The eighteenth-century English poet, playwright and one-time poet laureate Nahum Tate ( 1652-1715 ) movingly describes the terrors endured by the Blessed Virgin when her Son was lost :
THE BLESSED VIRGIN'S EXPOSTULATION 1
( when our Saviour at Twelve Years of Age, had withdrawn
Tell me, some pitying angel, quickly say
Where does my soul's sweet Darling stray,
In tigers', or more cruel Herod's way?
O! rather let his tender foot-steps press
Unguarded through the wilderness
Where milder savages resort,
The desert's safer than a tyrant's court.
Why, fairest object of my love,
Why dost thou from my longing eyes remove?
Was it a waking dream that did foretell
Thy wondrous birth? No vision from above?
I call - He comes not - flattering hopes, farewell.
Me Judah's daughters once caressed
Called me of Mothers the most blest.
Now (fatal change!) of Mothers most distressed!
How shall my soul its emotions guide.
How shall I stem the various tide,
Whilst faith and doubt my labouring thoughts divide?
For which of thy dear sight I am beguiled,
I trust the god - but oh! I fear the child!
( 1 - 20)
The disparate length of the two stanzas, which number twelve and eight lines respectively, possibly serves to emphasise the age of the Lord Jesus Christ when in the words of the poet He "had withdrawn Himself". Tate uses the ploy of rhetorical question to underscore the helplessness of the Blessed Virgin and the twenty-line poem contains no fewer than nine questions. The incremental tension produced by this repetition builds up a picture of a distraught mother who has no though in the world beyond the welfare of her lost child, and demonstrates psychological insight into the maternal heart on the part of the poet.
The poet has an effective way of introducing a connotation-provoking pause in the poem, as may be seen where the mother says: I call - He comes not ( 12 ) as well as in ( fatal change ) ( 15 ) , both of which interjections emphasise the instant reversal from joy to anguish within one who once seemed to embody all the dreams of every woman born since the banishment of Eve from Paradise.
To the modern ear, the choice of the word flattering to precede hopes ( 12 ) does not appear to be a felicitous one, as it seems better fitted to be included in the reflections of a woman of marked social aspirations than of those of one rooted in the will of God to the exclusion of all personal considerations. The closing line: I trust the God - but oh! I fear the child! ( 20 ) while referring to Christ's Divinity and His Humanity, would seem to indicate that Tate honour Mary's greatness not as a goddess - which she is not - but within the limitations of her profound humanity.
1 The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation - Nahum Tate - Thérèse1947: 146
Dr Luky Whittle
Edited by Catherine Nicolette