September the 21st is St. Matthew’s day, so here, once more, is a sonnet for the Evangelist, drawn from my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons. Like my sonnets for the other three evangelists, it draws on the traditional association of each evangelist with one of the four living creatures around the throne of God. As I repost this in the midst of the current refugee crisis the final couplet seems more pressing than ever, as one aspect or another of things unfolding around us bring some facet of the gospel into even sharper focus.
As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Rebecca Merry for the image above.
First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;
A gospel that begins with generation,
Family lines entwine around the Son
Born in Judea, born for every nation
Born under Law that all the Law of Moses
Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace
As every word and deed in time discloses
Eternal love within a human face.
This is the gospel of the great reversal
A wayside weed is Solomon in glory
The smallest sparrow’s fall is universal
And Christ the heart of every human story
‘I will be with you, though you may not see
And all you do, you do it unto me’
The 17th of September is the feast day of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable and prophetic woman, who described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’, and whose many works in theology, music, visual art, poetry and drama are still inspiring people today. Indeed she is coming more and more into her own, as one of her key ideas ‘Viriditas’, or the greening and life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit, seems especially apposite for our time. See this page on her by a contemporary Benedictine.
On September 8th many churches across the world, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican, keep the feast of the Blesed Virgin Mary, fulfilling the scripture that says “All generations will call me blessed”, remembering the one who bore our saviour for us, who was full of grace.
It is true that some Christians have disagreed with one another bitterly about her, but equally, in every age and every church she has been, for many Christians, a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.
In a strange way, which I will write about one day, she was a sign of hope to me even before I was a Christian, and it was something numinous and beautiful in the paintings and poetry she has inspired that helped lead me to her Son.
I thought for this feast day, I would offer a quintet of sonnets in her honour, gathering together the four sonnets about her which are part of my wider collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’. and then adding a fifth, based on the antiphon O Virgo Virginum. The first four take us, from the Annunciation and her ‘yes’ to the angel, through the Visitation, with its beautiful magnificat, to the birth of Jesus, and then to her presence with him on the via dolorosa and at the foot of the cross. The final sonnet invokes her prayer and aid for the many women exploited and betrayed in our own age.
As always you can hear the poems by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears, or clicking on the title.
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.
Continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration. This is the day when we remember how the Disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials with him, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but sometimes on the Sunday nearest.
The transfiguration is also sometimes remembered just before Lent, which is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.
I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:
I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.
The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:
As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.
Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.
I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.
I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.
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 The book is now 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.
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
The 22nd of July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and continuing my sequence of sonnets written in response to the church year I post this for her. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on its title or on the ‘play’ button.
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 . The book is now 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.
Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.
But one man set you free and took your part
One man knew and loved you to the core
The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears,
Till, in another garden, he revealed
The perfect Love that cast out all your fears,
And quickened you with love’s own sway and swing,
As light and lovely as the news you bring.
A number of years ago I was given an interesting poetic commission and I am at last in a position to reveal what it was, and some hint of its contents.
I had come to know the composer Marty O’Donnell, who is famous, amongst other things, for having composed the music for Halo, and for Destiny, two major games for the computer game company Bungie. When he was working on the music which would help to frame the game Destiny, a game whose narrative and architecture draws on the classical and mediaeval idea of the heavenly spheres, each with its own character and distinct music, he composed a beautiful new suite of music called ‘The Music of the Spheres’, and as we had talked together about the ‘seven heavens’ of the mediaeval world-view he asked me if I would compose a suite of poems to go with the music.
I came up with a sequence called ‘Seven Heavens, Seven Hells’. It consists of fourteen poems, arranged in seven pairs, which I composed in direct response to Marty’s music but also drawing inspiration, as we both did, from the mediaeval ‘seven heavens’, the crystalline spheres of the planets with their different characteristics and influences.
The whole approach, both to the poetry and the music, which Marty and I discussed early was a response to the idea, based in mediaeval astrology of ‘opposing pairs’. Each of the seven spheres has a certain cluster of associations and influences, Venus with Love, Mars with war and martial valour, the Sun with gold, but also poetry and inspiration etc. But equally it is possible for each of these celestial influences to become corrupted and malign, for, as St. Augustine says, good is primal and evil is always a corruption of some original good. Astrologically this is expressed in the idea that there is a diurnal, or good and light-filled aspect of each sphere, but also a nocturnal or dark aspect. Michael Ward, whose work Marty and I both admire, draws this out brilliantly in Planet Narnia, his account of the Seven Heavens in the thought and writing of CS Lewis.
So my poems are paired for each sphere, starting with the diurnal and following it up with the nocturnal. The form of these poems is the ‘roundel’, a development of a mediaeval form pioneered by Swinburne. In a roundel the first phrase of the first line becomes a kind of chorus or echo repeated elsewhere in the poem. So in my sequence that first phrase is common to both poems in the pair, but differently developed according to its heavenly or infernal form. For example, the first pair, the moon, the ‘diurnal poem begins:
The moon is full and snow falls soft tonight
In silver filigree. I seem to fall,
Floating through the chapel of her light,
The moon is full.
But the ‘nocturnal version begins:
The moon is full and I have lost my way,
Drawn down her mazy path towards my fall,
Ready to swoon and sink beneath her sway.
The moon is full.
Happily, Bungie liked the poems when I presented them and I signed a contract with them, to use the poems in Destiny. The original plan was to have a stand -alone release of Marty’s music first as a CD etc, with my poems as part of the liner notes to accompany the music. However, this plan was abandoned, and though I was credited as ‘poet’ when the game came out, the poems were never released. But now I am happy to say that Bungie have released the music. In anticipation of the vinyl being shipped later this year, a creative group within the ‘Destiny Community’ have, after talking with Bungie, and with Marty’s blessing and mine, produced a very beautiful video sequence incorporating each poem, and presenting the music with images. My contract with Bungie means that I cannot publish the poems in full myself until two years after they have officially released the music, but happily they have allowed this group to incorporate them. The first of these is up and you can watch and listen to it here:
The others will follow and I will post the links here as I get them. I hope you enjoy this preview of some poems, which will, I hope appear in my next collection. I am especially pleased that this is happening in the year which marks the 10th anniversary of Planet Narnia, Michael Ward’s masterpiece that inspired both the composer and the poet.
So keep his fires burning through the night Beacons and gateways for the child of light.
In our poetic journey through the sacred seasons of the year we have come to midsummer! The traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!
The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.
I have written two sonnets, one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.
I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.
Both these sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on bothAmazon UK and USA It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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.
As usual you can hear the poems by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.