Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Words for ‘What If…’

Since I mentioned my poem ‘What If’ in the previous post and linked to my audioboo reading of it, various people have asked me for a copy of the words, so here they are, including the quotation from Mathew’s Gospel which is the poem’s point of departure. when I first posted this poem on facebook I prefaced it with this remark:

For different reasons we have all on both sides of the Atlantic, been reflecting on the way our words can travel and unravel beyond us, on the need to care for the tenor of what we say, here’s a poem reflecting further on that:

What If…

But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Mathew 12:36-37

What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?

What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?

What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Insidious insinuation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Unexamined asservation
Idiotic iteration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?

What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Querulous prevarication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Simulated desparation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?

Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.


Filed under christianity, imagination, Poems, politics

Summon the Summoners; A Good Spell

I wrote in my last post about the ‘daily miracle’ of our  language and literacy, the magical way that words can summon up images, images that bring with them whole worlds, all the magical correspondences between Word and World, a magic witnessed by the way a word like spell means both to spell a word and to make magic, the way chant is embedded in enchantment, the way even the dry word Grammar turns out to be cognate with Glamour in its oldest magical sense. But if all language is a kind of spell, it is a Good Spell (or Gospel as we later shortened that term). For  Christian Faith points to a single source, in the Word, the Logos of God, for both the mystery of language and the mystery of being. Christ is the Word within all words, the Word behind all worlds.

Certainly many Christian writers have reflected on the paralells between the Genesis narrative in which God says “Let there be..” and each thing he summons springs into being, and the way, the uttering of words, the combination and recombination of a finite set of letters, can call into being the imaginary worlds, the sub-creations, as Tolkien calls them, that God in his Love has empowered us to create. It seems that being made as ‘Makers’ (the old word for poets) is one of the ways in which we are all made in God’s image.

Of course, because we are fallen we can abuse this gift of sub-creation, we can abuse language itself, making the very medium of creation a means of destruction.  I have explored that shadow side of language in my poem “What IF…” But now I want to celebrate the God-given power and mystery of language, the magic of naming, the summoning powers entrusted to us in the twenty-six letters of our alphabet., in a sonnet I have simply called “Spell”. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.


Summon the summoners, the twenty-six

enchanters. Spelling silence into sound,

they bind and loose, they find and are not found.

Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,

summon the summoners, the shaping shapes

the grounds of sound, the generative gramma

signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana

runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,

leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,

shining, re-combining in their dance

the genesis of every utterance,

pattering the pattern of the Tree.

Summon the summoners, and let them sing.

The summoners will summon Everything.


Filed under imagination, literature, Poems, Theology and Arts

The Daily Miracle

What a miracle that you should be reading this! The everyday miracle that we call ‘reading’, a miracle of interpretation, of leaps from shapes on paper, to unsounded sounds in the mind, leaps from sounds to meaning, and from common meaning to a communion of minds! We take it all for granted, we scarcely notice what we are doing, but sometimes we should pause and reflect what an extraordinary achievement literacy is, and how privileged we are to be able to do it.

In my first post of the year I mentioned that we had cause to celebrate the anniversary of the King James Version, and literacy itself is one the many good fruits of that perpetually fruitful book. The KJV clarified, dignified, and replenished the English language, but it was also the prime motivator for a spread of literacy. Countless local schools, philanthropic trusts, and bible societies sprung up in the wake of this translation with the prime aim of teaching literacy to ordinary people so that they could take the Bible up in their own hands, and draw from the deep well of the scriptures for themselves. The great revivals in our history since then, the evangelical revival for example and the rise of Methodism led to an explosion in demand for Bibles and for the skill of reading them. Then those people, many of them adults, who first learned to read so as to read God’s word, went on to read and write more widely and to create that culture shift whereby we now see literacy as a birthright that should be extended to all, not , as it once was, the preserve of an elite. Even in our own age the desire to share, to make the Bible available in many new languages and in many remote places is also the driving force for literacy campaigns that bring with them so many other benefits for human development and wellbeing.

But even as we pause in the act of reading this text and give thanks for the gift of literacy and those whose time and effort gave us that gift, thanks for all the truth and pleasure we have found in reading and writing, we might ask: ‘Is there another, and deeper literacy we have yet to acquire?’ As children we learned that each of the outer shapes, made of ink on paper that we call ‘letters’ was more than just a shape, but that they made sounds which in turn made words, words that carried a meaning , a meaning meant for us and sent to us by the one who wrote them. And so we learned to Spell. Perhaps the time is coming when we will learn that the world itself is full of shapes and sounds that also have a meaning, when science will move on from learning and describing the outer shapes of nature, like a child learning the letters of an alphabet, and become a more holistic and spiritual science by putting the letters together and starting to spell out slowly  the deeper truths God wants to teach us, written for us in his works as well as in his word. As George Herbert put it, reflecting alike on the twin mysteries of the scriptures and the world around us:

Thy Word is all, if we could spell

Next time, a poem of mine reflecting on these themes; “Summon the Summoners, a Good Spell”



Filed under christianity, literature

Lumen de Lumine:you know more Latin than you know you know

Touching again on our theme of translation, I thought I’d share with you a (New!!) Latin poem by my friend Sheila Swartz, and two diferent ways in which it might be translated. Now before anyone throws up their hands in horror and says, ‘Latin! but thats a dead language! or ‘blogging in Latin, how elitist is that!’ let me say that everyone knows more Latin than they know they know (as it were). All the words in english that end in ‘ation’ for example, are really Latin, and you know hundreds of those, indeed in almost every sentence you speak you will be using or drawing from a word with a Latin root, which is why even when you come across some Latin in its pure form you can have a pretty good idea of what its saying. Take these two lines from a greatLatin hymn:

Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine

You didnt need the translators of Oh Come All Ye Faithful to tell you those words mean God of god, Light of light, you spotted the deum in our word deity and you had already been illuminated by the glimpse of lumen, glimmering  in  words like luminous.

Indeed Latin is an illuminating language in everyway, it sheds light on sources and origins, and concentrates our mind on the hidden sources and stems of grace from which our language springs. Dense little Latin words are like the seeds from which our later languages grow and so reading and translating from Latin somes times feels like drawing out and unfolding something, rather than just finding an English equivalent.

So now to our new Latin poem and two English versions that might ‘iluminate’ the ways we can use language. I know that for most people the days of Christmas end at Epiphany (January 6th), but some people keep the feast until candlemas (on February 2nd) when they brought the baby Jesus into the temple. So I reckon theres time for one last Christmas fling, and here it is. First I’ll give you Sheila’s  Latin Hymn in praise of Jesus: ‘Num Frustra’ (‘not in vain’ – but you knew that , you know what it is when a purpose is ‘frustrated’) See how many Latin roots of well known words you recognise as you also enjoy the lovely compact stacatto rythms she gets out of her Latin phrases. Next I will give you her own literal translation, a kind of ‘crib’ which shows you what each word means but doesnt ‘work’ or carry its own current as an independent English script. Finally I will give you an effort of mine which is not so much a translation as a ‘version’. I tried to write something which ‘works’ in English in the same way that Sheila’s version ‘works’ in Latin, with its own sense of rythm, momentum and pattern I have managed to include almost all her lovely latin nuggets, tho I was frustrated not to have managed ‘ mysteriorem’ or ‘celebrare’. However, I have, I hope, caught the sprit of her piece. I’ve laso included a link to a recording so you can hear both pieces read aloud. Indeed I think either or both could be sung, if there is someone inventive out there who’d like to have a go! Anyway let me know what you think of these efforts. By the way if anyone would like an amusing way of learning a little Latin, aimed at children, but great fun for adults too, check out Minimus, the mouse who made Latin cool! 

Num Frustra by Sheila Swartz

Jesu adest
Jesu adest
Quaecumque, gaudete
…Jesu adest

Pueri puellaeque
Laudabant facile
Deum, Iaudaeorem
Jesu adest

Nox dimmitivit
Vox servis dedit
Vexi vulnis eorum
Jesu adest

Dominus est
Amicus est
Donus Opportune: Mors
Statim abest

Non mansuetus – bonus
Huc saepe est domus
Jesu adest

Noli lacrimare
Quod celebrare
Nonne decorum?
Jesu adest

Now here is the literal translation:

Jesus is here/Jesus is here/Whoever you are, rejoice/Jesus is here
Boys and girls/Were praising easily/God and Jew/Jesus is here
He dismissed the night/He gave a voice to the slaves/He carried their wounds/Jesus is here
He is Lord/He is friend/A gift at the right time/Death is gone at once
Not tame – good/ He is often at home here/ (Mystery)/ Jesus is here
It is not for you to cry/But to celebrate/ Is it not proper?/ Jesus is here
Jesus is here/ Jesus is here/Whoever you are, rejoice/ Jesus is here

And finally my English Version, or reworking .

He is here, O here is Jesus
He will ease us into praise
Born a Jew despised and wounded
Slaves rejoice, for night has ended
Every child is now befriended
Boys and girls your voices raise

Dry your tears for here is Jesus
Bringing every gift in time
Untamed goodness, always present
Home and heaven never distant
Death itself has died this instant
Come and join our joyful rhyme!

you can listen to the Latin and English by clicking on the ‘play’ button below:


Filed under imagination, literature

2011 and the Gift of Translation

This year brings us to a great anniversary, which will have special significance for St Edwards, the church I serve in Cambridge. 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, and two members of the team who made this great translation were members of St Edwards. But our connection goes deeper, for it was at St Edwards, three generations earlier, that people like Bilney, Barnes and Latimer, our three Martyrs, had grasped that the gospel needed translating in the deepest sense, not simply translating out of one language into another, but translating out of paper, and out of ritual, out of the past, translating into people’s lives in the here and now.

Indeed I believe that the very process of Translation goes to the heart  of the Chrsitian Faith, because for Christians the Word of God has already made the greatest translation of all, the translation we have just celebrated at Christmas! The eternal Word, whom we could never have known or even apprehended, has translated Himself into our flesh and blood, translated eternity into time, and translated Love into action. For Christ’s followers the sayings of Jesus, the stories of His life enshrined in the scripture, only have their meaning when they are translated into the realities of everyday life, into ordinary conversation and action.

This perpetual and self-renewing translation has always been part of the life and work of St Edwards, and it has always been controversial! F D Maurice, for example, was pilloried for translating the gospel into social action, inclusion of women, education for the poor, and for moving away from the punitive and judgemental mindset that infected the church of his day, but in St Edwards he found a place where he could flourish and a community that would support his work. So, even as we celebrate a great treasure from the past and think of all the good that has come from 400 years of the KJV, we will be looking ahead to the future and seeing how to continue St Edwards historic mission to be a place where an ancient faith gives rise to new understandings and fresh expressions.

So during the course of this year I shall be posting to these pages some reflections on passages in the KJV whose language and phrasing I have found especially helpful but I will also be posting some more general reflections on translation itself, the translation and re-translation of secular as well as sacred texts. I will post some of my own translations of   other people’s poetry  and also some comments on the translations that have been made of my poems and other writings into different languages. To read what you have written when it is translated into a new language can sometimes be a very enlightening experience. Indeed the poet John Donne believed our own transition from earth to Heaven will be, thanks to Jesus Christ, a kind of translation. I’ll leave the last words of this post with him:

‘All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’ (John Donne Meditation 17)


Filed under christianity, literature, St. Edward's