Category Archives: literature

A sonnet for the Venerable Bede

bedeThe 25th of May is the day the Church remembers and celebrates the Venerable Bede, who died on that day in 735.  Bede was a Saint and Scholar, whose wonderful Ecclesiastical History of the English People, is still the major source for early English History, as well as being, in itself a deeply inspiring book. He is buried in Durham cathedral and set above his tomb, in beautiful shimmering letters, is the text of one of the prayers he wrote. My sonnet in celebration of Bede draws on this prayer so I give its text here in both Latin and English and have posted a photograph of it below the poem.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. This poem is from my collection of verse ‘The Singing Bowl’, published by  Canterbury Press

Bede’s Prayer:

Christus est stella matutina, Alleluia

Qui nocte saeculi transacta, Alleluia

Lucem vitae sanctis promittit, Alleluia;

Et pandit aeternam, Alleluia

(Christ is the morning star who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life & opens everlasting day.)



Bede

I kneel above your bones and read your words.

Church-Latin letters, shimmering in gold,

A kingdom-glimmer through the dark and cold,

A revelation gleaming on the shards

Of all our broken lives and promises.

Christus est stella matutina

Qui nocte saeculi transacta

Christ is the morning star. He promises

The light of life when this dark night is past…

Lucem vitae sanctis promittit

You speak for all his Wounded witnesses,

The morning star will shine on us at last.

Scholar and saint, illuminate the way

That opens into everlasting day.

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Bede's Prayer

Bede’s Prayer

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Good Friday: the first 12 Stations of the Cross

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

In my Anthology of poems for Leant and Holy Week The Word in the Wilderness, I set just one of my Stations of the cross sonnets for Good Friday, Station XII, but as this blog is not so constricted for space I thought I would share with you the first 12 stations. We will read the 13th and 14th tomorrow on Holy Saturday and then on Easter Morning we will have the 15th’ resurrection’ station and also a new villanelle that I have written for easter Morning.

The Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons and are intended to be read on Good Friday.

Please feel free to make use of them in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA

The Image above is courtesy of Lancia Smith. The Images below are taken from a set of stations of the cross in St. Alban’s church Oxford. I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.

Stations Of the Cross

I Jesus is condemned to death

The very air that Pilate breathes, the voice

With which he speaks in judgment, all his powers

Of perception and discrimination, choice,

Decision, all his years, his days and hours,

His consciousness of self, his every sense,

Are given by this prisoner, freely given.

The man who stands there making no defence,

Is God. His hands are tied, His heart is open.

And he bears Pilate’s heart in his and feels

That crushing weight of wasted life. He lifts

It up in silent love. He lifts and heals.

He gives himself again with all his gifts

Into our hands. As Pilate turns away

A door swings open. This is judgment day.


II Jesus is given his cross

He gives himself again with all his gifts

And now we give him something in return.

He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,

Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,

And from these elements he forged the iron,

From strands of life he wove the growing wood,

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

He saw it all and saw that it is good.

We took his iron to edge an axe’s blade,

We took the axe and laid it to the tree,

We made a cross of all that he has made,

And laid it on the one who made us free.

Now he receives again and lifts on high

The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.


III Jesus falls the first time

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

And well he knows the path we make him tread

He met the devil as a roaring lion

And still refused to turn these stones to bread,

Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,

This darker path into the heart of pain.

And now he falls upon the stones that bruise

The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.

He and the earth he made were never closer,

Divinity and dust come face to face.

We flinch back from his via dolorosa,

He sets his face like flint and takes our place,

Staggers beneath the black weight of us all

And falls with us that he might break our fall.

20110418-125224.jpg

IV Jesus meets His Mother

This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.

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V Simon of Cyrene carries the cross

In desperation on this road of tears
Bystanders and bypassers turn away
In other’s pain we face our own worst fears
And turn our backs to keep those fears at bay
Unless we are compelled as this man was
By force of arms or force of circumstance
To face and feel and carry someone’s cross
In Love’s full glare and not his backward glance.
So Simon, no disciple, still fulfilled
The calling: ‘take the cross and follow me’.
By accident his life was stalled and stilled
Becoming all he was compelled to be.
Make me, like him, your pressed man and your priest,
Your alter Christus, burdened and released.


VI Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

Bystanders and bypassers turn away
And wipe his image from their memory
She keeps her station. She is here to stay
And stem the flow. She is the reliquary
Of his last look on her. The bloody sweat
And salt tears of his love are soaking through
The folds of her devotion and the wet
folds of her handkerchief, like the dew
Of morning, like a softening rain of grace.
Because she wiped the grime from off his skin,
And glimpsed the godhead in his human face
Whose hidden image we all bear within,
Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain
The face of god is shining once again.



VII Jesus falls the second time

Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.

VIII Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again

But still he holds the road and looks in love

On all of us who look on him. Our pain

As close to him as his. These women move

Compassion in him as he does in them.

He asks us both to weep and not to weep.

Women of Gaza and Jerusalem,

Women of every nation where the deep

Wounds of memory divide the land

And lives of all your children, where the mines

Of all our wars are sown: Afghanistan ,

Iraq, the Cote d’Ivoire… he reads the signs

And weeps with you and with you he will stay

Until the day he wipes your tears away.

IX Jesus falls the third time

He weeps with you and with you he will stay

When all your staying power has run out

You can’t go on, you go on anyway.

He stumbles just beside you when the doubt

That always haunts you, cuts you down at last

And takes away the hope that drove you on.

This is the third fall and it hurts the worst

This long descent through darkness to depression

From which there seems no rising and no will

To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.

Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,

And you could almost wish for that defeat

Except that in the cold hell where you freeze

You find your God beside you on his knees.


X Jesus is stripped of His garments

You can’t go on, you go on anyway
He goes with you, his cradle to your grave.
Now is the time to loosen, cast away
The useless weight of everything but love
For he began his letting go before,
Before the worlds for which he dies were made,
Emptied himself, became one of the poor,
To make you rich in him and unafraid.
See as they strip the robe from off his back
They strip away your own defences too
Now you could lose it all and never lack
Now you can see what naked Love can do
Let go these bonds beneath whose weight you bow
His stripping strips you both for action now


XI Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.


XII Jesus dies on the cross

The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black
We watch him as he labours to draw breath
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We hear him struggle breathing through the pain
Who once breathed out his spirit on the deep,
Who formed us when he mixed the dust with rain
And drew us into consciousness from sleep.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Mantles his world in his one atmosphere
And now he comes to breathe beneath the pall
Of our pollutions, draw our injured air
To cleanse it and renew. His final breath
Breathes us, and bears us through the gates of death.

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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.  You can get copies of Word in the Wilderness by ordering from your local 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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David’s Crown Launch: Introducing my guests!

David with Bono and Eugene Peterson and his wife

I am very much looking forward to the webinar which will formally launch my new poetry collection David’s Crown this Thursday, and I thought I would take the opportunity, a few days before, to introduce the guests who will be joining me at that event.

David Taylor, an associate professor at Fuller and a brilliant contributor to the recent flourishing of Theology and the Arts, as an interdisciplinary venture, is also an old friend. I first met him at Duke University where I was poet in residence at the Duke Initiative in Theology and the Arts, and it was refreshing to find someone with such a combination of theological depth and cultural engagement. He recently amazed the world by curating, and then filming, a conversation about the psalms and what they mean to us now between Bono, of U2, and Eugene Peterson, of The Message. It was mesmerising and it is not surprising that Eugene Peterson wrote the Forward, and Bono the Afterword for David’s own recent book on the psalms Open and Unafraid! David’s book was one of my resources for approaching the psalms in my own poetry and I’m really looking forward to his response to those poems and his wider wisdom about the psalms.

Paula Gooder

Paula Gooder, the Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is one of the most brilliant and widely read of the younger generation of Biblical Scholars, and I, with many thousands of others, have sat at her feet at the Greenbelt Christianity and Arts festival. We have also spoken together at churches on the theme of Advent. As I began to post the poems that were to become David’s Crown online I was delighted to get a message from Paula encouraging me in my work and offering to help as a kind of scholarly biblical consultant, and I was, of course thrilled when she offered to write the Introduction to my book. It was Paula who helped me see the wood from the trees when it came to seeing the psalter as a whole, even as I worked on the details of the individual poems.

Roger Wagner working on his psalms book

My third guest is the distinguished artist and poet Roger Wagner. I had admired Roger’s paintings for a long time, and it seemed to me he was as it were a contemporary Samuel Palmer, someone who, like Palmer continued the mystical tradition, rooted in Blake, in which the eternal shines through and transfigures the temporal. More recently I have come to know Roger personally as we both have volumes of poetry with Canterbury Press and did some speaking and reading events together. Then, during the course of this lockdown, we collaborated on a joint work ‘The Quarantine Quatrains: a new Rubaiyat‘ for which Roger contributed a set of beautiful ‘miniatures’. It was whilst we were working on that book that I discovered Roger was also publishing a new translation of the psalms together with his beautiful woodcuts and paintings, also published by Canterbury Press, so he was the perfect person to complete my webinar panel for this Thursday and I’m delighted that he has agreed to do so.

The panel will be chaired by Christine Smith, the publishing director at Canterbury Press, and my indefatigable editor

So do join us on Thursday evening at 7pm GMT. The original set of free tickets ‘sold out’ but Canterbury Press have released a whole tranche more so there should be plenty of room. You can register Here. it says ‘buy ticket’ but I hasten to add that the tickets are all free. See you on Thursday!

Malcolm

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The Moons by Grevel Lindop

The Moons, image by Linda Richardson

The Moons, image by Linda Richardson

Here is the poem set for the 2nd December in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, The Moons comes from Grevel Lindop‘s latest collection of poems Luna Park (which I highly recommend!) and is used with his permission

You can read my brief essay on this beautiful poem in Waiting on the Word, and click on either the title or the ‘play button below to hear me read it. Linda Richardson writes about her image:

‘Here it is, distant gleam on the page of a book.’ These final words were the ones that jumped out for me as I responded to this poem, and also Malcolm’s comment, ‘offered to a companion in the darkness of our common journey’. So my starting point was night time, the soul’s time, when light gleams through our consciousness in dreaming. The poem spoke to me of memory and the sharing of life with someone, not the immediacy of sense experience. To paint a moonlight image was too immediate so I let the words literally gleam in white ink on black paper. In this way I felt that it was keeping the integrity of the poem, that our memories are uniquely our own, and we will recall them either for enriching or impoverishing our lives and the lives of those who are on our common journey.I noticed that it was she who saw and brought him to seeing. It was the feminine leading the masculine away from the desk of the intellect, to step out into the dark womb of the night and to apprehend a phenomenon of nature, the wonder of the reflected light of the sun at night. I am left with the wonder of the contrasts in our lives, the light and dark, the male and female, all the many different parts that form one body and one spirit.


The Moons by Grevel Lindop

Too many moons to fill an almanac:

the half, the quarters, and the slices between

black new and silvercoin full –

pearl tossed and netted in webs of cloud,

thread of light with the dull disc in its loop,

gold shaving afloat on the horizon of harvest –

How many times did you call me from the house,

or from my desk to the window, just to see?

Should I string them all on a necklace for you?

Impossible, though you gave them all to me.

Still some of their light reflects from memory.

Here it is, distant gleam on the page of a book.

 

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The Glance by George Herbert

The Glance -Linda Richardson

The Glance -Linda Richardson

For the 1st of December the poem I have chosen in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, is The Glance by George Herbert. The illustration above is the first in a series of responses to the book made by Linda Richardson which she has kindly agreed to share with readers of my blog. She writes:

The images that accompany the poetry in Waiting on the Word were part of my spiritual discipline in Advent 2015. I made an image every day, so they are experimental, sometimes impulsively done, often inspired by the work of other artists. If I had known they would be shown here, I probably wouldn’t have had the freedom to make one every day. I am delighted to show them, and to tell you how they came about, and would like to encourage you to have a go too. As I come to reflect upon my own work a year later, I can see nuances that I hadn’t intended, areas where my subconscious by-passed my mind and made artistic decisions that have only been revealed as I return to them now, twelve months later.

Here are Linda’s notes on today’s image:

One night, when I was very young, maybe as young as four, I had a strange and deep experience. I got up to sit near the storage heater in the bedroom I shared with my sister, drawn there by the little light and by the warmth. As I sat there I was overwhelmed with a feeling of utter joy, happiness and deep reassurance that I was part of something safe and deeply good.

I didn’t relate that experience to God and as I grew up, religion taught me that I could not trust myself, that God was watching me from a distance, and watching out for my sin. The experience I had as a child was not mediated to me through religion, but as I have continued in a religious tradition I can now see that child’s experience as God’s glance of love.

Meister Eckhart says: ‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.

In the very simple work I made as a response to the George Herbert’s The Glance, there are two eyes but one face, two tones of paper but one experience, and as I sit in daily meditation, I do so both in darkness and in light. God is the mystery that no-one wants, the mystery we see, ‘through a glass darkly’ (1 Corinthians). These days I mostly ‘see God face to face’ when I am outside watching the soaring flight of a flock of birds or hear a robin in winter. You may see The Glance as you lift a baby’s foot to your lips, or watch two elderly people walking along holding hands. Perhaps we see God in these diverse ways because, ‘We shall be like him for we shall see Him as He is’. (1 Corinthians).

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. You can also find  a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

The Glance

When first thy sweet and gracious eye

Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night

To look upon me, who before did lie

Weltring in sinne;

I felt a sugred strange delight,

Passing all cordials made by any art,

Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart,

And take it in.

Since that time many a bitter storm

My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,

Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm

His swing and sway:

But still thy sweet originall joy

Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,

And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll,

And got the day.

If thy first glance so powerfull be,

A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;

What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see

Thy full-ey’d love!

When thou shalt look us out of pain,

And one aspect of thine spend in delight

More then a thousand sunnes disburse in light,

In heav’n above.

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Advent Sunday:Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti painted by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti painted by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Advent is a season for stillness, for quiet, for discernment. It is a season of active waiting, straining forward, listening, attentive and finely tuned. Its good to keep a quiet space, a sacred time, an untrammelled sanctuary away from the pressures, to be still and hear again one’s deepest yearnings for a saviour. I hope that the poems from my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word, will help people to do just that. I am posting them here so that you can hear and read them, and if you have the book you will also find in that a meditative/reflective essay on each poem. I am posting this one for Advent Sunday, from then onwards I will post a poem each day and I am happy to say that these poems will be accompanied by original paintings made in response to them by Linda Richardson. Linda is an artist who lives in my village of Linton and has made a beautiful book of images in response to each of these poems as part of her own Advent devotion and this year she has kindly agreed to share them with us.

Today’s poem, the first in our series, is Christina Rossetti’s ‘Advent Sunday’. Most people will know her beautiful poem In the Bleak Midwinter, now set as a Christmas hymn. She was one of the great poets of her time and the author of some deeply moving Christian verse. Indeed her book simply titled Verses includes a sequence on the church year called ‘Some Feasts and Fasts’ of which ‘Advent Sunday’ is the first. She frames this poem not only in the context of the Collect for Advent Sunday, about the coming of Christ, his Advent at the end of time, but also the Gospel of the Day: Christ’s story of the maidens with their lighted lamps awaiting the coming of the bridegroom. Rossetti takes the Gospel phrases and opens them out profoundly, allowing us to identify ourselves first with the bridesmaids and then with the bride herself.

You can click on the title or the ‘play’ button to hear me read it and 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.

Advent Sunday  Christian Rossetti

BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out

With lighted lamps and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,

Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.

It may be at the crowing of the cock

Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.

For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:

His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.

Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,

Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.

Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,

She triumphs in the Presence of her King.

His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;

He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.

He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,

And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out

With lamps ablaze and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

 

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Waiting on the Word: Advent Poetry

Waiting on the Word

Waiting on the Word

As we approach the first Sunday of Advent, I thought I would repost this link to my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word. This Anthology offers the reader a poem a day throughout Advent and on through Christmas and Epiphany. I also offer a little reflective essay to go with each poem, which I hope will help the reader to get into the depths of the poem more easily and will draw out some of the Advent Themes and the way the poems link to each other. The book works entirely as a stand-alone thing and could be used privately or in groups, but I have also be recorded each poem and will post a recording of my reading of that day’s poem for each day of Advent on this blog, so that readers of the book who wish to, can also hear the poem being read. Readers of this blog can of course also enjoy hearing the poems, and might like to get hold of the book (which is also on Kindle) so that they can follow along the text and read the interpretive essay.

I will also repost the daily recordings each accompanied by an original painting from the talented Linda Richardson, who created a book of images to reflect on each poem whilst she was using the book devotionally, and has kindly agreed to share those pictures with us. Do join us on the journey via the pages of the book and the pages of this blog.

Malcolm

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The Ballad of the White Horse: a complete reading for King Alfred’s Day

October 26th is the day the Church remembers Alfred, King and Scholar who founded places of learning, translated Boethius’ consolation of philosophy and strove to preserve the Christian faith in the midst of the pagan Danish invasions. He is also the subject of GK Chesterton’s wonderful poem The Ballad of the White Horse. I recorded a reading of the whole poem back in 2011, on its 100th anniversary, and I thought I would repost it here, with links to the readings, in honour of Alfred’s day.This great poem is as much about modern times as it is a ballad of the days of King Alfred. In 1911 Chesterton foresaw that the modern Nihilism and worship of the ‘superman’ embodied in the writings of Nietzsche together with false worship of race and a cult of violence, would likey wreak unimaginable damage in the new century, as proved to be the case. He also saw that a renewal of the vision of joy and humility that is at the heart of the Christian creed was the only way to resist the death-wish which is the shadow side of our fallen humanity. He wrote a poem at whose heart is a call to courage kindled not by probable chances of success but by what he called ‘the joy without a cause’. Many Englishmen called to combat in the two world wars, went out with this poem in their pockets and were greatly strengthened by it. The Times quoted it twice in leaders each at key points in the second world war; “nought for your comfort” was the leader headline after the disaster of Crete and Alfred’s great cry ‘The high tide’ and the turn’ was the headline after the D Day landings. And yet this poem, once so centrally part of the national consciousness, is now hardly known at all or read, but its time must suely come again.

Chesterton had a big influence on the Inklings, the writers who clustered around Tolkien and Lewis and there are a number of echoes between the Ballad of the White Horse and the Lord of the Rings. Especially the descriptions of Colan the Celt and his people, who, like the elves, are always haunted by the sound of the sea and have their hearts in an undying land. Likewise the detail of battle in which Alfred and his Celtic allies are sundered and the Celts, given up for lost, re-emerge as though they were the armies of the dead and put their foes to flight, that meeting on the field of battle against all odds is very like the events on the fields of the Pelanor. But perhaps the greatest similarity is in the ending of the two tales. In the final book of the Ballad, ‘The Scouring of the Horse’ Chesterton deals with the problem of the peace, the problem that after winning on the battle the wariors find corruption at home and have to confront evil in another form and in their own native place. Whilst Alfred leaves Wessex to confront the Danes in London the weeds are allowed to grow over the White Horse and at this point Chesterton gives Alfred a vision of the future and calls England to an eternal vigilance. I think the very namng, let alone the plot features, of Tolkien’s ‘Scouring of the Shire’ are derived from this.

Here’s a quick youtube video of me reading some verses from the first part and setting the scene, then below that are the links for you to download audio of my reading of the whole poem:

You can read and download the entire text of the poem here, though better still buy an old hardback copy. They are very cheap and still widely available.

My reading of each of the episodes can be found through the links below and you will find, on my podomatic page, that I have also given a brief introduction to each book. I have left the settings so that the episodes can be downloaded, so you can listen to them off line or even, if you wish, burn them to a cd and use them to while away the hours on long car journeys! I hope you enjoy them, let me know what you think.

The Ballad of the White Horse, read by Malcolm Guite:

The Dedication

Book I The Vision of the King

Book II The Gathering of the Chiefs

Book III The Harp of Alfred

Book IV The Woman in the Forest

Book V Ethandune: The First Stroke

Book VI Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs

Book VII Ethandune: The Last Charge

Book VIII The Scouring of the Horse

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Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems

A Villanelle for National Poetry Day

Ah, here is the poem thats causing the problem! Its by Guite of course!

It’s National Poetry Day here in the UK so I thought I’d post this villanelle up in honour of the day. I was once photocopying some poems for a talk when the whole machine ground to a halt, totally jammed. I pulled what poetry I could from its innards and rushed off to give my talk. When I came back the woman in charge of the machine pointed an accusing finger and said “Your poetry is jamming my machine!” I thought that was such a great line that I borrowed it and wrote her this poem for her to make ammends.

As always you can hear it by clicking the ‘play’ button, if it appears or else clicking the hyperlink in the poem’s inordinately long title. 🙂

On being told my poetry was found in a broken photocopier

My poetry is jamming your machine

It broke the photo-copier, I’m to blame,

With pictures copied from a world unseen.

 

My poem is in the works -I’m on the scene

We free my verse, and I confess my shame,

My poetry is jamming your machine.

 

Though you berate me with what might have been,

You stop to read the poem, just the same,

And pictures, copied from a world unseen,

 

Subvert the icons on your mental screen

And open windows with a whispered name;

My poetry is jamming your machine.

 

For chosen words can change the things they mean

And set the once-familiar world aflame

With pictures copied from a world unseen

 

The mental props give way, on which you lean

The world you see will never be the same,

My poetry is jamming your machine

With pictures copied from a world unseen

 

If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!
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Filed under literature