Lament of Duke Ulrich

On contemplation of a visit to the Nebelhöhle [the Fog Cave], 23 June 2011, in Baden-Württenberg, Germany, where Duke Ulrich of Württemberg hid in 1519 after an unsuccessful, unprovoked attack on the town of Reutlingen. In retaliation, the Schwabian Alliance routed his army and reduced him to a fugitive. After hiding in the cave for several weeks, he worked as a farm hand in the remote upland village of Reicheneck. Eventually he was restored to his throne, and he granted Reicheneck tax exemption for the duration of his reign.

He pours contempt on princes and loosens the belt of the strong. He uncovers the deeps out of darkness and brings deep darkness to light. He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth and makes them wander in a trackless waste. They grope in the dark without light, and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.

Job 12:21-25 (ESV)

I. Descent into the Cave

Woe to me, the royal rogue
Who struck the city unprovoked!
Now here in bowels of earth I cower,
Dripping rocks a mocking shower!

Ambition’s passion in me dense
Afforded bloated confidence
To point the lance and throw the spear.
But giants raged—I fled to here!

Folly’s fallen on my head!
O reckless me! I should be dead!
Had not a simple farmer stood
To guard a hollow pile of wood

And carry me to Sheol’s bed
No ration save a loaf of bread
To flee like hound-pursu’ed fox
Into this stony chamber box.

Of the vaulted sky beyond
This vault knows nothing: coffin bond,
Deaf to ox cart and to plower,
Blind to blue sky and to flower.

Now I know the privileged place
From which I fell headlong—disgrace!
Beneath the realm where arrow shoots,
I flee to deepest mountain roots.

Like Korah swallowed into doom,
The cave mouth welcomed me to gloom,
A humid darkness brighter than
The grip of vengeful, merc’less man.

The noise of yonder snapping twig
Compels me to where miners dig.
It may have been an armored scout
Or nothing more than warthog’s snout.

It matters not, for fears prevail
And drive me into Jonah’s whale.
These gaping jaws swallow alive
This panicked craving to survive.

Jaws of death and mouth of Hell
Appeal a better place to dwell
Than naked realm where eyes of men
Seek keenly me to apprehend.

O rock, O mountain fall on me
And plunge me into Vulcan sea!
O fog, enshroud each path, each tree:
Apocalyptic parody!

ith flick’ring torch now to, now fro
I run from room to room to know
Which hiding place is best to use
To make complete my desp’rate ruse.

II. The Primordial World

Foundations, pillars, columns bold,
Divine activity of old:
Stalactites, ‘agmites, slimy dull
Reveal a life primordial

That flourished ‘ere the Maker’s hand
Had fully ‘stablished sov’reign Man.
Dinosaur and serpent beast
Here still hold court where Man rules least.

Some emerging, some in melt,
Imagination’s mental smelt
Enlivens rock with energy
As creatures struggle to move free.

Here a kobold, there an elf;
Dwarves march on a limestone shelf.
A black-fur bear wiping his tears
Moans oracles of all my fears.

n unannounc’d intruder, I
Cause boulder heads to turn, espy
This earthling from the shallow lands
Now groping for the shadows’ bands.

I interrupt their counsels deep
And drowsy grottos as from sleep
Their sober mile-long musings pause
While I crawl on all fours like paws.

I stumble into silence thick,
My smoldering flame a walking stick
To interrupt a counsel droll
Of disembodied spirit trolls

nd rulers from the ancient past
And recent too—I stand aghast!
For I’ve become like one of them
No longer in the realm of men!

In parliament and counsel dark,
These perished kings give verdict stark
Of whether I deserve their lot
Or have a lighter sentence got.

“Blackest darkness, doom for him!”
Some princes state with spirit grim.
But some, averse to speak such fate,
Do hold their peace, their turn await

And when it is their time to speak
Plead mercy as the verdict meek.
Still others, wizened souls of wit,
Say, “Let’s see what he makes of it

In this secluded dungeon low.
Then we will know which way he’ll go.
Be it up or be it down,
Time will tell us: ash or crown

To place upon Duke Ulrich’s head.
So let him tremble, let him dread
While we delay a final rule
‘Till it be shown he’s prince or fool

Down here in this forsaken cave,
A hiding place that’s like a grave
In fellowship with Sheol drear,
Abiding with us shades so near.”

IV. Council of the Saints

Along the slipp’ry wall I grope
And in next chamber better hope
Do I despair to seek and find.
What’s this? Advice of humbler kind.

Saints and sages, holy ones
And Madonna of God’s Son
Stand in stately confab grand
Considering the state of man.

They ponder, wonder, worship, pace.
They speak without veil, face-to-face
Of mystery, of grace and law,
An answer that brings with it awe:

A sacrifice from God the Father,
Spirit borne and like no other;
A Lamb alone the remedy
To save mankind, to set him free.

I break into their counsel sweet,
Attempting politely to greet
These intercessors sanctified
Who live indeed, although they’ve died.

Unworthy world it was that slay
These set-apart ones in their day.
In secret place they congregate;
I interrupt their chaste debate:

“Excuse me, I did not intend
Your sublime line of thoughts to rend
With shambling gate and breath uncouth
Sill fleeing from my whim of youth.

“I do not to your state belong,
An alien in lum’nous throng.
My presence dims your fellowship
And causes justice scales to tip.

“Instead of mercy (what I crave),
Condemned to this abysmal grave
Unworthy as the rulers past
Who crushed you, made you breathe your last!”

V. The Pit

Like dazed Elijah fleeing queen,
That threat’ning Jezebel unseen,
And yet full felt in heart and soul,
I find the most secluded hole.

Like badger crag or hedgehog den,
I make my bed much farther in
Than any vigilante group
Would fain to send avenging troop.

On Jacob’s pillow — dank, old stone —
I lay my head. I am alone.
(“Not good,” once did Creator say,
“A man as solo goes astray.”)

A still small voice awakens me.
Is it Death, pursuing me?
Or Sheol’s friend, dark Abaddon
Destroying me, destroyer wan?

Down in this cavern, Wisdom near
(Its rumor Death, Destruction hear)
Conveys to my arrested ear
A gentle whisper: “I am here.”

After one and twenty days
Of dawning slowly on my gaze,
A new light do I start to see:
The way out of captivity.

VI. The Farmer

A man from village Reicheneck
Adopts me; tells me, “Do not speak.
Just come and work my land for free.
In turn I’ll give security

“And hiding you as hired hand
I’ll turn away the searching van
Of bounty hunters cold and crude,
Chain-mailéd mercenaries shrewd.”

Why should this man as poor as dust
A fugitive like me entrust
With gath’ring piles of straw and stubble;
Build a refuge from my trouble?

I do not know, but must confess
That God is in the wilderness
A path through poverty to lead
To true repentance: wealth indeed.

VII. Return to the Throne

Astride my snow white stallion horse,
Bunting banners mark the course
For restored coronation day;
While cheering subjects line the way.

How shadowy the Fog Cave seems!
Those terrors, merely misty dreams
Of fears that never came to pass!
How could I have been in their grasp?

Will resolutions made in test
Prove only to have been in jest?
“I did not mean to promise God
New man I’d be on surface sod.

“ ’Twas rash words all—impetuous,
Youthful zeal for righteousness.
Of course I did not mean to swear.
I was not in right mind down there!”

And yet I cannot now deny
In daylight bright where heralds cry
That in the dark night of the soul
A bout with Monsters took its toll.

I’ll never be the same again.
I have resolved to keep the gain
Of wisdom found and lessons learned.
I shall not cavern crosses spurn.

I shall remember, not forget.
Be thou inscribed as epithet
On medal, trophy, wreath and crown:
The stairway going up is down.

© Kurt Mähler

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