Poetry Wednesday: Interpreting Schemhammphorasch

Rose Terry Cooke was known* for her gentle stories about country life, which wasn’t surprising for a New England Congregationalist woman writing in the Nineteenth century.

But Mrs. Cooke, who was a governess before she married, also wrote quite good poetry, and while some of it was gentle and humorous, some of it . . . wasn’t.

I’m only going to share one of her poems today, not only because it’s my favorite, but because it’s a whopper on a couple of levels, including length, though like many** good poems, it’s even longer on the inside.

This one is based on a Rabbinical legend, wherein Moses, who had lost his first staff for—and I’m paraphrasing here—being a jerk, apologized and was given another one made out of the Tree of Life.  On that staff was a word which was the key to understanding all languages, from demons to angels, birds to animals, the thoughts of rain and the cries of the human heart.

While I was fact checking for this post—hush, it happens—I found this legend in The World of Proverb and Parable—don’t be too impressed, I googled it— which was published in 1885 by Edwin Paxton Hood.  I don’t usually bother to share sources here, but his commentary about the story caught my attention:

“We have no idea in whose hands this staff is now or who holds the key of Schemhammphorasch but judging from this description, the likeliest person to have possessed it in these later ages seems to have been Shakespeare, though perhaps Goethe knew some of the letters.”

I love this. Love it.

I don’t know if Mrs. Cooke read the book—she passed in 1892, so she certainly could have—but I like to think that page fifty-three is what ignited this poem.

Because this so easily could have been about the Unworthiness of the Mortal Vessel to contain the Knowledge of the Universe—yeah, yeah, saw the Dr. Who episode—but instead, I’ve always thought of it as exploration of the obsession writers have for language and their longing, however secret, for writing Great and Glorious Work.

By Rose Terry Cooke

Ah! could I read Schemhammphorasch,
The wondrous keynote of the world,
What voices could I always hear
From tempests, with their black wings furled,
That on the sudden west winds steer,
And, muttering low their awful song,
Or pealing through the mountains strong,
Robe all the skies with sheeted fire;
That pour from heaven a rushing river,
That bid the hill-tops bow and quiver,
Mad with some fierce and wild desire.

The dreadful anthem of the wind,
That sweeps through forests as a plow,
That lays the greensward heaped below,
Would chant its meaning to my mind,
And I could tell the tale to man
In words that burn and glow with splendor;
Then should the whole wide sky surrender
Its hidden voice, its wondrous plan,
Asleep since earliest time began;
And all my soul, most like a blaze
That burns the branches whence it springeth,
Should flame to heaven in mightier lays
Than any mortal poet singeth,
If I could read Schemhammphorasch.

If I could read Schemhammphorasch,
When little birds are softly singing,
Or twitter from their greenwood nests,
Where safe and still the mother rests;
Or else, upon the glad wind springing,
Send up their tender morning song;
Then should I know their secret blisses,
The thrill of life and love they feel
When summer’s sun their bright heads kisses,
Or summer’s winds about them steal.
Or, listening to the early blossoms
That are so fleeting and so fair,
With perfume sighing from their bosoms
Its incense on the gracious air,
I think that I should hear a prayer
So sweet, so patient, and so lowly,
That mortal words most pure and rare
Would scarce unveil its meaning holy.
From forests whence the murmurous leaves
Breathe their content in rustling quiver,
Or droop when any rain-wind grieves,
Or where some broad and brimming river
O’erflowing to the mighty sea,
Sings the proud joy of destiny,
The glad acclaim of life and breath;
The courage of confronted death;
Ah! what a rapturous, glorious song
Should seize with bliss this earthly throng,
If I could read Schemhammphorasch!

If I could read Schemhammphorasch,
Then should I know the souls of men,
Too deep for any other ken;
I could translate the silent speech
Of glittering eye and knotted brow,
Though still the wily tongue might teach
A different script with voice and vow.
The blood that runs in traitorous veins;
The breath that gasps with hope or fear;
The stifled sigh, the hidden tear;
The death-pang of immortal pains,
That hide their mortal agony,
Would have their own low voice for me;
Their tale of hate and misery,
Their sob of passion and despair,
Their sacred love, their frantic prayer.
My soul would be the listening priest
To hear confession far and near,
And woe and want from first to least
Would shriek its utterance in my ear.
Ah, could I bear to live and hear
These cries that heaven itself might flee,
These terrors heaven alone may see,
If I could read Schemhammphorasch?

If I could read Schemhammphorasch,
My brain would burn with such a fire
As lights the awful cherubim;
My heart would burst with woe and ire,
My flesh would shrivel and expire;
Yea! God himself grow far and dim.
I cannot hold the boundless sea
In one small chalice lent to me;
I cannot grasp the starry sky
In one weak hand, and bid it lie
Where I would have a canopy;
I cannot hate and love together;
I cannot poise the heavy world,
Or hear its hiss through chaos hurled,
Or stay the falling of a feather.
No, not if Michael came once more,
Standing upon the sea and shore,
And held his right hand down to me,
That I that awful word might see,
And learn to read its lesson dread.
My soul in dust would bow her head,
Mine eyes would close, my lips would say,
‘Oh, Master! take thy gift away:
Leave me to live my little day
In peace and trust while yet I may.
For could I live, or love, or pray,
If I could read Schemhammphorasch?’

It’s a personal interpretation, of course—I don’t have any staffs stashed in my closet and Mrs. Cooke isn’t around to ask—but the fact remains that a poet who could write verse like this still valued her small stories of country life and families.

But however you take this poem—and please feel free to comment, even if you think I’m sadly mistaken—I hope you’ll agree that Mrs. Cooke might have known a letter or two of Schemhammphorasch herself.
*Or is known, really, since her stuff is still in libraries and in print. They remind me of Louisa May Alcott’s stories, though with slightly more humor and fewer purple-hued morals, though to be fair, sometimes the best cure for what ails is to sob in to one of Alcott’s books—she really wasn’t afraid to make us love the nobly doomed characters . . .But that should probably be another post.

**Not all. Sometimes a frog haiku is just a haiku about a frog, and that’s the perfect thing for it to be.


2 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Interpreting Schemhammphorasch

  1. Are you sure she isn’t joking? Maybe I’m wrong but the poems seems pretty epic for someone otherwise known for small stories about country life. I’ve never heard of Cooke but did read several of Alcott’s stories in college. I remember liking them.

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