A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist inspired poetic justice for a wrongly imprisoned priest with some obscure poetry that left an oversized footprint on history.
I work in a library, as most readers know, and though it is technically a law library it still gives me access to a world of books in the regular library where I used to work. Some of what is available there is not very helpful and not exactly literary but I still try to keep classic literature from being discarded to make room for what too many prisoners want to read. Graphic novels fly off the shelves while Les Miserables collects dust.
The library has a fairly large poetry section, but what most prisoners are looking for is not Robert Frost or T.S. Elliot. They scour the shelves for snippets of love poems to plagiarize for their letters to girlfriends, both real and imagined. Longfellow languishes on the shelf while Cowboy Love Poetry blazes happy trails through the prison mail room.
I have also been scouring the poetry section. After the struggle described in my recent posts – such as “The Truth Will Set Me Free, but Only if it Is Heard” – I received a surprising message from Dorothy Rabinowitz at The Wall Street Journal with the subject, “Thoughts Between Deadlines.” It set me on a course of self-assessment in the face of struggle when she wrote.
“Do you have access to Google for information seeking. This isn’t the kind of information that moves legal proceedings, but it is a great source of empowerment nonetheless. I would ask you to look up just the line, ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth.’ It should bring up the poem, written by the Victorian poet, Arthur Clough, who never wrote anything in the least memorable, except this one whose powers were such that, a hundred years after it was written, Winston Churchill sent it to Franklin Roosevelt.
With this, Dorothy Rabinowitz certainly had my rapt attention, pushing all the buttons – history, literature, and irony – that would draw me into a course of discovery. Between 2005 and 2013, Dorothy wrote a series of three major articles about my struggle culminating in her most recent, “The Trials of Father MacRae.”
In all that time, Dorothy maintained a rather stolid interest, more inclined to uncover and report the facts of a difficult and nebulous story with implications far beyond just me. In all these years, this was the first contact that went to my struggle for justice and not just the discernment of facts.
With no access to Google or the internet, it took a few days for Dorothy’s message to get to me along with the results of the search she recommended. The poem is remarkable, and I will get back to that in a moment, but first, the remainder of Dorothy’s equally remarkable message:
“The year was 1941. The English stood alone. America was not yet at war, but FDR was doing all within his power to get aid to them. The world faced a Europe overrun with triumphant Nazi troops. FDR had just won his fourth term and sent his new personal ally, the very Republican he had defeated – a heroic internationalist, Wendell Wilkie, who had been the standard bearer for an entirely isolationist Republican party – with a personal message of support to Churchill.”
There is more to the message, which I will get back to in a moment, but what made it so fascinating for me is my admiration for both Churchill and FDR. In 1940, Nazi Germany under Hitler took France and much of Europe with terrorizing speed while America slept. The Battle of Britain made clear that Hitler could not defeat the United Kingdom’s air and naval forces under Churchill. Back to that in a moment as well.
The origin of the term, “Poetic Justice” has been difficult to nail down. It appears to have been first used in the Sixth Century B.C. in reference to the Greek poet, Ibycus. His works were collected, in seven books, of which only fragments survive. The manner of his death created a legend.
Dying from an assault by robbers, the legend holds, he called on a passing flock of cranes to avenge him. Near Corinth, one of the robbers saw the flock of cranes and cried out, “Behold the avengers of Ibycust!” His cry betrayed him and the cranes devoured him, a death described as “poetic justice.”
Dorothy Rabinowitz sent me the most stunning example of poetic justice in the modern era. Fears of Nazi domination of the Atlantic made it easier for Franklin Roosevelt to defy the American isolationists by increasing aid to Britain. When the U.K. depleted its financial reserves, FDR replaced them with U.S. funding for arms production. Under the “Lend-Lease” act of 1941, there were no terms for payback. Dorothy continued.
“FDR’s message to Churchill included the Longfellow poem that ended, ‘Sail on, Sail on, O Union strong and great – humanity with all its hopes and fears is resting on thy fate.”
This, of course, sent me on a hunt for its source. I found it in a collection by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was entitled, “The Building of a Ship” published in 1850. The epic poem sent by FDR to Churchill nearly a century later concluded,
“Then too, sail on O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!…
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, – are all with thee.”
I can readily see why FDR sent this to Churchill along with his diplomatic message. The demonic shroud of darkness that Hitler cast over all of Europe then placed the rest of the world in a state of terror. Dorothy’s message continued…
“Churchill had no trouble grasping the importance of the pledge in this American poem, and recited it in a 1941 address to Parliament. In return, he sent to FDR the British poem I am writing to you about as a return message. You will see why I thought of you when I read it. Read it in the face of all the silences and rejections of appeals to justice that you have seen.”
Dorothy’s message was printed and snail-mailed to me. As soon as I received it, I called a friend to search for the poem she refers to. Its author is the British poet, Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861). Educated at Oxford, he became a tutor there during the Oxford Movement. Also called “Tractarianism,” one of the chief leaders of th Oxford Movement was (soon to be canonized) John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Newman and the other adherents of the movement challenged a common view that the English Reformation constituted a complete break between Rome and the Church of England. The movement began in 1833 when the British government abolished ten bishoprics in Ireland. The Oxford Movement’s adherents warned that the Church of England was abandoning the principles of the 16th Century Reformers by allowing the Church of England to be dominated by secular authorities.
The Oxford Movement proposed that the Church of England could be saved from secularism only through a return to its Catholic origins. This became wildly controversial in the Church of England when Cardinal Newman published “Tract 90” in 1841 in which he attempted to prove that the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion were not inconsistent with Roman Catholic teaching.
As a consequence of the Oxford Movement being suppressed, several hundred English clergy left the Church of England to become Roman Catholic, including Cardinal Newman himself. It was at this time that Arthur Hugh Clough left Oxford in protest against the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion.
SAY NOT THE STRUGGLE NAUGHT AVAILETH
As Dorothy wrote in her message to me, Clough wrote little that was memorable except this one poem, “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth,” that, a century later, had an oversized footprint on history. Here is the entire poem:
Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been, they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.”
Clough’s beautiful poem is a testament to the notion that whatever struggle we must take up and endure in this life, the struggle itself is worthy, even when what we fight against is unjust and impenetrable. This is sometimes difficult to see and accept, but what sort of person would I be if I did not struggle against injustice? Margaret Drabble, a poetry critic at Literary Hub wrote of the poem:
“This poem by Arthur Hugh Clough unfailingly brings tears to my eyes. It speaks of hope, and effort, and disappointment, and perseverance… The imagery is profoundly beautiful, and reminds me of my childhood, of Wordsworth’s immortal shore. I can feel those ‘tired waves, vainly breaking, and then the flooding fullness of the sea.”
Dorothy also described the poem in her message:
“Clough was unspecific in the references. There are references to military battles, but they are clearly only metaphors. Its imperishable eloquence is exactly the kind that fires resolve to win in the end, which I depend on, which we must all depend on. Read it, and let me know you found it.”
So, Dorothy, as you can see, I found it! “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth” is now enshrined on my cell wall. As you have suggested, I read it in the face of all the sciences and rejections of appeals to justice that I have seen. It is a vivid reminder, as it was for Churchill and FDR, that some struggles are much bigger than their mere protagonists. This struck home for me recently when a prominent writer – a Catholic deacon in Pennsylvania where the priesthood and Church have been much maligned – published this review of These Stone Walls:
“There are few authentic prophetic voices among us, guiding truth-seekers along the right path. Among them is Fr. Gordon MacRae, a mighty voice in the prison tradition of John the Baptist, Alfred Delp, SJ, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” (Deacon David Jones).
With that, Dorothy, I stopped being a victim of this struggle and became a warrior.
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Note From Father Gordon MacRae: Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, so, for America, the struggle was availeth after all. And Ryan A. MacDonald has also taken up my own struggle with a recent article:
Please share these posts. You may also like some related posts on Poetic Justice from These Stone Walls:
- A Prisoner, a Professor, a Prelate, Two Priests, and a Poet
- Mother’s Day Promises to Keep, and Miles to Go Before I Sleep
- Pornchai Moontri: From Prison Blues to Poetic Muse