Poem of the Day: ‘The Silence of Thomas Aquinas’ 

In a poem devoted to an active mind’s withdrawal from the world of the living, details of that world stand out sharply to the dying eye.

via Wikimedia Commons
Carlo Crivelli: 'Saint Thomas Aquinas,' detail. via Wikimedia Commons

In “The Silence of Thomas Aquinas,” the former Oklahoma poet laureate and author of the recent “The Family Book of Martyrs,” Benjamin Myers (b. 1975), gives us the ghost of a sonnet. Fourteen unrhymed lines, largely in iambic pentameter, imagine a scene in which the Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), nearing death, observes a novice at his formative work of building a stone wall. The iambic meter is regular enough that the reader notices the trochees that begin lines 5 and 13: watching, putting. The first trochee is Thomas’s action. The second is the novice’s, as Thomas remembers it. Between them intervenes the suggestion of a volta, or turn: the old man’s silent prayer as he watches the boy at work, learning to bend himself to the will of God.  

In a poem devoted to an active mind’s withdrawal from the world of the living, details of that world stand out sharply to the dying eye. The young man’s tonsure, pink and vulnerable. His hands not yet hardened to work. The novice’s youth and the life before him, to which he is beginning to learn to submit himself, speak to the longer journey for which the old man prepares.  A poem timed for the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas on January 28.

The Silence of Thomas Aquinas 
by Benjamin Myers 
There is a writing desk hunched like an ox 
beside the bed they put him in. He asks 
to go outside, and carried to the yard 
he spends an hour beneath an olive tree 
watching a novice build a wall from stones, 
the young man’s tonsure still a little pink, 
his soft hands chaffing red in cold, dry wind. 
He thinks, None other than thyself, my Lord. 
And then to prayer, a cup of wine, more prayer, 
and rest, of sorts, if not a solid sleep. 
In bed he thinks again about that wall, 
the silent novice picking up a stone, 
putting a stone back down, and doing both 
as if preparing for a journey. 


With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul. 

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