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I came across this beautiful poem by GK Chesterton: A Little Litany.

But it has been very difficult for me to interpret. Especially the following lines:

To see in pictured walls his storied world
Return upon him as a tale is told.

What does this mean 'pictured walls his storied world'

This whole stanza, especially 'twilight of twiformed cherubium'

Or young on your strong knees and lifted up
Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street,
And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim
Made of his throne indeed a mercy-seat.

And in this what is the 'mystic rose'?

And kissed upon your mouth the mystic rose.

Can someone explain these things? Thank you.

  • "Built you about him for a house of gold to see in pictured walls his storied world return upon him as a tale is told" could be rephrased less poetically but more understandably as something like "God built you to function as his golden house so that from within it he could see his story retold in the pictures on its walls". – Ray Butterworth Feb 17 '19 at 22:31
  • Is the OP a question answered by opinion? – SLM Feb 17 '19 at 22:45
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The poem is addressed to the Blessed Virgin, and its title evokes the prayer called the Litany of Loreto. In this prayer, the Virgin Mary's prayers are requested, and she is invoked under many metaphorical titles. The poem mentions, or alludes to, some of these. For clarity I will set these titles of Mary in bold.

The first stanza pictures God, born and "become little", coming into the world through Mary, who in this sense is the Gate of Heaven. The period (full stop) at the end has in some ways the force of a comma, leading into the next stanza.

You're having difficulty with the final two lines of this stanza:

Or shutting out his shining skies awhile
Built you about him for a house of gold
To see in pictured walls his storied world
Return upon him as a tale is told.

"Pictured walls" here means simply "walls with pictures on them", and "storied world" could mean "world filled with stories" or "world told about in stories". The image is of Christ coming from the "shining skies" of Heaven to begin life within a House of Gold, and then to see the universe he created, not as the Creator might see it, but as one might encounter it for the first time in picture and in story, in a tale told him.

The next stanza imagines Mary as the Mirror of Justice, and pictures the Christchild looking up at her, the one being who is able to reflect His beauty and love as fully as humanly possible. It pictures God himself, looking on himself reflected in Mary.

The fourth stanza pictures Mary's title Morning Star. Christ, of course, is the Morning Star preeminent; but Chesterton pictures Mary as a star in a sort of "inverted reality" moment where Heaven is looking up to Earth, the Creator looking up to the created.

The fifth stanza you also had difficulty with.

Or young on your strong knees and lifted up
Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street,
And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim
Made of his throne indeed a mercy-seat.

First, the sentence structure is inverted. "Wisdom" is the subject, that is, Christ, the Word or the Logos. He is "lifted up" to sit on the "strong knees" of Mary, the Seat of Wisdom. "Whose voice is in the street" is a reference to, perhaps among others, Proverbs 1:20: "Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice" (New American Bible, Revised Edition).

In the same way that Christ sits on Mary, so God was pictured sitting atop the Ark of the Covenant, the cover of which was formed in the shape of two cherubim:

You shall then make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide. Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the cover; make one cherub at one end, and the other at the other end, of one piece with the cover, at each end. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, sheltering the cover with them; they shall face each other, with their faces looking toward the cover. This cover you shall then place on top of the ark. In the ark itself you are to put the covenant which I will give you. There I will meet you and there, from above the cover, between the two cherubim on the ark of the covenant, I will tell you all that I command you regarding the Israelites. (Exodus 25:17–22 New American Bible, Revised Edition)

This cover, regarded as the seat of God, was often called the "mercy seat"; Chesterton points out how much more appropriate the name is for the lap on which Jesus sat.

I'm not sure why Chesterton uses "twilight" here—perhaps because the Ark was never available for public viewing?—but "twiformed", which means simply "formed of two bodies or shapes", is obviously intended to echo it.

The final stanza brushes past two more titles of Mary, when it pictures Jesus rising from a child's play to show his love for his mother. In my opinion the initial "Or" of the third line would make more sense if it were "Of", but I don't have a copy of the poem as it was first published.

Here, Jesus is pictured pulling himself up to climb up his mother as one would climb a Tower of Ivory, and kissing her lips. Lips have often been compared to roses in romantic poetry, but these lips are of the Mystical Rose herself.

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  • "Built you about him for a house of gold" - I took this to mean that he gave up His house of gold (in heaven) and accepted Mary's womb instead. Would that be a consistent interpretation? – FeatureBug Feb 19 '19 at 12:29
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    I don't think so in this case. "House of gold" is one of the titles of Mary, so I think the poem has to be interpreted so that this refers to her. – Matt Gutting Feb 19 '19 at 16:13
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Answer

A Little Litany

Gilbert Keith Chesteron

When God turned back eternity and was young,

Ancient of Days, grown little for your mirth (As under the low arch the land is bright)

Peered through you, gate of heaven—and saw the earth. (1st stanza)

The poem speak about Mary and Jesus.The "gate of heaven" is attributed to Mary while "God turned back eternity and was young" speaks about the Logos existing in eternity was incarnated to enter time and was born like a child.

Or young on your strong knees and lifted up

Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street,

And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim

Made of his throne indeed a mercy-seat.

This stanza refers to Mary, describing her strong intercession at a young age between 12-14 years old when the Mystery of Annunciation unfold.And "lifted up" means "exalted" as Mary was exalted by God, the "Magnificat" is a good reference to that. In Wisdom in Proverbs8:22-ff and Proverbs9:1-ff is a good reference to point who is Wisdom calling out in the street. Mary is the also consider brighter than all stars in heaven including the Angels, that's why Archangel Gabriel a cherub belonging to the Choir of Cherubim have to bow down to the Sovereign Queen of Angels greeting Mary "HAIL, Full of Grace". Mary is also called the Mother of Mercy but since Jesus is the source of the Mercy it can be parallel to the Church acknowledging Mary as the "seat of Wisdom", Jesus being Wisdom and Mercy. The poem also called Mary "seat of Mercy."

Mystic Rose can be found as one of the many titles of Mary in the Litany of Loreto.

https://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/maryd6f.htm

We only left with one riddle to go "

To see in pictured walls his storied world

Return upon him as a tale is told.

But we need to include the other 1st two phrases

Or shutting out his shining skies awhile

Built you about him for a house of gold

To see in pictured walls his storied world

Return upon him as a tale is told.

This stanza described how God/Logos came into the world in the form of a slave devoid of Majesty & Glory pointing to the poem when it stated "shutting out his shining skies awhile" the "house of gold that built" can be likened to the "Ark of Covenant".

"To see in pictured walls his storied world" this phrase will point to the Life of Jesus Christ as depicted in the prayer of the "Way/Station of the Cross"

Return upon him as a tale is told. means after Jesus had finished His Redeeming Mission the Logos will return to God as His story will now be told thru the written Gospel or in the bible.

The poem is so deep and to know the mind of the author we need the Gift of Wisdom to decipher what the author would like to express in his poem but my personal pondering is, it is an expression on the greatness of the Mystery of Mary and Jesus Incarnate. The author is expressing the greatness of Mary over the angels citing the light of cherubim is low compare to the Mystic Rose who is the New Paradise of God the Gate of Heaven whom every soul must enter to know the mystery of the untold tale of the Logos.It is a form of praise and wonder in the Mystery why God had created a creature higher than the angels and with unfathomable beauty and strength.

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