The Pilgrim’s Progress


Will I reattain as it was written
The ocean where crystals shatter and drip
A will-o’-the-wisp with magic lantern
The westering shrouds of a mourning ship?

Will I be arrested on the waters
Carried off to the strand of the dead
Among the willows by the river
Where the grass is scattered and the shadows are fled?

The quality of majesty in a jealous god
To leave an amnesty in his will
Miscellaneous chaos still takes its toll
The cannons sound across the hill

The smoking candle, the sounding bell
Written and arrested as it shall be
While one skull wanders in search of a ring
The other stares open-mouthed at me

About Ben Naga

The Spirit that graces me with its passing has no name and stems not from thoughts and words, though it gathers them up as it flows, but from feeling.

Posted on January 18, 2012, in Poetry, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. This musical poem has a lot of death and searching in it. I have to admit that I’ve had to spend some time thinking about it: A wondrous activity! I would assume that the pilgrim in the first stanza is trying to reattain something lost, in this case the ocean and the westering shrouds of a mourning ship. One of the questions rising from the stanza is, what is the symbol of the ocean representing? The somberness contrasts sharply with the beautiful music.

    Then the question, will I be arrested on the waters? Of the ocean, I suspect. Will I be carried off to the strand of the dead?

    Then miscellaneous chaos, a wonderfully complex conceit (using conceit here in the old English sense, not the modern sense), takes its toll within the context of the quality of majesty in a jealous God who leaves an amnesty (I suspect for humankind) in his will.

    Then an even stranger final stanza where the smoking candle (which once produced light) and the sounding bell (which tolls death or a message, or perhaps both) is written and arrested (stopped?) while one skull wanders in search of a ring (The one ring to bind them all? Or the ring which is a circle standing for perfection?) while the other skull stares open-mouthed at the poet.

    The pilgrim searches the ocean, which is endless and unknowable (as the universe is) and confronts (or sees) the westering shrouds of a mourning ship–which in the end is the ship all of us have experience with during our lives. Will we be arrested on the waters? Or will be carried off to the strand of the dead?

    These questions asked in the light of a jealous God, who nevertheless leaves all of us an amnesty, finds the pilgrim in miscellaneous chaos, the chaos of events, time, and daily life. This chaos leads to the smoking candle (which once was light) and the bell which rings its eternal message to those who will listen.

    I am okay, sort of, up to here, but have not been able to figure out the symbol of the two skulls. I am still thinking. Anyway, I loved this poem!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must say I am stunned, and touched, to learn how much time and effort you have put into deciphering this poem. I guess you must have thought it worth doing so, which is a great compliment. Thank you. I think there is always a degree of contradiction, ambivalence and uncertainty for the pilgrim until the final goal is achieved; just so, the poem reflects that. I do not want to spoil, or inhibit, exploration and speculation.

      However, in view of your efforts, let me offer a few speculations of my own.

      Death – both literal and metaphorical – are a spiritual pilgrim’s constant companion. Similarly, there is an element of equivocacy in the pilgrim’s relationship with the deity and established religion. (“Bell, book and candle.”) There are hints of alchemy, wizardry (Merlin, more specifically) and necromancy.

      One take on the two skulls is that the pilgrim is always self conscious, both seeing oneself and being seen, and this can be depicted as two heads looking at one another. One part of the pilgrim believes there must be a search for an external object (a ring, a stone, an elixir, a lamp, a sword …), while the other part believes the answer is to learn to remain still and go within. The eyes of this second skull stare accusingly, but the open mouth remains mysteriously silent.

      Go figure. 😀


    • Ben, your last paragraph helps me make a little more sense of the last stanza. So the pilgrim, self conscious within the unknowable ocean of existence, is seen and seeing. The skulls are, of course, a symbol of death that is always with us, but are also symbols of the pilgrims search for the ring (perfection, love, promise) or the desire to go deep into self to find the answers. What a poem! I’m not sure my mind has fully grasped its depths yet, but my intuition seems to think that I have discovered something.

      Liked by 1 person

    • And again I am humbled to hear that you find it so worthy of your time. Thank you.


  2. Oh the senselessness of war, Ben! Everything lost and nothing gained, it seems. I like this one very much indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This piece recalled my reading of the famous journey penned with the same title, and as I explored it I found a similar delight in the beautiful metaphors and deep humanity conveyed in the work. well done, indeed

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful writing, Ben…!! The two last lines said it all for me. Well-crafted – plus the imagery stirs the intuitive right side of my brain (and maybe one of my “sub-personalities”? 🙂 ) as if in a dream state of sorts. I like!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love the imagery and verse structure.

    Also, very nice use of willows. Works very well.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the best poem of yours that I have read (take that with a grain of salt). I love that the skull looking at you had its mouth open 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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