On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have begun a beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:
Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss
Today we come to the third step of this ascent which is Joy, perhaps the hardest of these gifts of prayer to convey as it is so fleeting, so beautiful, so much beyond words. Wordsworth spoke of being ‘Surprised by Joy, impatient as the wind‘, and for me too there is something in the swift and invisible wind that speaks of joy, especially the wind filling the sails of my little boat. I love sailing and it always brings me peace and joy, and I realised I had never actually written a poem about it, so when I came to write this sonnet on Joy I realised that this was the write time to enshrine my love of sailing in verse. I learnt t sail with my father who was a classicist, and when we were out sailing he loved to quote poetry, especially Homer, with his gripping accounts of the fleet that sailed ‘across the wine-dark sea’.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the title.
How does she come, my joy, when she comes walking
Over the wasteland and the empty waves?
She comes unbidden between sleep and waking,
She comes like winter jasmine on cold graves,
She comes like some swift wind, she fills my sails,
And on we surge, cresting the wine-dark sea,
The fine prow lifting, as my vessel heels,
The tiller tugs and quivers, and I’m free
Of all the land’s long cares. As that brisk breeze
Sings in the thrill and tremor of taut stays,
So my heart’s rigging, tuned and taut as these,
Sings with the wind that freshens into praise.
For when Joy comes, however brief her stay,
She parts my lips, and I know how to pray.