Monthly Archives: June 2011

Love’s Choice, a Sonnet for the feast of Corpus Christi

Here’s a sonnet reflecting on the experience of receiving the sacrament of Holy communion which i post to mark the ancient feast of Corpus Christi. As usual you can hear the sonnet by clicking the ‘play’ button or following the link to Audioboo

Love’s Choice

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.
He does not come in unimagined light
Too bright to be denied, too absolute
For consciousness, too strong for sight,
Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute,
Chooses instead to seep into each sense,
To dye himself into experience.


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A sonnet for Trinity Sunday


Continuing my cycle of sonnets for the Church year. Here is one for Trinity Sunday. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the link to audioboo after the sonnet.

Trinity Sunday

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.


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A Pentecost Sonnet

A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael 's Bartley Green

Continuing in my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year this is a sonnet reflecting on and celebrating the themes and readings of Pentecost. Throughout the cycle, and more widely I have been reflecting on the traditional ‘four elements’ of earth, air, water and fire, considering how each of them expresses and embodies different aspects of the Gospel and of God’s goodness, as though the four elements were, in their own way, another four evangelists. In that context I was very struck by the way Scripture expresses the presence of the Holy Spirit through the three most dynamic of the four elements, the air, ( a mighty rushing wind, but also the breath of the spirit) water, (the waters of baptism, the river of life, the fountain springing up to eternal life promised by Jesus) and of course fire, the tongues of flame at Pentecost. Three out of four ain’t bad, but I was wondering, where is the fourth? Where is earth? And then I realised that we ourselves are earth, the ‘Adam’ made of the red clay, and we become living beings, fully alive, when the Holy Spirit, clothed in the three other elements comes upon us and becomes a part of who we are. So something of that reflection is embodied in the sonnet.

As usual you can hear me reading the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem itself

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.


Filed under christianity, Poems

The KJV; Nostalgia or New Life?

All year we have been Celebrating the KJV here in Cambridge and I have given a number of sermons and written a number of blog posts and articles on the specifics of the translation. However as the year has continued I have had a gradual sense of unease about the way it is being celebrated, at least here in England. It seems to be touted more and more as a cultural artefact, a piece of marketable heritage, a source book of common phrases, a decorative back ground to literature, but never as sacred, challenging, or life-changing. The whole year seems to have been about manner not matter, about style not substance, as though we could honour and praise a book without ever considering its actual content!  Finally I decided that I wanted to say something publicly about this misgiving, and to outline, by way of contrast, what the original translators were working to achieve, and I have done so in the sermon I post below. The core of what I have to say is an exposition of four beautiful images from Miles Smith’s prefaratory letter in which he set out very clearly what the translators of the KJV thought their translation was for. So I give that passage from the Preface here, followed by the audio of my sermon, you can either click on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser, or on the link in the title of the sermon. The audio lasts for 25 minutes.

“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered [Gen 29:10]. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) [John 4:11] without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, “Read this, I pray thee,” he was fain to make his answer “I cannot for it is sealed”

malcolm on kjv


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Christ and the Cambridge Poets 5: Gwyneth Lewis

Gwyneth Lewis in front of her poem on the Cardiff Millennium Centre

May 11th Edmund Spenser and the insights of Love

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

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 the last five weeks starting Wednesday May 11th I have been exploring some of the insights that these poets
can offer to us now. Today I conclude the series with a talk on the contemporary Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis.

Gwyneth Lewis, like all the poets in our series was a student at Cambridge, indeed she recently returned to her College Girton, as a visiting fellow. She is though, the only one of our poets to have been poet in residence at a school of physics and astronomy, or to have formally acknowleged a Nobel Laureate for his advice on stem cell technology, and the influence it had on the composition of her poetry. In the lecture below I look at the range of her poetry, its techniques concerns and insights, concentrating especially on her gift for discerning significant metaphor in the findings of science, and for expressing the exhilaration and wonder at the core of ‘hard science’. I also try to show show how her poetry develops and extends the themes of love, prayer, elegy, and transfiguration we have been exploring in our other four poets. The first two poems I explore can be found in her collection Chaotic Angels, and the poetry with which my talk concludes is drawn from her recent epic A Hospital Odyssey. Both books are essential reading.

As usual you can hear the talk by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the talk.

gwyneth lewis and science

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Christ and the Cambridge Poets 4: Tennyson and the insights of Doubt

Tennyson in all his dishevelled glory

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 11th Edmund Spenser and the insights of Love

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

In the lecture whose audio I am linking here I offer a close reading of parts of Tennyson’s great poem In Memoriam and in particular I am concerned with the paradox wherby Faith is strengthened and deepened when it has the courage to pay serious attention to doubt, a process I try to trace through the course of this poem. Tennyson was Darwin’s exact contemporary and it is a great shame that when Darwin’s Centenary was so widely celebrated two years ago, Tennyson’s was, by contrast almost completely forgotten. Yet it was the intelligent and thoughtful response of poets like Tennyson to the challenge which Darwin’s thought appeared to offer to unexamined Faith which prevented our culture, and particularly our intellectual life ,from falling into the extremes of division and antipathy between “Science” and “Religion” which developed elsewhere and are still in need of healing. Tennyson’s famous lines

“There is more faith in honest doubt

Belive me than in half the creeds’

are often quoted as if he were approving doubt as an end in itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immediately after these oft quoted lines comes a verse  that in some ways sum up Tennyson’s own own acheivement,:

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length


To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,


But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

As always you can here the audio either by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title. The recorder failed for the second half of the talk ‘live’ so I have posted the rest of it, recorded at home, in two other links labelled tennyson 2 and 3 . In each case there should also be a ‘play button’ above the link. Below the audio I have posted the substantial extracts from in Memoriam I gave in the handout at the lecture.

In Memoriam consists of 133 cantos numbered in Roman Numerals, I give the Roman numeral references to each section I quote.

Tennyson and doubt


tennyson 3

The opening, sets the agenda: (from I)

I held it truth, with him who sings

To one clear harp in divers tones,

That men may rise on stepping-stones

Of their dead selves to higher things.

But who shall so forecast the years

And find in loss a gain to match?

Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch

The far-off interest of tears?

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d

“Rhyme has been said to contain in itself a constant appeal to Memory and Hope. This is true of all verse, of all harmonized sounds; but it is certainly made more palpable by the recurrence of termination.” AH Hallam (The influence of Italian upon English Literature)

A recognition that grief is a price more than worth paying for the reality of love: repeated verse (from XXVII)


….I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

Then this verse sets out the method: (from XLVIII)

Nor dare she trust a larger lay,

But rather loosens from the lip

Short swallow-flights of song, that dip

Their wings in tears, and skim away.

Evocation of atmosphere, perfect expression of emotion In the cadence of language, this passage especially praised by Eliot: (VII)


Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more?

Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank

A prayer of faith in the midst of doubt: (From L)

….Be near me when my light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle; and the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame

Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;

And Time, a maniac scattering dust,

And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,

And men the flies of latter spring,

That lay their eggs, and sting and sing

And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,

To point the term of human strife,

And on the low dark verge of life

The twilight of eternal day.


The substance of his doubts: (LVI)


‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:

I bring to life, I bring to death:

The spirit does but mean the breath:

I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,

Such splendid purpose in his eyes,

Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,

Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law?

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed?

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,

Who battled for the True, the Just,

Be blown about the desert dust,

Or seal’d within the iron hills?

Assertion of hope even in the moment of admitting that it might be in vain (LXIV)

Oh yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;

That not one life shall be destroy’d,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;

That not a moth with vain desire

Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,

Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last–far off–at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?

An infant crying in the night:

An infant crying for the light:

And with no language but a cry

The witness of the heart: (From CXXIV)

If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,

I heard a voice ‘believe no more’

And heard an ever-breaking shore

That tumbled in the Godless deep;

A warmth within the breast would melt

The freezing reason’s colder part,

And like a man in wrath the heart

Stood up and answer’d ‘I have felt.’

No, like a child in doubt and fear:

But that blind clamour made me wise;

Then was I as a child that cries,

But, crying, knows his father near;

A magical episode of soul-communion: (XCV)

By night we linger’d on the lawn,

For underfoot the herb was dry;

And genial warmth; and o’er the sky

The silvery haze of summer drawn;

And calm that let the tapers burn

Unwavering: not a cricket chirr’d:

The brook alone far-off was heard,

And on the board the fluttering urn:

And bats went round in fragrant skies,

And wheel’d or lit the filmy shapes

That haunt the dusk, with ermine capes

And woolly breasts and beaded eyes;

While now we sang old songs that peal’d

From knoll to knoll, where, couch’d at ease,

The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field.

But when those others, one by one,

Withdrew themselves from me and night,

And in the house light after light

Went out, and I was all alone,

A hunger seized my heart; I read

Of that glad year which once had been,

In those fall’n leaves which kept their green,

The noble letters of the dead:

And strangely on the silence broke

The silent-speaking words, and strange

Was love’s dumb cry defying change

To test his worth; and strangely spoke

The faith, the vigour bold to dwell

On doubts that drive the coward back,

And keen thro’ wordy snares to track

Suggestion to her inmost cell.

So word by word, and line by line,

The dead man touch’d me from the past,

And all at once it seem’d at last

The living soul was flash’d on mine,

And mine in his was wound, and whirl’d

About empyreal heights of thought,

And came on that which is, and caught

The deep pulsations of the world,

Aeonian music measuring out

The steps of Time–the shocks of Chance–

The blows of Death. At length my trance

Was cancell’d, stricken thro’ with doubt.

Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame

In matter-moulded forms of speech,

Or ev’n for intellect to reach

Thro’ memory that which I became:

Till now the doubtful dusk reveal’d

The knolls once more where, couch’d at ease,

The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field;

And suck’d from out the distant gloom

A breeze began to tremble o’er

The large leaves of the sycamore,

And fluctuate all the still perfume,

And gathering freshlier overhead,

Rock’d the full-foliaged elms, and swung

The heavy-folded rose, and flung

The lilies to and fro, and said,

‘The dawn, the dawn,’ and died away;

And East and West, without a breath,

Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,

To broaden into boundless day.

His response to Emily’s fear, (he speaks of Arthur but actually describes what he himself is doing, and is achieving in this poem): (from XCVI)

You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.

I know not: one indeed I knew

In many a subtle question versed,

Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,

But ever strove to make it true:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,

At last he beat his music out.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,

But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

He came at length to find ‘a stronger faith’, here is an example of that stronger combination of faith hope and love ringing clearly and wildly from his poem: (CVI)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

The preface printed at the beginning of the poem, was written at the end:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

By faith, and faith alone, embrace,

Believing where we cannot prove;

….Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before,

Crossing the Bar

SUNSET and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness or farewell,

When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.


Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems, St. Edward's, Theology and Arts

Ascension Day Sonnet

We have lift off!! Launching liturgical rockets on Ascension Day at Girton!
The experience of writing Sonnets for Advent and for The Stations of the Cross has encouraged me to go a little further and to write a more extended sequence that will touch on the major moments and turning points of the church year, and so on the central mysteries of our faith.

So here is a sonnet for Ascension Day. The mystery of this feast is the paradox whereby in one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven ,but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. His humanity is taken into heaven so our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him.”For you have died, says St. Paul, and your life is hidden with christ in God. In the ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours. Anyway the sonnet form seemed to me one way to begin to tease these things out.
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem.


We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .


Filed under christianity, Girton, imagination, Poems, Theology and Arts