Category Archives: imagination

Ode to St. Cecilia

cecilia-4The 22nd of November is the feast day of St. Cecilia, Christian Martyr and Patron Saint of music. Last year I was commissioned by JAC Redford the LA-based composer and orchestrater, to write an Ode to St. Cecilia for a new piece of music he has in turn been commissioned to write, which had its premiere in LA in October of last year.

Here, for this year’s St. Cecilia’s day is the text of my ode and a recording of my reading of it. In the recording I also talk a little about the inspiration and how it came to be written. I hope you enjoy it. Margot Krebs Neale has contributed the beautiful image which follows the poem As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.


Ode to St. Cecilia

You rested briefly here Cecilia

In this good ground, the Roman catacomb:

Its rounded vaults are rich with sudden sound

As pilgrims hymn you through the darkened air.

For you made music in your martyrdom,

Transposed the passion of your wedding night

To angel-given garlands, wreathed in light.

In all your three days dying you made room

For beautiful abundance, gifts and giving,

Your death was blessing and your passing praise,

As you gave way to grace,

Like music that still lives within its dying

And gives in giving place.

 

Cecilia, give way to grace again,

Transmute it into music for us all:

Music to stir and call the sleeping soul,

And set a counterpoint to all our pain,

To bless our senses in their very essence

And undergird our sorrow in good ground.

Music to summon undeserved abundance,

Unlooked for overbrimming, rich and strong,

The unexpected plenitude of sound

Becoming song.

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a sonnet, and a new book!

SamuelTaylorColeridgeThe great poet, philosopher, and Christian sage, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on the 21st of October in 1772, so I am posting this sonnet for his birthday!

I am deeply immersed in Coleridge at the moment, because, I am happy to announce, I have signed a contract with Hodder and Stoughton to write a new book, which will be called Mariner! A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and will be published in the spring of 2017, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Coleridge’s seminal book Biographia Literaria, and also the first full collection of his poems Sybilline Leaves. My book will tell Coleridge’s story through the lens of his own great poem The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, a poem which was uncannily prophetic not only of Coleridge’s own life, but of our own history and culture. My book will try both to show the vital thread of Christian thought and witness that runs through Coleridge’s life and writing and also the startling relevance of that life and writing to the challenges of the 21st century, so, as they say, Watch This Space!

I could not begin to reckon the personal debt I owe to Coleridge; for his poetry, for his personal and Christian wisdom, above all for his brilliant exploration and defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty which participates in, and is redeemed by the Logos, the living Word, himself the Divine Imagination. We are only now coming to appreciate the depth and range of what he achieved, his contemporaries scarcely understood him, and his Victorian successors looked down in judgement at what htey saw as the shipwreck of his life. Something of that experience of rejection, twinned with deep Christian conviction, can be seen in the epitaph he wrote for himself:

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

From my teenage raptures when I was first enchanted by Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner, to my struggles and adventures in the middle of life STC has been my companion and guide.In the chapter on Coleridge in my book Faith Hope and Poetry I have set out an account of his thinking and made the case for his central importance in our own age, but what I offer here is a sonnet celebrating his legacy, drawing on that epitaph I mentioned above, one of a sequence of sonnets on my fellow christians in my most recent book The Singing Bowl,  published last year by the Canterbury Press.

As Always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or clicking the ‘play’ button.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God!’

You made your epitaph imperative,

And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad

To stop with you and start again, to live

From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,

Whose living power is imagination,

And know myself a child of the I AM,

Open and loving to his whole creation.

Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,

To let his light transfigure all my seeing,

To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,

And make with him the poem of my being.

I follow where you sail towards our haven,

Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

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And Is It Not Enough?

what falling leaves disclose

what falling leaves disclose

I have been wanting for a while to make an Autumn song and somehow catch in sound the feel I have for falling leaves and for what is cleanly revealed in the naked shape  of the trees. At the same time I have been reflecting again on why one writes at all. So much is beautifully shaped already and given by God, why should one try to shape it again in writing? And yet each day begins again the urge and calling to renew the rich connection, the covenant of word and world, to make, and then to walk, the airy bridge between our island minds, so that another self can say, ‘you feel it too’!. This poem rises out of all these things; an Autumn song that also feels its way, I hope, into the mystery of what is written, on the leaves of pages and of trees.

The photo is one I took on the banks of the Wear in Durham on the day this poem was composed. as usual you can hear me read the poem, and its preface, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

And Is It Not Enough?

 

And Is it not enough that every year

A richly laden autumn should unfold

And shimmer into being leaf by leaf,

It’s scattered ochres mirrored everywhere

In hints and glints of hidden red and gold

Threaded like memory through loss and grief,

 

When dusk descends, when branches are unveiled,

When roots reach deeper than our minds can feel

And ready us for winter with strange calm,

That I should see the inner tree revealed

And know its beauty as the bright leaves fall

And feel its truth within me as I am?

 

And Is it not enough that I should walk

Through low November mist along the bank,

When scents of woodsmoke summon, in some long

And melancholy undertone, the talk

Of those old poets from whose works I drank

The heady wine of an autumnal song?

 

It is not yet enough. So I must try,

In my poor turn, to help you see it too,

As though these leaves could be as rich as those,

That red and gold might glimmer in your eye,

That autumn might unfold again in you,

Feeling with me what falling leaves disclose.

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A Recording of my Reading at Durham Cathedral

A Good Place to read Poetry!

A Good Place to read Poetry!

I had the extraordinary experience, and indeed great privilege, of reading my poetry in the Quire of Durham Cathedral, at the invitation of the Dean and Chapter there, and in collaboration with St. John’s College, where I am currently the Ruth Etchells Visiting Fellow. Many of my Facebook friends, and followers of this blog, who couldn’t be at the event itself, have asked if they could hear a recording. So here is the reading I gave. It is largely drawn from Sounding the Seasons, though it does include four completely new poems written whilst I have been up here. Will Ford, from the St. John’s College Choir sings the ‘Great O’ Antiphons which inspired my Advent Antiphon poems. I hope you enjoy this recording.

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Cuthbert’s Gospel; a new sonnet

St. Cuthbert's Gospel

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel

The other day I found myself standing in front of perhaps the most precious and numinous book in Europe. Not simply because it is the oldest bound book to survive intact, but because of the Saint whose book it was, the centuries through which it has journeyed to reach us, and the glorious Gospel it contains. I had entered the exhibition innocently enough, ‘Bound to Last’, it was called ‘Bookbinding from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, and I was expecting little more than the beautiful leather tooling, the gold-hilighting, and luxury embossing of prestige binders. And then I came face to face with Cuthbert’s Gospel; the very book they placed upon his breast, the gospel that he loved the most and lived so fruitfully, a little pocket-book, red-leather-bound and all intact that sailed through centuries to meet me here on Palace Green. And in that presence it seemed that every care for bindings and for covers fell away, and I seemed to hear the saint himself, chanting the words that Saint Augustine heard, that brought him also to the Gospel, Tolle, Lege, Tolle Lege, take it and read it!  I wrote this sonnet before opening my own copy of St. John.

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the play button. I will be reading this and other sonnets in Durham Cathedral Quire on the 10th of November at 7:30pm. this event is free and all are welcome. Details Here

Cuthbert’s Gospel

I stand in awe before this little book,

The gospel that lay close on Cuthbert’s breast,

It’s Coptic binding and red leather-work

As sound and beautiful as when they placed

This treasure with the treasure they loved best

And set them sailing through the centuries

Until these coffined riches came to rest

In front of me as open mysteries.

 

But as I look I seem to hear him speak

‘This book is precious but don’t waste your breath

On bindings and half uncials and the like,

Breathe in the promise of a better birth

Tolle et Lege, try and find it true,

The bound Word waits to be made flesh in you.

The opening page of Cuthbert's copy of St. John

The opening page of Cuthbert’s copy of St. John

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All Hallow’s Eve; a sonnet of reclamation

The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed

Even here in England, where the tradition is less strong, Hallowe’en seems to be creeping up on Christmas in the crass comercialism stakes! Halloween itself simply means the eve of all Hallows, and All Hallows is the Christian feast of All Saints, or All Saints Day’ a day when we think particularly of those souls in bliss who, even in this life, kindled a light for us, or to speak more exactly, reflected for us and to us, the already-kindled light of Christ!,  It is followed immediately on November 2nd by All Souls Day. the day we remember all the souls who have gone before us into the light of Heaven.  It is good that we should have a season of the year for remembrance and a time when we feel that the veil between time and eternity is thin and we can sense that greater and wider communion of saints to which we belong. It is also good and right that the Church settled this feast on a time in the turning of the year when the pre-Christian Celtic religions were accustomed to think of and make offerings for the dead. But it was right that, though they kept the day, they changed the custom. The greatest and only offering, to redeem both the living and the dead, has been made by Christ and if we want to celebrate our loving connections we need only now make gifts to the living, as we do in offering sweets to the ‘trick or treaters’ in this season, and far more profoundly in exchanging gifts at Christmas.

Anyway given that both these seasons of hospitality and exchange have been so wrenched from their first purpose in order to sell tinsel and sweeties, I thought I might redress the balance a little and reclaim this season with a sonnet for All Souls/All Saints that remembers the light that shines in darkness, who first kindled it, and how we can all reflect it.

If your church is marking all saints or all souls day do feel free to print the words or use the recording. I will be reading this sonnet as part of an All souls Day service on Sunday 2nd November at Saint Oswald’s Church in Durham at 6pm. All Welcome.

The image which follows this poem, and takes up one of its key lines, is by Margot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

This sonnet are  from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press,

All Saints

Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards

Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,

It glances from the eyes, kindles the words

Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright

With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,

The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.

Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing

He weaves them with us in the web of being

They stand beside us even as we grieve,

The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,

Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above

The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,

To triumph where all saints are known and named;

The gathered glories of His wounded love.

‘Each shard still shines’ image by Margot Krebs Neale

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A Sonnet for St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist

St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox

Continuing with Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year, here is a sonnet for St. Luke whose feast day falls on the 18th of October. My sonnets, in that series, present the four evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced  by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the Four Evangelists. For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote below. For the purpose of my ‘live bloggng’  of the festivals, in the course of this year, here is St. Luke, restored to the chronological sequence. As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver.  The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press  and is available from all the usual amazons etc.

As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.

This is my 300th Blog post and my blog has received just over 211,000 views since I began it, so may I take this opportunity to thank all the many readers and followers of this blog for your encouragement comment and support and to invite you, should you be in or near Cambridge, to come and meet me at the launch of my next book The Singing Bowl, at St, Edward’s Church in Cambridge on November 6th at 7:30 pm

‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘  St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (ca. 120-202 AD)  -  Adversus Haereses 3.11.8

 Luke

His gospel is itself a living creature

A ground and glory round the throne of God,

Where earth and heaven breathe through human nature

And One upon the throne sees it is good.

Luke is the living pillar of our healing,

A lowly ox, the servant of the four,

We turn his page to find his face revealing

The wonder, and the welcome of the poor.

He breathes good news to all who bear a burden

Good news to all who turn and try again,

The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,

A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,

The voiceless find their voice in every word

And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.

Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for this image

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