Tag Archives: Sonnets

A Sonnet for George Herbert

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 Day, I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my 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, 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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A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday

Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s Cross

 

I am reposting this Ash Wednesday Sonnet from  Sounding the Seasons, with a new sense of urgency. It was eleven years ago that I wrote the lines:

The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.

Since then the destruction has increased, and more recently I wrote Our Burning World, set as an Anthem by Rhiannon Randle.

So here again is the sonnet and the little introduction I wrote for it a decade ago:

As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares. So some of those themes are visited in this sonnet, which is also found in my new book The Word in the Wilderness which contains these and other poems set out so that you can reflect on a poem a day throughout Lent. If you’d like to pursue the Lenten journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. 

As before I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the remarkable commentary on these poems which she is making through her photographs. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play Button

Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

And here, as a bonus track is a recording the singer-songwriter Bob Bennet sent me of a sung version of this poem which he composed minutes after hearing the poem for the first time. This is a rough ‘field recording’ taken whilst the song was still forming but he’s allowed me to share it!

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A Sonnet on the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Pausing for a moment in our progress through the Psalms I return to my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, to share a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials with him, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but is also sometimes remembered on this Sunday before Lent, which is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:

I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.

The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:

As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.

Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.

I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.

I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.

Transfiguration

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’

It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”

This and my other sonnets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem

Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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Apostle! -a sonnet for St. Paul

Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany

The 25th of January is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great Apostle.

This and my other sonets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking n the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title of the poem.



Apostle

An enemy whom God has made a friend,

A righteous man discounting righteousness,

Last to believe and first for God to send,

He found the fountain in the wilderness.

Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,

A prisoner who set his captors free,

A naked man with love his only garment,

A blinded man who helped the world to see,

A Jew who had been perfect in the law,

Blesses the flesh of every other race

And helps them see what the apostles saw;

The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.

Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,

And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.

 

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The First Sunday of Epiphany -Jesus’ Baptism

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many little ‘epiphanies’, glimpses of how things really are, which are vouchsafed us in the Gospel. This coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Epiphany is a time to reflect on the moment when ‘the heavens opened’ at Jesus’ Baptism and we were given a glimpse of Father Son and Holy Spirit at the heart of all things. This sonnet, which I am posting a little early in case people might want to use it on Sunday, is a reflection on that mystery. As always you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ sign or on the title of the poem. I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful photograph, taken at the river Jordan which says as much as, if not more than the poem. The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop.  After the text of the poem I have included links to the wonderful song Steve Bell wrote from it.

Epiphany on the Jordan


Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings
‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’

In that quick light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.

Also check out Steve Bell’s amazing album Keening for the Dawn in which he reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song
Keening for the Dawn
You can hear the song itself on sound loud here:

Epiphany on the Jordan

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O Virgo Virginum: a new sonnet set and sung!

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgo Virginum

Three years ago I was asked by the Precentor of Wells Cathedral if I would write an extra 8th Antiphon sonnet to go with the special 8th O antiphon, O Virgo Virginum, which was used in English churches and Cathedrals in the middle ages, as distinct from the usual seven on the continent. He explained that the Cathedral was reviving this practice and as they were also using my other seven sonnets it would help to have an extra eighth sonnet for the eighth Antiphon. It had its debut at the Cathedral Advent Carol service on 27th November 2016 but I am happy to share it here on the day O Virgo was traditionally sung.

Reflecting on the Antiphon O Virgo Virginum, whose text you can read below, in English and in Latin, I was struck by the way it is about seeing and marvelling, about the transformative power of vision, but I was also struck by the presence of other women in the antiphon: the vision of Mary as a ‘maid amongst the maidens’, the invocation of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’. As I reflected on that, I thought of all those ‘maidens’, young girls and women of our own times, who, like Mary, have become refugees, vulnerable like Mary, scorned, or falsely accused as she was, and I wanted to remember them in my sonnet and to think of Mary as especially the carer and advocate for exploited and vulnerable women.

Since last year this poem and the antiphon which inspired it have also been set to music  by David Solomons and performed by a choir in south Africa and you can watch and listen to a youtube recording of it here:

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

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?

For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Who are the daughters of Jerusalem,

Who glimpse you still as you transform their seeing?

Whom have you called to this mysterium,

And bathed in the blithe fountain of your being?

Daughters of sorrow, daughters of despair,

The cast-aside, the overlooked, the spurned

The broken girls who scarcely breathe a prayer

The ones whose love has never been returned.

O Maid amongst the maidens, turn your face,

For when we glimpse you we are not alone,

O look us out of grief and into grace,

Lift us in love made stronger than our own,

Summon the spring in our worst wilderness,

And make us fruitful in your fruitfulness.

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?

Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.

Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?

Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

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O Emmanuel; a final antiphon and more music

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson


In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,we come to the last of the Seven Great O Antiphons, which was sung on either side of the Magnificat on Christmas Eve, O Emmanuel, O God with us. This is the antiphon from which our lovely Advent hymn takes its name. It was also this final antiphon which revealed the secret message embedded subtly into the whole antiphon sequence. In each of these antiohons we have been calling on Him to come to us, to come as Light as Key, as King, as God-with-us. Now, standing on the brink of Christmas Eve, looking back at the illuminated capital letters for each of the seven titles of Christ we would see an answer to our pleas : ERO CRAS the latin words meaning ‘Tomorrow I will come!”

O Emmanuel

O Rex

O Oriens

O Clavis

O Radix

O Adonai

O Sapientia

I have also tried in my final sonnet to look back across the other titles of Christ, but also to look forward, beyond Christmas, to the new birth for humanity and for the whole cosmos, which is promised in the birth of God in our midst.

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:

Within the ‘O’ I painted today there is a still point. Here the Virgin holds her Son Jesus, face to face. I imagine the sweet small breath of the newborn, the quickened little wick so tightly curled’, as he is held tenderly by his Mother, Mary.

The inspiration for this ink drawing came from a wood or lino cut. It is a simple image, quite different from the image of yesterday and reminds us to be simple when we come to God. How prepared are we to be emptied, to let go of our self stuffed fullness and cleverness? How radically are we willing to let God chisel off our pride so that we are open to the ‘Other’ who is God, who is our neighbour. Until we are emptied of our perceived ‘riches’ we will not be able to hear God or our neighbour who may be asking us for ‘spare change’, who may be from a different religious tradition, who may be our ‘enemy’. These are the thoughts I have as I look at this simple image. If we stubbornly cling to our own views and opinions, we can’t see a different perspective. Rumi, the Sufi poet says, ‘Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.’

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

Once More Jac Redford has kindly agreed to share the recording of his excellent setting of this sonnet, which you can find on his record Let beauty be our Memorial You can hear his setting here: 

The second ‘play’ button is the antiphon sung on either side of my reading of the poem.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

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O Rex Gentium a Sixth Advent Reflection

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson


In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The sixth great ‘O’ antiphon, O Rex Gentium, calls on Christ as King, yet also calls him corner stone and pictures him getting his hands dirty and shaping us with clay, wonderfully incongruous combination!  But he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider! In this Sonnet I also reflect on on how God shapes us through all that happens to us in our living clay. He hasn’t finished with us yet!  You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson for her book of responses to my book Waiting on the Word. Linda Writes:

The great ‘O’ of this poem spoke directly to me about prayer and meditation. We can only truly know God through love, and passion for God arises through prayer. When God takes hold of us we are expanded and broadened, and this expansion is always creative. It reveals the light beyond our darkness, the gold that gleams through our rags and the latent life within us. It is a burgeoning of praise and wonder from within us but this is all drawn out by God. Our part is to want God and to give to God whatever of our wills and time we can manage each day.

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. You can also hear Jac Redford‘s beautiful setting of his poem here: 

 

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one

Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay

Here is my reading of the poem:
O Rex Gentium

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

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O Oriens A Fifth Advent reflection with music

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The fifth ‘great ‘O’ antiphon in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word calls on Christ as the ‘Oriens’, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, and it comes as an answer to the sense of darkness and captivity in the fourth antiphon, O Clavis‘ I find the idea of Christ as rising light in the East very moving, for he is Alpha, the ‘Beginning’. The Translation which gives ‘Dayspring’ for Oriens I especially love, both because ‘Dayspring’ suggests at one and the same time, both light and water, two primal goods in life which I love in combination, especially light reflected on water, and also because ‘Dayspring’ was the name of a ship my great grandfather built for Scottish missionaries and also the name of the little gaff cutter, from whose deck I saw the dawn rise after a long period of darkness. Many of these senses of ‘Dayspring’ are at play in the sonnet I have given below. I should also mention that the line from Dante means “I saw light in the form of a river’ another touchstone moment for me in the Paradiso 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:

How often do you hear the word ‘Dayspring’ used in common parlance? It is such a beautiful word meaning ‘dawn’. Here it is in Luke 1:76-79: ‘And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways… whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (King James Version)

I laboured over this small painting using acrylic paint, ink and watercolour to try to get that ephemeral light that only a very few astronauts have ever seen with their own eyes. The great blue Earth turns away from the darkness of the void and is lit by the Sun, the archetype of God, and Malcolm’s poem is so full of expectant joy and peace – ‘the darkness was a dream’. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says, ‘ We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience’.

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 also glad that Jac Redford has given me permission to share his beautiful setting of this poem. So the first of the ‘play’ buttons below gives you JAC’s choral setting and the second gives you the plainsong antiphon, and me reading the poem.

O Oriens: 

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis

O Dayspring,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

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