Where Masonic poetry can be found, and what Masonic poetry is, are questions answerable onlyWafter the phrase is defined. If by Masonic poetry is meant verse written by a Mason about a symbol or about the Lodge or the Ritual, there is little of it, and in Masonic literature is no poem which a literary critic of competence would recognize as a masterpiece. Rob Morris wrote a volume of Masonic verse but had the misfortune not to be a poet; and those who have followed him have had a still larger share of the same misfortune. But there is no reason to limit Masonic verse so narrowly; there are great themes in Freemasonry in addition to its Landmarks and its Rules and Regulations; great themes in its history, its teachings, its spirit. If defined in this more inclusive sense there is much Masonic poetry, and of the very highest quality; much more in fact than Masons themselves can easily believe because it has never been collected in anthologies.
Of the poetry thus more broadly defined Robert Burns is the acknowledged laureate; second after him, and not far removed, is Rudyard Kipling--both were active and earnest Masons, and each held Lodge office; and after Kipling, though at a farther remove, is Edwin Markham, who acknowledged Masonry to have been the inspiration of many of his pages. Goethe, the greatest of poets since Shakespeare, performed the almost impossible feat of writing a poem on the philosophy of the Craft in his "A Mason's Ways." If Knighthood and Crusades are included in the Masonic purview, Scott and the French and Italian epic writers wrote thousands of pages.
But it is not so much among the classics, the standard writers, or in a whole corpus of work by any one writer, that the best and largest number of Masonic poems are found, but rather as a single poem, or only one or two, here and there among hundreds of poems. Longfellow's series of sonnets on Dante are in artistic skill his masterpiece; one of them is the description of a cathedral, and of perfect beauty.
Edna Millay's masterpiece is her sonnet on "Euclid." The theme of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" is brotherhood, a brotherhood so inclusive that it gathers into its embrace animals, plants, "all things both great and small"; and the same theme animates Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a great work with an appeal in it for American Masons that our English Brethren may have difficulty in finding.
Scottish Rite Masons read Tennyson's Idylls of the Ring because in some pages those Vergilian leaves read almost like a gloss on certain of the High Grades; and the verse by Tennyson and a host of other poets on the Legend of the Holy Grail are a commentary of large and moving eloquence on the text of That Which Was Lost. And work, the Masonic theme par excellence, is being sung by a whole generation of Russian poets--and if they continue as they have begun they will yet find a way to bring the Fraternity back into their country because so many of them are Masons in spirit. And it is not to be forgotten that the oldest Masonic document in existence is itself a poem, composed in rhyme. If there were a Francis Palgrave in the Fraternity he could compile a Golden Treasury in many volumes
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