Tag Archives: literature

The Ballad of the White Horse: a complete reading for King Alfred’s Day

October 26th is the day the Church remembers Alfred, King and Scholar who founded places of learning, translated Boethius’ consolation of philosophy and strove to preserve the Christian faith in the midst of the pagan Danish invasions. He is also the subject of GK Chesterton’s wonderful poem The Ballad of the White Horse. I recorded a reading of the whole poem back in 2011, on its 100th anniversary, and I thought I would repost it here, with links to the readings, in honour of Alfred’s day.This great poem is as much about modern times as it is a ballad of the days of King Alfred. In 1911 Chesterton foresaw that the modern Nihilism and worship of the ‘superman’ embodied in the writings of Nietzsche together with false worship of race and a cult of violence, would likey wreak unimaginable damage in the new century, as proved to be the case. He also saw that a renewal of the vision of joy and humility that is at the heart of the Christian creed was the only way to resist the death-wish which is the shadow side of our fallen humanity. He wrote a poem at whose heart is a call to courage kindled not by probable chances of success but by what he called ‘the joy without a cause’. Many Englishmen called to combat in the two world wars, went out with this poem in their pockets and were greatly strengthened by it. The Times quoted it twice in leaders each at key points in the second world war; “nought for your comfort” was the leader headline after the disaster of Crete and Alfred’s great cry ‘The high tide’ and the turn’ was the headline after the D Day landings. And yet this poem, once so centrally part of the national consciousness, is now hardly known at all or read, but its time must suely come again.

Chesterton had a big influence on the Inklings, the writers who clustered around Tolkien and Lewis and there are a number of echoes between the Ballad of the White Horse and the Lord of the Rings. Especially the descriptions of Colan the Celt and his people, who, like the elves, are always haunted by the sound of the sea and have their hearts in an undying land. Likewise the detail of battle in which Alfred and his Celtic allies are sundered and the Celts, given up for lost, re-emerge as though they were the armies of the dead and put their foes to flight, that meeting on the field of battle against all odds is very like the events on the fields of the Pelanor. But perhaps the greatest similarity is in the ending of the two tales. In the final book of the Ballad, ‘The Scouring of the Horse’ Chesterton deals with the problem of the peace, the problem that after winning on the battle the wariors find corruption at home and have to confront evil in another form and in their own native place. Whilst Alfred leaves Wessex to confront the Danes in London the weeds are allowed to grow over the White Horse and at this point Chesterton gives Alfred a vision of the future and calls England to an eternal vigilance. I think the very namng, let alone the plot features, of Tolkien’s ‘Scouring of the Shire’ are derived from this.

You can read and download the entire text of the poem here, though better still buy an old hardback copy. They are very cheap and still widely available.

My reading of each of the episodes can be found through the links below and you will find, on my podomatic page, that I have also given a brief introduction to each book. I have left the settings so that the episodes can be downloaded, so you can listen to them off line or even, if you wish, burn them to a cd and use them to while away the hours on long car journeys! I hope you enjoy them, let me know what you think.

The Ballad of the White Horse, read by Malcolm Guite:

The Dedication

Book I The Vision of the King

Book II The Gathering of the Chiefs

Book III The Harp of Alfred

Book IV The Woman in the Forest

Book V Ethandune: The First Stroke

Book VI Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs

Book VII Ethandune: The Last Charge

Book VIII The Scouring of the Horse

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A Sonnet for St. Luke’s Day

St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox

This Wednesday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year.  My sonnets, in that series, present the four Evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced  by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the four Evangelists.

‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘  St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (ca. 120-202 AD)  –  Adversus Haereses 3.11.8

For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote above.  As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver.  The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press  and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.

 Luke

His gospel is itself a living creature

A ground and glory round the throne of God,

Where earth and heaven breathe through human nature

And One upon the throne sees it is good.

Luke is the living pillar of our healing,

A lowly ox, the servant of the four,

We turn his page to find his face revealing

The wonder, and the welcome of the poor.

He breathes good news to all who bear a burden

Good news to all who turn and try again,

The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,

A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,

The voiceless find their voice in every word

And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.

Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for this image

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Three New Endeavours!

I thought I’d take a moment to let readers of this blog know about three new endeavours that are already in hand or shortly coming to fruition.

A New Column!

The first is that since the early summer I have been contributing a weekly column to the Church Times which appears on the back page as ‘Poet’s Corner’. It is the successor to Ronald Blythe’s wonderful and long-running column ‘the Word from Wormingford’, which was series of glimpses and reflections of life and faith in a small corner of Suffolk from the pen of one of Britain’s greatest rural writers. It was an honour to be chosen as his successor and thought I can’t really ‘follow’ him, I have been doing my best to enjoy and master the 500 word essay as a form of prose poem. The column appears in print every Friday but is also available on the Church Times Website. A full read of the CT requires a subscription but you can read two or three articles each week without a subscription, so readers of this blog might care to dip into that column. Here are some links to a few of the pieces I’ve written so far:

Autumn Leaves

Samuel Johnson’s Cat

A Moment in a Railway Carriage

Upstream

 

A New Book!

My second endeavour has been work on a new anthology for Canterbury Press, called Love, Remember, and I am happy to say that this is now completed and the book itself should be out in November. It is an anthology of forty poems chosen to help the reader give voice to lamentation and grief but also to make the journey through that grief, towards hope, never letting go of love. It is intended as a kind of antidote to the apparently facile denials of Henry Scott Holland’s ‘Death is Nothing at All’. I say apparently facile because, as I discovered when I wrote the book, the famous Henry Scott Holland passage, often used at funerals is in fact torn out of context from a much greater and more grounded sermon. a sermon that faces the reality of grief and death, rather than denying it and so can offer in the end a greater and truer comfort. There will be an official Launch of my new book in Heffers in Cambridge on December 14th, but it should be available from the publisher, from amazon, and in shops before then. You can book for the book launch Here

 

Another New Book!!

Finally, the third endeavour is not really mine at all but is the work of the artist Faye Hall. She has made a truly beautiful book out of my sequence of poems ‘Seven Whole Days’ with stunning pictures for almost every line. You can see a video about it Here

North American can also order copies from Faye in time for Christmas Here 

If you use the code ‘sevenpoet’ on Faye’s site you can get a 25% discount.

There is  now an Amazon UK Page for the Book  so you can order it from the UK

I also hope to have some copies available before Christmas for UK buyers so email me at malcolmguite@gmail.com if you’re interested

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Michaelmas; a sonnet for St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael at Mont St. Michell -photo by Margot Krebs Neale

Continuing my sequence from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press, the 29th September brings us the feast of St. Michael and All Angels which is known as Michaelmas in England, and this first autumn term in many schools and universities is still called the Michaelmas term. The Archangel Michael is traditionally thought of as the Captain of the Heavenly Host, and, following an image from the book of Revelation, is often shown standing on a dragon, an image of Satan subdued and bound by the strength of Heaven. He is also shown with a drawn sword, or a spear and a pair of scales or balances, for he represents, truth, discernment, the light and energy of intellect, to cut through tangles and confusion, to set us free to discern and choose. He is celebrated and revered in all three Monotheistic religions. There is a good, full account of him here. And here is a bright and playful image of him by the Cambridge Artist Rebecca Merry, who has done a number of icons and other images of the Archangels. You can see more of her art here, and also in the Byard Art Gallery.

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright

And here is a response to the poem from photographer Margot Krebs Neale, weaving the words at the heart of the poem into the heart-shaped image. More of Margot’s work can be seen here.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or the title. Many of you have commented on how good it is to be able to hear the poems, and I’m glad thats working.

Michaelmas

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.

He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear

To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

Archangel bring your balance, help me turn

Upon this turning world with you and dance

In the Great Dance. Draw near, help me discern,

And trace the hidden grace in change and chance.

Angel of fire, Love’s fierce radiance,

Drive through the deep until the steep waves part,

Undo the dragon’s sinuous influence

And pierce the clotted darkness in my heart.

Unchain the child you find there, break the spell

And overthrow the tyrannies of Hell.

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The Word and the words: a sonnet for Lancelot Andrewes

Lancelot Andrewes preacher and translator

September 25th is Lancelot Andrewes Day, when the Church remembers one of its greatest preachers and the man whose scholarship and gift for poetic phrasing was so central to the making of the King James Version of the Bible. My own Doctoral thesis was on Andrewes and he has exercised a huge influence on me. On the 400th anniverseary of the KJV I gave a lecture for the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature on Andrewes and translation which was published in this book The King James Version at 400. But I have also published a sonnet for Andrewes in my book for Canterbury Press  The Singing Bowl, so here it is. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button .

Lancelot Andrewes

Your mind is fixed upon the sacred page,
A candle lights your study through the night,
The choicest wit, the scholar of the age,
Seeking the light in which we see the light.
Grace concentrates in you, your hand is firm,
Tracing the line of truth in all its ways,
Through you the great translation finds its form,
‘And still there are not tongues enough to praise.’
Your day began with uttering his name
And when you close your eyes you rest in him,
His constant star still draws you to your home,
Our chosen stella praedicantium.
You set us with the Magi on the Way
And shine in Christ unto the rising day.

I also gave a talk about Lancelot Andrewes and the translation of the King James Bible to the Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society which various people have asked to hear. They have sent me a recording which I am posting here. The talk itself doesn’t start until about three minutes into the recording and last for about 50 minutes with a question and answer session afterwards.

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Hildegard of Bingen: A Sonnet

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

The 17th of September is the feast day of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable and prophetic woman, who described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’, and whose many works in theology, music, visual art, poetry and drama are still inspiring people today. Indeed she is coming more and more into her own, as one of her key ideas ‘Viriditas’, or the greening and life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit, seems especially apposite for our time. See this page on her by a contemporary Benedictine. Appropriately for Hildegard’s day, I will be taking part in a service at Ely Cathedral this evening at 6:30pm called Dark Reflections: Poetry Environment and Lament

Do come along if you can.

The photo below is by Margot Krebs Neale

I wrote this sonnet at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire where I shall be giving an Advent retreat next year. It is published in my new volume of poetry The Singing Bowl, Canterbury Press,  available on Amazon in both the US and the UK

As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.

Hildegard of Bingen

A feather on the breath of God at play,

You saw the play of God in all creation.

You drew eternal light into each day,

And every living breath was inspiration.

You made a play with every virtue playing,

Made music for each sister-soul to sing,

Listened for what each herb and stone was saying,

And heard the Word of God in everything.

 

Mother from mother earth and Magistra, 

Your song revealed God’s hidden gift to us;

The verdant fire, his holy harbinger

The greening glory of viriditas.

‘Cherish this earth that keeps us all alive’

Either we hear you, or we don’t survive.

 

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

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St. Clare: a Sonnet

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

August the 11th is the day the church remembers with thanksgiving the life and witness of St. Clare.  She was the friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the Poor Clares. Her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts a soul-guide, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime and still a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.

Clare wrote:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”

So here is my sonnet in her honour reflecting on how the meaning of her name, ‘light and clarity’, was also the meaning of her life. This sonnet is taken from  The Singing Bowl my most recent volume of poems, which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.


Clare

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,

Shining through you as Holy Caritas,

Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection

The girl whom Love has called to call us all

Back into truth, simplicity and grace.

Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,

Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.

Christ holds the mirror of your given life

Up to the world he gives himself to save,

A sacrament to keep your city safe,

A window into his eternal love.

Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,

Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.

 

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