Category Archives: literature

Michaelmas; a sonnet for St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael at Mont St. Michell -photo by Margot Krebs Neale

Continuing my sequence from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press, the 29th September brings us the feast of St. Michael and All Angels which is known as Michaelmas in England, and this first autumn term in many schools and universities is still called the Michaelmas term. The Archangel Michael is traditionally thought of as the Captain of the Heavenly Host, and, following an image from the book of Revelation, is often shown standing on a dragon, an image of Satan subdued and bound by the strength of Heaven. He is also shown with a drawn sword, or a spear and a pair of scales or balances, for he represents, truth, discernment, the light and energy of intellect, to cut through tangles and confusion, to set us free to discern and choose. He is celebrated and revered in all three Monotheistic religions. There is a good, full account of him here. And here is a bright and playful image of him by the Cambridge Artist Rebecca Merry, who has done a number of icons and other images of the Archangels. You can see more of her art here, and also in the Byard Art Gallery.

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright

And here is a response to the poem from photographer Margot Krebs Neale, weaving the words at the heart of the poem into the heart-shaped image. More of Margot’s work can be seen here.

This poem also appears as the epigraph in the new edition of Holly Ordway’s excellent book ‘Not God’s Type’ which I highly recommend. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or the title. Many of you have commented on how good it is to be able to hear the poems, and I’m glad thats working.

Michaelmas

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.

He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear

To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

Archangel bring your balance, help me turn

Upon this turning world with you and dance

In the Great Dance. Draw near, help me discern,

And trace the hidden grace in change and chance.

Angel of fire, Love’s fierce radiance,

Drive through the deep until the steep waves part,

Undo the dragon’s sinuous influence

And pierce the clotted darkness in my heart.

Unchain the child you find there, break the spell

And overthrow the tyrannies of Hell.

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The Word and the words: a sonnet for Lancelot Andrewes

Lancelot Andrewes preacher and translator

September 25th is Lancelot Andrewes Day, when the Church remembers one of its greatest preachers and the man whose scholarship and gift for poetic phrasing was so central to the making of the King James version of the Bible. My own Doctoral thesis was on Andrewes and he has exercised a huge influence on me. On the 400th anniverseary of the KJV I gave a lecture for the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature on Andrewes and translation which was published in this book The King James Version at 400. But I have also published a sonnet for Andrewes in my recent book for Canterbury Press  The Singing Bowl, so here it is. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button .

Lancelot Andrewes

Your mind is fixed upon the sacred page,
A candle lights your study through the night,
The choicest wit, the scholar of the age,
Seeking the light in which we see the light.
Grace concentrates in you, your hand is firm,
Tracing the line of truth in all its ways,
Through you the great translation finds its form,
‘And still there are not tongues enough to praise.’
Your day began with uttering his name
And when you close your eyes you rest in him,
His constant star still draws you to your home,
Our chosen stella praedicantium.
You set us with the Magi on the Way
And shine in Christ unto the rising day.

I also gave a talk about Lancelot Andrewes and the translation of the King James Bible to the Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society which various people have asked to hear. They have sent me a recording which I am posting here. The talk itself doesn’t start until about three minutes into the recording and last for about 50 minutes with a question and answer session afterwards.

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I Am The Door of the Sheepfold

I am the door of the Sheepfold

I am the door of the Sheepfold

Whilst here at Duke Divinity School I have begun what I hope will be a sequence of sonnets on the sayings of Jesus, to be called Parable and Paradox, a sequel to Sounding the Seasons, my book with Canterbury Press. I posted the first one a couple of weeks ago Here.

Now here is a second one, meditating on that great ‘I Am’ saying of Jesus in John 10 and verse 7  ‘I Am the Door of the Sheep’. It’s part of the powerful discourse on the Good Shepherd, and I remember reading in a commentary once that in this saying Jesus is alluding to the round stone sheepfolds in the high pastures, built with an open gap so the sheep could pass through in safety and the shepherd himself would then lie down across the gap becoming himself the door that kept them safe. So I allude to that, as well as to a number of other doors, opened and unopened in Scripture.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button should it appear in your browser

‘I Am The Door Of The Sheepfold’

 

Not one that’s gently hinged or deftly hung,

Not like the ones you planed at Joseph’s place,

Not like the well-oiled openings that swung

So easily for Pilate’s practiced pace,

Not like the ones that closed in Mary’s face

From house to house in brimming Bethlehem,

Not like the one that no man may assail,

The dreadful curtain, The forbidding veil

That waits your breaking in Jerusalem.

 

Not one you made but one you have become:

Load-bearing, balancing, a weighted beam

To bridge the gap, to bring us within reach

Of your high pasture. Calling us by name,

You lay your body down across the breach,

Yourself the door that opens into home.

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A Sonnet for St. Matthew’s Day

St. Matthew by Rebbecca Merry

This Sunday, September the 21st is St. Matthew’s day, so here is a sonnet for the Evangelist, drawn from my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons. Like my sonnets for the other three evangelists, it draws on the traditional association of each evangelist with one of the four living creatures around the throne of God. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Rebecca Merry for the image above.

Matthew

First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;
A gospel that begins with generation,
Family lines entwine around the Son
Born in Judea, born for every nation
Born under Law that all the Law of Moses
Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace
As every word and deed in time discloses
Eternal love within a human face.

This is the gospel of the great reversal
A wayside weed is Solomon in glory
The smallest sparrow’s fall is universal
And Christ the heart of every human story
‘I will be with you, though you may not see
And all you do, you do it unto me’

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First Fruit of my time at Duke

My poet's eyrie in North Carolina!

My poet’s eyrie in North Carolina!

I have at last begun my Sabbatical term, and it starts with three weeks as Artist in Residence at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, a wonderful place which is doing pioneering work in  linking Theology and the Arts. I am writing, and giving, some lectures on Herbert and Coleridge but I am also here to practice my art as a poet, and so I am posting here the first poem I have written since my arrival. I am hoping to make a new collection of sonnets about the sayings of Jesus to be called ‘Parable and Paradox’, and this one is the first to emerge, I hope you enjoy it.

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

 

 

‘He who has ears to hear let him hear’

 

How hard to hear the things I think I know,

To peel aside the thin familiar film

That wraps and seals your secret just below:

An undiscovered good, a hidden realm,

A kingdom of reversal, where the poor

Are rich in blessing and the tragic rich

Still struggle, trapped in trappings at the door

They never opened, Life just out of reach…

 

Open the door for me and take me there.

Love, take my hand and lead me like the blind,

Unbandage me, unwrap me from my fear,

Open my eyes, my heart, my soul, my mind.

I struggle with these grave clothes, this dark earth,

But you are calling ‘Lazarus come forth!’

 

Whilst I am here I will also be doing some poetry readings/performances which are all open to the public, so if you are in the vicinity do come along to some of them, here is the full list as it currently stands:

September 8 at 5:45-7:15 pm – “A Conversation with Malcolm Guite;” AEHS; York Room
September 11the Song/poetry performance in the Weatherspoon art Museum Auditorium, Greensboro 6:30-8pm
September 15 at 7:00pm – Dean’s Songwriter Series Concert featuring Malcolm Guite; Dean’s Office / DITA; AMCR
September 17th Poetry Reading with John Balaban at the Regulator Bookstore, 9th Street Durham 7pm
September 18 at 11:25am – Preaching in Goodson Chapel
September 24 at 7:00pm – “Mariner!  Malcolm Guite on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’;” DITA; AMCR

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Bright Star; a thanksgiving for John Keats

As I prepare to begin a sabbatical, with both a great deal to recover from and a great deal to look forward to, I am drawn again to immerse myself in the healing poetry of John Keats, so I repost this poem of mine, as a reminder of what I owe him.

Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Thats how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens,  a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.

This poem is published in  The Singing Bowl my most recent volume of poems, which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

Gold

 

The sun strikes gold along the Spanish steps,

Patches of god-light where the tourists stray.

The old house is in shadow and still keeps

It’s treasures from the searching light of day.

I found it once, when I had lost my way,

Depressed and restless, sheltering from rain,

Long years ago in Rome. But from that day

Everything turned to gold, even my pain,

Reading the words of one who feared he wrote in vain.

 

I too was ‘half in love with ease-full death’,

But standing by the window, near his bed,

I almost heard the ‘tender-taken breath’

On which his words were forming. As I read

I felt things shifting in me, an old dread

Was somehow being brought to harmony

Taught by his music as the music fled

To sing at last, as by some alchemy

Despair itself was lifted into poetry

 

I spent that summer there and came each day

To read and breathe and let his life unfold

In mine. Little by little, made my way

From realms of darkness into realms of gold,

Finding that in his story mine was told;

Bereavements, doubts and longings, all were there

Somehow transmuted in the poem’s old

Enduring crucible, that furnace where

Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair.

 

 

Now with the sun I come on pilgrimage

To find this house and climb the foot-worn stair,

For I have lived to more than twice his age

And year-by-year his words have helped me bear

The black weight of my breathing, to repair

An always-breaking heart. Somehow he keeps

His watch on me from somewhere, that bright star…

So, with the words of one who mined the depths,

I sing and strike for gold along the Spanish steps.

The house where Keats died, by the Spanish Steps, now a memorial, museum and library

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St. Clare: a Sonnet

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

This Monday, August the 11th is the day the church remembers St. Clare, but I am posting my sonnet today as some churches might like to use it on the  Sunday nearest her feast. She was the friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the Poor Clares. Her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts a soul-guide, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime and still a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.

Clare wrote:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”

So here is my sonnet in her honour reflecting on the meaning of her name, and life as light and clarity. This sonnet is taken from  The Singing Bowl my most recent volume of poems, which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

Clare

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,

Shining through you as Holy Caritas,

Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection

The girl whom Love has called to call us all

Back into truth, simplicity and grace.

Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,

Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.

Christ holds the mirror of your given life

Up to the world he gives himself to save,

A sacrament to keep your city safe,

A window into his eternal love.

Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,

Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.

 

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