Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rebecca's Favorite Poem

Much of Rebecca Gratz's girlhood education in literature must have been given over to the memorization of poetry. A niece remembered that she and her sisters played a game in which Aunt Becky quoted a few lines of poetry and everyone tried to guess the poem. The same niece said that Rebecca's favorite was Alexander Pope's "The Universal Prayer," and its place in her life is revealed in a letter from the late 1850's. Rebecca at Saratoga Springs had started to write down the poem for a woman she had met there, but found she was unsure of a line in the last verse. (At 76, she was certainly allowed her senior moment.) She wrote to her nephew in Philadelphia to have the poem copied out and sent immediately. Here is the poem Rebecca thought was important enough to get right:

The Universal Prayer
Alexander Pope

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that Thou art good
And that myself am blind.

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
To see the good from ill;
And, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings Thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives;
To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth's contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume Thy bolts to throw,
And teach damnation round the land
On each I judge Thy foe.

If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
To find that better way!

Save me alike from foolish pride,
Or impious discontent,
At aught Thy wisdom has denied,
Or aught that goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another's woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholely so,
Since quickened by Thy breath;
Oh, lead me wheresoe'er I go,
Through this day's life or death.

This day be bread and peace my lot:
all else beneath the sun
Thou know'st if best bestowed or not,
And let Thy will be done!

To Thee Whose temple is of space,--
Whose altar earth, sea, skies,--
One chorus let all beings raise!
All Nature's incense rise.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), England's greatest poet of the eighteenth century, is not much read today. Although he has not fallen in scholarly esteem, his satires are too topical to be easily accessible to modern readers and his poetic style has gone out of fashion. The heroic couplets, for which Pope was famous, and the "common meter" of this poem are a little too obvious for most twentieth- and twenty-first-century tastes.

The poetry cannot be said to be short on substance, and Pope's outlook is echoed in Rebecca's writings. Like him, she believed in a loving but unknowable God who moved "in mysterious ways" (to quote another of her favorite poets William Cowper). She was very sensitive to the power of conscience, the importance of its guidance and the hell on earth which guilt could cause.
She also saw her spiritual bond with God not dependent on right theological beliefs so much as on the way she lived her life, with mercy, kindness and toleration.

"The Universal Prayer" was a very popular poem for two hundred years, and most people who liked it were happy to overlook some of its elements which are not traditional Christian or Jewish beliefs. Rebecca did more than that; she embraced at least one of his more unorthodox views.

To be continued in "Rebecca's Monotheism."

(The niece who remembered Rebecca's mastery of poetry was Sarah Hays Mordecai. She wrote "Recollections of My Aunt, Rebecca Gratz" in 1870; it was privately published in 1893 (31 pp).
Her letter from Saratoga is undated but internal evidence puts it at 1857. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

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