Tag Archives: spirituality

A pair of sonnets for St. John the Baptist.

So keep his fires burning through the night
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.

In our poetic journey through the sacred seasons of the year we have come to midsummer! The traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us  that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!

The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.

I have written two sonnets,  one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.

I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry  for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.

Both these sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on bothAmazon UK and USA and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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.

As usual you can hear the poems by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.

St. John the Baptist: 1 St. John’s Eve

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill

Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:

‘He must increase and I diminish still,

Until his sun illuminates my night.’

So John the Baptist pioneers our path,

Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,

Unlatches the last doorway into faith,

And makes one inner space an everywhere.

Least of the new and greatest of the old,

Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,

He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold

The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”

So keep his fires burning through this night,

Beacons and gateways for the child of light.


St. John the Baptist: 2 Baptism

Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,

A wide womb floating on the breath of God,

Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift

Lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,

And under-girded with an unheard song,

Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,

Calling us to the life for which we long,

Yearning to bring us to our birth again.

Again the breath of God is on the waters

In whose reflecting face our candles shine,

Again he draws from death the sons and daughters

For whom he bid the elements combine.

As living stones around a font today,

Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.

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Corpus Christi: Three Sonnets on Communion

The Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ), which falls this year on the 15th of June, is really a celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. In mediaeval times there used to be wonderful processions in which the consecrated elements were taken out of the church on this day and processed on the streets, showing that the Word made flesh was not just in a box labelled ‘church’ but in our midst, just as He was on the streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem. Rebecca Merry‘s lovely art work ( above) has the feel of those mediaeval ‘showings’ on Corpus Christi.

For my contribution to Corpus Christi I am offering here a trio of sonnets about the experience of receiving Holy Communion, each from a slightly different angle. The first two sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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. The third sonnet, which is about the 16th Century Oak communion Table in my church St. Edward King and Martyr, is from my book The Singing Bowl also published by Canterbury Press

Margot Krebs Neale has reflected on my phrases ‘He does not come in unimagined light ‘ and ‘to dye himself into experience’ with an image not simply of a stained glass window but of that dyed and refracted light itself reflected in water. I am grateful both to Rebecca and Margot for the way their work reflects on and develops mine. As always you can hear me read the poetry by clicking on the play button above each sonnet, if it appears, or on the title of the poem itself.


1 Love’s Choice

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,

A little visitation on my tongue,

A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.

This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung

A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,

Even its aftertaste a memory.

Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread

Love chooses to be emptied into me.

He does not come in unimagined light

Too bright to be denied, too absolute

For consciousness, too strong for sight,

Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;

Chooses instead to seep into each sense,

To dye himself into experience.

He does not come in unimagined light…


2 Hide and Seek

Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!

And so I know I’m hiding, and I know

My hiding-place is useless. You will come

And find me. You are searching high and low.

Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,

Below the sunlit surface others see.

Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.

And here you come and here I come to you.

I come to you because you come to me.

You know my hiding places. I know you,

I reach you through your hiding-places too;

Touching the slender thread, but now I see –

Even in darkness I can see you shine,

Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.

3 This Table

The centuries have settled on this table
Deepened the grain beneath a clean white cloth
Which bears afresh our changing elements.
Year after year of prayer, in hope and trouble,
Were poured out here and blessed and broken, both
In aching absence and in absent presence.

This table too the earth herself has given
And human hands have made. Where candle-flame
At corners burns and turns the air to light
The oak once held its branches up to heaven,
Blessing the elements which it became,
Rooting the dew and rain, branching the light.

Because another tree can bear, unbearable,
For us, the weight of Love, so can this table

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A Sonnet for Trinity Sunday

20110619-000808.jpg

Continuing my cycle of sonnets for the Church year. Here is one for Trinity Sunday which I am posting the day before, in case people would like to make use of it tomorrow.

By coming to us as the Son, revealing to us the Father, and sending to us the Spirit, Jesus revealed the deepest mystery; that God is not distant and alone, but is three in one, a communion of love who comes to make His home with us.

The Rublev Icon, above, shows the Three in One inviting us to share in that communion. If, as I believe, we are made in the image of God, as beings in communion with one another in the name of that Holy and Undivided Trnity whose being is communion, then we will find reflections and traces of the Trinitarian mystery in all our loving and making. I have tried to suggest this throughout the poem and especially in the phrase ‘makes us each the other’s inspiration’ and Margot Krebs Neale has taken this idea of mutual and coinherent inspiration and remaking in the remarkable image she has made in response to this sonnet which follows the poem, an image which involves the mutually -inspired work of three artists and is one picture woven of three images. She writes to me about this image:

“The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,

And makes us each the other’s inspiration.”

sent me in this direction…


The picture of you is by Lancia Smith

the picture of me is by Peter Nixon

the picture of the infinite is by an artist i don’t know

the composition is by me

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

Readers who are interested in my use of the word ‘coinherent’ will find out more by watching the video of my talk about the British theologian Charles Williams, a friend and fellow inkling of CS Lewis which can be found here.

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 and physical copies are now available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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..

Trinity Sunday

In the Beginning, not in time or space,

But in the quick before both space and time,

In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,

In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,

In music, in the whole creation story,

In His own image, His imagination,

The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,

And makes us each the other’s inspiration.

He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,

To improvise a music of our own,

To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,

Three notes resounding from a single tone,

To sing the End in whom we all begin;

Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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Our Mother-tongue Is Love; A Sonnet for Pentecost

A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael ‘s Bartley Green

Here, once more is my sonnet for Pentecost. I will be preaching three times this pentecost: at the 9am and 11am services in southwark Cathedral and at the 5:30pm service in Girton College, do come to one of these if you are in the vicinity!

Drawn from ‘Sounding the Seasons’, my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year this is a sonnet reflecting on and celebrating the themes and readings of Pentecost. Throughout the cycle, and more widely, I have been reflecting on the traditional ‘four elements’ of earth, air, water and fire. I have been considering how each of them expresses and embodies different aspects of the Gospel and of God’s goodness, as though the four elements were, in their own way, another four evangelists. In that context I was very struck by the way Scripture expresses the presence of the Holy Spirit through the three most dynamic of the four elements, the air, ( a mighty rushing wind, but also the breath of the spirit) water, (the waters of baptism, the river of life, the fountain springing up to eternal life promised by Jesus) and of course fire, the tongues of flame at Pentecost. Three out of four ain’t bad, but I was wondering, where is the fourth? Where is earth? And then I realised that we ourselves are earth, the ‘Adam’ made of the red clay, and we become living beings, fully alive, when the Holy Spirit, clothed in the three other elements comes upon us and becomes a part of who we are. So something of that reflection is embodied in the sonnet.

 

As usual you can hear me reading the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem itself. Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image which follows the poem.

Sounding the Seasons, is published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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..


Pentecost

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

Whose Mother-tongue is Love in every nation

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Hidden Joys; A Sonnet for the Visitation

The feast of the Visitation, on the 31st of May, celebrates the lovely moment in Luke’s Gospel (1:41-56) when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also against all expectations bearing a child, the child who would be John the Baptist. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon them, that the babe in Elizabeth’s womb ‘leaped for joy’ when he heard Mary’s voice, and it is even as the older woman blesses the younger, that Mary gives voice to the Magnificat, the most beautiful and revolutionary hymn in the world. There is much for the modern world to ponder in this tale of God’s blessing and prophecy on and from the margins, and i have tried to tease a little of it out in this sonnet. I am grateful again to Margot Krebs Neale for her inspiring image, and , as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the 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 and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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..

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

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Holy Week, Wednesday: The Anointing at Bethany

Anointing at Bethany by Linda Richardson

John 12 1-8 tells us of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus.I love this intense and beautiful moment in the Gospels, The God of the Cosmos enters as a vulnerable man into all the particular fragility of our human friendships and intimacy. I love the way Jesus responds to Mary’s beautiful, useless gesture and recognises it as something that is always worth while, something that will live forever, for all the carping and criticism of Judas, then and now.

This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all 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 and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. 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.

If you would like to join in a discussion go these and my other poems for Holy Week poems you can do so by joining the Literary Life Facebook Page

I am grateful to Linda Richardson who has given me permission to share with you her series of remarkable paintings, ‘The Faces of Holy Week’. These will be on display, together with my poems, in the resurrection chapel in St. Mary’s Linton throughout Holy Week, do look in and see them if you are in the area. You can also look at these paintings and others on Linda’s Webpage

Linda writes about this picture:

I think Jesus looks really tired in this painting, fully human and with everything that being human means. The story of the anointing is a beautiful and moving moment of deep love of a woman who has kept something precious for a very special occasion. But we know how the story continues and the anointing that will take place a few days later is the anointing of Jesus crucified body. I love this moment in Holy Week, knowing that Jesus had friends who loved him, touched and honoured his body, shared his life, his food, his laughter and his love. Touch the painting, touch Jesus face and imagine what you would say to him and as you smell the beautiful fragrance. What do you think he would say to you?


The Anointing at Bethany

Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

 

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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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