Nearly twenty years ago I went on a retreat with the aim of discerning, and then distilling into a single sentence, what I thought it was that God had put me on earth to do. This is the sentence I came up with:
I am here to use my love of language and my delight in poetry to kindle my own, and other peoples imaginations for Christ.
Its not surprising therefore that the verb ‘to kindle’ crops up quite often in my poetry. It occurs, for example, five times in my collection of seventy sonnets Sounding the Seasons. When I reached for that word kindle, on retreat in the early nineties of the last century I had no idea that the word would one day be a noun to describe a kind of Ebook that could be made instantly available to anyone anywhere. Now I have some issues with Amazon over their tax avoidance here in the UK, but I think their choice of name for their Ereader was inspired, for kindling a fire of light and longing, one light kindling and lighting another, the flame leaping from mind to mind across the world and over the generations, is just what reading, at its best, is all about.
So it is with some pleasure that I can say that today my book of sonnets is released on Kindle!
It should be easy to find and download via Amazon in any country but here are the links for the kindle edition for the UK, USA, and Canada:
I come now to the final part my sequence of nine poems reflecting on the exprerience of reading, and re-reading Dante’s Commedia. By the end of the Paradiso Dante has taken us to the very limits of human thought and expression, to the brink of a reality which is beyond language, and yet which is the true source of all reality. That source is Love, ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, and the whole purpose of the poem is that we learn and choose also to be moved by, and find our peace, in that Love.
To describe his journey, Dante used the astronomy of his day, but the truth of his message does not depend on one scientific model, or another, but on what lies behind the reality they model. In this poem I have tried to hint at the exprerience of reading Dante with our own, equally marvelous and mysterious cosmology in mind.
If you have enjoyed reading these poems you may be interested to know that a Special Edition of them has been printed and bound in Florence by Aureo Anello Books. Printed in William Morris Troy Font, in a numbered limited edition of 250, these little chapbooks, with parchment covers, are being offered for a suggested donation of €15,00, to help the work of Anchoress and Dante Scholar Sister Julia Bolton Holloway who helps look after the famous ‘English Cemetry’ in Florence, where Elizabeth Barett Browning and other poets are buried. For Julia’s wonderful suite of web resources for Dante, Mother Julian, and mediaeval theology, start exploring here. The special page telling you how to obtain Aureo Anello’s limited editions including my Dante poem is here.
I am Grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image of the rose, as usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button.
With this fourth poem in my Dante series we leave behind the dark and stifled atmosphere of the Inferno and contemplate the holy mountain of the Purgatorio. Here souls already bound for Paradise are enabled to purify, strengthen and re-order their capacity for love so as to be ready for the love and joy of Heaven when they get there. In this book Dante shows how friendship, love, poetry and art are all means whereby God prepares our souls for the great ascent.Dante fills Purgatorio with tributes to friends and poets who have helped him. I open my own ‘readers pilgrimage’ here with a tribute to the teacher who first showed me how to read Dante, thus giving me the gift of a lifetime. This poem first appeared at the front of my book Faith Hope and Poetry.
If you missed he earlier three poems in this series they are here:
Since my book Faith Hope and Poetrywas published by Ashgate in the Autumn of 2010 a number of people have been asking me when, if ever, there would be a paperback version. This was both because the hardback was very expensive(£55 -their policy not mine!) and also because even the hardback sold out by the middle of last year! Well the good news is Ashgate agreed to a new paperback edition, which costs a lot less (£16.19 from their site!) and it is out now! Official publication date is March the 21st but it is actually available now both from Ashgate and from Amazon. Here is Ashgate’s own ‘flyer’ for the book, which gathers up some of the kinder things that have been said in the various reviews and also gives a link to their page. If you get to the site and the price is in the wrong currency for you then there is a button in the top right hand corner you can click to toggle between Europe and America (wouldn’t it be great if one could also toggle oneself between europe and North america at the touch of a button!) so here’s the flyer:
Faith Hope and Poetry takes you through an exploration and celebration of some of the greatest poetry in the English language, its really just me sharing my enthusiasm for these poems. But I had another purpose too. At its heart this book is a defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential but sadly under-used way of apprehending the truths we need to know to flourish as human beings I tried to sum it all up, at the end of the book, in a two paragraph conclusion and I am going to paste that in here, the final words of the whole book, to give you an idea of what you might be in for if you decide to read it:
This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears. In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it. We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity. For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God. Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’. Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown. Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.
This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.
CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. JRR Tolkien: The Inklings!
Over the last month I have given a series of five talks at St. Edward King and Martyr in Cambridge, exploring the thesis that far from being backward-looking, reactionary or escapist, the Inklings were fully and prophetically engaged with the main streams of modernity, that they forsaw the coming crisis of meaning in the materialist West, and in particular the attendant crises of violence and environmntal degradation. I have tried to explain the way they forged a coherent alternative vision, which called for us to reintegrate Imagination and Reason as ways of knowing truth and relating to one another and the world. These talks have been recorded as audio and the last four were also filmed, and I have assembled on this page the complete set of links to these recordings so that anyone who wishes can return to this page when they have the time and follow the talks through in sequence.
Its been a remarkable experience putting together and delivering these talks, at once draining and exhilarating, and I have had a sense as they were delivered of a new synthesis coming together in my mind. I hope therefore, when I have the opportunity, to write these talks up and tfurther explore and develop these ideas in book form. Watch this space!
I will give the audio links first and then the video. I should say that the sound level is very low for the third talk, on Charles williams so people may prefer to take that talk from the video. I am very grateful to Daniel Son for filming the last four talks.
Now here are the links to the youtube video of the last four talks, on the individual Inklings, kindly provided by Daniel Son. The CS Lewis video starts a couple of minutes into the talk but the rest are complete.
Ah, here is the poem thats causing the problem! Its by Guite of course!
It’s National Poetry Day here in the UK so I thought I’d post this villanelle up in honour of the day. I was once photocopying some poems for a talk when the whole machine ground to a halt, totally jammed. I pulled what poetry I could from its innards and rushed off to give my talk. when I came back the lady in charge of the machine pointed an accusing finger and said “Your poetry is jamming my machine!” I thought that was such a great line that I stole it and wrote her this poem to make ammends.
As always you can hear it by clicking the ‘play’ button, if it appears or else clicking the hyperlink in the poem’s inordinately long title.
Over the centuries that St. Edwards has stood at the heart of Cambridge, the
city has been home to some great poets whose work can give us
new and imaginative insights into our faith. Over five weeks starting wednesday
may 11th I have been exploring some of the insights that these poets
can offer to us now.
May 25th Christopher smart and the insights of ‘madness’
June 1st Tennyson and the insights of doubt,
June 8th Gwyneth Lewis and the insights of science
Today we come to Christopher Smart a poet whose best work was writen when he had been confined to a lunatic asylum, but whose life and witness challenged his own and our society’s definition of ‘madness’. It is possible to see in Smart’s writing now, not, as his contemporaries thought, incomprehensible delusion, but clear prophetic utterance and a challenging poetry of faith and ecology which has crucial truths to disclose to the twenty-first century. As usual you can hear the audio by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser, or by clicking on the words ‘christopher smart’.The talk lasts about 55 minutes. Below the audio I have pasted the text of extracts from Smarts poetry from the handout I used in the lecture
He sang of God—the mighty source
Of all things—the stupendous force
On which all strength depends;
From whose right arm, beneath whose eyes,
All period, power, and enterprise
Commences, reigns, and ends.
The world, the clustering spheres, He made;
The glorious light, the soothing shade,
Dale, champaign, grove, and hill;
The multitudinous abyss,
Where Secrecy remains in bliss,
And Wisdom hides her skill.
Trees, plants, and flowers—of virtuous root;
Gem yielding blossom, yielding fruit,
Choice gums and precious balm;
Bless ye the nosegay in the vale,
And with the sweetness of the gale
Enrich the thankful psalm.
Of fowl—even every beak and wing
Which cheer the winter, hail the spring,
That live in peace or prey;
They that make music, or that mock,
The quail, the brave domestic cock.
The raven, swan, and jay.
Of fishes—every size and shape,
Which nature frames of light escape,
Devouring man to shun:
The shells are in the wealthy deep,
The shoals upon the surface leap,
And love the glancing sun.
Of beasts—the beaver plods his task;
While the sleek tigers roll and bask,
Nor yet the shades arouse;
Her cave the mining coney scoops;
Where o’er the mead the mountain stoops,
The kids exult and browse.
The pillars of the Lord are seven,
Which stand from earth to topmost heaven;
His Wisdom drew the plan;
His Word accomplish’d the design,
From brightest gem to deepest mine;
From Christ enthroned, to Man.
For Adoration all the ranks
Of Angels yield eternal thanks,
And David in the midst;
With God’s good poor, which, last and least
In man’s esteem, Thou to Thy feast,
O blessèd Bridegroom, bidd’st!
Glorious the sun in mid career;
Glorious the assembled fires appear;
Glorious the comet’s train:
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;
Glorious the Almighty’s stretched-out arm;
Glorious the enraptured main:
Glorious the northern lights a-stream;
Glorious the song, when God’s the theme;
Glorious the thunder’s roar:
Glorious Hosannah from the den;
Glorious the catholic Amen;
Glorious the martyr’s gore:
Glorious,—more glorious,—is the crown
Of Him that brought salvation down,
By meekness called Thy Son;
Thou that stupendous truth believed;—
And now the matchless deed’s achieved,
Determined, Dared, and Done.
From Jubilate Agno
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For I bless God in the rising generation, which is on my side.
For I have translated in the charity, which makes things better and I shall be translated myself at the last.
For the merciful man is merciful to his beast, and to the trees that give them shelter.
For he hath turned the shadow of death into the morning,the Lord is his name.
For I am come home again, but there is nobody to kill the calf or to pay the musick.
For I pray God to bless improvements in gardening till London be a city of palm-trees.
For I pray to give his grace to the poor of England, that Charity be not offended and that benevolence may increase.
For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God hath sent me to sea for pearls.
For I rejoice like a worm in the rain in him that cherishes and from him that tramples
For the names and number of animals are as the name and number of the stars. –
For I pray the Lord Jesus to translate my MAGNIFICAT into verse and represent it.
For I bless the Lord Jesus from the bottom of Royston Cave to the top of King’s
For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God.
For I pray God for the professors of the University of Cambridge to attend and to amend.
The Text from Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, drawn from Smart’s Jubilate Agno
1 Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the
Lamb. Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the
breath of Life. Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his
2 Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar, and
consecrate his spear to the Lord.
Let Ishmail dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty in which
the Lord has let him at large.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his
creatures for a reward eternal.
Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might
through faith in Christ Jesus.
Let Ithamar minister with a Chamois, and bless the name of Him, that
cloatheth the naked.
Let Jakim with the Satyr bless God in the dance, dance, dance, dance.
Let David bless with the Bear—The beginning of victory to the
Lord—to the Lord the perfection of excellence
3 —Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from
the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly
harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty, Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
4 For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his
way. For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with
elegant quickness. For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take
5 For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For—this a true case—Cat takes female mouse—male mouse will not
depart, but stands threat’ning and daring.
. . . If you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as
For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.
6 For the flowers are great blessings. For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers have their angels even the words of God’s Creation.
For the flower glorifies God and the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.
7 For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour—
For they said, he is besides himself.
For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchmen
smites me with his staff.
For Silly fellow! Silly fellow! is against me and belongeth neither to me
nor to my family.
For I am in twelve HARDSHIPS, but he that was born of a virgin shall
deliver me out of all, shall deliver me out of all.
RECITATIVE (BASS SOLO) AND CHORUS
8 For H is a spirit and therefore he is God.
For K is king and therefore he is God.
For L is love and therefore he is God.
For M is musick and therefore he is God.
And therefore he is God.
9 For the instruments are by their rhimes.
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the Bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat and the like.
For the Clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound soar more and the like.
For the TRUMPET of God is a blessed intelligence and so are all the
instruments in HEAVEN.
For GOD the father Almighty plays upon the HARP of stupendous
magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and
serenity of soul.
10—Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from
the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly
harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Another long-haired, lute-playing, Anglican priest
Over the centuries that St. Edwards has stood at the heart of Cambridge, the
city has been home to some great poets whose work can give us
new and imaginative insights into our faith. Over five weeks starting Wednesday
May 11th I will be exploring some of the insights that these poets
can offer to us now.
May 18th George Herbert and the insights of prayer,
May 25th Christopher smart and the insights of ‘madness’
June 1st Tennyson and the insights of doubt,
June 8th Gwyneth Lewis and the insights of science
So here is number two in the series. As always you can hear the recording either by clicking on the ‘play’ button, if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. I am also posting, below the link for the lecture, a copy of the poems read and discussed, together with a written commentary on the poem “Prayer” which covers some of the same ground as this talk and which is taken from my book Faith Hope and Poetry
softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices; something understood
O Sacred Providence, who from end to end
Strongly and sweetly movest! shall I write,
And not of thee, through whom my fingers bend
To hold my quill? shall they not do thee right?
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Onely to Man thou hast made known thy wayes,
And put the penne alone into his hand,
And made him Secretarie of thy praise.
Beasts fain would sing; birds dittie to their notes;
Trees would be tuning on their native lute
To thy renown: but all their hands and throats
Are brought to Man, while they are lame and mute.
Man is the worlds high Priest: he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto the service mutter an assent,
Such as springs use that fall, and windes that blow.
Wherefore, most sacred Spirit, I here present
For me and all my fellows praise to thee:
And just it is that I should pay the rent,
Because the benefit accrues to me.
We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendent, and divine;
Who dost so strongly and so sweetly move,
While all things have their will, yet none but thine.
…..Thou art in small things great, not small in any:
Thy even praise can neither rise, nor fall.
Thou art in all things one, in each thing many:
For thou art infinite in one and all.
Our first impression is of the sheer wealth, almost over-abundance, of beautiful images contained in striking and memorable phrases we are being offered. This is not the honing and concentration on the single vision, but a kind of rainbow refraction of many insights, a scattering of many seeds broadcast. For each of these images is in its own way a little poem, or the seed of a poem, ready to grow and unfold in the readers mind. And the different seeds take root at different times, falling differently in the soil of the mind each time one returns to this poem. I have been reading it for over thirty years now and I still find its images springing up freshly in my mind and showing me new things. For the purpose of this Introduction we will delve in and examine four of these little seeds, these poems in themselves within the images, before we take a wider view and see how they all fit together in the larger poem itself.
‘Prayer the churches banquet’.
This opening phrase carries, with the choice of the word ‘banquet’, a picture not of some puritan modicum, some strict or grudging allowance of necessity, but rather of largesse, generosity, and the good measure of a royal occasion. It’s a phrase that sets the poem’s tone, for of course a banquet is exactly what Herbert gives us; course after course, and layer after layer, of nourishing images. In fourteen lines he heaps up twenty-seven different images of the experience of prayer. But the phrase ‘churches banquet’ alludes to and summons up the rich complex of feast and banquet imagery in Scripture and the Church’s life. Behind this passage lies the covenant meal of the Old Testament, the great wedding feast with which Jesus so often compared the kingdom, to which we must bring ourselves ‘well drest’, but most importantly the Last Supper and through it the Holy Communion which is the foretaste of the banquet of heaven, to which, in another of Herbert’s poems Love himself bids us welcome.
‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’
This line invites us into a very early tradition of prayer and meditation rooted in a reflection on the image of breath and breathing in the Bible. To understand this line we need first to remember that Hebrew, Greek and Latin all use a single word to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. ‘God’s breath in man’ evokes that primal image in Genesis of God breathing the breath of life into humanity, the moment of our wakening as living beings, a moment of tender closeness to our Maker. But after that inspiration comes the equally decisive moment of expiration. We have to trace our history through fall and alienation pain and sin and death at last to the foot of the cross where a Second Adam, one in whom also the whole of humanity is bound and involved, stretches out his arms to embrace the pain of the world and breathes back to God that gift of life:
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last
. Then we must look beyond the cross, to the resurrection and the new breath of life that comes with the sending of the Holy Spirit. John’s account consciously parallels the first gift of the breath of life in Genesis:
And when he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
Contained in the pattern of our breathing is the whole story of our salvation. For a Christian in prayer the very act of breathing can become a return to our birth, a receiving of original life from the breath of God, as we breath in with Adam in the garden of our beginnings, an offering of all that needs letting go and redeeming, as we breath out with Christ on the cross; a glad acceptance of new life in the Holy spirit as we breath in again receiving our life and commission afresh from the risen Lord.
‘Engine against th’Almighty, sinners tower
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,’
This is as an extraordinary clutch of related images, all drawing on pictures of warfare and violence against God to describe of part of our relation with Him in prayer. Herbert achieves his effect by a sudden reversal of perspective, much as we saw in the Heaney poem, epitomised here in the phrase ‘reversed thunder’ We think of God in Heaven thundering down on us, but in prayer we are at liberty to thunder back at him as indeed in our desperation we sometimes do and perhaps those are our best prayers. The ‘Engine against the Almighty’ is almost certainly intended to conjure the image of a canon shot at God, since the other ‘engine’, the siege tower, is already covered in the phrase ‘sinners tower’. Herbert uses this image even more explicitly in his poem ‘Artillery’ where he says:
The image of prayer as a form of weaponry is of course rooted in St. Paul’s military metaphors but here Herbert has dared to observe that it is not always the devil, but sometimes God himself whom we are fighting, as we struggle with our vocation to full humanity. In compressing this idea into the images of his poem Herbert may have been remembering a sermon by his friend John Donne:
‘Earnest prayer hath the nature of Importunity; Wee presse, wee importune God…Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; wee threaten God in Prayer…and God suffers this Impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; in the publique Prayers of the Congregation we besiege God, saies Tertullian, and we take God Prisoner, and bring God to our Conditions; and God is glad to be straightened by us in that siege.’
But after the thunders and towers and cannons of the siege imagery, Herbert brings the focus down and sharpens it with that single piercing image: ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’. We have become the centurion, making that terrible thrust, but this time it is not cold iron but our own agonies which are piercing the heart of Christ.
‘The six-days world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear’;
Transposition is very much what poetry and all literary art is about. To hear snatches from the huge unknowable symphony of experience, to catch them and transpose them to a key that resonates with our understanding, so that at some point they harmonise with that unheard melody from heaven we are always trying to hear, that is the purpose of poetry. ‘Transposition’ for Herbert in this poem involves taking of the whole story of creation and a reworking of it within our individual life of prayer. Meditating on the six days of creation as a key to understanding ones own place in the order of things was a tradition which had begun for the West with Augustine’s beautiful meditation on Genesis at the end of his Confessions. It had been continued in Herbert’s age by his older contemporary Lancelot Andrewes whose private devotions were ordered around the governing images derived in each day’s creation, and there is a beautiful contemporary example of ‘the six days world’ transposed literally in ‘an hour’ in a sermon of John Donne’s ‘Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth’, which takes us symbolically through every step in the genesis creation narrative and was written to be heard in exactly an hour.
These transpositions lead to the making of ‘a kind of tune’ and if this is true of prayer it is also true of poetry and of this poem for here again is Heaney’s ‘music that you never would have known to listen for’.
One might take each of these twenty-seven images in turn and find as much fruit in them: the window on the mysteries of communion in ‘exalted manna’, all the sense both of life and sacrifice packed into ‘soul’s blood’, the evocation of the riches of the enchanted and far away in ‘land of spices’, and perhaps most tellingly the superb compression and paradox in ‘Heaven in ordinary’, a phrase which in itself sums up the heart of the Gospel in God’s incarnation in a stable, but also stands for the heart of the kind of poetry we will explore in this book. It is precisely the restored vision that sees the ordinary afresh, and allows us to see heaven in it, to be with Blake in ‘The Auguries of Innocence’;
or as we were with Heaney, to enter heaven through the ear of a raindrop.
The Integration of the Poem as Whole:
We could meditate further on these individual images but I want to turn now to look at how they are related to each other and to the poem as a whole, for the ability to feel the energy that arises from the forces and tensions within the poem is part of what we need to rediscover in order to enjoy poetry at depth. Looking at the poem as a whole it seems almost modern in the way Herbert allows himself freedom from syntax and logic. The poem is technically a single sentence with only one full stop at the end of it bringing us to a rest after the roller-coaster ride through the images, with the quiescent phrase ‘something understood’. But it is a strange sentence. There is no main verb. It makes no statement. Its meaning is not carried on the surface of its grammar. It is a world away from Sprat’s ‘bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as we can’. No, the meaning of this poem is carried not by the syntax of the sentence, but by the images themselves, by the way image speaks to image in point and counterpoint. For here there is both a congruence, which gives the poem flow and unity, and also a disparity, which gives it tension and energy. There are lines of congruence between ‘banquet’, ‘softness’, ‘manna, and gladness, well-drest’, ‘land of spices’, all suggesting sumptuousness and celebration. There is congruence between the music imagery of ‘transposing’…’kind of tune’. and ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’, but there is a power in the tension of a poem which in lines 4 and 5 has the loud violence of ‘engine against th’almighty’ and ‘reversed thunder’ yet has moved in line 9 to ‘softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss’. At the end of the poem something is understood precisely because the poem has been able to hold these extremes in tension with each other, which is of course exactly what the life of prayer does for the practising Christian.
Then there is the whole subtle achievement across this poem of transposition and paraphrase, both terms mentioned in the poem itself. The theme of giving back to heaven what heaven first gave, which is what prayer essentially is, is transposed across a series of different keys from ‘breath returning to its birth’ through ‘reversed thunder’, to its fullest expression in ‘exalted manna’, the offering to God of his own gift in the Eucharist. When Herbert speaks of prayer as ‘the soul in paraphrase’ he is using that term to describe the way in which through prayer we find a new language, a new set of terms in which to express ourselves and in paraphrasing ourselves to God in our hour of prayer we are, through the terms of our paraphrase, seeing ourselves afresh in His light. And this in turn is what the poem itself does. Each of the twenty-seven images it offers is itself a paraphrase of the experience of prayer. Between them they offer us a series of new understandings of who we are and what we are doing when we engage in prayer. These notions of ‘transposition’ and ‘paraphrase’ will be a key to understanding much of the poetry we encounter in this book.
The other thematic key which we have already noted both in this poem and in ‘Rain Stick’ is paradox and reversal, the sudden setting of things on their heads, the ‘reversed thunder’, the ‘up-ending’ of the rain stick. Through the break in our world made by the shock of paradox there sometimes flows a new light.
It is the combination of all these things, working together within the subtle unity of the poem which enables us to hear ‘a kind of tune’, that stirs ‘The souls blood’, and leads at last to ‘something understood’.
i know its not a salamander but use your imagination!
I whisper just behind you
Our ever-entertaining Girton Poetry Group has set the theme this week of the elements, and the form of the sonnet. Here is a little jeu d’esprit I wrote for the group playing with the idea that each of the four elements has its own proper elemental creatures. I have added some favourite old Arthur Rackham Illustrations to suggest the elementals.
listen for my weeping
I am also playing in this poem with the idea that there is something within each of us correspondant to the life and liveliness of each element, something that we should treat with honour and respect in our selves and in one another, just as we should honour the mystery of the elements themselves in the world as God’s handiwork and our fellow-creation.
give me fire, air and rain
Anyway here it is for what its worth, though I have a feeeling it may work better as a song than a sonnet. now, wheres that guitar….
As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the title.
I am the salamander and I shimmer in the fire
I thrive within a living flame, desiring to desire,
I burn away the dross in you, and teach you to aspire
I am your salamander if you’ll kindle me a fire.
I am the sylph who loved you once, a creature of the air
I whisper just behind you but you never find me there
I am the one you stifle when you give in to despair
But I could breathe you back to life if you would give me air
I am the dying naiad in your long neglected well
I sing the very springs of love whose flow you fear and quell
The sacred river rises here, if you will say the spell,
And listen for my weeping as it echoes from your well.
I am the sleeping Adam whom you buried in the earth
But give me fire, air and rain, and I will give you birth.
I am posting here a recording of the first of five lectures in a series I am giving called Christ and the Cambridge Poets. They are all delivered in St. Edward’s Church in Cambridge and you will occasionally pick up little references to the churh itself, and to its history and association with these poets and especially to Latimer’s Pulpit All five of our poets (Spenser, Herbert, Smart, Tennyson, Lewis) will have seen it. this is the pulpit
Latimers Pulpit all five of our poets would have seen it
from which I preach every week.
My first poet is Spenser, the audio for this talk lasts about 70 minutes (I over-ran!) feel free to dip in and out as you like. As usual you can hear the audio by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title
I post below the some extracts from the poems that I read and referred to in the lecture:
Spenser and the insights of Love extracts:
From the hymn to love:
The earth, the ayre, the water, and the fyre,
Then gan to raunge them selues in huge array,
And with contrary forces to conspyre
Each against other, by all meanes they may,
Threatning their owne confusion and decay:
Ayre hated earth, and water hated fyre,
Till Loue relented their rebellious yre.
He then them tooke, and tempering goodly well
Their contrary dislikes with loued meanes,
Did place them all in order, and compell
To keepe them selues within their sundrie raines,
Together linkt with Adamantine chaines;
Yet so, as that in euery liuing wight
They mixe themselues, & shew their kindly might.
So euer since they firmely haue remained,
And duly well obserued his beheast;
Through which now all these things that are contained
Within this goodly cope, both most and least
Their being haue, and dayly are increast,
Through secret sparks of his infused fyre,
Which in the barraine cold he doth inspyre.
Thereby they all do liue, and moued are
To multiply the likenesse of their kynd,
Whilest they seeke onely, without further care,
To quench the flame, which they in burning fynd:
But man, that breathes a more immortall mynd,
Not for lusts sake, but for eternitie,
Seekes to enlarge his lasting progenie.
From the hymn to heavenly love:
Till that great Lord of Loue, which him at first
Made of meere loue, and after liked well
Seeing him lie like creature long accurst,
In that deepe horror of desperyred hell,
Him wretch in doole would let no lenger dwell,
But cast out of that bondage to redeeme,
And pay the price, all were his debt extreeme.
Out of the bosome of eternall blisse,
In which he reigned with his glorious fyre,
He downe descended, like a most demisse
And abject thrall, in fleshes fraile attyre,
That he for him might pay sinnes deadly hyre,
And him restore vnto that happie state,
In which he stood before his haplesse fate.
In flesh at first the guilt committed was,
Therefore in flesh it must be satisfyde:
Nor spirit, nor Angell, though they man surpas,
Could make amends to God for mans misguyde,
But onely man himselfe, who self did slyde.
So taking flesh of sacred virgins wombe,
For mans deare sake he did a man become.
From the Amoretti
HAPPY ye leaues when as those lilly hands,
which hold my life in their dead doing might
shall handle you and hold in loues soft bands,
lyke captiues trembling at the victors sight.
And happy lines, on which with starry light,
those lamping eyes will deigne sometimes to look
and reade the sorrowes of my dying spright,
written with teares in harts close bleeding book.
And happy rymes bath’d in the sacred brooke,
of Helicon whence she deriued is,
when ye behold that Angels blessed looke,
my soules long lacked foode, my heauens blis.
Leaues, lines, and rymes, seeke her to please alone,
whom if ye please, I care for other none.
LEAUE lady in your glasse of christall clene,
Your goodly selfe for euermore to vew:
and in my selfe, my inward selfe I meane,
most liuely lyke behold your semblant trew.
Within my hart, though hardly it can shew,
thing so diuine to vew of earthly eye:
the fayre Idea of your celestiall hew,
and euery part remaines immortally:
And were it not that, through your cruelty,
with sorrow dimmed and deformd it were:
the goodly ymage of your visnomy,
clearer then christall would therein appere.
But if your selfe in me ye playne will see,
remoue the cause by which your fayre beames darkned be.
MOST glorious Lord of lyfe that on this day,
Didst make thy triumph ouer death and sin:
and hauing harrowd hell didst bring away,
captiuity thence captiue vs to win.
This ioyous day, deare Lord, with ioy begin,
and grant that we for whom thou didest dye
being with thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
may liue foreuer in felicity.
And that thy loue we weighing worthily,
may likewise loue thee for the same againe:
and for thy sake that all lyke deare didst buy,
with loue may one another entertayne.
So let vs loue, deare loue, lyke as we ought,
loue is the lesson which the Lord vs taught.
FAYRE bosome fraught with vertues richest tresure,
The neast of loue, the lodging of delight:
the bowre of blisse, the paradice of pleasure,
the sacred harbour of that heuenly spright.
How was I rauisht with your louely sight,
and my frayle thoughts too rashly led astray?
whiles diuing deepe through amorous insight,
on the sweet spoyle of beautie they did pray.
And twixt her paps like early fruit in May,
whose haruest seemd to hasten now apace:
they loosely did theyr wanton winges display,
and there to rest themselues did boldly place.
Sweet thoughts I enuy your so happy rest,
which oft I wisht, yet neuer was so blest.
BRING with you all the Nymphes that you can heare
both of the riuers and the forrests greene:
And of the sea that neighbours to her neare,
Al with gay girlands goodly wel beseene.
And let them also with them bring in hand,
Another gay girland
my fayre loue of lillyes and of roses,
Bound trueloue wize with a blew silke riband.
And let them make great store of bridale poses,
And let them eeke bring store of other flowers
To deck the bridale bowers.
And let the ground whereas her foot shall tread,
For feare the stones her tender foot should wrong,
Be strewed with fragrant flowers all along,
LOE where she comes along with portly pace,
Lyke Phoebe from her chamber of the East,
Arysing forth to run her mighty race,
Clad all in white, that seemes a virgin best.
So well it her beseemes that ye would weene
Some angell she had beene.
Her long loose yellow locks lyke golden wyre,
Sprinckled with perle, and perling flowres a tweene,
Doe lyke a golden mantle her attyre,
And being crowned with a girland greene,
Seeme lyke some mayden Queene,
Her modest eyes abashed to behold
So many gazers, as on her do stare,
Vpon the lowly ground affixed are.
Ne dare lift vp her countenance too bold,
But blush to heare her prayses sung so loud,
So farre from being proud.
Nathlesse doe ye still loud her prayses sing,
That all the woods may answer and your eccho ring
Now al is done; bring home the bride againe,
bring home the triumph of our victory,
Bring home with you the glory of her gaine,
With ioyance bring her and with iollity.
Neuer had man more ioyfull day then this,
Whom heauen would heape with blis.
Make feast therefore now all this liue long day,
This day for euer to me holy is,
Poure out the wine without restraint or stay,
Poure not by cups, but by the belly full,
Poure out to all that wull,
And sprinkle all the postes and wals with wine,
That they may sweat, and drunken be withall.
Crowne ye God Bacchus with a coronall,
And Hymen also crowne with wreathes of vine,
And let the Graces daunce vnto the rest;
For they can doo it best:
The whiles the maydens doe theyr carroll sing,
To which the woods shal answer & theyr eccho ring
AND thou great Iuno, which with awful might
the lawes of wedlock still dost patronize,
And the religion of the faith first plight
With sacred rites hast taught to solemnize:
And eeke for comfort often called art
Of women in their smart,
Eternally bind thou this louely band,
And all thy blessings vnto vs impart.
Thou glad Genius, in whose gentle hand,
The bridale bowre and geniall bed remaine,
Without blemish or staine,
And the sweet pleasures of theyr loues delight
With secret ayde doest succour and supply,
Till they bring forth the fruitfull progeny,
Send vs the timely fruit of this same night.
And thou fayre Hebe, and thou Hymen free,
Grant that it may so be.
Til which we cease your further prayse to sing,
Ne any woods shal answer, nor your Eccho ring.
And ye high heauens, the temple of the gods,
In which a thousand torches flaming bright
Do burne, that to vs wretched earthly clods:
In dreadful darknesse lend desired light;
And all ye powers which in the same remayne,
More then we men can fayne,
Poure out your blessing on vs plentiously,
And happy influence vpon vs raine,
That we may raise a large posterity,
Which from the earth, which they may long possesse
With lasting happinesse,
Vp to your haughty pallaces may mount,
And for the guerdon of theyr glorious merit
May heauenly tabernacles there inherit,
Of blessed Saints for to increase the count.
So let vs rest, sweet loue, in hope of this,
And cease till then our tymely ioyes to sing,
The woods no more vs answer, nor our eccho ring.