Category Archives: literature

A Sonnet for George Herbert, and news of a new book

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

On February 27th the Church of England keeps the feast and celebrates the memory of George Herbert, the gentle poet priest whose book the Temple, published posthumously in 1633 by his friend Nicholas Ferrar has done so much to help and inspire Christians ever since. In an earlier blog post I gave a talk on George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer, today, on  his Feast Day, I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my poetry book The Singing Bowl. The sequence is a celebration of the saints, intended to complement my sequence Sounding the Seasons.

You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon

I will also take this opportunity to announce that earlier this year I signed the contract for my next poetry book with Canterbury Press and it should be out this October. It will be called ‘After Prayer’ and it’s centrepiece will be an entirely new sequence responding to George Herbert’s seminal poem ‘Prayer’. I have taken each of the 27 images in that poem as the seed or starting point for a new poem and written a sequence of 27 sonnets. In the next few weeks I shall be posting one or two of them on this blog as ‘tasters’ of the forthcoming book. Meanwhile here is the sonnet I wrote in appreciation of Herbert himself:

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,

With all that passed between you and your Lord,

That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles

Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.

Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,

Has been entrusted now to every soul,

We make a new beginning in your end

And find your broken heart has made us whole.

Time has transplanted you, and you take root,

Past changing in the paradise of Love,

Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,

And listen for an echo from above,

Open the window, let me hear you sing,

And see the Word with you in everything.

13 Comments

Filed under literature, Poems

Bright Star; a thanksgiving for John Keats

John Keats died on this day in 1821, so I am reposting an earlier blog post paying tribute to him for all his poetry has meant and continues to mean for me:

Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Thats how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens,  a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.

This poem is published in my book  The Singing Bowl  which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

Gold

 

The sun strikes gold along the Spanish steps,

Patches of god-light where the tourists stray.

The old house is in shadow and still keeps

It’s treasures from the searching light of day.

I found it once, when I had lost my way,

Depressed and restless, sheltering from rain,

Long years ago in Rome. But from that day

Everything turned to gold, even my pain,

Reading the words of one who feared he wrote in vain.

 

I too was ‘half in love with ease-full death’,

But standing by the window, near his bed,

I almost heard the ‘tender-taken breath’

On which his words were forming. As I read

I felt things shifting in me, an old dread

Was somehow being brought to harmony

Taught by his music as the music fled

To sing at last, as by some alchemy

Despair itself was lifted into poetry

 

I spent that summer there and came each day

To read and breathe and let his life unfold

In mine. Little by little, made my way

From realms of darkness into realms of gold,

Finding that in his story mine was told;

Bereavements, doubts and longings, all were there

Somehow transmuted in the poem’s old

Enduring crucible, that furnace where

Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair.

 

 

Now with the sun I come on pilgrimage

To find this house and climb the foot-worn stair,

For I have lived to more than twice his age

And year-by-year his words have helped me bear

The black weight of my breathing, to repair

An always-breaking heart. Somehow he keeps

His watch on me from somewhere, that bright star…

So, with the words of one who mined the depths,

I sing and strike for gold along the Spanish steps.

The house where Keats died, by the Spanish Steps, now a memorial, museum and library

9 Comments

Filed under literature, Poems

God Speed the Plough

As it is Plough Monday I thought I’d post a little piece from my new book ‘In Every Corner Sing’ about taking part in the blessing of a plough. This piece was originally published last year in my ChurchTimes ‘Poet’s Corner’ column, but now all those pieces have been gathered together in a nice little hardback book which you can get directly from Canterbury Press, from Amazon, or of course from your own local bookshop! I hope this little extract gives you a flavour of what’s in it.

God Speed the Plough

Last Sunday I was called on, in my capacity as poet, to assist at the blessing of a plough on an old hill farm in Essex. I had driven through winding and increasingly narrow and shadowed lanes, past quickset hedgerows, and up the steep farm track, admiring the rambling old farmhouse, which seemed pieced together from every period in the last four hundred years, yet still at home with itself. But this was no quaint exercise in picturesque nostalgia, blessing the rusted wings and single blade of some hand-guided horse-drawn plough that hadn’t seen service in years (though there was just such a plough in the barn). The plough we were blessing meant business! It was a great long apparatus of paired bright sharp circular blades, capable of churning through the earth as efficiently as the old ‘screw steamers’ churned the ocean, and yoked behind an enormous modern tractor.

Yes, there had been a sense of tradition and continuity in the service; I had read Heaney’s poem ‘The Follower’, with its lovely opening:

My Father worked with a horse plough,

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow

and the farmer himself had a display in one of his barns of relics and artifacts from the continuous human flourishing on his acres since Roman times, but for now we all stood in the muddy farmyard in our wellies, ready to bless today’s hi-tech farm machinery, the present labour, the contemporary human flourishing. And just before she came to bless the plough itself the priest asked everyone gathered there to bring forward and hold beside it the implements of their own work; and gardeners came with trowels, a man who had been coppicing the woods and laying hedges that morning came forward with a bright-bladed axe and the other fascinating tools of his trade, children held out model tractors, and, taken by surprise, I held out my pen.

‘Let us each offer to God in our hearts our own work’ she said,

‘God Speed the Plough!’ and ‘God Speed the Plough!’ was our response.

Afterwards I read them my sonnet ‘Daily Bread’ which remembers

The ones who plough and sow

Who pick and plant and package as we sleep

With slow back-breaking labour, row by row

And send away to others all they reap,

We know that these unseen who meet our needs

Are all themselves the fingers of your hand…

What if we glimpsed you daily in their toil

And found and thanked and served you through them all?

I don’t know what the theologians and the philosophers would say had happened there, how they would discern the difference a blessing makes, but I do know that somehow that farmer would turn the soil of God’s good ground with a renewed sense of blessing, and the gardeners return to their gardens with a new awareness, for I felt it too.  When I had come home, washed the mud from my boots, and was sitting at my desk, that plough-blessed pen poised in hand, I had some sense of a difference made, some sense that with this pen, like Heaney before me, I might dig a little deeper.

11 Comments

Filed under literature

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.

4 Comments

Filed under christianity, literature, Poems

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.

2 Comments

Filed under christianity, literature, Poems

Patterns (Tree and Leaf) a poem about Tolkien

As today is Tolkien’s Birthday I thought I’d post this poem which was inspired by my memory of having once seen a grainy photograph of Tolkien leaning back into a tree contentedly and smoking his pipe, – something I quite often do myself. The memory of that image led me on to a reverie about life and leaves and Tolkien’s tree of tales. But when I came to look for the photo, to illustrate the poem here, I found that no single image answered to my remembered photo – but these two are closest – perhaps I had fused them together in my mind. At any rate here is the poem, which I included in my book ‘The Singing Bowl, published by Canterbury Press

As usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button


Patterns (Tree and Leaf)

Tolkien is leaning back into an oak
Old, gnarled, distinct in bole and burr
As, from the burr and bowl of his old pipe,
Packed with tightly patterned shreds of leaf,
The smoke ascends in rings and wreathes of air
To catch the autumn light and meet such leaves
As circle through its wreathes and patter down
In patterns of their own to the rich ground.

He contemplates again the tree of tales;
The roots of language and its rings of growth
‘The tongue and tale and teller all coeval’
And he becomes a pattern making patterns,
A tale telling tales and turning leaves,
From the print of thumb and finger on his pipe
To the print and press and pattern of his books
And all their prints and imprints in our minds
Out to this grainy patterned photograph
Of ‘Tolkien, leaning back into an oak’.

6 Comments

Filed under literature, Poems

Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For January 3rd in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc. I have chosen it for this run-up towards Epiphany because it is essentially a series of little epiphanies, or ‘showings’; in each of the three pictures themselves pictures of moments of ‘epiphanies’ or ‘showings forth’ of the glory of God in scripture.

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:

The poem we consider today is about ‘courtesy’, not a word that we attribute easily these days except if we are complaining that someone lacks ‘common courtesy’. As I reflected on this poem I was taken back to my childhood when I was at a convent boarding school. I loved going to the convent chapel and kneeling to pray. I remember thinking how inadequate I was to do this, unlike the professional nuns whose prayers I considered far more powerful than my own mute and rather unhappy attempts.

I have since learned that God will inhabit the tiniest space we make for Him. Even our most feeble turning towards Him will make the angels of heaven hold their breath in excitement. Recently I read the words of a Rabbi who said, when the child of God walks down the road a thousand angels go before her crying, ‘Make way for the image of God!

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

Courtesy   Hilaire Belloc

 

Of Courtesy, it is much less

Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,

Yet in my Walks it seems to me

That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

 

On Monks I did in Storrington fall,

They took me straight into their Hall;

I saw Three Pictures on a wall,

And Courtesy was in them all.

 

The first the Annunciation;

The second the Visitation;

The third the Consolation,

Of God that was Our Lady’s Son.

 

The first was of St. Gabriel;

On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;

And as he went upon one knee

He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

 

Our Lady out of Nazareth rode –

It was Her month of heavy load;

Yet was her face both great and kind,

For Courtesy was in Her Mind.

 

The third it was our Little Lord,

Whom all the Kings in arms adored;

He was so small you could not see

His large intent of Courtesy.

 

Our Lord, that was Our Lady’s Son,

Go bless you, People, one by one;

My Rhyme is written, my work is done.

1 Comment

Filed under christianity, literature, paintings