Tag Archives: Poetry

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.

Here’s a quick youtube video of me reading some verses from the first part and setting the scene, then below that are the links for you to download audio of my reading of the whole poem:

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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Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a birthday sonnet, and a book

SamuelTaylorColeridgeThe great poet, philosopher, and Christian sage, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on the 21st of October in 1772, so I am reposting this sonnet for his birthday!

I should also mention that in 2017 I published Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge which has been well and widely reviewed and examines Coleridge’s life and faith in fresh ways, through the lens of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his most famous poem.

I could not begin to reckon the personal debt I owe to Coleridge; for his poetry, for his personal and Christian wisdom, above all for his brilliant exploration and defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty which participates in, and is redeemed by the Logos, the living Word, himself the Divine Imagination. We are only now coming to appreciate the depth and range of what he achieved, his contemporaries scarcely understood him, and his Victorian successors looked down in judgement at what they saw as the shipwreck of his life. Something of that experience of rejection, twinned with deep Christian conviction, can be seen in the epitaph he wrote for himself:

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

From my teenage raptures when I was first enchanted by Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner, to my own struggles and adventures in the middle of life STC has been my companion and guide.In the chapter on Coleridge in my book Faith Hope and Poetry I have set out an account of his thinking and made the case for his central importance in our own age, but what I offer here is a sonnet celebrating his legacy, drawing on that epitaph I mentioned above, one of a sequence of sonnets on my fellow christians in my  book The Singing Bowl,  published last year by the Canterbury Press.

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

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God!’

You made your epitaph imperative,

And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad

To stop with you and start again, to live

From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,

Whose living power is imagination,

And know myself a child of the I AM,

Open and loving to his whole creation.

Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,

To let his light transfigure all my seeing,

To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,

And make with him the poem of my being.

I follow where you sail towards our haven,

Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

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A Sonnet for St. Luke’s Day

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

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, include a mini-sequence on 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. In this iconographic tradition Luke’s emblem is the ox, the lowly servant 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 of his brother Luc.  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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‘Our God Shall Come: A Response to Psalm 50

Rebecca Merry’s cover for David’s Crown

We have come to an important milestone or staging post in our journey through the psalms: 50! A third of the way through! So I thought I’d take this occasion to confirm that this collection of responses to the psalms will indeed be coming out as a book next year, published by Canterbury Press under the title ‘David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms’. As you will see from the picture above Rebecca Merry, who did the cover art for Sounding the Seasons has also made some beautiful art work for the new book. So do look out for it.there is already a page for pre-orders here. 

Psalm 50 gives us a glimpse of God’s beauty and majesty as it glimmers already through the light and beauty of the world:

  1. THE Lord, even the most mighty God, hath spoken: and called the world, from the rising up of the sun unto the going down thereof.

  2. Out of Sion hath God appeared: in perfect beauty.

But it also promises a greater presence when he shall come in the fulness of his glory to bring justice at last to the earth:

Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: there shall go before him a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest shall be stirred up round about him.

He shall call the heaven from above: and the earth, that he may judge his people.

These themes added a sense of joy and promise to my poem. You can press the ‘play’ button to hear me read it

L Deus deorum
 
Your heart’s in heaven, keep your treasure there,
For Heaven itself is coming to the earth!
Our God is coming, and he will appear
 
In perfect beauty. All these pangs of birth
Will turn to joy as our whole world is born
Again in him. The pain, the want, the dearth,
 
The dark, will vanish in that rising dawn,
And all the creatures on a thousand hills:
People and beasts and birds, that holy morn,
 
Will join in one dawn chorus. Glory spills
Already from beneath that glad horizon
And even now you hear his voice. He calls
 
You through your conscience, and your reason,
He calls you through your deep imagination
He calls you to discern his time and season.

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A Sonnet for St. Francis

st-francis-of-assisiSt. Francis Day falls on the 4th of October so I thought I would repost this sonnet which reflects the way Francis responded to Christ’s call by casting away the rich trappings he had inherited and embracing holy poverty.The sonnet, which I wrote shortly after the election of the new Pope, is also a prayer that Pope Francis the 1st will enable the wider church to do the same! As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title

My sonnets for the Christian Year are available from Canterbury Press Here and on Kindle here

This sonnet for Francis is taken from my book The Singing Bowl, published by Canterbury Press. It is also available from Amazon UK Here, and USA Here and in Canada it is kept in stock by SignpostMusic


‘Francis, Rebuild My Church’; a sonnet for the Saint and for the new Pope

‘Francis rebuild my church which, as you see
Is falling into ruin.’ From the cross
Your saviour spoke to you and speaks to us
Again through you. Undoing set you free,
Loosened the traps of trappings, cast away
The trammelling of all that costly cloth
We wind our saviour in. At break of day
He set aside his grave-clothes. Your new birth
Came like a daybreak too, naked and true
To poverty and to the gospel call,
You woke to Christ and Christ awoke in you
And set to work through all your love and skill
To make our ruin good, to bless and heal
To wake the Christ in us and make us whole.
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A Villanelle for National Poetry Day

Ah, here is the poem thats causing the problem! Its by Guite of course!

It’s National Poetry Day here in the UK so I thought I’d post this villanelle up in honour of the day. I was once photocopying some poems for a talk when the whole machine ground to a halt, totally jammed. I pulled what poetry I could from its innards and rushed off to give my talk. When I came back the woman in charge of the machine pointed an accusing finger and said “Your poetry is jamming my machine!” I thought that was such a great line that I borrowed it and wrote her this poem for her to make ammends.

As always you can hear it by clicking the ‘play’ button, if it appears or else clicking the hyperlink in the poem’s inordinately long title. 🙂

On being told my poetry was found in a broken photocopier

My poetry is jamming your machine

It broke the photo-copier, I’m to blame,

With pictures copied from a world unseen.

 

My poem is in the works -I’m on the scene

We free my verse, and I confess my shame,

My poetry is jamming your machine.

 

Though you berate me with what might have been,

You stop to read the poem, just the same,

And pictures, copied from a world unseen,

 

Subvert the icons on your mental screen

And open windows with a whispered name;

My poetry is jamming your machine.

 

For chosen words can change the things they mean

And set the once-familiar world aflame

With pictures copied from a world unseen

 

The mental props give way, on which you lean

The world you see will never be the same,

My poetry is jamming your machine

With pictures copied from a world unseen

 

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‘In The Midst Of Thy Temple’: A Response To Psalm 48

Psalm 48 is a celebration of the city of Zion and the temple in her midst, a celebration of the covenant promise that God would faithfully meet his people there. For a Christian this psalm takes on a new significance. Firstly because we know that the Temple, the meeting place of God and his people was a archetype and foreshadowing of Christ, who would himself be the temple, the meeting place of God and the whole of humanity. And secondly because of the wonderful truth that when we are members of the body of Christ, whose body is the true temple, then we ourselves, both body and soul, become a temple of the Holy Spirit, that Christ himself comes into us to a abide with us and in us. No longer need we travel to some outer destination to meet with God, but need only turn inward to find that ‘in our hearts are the highways to Zion’. The temple is already there within us, and Christ is waiting, deep in the mystery of our own heart and soul, if only we will enter those depths and find him. And there, in the depth of our own being he will meet with us, to cleanse us and renew us.

This is especially good news for us as Covid tightens its grip and lockdown looms again. If we are self-isolating, or if our churches are closed again, we can find him in our own hearts and homes where there will be no social distancing, only spiritual intimacy.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVIII Magnus Dominus

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home

Not just the hill of Sion, but the whole

Round world. Call him from anywhere, he’ll

 

Come to you and make his dwelling. Hail

Him in any language, he replies

In your own mother-tongue. For now your soul

 

Is his true Sion, and each day you rise

Already in the city of your God.

So mark the towers and temples, and apprise

 

Again the beauty of your new abode.

Your soul is greater than you ever knew:

Walk round its walls, then take the holy road

 

That winds towards its centre, where the new

Temple of his spirit shines and stands,

Where Christ himself is there to welcome you.

 

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He Is The Great King: a response to Psalm 47

If there was a struggle in the midst of trials, that issued in the hard-won hope of psalm 46, then that hope and confidence flowers into a great hymn of praise and joy in psalm 47, a hymn that rings with greater assurance precisely because it follows on from the struggles of the preceding psalm. Psalm47 is often set by Christians as a psalm for Ascension Day, especially with its ringing line, so often set to music:

God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump.

But to my mind the real joy of psalm 47 is not so much that he has gone up as that he has also come down. The great revelation here is that, though heaven is, in one sense, still to come, we can nevertheless begin rejoicing now because God has not abandoned us here on earth but has already come down to be our king and kindle our hope. So the key line for me is the second verse, which acknowledges that though the Lord is high and transcendent, the glorious king of heaven, he is also, ultimately, the king here on earth:

For the Lord is high, and to be feared: he is the great King upon all the earth.

Indeed psalm 47 begins a little sequence of psalms that anticipate the way that, in Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, heaven and earth can finally be brought together, and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. And that insight provided the key to my interpretation of this psalm.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVII Omnes gentes, plaudite

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease

He must be king of earth as well as heaven

We must invite him here, to make his peace

 

Within us and between us, that forgiven,

We may release forgiveness here on earth,

Working and spreading like a holy leaven,

 

A secret of the kingdom, heaven’s breath,

A kindling from the place where Christ is king

For he has triumphed and defeated death

 

And even now he calls our hearts to sing

Sing praises in the kingdom still to come

And in the one already here, to bring,

 

Ourselves, our arts and music, trumpet, drum

And tabor, all to make a merry noise,

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home!

 

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God Is Our Hope And Strength: A Response to Psalm 46

Today we come to Psalm 46 which is is a firm favourite with many people and for good reason. Its opening line sets the theme of God’s reassuring strength and presence:

  1. GOD is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble.

It is in the context of that reassuring strength and confidence that we can face our fears and deal with what the prayer book calls ‘ all the changes and chances of this fleeting world’ and 2020 is certainly a year in which we have seen more than our fair share of those changes and chances. And so the psalm continues:

Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved: and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof rage and swell: and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God: the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest.

God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed: God shall help her, and that right early.

And then, towards the end comes the wonderful prophecy of peace, and the vision of God as peacemaker:

He maketh wars to cease in all the world: he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder, and burneth the chariots in the fire.

It was through Mary’s obedience that the Prince of Peace was born into this world, so I pick up the thread of the final line of my poem on psalm 45 to begin this poem, a poem for strength and encouragement written in the midst of this appalling year in which it seems, as I say in the poem, that ‘everything around us falls apart’. Everything except our loving God.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVI Deus noster refugium

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation,

For God was in the midst of her, and now

We too are called, in every generation

 

To find in him our hope and strength, though

Everything around us falls apart,

And all our towering schemes have been laid low

 

Now is the time to take his truth to heart

And to be glad within the holy place

That he himself has made in us. To start

 

Each day with him, abiding in his grace

As he abides with us. To know his peace

To turn towards his light and seek his face

 

And let his flowing spirit find release

And flow through us into his weary world

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease.

 

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‘Hearken O Daughter’: a Response to Psalm 45

After another brief break, this time for a pilgrimage to Canterbury and beyond, I resume the love-worn thread of the time-worn psalter, and we come now to psalm 45. In making my response I was tempted, of course, by its famous phrase ‘My tongue is the pen of a ready writer’ to write about writing itself and make a poem about poetry. But there is an older and richer tradition of interpretation for this psalm and I was drawn to that instead. That older tradition is to draw from this psalm some phrases and images that help us appreciate and bless Mary, the mother of our Lord. The scripture tells us that all generations will call her blessed and rightly so. Scholars think this psalm, with its image of the kings daughters, the handmaidens, the queen in a vesture of gold, may well have been set for a royal wedding, but from early on Christians found themselves thinking of Mary when they read it, and so I have taken occasion of this psalm to write another poem in her honour. I was brought up in the reformed tradition, which tended to ignore Mary in reaction to what they thought was Catholic ‘mariolotary’ but anyone who venerates Jesus must stand in awe of the one through whose obedience and courage he came into the world, the one to whom God entrusted his upbringing, and who, in Luke’s gospel, is filled with the spirit and speaks prophetic words. There is a deep sense in which every Christian must be like Mary and say to God ‘ Be it unto me according to thy word’, and like Mary, try to bear Christ fruitfully into the world and bring others to him.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLV Eructavit cor meum

And still we live as if we have forgotten

But someone keeps all these things in her heart.

Who bore for us the only one begotten,

 

The Son of God. And now she takes our part

And calls us to remember all his mercy

Calls us with all our skill, and all our art

 

To magnify his name, for it is holy

For now she dwells with him, in joy and gladness,

The Mystic Rose of heaven, once so lowly

 

Whose heart was also pierced, who feels our sadness

And shows us how to pray. Each generation

Has known her help and presence, heard her witness

 

The great things done through her. In every nation

She nurtures those who bear Christ to the world,

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation.

 

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