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Week 4: Know Thyself: John Davies and Tennyson

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

Last week we walked with Dante, and I want to develop this sense of our ‘companioned journey’ this week by drawing alongside two other poets who may help us with our reflections on the way. In particular I want to share with you some gems from their longer poems which, precisely because they occur in the midst of long poems, are very rarely anthologized, but which have a great deal to offer us. The twin themes which I hope these poets will open for us are self-questioning on the one hand and self-knowledge on the other. Anyone who has taken a long pilgrimage, or even just a long walk, such as we are doing through Lent, will know that there comes a time when, as other concerns subside, the big questions arise: Who am I? How much do I really know myself? What can I really know about God? How can I trust that knowledge?

but first we start with our Sunday poem, this time for Mothering Sunday, as always with al; these poems you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

 

Mothering Sunday   Malcolm Guite

 

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.

 

Monday

 

Why did my parents send me to the schools?   John Davies

Why did my parents send me to the Schools,

That I with knowledge might enrich my mind?

Since the desire to know first made men fools,

And did corrupt the root of all mankind:

Even so by tasting of that fruit forbid,

Where they sought knowledge, they did error find;

Ill they desir’d to know, and ill they did;

And to give Passion eyes, made Reason blind.

For then their minds did first in Passion see

Those wretched shapes of misery and woe,

Of nakedness, of shame, of poverty,

Which then their own experience made them know.

But then grew Reason dark, that she no more,

Could the faire forms of Good and Truth discern;

Bats they became, that eagles were before:

And this they got by their desire to learn.

All things without, which round about we see,

We seek to know, and how therewith to do:

But that whereby we reason, live and be,

Within our selves, we strangers are thereto.

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,

And the strange cause of th’ebs and floods of Nile;

But of that clock within our breasts we bear,

The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint our selves with every Zone

And pass both Tropics and behold the Poles

When we come home, are to our selves unknown,

And unacquainted still with our own souls.

We study Speech but others we persuade;

We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;

We interpret laws, which other men have made,

But read not those which in our hearts are writ.

 

Is it because the mind is like the eye,

Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees −

Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly:

Not seeing itself when other things it sees?

No, doubtless; for the mind can backward cast

Upon her self her understanding light;

But she is so corrupt, and so defac’t,

As her own image doth her self affright.

TUESDAY

 

What It Is To Be Human   John Davies

She within lists my ranging mind hath brought,

That now beyond my self I list not go;

My self am centre of my circling thought,

Only my self I study, learn, and know.

I know my body’s of so frail a kind,

As force without, fevers within can kill:

I know the heavenly nature of my mind,

But ‘tis corrupted both in wit and will:

I know my soul hath power to know all things,

Yet is she blind and ignorant in all;

I know I am one of nature’s little kings,

Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.

I know my life’s a pain and but a span,

I know my Sense is mockt with every thing:

And to conclude, I know my self a man,

Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

The Light which makes the light which makes the day   John Davies

That Power which gave me eyes the World to view,

To see my self infused an inward light,

Whereby my soul, as by a mirror true,

Of her own form may take a perfect sight,

But as the sharpest eye discerneth nought,

Except the sun-beams in the air doe shine:

So the best soul with her reflecting thought,

Sees not her self without some light divine.

To judge her self she must her self transcend,

As greater circles comprehend the less;

But she wants power, her own powers to extend,

As fettered men can not their strength express.

O Light which mak’st the light, which makes the day!

Which set’st the eye without, and mind within;

‘Lighten my spirit with one clear heavenly ray,

Which now to view it self doth first begin.

But Thou which didst man’s soul of nothing make,

And when to nothing it was fallen again,

To make it new the form of man didst take,

And God with God, becam’st a Man with men.

Thou, that hast fashioned twice this soul of ours,

So that she is by double title Thine,

Thou only knowest her nature and her pow’rs,

Her subtle form Thou only canst define…

But Thou bright Morning Star, Thou rising Sun,

Which in these later times hast brought to light

Those mysteries, that since the world begun,

Lay hid in darkness and eternal night;

Thou (like the sun) dost with indifferent ray,

Into the palace and the cottage shine,

And shew’st the soul both to the clerk and lay,

By the clear lamp of Thy Oracle divine.

 

THURSDAY

 

Death as Birth   Sir John Davies

The first life, in the mother’s womb is spent,

Where she her nursing power doth only use;

Where, when she finds defect of nourishment,

She expels her body, and this world she views.

This we call Birth; but if the child could speak,

He Death would call it; and of Nature plain,

That she would thrust him out naked and weak,

And in his passage pinch him with such pain.

 

Yet, out he comes, and in this world is placed

Where all his Senses in perfection bee:

Where he finds flowers to smell, and fruits to taste;

And sounds to hear, and sundry forms to see.

When he hath past some time upon this stage,

His Reason then a little seems to wake;

Which, though the spring, when sense doth fade with age,

Yet can she here no perfect practise make.

Then doth th’aspiring Soul the body leave,

Which we call Death; but were it known to all,

What life our souls do by this death receive,

Men would it birth or gaol delivery call.

 

In this third life, Reason will be so bright,

As that her spark will like the sun-beams shine,

And shall of God enioy the real sight.

Being still increased by influence divine.

 

Acclamation

 

O ignorant poor man! what dost thou bear

Locked up within the casket of thy breast?

What jewels, and what riches hast thou there!

What heavenly treasure in so weak a chest!

Look in thy soul, and thou shalt beauties find,

Like those which drowned Narcissus in the flood:

Honour and Pleasure both are in thy mind,

And all that in the world is counted Good.

And when thou think’st of her eternity,

Think not that Death against her nature is;

Think it a birth: and when thou goest to die,

Sing like a swan, as if thou went’st to bliss.

 

FRIDAY

 

Faith in Honest Doubt   Alfred Tennyson

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.

 

Saturday

 

Strong Son of God, Immortal Love               Alfred Tennyson


 

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 …

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Week 1: The Pilgrimage Begins

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

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’.

The Bright Field

MONDAY

The Pilgrimage   George Herbert


I travell’d on, seeing the hill, where lay

My expectation.

A long it was and weary way.

The gloomy cave of Desperation

I left on th’one, and on the other side

The rock of Pride.

 

And so I came to Fancy’s meadow strow’d

With many a flower:

Fair would I here have made abode,

But I was quicken’d by my houre.

So to Cares copse I came, and there got through

With much ado.

 

That led me to the wild of Passion, which

Some call the wold;

A wasted place, but sometimes rich.

Here I was robb’d of all my gold,

Save one good Angel, which a friend had ti’d

Close to my side.

 

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,

Where lay my hope,

Where lay my heart; and climbing still,

When I had gain’d the brow and top,

A lake of brackish waters on the ground

Was all I found.

 

With that abash’d and struck with many a sting

Of swarming fears,

I fell, and cry’d, Alas my King;

Can both the way and end be tears?

Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv’d

I was deceiv’d:

 

My hill was further: so I flung away,

Yet heard a crie

Just as I went, None goes that way

And lives: If that be all, said I,

After so foul a journey death is fair,

And but a chair.

 

TUESDAY

 

Satire III   John Donne


… though truth and falsehood be

Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;

Be busy to seek her; believe me this,

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,

May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

To will implies delay, therefore now do;

Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too

The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries

Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage   Walter Raleigh

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

 

Blood must be my body’s balmer,

No other balm will there be given;

Whilst my soul, like a quiet palmer,

Travelleth towards the land of heaven ;

Over the silver mountains,

Where spring the nectar fountains:

There will I kiss

The bowl of bliss;

And drink mine everlasting fill

Upon every milken hill:

My soul will be a-dry before;

But after, it will thirst no more.

Then by that happy blestful day,

More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,

That have cast off their rags of clay,

And walk apparelled fresh like me.

I’ll take them first

To quench their thirst,

And taste of nectar suckets,

At those clear wells

Where sweetness dwells

Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.

 

And when our bottles and all we

Are filled with immortality,

Then the blessed paths we’ll travel,

Strowed with rubies thick as gravel;

Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors,

High walls of coral, and pearly bowers.

From thence to heavens’s bribeless hall,

Where no corrupted voices brawl;

No conscience molten into gold,

No forged accuser bought or sold,

No cause deferred, nor vain-spent journey;

For there Christ is the King’s Attorney,

Who pleads for all without degrees,

And he hath angels, but no fees.

And when the grand twelve-million jury

Of our sins, with direful fury,

‘Gainst our souls black verdicts give,

Christ pleads his death, and then we live.

 

Be thou my speaker, taintless pleader,

Unblotted lawyer, true proceeder!

Thou giv’st salvation even for alms;

Not with a bribèd lawyer’s palms.

And this is my eternal plea

To him that made heaven, earth, and sea,

That, since my flesh must die so soon,

And want a head to dine next noon,

Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread,

Set on my soul an everlasting head.

Then am I ready, like a palmer fit;

To tread those blest paths which before I writ.

 

THURSDAY

 

Maps  Holly Ordway Check out Holly’s website HERE

Antique maps, with curlicues of ink

As borders, framing what we know, like pages

From a book of travelers’ tales: look,

Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.

No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state

Traced out in color-coded numbered highways,

A web of roads with labeled city-dots

Punctuating the route and its slow stories.

Now GPS puts me right at the centre,

A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.

Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn

And turn to orient myself. I have

Directions calculated, maps at hand:

Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

 

FRIDAY

 The Song of Wandering Aengus   W. B. Yeats


I went out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,

And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

And hooked a berry to a thread;

 

And when white moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.

 

When I had laid it on the floor

I went to blow the fire a-flame,

But something rustled on the floor,

And some one called me by my name:

 

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.

 

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

 

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

 

SATURDAY

First Steps, Brancaster   Malcolm Guite


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

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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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WEEK 2 Deepening the Life of Prayer

WEEK 2

Deepening the Life of Prayer

Here is another week’s worth of recordings in which I read the poems I selected in my anthology for Lent The Word in the Wilderness. I hope you enjoy these recordings, just click on the title of the poem or the ‘play’ button if it appears. Once again I am grateful to Lancia Smith for providing the two lovely images to go with this week’s readings.

SUNDAY

 

Postscript Seamus Heaney

MONDAY

 

Prayer (I)   George Herbert

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

 

TUESDAY

 

Homecoming   Gwyneth Lewis

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won

by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home

to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found

in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Prayer/Walk   Malcolm Guite


 

A hidden path that starts at a dead end,

Old ways, renewed by walking with a friend,

And crossing places taken hand in hand,

 

The passages where nothing need be said,

With bruised and scented sweetness underfoot

And unexpected birdsong overhead,

 

The sleeping life beneath a dark-mouthed burrow,

The rooted secrets rustling in a hedgerow,

The land’s long memory in ridge and furrow,

 

A track once beaten and now overgrown

With complex textures, every kind of green,

Land- and cloud-scape melting into one,

 

The rich meandering of streams at play,

A setting out to find oneself astray,

And coming home at dusk a different way.

 

THURSDAY

 

How I talk to God   Kelly Belmonte Read more about Kelly Belmonte on her great poetry site All Nine

Coffee in one hand

leaning in to share, listen:

How I talk to God.

 

“Momma, you’re special.”

Three-year-old touches my cheek.

How God talks to me.

 

While driving I make

lists: done, do, hope, love, hate, try.

How I talk to God.

 

Above the highway

hawk: high, alone, free, focused.

How God talks to me.

 

Rash, impetuous

chatter, followed by silence:

How I talk to God.

 

First, second, third, fourth

chance to hear, then another:

How God talks to me.

 

Fetal position

under flannel sheets, weeping

How I talk to God.

 

Moonlight on pillow

tending to my open wounds

How God talks to me.

 

Pulling from my heap

of words, the ones that mean yes:

How I talk to God.

 

Infinite connects

with finite, without words:

How God talks to me.

 

FRIDAY

 

The Pains of Sleep   S. T. Coleridge


 

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,

It hath not been my use to pray

With moving lips or bended knees;

But silently, by slow degrees,

My spirit I to Love compose,

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication;

A sense o’er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

Since in me, round me, every where

Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

 

But yester-night I prayed aloud

In anguish and in agony,

Up-starting from the fiendish crowd

Of .

shapes and thoughts that tortured me:

A lurid light, a trampling throng,

Sense of intolerable wrong,

And whom I scorned, those only strong!

Thirst of revenge, the powerless will

Still baffled, and yet burning still!

Desire with loathing strangely mixed

On wild or hateful objects fixed.

Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!

And shame and terror over all!

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,

Which all confused I could not know

Whether I suffered, or I did:

For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,

My own or others still the same

Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

 

So two nights passed: the night’s dismay

Saddened and stunned the coming day.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper’s worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child;

And having thus by tears subdued

My anguish to a milder mood,

Such punishments, I said, were due

To natures deepliest stained with sin,

For aye entempesting anew

The unfathomable hell within,

The horror of their deeds to view,

To know and loathe, yet wish and do!

Such griefs with such men well agree,

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?

To be loved is all I need,

And whom I love, I love indeed.

 

SATURDAY

 

Batter my heart   John Donne


 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

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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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The Word in the Wilderness, a Journey through Lent

wildernessAs we approach Lent I have been asked if I would post again the poems, recordings and images which accompany my Lent anthology Word in the Wilderness, and I am happy to do so as I know there are a number of groups reading the book together who might find it helpful to have the recordings. So I have recorded each of the poems in the Lent book, as I did for the Advent one. Whereas in Advent I posted a recording each day, along with a beautiful image from Lancia Smith, what Lancia and I have decided to do for Lent is to offer you weekly posts. Each post will be headed by a beautiful image from Lancia and then contain links to recordings of all seven poems for that week as well as the texts of the poems themselves, though for my commentary on each text you will need to turn to the book itself. We will start with an introductory post that takes us from Shrove Tuesday, through Ash Wednesday to the 1st Sunday in Lent and then each subsequent post will come out on each of the Sundays in Lent. I hope you find this helpful and please feel free to share it. Those who are using the book in weekly Lent groups this year my find it particularly helpful to have all the weeks readings gathered on one page. 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

If you would like to make a retreat with me centred on this book, I am leading one over the weekend of 10-12th March at the beautiful Retreat House at Pleshy in Essex, full details are Here

You can get copies of Word in the Wilderness by ordering from your local bookshop (if you’re in England go for the excellent Sarum College Bookshop) or through this page on Amazon UK and this one on Amazon USA

As an appetiser, and to give you an idea of my reasons for compiling this anthology here are the opening paragraphs of my introduction:

Why might we want to take time in Lent, to immerse ourselves in poetry, to ask for the poets as companions on our journey with the Word through the wilderness? Perhaps it is one of the poet’s themselves who can answer that question. In The Redress of Poetry, the collection of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Seamus Heaney claims that poetry ‘offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has to be its own reward’ (p. xv). However qualified by terms like ‘fleeting’, ‘glimpse’ and ‘potential’, this is still a claim that poetry, and more widely the poetic imagination, is truth-bearing; that it offers not just some inner subjective experience but as Heaney claims, a redress; the redress of an imbalance in our vision of the world and ourselves. Heaney’s claim in these lectures, and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, is that we can ‘Credit Poetry’, trust its tacit, intuitive and image-laden way of knowledge. I have examined these claims in detail elsewhere (Faith Hope and Poetry) and tried to show, in more academic terms, how the poetic imagination does indeed redress an imbalance and is a necessary complement to more rationalistic and analytical ways of knowing. What I would like to do in this book is to put that insight into practice, and turn to poetry for a clarification of who we are, how we pray, how we journey through our lives with God and how he comes to journey with us.

Lent is a time set aside to re-orient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s Kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbours. There are a number of distinctive ways in which poetry can help us do that and in particular the poetry I have chosen for this anthology.

Heaney spoke of poetry offering a glimpse and a clarification, here is how an earlier poet Coleridge, put it, when he was writing about what he and Wordsworth were hoping to offer through their poetry, which was

“awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”

(Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Vol. II, pp. 6−7)

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Nativity by Scott Cairns

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

We return to Scott Cairns in my series of readings of the poems in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 26th, is  Nativity, a beautiful reflection on an icon of the Nativity and how it draws us in. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. Linda writes:

As I read this poem I discerned a kind of radiance and inwardness that fascinated me. Again there are glimpses of the Divine that may be missed if we are not attentive or prayerful. We lean in and see a “tiny God.. slip briefly out of time.. miss the point or meet there”.

In the image, I created a fissure in the virgin blue, and beyond that there is a brightness that cannot be touched. It is a secret brightness, obscure and transcendent and cannot be possessed by us. All of life is potentially prayer that deepens us and makes our ‘ordinary’ time more loving and creative. But prayer is not an intellectual activity but an activity of love where we learn to be near God and learn too, never to leave the holiness of his nearness as we go about our daily duties.

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

Nativity

As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend

the tiny God is wrapped

in something more than swaddle. The God

 

is tightly bound within

His blesséd mother’s gaze—her face declares

that she is rapt by what

 

she holds, beholds, reclines beholden to.

She cups His perfect head

and kisses Him, that even here the radiant

 

compass of affection

is announced, that even here our several

histories converge and slip,

 

just briefly, out of time. Which is much of what

an icon works as well,

and this one offers up a broad array

 

of separate narratives

whose temporal relations quite miss the point,

or meet there. Regardless,

 

one blithe shepherd offers music to the flock,

and—just behind him—there

he is again, and sore afraid, attended

 

by a trembling companion

and addressed by Gabriel. Across the ridge,

three wise men spur three horses

 

towards a star, and bowing at the icon’s

nearest edge, these same three

yet adore the seated One whose mother serves

 

as throne. Meantime, stumped,

the kindly Abba Joseph ruminates,

receiving consolation

from an attentive dog whose master may

yet prove to be a holy

messenger disguised as fool. Overhead,

 

the famous star is all

but out of sight by now; yet, even so,

it aims a single ray

 

directing our slow pilgrims to the core

where all the journeys meet,

appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,

 

where crouched among these other

lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers

receive that creatured air, and pray.

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