06 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/23

A Small Fig Tree

I am dead, to be sure,
for thwarting Christ's pleasure,
Jesus Christ called Saviour.

I was a small fig tree.
Unjust it seems to me
that I should withered be.

If justice sits with God,
Christ is cruel Herod
and I by magic dead.

If there is no justice
where great Jehovah is,
I will the devil kiss.

Donald Hall

In this hymn-like poem, Hall is playing off one of those endlessly ambiguous and frustrating Gospel passages: Christ curses a fig tree. Here is the relevant passage from the Gospel of St Mark, in the King James translation:

And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon; and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it. . . . And when even was come, he went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.

Mark, 11: 12 - 14, 19 - 21

The passage goes on to show Jesus pointing to the withering of the tree as proof of the power of faith and prayer. This poem asks us to consider the event from the perspective of the fig tree. Hall immediately characterizes the tree as small, a description not included in the Gospel: small in this case suggests endearing, and also a bit helpless, as if we are to think of the tree as of a child. Small also suggests powerlessness, at least in a physical sense: the small fig tree against the might and vastness of the Creator and his universe. One little word, small, and we already feel a personal sense of the fig tree as an underdog in this battle. We root for it.

The fig tree remains within the world of religion; we don't see things from some pantheistic or even deistic view: the cursed tree does not reject but instead contemplates and questions the power of Christ in the universe. Linguistically and formally the fig tree's speech evokes the simple structure and rhymes of old hymns and early rhymed prayers. The inversion of normal word order (Unjust it seems to me / That I should withered be) sounds a bit archaic and dignified. The slightly rough slippage from perfect rhyme (sure / pleasure / Saviour; God, Herod, dead) is reminiscent of old poems whose once-perfect rhymes have been eroded by linguistic changes over time; they also remind us that perfection is elusive and in this world perhaps nonexistent.

The tree begins by pointing out the obvious: it is now surely and certainly dead. But its statement of the cause – for thwarting Christ's pleasure – immediately raises questions that the Gospel avoids. St Mark's account sees the incident as an illustration of the power of faith and prayer, which is much grander than seeing it as a petulant lashing out at a tree for not bearing fruit (surely the Creator should know what fruits were seasonal?). The sly little tree further undercuts Christ by referring to him as one called Saviour, with the implication that though he may be called that, he does not really deserve the title (indeed, he is no Saviour to the fig tree). In the second stanza, the tree states what it is: a small fig tree. Did it deserve to be destroyed in this outburst of wrath? Despite its status as little, as nonhuman, as surely dead, the tree asserts the right to question the Divine and Universal order: unjust it seems to me.

In the remaining two stanzas, the tree lays out the moral dilemma: if God is just, then how can Christ, who blasted the tree for something it was not responsible for, be God? Instead he is as cruel and as enmeshed in earthly power as Herod (a name which will conjure up a famous incident in Christ's early life: the Massacre of the Innocents, in which all the baby boys near Bethlehem were killed on Herod's orders, in his attempt to eradicate the rumored rival king born there). If God is just and Christ has done what is unjust, then the curse is not an illustration of prayer or faith but of magic. Religion is always careful to differentiate its miracles, which it claims as examples of Divine power and benevolence, from magic, which comes from – somewhere else, most likely the Devil. Marking the distinction between miracles and magic was always a source of anxiety, even in the early days of Christianity (see Peter's condemnation of Simon Magus in Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles).

The tree then continues its logical examination of the situation: if justice is not in fact a necessary attribute of God, then God is not good, and why not embrace God's opponent, the Devil? Jehovah is an old form of the sacred and unspeakable Hebrew name of God, now usually transliterated as Yahweh. Jehovah not only adds to the archaic Biblical air of the poem, it connects the little fig tree blasted by Christ with the often vindictive deity of the early Hebrew scriptures. It's interesting that justice is seen as the major attribute of a true and good God, as opposed to other frequently cited qualities: God is Love, God is Mercy, God is Caritas. In this poem we hear the ancient and never-answered voice of the victim: I did my best to do right, I did not deserve this, why did this happen to me, why did God allow this to happen to me – why did God do this to me? The small fig tree joins Job as one of those who stubbornly persist in questioning the nature and power of the Almighty.

I took this poem from Chapters Into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible, Volume 2: Gospel to Revelation, assembled and edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder.

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