Friday, January 16, 2009

Poetry Friday -- Quadragesima


(The possession of Mercy Short, Winter 1692/3,
in Boston. It is Cotton Mather who speaks.)

These cases are brought to our attention
of late; that we who want not for evils
might see how our children in affliction
would speak in tongues of spirits and devils.

These young ones, easy prey to suggestion,
throw off counsel of the godly for others':
"Why falls it to our own generation
to mend the broken fences of our fathers?"

Not head nor heart speaks true. The Prince of Lies
has broken in: these little ones perforce
eat not, nor drink -- such poor things as these
be denied them, much less the Spirit's peace.

We saw the skin fetched off her tongue and lips
by fires our eyes saw not, and blisters raised.
How then call you but childish dreams our hopes
of Light, and wish the doors of Heaven closed?

[Summer 1977]
I read about Mercy Short in Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem (Braziller, 1969 [and still apparently in print]). The story made an impression on me, and I'd begun writing "Quadragesima" even before I finished reading the book -- in fact, I worked on it as I read Hansen's account of Mercy Short's ordeal. In the pamphlet he wrote about Short's bewitchment, Cotton Mather reported that she demanded that the Devil show her the book he wanted her to sign, and she read aloud from it in front of the observers. One long word she had trouble with sounded to Mather like "quadragesima", which may refer to the festival of Lent or the first Sunday of Lent. This pleased Mather and the other Puritan divines present, apparently because it confirmed their hostility to Roman Catholicism: the Devil was clearly a Papist, if not the Pope himself.

I recall assembling the poem like a jigsaw puzzle with words I found as I read the story of Mercy Short in Witchcraft at Salem, filling in around them as I figured out where each should go. (The italicized words at the beginning of the fourth stanza came from Hansen's quotation of Mather.) Not my usual way of writing; I can't remember ever doing it again. But it worked nicely this time.