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 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
The Church of England keeps December 4th as the feast day of Nicholas Ferrar, the devout Anglican who founded the Community of Little Gidding in the early seventeenth century. Ferrar was trying to find a fruitful via media between protestant and catholic understandings of what it is to be Christian. As a member of a reformed church he and his community were devoted to reading the scriptures in their own language, to sharing their faith, and to worshipping together in the beautiful services of the Book of Common Prayer. But he was also keen to preserve and explore the Catholic heritage of community life, the daily offices of prayer, and praise, the pattern of Benedictine work and prayer, rooted in the psalms and the gospels. in holding these together he was recovering and preserving what he called. ‘The right good old way’. His great friend George Herbert, from his death bed sent Ferrar the manuscript of all his poems, and it was Ferrar who published them for all of us. In the 1930s TS Eliot visited Little Gidding, and eventually enshrined the experience of prayer and awareness granted him there, in the poem Little Gidding, the last of the Four Quartets.
Ferrar died on the 4th December 1637, the day after Advent Sunday, at 1 am, the hour he had always risen for prayers, and my sonnet touches on that. Certainly the place in which he and his community kept prayer going at all times, recited the psalms, and lived out their gospel harmony, is still soaked in prayer, still, a place through which the eternal light shimmers into time, still, as the inscription on the chapel says, ‘The very gate of Heaven’.
I would like to dedicate this sonnet to the memory of Susan Gray, a friend and parishioner who loved Little Gidding, both the place and the poem. When I took her last communion to her in the Hospice, she spoke the line from Little Gidding ‘In my end is my beginning’.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
Here is George Herbert’s beautiful Easter poem, together with my commentary on it from The Word in the Wilderness.
I am grateful to Linda Richardson who has given me permission to share with you her series of remarkable paintings, ‘The Faces of Holy Week’. These will be on display, together with my poems, in the resurrection chapel in St. Mary’s Linton throughout Holy Week, do look in and see them if you are in the area. You can also look at these paintings and others on Linda’s Webpage.
Linda writes about this picture:
For Easter day I tried to paint something that looks like an icon. An icon is not intended to show a real human face but is a simplification of composition and an absence of naturalism. Space and surface are emphasised, personal interpretation is eliminated and an icon is meant to be read as part of a religious practice.
The icon points us to the Divinity of Christ and as we come to Easter day we see Christ now with our “spiritual eyes”. Here Jesus is radiant with gold circling round his head and royal robes of blue. The incarnate One is now risen, and to me, he is once again the Word of God and the one we gaze on with the “eye of the heart”.
He is telling us that we too are children of the Light, that we come from the Light and we will return to the Light. We are the beloved of the Father.
As always you can hear me read the poem by Clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
For the last poem in this journey together on this day of glorious beginnings we return to George Herbert who has been such a companion and guide to us throughout.
So much of George Herbert’s poetry is in a kind of hidden dialogue, a call and response with the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible that he knew so well. So in this poem his starting point is psalm 57.8−11, one of the proper psalms for Easter Day Matins, and especially verse 9:
Awake up, my glory, awake, lute and harp: I myself will awake right early.
Herbert responds to that psalmic injunction with the words ‘Rise Heart; thy Lord is risen’ and in the second verse, ‘Awake my Lute’! He has sung the psalm in his ‘common prayer’ his public worship, and now he is applying it within himself and to his whole day. But as so often, in that application, the personal becomes the present, the tactile, the deft, the courteous. The Risen Christ of Easter is not, in this first verse, the cosmic Pantocrator but the familiar friend or lover who offers you a hand as you rise in the morning:
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise.
And then, in one of Herbert’s sudden luminous shifts, the poem takes an alchemical turn:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.
‘Calcined’ was the term used by alchemists for the fierce heat that burns away any impurity, bringing whatever passed through the flame to a purer state. So another poet of the time could write, ‘Yet you by a chaste Chimicke Art/Calcine frail love to pietie’ (William Habington, in Wilcox, year, p. 141). And after that ‘calcining’ experience of Good Friday, Easter brings the great transmutation of which Herbert had spoken in his other alchemical poem, The Elixir, ‘this is the famous stone that turneth all to gold’. But the transformative element is not a fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’, it is new life in Jesus Christ: ‘His life may make thee gold’
So in the first verse Herbert calls on his heart to rise. He echoes the psalm of Matins, even as he is preparing himself for the Eucharist with its ‘Sursum Corda’; ‘lift up your hearts’
Now in the second verse, again following the morning psalm, he calls upon his Lute:
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
And here he leaves alchemy behind and begins some beautifully extended musical metaphors. First with the daring and beautiful idea that
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
Terse lines evoke a kind of mystical empathy in which even the wood of his own lute is somehow blessed and transformed in the blessing of all wood when the maker of the world was stretched on the tree. And that stretching itself leads to another, and even more daring metaphor:
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
The stretched strings of lute and viol were, of course in Herbert’s day, literally visceral and organic lines of gut which, stretched and struck, set up a sympathetic resonance in the wood. Indeed this whole poem is itself a kind of theology of resonance; of our tuned response to the striking music of Christ’s sacrifice. Herbert’s own language here is extraordinarily sensitive and resonant, so ‘The cross taught all wood to resound his name’ carries in the word ‘taught’ also the sense of the tautness of the strings evoked in the next few lines. Even on Easter Day Herbert looks back to good Friday and in the light of Easter sees Christ’s ‘stretched sinew’ on the cross making a new music.
So Herbert’s heart and lute are brought together in a ‘consort’, a word which meant both a musical ensemble and a social harmony. But is it enough? No, in the third verse Herbert brings in, draws in, the Spirit, the breath that Jesus exhaled to bring us new life. He does so through another fine musical metaphor. The basis of all harmony is the triad, all music is ‘but three parts, vied and multiplied’ so Herbert needs a third part, to join lute and heart and invokes the Spirit:
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
The heart is our inner feeling, the lute is the art and skill with which those inner feelings find outward expression, but neither is complete without the Spirit that gives life to all, that prays within us when we do not know how to pray. And here the Spirit comes, not as an overwhelming or overmastering experience from above, but alongside us, as a fellow musician who has come with us to ‘bear a part’.
So now, at the end of the first part of the poem Herbert is awake, his lute is tuned, he has found in the spirit an accompanist and he is ready to begin the song, and it is the song itself which forms the second part of the poem.
This lovely lyric adapts the courtly tradition of the Aubade, the lovers poem at dawn, and here Herbert playfully suggests that even the ‘Sun arising in the East’ would be presumptuous to compete or contend with the rising of this true Son. Indeed the final verse claims that Easter Day is the only day; ‘Can there be any day but this? … we count three hundred but we misse’ he says, meaning the three hundred and fifty (rounded to three hundred) days of the year are wrongly counted! ‘we misse’! there is only ever one day, the true Easter.
We have been travelling together in this book through forty eight days together, but if George Herbert is right it has only been one day! From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection and by its light we can look back over our long pilgrimage and see the glory of this day, hidden once, but shining now, in all we have been through.
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
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.
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.