Magna Est Veritas
by Coventry Patmore
Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.
I once began an ambitious embroidery project of stitching this poem on a very large piece of muslin which I planned to stretch over a wooden frame like a canvas and hang on a wall. I chain-stitched my way through the title and the first line and a half but lost heart with the uous of tumultuous. The loops and curves of cursive vowels were beyond my skills with the needle, just as they have always been with a pencil.
Every few years when I clean out shelves in the basement, that barely-begun project sees the light of day. It’s a reminder not so much of my vision outsizing my resolve (goodness knows I don’t need to be reminded) but of how much I love this poem. It’s almost like a prayer to me, not surprising since Coventry Patmore (can’t you smell the English countryside in a name like that, the vines growing over the cottage gates) was a convert to Catholicism, very much preoccupied with matters of the spirit.
I’ve twice committed this little powerhouse of a poem to memory, and twice forgotten it. Though the words come and go, the idea of a man finding balance, as we say in these modern times, as he sits under cliffs at the ocean’s edge, stays with me. Just thinking of the line “I sit me down” calms me or calls me to be calmed. I even briefly titled a book I had written (unpublished, hiding in a drawer) I Sit Me Down. (My husband spent a few days teasing me, I stand me up, I sleep me here, until the joke degenerated into pirate talk– I eat me cereal–and I changed the title.)
I don’t want to spoil Magna Est Veritas with further comment, some banality about how important it is to step outside our multi-tasking, media-crazed world to connect with something larger than our needs. The Victorian poem has aged well and says all that and more just fine on its own.
Changed my mind. I’ll make one more comment because it’s something I just discovered. This 10-line poem is perfectly balanced. The first four lines and last four lines follow the same rhyme scheme, abab and dede. The first half of the poem describes the poet’s physical environment and the second half he expands his vision to the spiritual realm. In the exact middle of the poem, the poet makes the shift from one world to the next. For these two lines, the rhyming pattern emphasizes the shift by changing to cc: far from the huge town/I sit me down. The form mirrors the message in so pleasing a way, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before.
If you haven’t memorized a poem since grade school and find that Suduko isn’t slowing the degeneration of your brain cells, I recommend this poem to you.