The Lion and the Honeycomb

Friedrich von Hugel was a late 19th early 20th century Baron and Catholic lay theologian.  At a time when “Modernists” within the Church were proposing an almost purely intellectual version of the religion, and a backlash against this Modernism was strong and extreme, Von Hugel tried to offer a middle way, which hoped to use rationalism to prove that something was true about God and religion. I love a lot of strange things about the strange Yeats poem, “Vacillation.” I wrote about it in The Happiness Myth because even though we all know that depression or to put it mildly “a bad mood” sometimes just settles on a person, without reason, we almost only find the idea that it happens for happiness too, in poetry.  Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness” is a great example and so is this stanza from the Yeats poem:
My fiftieth year had come and gone, I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop, An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top. While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed; And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Yet, my friends (if I may folksy you), that’s not what I came here to talk about.  It is, rather, the last stanza of this poem.  As you will see, it is from this bit of writ that I take the name of my Wednesdays blog on Best American Poetry.  I should mention that Yeats got it from the Bible, wherein Samson ripped a lion to pieces and later felt like visiting the carcass and he did and a hive bees had built a honeycomb in there, and Samson stole the honey and feasted on it.  It’s a portrait of the artist as a young Fury, with a sweet tooth.  The tooth is pointy, and the point is that I hope I have now prepared you to love this stanza as much as I.  Yeats comes down with his feet of clay firmly on the ground, a guy you could bring to a skeptics meeting and not have to work too hard to make it make sense.  Vacillating from the delights of the sea of faith to the delights of meaning what you say and saying what you mean, Yeats has sympathy for the sea of leaping, but it isn’t the way he sees it.  I love him for it.

Must we part, Von Hugel, though much alike, for we
Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?
The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,
Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,
Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance
Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once
Had scooped out pharaoh’s mummy. I — though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb — play a pre- destined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hugel, though with blessings on your head.

So tell me what you think if you have any thoughts regarding anything.



About jennifermichaelhecht

I'm a poet with a PhD in the History of Science from Columbia University and I've written five books, two poetry, two popular philosophy, one intellectual history. I live in Brooklyn with my husband and our two little kids. I teach seminars in poetry in the MFA programs at The New School and at Columbia.
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