Category Archives: literature

The Feast of Christ the King; a sonnet

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We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But for this Sunday the lectionary does an unexpected, but very wise thing. It sets as a reading the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King, hidden beneath the rags and even in the flesh of his poor here on earth. As Tolkien, that profoundly christian writer knew, He is our Strider, whose glory is for the most part hidden, as he walks in our midst and shares the burdens of our journey. And though we will be with him at that coronation when his true glory is revealed and the usurping Dark Lord is finally overthrown, we have the honour of meeting and knowing here, in the midst of our quest, for he has come to lead us us through middle earth and even asks us to play our part in proclaiming the Return of the King.

Here is a sonnet written in response to the gospel reading for the feast of Christ the King.

This sonnet comes at the end of my sequence ‘Sounding the Seasons’ published by Canterbury Press.

The book is available in North america from Steve Bell here, or Amazon here

You can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title.

Christ The King

Mathew 25: 31-46

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

Aragorn

A hidden King, clothed in humility

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Filed under christianity, literature, Poems, St. Edward's

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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Filed under imagination, literature, Music, Songs

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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Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems

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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Filed under imagination, literature, Poems

On Prebends Bridge; a reflection

I linger on this bridge above the flow, And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear

I linger on this bridge above the flow,
And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear

To my great joy I have been spending part of my Sabbatical term up in Durham, as a Ruth Etchells visiting fellow at St. John’s College. This means that every morning I can wonder down the cobbled streets of the Bailey, beneath a lovely old stone arch and out onto the banks of the river Wear to where the graceful shape of Prebends Bridge arches across the river. This poem was written  about the experience of looking out from that Bridge,both down at the river and up at the Cathedral, and holding in balance that double sense of the flow of time and the stillness of transcendence. I hope you enjoy it. I had the great privilege of reading it in the Cathedral only a day or two after it was written, and so sounding out its last line along that line of presence between two saints with which the poem concludes. An unforgettable experience. The whole of that Cathedral reading is available here.

As usual you can hear the poem itself, recorded the day it was written, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. This poem is not yet published but will appear in my next volume. Meanwhile my new Anthology, The Word in the Wilderness is available here.

On Prebends Bridge

 

I linger on this bridge above the flow,

And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear,

Whose purling turns and gentle fallings call

Some inner spring to stir and rise in me.

The morning light lies richly on each arch

And signs its white reflections on their stone,

Telling me more than I can see or know.

I am a passing eddy in the flow

And force of centuries that raised this hill,

That shaped this sheer peninsula and let

The Wear’s slow curve enclose the city’s crown.

Above me on that crown I sense the pull

And presence, hidden deep within their shrines,

Of saints through whom the primal spring still flows:

Bede in the west and Cuthbert in the east,

A field of force in flux between two poles,

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge

Above the hush and hum of their exchange

Pushing and pulling through the pulse of things.

 

And now a bell is calling me to climb

And take my place with others where the choir

Unbinds a waiting Sanctus from its chords

And joins our voices, in rich Latin words

With all the company of heaven and earth

And with these two, between whose hearts we sing.

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge Above the hush and hum of their exchange

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge
Above the hush and hum of their exchange

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Filed under literature, Meditation, Poems

Fire: A Sestina for Remembrance Day

He waits in silence for his heart to break

He waits in silence for his heart to break

There was a former soldier, now a homeless man, who used to come sometimes into the back of our church in Cambridge. Dressed in camouflage and carrying an imaginary rifle he would squat behind the pews, take aim at the pulpit, or edge his way round the side of the church, clearly frightened and looking for cover. We knew he was reliving things we could scarcely imagine and we did our best to calm him and make him feel welcome (as well as dealing with the alarm he sometimes caused to members of the congregation.) It was meeting with him, and other former soldiers like him, that led me to write this Sestina, which is part of a sequence called ‘Six Glimpses’ in my book The Singing Bowl.

As a form, the Sestina insists that the poet return again and again, but in a different order, to the same six words with which the first six lines of the poem end. Of its very nature this form explores, repetition, return, trappedness, circularity, the very things with which so many soldiers with PTSD and their families are having to deal, so it seemed the right form to try and express a little of what I could see. I post this now so that we might remember, pray for and find ways of helping those who have been through the trauma of battle and cannot find their way back into ‘normality’ yet. I hope and pray that as awareness grows there might be more in the way of help and counselling provided both by the Military and the NHS, and perhaps more understanding from the general public.

Fire

 

He cannot stop these memories of fire

Crackling and flashing in his head.

Not just in fevered dreams; the fires break

Into the light of day. He burns with shame,

But still he screams and shakes, because the dead,

Are burning too and screaming out his name.

 

They told him his condition had a name,

But words can’t quench the memory of fire,

Nor can they ever resurrect the dead.

They told him it was ‘all inside his head’,

That post-traumatic stress need cause no shame.

The army gave him time for a short break.

 

But that’s what he’s afraid of. He will break

And break forever; lose his life and name,

Shake like a child who’s sickening with shame,

He who had been ‘courageous under fire’

Who always stemmed the panic, kept his head.

And now all night he wishes he were dead

 

And cannot die. Instead he sees the dead

In all their last contortions. Bodies break

Under his wheels, a child’s severed head

Amidst the rubble seems to call his name

Over the clattering of rifle fire,

Stuttering guns that shake with him in shame.

 

He’s left his family. ‘Oh its a shame’,

The neighbours said, ‘That marriage was long dead-

-You cant live with a man whose shouting ‘Fire!’

All night like that.- His kids needed a break

And in the end she had to change her Name.’

‘They’ll never fix what’s wrong inside his Head.’

 

‘Some people seem to cope and get ahead,

The army makes them better men, a shame

He couldn’t cope.’ Now he has lost his name

And his address. He only knows the dead.

He sleeps on benches but they come and break

His sleep. They keep him under constant fire.

 

And come November, when they name the dead,

He waits in silence for his heart to break

And every poppy burns with hopeless fire.

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Filed under literature, politics

Silence; a Sonnet for Remembrance Day

As we approach Remembrance Day I am reposting this sonnet about the two minutes silence, which is now published in my book Sounding the Seasons.  I’m posting it a few days early so that any one who wishes to can use it in services or events either on remembrance Sunday or on Remembrance day itself. As you will see from the little introduction below, I wrote it in response to the silence on Radio 4, and last year it was featured on Radio 4’s Remembrance Sunday Worship.

So her is how it came to be written. On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily wrote this sonnet. Since I first posted it, here, and on audioboo, it has become the single most viewed and heard, of all my posts, and strangely, looking at the ‘stats I have found that almost half of my total ‘views’ have been from Germany, something that I find strangely moving. I also notice many ‘views’ and listens from Afghanistan. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th two years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title.

The striking image above is ‘Poppy Day’ by Daliscar and the one below is ‘Silent Cross’ by Margot Krebs Neale

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Silent Cross by Margot Krebs Neale

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Filed under Current affairs, literature, Poems, politics