On New Year’s Eve groups of church bell ringers will gather all over the world to pray, and reflect, and to ring in the new year. They will be participating in a long tradition. George Herbert imagined Prayer itself as ‘Church Bells beyond the stars heard’ and the great turning point in In Memoriam, Tennyson’s great exploration of time and eternity, mortality and resurrection, doubt and faith, comes with the ringing of bells for the new year and his famous and beautiful lines beginning ‘Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,’ and concluding:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
(For more of this passage and my talks on Tennyson click Here)
I love to hear church bells ring in the New Year and so I have made my own small contribution to the poetry and meaning of bell ringing in the following sonnet, which is taken from my collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’
Sounding the Seasons and my other poetry books are available from Amazon or on order from your local bookstore, or direct from the publisher here
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.
In my Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 30th, is Christmas (1) , a remarkable sonnet by George Herbert in which he imagines discovering Jesus in a local Inn. 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:
If you are feeling over indulged and replete with food and drink, this is the poem for you. Once again we return to the truth that even while we are far off, perhaps like the prodigal son, eating, drinking and over indulging, there is always a summons to examine our conscience, to look beyond the ‘fling and bling’, as Malcolm often describes this aspect of Christmas. The image for today is a very simple watercolour: a lone figure walks towards a simple shelter from which a radiant light emanates. The light comes from above and radiates out of the shelter where Christ is born, towards the figure. The figure walks towards the light, leaving behind a long dark shadow.
The history of the people of the Bible and of Christianity is stained by the corrupt idea that God is like us, full of disapproval and ready to punish. This idea keeps us away from God and we might even think that we are so bad, we might as well be a little more bad because truly, we have blown it with God. This is our ego talking, and if we listen to it we will find only self blame, self punishment and self loathing. The image tells us that we can turn at any moment and walk into the mystery of love and presence. It is not for us to perfect ourselves before we turn, God is the one who redeems. ‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)
You can find 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 As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
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.
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 email@example.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.
I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I have been working on a new book called ‘After Prayer’ which will come out with Canterbury Press in late October, and you can see above a little preview of it’s lovely cover.
The title sequence is a series of sonnets written in response to Herbert’s poem Prayer, and as I say in the preface to the book:
I learnt many things by doing this, but perhaps the most telling was the discovery that Prayer is not a random compendium, but rather a soul-story, a spiritual journey. Usually the images flash by us so fast in such dazzling array that we have scarcely time to consider their order, their narrative arc. But by slowing the poem down and reflecting on each image both in itself and in its place in the sequence I found myself taken on a journey from the feasting and fecundity of the opening image of the Church’s Banquet, through mystery and variety and then, with the Christian plummet,down into unsounded depths and uncharted waters, into the painful battle fields and the wounded places of engine against the almightie, sinners tower, Christ-side-piercing spear, and then eventually up again through a kind of chastened recovery, a training of the ear to hear new music, a kind of tune,until one glimpsed the bird of paradise and caught the scent of the land of spices, until one was brought at least to the brink of something understood. The journey, I soon realised, was not just Herbert’s but had, necessarily, to be mine as well. And I found that, paradoxically, by following Herbert’s trajectory so closely I was also enabled to recognise and tell something of my own story too.
So every so often I will be posting some poems from the new collection to give you an idea of what’s in store. So here is the opening poem of the sequence, reflecting on Herbert’s opening image: ‘Prayer the church’s banquet’. As usual you can hear me reading the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
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.
The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith
Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.
But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’e beautiful poem The Incarnate One
Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?
Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.
In this first week in Lent my anthology Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk. But first we have a poem for the first Sunday in Lent. Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter. We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps as little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten Journey and that is how I shall treat them in this anthology. Once again thanks are due to Lancia Smith for the image which accompanies this week’s poems.
So to celebrate the first of them here is R. S. Thomas’s famous poem ‘The Bright Field’.
This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.
After the dimly burning wick of winter
That seemed to dull and darken everything
The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.
You keep the coastal path where edge meets edge,
The sea and salt marsh touching in North Norfolk,
Reed cutters cuttings, patterned in the sedge,
Open and ease the way that you will walk,
Unbroken reeds still wave their feathered fronds
Through which you glimpse the long line of the sea
And hear its healing voice.
Tentative steps begin to break your bonds,
You push on through the pain that sets you free,
Towards the day when broken bones rejoice