Poetess (and Possible Future Saint) Captures Essence of Holy Saturday
Marie Noël, one of the greatest Christian poetesses in history, expresses with great subtlety the beauty of the hope of Easter.
Poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote that “any healthy man can go without food for two days — but not without poetry.”
This timely saying by one of the most emblematic poets of the past centuries — on a day when many Catholics are fasting on the climb toward Easter — highlights the intrinsic human need of beauty to lift up the soul.
As we pass from Good Friday’s mourning to Holy Saturday’s silent expectation of Christ’s Resurrection, as hunger for food and redemption alike gnaws at us, nothing can better help us immerse ourselves in the Paschal Mystery than can poetry — especially the powerfully evocative poetry of the great French writer Marie Noël.
Born Marie Rouget (1883-1967) and affectionately called “the Warbler of Auxerre” (her native town), this devout woman of letters — whose cause for beatification was opened in 2017 — dedicated a large part of her work to praising God.
“Song of Easter,” written for Holy Saturday, 1907, was published in her very first collection Les Chansons et les Heures (“The Songs and the Hours”) in 1920.
Though written at a young age, Marie Noël’s poem already captures with subtlety the spiritual might of the expectation of the Resurrection of the Lord, after the dark and arid Lenten path that leads to the death of Jesus on Good Friday.
Indeed, the poetess was all too familiar with this cycle of tears and triumph, as she herself was consumed by a constant inner turmoil, torn between her deep thirst for God’s love and presence and guilt over her lack of complete trust in him. Her work illustrates thereby one of the greatest paradoxes of the mortal soul — that is, the difficult coexistence between the eager expectation of eternal life and the painful mourning of the earthly life.
When her tormented soul couldn’t find relief in writing, which was her main outlet, she was regularly assailed by deep emotional crises — or, as her circles called it, “hemorrhages of sensibility” — which forced her to retire from the world and stay bedridden for weeks at a time.
It was with the help of her spiritual director, Father Arthur Mugnier — the priest who played a significant role in novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans’s conversion to Catholicism and who was known as the “confessor of the whole of Paris” — that she could channel, to some extent, her pain and anxiety to fuel her creative impulse.
Unlike many artists, whose episodes of distress can bring outbursts of creativity, Marie Noël’s talent, in order to truly blossom, needed to be guided, channeled, supported and especially freed, as she initially thought that her writing was incompatible with her faith. And this liberating guidance is precisely what Father Mugnier gave her.
Father Mugnier’s indispensable role in supporting her vocation was recently brought to light by the publication, in 2018, of their more than 20 years of correspondence. This collection of letters offer an indispensable account of the religious, political and cultural stakes of their time, and highlights the greatness of two souls that marked their century.
Father Mugnier remained a strong supporter of Marie Noël’s poetry until his death in 1944, calling her “our only, our true Christian poet.”
She also maintained epistolary relations with numerous other prominent writers and politicians of her time, including the novelist Henry de Montherlant, who considered her the greatest French poet of their time.
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Song of Easter
Hallelujah! Make, O sun, the house new!
My sisters, let each of you move
With the hands of a housewife and cheerful fingers...
It’s Easter! Let's throw out the dark dust,
Let's scrub the keys and locks with fine sand,
So that the door can open in peace.
Wax gently, wax lively the cupboard doors,
The window laughs in their shimmer!
Scrub! Let it gleam in the glow of the floor.
Let's dress her curtains in fresh muslin...
What a work! Did we bake the filbert cake
And put a bouquet on the table?
Hallelujah! We are done being dead,
From fasting, from closing our doors,
The heart closed and guarded by pious fears.
The priest delivered the flame and the wild waters,
Our soul goes out and has fun with our words
And our youth in our eyes.
Open wide the door to Holy Week.
My heart inside me skips and rings
As well as a bright gold bell that fell silent
And returns from Rome after the mystical times
Giving me flight and the tone of the hymns
For the joy of salvation.
But with my basket I have to go away
Looking for fresh eggs in the straw...
In the surrounding vineyards the crocuses have bloomed
In circles of gold and holding their green hands.
I've seen in the ditch nests of violets
And cuckoos on the slopes.
The chickens have laid eggs far away in the countryside.
In the morning who accompanies me?
Come alone with me, my beloved...
What word did I say before I thought about it?
Where is this beloved, says, my little one?
Whom by such a name have you named?
Is it Jesus, O I who knows no man?
The martyred God that in his sleep
Yesterday we stayed up all night in the choir,
Crying out for love over his tomb, of veiled grief?
Is it sweet Spring and his winged seeds
Who blew into our hearts?
My beloved, it is only a word, it is no one,
But to have said it makes me shudder
And I am fragrant and I am rumoured
Like a fiancée to the king who loves her as a gift,
I shudder and feel like the earth, open
All big at the feet of the sower.
What seed in the distance floating is going to steal my soul?
What is the grain she is claiming
To be with the flowers a flower of the summer
And to bear fruit when autumn comes? ...
He is soft, invisible and light, he hums
Through the enchanted wind.
What is Spring, O Jesus, my sweet Master?
The Angel of revolt perhaps
Who changes at a glance both the earth and the waters
To seduce me and make me restless and rebellious,
-- I, who should be a quiet chapel to you --
Like the grass and the twigs.
Ah! from him now will you be able to defend me?
O Christ, you had to wait for him
On your cross of salvation every day without healing
And make me sink to my heart, from your wounds,
Your blood, so that looking for your thorns in the hedges,
At your feet I love to die.
But this morning the Angel stirred the stone,
O You standing in the light,
Resurrected from the dawn to the feet color of time,
You who in the garden met Mary,
What will you do, gardener of Easter in bloom,
To defend me from Spring?
(1907) Translation by Benjamin Crockett