The Mother of Sorrows
A PATHETICAL DESCANT UPON THE DEVOUT PLAIN-
SONG OF STABAT MATER DOLOROSA
In shade of Death’s sad tree
Stood doleful she.
Ah she, now by none other
Name to be known, alas, but Sorrow’s Mother.
Before her eyes
Hers and the whole World’s Joy,
Hanging all torn, she sees; and in His woes
And pains, her pangs and throes:
Each wound of His, from every part,
All more at home in her one heart.
What kind of marble then
Is that cold man
Who can look on and see,
Nor keep such noble sorrows company ?
Sure even from you
(My flints) some drops are due,
To see so many unkind swords contest
So fast for one soft breast:
While with a faithful, mutual flood,
Her eyes bleed tears, His wounds weep blood.
– Richard Crashaw
There’s no direct evidence that Hopkins read the baroque poet, Richard Crashaw, so perhaps it’s just a nice fantasy to pretend that he would include this poem in a retreat. But John Henry Newman, who had a part in Hopkins’s conversion, and Francis Thompson, a young contemporary poet, were part of the growing interest in Crashaw.
Besides, look at the way Crashaw sighs the word, “Ah.” That’s so Hopkinsian! Or perhaps Hopkins is Crashavian…
Anyways, back to the poem. Crashaw is reaching back to Jacapone da Todi’s Stabat Mater (though we’re not quite sure who wrote it). Through describing the poem as a descant, he evokes liturgical music. Rather than presenting his poem as a separate hymn, he matches its stanzas to those of Stabat Mater, but also enters into the tradition, making it his own, rather than statically reproducing it. As Austin Warren puts it:
Though he has appropriated the substance of da Todi’s poem, he has completely reshaped it, translated it into his own sensibility as well as into English, and made of his version an independent work of art.
I first read this poem over a decade ago. It was my first experience of Marian poetry. What still gets to me every time is the chiastic inversion of weeping and bleeding in the final line of the second stanza, suggesting a shared intimacy between the two characters. This poem has arrested me so much that I keep coming back to it every year. Some years, I’m the cold man of marble. Other years, my flints are more responsive. Either way, some drops are always due.
Here’s Palestrina’s Stabat Mater for us to get a feel for what Crashaw’s “descant” would be sung with.