In the second half of the poem, “My Birthday,” Blessed John Henry Newman continues to relate how worldly people celebrate birthdays in contrast to how he wishes to mark his day. This birthday poem gives an insight into the man Newman, while instructing on the proper way to mark the passing years within a life.
Yet wiser such, than he whom blank despair
And fostered grief’s ungainful toil enslave;
Lodged in whose furrowed brow thrives fretful care,
Sour graft of blighted hope; who, when the wave
Of evil rushes, yields,—yet claims to rave
At his own deed, as the stern will of heaven.
In sooth against his Maker idly brave,
Whom e’en the creature-world has tossed and
Cursing the life he mars, ‘a boon so kindly given.’
Stanza 4 speaks of another way that worldly men waste their precious time on earth — by giving in to worries and despair; yet at this vulnerable point, the pitiable man will try to boast of his many good deeds, refusing still to think of his Maker; his hope thus blighted causes him to mar “a boon so gladly given” – that gift of life. Here too Newman reflects on his college experience, and his worries to win honors as an undergraduate.
He dreams of mischief; and that brainborn ill
Man’s open face bears in his jealous view.
Fain would he fly his doom; that doom is still
His own black thoughts, and they must aye
Too proud for merriment, or the pure dew
Soft glistening on the sympathising cheek;
As some dark, lonely, evil-natured yew,
Whose poisonous fruit—so fabling poets speak—
Beneath the moon’s pale gleam the midnight hag
In Stanza 5, this forlorn worldly man seeking to escape his black thoughts dreams of “mischief” and he pretends that his actions are without consequences. Yet even this will not bring him joy, instead these thoughts have the opposite effect; they poison the mind, as if fruit from the yew tree has been consumed. This will be the effect of giving into these dark thoughts instead of what should happen! And what should happen Newman reveals in the final stanzas: he gives the happy and proper way to mark the passing of time.
No! give to me, Great Lord, the constant soul,
Nor fooled by pleasure nor enslaved by care;
Each rebel-passion (for Thou canst) controul,
And make me know the tempter’s every snare.
What, though alone my sober hours I wear,
No friend in view, and sadness o’er my mind
Throws her dark veil?—Thou but accord this
And I will bless Thee for my birth, and find
That stillness breathes sweet tones, and solitude is
In the 6th stanza is Newman’s joyous response to these worldly afflictions – the gift of a “constant” soul, which is “Nor fooled by pleasure nor enslaved by care;”
Newman prays in this stanza to be saved from passions and from the tempter’s snare, and when he is all alone, and perhaps even lonely, without friends to cheer his way, he will even still revel in the silence, for then he can, in his solitude, hear the quiet and “kind” whispers of Christ.
Each coming year, O grant it to refine
All purer motions of this anxious breast;
Kindle the steadfast flame of love divine,
And comfort me with holier thoughts possest;
Till this worn body slowly sink to rest,
This feeble spirit to the sky aspire,—
As some long-prisoned dove toward her nest—
There to receive the gracious full-toned lyre,
Bowed low before the Throne ‘mid the bright
The final stanza is a poem unto itself! For in this stanza, Newman looks to heaven with hope, the desire of his heart, after passing many birthdays as a servant to Christ – the desire that he would, even as his body grows more feeble, have a spirit that grows stronger, and filled more with holier thoughts … His last image, of his soul being an imprisoned dove that will, at death – be released to find comfort in her nest …. Which for Newman is heaven … and then to join into the celestial choir, praising God.
In this poem, Newman has expressed gratitude, praise, and a yearning for heaven, even as he warns against the follies of the world. Happy Birthday, John Henry!