On February 27th the Church of England keeps the feast and celebrates the memory of George Herbert, the gentle poet priest whose book the Temple, published posthumously in 1633 by his friend Nicholas Ferrar has done so much to help and inspire Christians ever since. In an earlier blog post I gave a talk on George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer, today, on the eve of his Feast Day, I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my poetry book The Singing Bowl. The sequence is a celebration of the saints, intended to complement my sequence Sounding the Seasons.
You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon, and I am vey happy to say that both book s are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
Here is another week’s worth of recordings in which I read the poems I selected in my anthology for Lent The Word in the Wilderness. I hope you enjoy these recordings, just click on the title of the poem or the ‘play’ button if it appears. Once again I am grateful to Lancia Smith for providing the two lovely images to go with this week’s readings.
In this first week in Lent my anthology Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk. But first we have a poem for the first Sunday in Lent. Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter. We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps as little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten Journey and that is how I shall treat them in this anthology. Once again thanks are due to Lancia Smith for the image which accompanies this week’s poems.
So to celebrate the first of them here is R. S. Thomas’s famous poem ‘The Bright Field’.
This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.
After the dimly burning wick of winter
That seemed to dull and darken everything
The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.
You keep the coastal path where edge meets edge,
The sea and salt marsh touching in North Norfolk,
Reed cutters cuttings, patterned in the sedge,
Open and ease the way that you will walk,
Unbroken reeds still wave their feathered fronds
Through which you glimpse the long line of the sea
And hear its healing voice.
Tentative steps begin to break your bonds,
You push on through the pain that sets you free,
Towards the day when broken bones rejoice
I am enjoying the many witty, and occasionally cheesy, links between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day which my friends are making on social media! I won’t attempt to add to these, but here is a sonnet I composed in honour of the original St. Valentine. I notice some FB posts implying that as an early Christian martyr he has nothing to do with Romantic Love and should be dissociated from it. I believe that on the contrary there is every reason why he should be the patron saint of Love and this sonnet explores why.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on either the title or the ‘play’ button. This poem is published in my most recent collection ‘Parable and Paradox’
This is the first of the weekly series I am posting throughout this Lent in which you can hear me read aloud the poems I have chosen for my Lent Anthology The Word in the Wilderness. In the book itself you can read my commentary on each poem but I thought that, as with my advent anthology, you might like to hear the poems read. Where copyright allows I will also post the texts of the poems themselves here. Once more I am grateful to Lancia Smith who will be providing specially made images for these weekly posts. Lancia has told me that today’s image of the shell suggests a sense of our being ‘cleansed and emptied of what we once carried now waiting for a new day of our own’. But there is also of course the other sense in which the scallop shell is a symbol of pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is very much the central theme of this book.
Speaking of images that arise from this poetry you might like to know that there is now a Facebook Group Sounding the Sonnets which has some lovely galleries of art they have made in response to the poems in this and my other books.
Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.
From Thursday to Saturday I have chosen each of my sonnets on the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness. You can read my commentary on these in the book.
As we approach Lent I have been asked if I would post again the poems, recordings and images which accompany my Lent anthology Word in the Wilderness, and I am happy to do so as I know there are a number of groups reading the book together who might find it helpful to have the recordings. So I have recorded each of the poems in the Lent book, as I did for the Advent one. Whereas in Advent I posted a recording each day, along with a beautiful image from Lancia Smith, what Lancia and I have decided to do for Lent is to offer you weekly posts. Each post will be headed by a beautiful image from Lancia and then contain links to recordings of all seven poems for that week as well as the texts of the poems themselves, though for my commentary on each text you will need to turn to the book itself. We will start with an introductory post that takes us from Shrove Tuesday, through Ash Wednesday to the 1st Sunday in Lent and then each subsequent post will come out on each of the Sundays in Lent. I hope you find this helpful and please feel free to share it. Those who are using the book in weekly Lent groups this year my find it particularly helpful to have all the weeks readings gathered on one page. If you would like to join an online reading group to follow this book through Lent then you might like to join the Literary Life Facebook Group run by Rick Wilcox
You can get copies of Word in the Wilderness by ordering from your local bookshop (if you’re in England go for the excellent Sarum College Bookshop) or through this page on Amazon UK and this one on Amazon USA
As an appetiser, and to give you an idea of my reasons for compiling this anthology here are the opening paragraphs of my introduction:
Why might we want to take time in Lent, to immerse ourselves in poetry, to ask for the poets as companions on our journey with the Word through the wilderness? Perhaps it is one of the poet’s themselves who can answer that question. In The Redress of Poetry, the collection of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Seamus Heaney claims that poetry ‘offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has to be its own reward’ (p. xv). However qualified by terms like ‘fleeting’, ‘glimpse’ and ‘potential’, this is still a claim that poetry, and more widely the poetic imagination, is truth-bearing; that it offers not just some inner subjective experience but as Heaney claims, a redress; the redress of an imbalance in our vision of the world and ourselves. Heaney’s claim in these lectures, and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, is that we can ‘Credit Poetry’, trust its tacit, intuitive and image-laden way of knowledge. I have examined these claims in detail elsewhere (Faith Hope and Poetry) and tried to show, in more academic terms, how the poetic imagination does indeed redress an imbalance and is a necessary complement to more rationalistic and analytical ways of knowing. What I would like to do in this book is to put that insight into practice, and turn to poetry for a clarification of who we are, how we pray, how we journey through our lives with God and how he comes to journey with us.
Lent is a time set aside to re-orient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s Kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbours. There are a number of distinctive ways in which poetry can help us do that and in particular the poetry I have chosen for this anthology.
Heaney spoke of poetry offering a glimpse and a clarification, here is how an earlier poet Coleridge, put it, when he was writing about what he and Wordsworth were hoping to offer through their poetry, which was
“awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”
(Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Vol. II, pp. 6−7)
Most writers about Coleridge have opted to tell only one of two apparently very different stories: the first and best known is the sublime yet tragic story of the poet of inspiration and of agony, of the lover who speaks with and from a broken heart, the poet of freedom who finds himself evermore deeply meshed in the bondage of opium, and ends his life, from that perspective, in apparent failure. The second is the story of Coleridge the thinker, the philosopher, the man of faith, the founder of literary criticism and the originator of almost every school of literary criticism we now possess. This story is often told without any reference to his life at all, as though the great literary criticism, the profound theories of poetry, the subtle and just appreciation of Shakespeare, were all achieved in some ideal ivory tower, free from pain or distraction. But the real story is much more moving. Owen Barfield’s excellent book What Coleridge Thought presents us with a reconstruction of Coleridge’s whole system of thought – ‘The Dynamic or Communicative Philosophy’ as Coleridge called it, as though that whole system had come to him in one piece with all its subtle connections and strong ramifications. When we see how Coleridge reached out towards, shaped and attained that dynamic philosophy, that integration of faith and reason, in the midst of the heartbreak of forsaken love and the corruption and damage of opium; how he achieved what he did not only in spite of the pain and despair through which he lived, but with that pain and despair, expressed in prayer and poetry, as his very materials; then we begin to see the greatness of his achievement.
Here is a piece from today’s Times inn which Paula Byrnes summarises her fuller review which the Times carried last year when the hardback came out: