Sexton! My Master’s sleeping here

Le bedeau de Kerlaz, 1868, Jules Breton
Background Image: Le bedeau de Kerlaz, 1868, Jules Breton

The footnote posits that she is writing about Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb of Jesus which seems highly plausible. She repeats navigational language with “lead”, “point”, and if you speak Sexton and Sextant they are very similar and she is playing off the idea of being led (by faith) with her ocean metaphors, and the tomb / relic imagery of a Sexton’s responsibility.

The Sexton is most likely referring to the angel Mary sees in the tomb since a Sexton is the person in the church who is responsible for the relics and holy vessels. This angel’s responsibility is unusual however in that the tomb is empty – there is no physical relic to maintain (other than the tomb itself, I suppose), he is only there to tell Mary that “[Jesus] is going ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 16: 1-8, Matthew 28: 1-10, Luke 24 :1-8) so he is a keeper of information and points the way towards faith. There are no relics of Jesus, all that remains are people’s faith in him as God and this imagery mixed up with a sextant which navigates by the stars (which could be read as angels who reside in the kingdom of heaven) gives the impression of being pointed in a particular direction.

The second line which begins with “Pray lead” is not just literal as in a command to someone such as ‘pray tell, please lead me’, but also in the act of praying being the way to be led to a destination (towards God). Praying thus is related to the sonic similarity to Sexton / sextant in that one is being led (navigation: sextant) to the holy place (Sexton).

Lines 3 and 4 are nurturing in that the poet / Mary explains that she “came to build the Bird’s nest – And so the early seed”. This image of preparing the “nest” (which recalls the “bed” of the “Master”) combines the domestic with the idea of nurturing the faith in that “pray” is like building a nest which helps grow one’s faith. The bird imagery is something she has used multiple times before in reference to a bird being the symbol of faith and searching for faith (see “My nosegays are for Captives“). Interestingly “sow” is not just a term for farming and tending seeds, but the second verb definition (OED) can also mean ‘to grieve’ which gives an emotional quality to the scene and how Mary must have felt after Jesus had been crucified and was going to prepare his body with oils, but also relates to those of us left behind on mortal earth who must toil miserably in laboring with the land – built into the very act of farming ‘to sow’ is the notion of grief and misery, an image she has alluded to multiple times as well.

The image of “snow creeps” is such a beautiful image! With just two words she is able to paint a picture of the actual movement of snow falling slowly, but the word “creeps” also gives it a sense of forboding which could be her way of describing the slow creeping of death which is coming for all of us anyway (think of her later poem “I could not stop for death”) as well as “Delayed till she had ceased to know“.

Most importantly this second stanza has a strong musical component but it’s cleverly hidden in plain sight much like faith for the faithful is hidden in plain sight. The final word of the poem is “Troubadour” which is a lyric poet. Music and verse are combined in this word, but it also shares a rhyme with “door” from “his chamber door”. The door is the stone which God had moved so that Jesus could begin his rise from the dead and so it is like the beginning of a new piece of music which could be read as ‘chamber music’ since the first notes have been played to a small, select audience (Mary and the other women present). Finally the image of “snow creeps” is not just visual but audible too in that once you start listening to this stanza you can almost hear the snow falling outside the tomb.

Finally, the image of the “Daisies” pointing is a breathtaking image in that flowers do not have finger with which to point, yet you can feel that this is what the flowers are doing – we can almost see the white pedals bending in the direction of Galilee (or more importantly to heaven) but it is also a highly feminine image of the women who may be holding flowers as they came to the tomb, and at a deeper level, be an allusion of how even the most humble of earthly creatures knows where heaven is. This pointing also refers back to the angel / “Sexton” who keeps the tomb and tells Mary where to find Jesus.