Monthly Archives: November 2012

Thoughts on a Family Bible

My Great Grandfather’s bible

For all the convenience, the ease of reference and access afforded by the ubiquitous ‘ebook’, I have been reminded recently in three very concrete ways of how precious and irreplaceable real books are with their tang, tinge, smudge and wear, and most of all their tangible personal history.

I’ll tell you today about the first of my three reminders, which came in a remote croft in Wester Ross in the far northwest of Scotland, an old place where my uncle lived and where, under  portraits of my grandparents and great-grandparents, I can browse his library with its annotated volumes of Donne along with his own articles on the same, and the several volumes of my grandmother’s poetry.  The reminder came this summer when my uncle’s widow gave me an old Bible. Beautifully bound and printed, it is inscribed with my great-grandfather’s name and dated 1876, it has his pencilled underlinings and annotations over his many years of reading, and best of all, on a slip of paper inside the front cover it has the poem he wrote for my great-grandmother on their wedding anniversary in 1894.

And learn how we, by God’s good guiding hand,
Redeemed at last may reach the Heavenly Land

Of course the Bible is a precious book in any form, and I have, and consult, many Bibles. I even have a handy, searchable Greek New Testament on my iPhone! But this is different . The Bible itself is like a family album telling the long tale, over many generations of how God came to His people and, in the end, came to all of us in Christ. It is also the story of our long pilgrimage from the first garden of our beginnings, through the wilderness, and at last to the City of God in which the garden itself is renewed. But this particular copy of the Bible ties the threads of my own family into that bundle of life. In the anniversary poem my great-grandfather celebrates with his wife the way in which this particular Bible had accompanied them on their pilgrimage through time as they read it together:

“The years roll on unheeded in their flight

Maybe because you help to make them bright

Dear Wife in this our earthly pilgrimage

Each day may we peruse the sacred page

And learn how we, by God’s good guiding hand,

Redeemed at last, may reach the Heavenly land.”

And my jaw dropped whenI read this because I had used just that same image of pilgrimage together, in a Wedding anniversary poem I had written for Maggie some years earlier:

‘He made us, loved us, formed us and has set

His chosen pair of lovers in an ark.

Borne upwards by his spirit, we will float

Above the rising waves, the falling dark

As fellow pilgrims, driven towards that haven,

Where all will be redeemed, fulfilled, forgiven’

The tone, the tenor, the metre, and the meaning might all have been my great-grandfather’s!

It happened that I had with me the proofs for Sounding the Seasons, which I was still working on, and I had chosen one particular verse of Scripture (Luke 10:1) as an epigraph for the whole volume, to say that I was sending out my seventy sonnets, as bearers of good news, just as Jesus sent out the seventy. I should have known that when I turned to that page in my great-grandfather’s Bible, that verse would be underlined!

So when I pick up this worn old Bible and open it, I am in touch with something, and I have something to hand on, which no easy ebook, no digitised multi-version, will ever replace. I hope that by the time my great-grandchildren are reading it there will be a few more poems tucked inside!

Remind me to tell you about my other two reminders!

Inscribed 136 years ago by one from whom I sprung

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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 Launch is at St. Edward King and Martyr on December the 5th. And I believe it will be available from the publishers and Amazon etc. from then on.

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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Kind Words From Rowan Williams

Come to the Launch Dec. 5th 7:30pm St. Edwards Cambridge!

In the midst of November gloom I have just had a very encouraging email. It was from my publishers at Canterbury Press and contained the comments on my poetry which they intend to use as ‘blurbs’ on the back of the book. They had sent advanced copies to various people for comment, and happily all of them have written back with real encouragement and the kind of comment that will, I hope, wing the book on its way. I am grateful for all these endorsements and particularly grateful that Rowan Williams, in the midst of so many more pressing matters, found the time to read and comment on these poems, What a remarkable man he is!

So here are the comments and endorsements from which the cover ‘blurb’s will be taken:

‘Malcolm Guite knows exactly how to use the sonnet form to powerful effect.  These pieces have the economy and pungency of all good sonnets, and again and again, offer deep resources for prayer and meditation to the reader.  In his own words, ‘brevity, clarity, concentration and a capacity for paradox’ are typical of the best sonnet sequences, and all those qualities are to be found here.’ Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

‘Each of Malcolm Guite’s sonnets is like a Celtic knot, with threads of devotion and theology cunningly woven into shining emblems of truth and beauty. Whether spoken aloud or read silently, these poems speak to mind and soul.’  Luci Shaw, poet and author of Harvesting Fog and Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination and Spirit

‘I can hardly overstate my enthusiasm for this work. The poetry is masterful, the insights breathtaking. At a time when language has all but lost its magic, and the church her confidence, Sounding the Seasons rekindles the belly’s fire and reminds us that this adventure is both noble and far from over.’       Steve Bell, singer-songwriter

 ‘The sonnets are made to be read out loud to help us experience the sacred year in a renewed way. His aim is to be appropriate, up-to-date and focused. His poetry is deeply informed by knowledge of the Christian faith; and he brings his skill with the sonnet to communicate this knowledge with gentleness, accuracy and flashes of fire.’   Sebastian Barker FRSL, poet and author of The Erotics of God and many other volumes of poetry

 Malcolm Guite’s poetic sequence is fresh and wholly contemporary, yet richly rooted in tradition. Using the sonnet form with absolute naturalness as he traces the year and its festivals, he offers the reader – whether Christian or not – profound and beautiful utterance which is patterned but also refreshingly spontaneous. Sounding the Seasons is an important poetic event, and one that invites readers to share both celebration and soul-searching.

Grevel Lindop, poet and literary critic

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Thanksgiving; a Sonnet

I am posting here a sonnet for Thanksgiving day which I have written for my American friends. There is no feast of thanksgiving in either the British national or church calendars, but it seems to me a good thing for any nation to set aside a day for the gratitude which is in truth the root of every other virtue. So here is an Englishman’s act of thanksgiving. as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the play button if it appears or on the title.

I composed this as part of a friendly competition with some American poets to compose Petrarchan sonnets on the theme of Thanksgiving. Check out this Excellent Sonnet from my friend the academic and poet Holly Ordway. You will see that we have both been influenced by the ideas and language of CS Lewis’s fellow inkling Charles Williams.

I am including this sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons which comes out this year with Canterbury Press. since we don’t keep thanksgiving I have made it pasrt of a mini-sequence of three centred on the feast of All Saints, which we have recently celebrated. I took the photograph on a morning walk by the river cam, a walk whose views are a constant spur to thanksgiving! The image that follows the poem is by Margot Krebs Neale


Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving starts with thanks for mere survival,
Just to have made it through another year
With everyone still breathing. But we share
So much beyond the outer roads we travel;
Our interweavings on a deeper level,
The modes of life that souls alone can share,
The unguessed blessings of our being here,
The warp and weft that no one can unravel.

So I give thanks for our deep coinherence
Inwoven in the web of Gods own grace,
Pulling us through the grave and gate of death.
I thank him for the truth behind appearance,
I thank him for his light in every face,
I thank him for you all, with every breath

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

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Dante, Steve Bell And Me

Casella singing his version of a Dante poem

Let me take you to one of the most magical moments in The Divine Comedy, Dante’s poetic account of our pilgrim journey into the heart of God. Dante’s story starts in ‘the middle of the way of this life’, it starts with the poet knowing he’s lost the right path and wanting to find it again. The journey takes him down through the narrowing circles of Hell, to the cold centre of the frozen ego, and then up again, out from Hell, up into the light and air, to re-orient, having seen what he needs to leave behind. Now he must begin again, this time on the positive path, climbing the holy mountain with other pilgrim souls, trying to get back to the garden of our true humanity on the mountain top.

It is just at this moment of new beginning of starting the positive journey, in the second canto of the middle book, the Purgatorio, that the magic moment happens. Dante and his guide Virgil are on the mountain island, looking around before they start the long climb when a boat load of other pilgrim souls arrive and they disembark on the island, also wondering where and how to start this stage of their pilgrimage and who else might be here to accompany them on their journey. Suddenly amongst that troop of confused souls Dante recognises, and is in turn recognised, by an old friend! It is Cassella, a singer and musician from Florence. They rstore one another’s sense of belonging and Dante knows that what he needs now before he starts the journey, is the solace of a song. So he asks Casella to sing for him ‘to solace my soul somewhat…for it is weary.’ So Casella sings. But not just any song. He does a beautiful thing here, he sings one of Dante’s own poems back to him as a song! As Dante says ‘he sang so sweetly that I still hear that sweetness sound in me’. And its not just Dante whose transfixed by the music; ‘My master, I and all that company around the singer seemed so satisfied as if no other thing might touch our minds we were all motionless and fixed upon the notes…’

In the allegory of course Dante is saying many important truths; that music and the arts help us on our journey, that friends are there to echo back to us our own words and works but in a new way, and just when we need them. Yet when I read this I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to have someone turn one of my poems into a song and sing it back t me .. how cool would that be?

Steve Bell singing a ‘Guite’ poem

Well in this last year I have had just that experience, and I can tell you, its fantastic. I can also tell you that Dante was right about music and friendship as absolute essentials for our pilgrim journey -but you knew that already. As you know I have spent the last two years gradually posting to this blog the sonnets I am writing for our journey through the year, which are being published all together next month in my book Sounding the Seasons. Now back when I posted my sonnet on the baptism of Christ, together with a sermon on the subject I thought that was it, job done. Not so. Only a few days later I got an email from my friend the  Canadian singer songwriter Steve Bell to say that the sonet had (literally) struck a chord with him and he had turned it into a song! Attached to the email was an mp3 file. and that’s when I had my ‘Casella moment’! My old poem had become completey new for me! It was given back to me by Steve at just the right moment with a lilt and lift in it, an invitation to adventure and wayfaring which was just what I needed at that stage in my own spiritual journey. Now both my book of poems and Steve’s  new album  are coming out, almost together, in two halves of the world, and both have been created to help us begin again our soul’s journey.

Just so you can get a taste of my ‘Casella moment’ I’ve got Steve’s permission to  to put his song here, right next to my poem. So you can read the poem and then hear the song.

Then do head over to Steve’s site and check out the rest of the Album, which is out now. Its astonishing. If your’e in Cambridge come along to the launch of Sounding the Seasons on December 5th at 7:30 in St. Edward’s Church where there will be copies of Steve’s album also available.

So here’s the poem:

Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;

The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,

The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son

Reveal to us the single loving heart

That beats behind the being of all things

And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’

In that quick light and life, as water spills

And streams around the Man like quickening rain,

The voice that made the universe reveals

The God in Man who makes it new again.

He calls us too, to step into that river

To die and rise and live and love forever.

And here’s Steve ‘Casella’ Bell’s magical re-working, you can click on the ‘play’ button or the word epiphany:


epiphany

Now you’ve heard this you’ll want to check out the whole album on. Here’s the page you need from Steve’s Website: Keening for the Dawn You should also be able to get it soon on iTunes!

A Great Album that takes you from Advent, through Christmas to Epiphany

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Silence; a sonnet for Remembrance Day

Last year on Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio 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 posted it last year, 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. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th last year, 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 seeths instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are singing as  we sing 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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A Last Beatitude

‘the faithful server’s on the coffee rota’

At this season of the year the Church keeps the feast two days running, with a pair of feasts; All Saints and All Souls, each of which begins with that wonderfully Biblical and inclusive little word  All. I remember the effect that little word had on me, coming again and again in the verses of psalm 145, when I read that psalm a little before my conversion, how as each ‘all’ seemed to widen the circle of God’s love, till I began to wonder if even I might be included in one of those ‘all’s.. Do you remember them?

9The LORD is loving to everyone *

and his compassion is over all his works.

10All your works praise you, O LORD, *

and your faithful servants bless you.

….

14The LORD is faithful in all his words *

and merciful in all his deeds.

15The LORD upholds all those who fall; *

he lifts up all those who are bowed down.

16The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, *

and you give them their food in due season.

17You open wide your hand *

and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

18The LORD is righteous in all his ways *

and loving in all his works.

19The LORD is near to all who call upon him, *

to all who call upon him faithfully.

In the end it was those two little ‘all’s in verse 14 that included me; ‘The Lord upholdeth all such as fall: and lifteth up all those that are down.’

Anyway to return to the two lovely ‘all’s of these feasts, All Saints and All Souls, I have been reflecting on how easy it is for us to be partial and selective, where God is generous inclusive, and especially of how when we think of great saints and holy souls, we tend immediately to think of already prominent people, the writers and teachers of the church, the priests and prophets, the big historical figures, people who already have a bit of the spotlight, people whom the world also admires. So in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and of Psalm 145, I thought I’d add to my sonnet sequence for this season, a little sonnet about the ones we overlook but whom God knows and loves intimately. Its called A Last Beatitude. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I borrowed the lovely image of serving coffee from the website of St. Laurence church Cowley Rd


A Last Beatitude

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;

The faithful servers on the coffee rota,

The ones who hold no candle, bell or book

But keep the books and tally up the quota,

The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,

The quiet ones who organise the fete,

Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,

Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.

God knows the depths that often go unspoken

Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,

Or the slow healing of a heart long broken

Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.

Invisible on earth, without a voice,

In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

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