Can She Be Queen of Heaven?

Canto VIII

"Blissful," quod I, "may this be true?
Be not displeased if I speak error.
Art thou the queen of heaven's blue
To whom this world shall all do honor?
We believe in Mary from whom grace grew,
Who bore a bairn of virgin flower;
The crown from her who might remove--
But one who surpassed her in some favor?
Now, for singularity of the sweetness in her,
We call her Phoenix of Araby,
Who flawless flew from her Fashioner
Like to the Queen of Courtesy."

"Courtesy" becomes the link word for this canto; but we need to know that the word has much richer meaning for the poet than it is for us. For him, "courtesy" was not simply "elementary politeness." He knew (as likely we do not) that "courtesy" is built upon the word "court." And as we hardly could, he knew the royal court as the symbol and perhaps even demonstration of the highest sort of nobility, dignity, graciousness, and benevolence. And "courtesy" identifies behavior of a courtly sort.

Our poet--along with scripture itself--appreciated the propriety of God being described as King and of "the kingdom of God" as being his court. And whether we prefer monarchical government or not, we must learn to think in those terms if we are to have any chance of understanding either the poet or the scripture.

With this "courtly" canto, then, begins an extended treatment of a central theme: both "the body of Christ" and "the court of God" are marked by a unique courtesy of which there is no dividing up into honorees and honorers. Don't confuse this idea with "equality," our modern democratic concept of each individual looking out to make sure he gets his rights, his fair share. Both the poet and scripture were way out in front of this one; and perhaps "community of grace" is the best term for their ideal.

The poet applies the theme particularly to the infant's status in glory rather than to the grief of the father--yet this is not necessarily a digression.

As we have noted, grief tends to center in a feeling of having been cheated: "I have not received the happiness that is mine by right." But as quickly will be made clear, the courteous community of God is not and cannot be established on the basis of rights; it subsists solely in grace. And in the grace of God there are absolutely no grounds for anyone to complain of being cheated. Here, then, is a very pertinent answer to grief: "You have not been cheated!" So the following stanzas will speak, on the one hand, to the daughter's undeserved, honor, but on the other and just as pointedly, to the father's sense of undeserved loss. "Community of grace" leaves no room for concepts of either "high" or "low."


"Courtesy's Queen!" the girl then said,
Kneeling to ground and covering her face,
"Matchless mother and merriest maid,
Blessed beginner of every grace!"
Then rose she up and did upbraid
And speak against me in short space:
"Sir, many here seek and are repaid
But supplanters are none within this place.
That Empress all the heavens doth grace;
And earth and hell are her levy.
She from her heritage none will chase,
For she is Queen of Courtesy.


"The court of the kingdom of God alive
A property hath in its self-being:
All that may therin arrive
Of all the realm is queen or king
And yet shall never another deprive,
But each one is glad of other's having,
And would their crowns were thus worth five,
If possible were such enhancing.
But my Lady, of whom Jesus did spring,
She holds the empire o'er us full free;
And none is displeased of our gathering,
For she is Queen of Courtesy.


"Through courtesy, sayeth Saint Paul,
We all are members of Jesus Christ.
As head and arms and legs and all
Tie into his body full true and tried,
Right so is every Christian soul
A legitimate limb of the Master of Might.
Then look whether hate or any gall
Is attached or tied thy limbs betwixt;
Thy head feels not jealousy nor jaundice
On arm or finger a bangle to see;
So fare we all with love and bliss
As king and queen by courtesy."


"Courtesy," quod I, "I do believe;
And may charity great be you among.
But that my speech may not you grieve
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Thyself in heaven over high you heave
To make thee queen that was so young!
What greater honor might he achieve
Who hath endured in the world as strong
And lived in penance his whole life long
With bodily bale him bliss to buy?
What more honor might to him belong
Than being crowned king by courtesy?

There is a line missing in the original manuscript; and because that manuscript is our sole source for the poem, there would seem no chance of ever recovering it. The likelihood is that the copyist accidentally skipped a line in his copying. Nevertheless, he will have been saved by grace--as must we all be for the lines we've skipped.

The Jeweler now shows himself to be very much one of us. We are all so hooked on the human order of "rights," "deserts," and "deservings" that we can't accept the astonishing "community of grace" as being somehow quite fair. "Sure, heavenly blessings are great; but--I don't know--it sort of takes the edge off to know that everybody else gets the same thing." Grace takes some getting used to. And so the Jeweler now finds himself caught in a turnabout that has him arguing that his "peerless pearl" has been given a "peerage" higher than he actually had in mind for her. And in just such contradiction is where we wind up when we choose to go the route of "rights."

Copyright (c) 1983