Tag Archives: grief

Love, Remember: A Discovery

In a  previous post about my new book ‘Love Remember’, I mentioned that I had made a surprising discovery about the famous passage by Henry Scott Holland ‘Death is Nothing at All’. So I thought I would tell you something more about that, by sharing with you part of the introduction to Love, Remember, in which I discuss Scott holland’s ‘poem’ and its surprising original context.

Love, Remember is out already, but if you are in or near Cambridge do come to the official launch in Heffers Bookshop at 6:30pm. Admission free but tickets available here (so we know numbers for wine etc!)

Now here is my reflection on ‘Death Is Nothing at All’:

Funerals, which mark should mark and lament loss, name and confront death, are re-branded as ‘celebrations of life’. This insistence on giving everything an instant and positive spin, has begun to fill me with unease. This unease was crystallised for me in a brief and now nearly ubiquitous quotation from Canon Henry Scott Holland which is often presented, as a poem, usually titled ‘Death is Nothing at All’ :

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!


Now I must tread delicately, this oft-quoted passage may, quite understandably, be a favourite with some readers of this book, and I do not doubt, that it has brought comfort, real comfort, to thousands, for there is, or rather there can be, real truth in it. I too live in the Christian hope that we, and those whom we have loved and lost, will together see the final truth of these words of consolation. One day we will know that ‘life means all it ever meant’, we will look back from the glory of resurrection on death as a ‘negligible accident’ and rejoice to know that ‘all is well’. But that is not where we are when this passage is handed to us on a shiny card by the funeral director or even when it is read at the funeral. Taken by itself and on its own, so soon after the shock of bereavement, these ‘comforting’ words about life can paradoxically seem like a deadly lie. A ‘quick fix’ appearance of happiness that only makes the grieving feel guilty for their grief.


For taken by themselves, and that point in our grieving, these words are simply not true: something terrible has happened, a seemingly irrevocable disaster, something inexplicable, blind and ruthless. We have been cut off from our belovèd in mid-conversation, the line has gone dead with so much left to do and say. There is a gap, a breach, a shadow and we are left stunned and sickened by its severity. If death is nothing at all, why did it have to happen? If death is nothing at all, why did the Son of God himself go through it with such sorrow, pain and cries of dereliction? Indeed, this little passage, as it is usually quoted and used at funerals, seemed to me so empty of the depth and resonance of the Bible, Christ in his dying and rising seemed so absent from it, that I could scarcely credit that it had been written by a Christian, let alone by a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral! In the end, I decided I must find the original context and read for myself the sermon from which it was taken. What a revelation that proved to be! This passage has been cut clean away and lifted out of a sermon, which deals more profoundly, more honestly and courageously with the reality of death than almost any other sermon I have ever read. It is as though someone has swiftly copied out the answer to a question without ever knowing what the question was, or ‘cribbed’ the answer to a difficult sum without ever being able to show any of the ‘working out’. The original sermon was preached in St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 15th May 1910 after the death of Edward VII, and Scott-Holland addresses not only the death of a monarch, but the reality of death as we all encounter it. Right from the beginning of the sermon he gives full, clear and courageous expression to the shock and reality of grief. Here is what he says about death in the very opening of the sermon:

It is the supreme and irrevocable disaster. It is the impossible, the incredible thing. Nothing leads up to it, nothing prepares for it. It simply traverses every line on which life runs, cutting across every hope on which life feeds, and every intention which gives life significance. It makes all we do here meaningless and empty.


And he laments, as we all must if we are honest, how cruel and random it seems when death strikes.

But how often it smites, without discrimination, as if it had no law! It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us.


Then he goes on to show that shock and lamentation in the face of death is deeply embedded in scripture: our cry is the cry of the Word and the cry of all the World:

So the Scripture cried out long ago. So we cry in our angry protest, in our bitter anguish, as the ancient trouble reasserts its ancient tyranny over us today. It is man’s natural recoil. And the Word of God recognizes this and gives it vigorous expression.


So how does Scott-Holland move from these cries of pain to the serene and more familiar passage, beginning ‘death is nothing at all’ and ending, as it is often quoted, with the comforting words

All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!


At first he simply speaks both of them, gives voice to what he calls ‘two ways of regarding death, which appear to be in hopeless contradiction with each other’. All honour to him that he does give voice to both of them, that he speaks for those that feel the grief as well as for those who feel and know the consolation. But he does more than that, he sets himself, and us, a real task:

Our task is to deny neither judgement, but to combine both. The contrasted experiences are equally real, equally valid. How can they be reconciled? That is the question.


The scriptural text of his sermon is 1 John, 3, 2-3.

Belovèd, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.


As he opens out this text Scott-Holland seeks for the reconciliation of these two contrasting responses to death, where all reconciliation is to be found: in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, death is a terrible thing, but it is a terrible thing that that God faces for us and we face it with him and in him, in Christ. Our life is

hid with Christ in God, we face death with the promises and the assurance of God. We are already his belovèd children and doth not yet appear what we shall be.

As Scott-Holland says later in the sermon, ‘Already we are in Jesus; already we are of his body and yet it doth not year appear what we shall be’. And in the sermon he dwells compassionately on the ‘not yet’, for we are living in an ‘in between’ time, in one way still shadowed by death, in another lit by the promise of morning and resurrection.

As I read through this remarkable sermon, so much began to make sense. The famous passage which had seemed to me a facile denial when I read it torn out of context, not only made more sense but gained much greater authority, trustworthiness and comfort set against these other passages of the sermon which gave such compassionate voice to our grief and fear. These ‘contrasted experiences were indeed ‘equally real, equally valid and could both be given expression fully and brought to Christ.


So if we are agreed that it is a mistake to rush to the easy answer or the ‘quick fix’, and that the words of Henry Scott-Holland are weakened rather than strengthened by being separated from their context in a sermon that expresses pain as well as joy, how might we best restore the fullness, the range of experience and expression for all of us who have loved and lost? I hope that Love Remember will offer some help in restoring that full range of expression, in making the poetry of loving lamentation available in a new way. Love cannot help but remember, remembrance cannot help but weep. We yearn for trust, recovery and hope and hardly know whether and when and how to trust that hope, but perhaps the poetry in this book can help us as we feel our way forward.



Filed under imagination

Love, Remember: Poems of Loss, Lament, and Hope

I am happy to say that my new Anthology ‘Love, Remember’ will be published this Thursday, the 23rd of November, and that there will be an Official Launch at Heffers on December 14th at 6:30pm to which everyone is welcome.

My new book is a collection of poems, accompanied by prose commentary and meditation which is intended to accompany and articulate the journey through grief and lamentation towards hope. The book is intended as an antidote to the oft-quoted passage by Henry Scott-Holland, that ‘Death is nothing at all’. Death will swallowed up in victory on the last day, but for now it definitely is something, something dire and difficult, and we are all choking on it. I will return to Scott-Holland, and a surprising discovery I made about his famous ‘poem’, in my next post, but for now here are the opening paragraphs of my new book, setting out its scope. I hope that this book will be a real help to all of us on that journey.

This book is written to give voice both to love and to lamentation, to find expression for grief without losing hope, to help us honour the dead with tears, yet still to glimpse through those tears the light of resurrection. It is written in the conviction that the grief which we so often hide in embarrassment, the tears of which some people would want to make us ashamed, are the very things that make us most truly human. Grief and lament spring from the deepest parts of our soul because, however bitter the herbs and fruits they seem to bear, their real root is Love and I believe that it is Love who made the world and made us who we are.


Why should we need to make the case for giving place and even permission to our lamentation, our grief and our tears? Surely, such grief is the most natural thing in the world and should be met always, with compassion, and even a kind of admiration for the courage bereaved people show in expressing and even summoning the painful memories of those they have loved and lost. Yet we live in a culture that averts the eyes from death and is embarrassed at every reminder of mortality. We live in a culture of the ‘quick fix’, the easy answer, the so-called ‘power of positive thinking’. Once we had a positive tradition of mourning, a time set aside for it, with all its own customs and rituals, sympathies and consolations. We once had a culture that gave us a time to weep as well as a time to celebrate: now, we are rushed straight to the celebration and even that is no consolation for we all have to pretend that there is nothing to be consoled about.


Filed under literature

Love, Remember: A New Book

This is just an advance notice to readers of my blog,to say that I have finished work on a third poetry anthology for Canterbury Press which will be called Love Remember and will be published at the end of October. My first two Anthologies, Waiting on the Word and Word in the Wilderness, accompanied Advent, and Lent, two seasons of the liturgical year, though they are also seasons of the spirit. My new anthology is offered to accompany and express nt a season of the year, but a season of the heart. It is an anthology of poetry that takes us on a journey through bereavement, grief, lamentation, remembrance and hope. As I say in the introduction:

This book is written to give voice both to love and to lamentation, to find expression for grief without losing hope, to help us honour the dead with tears, yet still to glimpse through those tears the light of resurrection. It is written in the conviction that the grief which we so often hide in embarrassment, the tears of which some people would want to make us ashamed, are the very things that make us most truly human. Grief and lament spring from the deepest parts of our soul because, however bitter the herbs and fruits they seem to bear, their real root is Love and I believe that it is Love who made the world and made us who we are.

There are poems from the great tradition, by Shakespeare, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, and also by contemporary poets like Luci Shaw and Carol Ann Duffy, as well as some of my own. As in my previous anthologies, each poem is followed by a brief essay which opens it out and reflects on its depths, which is something I know readers of my previous anthologies have found helpful. Here’s what I say in the introduction about how the book might be used:

This is an anthology into which one might simply dip, searching through the parts for a particular poem or finding the words that express or match a mood as it is needed. It might be used a resource to find language for oneself, for a friend, or even for a service or memorial; words that will give expression that needs to be said on that specific occasion. But it is also possible to use this book as a companion for the journey of grief itself, or as a means to accompany a friend who is making that journey. Most religions in their earlier traditions have set aside a special period somewhere between 30 and 40 days for a first intense and companioned encounter with mourning. In Judaism this was called Shiat. First the seven days of private grief, and then a further 30 accompanied lamentation. In the Catholic Church there was a tradition of 40 days of mourning, matching and balancing the 40 days of Lent. This book is also organised so that anyone who wishes can also make this journey with the poets over 40 days. For each day there will be the offered nourishment of a poem and my prose reflection on it. However you use this book I hope that it will give expression to Loving Remembrance and that you will find, as Tennyson did, that ‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’.

Anyway the book is now available for advance order from Amazon and from Canterbury Press, I hope some of my readers here will find it helpful.


Filed under christianity, Poems

Christ and the Cambridge Poets 4: Tennyson and the insights of Doubt

Tennyson in all his dishevelled glory

Over the centuries that St. Edwards has stood at the heart of Cambridge, the

city has been home to some great poets whose work can give us

new and imaginative insights into our faith. Over five weeks starting wednesday

may 11th I have been  exploring some of the insights that these poets

can offer to us now.

May 11th Edmund Spenser and the insights of Love

May 18th George Herbert and the insights of prayer,

May 25th Christopher smart and the insights of ‘madness’

June 1st Tennyson and the Insights of Doubt

June 8th Gwyneth Lewis and the Insights of Science

In the lecture whose audio I am linking here I offer a close reading of parts of Tennyson’s great poem In Memoriam and in particular I am concerned with the paradox wherby Faith is strengthened and deepened when it has the courage to pay serious attention to doubt, a process I try to trace through the course of this poem. Tennyson was Darwin’s exact contemporary and it is a great shame that when Darwin’s Centenary was so widely celebrated two years ago, Tennyson’s was, by contrast almost completely forgotten. Yet it was the intelligent and thoughtful response of poets like Tennyson to the challenge which Darwin’s thought appeared to offer to unexamined Faith which prevented our culture, and particularly our intellectual life ,from falling into the extremes of division and antipathy between “Science” and “Religion” which developed elsewhere and are still in need of healing. Tennyson’s famous lines

“There is more faith in honest doubt

Belive me than in half the creeds’

are often quoted as if he were approving doubt as an end in itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immediately after these oft quoted lines comes a verse  that in some ways sum up Tennyson’s own own acheivement,:

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length


To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,


But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

As always you can here the audio either by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title. The recorder failed for the second half of the talk ‘live’ so I have posted the rest of it, recorded at home, in two other links labelled tennyson 2 and 3 . In each case there should also be a ‘play button’ above the link. Below the audio I have posted the substantial extracts from in Memoriam I gave in the handout at the lecture.

In Memoriam consists of 133 cantos numbered in Roman Numerals, I give the Roman numeral references to each section I quote.

Tennyson and doubt


tennyson 3

The opening, sets the agenda: (from I)

I held it truth, with him who sings

To one clear harp in divers tones,

That men may rise on stepping-stones

Of their dead selves to higher things.

But who shall so forecast the years

And find in loss a gain to match?

Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch

The far-off interest of tears?

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d

“Rhyme has been said to contain in itself a constant appeal to Memory and Hope. This is true of all verse, of all harmonized sounds; but it is certainly made more palpable by the recurrence of termination.” AH Hallam (The influence of Italian upon English Literature)

A recognition that grief is a price more than worth paying for the reality of love: repeated verse (from XXVII)


….I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

Then this verse sets out the method: (from XLVIII)

Nor dare she trust a larger lay,

But rather loosens from the lip

Short swallow-flights of song, that dip

Their wings in tears, and skim away.

Evocation of atmosphere, perfect expression of emotion In the cadence of language, this passage especially praised by Eliot: (VII)


Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more?

Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank

A prayer of faith in the midst of doubt: (From L)

….Be near me when my light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle; and the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame

Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;

And Time, a maniac scattering dust,

And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,

And men the flies of latter spring,

That lay their eggs, and sting and sing

And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,

To point the term of human strife,

And on the low dark verge of life

The twilight of eternal day.


The substance of his doubts: (LVI)


‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:

I bring to life, I bring to death:

The spirit does but mean the breath:

I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,

Such splendid purpose in his eyes,

Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,

Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law?

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed?

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,

Who battled for the True, the Just,

Be blown about the desert dust,

Or seal’d within the iron hills?

Assertion of hope even in the moment of admitting that it might be in vain (LXIV)

Oh yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;

That not one life shall be destroy’d,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;

That not a moth with vain desire

Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,

Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last–far off–at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?

An infant crying in the night:

An infant crying for the light:

And with no language but a cry

The witness of the heart: (From CXXIV)

If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,

I heard a voice ‘believe no more’

And heard an ever-breaking shore

That tumbled in the Godless deep;

A warmth within the breast would melt

The freezing reason’s colder part,

And like a man in wrath the heart

Stood up and answer’d ‘I have felt.’

No, like a child in doubt and fear:

But that blind clamour made me wise;

Then was I as a child that cries,

But, crying, knows his father near;

A magical episode of soul-communion: (XCV)

By night we linger’d on the lawn,

For underfoot the herb was dry;

And genial warmth; and o’er the sky

The silvery haze of summer drawn;

And calm that let the tapers burn

Unwavering: not a cricket chirr’d:

The brook alone far-off was heard,

And on the board the fluttering urn:

And bats went round in fragrant skies,

And wheel’d or lit the filmy shapes

That haunt the dusk, with ermine capes

And woolly breasts and beaded eyes;

While now we sang old songs that peal’d

From knoll to knoll, where, couch’d at ease,

The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field.

But when those others, one by one,

Withdrew themselves from me and night,

And in the house light after light

Went out, and I was all alone,

A hunger seized my heart; I read

Of that glad year which once had been,

In those fall’n leaves which kept their green,

The noble letters of the dead:

And strangely on the silence broke

The silent-speaking words, and strange

Was love’s dumb cry defying change

To test his worth; and strangely spoke

The faith, the vigour bold to dwell

On doubts that drive the coward back,

And keen thro’ wordy snares to track

Suggestion to her inmost cell.

So word by word, and line by line,

The dead man touch’d me from the past,

And all at once it seem’d at last

The living soul was flash’d on mine,

And mine in his was wound, and whirl’d

About empyreal heights of thought,

And came on that which is, and caught

The deep pulsations of the world,

Aeonian music measuring out

The steps of Time–the shocks of Chance–

The blows of Death. At length my trance

Was cancell’d, stricken thro’ with doubt.

Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame

In matter-moulded forms of speech,

Or ev’n for intellect to reach

Thro’ memory that which I became:

Till now the doubtful dusk reveal’d

The knolls once more where, couch’d at ease,

The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field;

And suck’d from out the distant gloom

A breeze began to tremble o’er

The large leaves of the sycamore,

And fluctuate all the still perfume,

And gathering freshlier overhead,

Rock’d the full-foliaged elms, and swung

The heavy-folded rose, and flung

The lilies to and fro, and said,

‘The dawn, the dawn,’ and died away;

And East and West, without a breath,

Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,

To broaden into boundless day.

His response to Emily’s fear, (he speaks of Arthur but actually describes what he himself is doing, and is achieving in this poem): (from XCVI)

You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.

I know not: one indeed I knew

In many a subtle question versed,

Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,

But ever strove to make it true:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,

At last he beat his music out.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,

But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

He came at length to find ‘a stronger faith’, here is an example of that stronger combination of faith hope and love ringing clearly and wildly from his poem: (CVI)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

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.

The preface printed at the beginning of the poem, was written at the end:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

By faith, and faith alone, embrace,

Believing where we cannot prove;

….Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before,

Crossing the Bar

SUNSET and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness or farewell,

When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.


Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems, St. Edward's, Theology and Arts

Stations XIII and XIV

XIII Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.

XIV Jesus is laid in the tomb

Here at the centre everything is still
Before the stir and movement of our grief
Which bears it’s pain with rhythm, ritual,
Beautiful useless gestures of relief.
So they anoint the skin that cannot feel
Soothing his ruined flesh with tender care,
Kissing the wounds they know they cannot heal,
With incense scenting only empty air.
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And makes our grief the pangs of a new birth.
The love that’s poured in silence at old graves
Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth,
Is never lost. In him all love is found
And sown with him, a seed in the rich ground.


Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Meditation, Poems