CELT document E890000-003

Sentan the Culdee

Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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    Sentan the Culdee

    This is the vision of a man of God,
    Long ere the times grew saddest, and the din
    Of human voices silenced in the depths
    The diapason deep of God most high.

  1. Not where the lilies nod, the roses flame,
    And gods go glimmering through leafy aisles,
    And sons of men grow wanton in the chase,
    Or mad with lust of battle and of blood;
    Not even where my saintly brethren dwell
    By streams half-haunted by the Pagan Gods,
    Half consecrate by Christian rite and prayer,—
    My saints, whose daily orisons arise,
    And curve, like incense, round the feet of God—
    Not there I dwell, but on this beetling crag,
    Whose forehead touches Heaven's vestibule,
    Whose feet are planted in the seething sea;
    Here, on this sullen rock, storm-shaken,
    And sea-lashed when the tempest waxes strong,
    Do I, the Culdee, Sentan, wear my days,
    And dream my nights, in violence with God,
    If haply one sad vision of my youth,
    One dark experience shall but move aside,
    From the dim waving curtains of my mind,
    And leave me God's best gift, His peace, once more
    Wilt hearken, for the burden of my grief
    Lifts from my weary shoulders. when I tell,
    Once and again, my sin and my remorse?
  2.  p.2
  3. Where a dark river broadens to the sea,
    Dreaming, and mirrowing in inky depths
    Uncoloured forms of leaves and trees and sky,
    There stretches inward many weary miles
    A gray moor, never lighted by the sun,
    But made more desolate in summer time,
    When a wan light creeps swiftly over crags,
    And darkens them, and makes the lonely hern
    Blink, and shrill out for his beloved gloom.
    There the black hills, cut into blacker teeth
    That bite the sky, and foam with whitened mist,
    Make a dark rampart from the outer world,
    And bid all sweetness and all light away.
    There was our Laura. There the beloved cells,
    Where for the weary frame was no repose;
    No space, no warmth, no shelter from the sun.
    The dews did wet us in the summer nights,
    The rains did pierce us in the winter day.
    Yet there was peace, and love, and God's high grace;
    At morn, God's Blessed Bread; and in the eve
    The Holy Word that sank into our hearts,
    Sweetened our lips, made music in our ears.
    Yet who would dream it? speak it? there, e'en there,
    Playing with bodies that were shadowless,
    With souls that shared angelic purity,
    The tempter came and won. Was it worth while
    When in the world outside such easy prey
    Fell to his hands, to trouble us poor monks,
    Whose feet already walked the pearly floors
    That pave the many mansions of our God?
    And yet he came, and laid a bitter siege,
    And burst the bulwarks and the battlements,
    Built by the midnight prayer, the burning scourge,
    Around the treasure-chamber of my God,
    And swept my soul, as easy as that wind
    Wafts its full-bosomed burden o'er the sea,
    Down to that realm of never-ending night
    Whose mighty gates, annealed with storm and fire,
    Swing slowly inwards for each hapless soul,
    Never swing outwatrds for a soul redeemed.
  4.  p.3
  5. It happened thus. In the scriptorium
    I laboured—nay, it was not labour lost,
    For labour lost its painful self in love;
    The hours flew by on golden-tipped wings,
    And dropped their gold and pearls on my palette,
    Until I made the leading letters shine
    Like jewels blazing amidst dusky hair,
    And all men stared, and in their wonder cried
    Pictor Angelicus! For me alone
    Such glory could not last, for were it thus,
    Heaven had no guerdon, half so fair, so sweet
    As work in exile, and the love of men.
    But one day dreaming o'er a faultless blue,
    That rivalled heaven on its sunniest day,
    And thinking would I blend it with my gold,
    Or would the gentler silver suit it best,
    A roll was placed before me to inscribe.
    I looked the letters over wondringly,
    Thought I had never seen such workmanship,
    Studied each line and circle, painted bird,
    Symbol uncouth, and pyramid, and square.
    Serpents that leaped athwart the creamy page,
    Apis, an ibis, and the mystic signs
    Of Isis and Osiris; then at once
    I passed from symbols unto symbolised,
    From words to meanings—all the hidden lore
    Of Egypt, and of India, and of Greece
    Slept in this vellum, till I dreamed and dreamed,
    And let my fancy wander libertine
    To questionings of God and all his works,
    The great Eternal's essence and his form,
    And thence to man, as sprung from God, and thence
    To life, its source, its issues, and its end.
    Was this black world, and man, its parasite,
    Spun through blind space, by demon whims or chance,
    Flashed for a moment in a lurid light,
    That marked its seams and wrinkled ugliness,
    Then plunged in night more merciful again?
    Or did it flame a pure star in the sky
    Thronged with a radiant galaxy of souls, p.4
    Held by its angel 'fore the face of God,
    Who, wond'ring at the magic of his work,
    Loved his own beauteous essence all the more,
    For all the wondrous beauties He has made?
    Vexed with such subtleties of thought as these,
    I rifled all the cabinets of God,
    And in a lethargy of ecstasy,
    Probed every secret cell of my own soul,
    Dived into hidden crypts, and even there,
    Unheeding the dread sacrilege and sin,
    I sought for fragments of a life divine
    Flowing in torrents from the throne of God.
    'Twas wrong! 'twas wrong! I should have left such lore
    To saintly scholar, or to learned saint.
  6. Sheathing its radiance with enfolded wings,
    A form of blinding light before me stood,
    Looked at me, beckoned; I arose and went.
    Down through dim, hollow spaces, where the light
    Flickers and fades—through ever dark'ning realms
    Caverned and gloomy—into darkest night
    Where e'en the angelic figure paled away
    Into dim spectral mists of waving wings
    And shadowed outstretched arms—we flashed and came
    To a great gate, annealed with storm and fire.
    He smote it with his flaming sword, and lo!
    The gates swung slowly inward, and revealed
    The realm of darkness, and of night and death,
    The kingdom of the lost—sad souls that pine
    For one dim ray, shot from that burning sun,
    Which they, in happier days, stared at too free,
    And gained in lieu the murkiness of Hell.
    And all the princes proud stood up to greet;
    And: "You are wounded even worse than we,
    You have become like us, and your fell pride
    Is brought so low, even so low as ours."
    And as they rose from ebon thrones, and looked,
    And spoke in voices muffled and distressed,
    Dim flames would flicker, like a falling star,
    From hands, and brows, and lips, and eyes, and hair, p.5
    Then falter into blackness once again.
    As a black brand, half-eaten by the fire,
    Flames into yellow brightness at a breath,
    Then curdles into sparks that leap and die,
    So from the sooty darkness of the damned,
    Whene'er they spoke, or looked, or passed a sign,
    A flame would reach unto the loathsome air,
    Then die in midnight murkiness again.
    And there was neither anger nor revenge
    Nor that tumultuous passion, that will speak
    In hissing tones, through clenchèd teeth and lips,
    Nor eyebrows lifted in dumb, silent scorn.
    But oh! the sadness of those brilliant eyes,
    The mute despair, the silent agony,
    As one should say: "The weary years shall roll
    Their slow and solemn burden round the sun,
    And suns shall fade, and spheres be crushed and rolled,
    As a monk's parchment shrivels in the fire,
    But never may we see the light again—
    The living light that beats around the Throne,
    And spreads throughout the universe of space,
    And kindles suns, and streams through stellar voids,
    To touch pale planets into lustrous moons.
    New forms shall rise to fill the vacant thrones,
    That stare at God—bid Him create again;
    And we, the demigods of lofty skies,
    Sporting, like children, round the feet of God,
    Lie here, forgotten and unknown, save when
    Some novel torture is devised for us,
    To make our hell more keener, and our lot
    More doleful than these wretched hybrids here,
    Half brute, half angel, who forswore their God,
    E'en when He'd bent Him down from his high place,
    And linked his lofty nature unto theirs."
    But when they saw upon my outstretched palm,
    Which I, to deprecate their wrath and hate,
    Turned towards them with humble suppliancy,
    The lines where holy oils were faintly traced,
    And a great light broke in upon their minds,
    That I, even I, was yet in truth a priest,
    A great hope shone from out their sunken eyes,
    As lights that, flashed along a rocky coast,
    Warn, and bear hope to shipwrecked mariners,
  7.  p.6
  8. And lo! they led me to an altar-throne,
    Built out of blackest ebony, and draped
    In blackest dyes, like dreary catafalque.
    The priestly robes were black, amice and alb,
    And I was clad with form, and rite, and prayer,
    By black and naked acolytes of Hell.
    The Mass was one that I used love to say—
    Introit of Sedulius, saint and bard;
    For 'twould appear, the hope traditional,
    That Mass in hell will quench its burning fires.
    Leans upon Mary's Mass—no other rite
    Hath such celestial force and potency.
    The rite progressed. And now the white host lay
    Like a pale planet on a sable sky,
    With just a dim and mystic aureole
    Where the round edge did lean upon the stone.
    The mills of hell stood still—the ceaseless round
    Of woes, and weeping, and the mournful chaunt
    Of lost souls heaved in unavailing toil.
    A million eyes did burn from out the gloom,
    And starred the sulphurous and sooty air,
    And all the princes of the nether courts
    Rose from their thrones in stateliest attitudes.
  9. I took the host into my trembling hands,
    Blessed it, and with white and tremulous lips
    I tried to speak the dread and sacred words.
    But lo! my parched tongue clave unto my mouth—
    I could not speak, nor cry, nor utter word,
    As if a ghostly nightmare haunted me.
    A whimpering trembled through the halls of Hell.
    Once more I tried, and prayed in thought, and leaned
    My arms upon the altar. Deep I drew
    My breath. I heard the panting of their breasts,
    And felt the flashing of expectant eyes.
    In vain! My memory failed, not one weak word,
    That veils our God beneath His humblest guise,
    Would leave my lips. And then a stifled groan
    Rolled through the vaults and architraves of Hell.
    A third time I essayed. All Hell stood still.
    I heard the beating of their hearts—the breath p.7
    Deep-drawn, and felt the heat of burning eyes
    Of princes and archangels fanning me.
    I drew a long deep sigh, and pursed my lips.
    No! not a word came forth, but the white host
    Crumbled to dust beneath my palsied hands,
    The chalice burst and all the ruddy wine
    Streamed on the floor, and flashed in ruby flames,
    And ran through all the channels of the place,
    And washed the thrones on which the princes sate.
    And God! great God! grant me that ne'er again,
    Here or hereafter, shall I hear that wail,
    That long, deep, mournful, painful, passioned wail
    That broke from heart and lip, and curving round
    Swept like a tempest of untold despair
    Through roofs and vaults, and architraves of Hell,
    And pulsing through the interminable depths
    It moanad and sobbed, and swelled, and paused and died.
    Yet the proud princes never uttered word,
    But leaning forward on their trembling hands
    Faces that blanched beneath such dread reverse,
    And crowned with aureoles of sulphurous flame,
    I heard their tears hiss on the burning floors;
    And I too wept, and woke to find my tears
    Had blurred and blotted all my laboured work,
    And—Abbot Ailbe stood, and gazed at me.
  10. "Sentan my child, Satan hath tempted thee,
    Like wheat hath sifted thee, and kept the grain,
    And left thee this poor chaff, for poor it is" —
    He pointed to the roll of Porphyry—
    "I know it well, lore with but little truth,
    Opium dreams, and Orient reveries,
    And all the twilight visions of the East,
    The truth forshadowing, but not the truth;
    For we may doubt whether the angry lies
    That hiss their fierce denial towards God,
    Blaspheme His name, and contravene His word,
    May yet not bear one half the ruth and dole
    Borne to sad souls that do not keep the watch
    By those pale spectres of philosophy,
    Specious yet false, content with half-beliefs,
    That woo the fancy from the stern, cold truths, p.8
    Forged in the fiery workshops of the Lord,
    But chilled by frozen contact with the world.
    I know not, Sentan, whence those bitter tears,
    Whether they fall as crystals from thy heart,
    Broken by grief, or opened by mistrust;
    But for thy soul's sake, and to humble him,
    Who in his craft, hath deeply humbled thee,
    Leave thou this work, thy stylus, and thy brush,
    And all the wonders which thy hand has made,
    Making thee too perhaps, high-borne and vain;
    Leave thou this laura, and thy brethren dear,
    And me, who love thee, though I banish thee;
    And where a high rock beetles o'er the sea,
    Its shadow dark'ning at the midday hour
    The grave of sainted Declan—there abide
    Thy bed—the heather, salted by seawinds;
    Thy books—the open manuscripts of God;
    Thy food—whate'er the sea-fowl bring to thee.
    Once and again, thou mayest near approach
    The cells, where dwell the brethren of Ardmor,
    To shrive thee, and receive the Paschal guest.
    But thou shalt shun all intercourse with men,
    And love the silent solitudes of God.
    Perchance in some far off and distant time,
    When thou, through fires of discipline and prayer,
    The dim mists cleansed from thy half-blinded eyes,
    Hast, in the sacred silence of the seas,
    Pondered the dread exorbitance of God:
    Thou may'st go forth to see the blinding face
    Of Him, to whom the stars are blackened slags,
    And angels' faces blurred and stained with sin.
    Take then, O brother, take this kiss of peace
    From him who loves thee, though he smiteth thee.
    Thou knowest, I know, we shall not meet again."
  11. And hence, upon the sullen rock, storm-shaken,
    And buffeted by every wind that blows,
    Do I, the Culdee, Sentan, wear my days,
    And dream my nights, in violence with God.
    Here is my couch—this purple bed of heath,
    Tyrian in colour, spiced and perfuméd;
    My canopy, the coloured clouds that roll p.9
    And shake their folds from zenith unto sea,
    And dye the wavelets saffron, red and gold.
    And the sweet, gentle creatures of the deep,
    Sea-pie, and sanderling, mallard-teal and gull,
    Come to me chirping, in pretence of song,
    As if to break the spell of solitude.
    And when a barque comes curtsying o'er the deep,
    Mariners bare their heads, and dip their flags,
    Not unto me, Sentan, the sinful man,
    But unto sainted Declan, him who sleeps,
    Where that Phenician tower and obelisk
    Sweeps with the sun from early morn to dusk.
    And all the maimed, the halted, and the blind,
    And they whose flesh is coated with the sin,
    The sin and sorrow of dread leprosy,
    Come to me, shall I say? like Him of old
    Whose hands dropped mercy, and whose sacred lips
    Shed balm and fragrance on the sinful heart.
    I bid them go, and wash in Declan's well;
    They go, and they are strengthened and made whole,
    Praise be to Declan, and his Most High God!
    And am I tempted? Sometimes in the eves
    Dreams of the scriptorium torture me,
    For I have seen such wondrous colouring,
    Such depths and shades and lights of sky and sea
    (God the great Artist ever humbles me)
    That I would give half of my years in heaven
    To catch the lights that dye the purple e'en,
    And touch my vellum into another sky.
  12. Yet, had I not the holy word of God,
    The rapt, prophetic vision of Isaï,
    The rhythmic sorrows of the erring king,
    The tender tale of that thrice holy youth,
    Who loved, and was beloved, of the Lord,
    I should not be untaught—unlessoned.
    For Nature, in her wild or gentle moods,
    Reflex or echo of the realms enskied,
    Preaches God's verities unceasingly.
    The patient rocks that front the sun and storm,
    And never chide the chafing waves beneath,
    Tell me of Him, who, throned above the stars, p.10
    Looks calmly on, unfretted by the sin,
    The ceaseless madness of humanity.
    And those unreasoning waters here around,
    That shrink from earth, or if they do approach,
    Swing their vast bulk against this stubborn rock,
    What are they but the voices and the types—
    The ceaseless pulsings of a restless race?
    But oh! at night, when 'thwart the velvet pall
    A silver ribbon touches pole and pole,
    And I behold the myriad suns that flash
    Their splendours into space, and with one voice
    Volley their thunders, as they wheel and stretch
    Long lines of light across the trembling sky—
    Then as if some great spirit from on high,
    Should twist his fingers in my hair, and lift
    This poor, frail frame into the empyrean,
    I float and swim in pulsing seas of light;
    From gloom to glory, and from blackened space
    Into the blinding splendours of some star,
    And thence again into a night of gloom,
    And thence into a radiance so serene—
    A pale and tremulous ocean whose waves
    Wash gently upwards, and then gently break
    In murmured meekness at the throne of God.
    And then I pause, and rapt from out myself,
    Absorbed and lost in some deep tranquil dream,
    All, all is merged in one great, blissful thought—
    I am in God, and God o'ershadows me!
    And then, once more, the jaded spirit flags
    In its too lofty flight, and with closed wings,
    Once more is prisoned in its earthly cage,
    And once again is fronted with its sin,
    And once again looks through its fleshy bars
    At that sad picture, framed in rings of death—
    Black rocks, gray shingle, and the sullen sea.
  13. So spake the man of God, the gray Culdee,
    Long ere these leaden days, from which the sun
    Of God's sweet Face hath vanished into night,
    And in the depths His voice hath died away.
    P. A. SHEEHAN.

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Title (uniform): Sentan the Culdee

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork

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Extent: 3650 words

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Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland— http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2013

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: E890000-003

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Source description


  • Blackpool, Cork City and County Archives; Mss. U102, item 2, p. 17.

Canon Sheehan on the Internet

  • http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.


  1. Herman Joseph Heuser, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: the story of an Irish parish priest as told chiefly by himself in books, personal memoirs, and letters (New York 1917).
  2. Arthur Coussens. P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  3. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  4. Patrick J. McLaughlin, "A Century of Science in the I.E.R.: Monsignor Molloy and Father Gill," The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, vol. 102, 5th series (July—December 1964), p. 265.
  5. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  6. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205-11.]
  7. Joachim Fischer, 'Canon Sheehan und die deutsche Kultur', In: Joachim Fischer, Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890–1939, (Heidelberg: Winter 2000).

The edition used in the digital edition

‘Sentan the Culdee’. In: The Irish Monthly‍ 24.271. Ed. by SJ Matthew Russell, pp. 1–10.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  editor 	 = {},
  title 	 = {Sentan the Culdee},
  journal 	 = {The Irish Monthly},
  editor 	 = {Matthew Russell, SJ},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {Irish Jesuit Province},
  date 	 = {January 1896},
  volume 	 = {24 },
  number 	 = {271 },
  pages 	 = {1–10}


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Creation: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913)

Date: 1896

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  • The text is in English. (en)
  • A few words are in Latin. (la)

Keywords: poetry; 19c; vision; Sentan; Catholicism

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  1. 2014-01-23: Information about bibliographical details given by Dr James O'Brien added to file. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
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  5. 2013-08-28: Text proofed (1); structural and content mark-up added; TEI header created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  6. 2013-08-28: Text scanned. (file capture Beatrix Färber)

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