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Mapping New Worlds: John Donne and the Power of Metaphor

John Donne 1572-1631

John Donne 1572-1631

Today (31st March) is the day the Church of England remembers John Donne, the remarkable priest-poet whose poetry and preaching still inspire so many people today. I owe Donne a personal debt, for it was while I was reading and studying his sermons (having loved his poetry all my adult life) that my own vocation as a priest became clear. as a way of celebrating his day I am posting here the interpretation of some of his poems which I gave in my book ‘Faith Hope and Poetry‘:

Mapping New Worlds, John Donne and the Power of Metaphor.

Donne’s intellect and imagination delighted in double visions and multiple meanings. He was fascinated by the representation of one thing within and through another, by the correspondences between inner and outer worlds, by the shifts in perspective and dimension which could be produced by moving suddenly, by means of metaphor between the many worlds of his intellect and imagination. It is not surprising to discover that he was fascinated by the reflections of the great cosmos in the tiny world of an eye or a tear-drop, by the mapping of the microcosmos of man onto the huge cosmos of the world and the heavens, and fascinated therefore by maps and mapping of all kinds. He saw especially in the new science of projection, particularly Mercator’s projection, whereby the round, three dimensional world could nevertheless be represented in two dimensions on paper, a real model for the way in which his art could re-present our this-worldly experience to include or suggest its hidden other-worldly dimension. This playful but concentrated fascination with representation and mapping extends through both his love poetry and his devotional poetry. Emotional, imaginative, sexual and spiritual insights are all integrated and interlinked in Donne in a way that is perhaps unequalled in any other writer.

Pursuing his inter-connected person/world/map metaphors first through two ‘secular’ and then through two ‘sacred’ poems can open up these powers and possibilities in Donne’s poetry. We will begin with ‘The Good Morrow’[1]

‘I WONDER by my troth, what thou, and I

Did, till we lov’d? were we not wean’d till then?

But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the seven sleepers den?

T’was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desir’d, and got, t’was but a dream of thee.

 

And now good morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room, an every where.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

 

My face is thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts doe in the faces rest,

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp North, without declining West?

What ever dyes, was not mixt equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.’

The poem opens in a natural and conversational way, with direct language and the rhythms of natural speech (something which was to be lost from English poetry for most of the next century until Wordsworth and Coleridge recovered it in Lyrical Ballads). We are disarmed by the frankness of his opening exclamation and are expecting something very straightforward and literal, when at the close of the first stanza Donne introduces the first of his metaphors of a multi-levelled reality, of ‘worlds on worlds’ nested within one another:

‘If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desir’d, and got, t’was but a dream of thee.’

At their first and simplest level these lines are simply a combination of amorous boasting and apology. If ever any beauty I did see which I desired, might leave the emphasis on the if, and let the person to whom this poem is addressed guess she is the first, but the barely concealed pride in Donne’s little rider ‘and got’ leaves us in no doubt that at the very moment he appears to be apologising for his sexual experience he is actually making a boast of it. If, indeed Then comes the brilliant turn whereby he offers his past conquests up to his present love: ‘twas but a dream of thee.’

Suddenly, in the midst of this back-handed compliment we have one of Donne’s vertiginous shifts of perspective, what was the real world only half a line ago turns out to have been only a dream from which he wakes to and with his present lover, and all the former beauties of his life were like the shadows in Plato’s cave, images which beckon us beyond themselves to another and greater beauty from which they drew their grace. Our imagination is prepared in these lines for the worlds on worlds to be encountered by our ‘Waking Souls’ in the next stanza:

‘For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room, an every where.’

The power of making one little room an everywhere ascribed here to love is of course also the power of imagination working in and through both reader and poet.. The whole world can be re-presented recapitulated in a room and its furnishings (an idea Donne develops in ‘The Sun Rising’) or in the bodies of two lovers each representing and recapitulating the great world they inhabit as surely as a map. Donne summons the exuberance and adventure of his age of discovery and makes it also mean the adventure and discovery of his loving:

‘Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.’

The bodies of the lovers become the maps of worlds yet to be discovered, a conceit he developed in more detail in poems like ‘Love’s Progress’[2] and ‘On Going to Bed’[3], with a play on discover; ‘O my America, my new-found land… how blest am I in this discovering thee’[4] we move then (naturally) from discovery to possession. A lesser poet would have left it here probably with something very obvious about planting the flag, but Donne in another perspective shift moves us first from one possessing another to both possessing a mutual world through to being worlds themselves:

‘Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one’

(a variant reading has ‘let us possess our world’. It is not simply that their love makes a new world, which they share, but that each of them as a microcosm of the great world is a world for the other to know and explore.) Further, just as the great world of the macrocosm is re-capitulated afresh in the little worlds of Donne and his lover, so they are each in turn re-capitulated in each other, each carrying the others heart, an idea expressed under the image of their mutual reflections in each others eyes:

‘My face is thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts doe in the faces rest,’

This wonderfully detailed observation, like Heaney’s ‘ear of a raindrop’, is the outward image and expression of true lovers’ inward desire to be to be in some otherwise inexpressible way within one another. The curvature of the surface of the eye suggests the curvature of the hemispheres of the great world and we return for a second to that macro-level. But this time it is the inner-world of Donne’s imaginative fantasy that becomes greater than, and forms a critique of, the outward and visible hemispheres we inhabit:

‘Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp North, without declining West?’

The outer hemispheres of the visible world are subject to change and decay, the ‘sharp north’ representing the cold that might freeze the warmth of love, the declining west representing sunset; the end of loves day, and ultimately, as we shall see in the other poems, Death itself. Donne holds out to us as to himself and his lover the tantalising possibility that this world of change and decay might be only the copy, shadow, or dream of the real world of their love that transcends it. The imperfect mixture of the elements, in the macrocosm, the humours in the microcosm which make for change and decay, are perhaps re-ordered and perfectly mixed in the new and transcendent world Love makes, but of course in a last tease Donne makes it all hang on an ‘if’, a pretty big if, perhaps the same if with which he closed the first stanza:

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

 

The notion that love can make this little room an everywhere is developed at large in the Sunne Rising[5] another love poem, like ‘The Good Morrow’, in the tradition of the aubade:

THE SUN RISING

BUSIE old fool, unruly Sun,

Why dost thou thus

Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide

Late school boys, and sour prentices,

Go tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,

Call country ants to harvest offices;

Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,

Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.

 

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong

Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them-with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long:

If her eyes have not blinded thine,

Look, and to morrow late, tell me,

Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She is all States, and all Princes, I,

Nothing else is.

Princes doe but play us; compar’d to this,

All honour’s mimic; All wealth alchemy.

Thou sun art half as happy as we,

In that the world’s contracted thus;

Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties bee

To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.

Shine here to us, and thou art every where;

This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Coleridge said of this poem that it showed a ‘Fine vigorous exaltation, both soul and body in full puissance’[6] and certainly one feels the bliss of love fulfilled filling the language with a kind of careless glory, a happy splendour before which even the sun in his glory is only a busy old fool. Love fulfilled has filled the present moment with an experience of such intensity that the passage of time outside that love seems poor and ragged

‘Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.’

Donne is here celebrating secular, erotic love, but he was well aware that such ecstasy, in which time itself and the world are for a moment transcended, was a type of that greater awareness of the eternal which arises when the soul is wood by God. Indeed he was not afraid, in a later sermon when he was Dean of Saint Paul’s to take up again his great phrase about the rags of time in relation to God’s mercy:

‘We begin with that which is elder than our beginning, and shall overlive our end, the mercy of God…The names of first and last derogate from it, for first and last are but rags of time, and his mercy hath no relation to time, no limitation in time, it is not first nor last, but eternal, everlasting.[7]

In his second verse Donne plays with the analogy between the sun and the eye which we saw was so strong in Davies, introducing a characteristically playful reversal of perspective whereby the sight of the sun, the great eye of nature depends on our eyes and not the other way round. In the poem Donne and his Lover are the centre, the  fons et origo of a new world and every outer reality depends on them. He has only to blink and the corresponding eye of the sun is closed:

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong

Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them-with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long:

In the normal world the light of the sun might blind our eyes, but in the poem the eyes of Donne’s lover shine so brightly that she might blind the sun, Donne then shifts perspective and from being luminaries themselves he makes the lovers and their bed into an entire world, reversing the usual microcosm/macrocosm analogy. We are the macrocosm, the great world Donne is saying it is the so-called real outer world that is the tiny and pale imitation:

‘If her eyes have not blinded thine,

Look, and to morrow late, tell me,

Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay’.

Donne maps the great world onto his lovers body, in bed with her he has explored the two Indias of spice and mine. (The detail of this nice analogy is made more explicit in Loves Progress[8], a journey across the body; here it is just a hint). One little room has indeed become an ‘everywhere’, and he can boast:’Nothing else is’. He delights in the power of imagination to incarnate the vast into the tiny, a kind of shadow of the incarnation, the worlds ‘contracted thus.’ Of course he is playing, impishly and in a kind of glad wantonness with powerful ideas whose truer meaning and proper application he also knew and revered, the answering poem to this conceit of the world contracted to a lovers bed is in the beautiful line on the incarnation in his sonnet to Mary:

‘Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.’[9]

That lovely line from ‘Nativity’ in Holy Sonnets brings us to consideration of two sacred poems in which Donne continues to explore the possibilities in the triple vision which overlays world/body/map. We will look first at his ‘Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness,’[10]:

    Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before.

 

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

 

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

For, though their currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.

 

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,

All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,

Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

 

We think that Paradise and Calvary,

Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

 

So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;

By these his thorns, give me his other crown;

And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,

Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:

‘Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.’

This poem opens with a metaphor drawn from music making; life is a tuning of the instrument before we enter the holy room of heaven

‘Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before.’

This verse almost stands alone like an opening chord in a composition as for the rest of the poem Donne turns not to music but to map-making and cosmography for a key to transfiguring his experience. For transfiguration is what this poem is all about; glimpsing the possibility of renewal in the midst of sickness and death, catching a phrase of the music ‘you would never have known to listen for’ in the ‘fall of grit and dry seeds’ which is Donne’s approaching physical death. After the first stanza’s glimpse of heaven by way of prelude the poem returns to the grim insistence of Donne’s present experience as a fevered patient, flattened and sweating on his bed, being pored over and prodded by his doctors as though he had already ceased to be human and had become a mere object, hearing their diagnosis of steady decline and death by fever. Can poetry and the transfiguring power of imagination release any hope from that?

     Whilst my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

Once more the body is a map of the world, pored over and read, this time not in the joy of love-making but in the anxiety of diagnosis. The cosmographer/physicians make a ‘South-west discovery’. In the common symbolism in which this poem participates south stands for heat, the heat of Donne’s fever, and West, the quarter into which the sun declines, stands for decline and death. The cosmographers and explorers, Donne’s contemporaries in the outer-world, had been searching for a southwest passage, some narrow straight through which they could sail west into the pacific. The cosmographers of Donne’s body have found that south-west passage those narrow straights of fever through which he will pass into death ‘per fretum febris’, by the streights of fever.

But having by this metaphor expressed the worst, Donne, by the same metaphor begins to redeem the worst. For the outer cosmographers what lies beyond the straights of their ‘south-west discovery’ is not annihilation but the new and unimagined world of the Pacific Ocean, and in a round world the mariner who sails west into night and declination far enough finds he has arrived in the east, the east of morning and resurrection. So Donne having closed his second stanza with those two hard words ‘to die’, goes on:

‘ I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

For, though their currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.’

For Shakespeare death was ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’, Donne had read in mariners’ tales of  narrow straights whose currents were so swift that any vessel caught and borne by them could never hope to win a way back against them. So in his metaphor the strait of death is par excellence the straight ‘whose current yields return to none.’ But Donne knows from those same tales that eastern riches and pacific promise were never reached except through narrow straights as he says in a later verse:

‘Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,

All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,’

And so he says of the narrow straits of death

  ‘I joy, that in these straits I see my west;’

For in this brilliant metaphor he sees how in the flat Mercator projection the extreme points of east and west, appear to be separated at opposite edges of the map but the line of extreme west and the line of extreme east represent the same line and the same space in the real three dimensional world of which the map is a two dimensional image. So equally death seems the extreme edge of the map in the two-dimensional world of our physical experience, but in the three dimensional world of God’s reality the ‘west’ of death curves round to touch the ‘east’ of resurrection. Our bodies are only the deceptive flat maps of our true selves and when we stand in the true dimensions of heaven then we will know how ‘death doth touch the resurrection.’

This fruitful paradox leads him beyond the map-making metaphor to develop in the rest of the poem  a whole range of paradoxes on the identity of death and resurrection, paradise and Calvary, Christ’s cross and Adams tree until he reaches this complex poems simple and powerful conclusion:

‘Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.’

If the ‘Hymne’ mirrors and answers the map metaphors of ‘The Good Morrow’, transposing them from a secular to a sacred key, then it is equally true that the play with worlds and spheres and time which makes up ‘The Sun Rising’ is revisited and transformed by Donne in ‘Good Friday 1613 Riding Westwards’[11]

GOOD FRIDAY, 1613. RIDING WESTWARD

LET mans Soul be a Sphere, and then, in this,

The intelligence that moves, devotion is,

And as the other Spheres, by being grown

Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,

And being, by others hurried every day,

Scarce in a year their natural form obey:

Pleasure or businesses so, our Souls admit

For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West

This day, when my Soul’s form bends toward the East.

There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endlesse day beget;

But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all.

Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for me.

Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die;

What a death were it then to see God die?

It made his own Lieutenant Nature shrink,

It made his footstools crack, and the Sun wink.

Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,

And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

Could I behold that endlesse height which is

Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,

Humbled below us? or that blood which is

The seat of all our Souls, if not of his,

Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn

By God, for his apparel, rag’d, and torn?

If on these things I durst not look, durst I

Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,

Who was Gods partner here, and furnished thus

Half of that Sacrifice, which ransomed us?

Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,

They’re present yet unto my memory,

For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards me,

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;

I turn my back to thee, but to receive

Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

O think me worth thine anger, punish me,

Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,

Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,

That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Although this is one of Donne’s most subtle and complex poems, packed densely with allusions to the science and theology of his day, its basic scenario is clear; Donne Travels west on business in the outer world, whilst his soul turns eastward in devotion, and out of the particular moment of journeying which is the poem’s occasion Donne brings out and develops dilemmas and paradoxes of universal significance. As with all Donne’s poems we are invited to see with a double-vision both an outward and visible journey over the earths surface and an inward and spiritual journey, a journey of humanity towards God and God towards humanity. In the outward and visible world Donne, constrained by business, is riding westward, a direction which symbolises the journey of all our bodies towards sunset, decline and death, westering away from the eastward moment of our morning and birth. The business that forces Donne’s body to journey west also stands for the mortality which forces all our bodies along the long day’s journey into night. But Donne is constrained, he doesn’t actually want to journey west, anymore then any of us want to journey away from our morning into death. Whilst Donne feels outwardly constrained to journey west, in heart and soul he wants to turn east, to turn and face towards the place, outside Jerusalem where the great drama of all our deaths and resurrections takes place. Just as the heavenly bodies are deflected by ‘foreign motions’ from their true course, so likewise the business of this world diverts us from our true priorities and sets up a conflict between what carries us outwardly and where we are inwardly yearning to be:

‘And as the other Spheres, by being grown

Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,

And being, by others hurried every day,

Scarce in a year their natural form obey:

Pleasure or businesses so, our Souls admit

For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West

This day, when my Soul’s form bends toward the East.’

We may have changed the specifics of our astronomy but we can still relate to Donne’s account of how our souls allow pleasure or business to become so much our first mover that our whole life gets out of kilter, as we are carried out of our true course. Donne’s personal dilemma riding westward while his soul’s true form bends towards the east, is a good picture of our whole culture. We are ‘hurried every day’ away from our true course, away from the deep springs of truth, away from vision and purpose and love, hurried into triviality, until we are as Eliot would later put it, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction.’[12] But in the midst of his hurried westering the poet’s soul yearns towards the east and there his imagination embraces a series of paradoxes which prepare us for the great paradox of God’s death which forms the poems climax:

‘There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endlesse day beget;

But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all’

Then comes the admission that although he longs to turn back from his ‘business’ and seek God’s face he is in fact afraid to do so. It may be that his ‘business’ like our everyday hurriedness is something we choose as a way of hiding from God. From here the rest of the poem turns on images of seeing and being seen:

‘Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for me.

Who sees Gods face, that is self life, must die;

What a death were it then to see God die?

It made his own Lieutenant Nature shrink,

It made his footstools crack, and the Sun wink’.

 Here the conceit, in ‘The Sun Rising’ of eclipsing the sun with a wink is re-visited as the sun darkens and the earth gapes at God’s death on the cross. Donne’s imagination of a body which could be all kingdoms, of one persons passion affecting the whole cosmos, whose body is mapped out against the stars, and yet crushed to the ground by human malice is here made real by the creators endurance of a passion within his own creation:

‘Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,

And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

Could I behold that endlesse height which is

Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,

Humbled below us? or that blood which is

The seat of all our Souls, if not of his,

Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn

By God, for his apparel, rag’d, and torn?’

Then, after his reflection on the terrible figure of Mary standing by the cross, comes the paradox of present absence and piercing vision which is at the very heart of the poem and forms the transition from the speculation with which it begins to the impassioned prayer that ends it:

‘Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,

They’re present yet unto my memory,

For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards me,

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;

The line ‘For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,’is the hinge upon which the whole poem turns. Up to this point the poem has been about Donne’s looking, or failing to look, towards the East where the crucifixion takes place, but suddenly the tables are turned. Just as Donne thinks he is contemplating an image of something distant and in the past in his own memory, he finds the image he contemplates is neither distant nor in the past, but close and present. He finds that it is not he who looks, or fails to look, upon Christ but Christ who looks upon him. In this as in other poems, Donne shows how a human gaze, looking intently on an outward scene could pierce through it veils and in that piercing glance transfigure it. So he discovers at this crux of the poem that the gaze of his saviour looking back at him from his imagined image of the cross is ready to pierce and transform him.  Suddenly he realises that for all his protestations, he still has his back to God.  Here is a profound revision and reversal of the Old Testament archetype of man’s encounter with God.  There Moses climbs the mountain searching for God and finds that he can only glimpse a God whose back is turned to him so great is the barrier of human sin. But with the coming of God into human flesh in Christ the world is indeed turned upside down. God descends from the mountain to seek for humanity and this time it is humanity whose back is turned. Just as Moses was afraid to see the face of God, now Donne is afraid to turn and let God see his face and so he prays instead that even with his back turned, the piercing gaze of the crucified will begin to transform and purge him to make him able even to begin to turn and show his face.  His fear is that he has lost himself so utterly in the entrustment and deformity of sin, that he will no longer be recognisable to the God whose image he is to bear. Yet he longs to be known and so he begins with the fearful image of punishment and correction, the back turned to receive blows but even as he writes the word ‘corrections’ he discovers in those corrections God’s hidden mercy and prays for a burning-off of rust and deformity so that the lost image can be restored.  When the last line of the poem comes the word ‘turn’ has acquired the fullest sense of metanoia, repentance understood as a complete turning around of oneself and so also of one’s perspective.

‘I turn my back to thee, but to receive

Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

O thinks me worth thine anger, punish me,

Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,

Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,

That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face’.

 

[1] In The Poems of John Donne edited by Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford 1949) p.7 I have modernised the spelling

[2] The Poems pp.103-106

[3] Ibid pp.106-8

[4] Ibid p.107 lines 27-30

[5] Ibid pp.10-11

[6] Samuel Taylor Coleridge Marginalia vol.II edited by George Whalley (Princeton 1984) p.219  volume 12 in CC

[7]Preached Christmas 1624. collected in The Sermons of John Donne edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson (California 1953 re-issued 1984) volume VI p. 170

[8] The Poems pp.103-106

[9] Ibid p.290

[10] Ibid pp.336-337

[11] The Poems pp.306-308

[12] TS Eliot The Four Quartets (Faber London 1944) ‘Burnt Norton’ section III line 101

 

 

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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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A Sonnet for George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

On February 27th the Church of England keeps the feast and celebrates the memory of George Herbert, the gentle poet priest whose book the Temple, published posthumously in 1633 by his friend Nicholas Ferrar has done so much to help and inspire Christians ever since. In an earlier blog post I gave a talk on George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer, today, on the eve of his feast, I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my most recent poetry book The Singing Bowl. The sequence is a celebration of the saints, intended to complement my sequence Sounding the Seasons.

You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon, and I am vey happy to say that both book s are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE

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

George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,

With all that passed between you and your Lord,

That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles

Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.

Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,

Has been entrusted now to every soul,

We make a new beginning in your end

And find your broken heart has made us whole.

Time has transplanted you, and you take root,

Past changing in the paradise of Love,

Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,

And listen for an echo from above,

Open the window, let me hear you sing,

And see the Word with you in everything.

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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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Blake and Coleridge – an imagined conversation!

The Frontispiece of Blake's prophetic poem Jerusalem

The Frontispiece of Blake’s prophetic poem Jerusalem

There is a passage in my new book ‘Mariner’ in which I tell the story of how Coleridge met William Bake, then an old man living in almost complete obscurity and poverty in Fountain Court in London. The meeting was arranged by Charles Augustus Tulk, a Swedenborgian who had been inspired by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to get poets and writers campaigning for the first factory act, limiting the working hours and improving the conditions of children working in he new factories. Coleridge was active and successful in this campaign. Having lent Coleridge Blake’s poems, Tulke brough the two great sages together. He says ‘Blake and Coleridge, when in company seemed like congenial beings from another sphere breathing for a while on our earth’. Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us what they actually said!

I was honoured to be invited by the William Blake Society to see if I could reconstruct, or at least encourage us to imagine, what that unrecorded conversation might have been like, and last night, at a meeting of the Blake society in Waterstones on Piccadilly I did just that. The substance of all that I imagined them saying is drawn from their letters and published works and I gave a handout with the sources which I also print here, along with a recording of the talk. I got rather carried away and paced around a bit and I occasionally move from the microphone so the sound comes and goes a little, but I think it is all audible.

At the core of this conversation as I imagine it, is the way both men recognised Jesus as the Divine Imagination and Love bodied forth for us and kindling afresh in us the love and imagination which is God’s lost image deep in our souls. Both men were calling for England (‘Albion’ in Blakes terms) to awaken from the sleep of materialism, greed and conquest, and to be renewed in Christ through an awakening of the spiritual imagination. I hope some sense of the power and urgency of that unfinished task, and the call to continue it, comes through in this recording:

Albion comes to Christ and repents: "O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law"

Albion comes to Christ and repents: “O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law”

Here is the text of the handout giving the sources of my quotations:

  • To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour (from Auguries of Innocence)

 

  • I see the Four-fold Man. The Humanity in deadly sleep
    And its fallen Emanation. The Spectre & its cruel Shadow.
    I see the Past, Present & Future, existing all at once
    Before me; O Divine Spirit sustain me on thy wings!
    That I may awake Albion from his long & cold repose.
    For Bacon & Newton sheathd in dismal steel, their terrors hang
    Like iron scourges over Albion, Reasonings like vast Serpents
    Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations
    I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
    And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
    Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
    In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
    Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
    Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
    Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace. (From Jerusalem)

 

  • so shalt thou see and hear
    The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
    Of that eternal language, which thy God
    Utters, who from eternity doth teach
    Himself in all, and all things in himself.
    Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
    Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask. (from Frost at Midnight)

 

  • Be not afraid, that I shall join the party of the Little-ists – I believe, that I shall delight you by the detection of their artifices – Now Mr Locke was the founder of this sect, himself a perfect Little-ist. My opinion is this – that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton’s works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind & therefore to you, that I believe the souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakspere or a Milton. But if it please the Almighty to grant me health, hope, and a steady mind, (always the 3 clauses of my hourly prayers) before my 30th year I will thoroughly understand the whole of Newton’s works – At present, I must content myself with endeavouring to make myself master of his easier work, that on Optics. I am exceedingly delighted with the beauty & neatness of his experiment, & with the accuracy of his immediate Deductions from them – but the opinions found on these Deductions, and indeed his whole Theory is, I am persuaded, so exceedingly superficial as without impropriety to be deemed false. Newton was a mere materialist – Mind in his system is always passive – a lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God’s Image, & that too in the sublimest sense – the Image of the Creator – there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system. (Coleridge letter to Thomas Poole)

 

  • They and only they can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them. (From Biographia Literaria)
  • ‘The imagination then, I consider either as primary or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. (From Biographia Literaria)

 

  • Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me.
    Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
    To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
    Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
    Ever expanding in the Bosom of God. the Human Imagination
    O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love:
    Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life!

Abstract Philosophy warring in enmity against Imagination
(Which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus. blessed for ever). (Jerusalem)

  • O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
    I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law (Jerusalem)
  • I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination. (Jerusalem)

 

  • For the writings of these Mystics acted in no slight degree to prevent my mind from being imprisoned within the outline of any single dogmatic system. They contributed to keep alive the heart in the head; gave me an indistinct, yet stirring and working presentiment, that all the products of the mere reflective faculty partook of death, and were as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which a sap was yet to be propelled from some root to which I had not penetrated, if they were to a ord my soul either food or shelter. If they were too often a moving cloud of smoke to me by day, yet they were always a pillar of fire through- out the night, during my wanderings through the wilderness of doubt, and enabled me to skirt, without crossing, the sandy deserts of utter unbelief. Biographia Literaria

 

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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

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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