Henry King was Bishop of Chichester from 1642 to 1669. He married Anne Berkeley in 1616, the same year he was ordained. He was 24 and she was 16. They had 7 children, only two of whom survived infancy. In 1624 Anne died, only 24 years old. King was devastated and he wrote today's poem in memory of Anne.
So why a poetic eulogy on the second day of Passiontide? I think there are several themes that jumped out at me when I read it (thanks to Daniel Masters who suggested it). Early in Lent we reflected on the link between romantic eros and Caritas, and this is another great example. Simply on the level of a love poem this is a beautiful work, but the way his eros points onward and upward through death is spectacular. There are also some sub-themes, not untypical of the metaphysical poets.
There has always been a potentially dangerous strand of piety in Christianity -- the desire to follow Christ in death so that we can be with him in the New Life. S Thomas expressed it during Christ's lifetime, perhaps with the zeal of a neophyte: "Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” (John 11.16) S Paul came close to articulating it with perfect maturity: "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you." (Phil 1.23,24) And S Ignatius of Antioch (only one generation from the Apostles) danced at the dangerous edge of the idea in his journey to Rome, hoping and praying that he would be martyred so that he could be with Christ:
"May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray that they may be found eager to rush upon me... and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me... only let me attain to Jesus Christ." (Epistle to the Romans)
As we journey with Christ to, and through, his passion, there is the love which longs to journey with him through death - just to be with him. Perhaps it is a love which can be expressed best through the words of a lover to his beloved. As much as we long to be with him, we must be patient.
The Exequy (excerpt)
By Henry King
Sleep on, my Love, in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good-night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy tomb.
Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree
And every hour a step towards thee....
'Tis true—with shame and grief I yield--
Thou, like the van, first took'st the field;
And gotten hast the victory
In thus adventuring to die
Before me, whose more years might crave
A just precedence in the grave.
But hark! my pulse, like a soft drum,
Beats my approach, tells thee I come;
And slow howe'er my marches be
I shall at last sit down by thee.
The thought of this bids me go on
And wait my dissolution
With hope and comfort. Dear—forgive
The crime—I am content to live
Divided, with but half a heart,
Till we shall meet and never part.