Birth of a Prince
Many of us remember, too, how very young
And unlike the naive idea of parents, our own were,
(Though many also may have been less fortunate), when we
Proudly were brought by them into a world of care -
Such genuine gentle care and such brave faith
In the great future which they knew that we should see.
Many also were born within sound of the wind
That can blow no man good, the howling wind of war,
National adversity and Winter. In the historic park
A horn like Herne's was heard; the times were dark;
And the great royal oak creaked in the blast
With grief, its branches cracking, though unshakable it stood.
Another daybreak, and behold with dripping boughs
Uprise after that storm a tree that stands because it stands
For true Peace rooted in the right, from which no wind that blows
Shall shake the many birds whose song is still heard in these lands.
No bird but very bat is he who cannot see
A smile best recognized in solitude
In this momentous birth, nor hear another tongue
Than that of public oratory still speaking through the roar
Of loyal multitudes, asking God grant that we
Give birth to the world's only Prince, Puer Aeternus, He
Whose swordlike Word comes not to bring us peace but war
Within forever against falsehood and all fratricidal War.
David Gascoyne, Birth of a Prince (1950)
David Gascoyne (1916 - 2001) was a poet and a prophet - not a prophet in the sense of predicting future events, but in the Old Testament style of seeing deeply into the heart of his time and bringing forth from the turmoil and dissolution themes and images of universal import.
He began his career as a Marxist-inspired surrealist. From 1937, under the influence of Friedrich Holderlin, his work started to develop along increasingly spiritual lines. He achieved his poetic apogee in the years following the Second World War with the religious (and specifically Christian) poems, such as Birth of a Prince, which are his enduring gift to the world.
Gascoyne referred often, in conversation, to Joachim de Flore, the Medieval prophet of the Age of the Holy Spirit, which, he foretold, would succeed the Age of the Father (The Old Testament) and the Age of the Son (The New Testament). Gascoyne believed that we are living at a crossroads - a liminal era - the disjoint between the old dispensation and the new. The Age to come is 'already here and not yet', to borrow a theological phrase. This insight is reflected in his poetry, for Gascoyne, more than anything else in my view, is a poet of the Entombment - the interregnum; the gap; the waiting time; the silent, secret space, at once barren and fertile, between death and resurrection.
Birth of a Prince - oracular, grave and sonorous - bears potent witness to this. It is a poem of humility, transformation and grace - from the 'genuine gentle care' of the new parents to the 'howling wind of war' and the great tree, 'rooted in the right', that emerges from the tempest. 'Brave faith' gives way to 'national adversity', but this is a storm which can only blow itself out, ceding place to 'another daybreak', then 'this momentous birth', the return of 'the world's only Prince', Christ Himself, in whom all our clashes and dichotomies find their resolution and meaning.
Gascoyne's Christ, with his 'swordlike Word' is a figure of imaginative power and depth. He belongs in the lineage of Blake's Jesus, the 'Countenance Divine', shining forth upon England's clouded hills. This is a God who can't be boxed in by denominational squabbles or one-dimensional culture wars. The Imagination punches at a much higher weight.
There is a distinctly British, particularly English, flavour to Birth of a Prince. Gascoyne was widely read in French, German and Russian poetry and philosophy. His artistic influences (e.g. Holderlin, Rimbaud and Gide) were chiefly European, yet his oeuvre is charged throughout with a deeply archetypal British symbolism. The references in this poem to Herne the Hunter, 'the historic park' and 'the great royal oak' tap into that imaginative, mythic stream in our national story that has been so often neglected in recent centuries but which remains the soul, bedrock and ultimate reality behind the British Isles.
David Gascoyne did not enjoy an easy life. His sensitivity and emotional vulnerability left him open to prolonged spells of mental illness. Mercifully, these decreased in intensity as the years passed, especially after his marriage in 1975.
Gascoyne deserved this happiness granted him so late in the day. He testified to Divinity in a materialistic and culturally sterile epoch. Let us hope then, that the Age of the Holy Spirit is closer to us now than it was when Birth of a Prince was written. If so, it will be thanks in no small measure to the hard-won evocations of truth and beauty given shape and content by this very English poet and prophet.