Category Archives: literature

A Sonnet for the Annunciation

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings

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.

Annunciation

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

but on this day a young girl stopped to see

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St. Patrick: A Sonnet

PilgrimYear_SaintPatrickMemeI have written a  sonnet for Saint Patrick’s day! It is in my anthology Word in the Wilderness and will also be collected in Parable and Paradox but here it is for the day itself. This particular poem was prompted by my good friend Steve Bell who was writing a fascinating multi-media ebook called the Pilgrim Year and who wanted me to write something for St. Patrick’s day. I can strongly commend Steve’s ebook!

While Patrick is of course primarily associated with Ireland where he flourished as a missionary in the second half of the fifth century, he was not Irish to begin with. He seems to have been a shepherd on the mainland of Great Britain and was in fact captured there, at the age of sixteen, by raiding pirates and taken across the sea to Ireland where he was sold as a slave. He was six years in captivity before he finally made his escape and returned to Britain. And this is where the story takes a truly extraordinary turn. While he was enslaved in Ireland, working as a shepherd for his masters, Patrick became a Christian and when, having made good his escape, he returned home he had a vision in which a man gave him a letter headed ‘The Voice of Ireland’, a letter urging him to go back to the very place from which he had escaped and bring the Gospel to his former captors! That Patrick obeyed such a vision seems to me a greater miracle than any of the others subsequently attributed to him, and it is on this return that my sonnet turns. That capacity to return, face and forgive former oppressors or enemies seems a particularly vital gift for Ireland’s patron to bestow. As well as alluding briefly to ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate’, my sonnet also touches on the story that wherever Patrick planted his staff to pray, it blossomed.

As always you can hear the sonnets by clicking o the title or the play button

Patrick

Six years a slave, and then you slipped the yoke,

Till Christ recalled you, through your captors cries!

Patrick, you had the courage to turn back,

With open love to your old enemies,

Serving them now in Christ, not in their chains,

Bringing the freedom He gave you to share.

You heard the voice of Ireland, in your veins

Her passion and compassion burned like fire.

 

Now you rejoice amidst the three-in-one,

Refreshed in love and blessing all you knew,

Look back on us and bless us, Ireland’s son,

And plant the staff of prayer in all we do:

A gospel seed that flowers in belief,

A greening glory, coming into leaf.

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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.

 

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife (image courtesy of Margot Krebs Neale)

Friday:

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

If you would like to make a retreat with me centred on this book, I am leading one over the weekend of 10-12th March at the beautiful Retreat House at Pleshy in Essex, full details are Here

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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Blake and Coleridge – an imagined conversation!

The Frontispiece of Blake's prophetic poem Jerusalem

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"

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

 

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Rocky Mountain Railroad, Epiphany by Luci Shaw

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For January 5th in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Rocky Mountain Railroad, Epiphany by Luci Shaw. this poem makes an interesting contrast and parallel with Coleridge’s psalm-like outpouring of yesterday. Both poems are a response to the beauty of nature, and specifically to the sight of snowy mountains, and the whole play of light on snow and ice. In both poems we have a sense of glory and of the sublime rising ‘reaches of peak above peak beyond peak’.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She Writes:

Luci Shaw takes a subtly different approach to Coleridge as she describes, ‘in a net of words’, her transcendent experience. She uses herself as a mirror to describe the effect the experience has on her. ‘I imbed it in my brain so that it will flash and flash again…an alternate reality…my open window mind is too little,…I long for each sweep….’

 In the image I made, the words open and condense in the lines, sometimes clear, sometimes hidden in the ink, indicating the fleeting glimpses we see as we hurtle along in a train. Life reflects the train journey. The Divine is always around us, sometimes clearly visible in love given and received, sometimes only glimpsed as we speed by. And often, if our focus is too close, all we see is our own reflection in the window.

 

You can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

Rocky Mountain Railroad, Epiphany   Luci Shaw

 

The steel rails parallel the river as we penetrate

ranges of pleated slopes and crests—all too complicated

for capture in a net of words. In this showing, the train window

 

is a lens for an alternate reality—the sky lifts and the light forms

shadows of unstudied intricacy. The multiple colors of snow

in the dimpled fresh fall. Boulders like white breasts. Edges

 

blunted with snow. My open-window mind is too little for

this landscape. I long for each sweep of view to toss off

a sliver, imbed it in my brain so that it will flash

 

and flash again its unrepeatable views. Inches. Angles.

Niches. Two eagles. A black crow. Skeletal twigs’ notched

chalices for snow. Reaches of peak above peak beyond peak

 

Next to the track the low sun burns the silver birches into

brass candles. And always the flow of the companion river’s

cord of silk links the valleys together with the probability

 

of continuing revelation. I mind-freeze for the future

this day’s worth of disclosure. Through the glass

the epiphanies reel me in, absorbed, enlightened.

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Hymn Before Sunrise by ST Coleridge

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For January 4th in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read a passage from A Hymn before Sunrise in the vale of Chamouni by ST Coleridge.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson for her book of responses to Waiting on the Word, she writes:

Anyone who has ever had a “glance” of God wants to share the experience. It is like running home to show your family the beautiful butterfly you have captured in your cupped hands but when you get there it has escaped and all you have are impressions and words. In the gospel of John we hear Andrew’s response after he meets Jesus: “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.”

Words and images have power to point to an experience but they aren’t the experience itself. What we really want to do is bring people to experience what we have experienced, to bring them to Jesus like Andrew brought his brother, (to bring them to the Holy Mountain). In my little painting, the mountain sits above the words, the words point to the mountain. God’s promise is that if we seek, we will find. Talking about God is good but if we don’t also open ourselves to be transformed by the experience of God, (Rise, O ever rise..), we remain in doctrine and dogma which, although essential, only has the power to point.

You can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

from The Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni   Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

Ye Ice-falls! ye that from the mountain’s brow

Adown enormous ravines slope amain—

Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,

And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!

Motionless torrents! silent cataracts!

Who made you glorious as the gates of Heaven

Beneath the keen full moon? Who bade the sun

Clothe you with rainbows? Who, with living flowers

Of loveliest blue, spread garlands at your feet?—

God! let the torrents, like a shout of nations,

Answer! and let the ice-plains echo, God!

God! sing ye meadow-streams with gladsome voice!

Ye pine-groves, with your soft and soul-like sounds!

And they too have a voice, yon piles of snow,

And in their perilous fall shall thunder, God!

Ye living flowers that skirt the eternal frost!

Ye wild goats sporting round the eagle’s nest!

Ye eagles, play-mates of the mountain-storm!

Ye lightnings, the dread arrows of the clouds!

Ye signs and wonders of the element!

Utter forth God, and fill the hills with praise!

Thou too, hoar Mount! with thy sky-pointing peaks,

Oft from whose feet the avalanche, unheard,

Shoots downward, glittering through the pure serene

Into the depth of clouds, that veil thy breast—

Thou too again, stupendous Mountain! thou

That as I raise my head, awhile bowed low

In adoration, upward from thy base

Slow travelling with dim eyes suffused with tears,

Solemnly seemest, like a vapoury cloud,

To rise before me—Rise, O ever rise,

Rise like a cloud of incense from the Earth!

Thou kingly Spirit throned among the hills,

Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,

Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,

And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun,

Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God.

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