Ovid’s Amores were not yet on our lips
(they were to circulate a little later.)
It was Cicero’s kiss of friendship
that St. Aelred tasted, found the sweeter.
In the Vita Aelredi Daniel tells
how Rievaulx’s tall thin abbot strove
to sublimate his carnal
desire to God’s eternal love —
long hours of submersion
in the cold-plunge he had built
was how the young Cistercian
assuaged his body’s guilt.
The mortal fight against the flesh
was high on his agenda,
the strength of will to push
away nocturnal hands that wander:
swiftest smile, nod or sigh,
these were permitted signs of love;
yet in his heart he approved each happy lie,
and reasoned to forgive
his monks of fantasies
that were just the same as his.
Thus, in cloister or in Chapter House,
he deemed holding hands to be virtuous.
And he struggled on into middle age,
waging war against his vices:
the daily plunge to quell the urge
brought consumption, arthritis.
Yet Daniel says his body shone
as it was laid to rest —
except for one small cloud which hung
above the seat of lust.
Cliff Fell is the author of two collections of poems. He was born in London, UK, to an English mother and New Zealand father and now lives in the Nelson region of the South Island, where he works in the School of Arts and Media at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. He is the current poetry correspondent on Nights with Bryan Crump on Radio New Zealand National.
Fell comments: ‘“Secret Vita” was written in 1989 after a visit to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, while I was in my final year of studying for a combined honours degree in Archaeology and Medieval History at Exeter University. It is one of those poems that has, for various reasons, been gathering dust in the bottom of a drawer for the many years since then, but now that it has found its way into the world, I would like to dedicate it to Professor Christopher Holdsworth, an amusing tutor and brilliant lecturer, who introduced me to the life and work of Aelred. The course was, I seem to remember, on Twelfth Century Monasticism.’
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