of sin.  In the same way, ‘fire’, ‘heat’ and ‘Hell’ all stir up a sense of the intensity of the consequence of sin — a consequence to be turned from.  His use of the word ‘spell’ also introduces the notion of witchcraft. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and hell is crowded with the original, and recruited, rebels against God’s throne in heaven.

Bunyan’s poem is inescapably biblical.  His imagery is lifted from the recorded words of Jesus and Paul on the subject.  To some of us, who have been raised under the humanistic preaching of much of modern Christendom, some of this imagery is foreign.  However, this does not change the reality that Bunyan is describing.  We would all do well to ponder His poem, and hopeful it will lead us to reconsider what Jesus meant when He spoke of the need to enter in at the narrow gate.  Many of us have been seduced by the apparent sweetness of sin.  In a drunken stupor we mock and laugh at those who concern themselves with the struggle against sin.  For some of us our conscience is so seared that we are not even aware of our wretchedness, and how close we travel to the pit of Hell.  Perhaps if we were to see into the pit, and hear the ceaseless, agonizing screams of those who find their eternal abode there, we would shed our mirth, and clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, bemoaning our exceeding sinfulness.

Bunyan has been read by millions, by many generations since he wrote in the seventeenth century.  His book ‘Pilgrims Progress’ has been a classic inspiration to countless Christians.  This poem ‘Sin’ focuses specifically on the issue of sin, and very powerfully draws our attention to its seductive nature.  As we analyse Bunyan’s treatment of this theme, we realize how timely his message is for every generation, and for every situation.  Having read and studied the poem, my desire is to fall to my knees and cry out to the Lord:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”