Tag Archives: literature

Bright Star; a thanksgiving for John Keats

John Keats died on this day in 1821, so I am reposting this tribute to him for all his poetry has meant and continues to mean for me:

Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Thats how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens,  a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.

This poem is published in my book  The Singing Bowl  which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

Gold

 

The sun strikes gold along the Spanish steps,

Patches of god-light where the tourists stray.

The old house is in shadow and still keeps

It’s treasures from the searching light of day.

I found it once, when I had lost my way,

Depressed and restless, sheltering from rain,

Long years ago in Rome. But from that day

Everything turned to gold, even my pain,

Reading the words of one who feared he wrote in vain.

 

I too was ‘half in love with ease-full death’,

But standing by the window, near his bed,

I almost heard the ‘tender-taken breath’

On which his words were forming. As I read

I felt things shifting in me, an old dread

Was somehow being brought to harmony

Taught by his music as the music fled

To sing at last, as by some alchemy

Despair itself was lifted into poetry

 

I spent that summer there and came each day

To read and breathe and let his life unfold

In mine. Little by little, made my way

From realms of darkness into realms of gold,

Finding that in his story mine was told;

Bereavements, doubts and longings, all were there

Somehow transmuted in the poem’s old

Enduring crucible, that furnace where

Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair.

 

 

Now with the sun I come on pilgrimage

To find this house and climb the foot-worn stair,

For I have lived to more than twice his age

And year-by-year his words have helped me bear

The black weight of my breathing, to repair

An always-breaking heart. Somehow he keeps

His watch on me from somewhere, that bright star…

So, with the words of one who mined the depths,

I sing and strike for gold along the Spanish steps.

The house where Keats died, by the Spanish Steps, now a memorial, museum and library

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After Prayer: a reading, with music, in Trinity College Chapel

I am delighted to announce that the first public reading in Cambridge of ‘After Prayer,‘ my new sonnet sequence written in response to George Herbert’s poem Prayer, will take place in Trinity College Chapel, Herbert’s own chapel in his Cambridge days. It is an honour to read in such a significant and resonant place, and especially so as the performance will include music from members of Trinity College Choir, singing Vaughan Williams settings of some of Herbert’s poems. This will be a unique, and memorable occasion, and will take place at 8pm on the 24th of February, free of charge. There will be an opportunity, for conversation, a glass of wine, and book signing afterwards. Do come along if you are in or near Cambridge.

By way of a taster for the event, here is my sonnet on Herbert’s phrase ‘The Soul in Paraphrase’. In this case I decided to write a poem which imitates the structure of Herbert’s original sonnet by creating a list of phrases, which in different ways, paraphrase, and admit defeat in paraphrasing, the poem’s subject.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

 

The Soul in Paraphrase

 

A fledgling hidden in an ancient tree,

Singing unseen and darkling to the stars,

The fount and spring of meaning, just upstream

Of every utterance, unsullied, free,

A prisoner who grips and bends her bars,

The one who begs to differ, dares to dream,

A child astray, still calling to your heart,

A pattern, personal as all the swirls

In fingerprints on hands that hands have held,

Wholeness that knows itself within each part,

A flag whose emblem every breath unfurls,

A chasm bridged, and an old heartache healed,

A new day at the end of all your days,

A mystery you’ll never paraphrase.

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Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For January 3rd in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc. I have chosen it for this run-up towards Epiphany because it is essentially a series of little epiphanies, or ‘showings’; in each of the three pictures themselves pictures of moments of ‘epiphanies’ or ‘showings forth’ of the glory of God in scripture.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

The poem we consider today is about ‘courtesy’, not a word that we attribute easily these days except if we are complaining that someone lacks ‘common courtesy’. As I reflected on this poem I was taken back to my childhood when I was at a convent boarding school. I loved going to the convent chapel and kneeling to pray. I remember thinking how inadequate I was to do this, unlike the professional nuns whose prayers I considered far more powerful than my own mute and rather unhappy attempts.

I have since learned that God will inhabit the tiniest space we make for Him. Even our most feeble turning towards Him will make the angels of heaven hold their breath in excitement. Recently I read the words of a Rabbi who said, when the child of God walks down the road a thousand angels go before her crying, ‘Make way for the image of God!

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

Courtesy   Hilaire Belloc

 

Of Courtesy, it is much less

Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,

Yet in my Walks it seems to me

That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

 

On Monks I did in Storrington fall,

They took me straight into their Hall;

I saw Three Pictures on a wall,

And Courtesy was in them all.

 

The first the Annunciation;

The second the Visitation;

The third the Consolation,

Of God that was Our Lady’s Son.

 

The first was of St. Gabriel;

On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;

And as he went upon one knee

He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

 

Our Lady out of Nazareth rode –

It was Her month of heavy load;

Yet was her face both great and kind,

For Courtesy was in Her Mind.

 

The third it was our Little Lord,

Whom all the Kings in arms adored;

He was so small you could not see

His large intent of Courtesy.

 

Our Lord, that was Our Lady’s Son,

Go bless you, People, one by one;

My Rhyme is written, my work is done.

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New Year’s Day Tennyson’s ‘Wild Bells’

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For New Year’s Day in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read another section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the famous and beautiful section about ringing out the old and ringing in the new which finishes with a vision of the true Advent, ‘the Christ that is to be’.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She Writes:

I have to confess that I don’t remember ever enjoying New Years Day. I always have the feeling that I am an unprepared host for this important guest, who, instead of finding my house with the bed made up and a roaring fire, discovers me amid the accumulated dross of previous revelry. The image I made does not reflect the hope of the poem, probably because I don’t believe in the great ringing in of the new – I don’t see it happening in the world.

What I can believe in, is that Christ can ring in me and in you. Annie Dillard, the American author and poet says, ‘I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.’ And so to the extent we ring for Christ, we also ring for the world.

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

You can also hear Alana Levandoski turning these verses into a lovely song on this youtube page:


In Memoriam CVI   Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

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 old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

 

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 a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

 

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.

 

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For Our Lady of Guadelupe by Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe - given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe – given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

For today’s poem in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word we return to the poet Grevel Lindop with an honest meditation on a visit to Mexico entitled ‘For our Lady of Guadelupe’. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. After the Waiting on the Word anthology was published, for which Grevel had kindly given me permission to include this poem,  we met up and he actually gave me  the image he had bought on his visit and which is part of the subject of the poem and of my reflections on it. I was very moved by the gift and the little statue sits on my desk, so as Linda had not done an image for today I have included a photo of it here.  As I wrote about that statue in the commentary:

We know too, from this first verse, that this mind-changing journey is one the poet himself has to make himself. Those lines,

where I will buy her plastic image later

garish, I hope, and cheap,

 

are highly significant, implying that when he first arrived he might have disdained the stalls of plastic images. It is only after his actual encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe that he understands their value and comes back to buy one….What we learn on the journey of this poem is that the devotion of the poor may transfigure cracked and broken, even poor and shoddy material more effectively than the finesse and fine taste of the sceptical rich

You can find the whole of my 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

For Our Lady of Guadelupe

 

The taxi windscreen’s broken,

lightning-starred with a crack from one corner:

signature of a stone from the Oaxaca road.

It drops me by the shanty-town of stalls

where I will buy her plastic image later –

garish, I hope, and cheap,

for kitsch is authenticity.

 

A jagged rift of space

splits the old basilica’s perfect Baroque,

an intricately-cracked stone egg

atilt on sliding subsoil where the Aztec

city’s lake was carelessly filled in.

Crowds pass its listing shell without a glance,

heading for the concrete-and-stained-glass

 

swirl that mimics

Juan Diego’s cloak, where she appeared

and painted her own image on the fabric

to show sceptical bishops

how perfect love could visit a poor Indian

after the wars, and fill his cloak with roses.

Now the cloak’s under glass behind the altar.

 

A priest celebrates Mass,

but we walk round the side

to queue for the moving pavement that will take us closer,

its mechanical glide into the dark

floating us past the sacred cloth

and her miraculous, soft, downcast gaze:

not Spanish and not Indian but both,

 

lovely mestiza Virgin, reconciler

who stands against the flashbulbs’ irregular

pizzicato of exploding stars,

and while we slide on interlocking steel

opens for us her mantle, from which roses

pour and pour in torrents, like blood

from a wound that may never be healed.

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Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton

image by Linda richardson

image by Linda richardson

Merry Christmas! In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The poem I have chosen for Christmas Day is a substantial extract from ‘Ode on the Moring of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created byLinda Richardson.Linda writes:

It is Christmas day and the poem recalls to my mind, all the beautiful images we have of Christmas. One of my favourites is the Magi. Perhaps it is because, of all the Christmas characters, they are very aware of what they are doing. They have travelled a long way and a great distance to worship a King. These are the Christmas ‘professionals’, the seers and Wise Men who have come prepared with gifts and acts of worship. As they reach their goal their faces are lit up with the light of the Holy Family.

I wonder where you would place yourself among the Christmas characters? Are you a prepared, professional with a worshipping heart? Perhaps you are like the shepherds and Christmas rolls right over you leaving you rather baffled and scratching your head. Perhaps you are an angel…perhaps you are a sheep. Whatever you feel you are, there is a place for all of us at the manger.

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

Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

This is the month, and this the happy morn,

Wherein the Son of Heaven’s Eternal King,

Of wedded Maid and Virgin Mother born,

Our great redemption from above did bring;

For so the holy sages once did sing,

That he our deadly forfeit should release,

And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

 

That glorious form, that light unsufferable,

And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,

Wherewith he wont at Heaven’s high council-table

To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,

He laid aside; and, here with us to be,

Forsook the courts of everlasting day,

And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

 

Say, heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein

Afford a present to the Infant God?

Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,

To welcome him to this his new abode,

Now while the heaven, by the sun’s team untrod,

Hath took no print of the approaching light,

And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

 

See, how from far, upon the eastern road,

The star-led wisards haste with odours sweet:

O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,

And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;

Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,

And join thy voice unto the Angel quire,

From out his secret altar touch’d with hallow’d fire.

 

THE HYMN.

It was the winter wild,

While the heaven-born child

All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;

Nature, in awe to him,

Had doff’d her gaudy trim,

With her great Master so to sympathize:

It was no season then for her

To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.

 

Only with speeches fair

She wooes the gentle air

To hide her guilty front with innocent snow;

And on her naked shame,

Pollute with sinful blame,

The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;

Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes

Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

 

But he, her fears to cease,

Sent down the meek-ey’d Peace;

She, crown’d with olives green, came softly sliding

Down through the turning sphere,

His ready harbinger,

With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;

And, waving wide her myrtle wand,

She strikes an universal peace through sea and land.

 

Nor war, or battle’s sound,

Was heard the world around:

The idle spear and shield were high up hung;

The hooked chariot stood

Unstain’d with hostile blood;

The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;

And kings sat still with awful eye,

As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

 

But peaceful was the night,

Wherein the Prince of light

His reign of Peace upon the earth began:

The winds, with wonder whist,

Smoothly the waters kiss,

Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,

Who now hath quite forgot to rave,

While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

 

The stars, with deep amaze,

Stand fix’d in steadfast gaze,

Bending one way their precious influence;

And will not take their flight,

For all the morning light,

Or Lucifer, that often warn’d them thence;

But in their glimmering orbs did glow,

Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

 

And, though the shady gloom

Had given day her room,

The sun himself withheld his wonted speed,

And hid his head for shame,

As his inferiour flame

The new-enlighten’d world no more should need;

He saw a greater sun appear

Than his bright throne, or burning axletree, could bear.

 

The shepherds on the lawn,

Or e’er the point of dawn,

Sat simply chatting in a rustick row;

Full little thought they then,

That the mighty Pan

Was kindly come to live with them below;

Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,

Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.

 

When such musick sweet

Their hearts and ears did greet,

As never was by mortal finger strook;

Divinely-warbled voice

Answering the stringed noise,

As all their souls in blissful rapture took:

The air, such pleasure loth to lose,

With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.

 

Nature that heard such sound,

Beneath the hollow round

Of Cynthia’s seat, the aery region thrilling,

Now was almost won

To think her part was done,

And that her reign had here its last fulfilling;

She knew such harmony alone

Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.

 

At last surrounds their sight

A globe of circular light,

That with long beams the shamefac’d night array’d;

The helmed Cherubim,

And sworded Seraphim,

Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display’d,

Harping in loud and solemn quire,

With unexpressive notes, to Heaven’s new-born Heir.

 

Such musick (as ‘tis said)

Before was never made,

But when of old the sons of morning sung,

While the Creator Great

His constellations set,

And the well-balanc’d world on hinges hung;

And cast the dark foundations deep,

And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.

 

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,

Once bless our human ears,

If ye have power to touch our senses so;

And let your silver chime Move in melodious time;

And let the base of Heaven’s deep organ blow;

And, with your ninefold harmony,

Make up full consort to the angelick symphony.

 

For, if such holy song

Enwrap our fancy long,

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold;

And speckled Vanity

Will sicken soon and die,

And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;

And Hell itself will pass away,

And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

 

Yea, Truth and Justice then

Will down return to men,

Orb’d in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,

Mercy will sit between,

Thron’d in celestial sheen,

With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;

And Heaven, as at some festival,

Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall …

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Oh Clavis; A Fourth Advent Antiphon Sonnet and Jac Redford’s music!

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The poem for today in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word is Oh Clavis, Oh Key!

Of all the mystic titles of Christ, this is the one that connects most closely with our ‘secular’ psychology. We speak of the need on the one hand for ‘closure’ and on the other for ‘unlocking’, for ‘opening’, for  ‘liberation’. The same ideas are also there in the lines from O Come O Come Emmanuel that are drawn from this antiphon, which could easily be part of anybody’s work in good therapy:

“Make safe the way that leads on high,

and close the path to misery.”

I see this antiphon, and the sonnet I wrote in response  to it, as the ‘before’ picture that precdes the beautiful fifth antiphon O Oriens about Christ as the Dayspring and  when l wrote this sonnet I found that I had at last written something clear about my own experience of depression. I hope that others who have been in that darkness will find it helpful.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. she Writes:

As I made this drawing, the words ‘huddled in misery’, were my starting point. The figure sits in something like a cave, but if the figure would only turn towards us, it would be able to rise, step through the doorway of the ‘O’ and walk free. Instead the poor naked figure hides its face and covers its head in shame. We can spend years ‘huddled in misery’ forbidding ourselves the freedom we crave, literally being miserly because we are captive to a way of thinking that has imprisoned us. We believe we can only be loved if we are perfect, or at least a lot better than we are, but a key only opens. It takes our action to walk out.

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

I am delighted to say that the composer Jac Redford, who set all these antiphon sonnets to music on his excellent CD ‘Let Beauty be our Memorial’ has kindly given permission for me to share those recordings with you. Here are the first four including today’s:

O Sapientia:

O Adonai: 

O Radix: 

O Clavis: 

 

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Clavis

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

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