IF I BROKE YOUR IDOLS…

As we begin the year 2017 with trepidation, I’m looking to the past to figure out how to look towards the future. One hundred and fifty six years and one day ago, Adelaide Anne Procter published her poem “The Old Year’s Blessing” in the English Woman’s Journal. (I include the full text of the poem below.)

Like most of Procter’s poems, “The Old Year’s Blessing” is above everything a useful bit of text, like scripture, or an advice column. Procter tries to answer questions that come up at the beginning of every year, which is also an ending. What do we do with our grief and loss when the calendar tells us it’s time for renewal? How do we make a fresh start when there’s no such thing as a clean slate? Procter emphasizes that the old year and the new year “work together.” You can’t have one without the other. You can’t move forward without remembering the pain and joy of what you’ve already moved through. The Old Year, personified, tells us to take intentions and turn them into deeds.

I brought Good Desires,
Though as yet but seeds;
Let the New Year make them
Blossom into Deeds.

For Procter, a Catholic convert, doing good is part of faith. We must turn the “Joy” of the old year into “Praise” in the new year. We must transform “sickness” into pious “patience” within ourselves. We must make “sorrow” into “strength,” “care” into “prayer.” As the rhyme sounds in our bodies like a bell, it warns us to convert our anxiety and worry into meaningful action.

If I brought you Plenty,
All Wealth’s bounteous charms,
Shall not the New Angel
Turn them into Alms?

I gave Health and Leisure,
Skill to dream and plan,
Let him make them nobler;—
Work for God and Man.

I’m not a Catholic, but I feel the pull of Procter’s call to action on this, the second day of our new year. I’ve had a good year, personally. I’ve had Plenty and Wealth, Health and Leisure in abundance. I’ve been surrounded by love, purpose, and burritos. But like many people I’ve been talking to, I feel that any personal gains are insignificant in the shadow of the pain that this year has brought to so many other people, and the prospect that things will only get much worse as we go forward.

If I broke your idols,
Showed you they were dust,
Let him turn the Knowledge
Into heavenly Trust.

Procter urges us to trust in God as a way of moving forward when the “dust” of everything we dreamed and planned is scattered on the dead ground. But trust, or faith, is not enough. We must give alms. We must use every skill we have to make things better for those around us.

Adelaide Procter was not only a poet but also an activist. She used her time, and the income from her poetry, to help people who were suffering. She published her own volume, A Chaplet of Verses, in aid of the Providence Row Night Refuge for Homeless Women and Children in London. She begins her preface:

THERE is scarcely any charitable institution which should excite such universal, such unhesitating sympathy as a Night Refuge for the Homeless Poor… women and children utterly forlorn and helpless, either wandering about all night, or crouching under a miserable archway, or, worst of all, seeking in death or sin the refuge denied them elsewhere. It is a marvel that we could sleep in peace in our warm comfortable homes with this horror at our very door. (vii)

For Procter, every cause should be personal. She can’t sleep in peace when other women are dying in the cold street. She doesn’t want us, her readers, to sleep in peace either. So she uses poems like “The Old Year’s Blessing” to unsettle us, to show us that even in our warm comfortable homes, where we have plenty of hot coffee and all the streaming television we could ever desire, we should feel discomfited. We should be afraid of the horror at our door. If we’re too comfortable, we risk inaction.

“The Old Year’s Blessing” was Procter’s last poem in the English Woman’s Journal before she died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, in the same year the Journal went into bankruptcy and folded. It seems the publication couldn’t live without her: an obituary calls Procter the Journal’s “animating spirit.” The great thing about poems is that they live on when the periodicals in which they appeared are nothing but digital dust. And as long as we can read them, they can still be useful to us. As we move into a year when our “list of Errors” does indeed seem particularly long and dark, I’ll be taking direction from poetry that tells me to be nobler, braver, kinder, and more generous. To always think of the pain of others, even when I’m comfortable. And to turn that sorrow into strength.

 

 

THE OLD YEAR’S BLESSING
Adelaide Anne Procter

I am fading from you;
But One draweth near,
Called the Angel-Guardian
Of the Coming Year.

If my gifts and graces
Coldly you forget,
Let the New Year’s Angel
Bless and crown them yet

For we work together;
He and I are one:
Let him end and perfect
All I leave undone.

I brought Good Desires,
Though as yet but seeds;
Let the New Year make them
Blossom into Deeds.

I brought Joy to brighten
Many happy days;
Let the New Year’s Angel
Turn it into Praise.

If I gave you Sickness,
If I brought you Care,
Let him make one Patience,
And the other Prayer.

Where I brought you Sorrow,
Through his care, at length,
It may rise triumphant
Into future Strength.

If I brought you Plenty,
All Wealth’s bounteous charms,
Shall not the New Angel
Turn them into Alms?

I gave Health and Leisure,
Skill to dream and plan,
Let him make them nobler;—
Work for God and Man.

If I broke your idols,
Showed you they were dust,
Let him turn the Knowledge
Into heavenly Trust.

If I brought Temptation,
Let sin die away
Into boundless Pity
For all hearts that stray.

If your list of Errors
Dark and long appears,
Let this new-born Monarch
Melt them into Tears.

May you hold this Angel
Dearer than the last,—
So I bless his Future,
While he crowns my Past.

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