March 8, 2014

Birth of Cranch: Nature is but a scroll

Christopher Pearse Cranch was born on March 8, 1813, in what is now Alexandria, Virginia, the youngest son of 13 children. As he recalled many years later, "My first recollections date from the house in Washington Street, when I was about four or five years old." Not all of those recollections were positive. He remembered one of his teachers as "a great tyrant" known for "devising all sorts of strange, an sometimes cruel, punishments for the boys. Two of his sisters died when Christopher was young. "The death of these two elder sisters were my first great griefs, and made a deep impression on me."

Cranch's father, William Cranch, was appointed by President John Adams to the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia as an assistant judge (later to promoted as chief judge by Thomas Jefferson) before the boy's birth. Like Adams, the Cranch family also owned and operated a farm. After graduating from a college in D.C., Christopher Pearse Cranch made his way to Harvard Divinity School, after which he became influenced by the new liberal theology known as Transcendentalism.

Cranch's career was divided as a preacher, an artist, and as an author, editor, and poet. He lived for 78 years, almost to the very end of the century, outliving many of his fellow Transcendentalists. Perhaps his greatest poem is also one of his earliest — and his most Transcendental. "Correspondences" was originally published in The Dial in January 1841. In it, Cranch shows a "correspondence" with a Nature that represents the deity. That deity creates a world in much the same way as an author or poet creates his writing. In turn, then the deity and the speaker are able to communicate directly, if only one can discern the writing:

All things in Nature are beautiful types to the soul that will read them;
Nothing exists upon earth, but for unspeakable ends.
Every object that speaks to the senses was meant for the spirit:
Nature is but a scroll—God's hand-writing thereon.
Ages ago, when man was pure, ere the flood overwhelmed him,
While in the image of God every soul yet lived,
Everything stood as a letter or word of a language familiar,
Telling of truths which now only the angels can read.
Lost to man was the key of those sacred hieroglyphics—
Stolen away by sin—till with Jesus restored.
Now with infinite pains we here and there spell out a letter;
Now and then will the sense feebly shine through the dark.
When we perceive the light which breaks through the visible symbol,
What exultation is ours! we the discovery have made!
Yet is the meaning the same as when Adam lived sinless in Eden,
Only long-hidden it slept and now again is restored.
Man unconsciously uses figures of speech every moment,
Little dreaming the cause why to such terms he is prone—
Little dreaming that everything has its own correspondence
Folded within it of old, as in the body the soul.
Gleams of the mystery fall on us still, though much is forgotten,
And through our commonest speech illumines the path of our thoughts.
Thus does the lordly sun shine out a type of the Godhead;
Wisdom and Love the beams that stream on a darkened world.
Thus do the sparkling waters flow, giving joy to the desert,
And the great Fountain of Life opens itself to the thirst.
Thus does the word of God distil like the rain and the dew-drops,
Thus does the warm wind breathe like to the Spirit of God,
And the green grass and the flowers are signs of the regeneration.

O thou Spirit of Truth; visit our minds once more!
Give us to read, in letters of light, the language celestial,
Written all over the earth—written all over the sky:
Thus may we bring our hearts at length to know our Creator,
Seeing in all things around types of the Infinite Mind.

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