To T. S. Eliot, the poet’s function is a kind of mediation between experience and language. In great poetry, he suggested, “there is always the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the experience of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility.” Few subjects are more familiar to the Christian—and none are more worthy of seeking a fresher or deeper appreciation of—than the Passion. It is much to be regretted, therefore, that the name of Jean de la Ceppède, the poet of the Passion of Christ, should not be a familiar one.
La Ceppède was a judge in the regional court at Aix-en-Provence, where he belonged to an illustrious circle of humanists. It was in 1594, at the end of the French Wars of Religion, that he published his first work, an Imitation of the Penitential Psalms of David. In a dedicatory epistle that was an extended meditation upon theme of shipwreck, he declared his desire to “dispose his soul and, with it, poor France” to look to the Cross for safety and to take “the good David” as guide for “this perilous navigation.” To paraphrase or imitate the Psalms was a common undertaking in those days. La Ceppède’s efforts may be likened to those of some of the best-known poets of the period, including his friend Malherbe (Psalm 146), the Castilian friar Luis de Léon (Psalm 130), and George Herbert (Psalm 23). The recitation of the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 33, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) was then a popular Lenten practice, and La Ceppède’s imitations, each accompanied with a lengthy prayer, succeed in expressing the sentiments of a contrite and humble heart. The work also included a number of other poems, including twelve sonnets that he offered in the hope that “they would give some consolation to Christian souls amidst the numerous evils that they suffer” and as an advanced offering from a more ambitious task upon which he was already laboring, the Theorems upon the Sacred Mystery of Our Redemption.
This, La Ceppède’s life’s work, was a great cycle of 515 sonnets upon the theme of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, published in two parts, the first in 1613 and the second in 1622. The Theorems is not only poetry, it is a splendid work of erudition, as each sonnet is provided with a commentary linking it to Scriptural and Patristic sources and, especially, to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. The work bears the mark of the Renaissance: the sonnet, that choice mode of expressing romantic love, is here purged and elevated and put in the service of the epic tale of God’s love for man. As La Ceppède put it in his introduction—which can be read in Keith Bosley’s admirable translation of seventy of the sonnets—the harlot Lady Poetry had been unstitched of “her worldly habits” and shorn of her “idolatrous, lying and lascivious hair” by the “two-edged razor of profound meditation on the Passion and death of our Saviour.”
Deeply thoughtful the work certainly is. The title’s operative word, theorem, calls to mind the propositions of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, and the parallel is not far-fetched. Euclid isolated the properties of geometrical figures and, seemingly, delighted in tying down to their proper principles not only noble truths such as the one disclosed in the Pythagorean Theorem, but also truths more modest yet still fruitful for the science. In similar fashion, La Ceppède took a verse or two, or at times a single word, an action, or an aspect of a person’s character from the Gospels–some of them obviously significant, others less so–and subjected his choice to a brief but penetrating consideration.
The choice of the sonnet was a happy one: the discipline of keeping to fourteen lines of twelve syllables made the meditations particularly pungent. The sonnet form did not, however, force the poems into dull uniformity. La Ceppède employed differing rhyme schemes, relieved the monotony of end-stopped lines with the periodic use of enjambment, and repeatedly changed his rhythm and tone. The sonnets also change in their mode of address: most are impersonal meditations, but many are prayers to Christ, and still others are addressed directly to the listener as to a faithful Christian soul, or to one or more of the apostles. Some of the sonnets are particularly melodious, such as the one exploring Christ’s kneeling posture while at prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane that begins: “L’humblesse est le rayon qui perce le nuage.” Others employ repetition to drive the theme home as a hammer does a nail, such as his ‘White Sonnet,’ in which ten lines begin with “blanc” or “blanche,” and other sonnets devoted to the role of the Angels or the significance of the number three. The sonnets, on the whole, are characterized by directness and a desire for clarity, signs of which are ready to hand in the often lengthy footnotes providing theological justifications for his choice of words.
In order better to appreciate both his art and the depth of his religious feeling, let us together read the striking sonnet that reflects upon just two words of Scripture, Pilate’s line “Ecce homo,” “Behold the Man.”
Voicy-l’Homme, ô mes yeux, quel obiect deplorable!
Behold the Man, o my eyes, what a deplorable sight!
La honte, le veiller, la faute d’aliment,
Shame, sleeplessness, lack of food,
Les douleurs et le sang perdu si largement
Sorrows, and blood lost in great quantity
L’ont bien tant déformé qu’il n’est plus désirable.
Have left him so deformed that he is no longer desirable.
Ces cheveux (l’ornement de son chef vénérable)
That hair (the ornament of his venerable head)
Sanglantez, herissez, par ce couronnement,
Bloodied, stood on end by this coronation,
Embrouillez dans ces ioncs, servent indignement
Tangled in these reeds, serve unworthily
A son test ulcéré d’une haye execrable.
To his injured head as an execrable fence.
Ces yeux (tantost si beaux) rébatus, r’enfoncez,
Those eyes (once so lovely) beaten, retreated,
Ressalis, sont, hélas! deux Soleils éclipsés.
Sunken in, are, alas, two eclipsed Suns.
Le coral de sa bouche est ores iaune-pasle.
The coral of his mouth is now pale yellow.
Les roses et les lys de son teint son flétris.
The roses and lilies of his skin are faded.
Le reste de son Corps est de couleur d’Opale,
The rest of his Body is the color of Opal,
Tant de la teste aux pieds ses membres sont meurtris.
So bruised are his members from head to feet.
Except for its last four lines, this sonnet is not particularly musical. The stop after l’homme is stark. The enjambment of the couplet about his eyes is clipped, for the poet has labored against the native fluidity of the French tongue by multiplying hard consonants and acute accents. The tone and mood of the poem matches the sentiment expressed, which is of one who is, like Christ, appalled. If one were to read this sonnet in isolation from those that express different emotions, such as the heroic L’amour l’a de l’Olympe icy bas fait descendre (see below) or the lovely and compassionate Il est donc monté, Belle, au gibet ordonné–one might conclude that La Ceppède’s vision was merely bleak, and, certainly watery and thin in comparison with the robust Castilian Soneto al Cristo Crucificado. Yet when we see that the last line of the first quatrain is a deliberate echo of Isaiah 53.2, “he had . . . no beauty that we should desire him,” then we are offered a glimpse of La Ceppède’s ability to “enlarge our consciousness”–in Eliot’s phrase–by a faithful and efficacious exploration of the Word. It is a sonnet that seems perfectly to express what the onlooker ought to have felt at that moment and captures the full import of Pilate’s command to “behold the man.”
To meditate upon the various scenes of the Passion in the company of Jean de La Ceppède’s Théorèmes sur le sacré mystère de nostre Rédemption is to be made attuned to the very words of Holy Scripture. The work is, therefore, a splendid instance of the poet’s craft serving the life of contemplation, the life of conversation with God.
L’amour l’a de l’Olympe icy bas fait descendre:
Love is what made him from Olympus descend:
L’amour l’a fait de l’homme endosser le peché:
Love made him shoulder the sins of men:
L’amour luy a des-ja tout son sang fait espandre:
Love has had him already spill all his blood:
L’amour l’a fair souffrir qu’on ait sur luy craché:
Love made him suffer to be spitted upon:
L’amour a ces haliers à son chef attaché:
Love attached these spines to his head:
L’amour fait que sa Mere à ce bois le void pendre:
Love made his Mother see him hang from this wood:
L’amour a dans ses mains ces rudes cloux fiché:
Love fixed these rude nails in his hands:
L’amour le va tantost dans le sepulchre estendre.
Love will soon see him laid out in the grave.
Son amour est si grand, son amour est si fort
His love is so great, his love is so strong
Qu’il attaque l’Enfer, qu’il terrasse la mort,
That he attacks Hell, that he strikes down death,
Qu’il arrache à Pluton sa fidele Euridice.
That he rips from Pluto his faithful Eurydice.
Belle pour qui ce beau meurt en vous bien-aimant:
My dear, for whom this hero dies loving you:
Voyez s’il fut iamais un si cruel supplice,
See if there has ever been so cruel a torment,
Voyez s’il fut iamais un si parfait Amant.
See if there has ever been so perfect a lover.