Category Archives: literature

Holy Cross Day: some sonnets on the cross

Today, is Holy Cross day. It originally commemorated the day when Helena the Mother of Constantine was believed to have found the true cross, astonishing the inhabitants of Jerusalem by searching the rubbish tip of Golgotha and, on unearthing this discarded sign of shame, exalting it as the greatest treasure on earth. But this festival has become since then a day when any of us can again find the cross, still a discarded sign of shame, and find in it the greatest treasure and the source of grace. To mark the day I am reposting here four of the sonnets for the Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons and are also 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.

The Image above was made by Lancia Smith and 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.

From The Stations Of the Cross

 


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.

 


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.


XIII Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.

 

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The Quarantine Quatrains: A Limited Edition for The Care Worker’s Charity!

One of Roger Wagner’s illustrations for The Quarantine Quatrains

I am delighted to announce the fruition of a a special project that the artist Roger Wagner and I have been working on together for the last couple of months. You will remember that I have been composing some ‘Quarantine Quatrains’ , in the metre of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, as a kind of ‘New Rubaiyat’ for our times. Happily this caught the attention of the excellent artist Roger Wagner, and, since the original Rubaiyat was so often published with beautiful illustrations, often exquisite Persian miniatures, Roger kindly agreed to make a beautiful set of seven ‘miniatures’, on Nepalese paper, illustrating and commenting on the text of my poem. As the final section of that poem is an elegy for the care workers who died of Covid themselves in the course of saving other people’s lives, we decided to dedicate this book to them and to donate our work on it, so that all profits, after the costs of printing, posting and packaging, could go to The Care Workers Charity. We engaged the Parchment Press in Oxford to produce a booklet with the poem and Roger’s illustrations beautifully reproduced, in a limited run of 6oo, numbered, and signed by both of us. By selling this at £15 inclusive of post and packaging (including postage to North America!), we hope to raise at least £5000 for The Careworker’s Charity.

So on this occasion, rather than buying me a coffee, why don’t you buy yourself this beautiful booklet, and at the same time support the care workers who are helping to get us all through this crisis. you can do so from this page on Roger’s website HERE 

Here, as a taster, is the final section of the poem with Roger’s beautiful illustration and embedded below that is a film, edited by Roger, in which the two of us discuss our inspiration for this project, and which also features a song setting of this section of the poem.

Roger Wagner’s Illustration of this final section

VII

35

At close of day I hear the gentle rain

Whilst experts on the radio explain

Mind-numbing numbers, rising by the day,

Cyphers of unimaginable pain

36

Each evening they announce the deadly toll

And patient voices calmly call the roll

I hear the numbers, cannot know the names

Behind each number, mind and heart and soul

37

Behind each number one belovèd face

A light in life whom no-one can replace,

Leaves on this world a signature, a trace,

A gleaning and a memory of grace

38

All loved and loving, carried to the grave

The ones whom every effort could not save

Amongst them all those carers whose strong love

Bought life for others with the lives they gave.

39

The sun sets and I find myself in prayer

Lifting aloft the sorrow that we share

Feeling for words of hope amidst despair

I voice my vespers through the quiet air:

40

O Christ who suffers with us, hold us close,

Deep in the secret garden of the rose,

Raise over us the banner of your love

And raise us up beyond our last repose.

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The Quarantine Quatrains: an occasional series

I have been re-reading Edward  Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of  Omar Khayyam, an old favourite. Somehow its tone of wistful elegy, poignant celebration of every passing beauty, defiant affirmation of love and life, and yet humble acceptance of mortality, seem even more fitting for this time, than for the many other phases and stages of life in which I have enjoyed that poem.

I was also savouring again the elegance of the quatrain form: the way those four-line stanzas work on the ear and the eye, Fitzgerald’s beautiful and mellifluous rhyming all on one sound in each quatrain, the way the first couplet sets up your expectations and the unrhymed third line increases the tension, then acts as a launchpad for the clinching final rhyme. If you read the first three quatrains in the picture above, of my little Folio Society edition, you’ll see what I mean.  I was surprised to realise that I had not yet tried this particular form myself.

All these musings led me to wonder whether it might not be fun to have a go at some occasional ‘Quarantine Quatrains’, to take a leaf out of Fitzgerald’s book, and start crafting a Rubaiyat for our own times. And that is exactly what I have decided to do. I start my quatrains with the same word that opens the Rubaiyat: ‘Awake!’ but I am trying, whilst keeping some echoes of the original, to make the poem contemporary rather than pastiche, so we’ll see how it goes. Anyway, here is the first instalment this new sequence, as usual you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or the ‘Play’ Button.

Quarantine Quatrains: A New Rubaiyat

Awake to what was once a busy day

When you would rush and hurry on your way

Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute

But time and tide have turned another way

 

For now, like you, the day is yawning wide

And all its old events are set aside

It opens gently for you, takes its time

And holds for you -whatever you decide.

 

This morning’s light is brighter than it seems

Your room is raftered with its golden beams

The bowl of night was richly filled with sleep

And dawn’s left hand is holding all your dreams

 

Your mantel clock still sounds its silver chime

The empty page invites an idle rhyme

This quarantine has taken many things

But left you with the precious gift of time

 

Your time is all your own – yet not your own

The rose may open, or be overblown

So breathe in this day’s fragrance whilst you may

To each of us the date of death’s unknown.

 

Then settle at your desk, uncap your pen

And open the old manuscript again

The empty hours may tease you out of thought

Yet leave you with a poem now and then.

If you are enjoying these posts, you might like, on occasion,(though 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.
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Some more visits to my study

George and Zara in the study

As we are still on the cusp of Holy Week, and just before I start the sequence of poetry posts, beginning tomorrow, for each day of that sacred time, I thought I might offer a few more of my new series on Youtube, ‘A Spell in the Library’. This is in one sense a separate endeavour from this blog, which will remain more for the written and spoken word. But if you subscribe to and enjoy this blog, you might also like to subscribe (for free) to my new youtube channel. You can visit that channel Here.

So here are a couple more samples of what’s on offer there: one is a glimpse of a lovely old Copy of the Book of Common Prayer, with beautiful edge painting, which belonged to my father-in-law Michael Hutchison, and the other is a reading, about my own study, from my book ‘In Every Corner Sing‘, which takes its point of departure from a charming essay by Leigh Hunt. I hope that in this period of lockdown, these virtual visits might be a cheerful diversion.

Here’s the one on edge painting:

And here’s the one on the love of books:

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A New Endeavour on Youtube

welcome to my study, make yourself at home!

We are of course in the midst of the series I am posting to you of my sonnets from ‘After Prayer’ but I thought I’d use this extra little post to bring you some news. Like of all of you I am more than a little frustrated at being, ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ by the entirely necessary restrictions of our present lockdown. And one of those frustrations is that I can no longer entertain my friends to drinks, conversation, and the happy random browsing and perusal of the books on the shelves, and scattered across every surface in my study. So, by way of compensation and defiance, I have mastered the mysteries of Youtube and created a little channel there for a series called ‘ A Spell in the Library’, in which I invite you all to join me in my study, and do just what we would do, on any visit, take down the books, read favourite passages, and muse together on what Larkin called ‘The million-petales flower of being here’. I shall put up these little episodes two or three times a week, inviting you all to join me. Of course these usual blog posts will continue for my subscribers here. But if you’d also like to join me in this other mode of being together, that would be wonderful. I am pasting below the links to each of the three little films I have already posted, which should allow you to see the films on this page. But you might also like to pop over to my new Youtube Channel. If you would like to watch more of these, then do go over to Youtube and subscribe (entirely for free) to the channel and that way you can’ visit with me ‘ regularly for ‘ A Spell in the Library’. I hope you enjoy these and would like to come back for more.

So first off here’s the introduction:

Now here’s a little reading in which George Macdonald appreciates George Herbert:

And here’s a sonnet called ‘Spell:

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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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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. Such is Advent, inwardly and spiritually, but of course outwardly and visibly, outwardly and audibly, it is the season when our eyes and ears are most complete assailed by all the glitz and glitter of a prematurely celebrated Christmas, all the pressure and sales-hype, the stresses on the diary and the wallet, the unremitting insistence of syrupy canned carols in the shopping mall. Of course partying and celebration are wonderful things and there is great joy to be had in the real meetings of faith and friendship in these days, but whilst Advent is still Advent, 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 s 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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After Prayer is published tomorrow!

Photo by Lancia Smith from her interview

Tomorrow my new book After Prayer will be published by Canterbury Press. It’s the fourth collection of my poetry, and, on the eve of publication, I thought I would quote a couple of extracts from the full interview I did with Lancia Smith about the new book.

You can read the whole in-depth interview on Lancia’s excellent ‘Cultivating’ website Here, but here is a brief extract, about George  Herbert, and about the title sequence of the new book:

LES: Malcolm, you have spent considerable time and attention with the poetry of George Herbert. He shares the chapter “A Second Glance” with John Donne in your book Faith, Hope, and Poetry. His work and presence make frequent appearances on your website and in other poetry collections that you have authored, and you have even written a sonnet for him.  In our original interview in 2012 you mentioned that Herbert was one of the influences that shaped your becoming Anglican and finding a place within the Church.  With all the company you keep among remarkable poets (Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, Heaney), what is it that you find uniquely compelling about George Herbert? Why does he linger as a particular influence in your life?

MG: There are so many ways of answering this, because Herbert is an attractive figure in so many different ways, both as a person and as a poet. I think the first feature for me, in both the man and the poet is a kind of inclusive balance and honesty. He writes about both the struggles and the consolations of faith, about both sorrow and joy, and to my mind the consolation, the joy, and the final affirmation of love which animates his poetry, rings all the more true, and is all the more persuasive because he is honest about the sorrow and struggle. As he says in his little poem ‘Bitter-Sweet’:

I will complain, yet praise;

I will bewail, approve:

And all my sour-sweet days

I will lament, and love

 

But there is also his personal example: the way he brings all he is and has to the twin vocations of being a poet and a priest. As a young man in Cambridge he was known to be dapper, perhaps a little indulgent, with a fine taste in clothes, in food, and wine, a sense of elegance and style. In one sense he sacrificed all that and laid it at the feet of Christ when he forsook worldly life for his priestly vocation, but in another sense, there is a resurrection of those gifts and sensibilities but this time in the service of Christ and his Church, not King James and his court. So prayer itself becomes for Herbert, a banquet, the name and sovereignty of Jesus becomes itself a rich and sensual thing, as in the opening stanza of his poem ‘The Odour’:

 

‘How sweetly doth My Master sound! My Master!

As Amber-Grease leaves a rich scent

Unto the taster:

So do these words a sweet content,

An oriental fragrancy, My Master.’

To be a poet you must have a certain sensuousness, a certain sensibility to the almost aching beauties of sight and sound. As a priest you must know how to transcend these things, not stop at them, or allow them to become possessions or addictions, but rather pass through them towards their all-beautiful source in God.

Herbert shows me how to do that, and that is why one of his most famous verses, in ‘The Elixir’ has become a watchword, a kind of personal mantra for me:

A man that looks on glass

On it may stay his eye,

Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,

And then the Heavens espy

 

It is that quality of ‘throughness’, of translucence, that makes Herbert so important for me.

LES: Herbert said of prayer that it is “the soul in paraphrase”.  The 27 word-images that Herbert uses in his poem “Prayer” might be seen as a kind of alphabet through which we can both be in connection with our Maker, but also create a poetic knowing of our own inner being. How do you suggest that we practice using poetry and word-images to deepen our prayer life? Are there pitfalls along the way you might warn us to avoid?

MG:  Yes, in fact one might see Prayer as having 26 distinct images, the same number as the letters in the alphabet, and then in the final, 27th phrase, a little coda, to say that through these images we might at last attain to the modest goal of ‘something understood’. So in that sense Herbert may have been deliberately offering the first 26 image-phrases as a kind of alphabet of prayer. I think we come to know the truth as much through images as through words and in my poetry sequence I have taken each of the images in Herbert’s visual alphabet and tried to sense a little of what they might be spelling out for us now. The sequence is the fruit of many years of leading retreats based on Herbert’s poem and exploring with the retreatants how each of these word-images might help us discern both the state of our own souls and also give us new ways to approach God in prayer. One way of practicing this in prayer is to take Herbert’s images one at a time and pray with, and through them; another is to follow his example and make our own cascading list of images and see where they take us. I have done that in my poem responding to his image ‘The Soul in Paraphrase’, in this new sequence.

 

To continue reading this interview on Lancia’s site click HERE

Of course there are pitfalls in all forms of prayer, and the pitfall here is to get stuck on the glassy surface of our own image and not pass through it or let Christ’s light shine through it, for of course the aim of all prayer, in the end, is to let God’s Spirit bring us back into Christ and Christ back into us.

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‘Heaven in Ordinary’ and a book launch invitation!

I am happy to announce that the official launch of my new poetry collection After Prayer will take place in the church of St. Edward King and Martyr, Peas Hill in central Cambridge on the 8th of November from 8-9:30pm. There will be wine and other refreshments, a reading of some poems from the new book and the chance to buy a copy at a discount and have it signed. All the readers of this blog are warmly invited. I know that for many of you there are oceans and various other impediments between you and Cambridge, but if you are anywhere near do come along if you can. If you are coming could you let me know at malcolmguite@gmail.com so I can make sure there’s enough wine!

If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’ website.

Mean while here is another ‘sampler’ poem from the collection. As you know the opening sequence is a series of meditations on the phrases in George Herbert’s poem Prayer, so here is the sonnet I wrote in response to the most famous phrase in that poem: ‘Heaven in Ordinary. As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Heaven in Ordinary

Because high heaven made itself so low

That I might glimpse it through a stable door,

Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,

And call me through the voices of the poor,

Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through

Amidst the clutter of the every day,

Illuminating things I thought I knew,

Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.

 

Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,

A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,

The moment holds me in its strange surprise,

The gates of paradise are drawn apart,

I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,

And nothing can be ordinary now.

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