Monthly Archives: February 2018

A Sonnet for George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

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.

George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,

With all that passed between you and your Lord,

That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles

Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.

Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,

Has been entrusted now to every soul,

We make a new beginning in your end

And find your broken heart has made us whole.

Time has transplanted you, and you take root,

Past changing in the paradise of Love,

Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,

And listen for an echo from above,

Open the window, let me hear you sing,

And see the Word with you in everything.

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WEEK 2 Deepening the Life of Prayer

WEEK 2

Deepening the Life of Prayer

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.

SUNDAY

 

Postscript Seamus Heaney

MONDAY

 

Prayer (I)   George Herbert

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

 

TUESDAY

 

Homecoming   Gwyneth Lewis

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won

by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home

to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found

in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Prayer/Walk   Malcolm Guite


 

A hidden path that starts at a dead end,

Old ways, renewed by walking with a friend,

And crossing places taken hand in hand,

 

The passages where nothing need be said,

With bruised and scented sweetness underfoot

And unexpected birdsong overhead,

 

The sleeping life beneath a dark-mouthed burrow,

The rooted secrets rustling in a hedgerow,

The land’s long memory in ridge and furrow,

 

A track once beaten and now overgrown

With complex textures, every kind of green,

Land- and cloud-scape melting into one,

 

The rich meandering of streams at play,

A setting out to find oneself astray,

And coming home at dusk a different way.

 

THURSDAY

 

How I talk to God   Kelly Belmonte Read more about Kelly Belmonte on her great poetry site All Nine

Coffee in one hand

leaning in to share, listen:

How I talk to God.

 

“Momma, you’re special.”

Three-year-old touches my cheek.

How God talks to me.

 

While driving I make

lists: done, do, hope, love, hate, try.

How I talk to God.

 

Above the highway

hawk: high, alone, free, focused.

How God talks to me.

 

Rash, impetuous

chatter, followed by silence:

How I talk to God.

 

First, second, third, fourth

chance to hear, then another:

How God talks to me.

 

Fetal position

under flannel sheets, weeping

How I talk to God.

 

Moonlight on pillow

tending to my open wounds

How God talks to me.

 

Pulling from my heap

of words, the ones that mean yes:

How I talk to God.

 

Infinite connects

with finite, without words:

How God talks to me.

 

FRIDAY

 

The Pains of Sleep   S. T. Coleridge


 

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,

It hath not been my use to pray

With moving lips or bended knees;

But silently, by slow degrees,

My spirit I to Love compose,

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication;

A sense o’er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

Since in me, round me, every where

Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

 

But yester-night I prayed aloud

In anguish and in agony,

Up-starting from the fiendish crowd

Of .

shapes and thoughts that tortured me:

A lurid light, a trampling throng,

Sense of intolerable wrong,

And whom I scorned, those only strong!

Thirst of revenge, the powerless will

Still baffled, and yet burning still!

Desire with loathing strangely mixed

On wild or hateful objects fixed.

Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!

And shame and terror over all!

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,

Which all confused I could not know

Whether I suffered, or I did:

For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,

My own or others still the same

Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

 

So two nights passed: the night’s dismay

Saddened and stunned the coming day.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper’s worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child;

And having thus by tears subdued

My anguish to a milder mood,

Such punishments, I said, were due

To natures deepliest stained with sin,

For aye entempesting anew

The unfathomable hell within,

The horror of their deeds to view,

To know and loathe, yet wish and do!

Such griefs with such men well agree,

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?

To be loved is all I need,

And whom I love, I love indeed.

 

SATURDAY

 

Batter my heart   John Donne


 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

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Week 1: The Pilgrimage Begins

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

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’.

The Bright Field

MONDAY

The Pilgrimage   George Herbert


I travell’d on, seeing the hill, where lay

My expectation.

A long it was and weary way.

The gloomy cave of Desperation

I left on th’one, and on the other side

The rock of Pride.

 

And so I came to Fancy’s meadow strow’d

With many a flower:

Fair would I here have made abode,

But I was quicken’d by my houre.

So to Cares copse I came, and there got through

With much ado.

 

That led me to the wild of Passion, which

Some call the wold;

A wasted place, but sometimes rich.

Here I was robb’d of all my gold,

Save one good Angel, which a friend had ti’d

Close to my side.

 

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,

Where lay my hope,

Where lay my heart; and climbing still,

When I had gain’d the brow and top,

A lake of brackish waters on the ground

Was all I found.

 

With that abash’d and struck with many a sting

Of swarming fears,

I fell, and cry’d, Alas my King;

Can both the way and end be tears?

Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv’d

I was deceiv’d:

 

My hill was further: so I flung away,

Yet heard a crie

Just as I went, None goes that way

And lives: If that be all, said I,

After so foul a journey death is fair,

And but a chair.

 

TUESDAY

 

Satire III   John Donne


… though truth and falsehood be

Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;

Be busy to seek her; believe me this,

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,

May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

To will implies delay, therefore now do;

Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too

The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries

Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage   Walter Raleigh

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

 

Blood must be my body’s balmer,

No other balm will there be given;

Whilst my soul, like a quiet palmer,

Travelleth towards the land of heaven ;

Over the silver mountains,

Where spring the nectar fountains:

There will I kiss

The bowl of bliss;

And drink mine everlasting fill

Upon every milken hill:

My soul will be a-dry before;

But after, it will thirst no more.

Then by that happy blestful day,

More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,

That have cast off their rags of clay,

And walk apparelled fresh like me.

I’ll take them first

To quench their thirst,

And taste of nectar suckets,

At those clear wells

Where sweetness dwells

Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.

 

And when our bottles and all we

Are filled with immortality,

Then the blessed paths we’ll travel,

Strowed with rubies thick as gravel;

Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors,

High walls of coral, and pearly bowers.

From thence to heavens’s bribeless hall,

Where no corrupted voices brawl;

No conscience molten into gold,

No forged accuser bought or sold,

No cause deferred, nor vain-spent journey;

For there Christ is the King’s Attorney,

Who pleads for all without degrees,

And he hath angels, but no fees.

And when the grand twelve-million jury

Of our sins, with direful fury,

‘Gainst our souls black verdicts give,

Christ pleads his death, and then we live.

 

Be thou my speaker, taintless pleader,

Unblotted lawyer, true proceeder!

Thou giv’st salvation even for alms;

Not with a bribèd lawyer’s palms.

And this is my eternal plea

To him that made heaven, earth, and sea,

That, since my flesh must die so soon,

And want a head to dine next noon,

Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread,

Set on my soul an everlasting head.

Then am I ready, like a palmer fit;

To tread those blest paths which before I writ.

 

THURSDAY

 

Maps  Holly Ordway Check out Holly’s website HERE

Antique maps, with curlicues of ink

As borders, framing what we know, like pages

From a book of travelers’ tales: look,

Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.

No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state

Traced out in color-coded numbered highways,

A web of roads with labeled city-dots

Punctuating the route and its slow stories.

Now GPS puts me right at the centre,

A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.

Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn

And turn to orient myself. I have

Directions calculated, maps at hand:

Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

 

FRIDAY

 The Song of Wandering Aengus   W. B. Yeats


I went out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,

And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

And hooked a berry to a thread;

 

And when white moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.

 

When I had laid it on the floor

I went to blow the fire a-flame,

But something rustled on the floor,

And some one called me by my name:

 

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.

 

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

 

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

 

SATURDAY

First Steps, Brancaster   Malcolm Guite


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

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A Sonnet for St. Valentine

Why should this martyr be the saint of Love?

Why should this martyr be the saint of Love?

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’

St Valentine

Why should this martyr be the saint of love?

A quiet man of unexpected courage,

A celibate who celebrated marriage,

An ageing priest with nothing left to prove,

He loved the young and made their plight his cause.

He called for fruitfulness, not waste in wars,

He found a sure foundation, stood his ground,

And gave his life to guard the love he’d found.

 

Why should this martyr be our Valentine?

Perhaps because he kept his covenant,

Perhaps because, with prayer still resonant,

He pledged the Bridegroom’s love in holy wine,

Perhaps because the echo of his name

Can kindle love again to living flame.

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Shriven, Ashed, and ready for Action

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

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.

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

As always you can hear me read the poems either by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button.

Today’s post takes us from Shrove Tuesday through to Saturday, the next post in this series will be on the first Sunday in Lent.

So here, first is the poem set for Shrove Tuesday, Seamus Heaney’s beautiful eleventh poem in the sequence Station Island:

Station Island XI Seamus Heaney/St. John of the Cross

And here is my sonnet for Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday

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.

Thursday:

Stones into Bread

 

The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here

The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.

When darkness speaks it seems so light and clear.

Now He must dare, with us, to make a choice.

In a distended belly’s cruel curve

He feels the famine of the ones who lose

He starves for those whom we have forced to starve

He chooses now for those who cannot choose.

He is the staff and sustenance of life

He lives for all from one Sustaining Word

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife

The stony ground of hearts that never shared,

God gives through Him what Satan never could;

The broken bread that is our only food.

 

All the Kingdoms of the World

 ‘So here’s the deal and this is what you get:

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,

The banker’s bonus and the private jet

Control and ownership of all the news

An ‘in’ to that exclusive one percent,

Who know the score, who really run the show

With interest on every penny lent

And sweeteners for cronies in the know.

A straight arrangement between me and you

No hell below or heaven high above

You just admit it, and give me my due

And wake up from this foolish dream of love…’

But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.

Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’

Saturday:

On the Pinnacle

‘Temples and Spires are good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

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The Word in the Wilderness, a Journey through Lent

wildernessAs 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)

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Coleridge: Telling Both Stories

To Celebrate the publication of Mariner in Paperback, by Hodder in the UK and by IVP Academic in America, I am posting a few brief extracts from key moments in the book. This one is from Chapter Nine, ‘The Moving Moon’ in which I pause to reflect on the scale of Coleridge’s Achievement:

From Mariner Chapter Nine: The Two Stories

 

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:

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