I share a Daniel Gabriel Rossetti sonnet today that I don’t entirely understand but that fascinates me. I chose it when looking for poems that explore today’s Gospel reading, which is Jesus’s famous reprimand to Peter:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8, 31-33)
The poem is entitled “RETRO ME, SATHANA!”, meaning “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” and Rossetti has an unfinished illustration with the same title. Rossetti’s Satanic temptation, at least in the poem, appears to be dreams of being mighty, which is what it is for Peter as well. The heavy-curled charioteer who is “snatched from out his chariot by the hair” must be Absolom, who was in revolt against King David. Those who are ambitious like Absolom are too much enthralled with the here and now—they are enthralled time—and when death comes, the world will careen onward, drawn by its now reinless steeds.
The Satanic desire to unfurl one’s mighty wings means that one sets onself to be broken like a lath or thin sheet of wood. The poet wants rather to tread narrow ways, which I’m reading as Jesus’s declaration that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which. leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Then again, those who the temptation of “the broad vine-sheltered path” (I think of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) will one day encounter God’s wrath, as described in the Book of Revelations (16:1): “And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.”
I’m not sure what promises of power and ambition the poet is tempted by, but he imagines angry judgement if he yields to them. Or at any rate, that’s what I think this poem is saying:
Get thee behind me. Even as, heavy-curled,
Stooping against the wind, a charioteer
Is snatched from out his chariot by the hair,
So shall Time be; and as the void car, hurled
Abroad by reinless steeds, even so the world:
Yea, even as chariot-dust upon the air,
It shall be sought and not found anywhere.
Get thee behind me, Satan. Oft unfurled,
Thy perilous wings can beat and break like lath
Much mightiness of men to win thee praise.
Leave these weak feet to tread in narrow ways.
Thou still, upon the broad vine-sheltered path,
Mayst wait the turning of the phials of wrath
For certain years, for certain months and days.