The Courage of Your Convictions

The Courage of Your Convictions

This week’s poems are about belief and faith.

Leigh Hunt’s devout “Abou Ben Adhem” wins God’s love through his love of his fellow men.

Rudyard Kipling’s tale of “Tomlinson” speaks of the fate of a soul with no strong convictions.

We meet another Abou Ben Adhem in G.K. Chesterton’s cautionary tale of “The Philanthropist”, a man whose egotism deludes him so that the works he performs are not in the interests of their subjects.

Poem 49. Abou Ben Adhem

‘I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.’

Leigh Hunt (1784—1859)

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’— The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said ‘I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.’

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names who love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

This is one of my favourite poems because I like the idea of Abou Ben Adhem’s reward for loving his neighbours and because the images are very clear and the rhymes are strong and because of the elegant phrasing of the powerful idea that loving each other is the key to earning God’s love. Whether you believe in God or not, kindness and generosity to others makes our world a better place and that’s a reward regardless of any conjectural blessing in the next world.

Abou ben Adhem is the Anglicized version of Ibrahim ibn Adham (also called Ibrahim Balkhi), who is a prominent early saint in the Islamic Sufi tradition of mysticism. He was, according to legend, a powerful prince who renounced his throne in favour of an ascetic and humble life at the instigation of the Servant of God. Scorning to beg for his living, Ibrahim lived nomadically but worked hard at all the work he undertook no matter how menial. He is supposed to have been killed in a naval expedition against Byzantium.

This poem draws a very clear picture in my imagination of the ascetic woken from his sleep by this incredible scene. Instead of being awestruck as a lesser man might be, the saint makes so bold as to question the angel. Learning the nature of the angel’s book, and instead of pursuing the question of why his name is not in the book, he simply asks the angel to note that he loves his neighbours, a sentiment that is duly recorded and earns Ibrahim the reward of God’s love.

James Henry Leigh Hunt was an English writer of criticism, essays and poetry. He was a leading intellectual of his day, and was at the centre of a group of friends and admirers known as the “Hunt Circle”. He introduced Keats, Shelley, Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson to the general public and was present at Shelley’s funeral. Dickens also based the character of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House on Hunt.

Hunt and his two brothers had a long feud with William Blake who described their office where they published their newspaper The Examiner, as “a nest of villains”. Hunt in turn had added Blake’s name to a list of so-called quacks. The Examiner eventually overstepped the mark by criticising the behaviour of Prince Regent George, and the Hunt brothers were tried and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Leigh Hunt was visited in prison by a number of celebrated men of the time including Byron and suffered fewer of the vicissitudes of incarceration than other inmates.

He and his wife suffered from poor health in their later years as well as having financial woes (they had ten children between 1809 and 1829, eight of whom survived into adulthood). They were supported financially by Shelley, who suggested that Hunt and his family should follow him to Italy which they did, undertaking a long and perilous voyage. A week after they arrived in Italy, Shelley drowned when his boat sank in a storm leaving them dependent on Byron, who felt no obligation to help them out and left for Greece the following year. In 1825, Hunt and his family returned to Britain to resolve a lawsuit with one of his brothers, and Hunt’s finances and health continued to decline until 1844 when Mary Shelley and her son settled an annuity on him and Lord John Russell set up a pension in his favour. During the next 15 years, he made more of a success of his writing. He died in Putney in 1859 and is commemorated at Christ’s Hospital like his contemporaries (and fellow alumni) Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


  • Read more about Ibrahim ibn Adham at Wikipedia.

Poem 50. Tomlinson

For the race is run by one and one and never by two and two.

Rudyard Kipling (1572—1631)

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.
“Stand up, stand up now, Tomlinson, and answer loud and high
The good that ye did for the sake of men or ever ye came to die
The good that ye did for the sake of men in little earth so lone!”
And the naked soul of Tomlinson grew white as a rain-washed bone.
“O I have a friend on earth,” he said, “that was my priest and guide,
And well would he answer all for me if he were by my side.”
“For that ye strove in neighbour-love it shall be written fair,
But now ye wait at Heaven’s Gate and not in Berkeley Square:
Though we called your friend from his bed this night, he could not speak for you,
For the race is run by one and one and never by two and two.”
Then Tomlinson looked up and down, and little gain was there,
For the naked stars grinned overhead, and he saw that his soul was bare:
The Wind that blows between the worlds, it cut him like a knife,
And Tomlinson took up his tale and spoke of his good in life.
“This I have read in a book,” he said, “and that was told to me,
And this I have thought that another man thought of a Prince in Muscovy.”
The good souls flocked like homing doves and bade him clear the path,
And Peter twirled the jangling keys in weariness and wrath.
“Ye have read, ye have heard, ye have thought,” he said, “and the tale is yet to run:
By the worth of the body that once ye had, give answer what ha’ ye done?”
Then Tomlinson looked back and forth, and little good it bore,
For the Darkness stayed at his shoulder-blade and Heaven’s Gate before:
“O this I have felt, and this I have guessed, and this I have heard men say,
And this they wrote that another man wrote of a carl in Norroway.”
“Ye have read, ye have felt, ye have guessed, good lack! Ye have hampered Heaven’s Gate;
There’s little room between the stars in idleness to prate!
O none may reach by hired speech of neighbour, priest, and kin
Through borrowed deed to God’s good meed that lies so fair within;
Get hence, get hence to the Lord of Wrong, for doom has yet to run,
And…the faith that ye share with Berkeley Square uphold you, Tomlinson!”


The Spirit gripped him by the hair, and sun by sun they fell
Till they came to the belt of Naughty Stars that rim the mouth of Hell:
The first are red with pride and wrath, the next are white with pain,
But the third are black with clinkered sin that cannot burn again:
They may hold their path, they may leave their path, with never a soul to mark,
They may burn or freeze, but they must not cease in the Scorn of the Outer Dark.
The Wind that blows between the worlds, it nipped him to the bone,
And he yearned to the flare of Hell-Gate there as the light of his own hearth-stone.
The Devil he sat behind the bars, where the desperate legions drew,
But he caught the hasting Tomlinson and would not let him through.
“Wot ye the price of good pit-coal that I must pay?” said he,
“That ye rank yoursel’ so fit for Hell and ask no leave of me?
I am all o’er-sib to Adam’s breed that ye should give me scorn,
For I strove with God for your First Father the day that he was born.
Sit down, sit down upon the slag, and answer loud and high
The harm that ye did to the Sons of Men or ever you came to die.”
And Tomlinson looked up and up, and saw against the night
The belly of a tortured star blood-red in Hell-Mouth light;
And Tomlinson looked down and down, and saw beneath his feet
The frontlet of a tortured star milk-white in Hell-Mouth heat.
“O I had a love on earth,” said he, “that kissed me to my fall,
And if ye would call my love to me I know she would answer all.”
“All that ye did in love forbid it shall be written fair,
But now ye wait at Hell-Mouth Gate and not in Berkeley Square:
Though we whistled your love from her bed to-night, I trow she would not run,
For the sin ye do by two and two ye must pay for one by one!”
The Wind that blows between the worlds, it cut him like a knife,
And Tomlinson took up the tale and spoke of his sin in life:
“Once I ha’ laughed at the power of Love and twice at the grip of the Grave,
And thrice I ha’ patted my God on the head that men might call me brave.”
The Devil he blew on a brandered soul and set it aside to cool:
“Do ye think I would waste my good pit-coal on the hide of a brain-sick fool?
I see no worth in the hobnailed mirth or the jolthead jest ye did
That I should waken my gentlemen that are sleeping three on a grid.”
Then Tomlinson looked back and forth, and there was little grace,
For Hell-Gate filled the houseless Soul with the Fear of Naked Space.
“Nay, this I ha’ heard,” quo’ Tomlinson, “and this was noised abroad,
And this I ha’ got from a Belgian book on the word of a dead French lord.”
“Ye ha’ heard, ye ha’ read, ye ha’ got, good lack! and the tale begins afresh
Have ye sinned one sin for the pride o’ the eye or the sinful lust of the flesh?”
Then Tomlinson he gripped the bars and yammered, “Let me in
For I mind that I borrowed my neighbour’s wife to sin the deadly sin.”
The Devil he grinned behind the bars, and banked the fires high:
“Did ye read of that sin in a book?” said he; and Tomlinson said, “Ay!”
The Devil he blew upon his nails, and the little devils ran,
And he said: “Go husk this whimpering thief that comes in the guise of a man:
Winnow him out ‘twixt star and star, and sieve his proper worth:
There’s sore decline in Adam’s line if this be spawn of earth.”
Empusa’s crew, so naked-new they may not face the fire,
But weep that they bin too small to sin to the height of their desire,
Over the coal they chased the Soul, and racked it all abroad,
As children rifle a caddis-case or the raven’s foolish hoard.
And back they came with the tattered Thing, as children after play,
And they said: “The soul that he got from God he has bartered clean away.
We have threshed a stook of print and book, and winnowed a chattering wind
And many a soul wherefrom he stole, but his we cannot find:
We have handled him, we have dandled him, we have seared him to the bone,
And sure if tooth and nail show truth he has no soul of his own.”
The Devil he bowed his head on his breast and rumbled deep and low:
“I’m all o’er-sib to Adam’s breed that I should bid him go.
Yet close we lie, and deep we lie, and if I gave him place,
My gentlemen that are so proud would flout me to my face;
They’d call my house a common stews and me a careless host,
And I would not anger my gentlemen for the sake of a shiftless ghost.”
The Devil he looked at the mangled Soul that prayed to feel the flame,
And he thought of Holy Charity, but he thought of his own good name:
“Now ye could haste my coal to waste, and sit ye down to fry:
Did ye think of that theft for yourself?” said he; and Tomlinson said, “Ay!”
The Devil he blew an outward breath, for his heart was free from care:
“Ye have scarce the soul of a louse,” he said, “but the roots of sin are there,
And for that sin should ye come in were I the lord alone.
But sinful pride has rule inside and mightier than my own.
Honour and Wit, fore-damned they sit, to each his priest and whore:
Nay, scarce I dare myself go there, and you they’d torture sore.
Ye are neither spirit nor spirk,” he said; “ye are neither book nor brute
Go, get ye back to the flesh again for the sake of Man’s repute.
I’m all o’er-sib to Adam’s breed that I should mock your pain,
But look that ye win to worthier sin ere ye come back again.
Get hence, the hearse is at your door, the grim black stallions wait
They bear your clay to place to-day. Speed, lest ye come too late!
Go back to Earth with a lip unsealed go back with an open eye,
And carry my word to the Sons of Men or ever ye come to die:
That the sin they do by two and two they must pay for one by one
And…the God that you took from a printed book be with you, Tomlinson!”

This poem is about a man who has no strong beliefs—he has read of good and evil, has spoken of good and evil, but has never actually done any good or evil. When he dies and is conducted to Heaven, St. Peter halts him at the gate to ask him what he has done to serve God’s cause and Tomlinson can speak only of things he has read, and felt and said, but can offer nothing he has actually done. Tiring of Tomlinson’s weak assertions of piety, Peter despatches him to the Devil, saying that borrowed deeds are no passport to the Elysian Fields.

Arriving at the gates of Hell, the Devil stops him as he is hastening through the gate to catechize him rather as St. Peter has done, except that the questions concern the evil that Tomlinson has committed in his life; he is just as incapable of answering these questions in the affirmative as he was at the gate of Heaven. Becoming desperate, the soul attempts to lie to the Devil—this is also doomed to failure and Satan directs petty spirits to thresh Tomlinson to discover where his soul may be—it’s safe to say that he is not impressed. When they return, the spirits report that his soul appears to be completely absent. The Devil briefly considers showing charity but his heart is hardened by the knowledge that other denizens of Hell would challenge him for admitting such a poor specimen. Since Tomlinson at least had the intention of profiting from Hell by warming himself at the fires, the Devil considers that he may eventually commit some suitable sin and sends him back to his body before the funeral rites can be completed, telling him to try harder.

Tomlinson is a Laodician, he has no strong beliefs and has never done any good or evil act. Kipling suggests that a person who does not commit to either course in life cannot expect to find a place in Heaven or in Hell.

The poem has Kipling’s characteristic strong rhythms and use of language, and I like the characters of St. Peter and the Devil presented as rather tetchy gatekeepers that treat Tomlinson as an annoyance and who both emphasise that it is one’s deeds that govern one’s afterlife, not beliefs and dogma learned by rote. Tomlinson’s assertion to the Devil that “Once I ha’ laughed at the power of Love and twice at the grip of the Grave, and thrice I ha’ patted my God on the head that men might call me brave” is a nice, succinct satire of bravado and bragging.

A few explanations may be in order. Berkeley Square is in Mayfair, the most affluent area of London, so Tomlinson is evidently a wealthy man. The “Prince in Muscovy” may be Boris Godunov who made a number of domestic reforms to Russia in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. Empusa is the name of a female shape-shifter in Greek myth; she eventually became a category of spectral beings in later myth and I believe that this is the “Empusa’s crew” that Kipling refers to.

Poem 51. The Philanthropist

Gently replied the angel of the pen:
“Labour in peace and love your fellow-men:
And love not God, since men alone are dear,
Only fear God; for you have cause to fear.

G.K. Chesterton (1874—1936)

(With apologies to a beautiful poem.)

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe decrease
By cautious birth-control and die in peace)
Mellow with learning lightly took the word
That marked him not with them that love the Lord,
And told the angel of the book and pen
“Write me as one that loves his fellow-men:
For them alone I labour; to reclaim
The ragged roaming Bedouin and to tame
To ordered service; to uproot their vine
Who mock the Prophet, being mad with wine,
Let daylight through their tents and through their lives,
Number their camels, even count their wives,
Plot out the desert into streets and squares;
And count it a more fruitful work than theirs
Who lift a vain and visionary love
To your vague Allah in the skies above.”

Gently replied the angel of the pen:
“Labour in peace and love your fellow-men:
And love not God, since men alone are dear,
Only fear God; for you have cause to fear.”

This pastiche of Leigh Hunt’s poem by Chesterton (who apologises for his imitation) paints a different picture of belief—that of the man who believes not in “vain and visionary love” but in doing good for his fellow man (whether they want him to or not). The man boasts of his ‘philanthropy’—beautifully described so that although he considers his deeds to be good works, their actual benefits are less certain. The angel reproves him, and the final line sounds a warning: this is not the way to win the love of God; only by loving one another can we win to this blessed state, and to impose one’s idea of good on others is not love. The egotistical man is told he has cause to fear, suggesting that far from winning to Heaven, he is destined for the other place.

I like this because it cleverly reinforces the message of Leigh Hunt’s poem by drawing a different picture with the same instruments.