Category Archives: Poems

Mothering Sunday: a sonnet

…for those who loved and laboured…

Continuing in my series of sonnets for the Church Year I have written this one for Mothering Sunday. It’s a thanksgiving for all parents, especialy for those who bore the fruitful pain of labour, and more particularly in this poem I have singled out for praise those heroic single parents who, for whatever reason, have found themselves bearing alone the burdens, and sharing with no-one the joys of their parenthood.

I am grateful to Oliver  Neale for his thought-provoking work as a photographer, and, as always, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or on the title

Mothering Sunday

 

At last, in spite of all, a recognition,

For those who loved and laboured for so long,

Who brought us, through that labour, to fruition

To flourish in the place where we belong.

A thanks to those who stayed and did the raising,

Who buckled down and did the work of two,

Whom governments have mocked instead of praising,

Who hid their heart-break and still struggled through,

The single mothers forced onto the edge

Whose work the world has overlooked, neglected,

Invisible to wealth and privilege,

But in whose lives the kingdom is reflected.

Now into Christ our mother church we bring them,

Who shares with them the birth-pangs of His Kingdom.

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‘The Two Kings’ a poem for Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer

The 21st of March is the day the Church of England remembers Thomas Cranmer, the compiler of the Book of Common Prayer who was martyred on this day in 1556.  Having flourished under Henry and pressed through church reforms under Edward, including the first two editions of the book of Common Prayer, he was arrested when Mary came to the throne on charges of Treason and Heresy. Whilst there was a beauty and clarity in his work on the BCP and a genuine zeal to make the gospel known and available to ordinary people in their own language, Cranmer also knew that he had made some unworthy compromises in the matter of Henry’s divorce. Mary’s interrogators played on this and Cranmer signed some recantations of his earlier positions., but in the end he went to the flames, not for the political shifts and compromises of the rulers around him but for an uncompromising commitment to a gospel of salvation made freely known to all in their own language.

He renounced his previous recantations, made under torture, and thrust his right hand first into the flames, saying that the hand which had signed these false recantations should burn first. his last words, as the flames consumed him were: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’

We look back now and see his enduring legacy in the service book still treasured by millions. I have tried to put something of my own feeling for Cranmer and his story in the following poem, which is taken from my book with Canterbury Press The Singing Bowl. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘Play’ button.

The Two Kings: a meditation on Thomas Cranmer

Soon after he had signed the fifth recantation he had a dream in which he saw two kings contending together for his soul. One of the kings was Jesus and the other was Henry VIII Thomas Cranmer Jasper Ridley

 

Bearing a light to break the gloom

That gathers in his littered room,

After the Latin mass is sung,

Cranmer essays the English tongue.

Before his straining eyes is set

The single word Magnificat.

He writes, delighting in the word,

My soul doth magnify the Lord

 

Elsewhere other voices sing

To laud and magnify the king;

A woman turns her whitened face

To beg his majesty for grace

And offers up her perjured soul

A sacrifice to bluff king Hal

Whose chains and scourges still disclose

The blood within the Tudor rose.

 

Could Cranmer ever hope to bruise

That hydra-headed serpent, whose

Insinuating influence

Turned in the word obedience,

And tempted him, upon his knees,

To tender Caesar Peter’s keys?

He offered Henry heaven’s trust,

Dust bowing down to worship dust.

 

Yet he, whom Satan had convinced

To put his trust in such a prince

And so provoke his jealous God,

Denying the redeeming blood,

Was chosen, judged, and justified,

In the same blood that he denied.

So Cranmer, who betrayed the Lord,

Was brought to glory through his Word

 

As, through the medium of a dream,

the Word in him redeemed the time.

His faith, denied and found again,

Held fast in that foul Oxford rain

Where, chained and bound by pious friars,

He thrust his right hand in their fires

And crying out in fits and starts

Burnt his best sermon on their hearts.

 

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St. Patrick: A Sonnet

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

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

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

Patrick

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

Till Christ recalled you, through your captors cries!

Patrick, you had the courage to turn back,

With open love to your old enemies,

Serving them now in Christ, not in their chains,

Bringing the freedom He gave you to share.

You heard the voice of Ireland, in your veins

Her passion and compassion burned like fire.

 

Now you rejoice amidst the three-in-one,

Refreshed in love and blessing all you knew,

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

And plant the staff of prayer in all we do:

A gospel seed that flowers in belief,

A greening glory, coming into leaf.

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Week 3: Dante and the Companioned Journey

photo courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

photo courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

As we continue our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves. I am also taking the opportunity to correct one or two errors which crept into the printed book, in transcribing passages from Robin Kirkpatrick’s beautiful translation of Dante, which is used here with permission. The wonderful pilgrim image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia smith and was taken by her on a recent visit to share in the life the church in South Africa.

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

SUNDAY

 

Late Ripeness Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004)

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year

I felt a door opening in me and I entered

the clarity of early morning.

 

One after another my former lives were departing,

like ships, together with their sorrow.

 

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas

assigned to my brush came closer,

ready now to be described better than they were before.

 

I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.

We forget ‒ I kept saying ‒ that we are children of the King.

 

From where we come there is no division

into Yes and No, into is, was and will be.

 

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago ‒

a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror

of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel

staving its hull against a reef ‒ they dwell in us,

waiting for a fulfilment.

 

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,

as are all men and women living at the same time,

whether they are aware of it or not.

 

MONDAY

 

Meeting Virgil

‘There is another road’ Dante

 

As I went, ruined, rushing to that low,

there had, before my eyes, been offered one

who seemed -long silent- to be faint and dry.

Seeing him near in that great wilderness,

to him I screamed my ‘miserere’: ‘Save me,

whatever – shadow or truly man – you be.’

His answer came to me: ‘No man; a man

I was in times long gone. Of Lombard stock,

my parents both by patria and Mantuan.

And I was born, though late, sub Iulio.

I lived at Rome in good Augustus’ day,

in times when all the gods were lying cheats.

I was a poet then. I sang in praise

of all the virtues of Anchises’ son. From Troy

he came ‒ proud Ilion razed in flame.

But you turn back. Why seek such grief and harm?

Why climb no higher up at lovely hill?

The cause and origin of joy shines there.’

‘So, could it be’, I answered him, (my brow,

in shy respect bent low), ‘you are that Virgil,

whose words flow wide, a river running full?

You are the light and glory of all poets.

May this serve me: my ceaseless care, the love

so great, that made me search your writings through!

You are my teacher. You, my lord and law.

From you alone I took the fine-tuned style

that has, already, brought me so much honour.

See there? That beast! I turned because of that.

Help me ‒ your wisdom’s known ‒ escape from her.

To every pulsing vein, she brings the tremor.

Seeing my tears, he answered me: ‘There is

another road. And that, if you intend

to quit this wilderness, you’re bound to take.’

(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 61−93)

 

TUESDAY

 

Through the Gate   Malcolm Guite

Begin the song exactly where you are,

For where you are contains where you have been

And holds the vision of your final sphere.

 

And do not fear the memory of sin;

There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,

Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain

 

Into translucent colour. Loose the veils

And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,

Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,

 

The hopeless gate that holds in all the fears

That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide

And open to the light that finds, and fares

 

Through the dark pathways where you run and hide,

Through all the alleys of your riddled heart,

As pierced and open as his wounded side.

 

Open the map to Him and make a start,

And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark,

His light will go before you. Let him chart

 

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache

To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind

Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk

 

And muted gloom in which you cannot find

The love that you once thought worth dying for.

Call him to all you cannot call to mind.

 

He comes to harrow Hell and now to your

Well-guarded fortress let his love descend.

The icy ego at your frozen core

 

Can hear his call at last. Will you respond?

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Towards A Shining World   Dante

Dante and Virgil emerge from hell and begin the ascent of mount purgatory

So now we entered on that hidden Path,

my Lord and I, to move once more towards

a shining world. We did not care to rest.

We climbed, he going first and I behind,

until through some small aperture I saw

the lovely things the skies above us bear.

Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.

To race now over better waves, my ship

of mind -alive again- hoists sail, and leaves

behind its little keel the gulf that proved so cruel.

And I’ll sing, now, about the second realm

where human spirits purge themselves from stain,

becoming worthy to ascend to Heaven.

Here, too, dead poetry will rise again.

for now, you secret Muses, I am yours…

Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung

by night, which fled before it. And far away

I recognised the tremblings of the sea.

Alone, we walked along the open plain,

as though, returning to a path we’d lost,

our steps, until we came to that, were vain.

Then, at a place in shadow where the dew

still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,

had scarcely yet been sent out into vapour,

my master placed the palms of both his hands,

spread wide, lighty and gently on the tender grass.

And I, aware of what his purpose was,

offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.

At which, he made once more entirely clean

the colour that the dark of Hell had hidden.

(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno,canto34  lines 133−end, and II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 1−8 and 115−29)

 

THURSDAY

 

De Magistro   Malcolm Guite

I thank my God I have emerged at last,

Blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars,

Bewildered by the shadows that I cast.

 

You set me on this stair, in those rich hours

Pacing your study, chanting poetry.

The Word in you revealed his quickening powers,

 

Removed the daily veil, and let me see,

As sunlight played along your book-lined walls,

That words are windows onto mystery.

 

From Eden, whence the living fountain falls

In music, from the tower of ivory,

And from the hidden heart, he calls

 

In the language of Adam, creating memory

Of unfallen speech. He sets creation

Free from the carapace of history.

 

His image in us is imagination,

His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath

Upon the letters of his revelation.

 

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path

That leads back to the springs of truth in speech.

You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

 

You showed me how my halting words might reach

To the mind’s maker, to the source of Love,

And so you taught me what it means to teach.

 

Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove,

Climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.

Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,

 

As fellow pilgrims on a needful journey

 

FRIDAY

 

The Refining Fire Dante

Over my suppliant hands entwined, I leaned

just staring at the fire, imagining

bodies of human beings I’d seen burn.

And both my trusted guides now turned to me.

And Virgil spoke, to say: ‘My dearest son,

here may be agony but never death.

Remember this! Remember! And if I

led you to safety on Geryon’s back,

what will I do when now so close to God?

Believe this. And be sure. Were you to stay

a thousand years or more wombed in this fire,

you’d not been made the balder by one hair.

And if, perhaps, you think I’m tricking you,

approach the fire and reassure yourself,

trying with your own hands your garments hem.

Have done, I say, have done with fearfulness.

Turn this way. Come and enter safely in!’

But I, against all conscience, stood stock still.

And when he saw me stiff and obstinate,

he said, a little troubled: ‘Look my son,

between Beatrice and you there ‘s just this wall….’

Ahead of me, he went to meet the fire,

and begged that Statius, who had walked the road

so long between us, now take up the rear.

And, once within, I could have flung myself ‒

The heat that fire produced was measureless ‒

For coolness, in a vat of boiling glass.

To strengthen me, my sweetest father spoke,

as on he went, of Beatrice always,

saying, it seems I see her eyes already.’

and, guiding us, a voice sang from beyond.

So we, attending only to that voice,

came out and saw where now we could ascend.

Venite, benedicti Patris mei!’

sounded within what little light there was.

This overcame me and I could not look.

(The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio, Canto 27 lines 16−32 and 46−60)

 

SATURDAY

 

Dancing Through the Fire   Malcolm Guite

Then stir my love in idleness to flame

To find at last the free refining fire

That guards the hidden garden whence I came.

 

O do not kill, but quicken my desire,

Better to spur me on than leave me cold.

Not maimed I come to you, I come entire,

 

Lit by the loves that warm, the lusts that scald,

That you may prove the one, reprove the other,

Though both have been the strength by which I scaled

 

The steps so far to come where poets gather

And sing such songs as love gives them to sing.

I thank God for the ones who brought me hither

 

And taught me by example how to bring

The slow growth of a poem to fruition

And let it be itself, a living thing,

 

Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition

And still to try the tautness of each line,

Taught me to taste the grace of transformation

 

And trace in dust the face of the divine,

Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian,

That drawing water turns it into wine.

 

Now I am drawn through their imagination

To dare to dance with them into the fire,

Harder than any grand renunciation,

 

To bring to Christ the heart of my desire

Just as it is in every imperfection,

Surrendered to his bright refiner’s fire

 

That love might have its death and resurrection.

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Shriven, Ashed, and ready for Action

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

This is the first of the weekly series I am posting throughout this Lent in which you can hear me read aloud the poems I have chosen for my Lent Anthology The Word in the Wilderness. In the book itself you can read my commentary on each poem but I thought that, as with my advent anthology, you might like to hear the poems read. Where copyright allows I will also post the texts of the poems themselves here. Once more I am grateful to Lancia Smith who will be providing  specially made images for these weekly posts. Lancia has told me that today’s image of the shell suggests a sense of our  being ‘cleansed and emptied of what we once carried now waiting for a new day of our own’. But there is also of course the other sense in which the scallop shell is a symbol of pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is very much the central theme of this book.

Speaking of images that arise from this poetry you might like to know that there is now a Facebook Group Sounding the Sonnets which has some lovely galleries of art they have made in response to the poems in this and my other books.

If you would like to join an online reading group to follow this book through Lent then you might like to join the Literary Life Facebook Group run by Rick Wilcox

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

Today’s post takes us from Shrove Tuesday through to Saturday, the next post in this series will be on the first Sunday in Lent.

So here, first is the poem set for Shrove Tuesday, Seamus Heaney’s beautiful eleventh poem in the sequence Station Island:

Station Island XI Seamus Heaney/St. John of the Cross

And here is my sonnet for Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

From Thursday to Saturday I have chosen each of my sonnets on the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness. You can read my commentary on these in the book.

Thursday:

Stones into Bread

 

The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here

The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.

When darkness speaks it seems so light and clear.

Now He must dare, with us, to make a choice.

In a distended belly’s cruel curve

He feels the famine of the ones who lose

He starves for those whom we have forced to starve

He chooses now for those who cannot choose.

He is the staff and sustenance of life

He lives for all from one Sustaining Word

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife

The stony ground of hearts that never shared,

God gives through Him what Satan never could;

The broken bread that is our only food.

 

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

Friday:

All the Kingdoms of the World

 ‘So here’s the deal and this is what you get:

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,

The banker’s bonus and the private jet

Control and ownership of all the news

An ‘in’ to that exclusive one percent,

Who know the score, who really run the show

With interest on every penny lent

And sweeteners for cronies in the know.

A straight arrangement between me and you

No hell below or heaven high above

You just admit it, and give me my due

And wake up from this foolish dream of love…’

But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.

Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’

Saturday:

On the Pinnacle

‘Temples and Spires are good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

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A Sonnet for George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

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 the eve of his feast, I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my most recent 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, and I am vey happy to say that both book s are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE

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.

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A Sonnet for St. Valentine

Why should this martyr be the saint of Love?

Why should this martyr be the saint of Love?

Here is a sonnet I composed in honour of the original St. Valentine. I notice some FB posts implying that as an early Christian martyr he has nothing to do with Romantic Love and should be dissociated from it. I believe that on the contrary there is every reason why he should be the patron saint of Love and this sonnet explores why.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on either the title or the ‘play’ button. This poem is published in my most recent collection ‘Parable and Paradox’

St Valentine

Why should this martyr be the saint of love?

A quiet man of unexpected courage,

A celibate who celebrated marriage,

An ageing priest with nothing left to prove,

He loved the young and made their plight his cause.

He called for fruitfulness, not waste in wars,

He found a sure foundation, stood his ground,

And gave his life to guard the love he’d found.

 

Why should this martyr be our Valentine?

Perhaps because he kept his covenant,

Perhaps because, with prayer still resonant,

He pledged the Bridegroom’s love in holy wine,

Perhaps because the echo of his name

Can kindle love again to living flame.

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