A poem in two cantos
While preparing an edition of the Dutch poet Jan Schouten’s Vrijmetselarij, in drie zangen [Freemasonry, in three cantos], a didactic poem on freemasonry, I looked for similar poems in other languages to compare them with each other in my introduction.
Thanks to the librarian of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London, Mr. Martin Cherry, – whom I should like to thank very warmly indeed –, I became aware of the existence of an unknown poem – The Arcana: or mystic gem – by an unknown 18th century English poet: it is this poem that I wish to edit in this small booklet.
I tried to find a second copy of the poem but to no avail; therefore, I think the copy in the aforesaid museum must be the only left in a public library, and most probably the only one anywhere.
For this reason and despite its poor quality the poem deserves to be republished. But there is also a reason associated with Masonic history and scholarship.
However, this booklet is not meant to be a truly scientific publication. So I shall keep the introduction as brief as possible, with no annotations. The main purpose is to make the text available for further scientific study, albeit in a very small number of paper copies.
My text is perfectly faithful to the text of the first (and only) edition: there are no emendations though transcription errors remain possible.
In glancing through Wolfstieg’s bibliography, it is quite obvious that, from the beginning of its existence, poetry and song have played an important role in freemasonry. But this first approach also reveals that it is mainly songs that have been written and used in freemasonry, then small odes, and least of all longer poems, in which the central ideas, goals and fundamental principles of freemasonry are explained, developed and made clear to an audience of sometimes initiates only, and at other times of profanes as well.
In the 6th part of his bibliography, referred to as ‘Praktischer Teil’, there is a subcategory 8, ‘Maurerische Poesie, Lyrik’, with almost nothing but songs, i.e. songs of every kind. Two further subcategories, 9, ‘Maurerische Poesie, Epik’ and 10, ‘Maurerische Poesie, Drama’, include novels, fairy tales, plays, and a number of so-called dramatic poems, and miscellaneous.
Didactic poems, if mentioned at all, are to be found in other subcategories: the first didactic poem on freemasonry ever written, for instance, bearing the number 3596, is listed under 19, ‘Urteile über die Freimaurerei’. With ‘didactic poem’ I mean the so-called ‘Lehrgedicht’ in German and ‘leerdicht’ in Dutch, i.e. a longer poem dealing with a historical, philosophical, scientific…subject, whose purpose is to teach while simultaneously entertaining the reader. There is, to my knowledge, no real equivalent in English for the German ‘Lehrgedicht’ and Dutch ‘leerdicht’, ‘didactic poem’ is much broader and also includes, e.g., fables. The best known examples in English of what I am referring to may be Pope’s Essai on Man and Thomson’s The Seasons.
Henry Jones’ poem does not appear in Wolfstieg at all. As only one copy is left, which is to be found in the above mentioned Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London I suppose Wolfstieg must have overlooked it. In any case, whereas the first long didactic poem on freemasonry, the French Noblesse des francs-maçons, is also and perhaps more especially a strange combination of specifically Masonic mythology, didacticism and historical apology, Jones’ poem can be described as a combination of pure didacticism and occasionalism. The occasion being the ‘enthronement’ of the Duke of Beaufort as Grandmaster in 1767.
Indeed, the poem is preceded by a long dedication to this Duke, who was Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of England from 1767 till 1772. Having been published in 1769, i.e. in the middle of the ‘reign’ of Beaufort, the poem obviously bears the mark of an apology, not only of the order in general, but of the past two years in particular. This aspect is immediately apparent in the opening and long dedication; but the end mentions Beaufort as well, and he is mentioned several times in the poem itself, especially in the first canto. This kind of flattery was quite common at the time, and it is difficult indeed to find a long poem, or a collection of poems without a flattering dedication. History’s irony, however, has been clearly at work: the poet’s last wish in this dedication was that his poem might live to tell ‘remotest Times’ about the order and his then Grandmaster; but not only has only one copy of the poem survived, the poet himself is no longer recorded as a poet. Indeed, in the thirteen volumes of the Cambridge History of English Literature his name is not even mentioned. In the main British libraries, i.e. the Bodleian and British Library in London, copies of the poet’s other works can still be found, from which we may conclude that Jones wrote other occasional poems, with mainly a descriptive and/or idyllic character (like later in the same century Thomson’s and Crabbe’s). He was the author of several plays, which must have been quite successful, for they were re-printed a number if times. (‘The Earl of Essex’ might have been his best known and most often performed tragedy; his other poems include ‘The Isle of Wight’, ‘The relief; or Day thoughts’, ‘Merit’, ‘Kew Garden’…)
The Arcana: or mystic gem itself consists of two cantos, the second being twice the length of the first. So you might say that the first canto is nothing but an introduction to the theme that is developed in depth in the second canto.
This first canto includes eight parts separated by interspaces; most parts are rather short, one of them is fairly long. The latter includes the main issue of this first canto, which is a real ‘defence of masonry’.
The very beginning starts with biblical references, i.e. to the Arc as a symbol of the strong ties between the Jews and their God; throughout the poem the poet continues to put strong emphasis on ties of this kind in masonry. The constantly re-occurring adjectives are ‘mystic’, ‘serene’ and ‘divine’. They act almost like Homeric epithets, but I fear they are rather an indication of the poet’s imperfect mastery of his own language. These adjectives re-occur far too often: most of the time the poet uses them after the noun, which is and was fairly uncommon, except in phrases referring to the royals (in the same way as today one still speaks of a ‘princess royal’). However, it draws the reader’s attention, and is very emphatic indeed.
The theme of the power exerted by religion on freemasonry is embroidered on, and the Duke of Beaufort is mentioned several times in the first two pages; from the second page on, the longest part of the first canto starts: it is a very abstract and Manichean development of the theme of the opposition between the profane and the sacral. The contradiction between these two is seen as absolute hence, Manichaeism. And as I said before, most important here is religion. Although Anderson had said from the beginning (in his first constitutions of 1713) that freemasonry was not and could not be a religion or a replacement for religion: Henry Jones seems to say the exact opposite. The deep unity of morality, Christianity and freemasonry is proclaimed here and throughout the whole poem sometimes with a real martial voice: “Come all ye sons of sweet Benevolence,/Of fortify’d integrity, and manly lore,/Beneath the eldest banner of the world,/In squared order, and in phalanx strong;” (p. 14)
The opponents of freemasonry are seen as devilish, hypocritical, slanderous etc., and according to the poet they belong in Dante’s hell. The only thing lacking in this ‘defence’ is an outspoken call to root them all out, to destroy them literally and physically. It is not unlike a modern American movie, with the absolute ‘good guys’ (the Yankees and their allies, of course) and the absolute ‘bad guys’ (these days the Muslims), and nothing whatsoever in between.