Three years ago I was asked by the Precentor of Wells Cathedral if I would write an extra 8th Antiphon sonnet to go with the special 8th O antiphon, O Virgo Virginum, which was used in English churches and Cathedrals in the middle ages, as distinct from the usual seven on the continent. He explained that the Cathedral was reviving this practice and as they were also using my other seven sonnets it would help to have an extra eighth sonnet for the eighth Antiphon. It had its debut at the Cathedral Advent Carol service on 27th November 2016 but I am happy to share it here on the day O Virgo was traditionally sung.
Reflecting on the Antiphon O Virgo Virginum, whose text you can read below, in English and in Latin, I was struck by the way it is about seeing and marvelling, about the transformative power of vision, but I was also struck by the presence of other women in the antiphon: the vision of Mary as a ‘maid amongst the maidens’, the invocation of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’. As I reflected on that, I thought of all those ‘maidens’, young girls and women of our own times, who, like Mary, have become refugees, vulnerable like Mary, scorned, or falsely accused as she was, and I wanted to remember them in my sonnet and to think of Mary as especially the carer and advocate for exploited and vulnerable women.
Since last year this poem and the antiphon which inspired it have also been set to music by David Solomons and performed by a choir in south Africa and you can watch and listen to a youtube recording of it here:
As usual you can also hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button below.
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.
Who are the daughters of Jerusalem,
Who glimpse you still as you transform their seeing?
Whom have you called to this mysterium,
And bathed in the blithe fountain of your being?
Daughters of sorrow, daughters of despair,
The cast-aside, the overlooked, the spurned
The broken girls who scarcely breathe a prayer
The ones whose love has never been returned.
O Maid amongst the maidens, turn your face,
For when we glimpse you we are not alone,
O look us out of grief and into grace,
Lift us in love made stronger than our own,
Summon the spring in our worst wilderness,
And make us fruitful in your fruitfulness.
O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.