The feast of the annunciation falls on March 25th. The Annunciation, the visit of Gabriel to the blessed virgin Mary, is that mysterious moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time. In my own small take on this mystery I have thought about vision, about what we allow ourselves to be aware of, and also about freedom, the way all things turn on our discernment and freedom.
As always I am indebted to Margot Krebs Neale for the accompanying images, and she has kindly offered the following note for the images that accompany this sonnet:
‘As I was making suggesting a picture for another sonnet, Malcolm said he was working on the Annunciation sonnet. A little cheeky I sent a picture of a beautifully blurred lily wondering if it might help. Malcolm liked it and could see angel wings in it, I thought we needed a face. A young woman of sixteen. One of the many 16 years old I know and love or…myself. I remembered and found this picture of me taken when I was 16 or 17. Why me? Because of the “We” of the first strophe, I read it like an “I” : We see so little, only surfaces, and yet we have a choice.
« Quel fruit lumineux portons-nous dans l’ombre de la chair? » What luminous fruit do we carry in the shade of our flesh?
« un fruit éternel enfant de la chair et de l’Esprit ». An eternal fruit, child of the flesh and the Spirit »
May we be granted the joy of giving it to the light.’
This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. It is also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great. You may also like to check out Steve Bell‘s wonderful Snippet eBook The Pilgrim Year, in which this sonnet also appears, together with some of my reflections on Fra Angelico’s great fresco of the Annunciation.
As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.
On the 20th of March we remember with thanksgiving St. Cuthbert, the great Apostle of the North, in whose honour the Lindesfarne Gospels were made and on whose breast was found the beautiful Gospel of St. John which is our oldest complete book. Indeed, I was inspired to write a sonnet about the experience of standing in front of Cuthbert’s copy of St. John, which you can read Here.
Cuthbert, or ‘Cuddy’ as he is known affectionately in the North, was a man whose whole life was shaped and lived in and by the Gospel, by reconciliation, by good news for the poor and supremely by that free movement of the Holy spirit, flowing like water, and like the wind, blowing where it listeth. Though Cuthbert worked tirelessly for the church and for the poor he was at heart a hermit and a mystic, in intimate communion with God in his hermitage on his beloved inner Farne island . I feel a particular connection with Cuthbert and have walked on pilgrimage along the Cuthbert Way from Melrose Abbey in Scotland to the Holy island of Lindesfarne in Northumberland.
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
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.
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.
The Frontispiece of Blake’s prophetic poem Jerusalem
There is a passage in my new book ‘Mariner’ in which I tell the story of how Coleridge met William Bake, then an old man living in almost complete obscurity and poverty in Fountain Court in London. The meeting was arranged by Charles Augustus Tulk, a Swedenborgian who had been inspired by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to get poets and writers campaigning for the first factory act, limiting the working hours and improving the conditions of children working in he new factories. Coleridge was active and successful in this campaign. Having lent Coleridge Blake’s poems, Tulke brough the two great sages together. He says ‘Blake and Coleridge, when in company seemed like congenial beings from another sphere breathing for a while on our earth’. Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us what they actually said!
I was honoured to be invited by the William Blake Society to see if I could reconstruct, or at least encourage us to imagine, what that unrecorded conversation might have been like, and last night, at a meeting of the Blake society in Waterstones on Piccadilly I did just that. The substance of all that I imagined them saying is drawn from their letters and published works and I gave a handout with the sources which I also print here, along with a recording of the talk. I got rather carried away and paced around a bit and I occasionally move from the microphone so the sound comes and goes a little, but I think it is all audible.
At the core of this conversation as I imagine it, is the way both men recognised Jesus as the Divine Imagination and Love bodied forth for us and kindling afresh in us the love and imagination which is God’s lost image deep in our souls. Both men were calling for England (‘Albion’ in Blakes terms) to awaken from the sleep of materialism, greed and conquest, and to be renewed in Christ through an awakening of the spiritual imagination. I hope some sense of the power and urgency of that unfinished task, and the call to continue it, comes through in this recording:
Albion comes to Christ and repents: “O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law”
Here is the text of the handout giving the sources of my quotations:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour (from Auguries of Innocence)
I see the Four-fold Man. The Humanity in deadly sleep
And its fallen Emanation. The Spectre & its cruel Shadow.
I see the Past, Present & Future, existing all at once
Before me; O Divine Spirit sustain me on thy wings!
That I may awake Albion from his long & cold repose.
For Bacon & Newton sheathd in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion, Reasonings like vast Serpents
Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace. (From Jerusalem)
so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask. (from Frost at Midnight)
Be not afraid, that I shall join the party of the Little-ists – I believe, that I shall delight you by the detection of their artifices – Now Mr Locke was the founder of this sect, himself a perfect Little-ist. My opinion is this – that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton’s works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind & therefore to you, that I believe the souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakspere or a Milton. But if it please the Almighty to grant me health, hope, and a steady mind, (always the 3 clauses of my hourly prayers) before my 30th year I will thoroughly understand the whole of Newton’s works – At present, I must content myself with endeavouring to make myself master of his easier work, that on Optics. I am exceedingly delighted with the beauty & neatness of his experiment, & with the accuracy of his immediate Deductions from them – but the opinions found on these Deductions, and indeed his whole Theory is, I am persuaded, so exceedingly superficial as without impropriety to be deemed false. Newton was a mere materialist – Mind in his system is always passive – a lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God’s Image, & that too in the sublimest sense – the Image of the Creator – there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system. (Coleridge letter to Thomas Poole)
They and only they can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them. (From Biographia Literaria)
‘The imagination then, I consider either as primary or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. (From Biographia Literaria)
Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me.
Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God. the Human Imagination
O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love:
Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life!
Abstract Philosophy warring in enmity against Imagination
(Which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus. blessed for ever). (Jerusalem)
O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law (Jerusalem)
I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination. (Jerusalem)
For the writings of these Mystics acted in no slight degree to prevent my mind from being imprisoned within the outline of any single dogmatic system. They contributed to keep alive the heart in the head; gave me an indistinct, yet stirring and working presentiment, that all the products of the mere reflective faculty partook of death, and were as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which a sap was yet to be propelled from some root to which I had not penetrated, if they were to a ord my soul either food or shelter. If they were too often a moving cloud of smoke to me by day, yet they were always a pillar of fire through- out the night, during my wanderings through the wilderness of doubt, and enabled me to skirt, without crossing, the sandy deserts of utter unbelief. Biographia Literaria
In recent days many people have, quite understandably been remembering 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.
This passage in Matthew is especially challenging to us now in the midst of a major refugee crisis triggered by the dreadful violence in Syria and Iraq. We can and should make a compassionate response, even though that response is shadowed by our fears of terrorist infiltration. It should be possible to be alert to and vet those malicious persons who might try to infiltrate themselves amongst genuine refugees. But it is clear that the huge numbers of widows and children in desperate need are no threat to anyone, but rather themselves threatened by the terrorists whom we oppose. There is no reason for a proper caution about infiltration to inhibit a genuine and generous response to crisis.I wrote this sonnet some years before the present Crisis, but Christ’s words, on which this poem reflects, seem more vital and more needed than ever.
Here is a sonnet written in response to the gospel reading for the feast of Christ the King.
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.