Rayonnant Gothic rose window (north transept), Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral

Beauty Not for Burning

in Europe/World by

A random spark and the astonishing beauty
which consoled us through the generations
is aflame in a cloud of orange smoke; the spire topples.
Silent we stand with the crowds of men, women, children,
to watch, weep as our history burns, burns, falls into ash.

For centuries our lady’s arms opened
to the poor and the stranger, the devout and the faithless,
the pilgrim and traveler. Princes, priests, washerwomen
stood in the shadows of these stones, crowned
by light streaming down from clerestory windows.

The stone masons cut their first massive blocks
of limestone in the heart of the city, as the Romans
retreated. Slowly her gothic towers rose;
the rose windows –set in massive metal traceries,
poured colored light onto the silent worshippers.

Our lady welcomed Jeanne the warrior maid onto her
stone porch; in the nave, Napoleon bade a pope
crown him Emperor. Her bells rang for the Nazi defeat;
the black-plumed cortege for Colette’s state funeral
wound its way here through rows of weeping mourners.

Why these tears? Old things die, crumble, pass away.
Things change; tempos shift, past fashions are passé.
But here the fall of light from heaven-lit vaults
felt permanent; the smoke of murmured prayers
rising high into the rafters rendered time irrelevant.

Was it the burning of the roof? The massive oak beams,
the burning of the altar, the precious carved choir screen?
Or the whispered prayers of women, whose young sons, afire
to serve, were slaughtered at Waterloo, kneeling young girls whose
tender candles were snuffed out? Whatever it was, I wept for it too.

Beyond oceans, floods close roads, storms drown farm fields,
ordinary lives are torn and burnt by weather beyond imagining.
Listen to the pealing of the bells; close our eyes; smell
the toxic ash of our lives on the verge of crumbling like the
weathered roof of this cathedral, which we believed would outlast us.



Peggy Brightman is a choreographer and visual artist who returned to writing poetry in 2017. She is working on a tribute to Mary Oliver in dance and poetry for Bookstock 2019– the Vermont Literary Festival. Peg is a member of the Woodstock Poetry Workshop, Woodstock, VT.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Measuring the architectural loss of Notre Dame fire