St Therese of Lisieux: Poems, Translated by Alan Bancroft. HarperCollins, £9.99
ST THERESE of the Child Jesus died in 1897 at the young age of 24, having lived a Carmelite religious life of the most vigorous, yet hidden heroism. She is commonly known as the "Little Flower" from her own description of herself as only a little flower in God's garden, compared to the great trees and shrubs which are the great saints. But, she argued, even a little flower can be just as pleasing to God. Monica Baldwin, in her memoir I Leap over the Wall comments: "Little Flower indeed! Little Wedge of Iron or Bar of Steel would be nearer the mark".
During the early part of this century there was a great deal of interest in, and admiration for, Therese of Lisieux. Many new Carmelite foundations were made in this country, and this, together with the publication of her celebrated autobiography, made her "Little Way" of spirituality well known, and it is now the inspiration of many, religious and layfolk alike.
And now we have the poems. Therese could compose them in her head during the day, as she went about her business, and then write them down in the evening. They were then tinkered with after her death by her sister.
The extent to which you will appreciate these poems rather depends on what you expect. Theologians have a saying, that grace builds on nature, without destroying it. In this case, the powerful grace of God has built on the nature of a nineteenthcentury girl in her late adolescence who writes poems, not about a boyfriend, but about her overwhelming love for God. This love is the thing, and it shines through her words.
But one has to comment that the fact of her being a great saint does not in itself make her a great poet. She had, after all, neither the leisure nor the life-span to become one. And how many of us would be comforted by the knowledge that our adolescent outpourings would be read by others and analysed?
It has to be said that the poems do have some artistic merit: they are competently composed in a variety of metres and rhyme schemes. The content, however, and
expression compare unfavourably even with the poetry of Fr Faber. Sometimes there are amusing parallels, as with her poem "My Longings Before the Tabernacle": For this! you open, every day, The prison of the Eucharist Where God, who's Love, is locked away!...
...Paten, I envy you as well!
Upon you Jesus takes his rest: May endless Grandeur come and dwell (Though poor the lodging) as my Guest...
which puts me delight fully in mind of Fr Faber's 0 happy Py x, 0 happy Pyx!
Where Jesus doth his dwelling fix.
I would, however, be very sorry if these poems were to become better known than Therese's other writings. That misfortune has happened to Fr Faber, whose spiritual writings, though of a very high quality indeed, have been forgotten largely because his poetry could occasionally he really awful.
Therese's poems, let me hasten to add, are not really awful. Sometimes they are moving, such as the one written shortly before her death, which I hesitate to quote here, because to see it out of context would cheapen it. But they're certainly not the stuff of great literature.
The translation and commentary, on the other hand, are quite superb. Mgr Ronald Knox commented when translating Therese's autobiography that it is no mean feat for a twentiethcentury English male to get into the skin of a late nineteenth-century French girl. Mr Bancroft, however, succeeds admirably. There is a true feeling of authenticity, a sureness and a sense of confidence: the notes and comments reveal Mr Bancroft's efforts faithfully to reproduce Therese in English, and also demonstrate his anxiety that we should know what the French actually says when the awkwardness of translating poetry metrically into another language occasionally inevitably defeats him.
So there we have it. This is a very important book for those devoted to St Therese: it shows much of the day-today operation of her awesome spirituality; it shows her utter love for God; and it fills out her other writings admirably. But on the level of poetry, there are better books around; don't, in other words, expect a St John of the Cross, who, being older, did actually manage that rare feat of combining mysticism with poetical excellence. And, in any case, there are better guides to the spirituality of St Therese: above all her autobiography. But Mr Bancroft has done us a service nonetheless.