Four poems by St John of the Cross, translated by Marjorie Flowers.

1. Beyond All

I went into an unknown land
unknowing, stayed there knowing naught,
beyond the power of human thought.

I know not where I entered in
but when I found that I was there,
not knowing how, not knowing where,
strange things I heard, so deep within,
far greater than I could declare.
So there I stayed still knowing naught,
Far, far beyond all human thought.

Peace and transcendent holiness:
knowledge so perfect came unsought,
in deepest solitude was taught
to me in ways I can’t express
the narrow path to life, no less,
leaving me speechless, good for naught,
beyond all power of human thought.

There I remain absorbed, apart,
lost to myself and borne away
to strange realms- where, I cannot say-
of ecstasy, wherein the heart
of flesh has nothing more to say,
my soul enriched, reduced to naught
by knowledge past all human thought.

He who is taken up so high
cuts free from self, and all he knew
before is gone and lost from view
as worthless now. He knows not why
his knowledge rises constantly
but he remains as knowing naught,
far, far beyond all human thought.

As higher still the soul takes flight
all understanding fades away:
how can the cloud that’s dark as night
make night more radiant than the day?
The one who understands this sight
stops there, his senses brought to naught
by knowledge past all human thought.

To know unknowing is so strange,
so overwhelming. No wise man
by disputation ever can
refute it, for his utmost range
of understanding cannot scan
this unknown knowledge, darkly taught,
beyond the power of human thought.

So lofty is it, so sublime,
no human power of learning may
possess it, none can ever say
‘I have it now’. No-one can climb
so high. But he who comes to say
No to his self-hood, knowing naught,
always transcends all human thought.

You wish to learn its origin?
It is a sudden subtle touch
of God’s own being, deep within
the soul, and understood as such:
his mercy reaching out so much –
this great gift leaves one knowing naught,
and far beyond all human thought.

2. Wholly Burned Away

Upheld, and yet without support,
darkness around, no light of day
while I am wholly burned away.

My soul is free and set apart
from every created thing,
lifted above itself to sing
of richer life delights the heart.
God is the rock to which I cling.
Now I can tell it as I ought:
the source of all my greatest bliss –
to feel, to know that my soul is
upheld, and yet without support.

I walk along a shadowed way
of suffering in this life of night,
and yet although I see no light
my sorrows not without allay:
I know the heavenly life burns bright.
The blinder love is I can say,
the greater is the life that flows,
holding the soul in peace that grows,
darkness around, no light of day.

Since Love began to work in me
his touch transforms me, this I know.
I see my soul translucent grow,
for at his pleasure, equally
both good and bad are changed and glow.
Filled with delight to be Love’s prey
I feel his flame consume, and see
nothing is left, for rapidly
the whole of me is burned away.

3. With Hope to spur me on my way

With hope to spur me on my way
I went forth on a quest of love
and soared so high, so high above,
at last I overtook my prey

In this divine adventuring,
so high had I to soar in flight
to overtake my prey that sight
of self was lost, and faltering
I might have seemed to lose the way,
but love had borne me high, so high,
and held me strongly so that I
might ultimately seize my prey.

The higher that I rose from sight,
more blind and dazzled I became,
and yet this greatest conquest came
in darkness blacker than the night.

Love was my goal. I took the way:
the leap I made was dark and blind
but raised me higher than the mind
can compass, so I seized my prey.

As to the dizziest heights I flew
in this sublime ascending dart,
lowly, more humbled grew my heart.
More downcast than I ever knew,
saying ‘No-one can find the way’,
in my esteem I fell so low
(yet higher soared than I could know)
that in the end I seized my prey.

One flight? A thousand? Who can tell
by what strange fashion came these gains?
For hope of heaven still attains
all that it hopes for. I know well
hope launched my quest, and on my way
hope was beside me, nor was I
the loser, for I soared so high
that in the end I seized my prey.

4. I Don’t Know What

For all the beauty that men sing
I’ll never lose my way, if not
for some unknown I don’t know what
that some most lucky chance may bring.

To find in worldly goods delight
is at the most weariness
and satiated appetite
and tired palate, more or less.
For all life’s sweets that have their sting
I’ll never lose my way, if not
for some unknown I don’t know what
that some most lucky chance may bring.

The noble-hearted never turns
aside or flags while there are tasks
or something hard to overcome –
to conquer, that is all he asks.
Nothing can stay his hungering,
his faith so ardent that his lot
will be to taste – I don’t know what
that some most lucky chance may bring.

The one who suffers from the touch
of God grows strangely ill from love
too great. His likings change so much
and unsought longings through him move
while like a fevered man he’ll cling
to this, loathe that, both cold and hot,
craving for some I know not what
that some most lucky chance may bring.

Don’t be amazed that this is so
or that the taste should suffer change
because love’s sickness is most strange
and how it comes we hardly know.
Parted, estranged from everything
which seems to him as if it’s not,
yet he tastes that I don’t know what
that some most lucky chance may bring.

For if the soul has ever known
one touch of the Divinity,
it’s held in thrall and his alone
and only he can set it free.
But this bright beauty is revealed
to faith, and only faith can see
and find it – in some mystery
that lucky chance still holds concealed.

Would you then grieve for him who is
so much in love that no delight
in all creations found, but quite
the opposite, a dearth of bliss,
while solitary he can cling
not to form, image, or support,
but only to I know not what
that some most lucky chance may bring.

Within the soul’s most secret place
is found pure joy beyond compare:
none of earth’s joys can enter there,
none of is gladness leave a trace.
Beyond all beauty eye can see
of what is, was, or what will be,
something – I know not what – he’ll find
that lucky chance has left behind.

The man who wants to make his way
puts all his care not to what’s gained
but what is yet to be attained.
So I who wish to mount, not stay
below, find it a normal thing
to scale the heights, climb to the peak
to choose – I don’t know what – and seek
what some most happy chance may bring.

For all that sense can know or see,
for all the heights the mind can climb
however lofty and sublime,
all graciousness and harmony
and all the beauty that men sing,
I’ll never lose myself if not
for this alone – I don’t know what –
that some most lucky chance will bring.