Tag Archives: Phillip Larkin

In Drear-nighted December

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity…

“Drear-nighted December” Keats’s felicitous phrase sums up the way many of us feel in the dreary darkness of encroaching winter. But, much as I love his poetry, I think in this case Keats is wrong about the tree. Indeed, it is just because those bleak rain-lashed December branches do ‘remember their green felicity’, and still retain, hidden within themselves, the patterns and energy of all their former green-ness that they will unfold  into leaf again in spring and be able, as Larkin said, of trees in May, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

It can be the same with us, we manage to get through the winter, and also through the heart’s severer seasons, because we carry the memories of spring and we are sustained by a kind of parley between memory and hope. So George Herbert, trying to cope with severe experiences of depression and loss, writes in his poem “The Flower”:

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

But Herbert knew, even in the depth of winter that “grief melts away/like snow in May/ as if there were no such cold thing” and so in this great poem of recovery he writes: And now in age I bud again,/After so many deaths I live …

And what about us? I think that we too, in drear-nighted December need to remember our ‘green felicity’, and surely that is just what we do at Christmas. In the darkest time of the year Christ, The Life within us and the seed of light is sown. The root of Jesse, the stock of that True Vine from which we all spring, is planted in our hearts, just when for many of us our hearts feel at their darkest and most ploughed up. So through the dark days of advent I pray for Him to come so deeply and quietly into our hearts that, as Lancelot Andrewes said: “He may with one word make all green again”.

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A longed-for day has come at last

It’s been a long time coming. My book Faith Hope and Poetry has been a labour of love over the last decade, written slowly in the midst of the many demands of pastoral, priestly, academic and family life, but it is here at last. I am immensley grateful to the many people who have helped me on this road, not least the sudents whose ideas and questions have always reminded this teacher that he cannot teach unless he is a student too. 

At the heart of my book is a celebration and defense of the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential means of grasping reality, not a subjective fantasy compensation for the grimness of things ‘out there’.  Each chapter explores a poet or group of poets who are bearing witness, through imagination, to essential truths that I feel are pertinant to our own age but the whole book is about how the language of poetry initiates us into mysteries we could enter in no other way. By way of a taster I am posting here the dedicatory poem and the concluding paragraphs:

De Magistro

I thank my God I have emerged at last,
blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars
bewildered by the shadows that I cast.

You set me on this stair, in those rich hours
pacing your study, chanting poetry.
The Word in you revealed His quickening powers,

removed the daily veil, and let me see,
as sunlight played along your book-lined walls,
that words are windows onto mystery.

From Eden, whence the living fountain falls
in music, from the tower of ivory,
and from the hidden heart, He calls

in the language of Adam, creating memory
of unfallen speech. He sets creation
free from the carapace of history.

His image in us is Imagination,
His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath
upon the letters of His revelation.

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
that leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

you showed me how my halting words might reach
to the mind’s Maker, to the source of Love,
and so you taught me what it means to teach.

Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove
climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.
Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,

as fellow pilgrims on a needful journey.

Conclusion

           ” This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears.  In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it.  We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity.  For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God.  Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’.  Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown.  Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.”

This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.

I hope you have enjoyed these extracts and that those of you who have a chance to read it enjoy the book. The publishers page is here

and the English Amazon page is here.

the American Amazon page is here

I’m sorry that, as a modern hardback it is so expensive, I hope, if this edition sells well enough, that they will bring it out in an accessible paperback. Meanwhile you can always encourage your local library to buy it.

M

 

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Filed under christianity, imagination, Inklings, literature, Poems, Theology and Arts

Huzzah!

The Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis, co-edited by Michael Ward of Planet Narnia fame is at last beginning to emerge into the light of day! It is now properly listed in the CUP Catalogue and you can read about it HERE. It should be out and on the shelves of the bookshops,and the warehouses of  Amazon in the spring. Its very wide ranging and original and I was especially pleased to be asked to write the chapter on Lewis as a poet. I think Lewis is a much better poet than is commonly thought, but has been unjustly neglected by the mainstream literary establishment largely because his supposed antipathy to TS Eliot. but its more complex than that. In the chapter I argue that Lewis  and Eliot, who became real friends towards the end of of their lives have more in common then either was at first willing to admit (including of course their adult conversions to the christian faith). I try to show that even, (and especially) judged by Eliot’s own criteria Lewis emerges as a more accomplished and important poet than he is usually given credit for. I also make some comparison between Lewis and some significant poets who have emerged since his death, particularly Phillip Larkin and Paul Muldoon and show how he anticipated some of their forms and themes, and how reading them can send us back to Lewis with a new appreciation. I look forward to the controversy that some of these ideas may cause!

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