A favorite companion in the group study my children and I do each day is what we call our "Little Red Poem Book." It has been called that since I was little when my mother read from it to her five children. I'll be devastated if I can't find a red, hardback version for my children when they leave the nest (it's actually called, One Hundred And One Famous Poems and published by Contemporary Books, copyright 1958 if anyone wants to know). There is a unique pleasure in opening the book, flipping through to see which old friend I want to read again, looking at the notes scrawled in the margins, reading the inscription from my mother when she gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday:
"Thought my precious 16-year-old patch rabbit would enjoy her very own copy of our "little red poem book" . . . We've created lots of family memories with this little book, haven't we? Continue discovering new treasures in it and keep all our memories close to your heart."
We did create many memories, Marmee. I do keep them close. I do discover new treasures, even in the old friends - like this week.
I hadn't read "The Building of the Ship" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow since before I was married. As I started reading to my children, I found that life's experiences since last reading had given me memories that illuminated the meaning of the poem on a deeper level than before. It's like AHK says:
What all worthwhile literature has to say about others is true of us, and we should liken it to ourselves to see what it has to say about our conduct at the deepest level, which is the level at which good and evil decide themselves . . . We need to experience the great works of the past through the whole of our life. Part of our life should be the experience of great works gone back to again and again, perhaps ten times, perhaps more. And every time we go back to them, they are different, and yet they are part of the tradition of our own lives.
- Arthur Henry King, "Finding Ourselves in Our Tradition" from Abundance of the Heart
The poem in full is quite long, but the excerpt in our little red poem book begins at line 340 of the fuller version. When I read:
The word "bridegroom" was now like a treasure box full of deeper meaning. I've now had years spent studying scripture where the Lord is the bridegroom and his covenant people the bride. I've come to feel the truth that "as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God arejoice over [his covenant people]."
My mind recalls the many tender mercies of my recent past and I find it a beautiful metaphor that God's love and grace should be like an ocean so deep, vast, and powerful:
How beautiful she is! How fair She lies within those arms, that press Her form with many a soft caress Of tenderness and watchful care! Sail forth into the sea, O ship! Through wind and wave, right onward steer!
But there is a different sea that I think of with the next stanza. It brings to mind an ancient people who built boats of a different kind. Barges with no mast, no sail, no anchor. Only "a hole in the top, and also in the bottom" to open for air, and "stones to shine in darkness, to give light unto men, women, and children, that they might not cross the great waters in darkness." They trusted in the bridegroom that he would take care of them as a loving husband would a wife. They got into those barges with faith that although they would be "as a whale in the midst of the sea" with "mountain waves" dashing upon them, he had promised them:
Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth. And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come.
This is not just a description of an ancient people's voyage of faith. It is a description of our life's voyage. We are in a sea, or wilderness. Yet we are not alone. Longfellow alludes to this: