Category Archives: poetry

November 26: Winter overtakes Autumn.

Hoar frost at Nonnington, Kent.

Bitter for Sweet

Summer is gone with all its roses,
  Its sun and perfumes and sweet flowers,
  Its warm air and refreshing showers:
    And even Autumn closes.

 Yea, Autumn's chilly self is going,
  And winter comes which is yet colder;
  Each day the hoar-frost waxes bolder,
    And the last buds cease blowing."

From Goblin Market, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems by Christina Rossetti.

With a different title, this would have been a straightforward descriptive poem but maybe we should think again. Summer, Autumn and Winter; why no mention of Spring and the hope it brings? Because the poet is feeling bitter, or examining bitterness?

There are people today, Christian people, who seem to have lost hope and become bitter. It was not Christina Rossetti’s default position, but clearly one she experienced and understood. Disappointment in love, twice over, may have contributed.

Not for us to succumb to bitterness. There maybe naught for our comfort in the news about the climate and the future of our grandchildren across the world, but we must acknowledge the reality of the bitterness and the realities that contribute to it. Which of those can we make even the smallest dent or scratch in? What do we, can we, repent of?

I’ll be out litterpicking tomorrow. That’s two spiritual works of mercy, I reckon: to instruct (by example) the ignorant who leave rubbish about, and to bear wrongs patiently. It’s a start.

And if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

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24 November: The Stars of Heaven, Creation XXXV

Image from NASA
He in the evening, when on high 
The stars shine in the silent sky, 
Beholds th' eternal flames with mirth, 
And globes of light more large than Earth; 
Then weeps for joy, and through his tears 
Looks on the fire-enamell'd spheres, 
Where with his Saviour he would be 
Lifted above mortality. 
Meanwhile the golden stars do set, 
And the slow pilgrim leave all wet 
With his own tears, which flow so fast 
They make his sleeps light, and soon past. 

from Poems of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Volume II via Kindle

Eddie was writing about the stars yesterday, so an opportunity presents to complement his reflection with a poem. I was talking to a friend who had been moved to tears by a television drama, and remarked that certain saints had written of 'the gift of tears'. My friend was grateful that the fountain had welled up within her. 

Here we have a 17th Century poet, writing in English though living in Wales. He was twenty years old when Galileo died. Science did not erode his faith but enhanced it, intellectually and emotionally, the sight of the 'fire-enamell'd spheres' moving him to tears of awe at creation.

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21 November, Christ the King: Great Little One.

The Infant Jesus is supported by his mother – whose heart was pierced with Sorrow – as he adopts the stance of a crucified King. Elham Church, Kent.

Jesus was not the King that people thought they were looking for. The Gospel reading for today makes that clear: we hear Dismas, the repentant thief, accept Jesus’ paradoxical claim, beseeching, ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’, and being told, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 29:35-43).

But 33 years before that, it was hardly a typical royal arrival in Bethlehem.

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
       Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
       Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

This is a verse from Richard Crashaw’s ‘In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord.’ He was an Anglican priest and academic, living from 1613-1649. He was ejected from Cambridge in 1643 by Oliver Cromwell, who famously did not approve of Christmas. Crashaw became a Catholic in exile, and died a canon of Loreto, Italy in August 1649.

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19 November: Field of Waterloo, II.

Look forth, once more, with softened heart,
Ere from the field of fame we part;
Triumph and Sorrow border near,
And joy oft melts into a tear.
Alas! what links of love that morn
Has War’s rude hand asunder torn!
For ne’er was field so sternly fought,
And ne’er was conquest dearer bought,
Here piled in common slaughter sleep
Those whom affection long shall weep
Here rests the sire, that ne’er shall strain
His orphans to his heart again;
The son, whom, on his native shore,
The parent’s voice shall bless no more;
The bridegroom, who has hardly pressed
His blushing consort to his breast;
The husband, whom through many a year
Long love and mutual faith endear.
Thou canst not name one tender tie,
But here dissolved its relics lie!
Oh! when thou see’st some mourner’s veil
Shroud her thin form and visage pale,
Or mark’st the Matron’s bursting tears
Stream when the stricken drum she hears;
Or see’st how manlier grief, suppressed,
Is labouring in a father’s breast, -
With no inquiry vain pursue
The cause, but think on Waterloo!" (from "Some Poems" by Sir Walter Scott)

Two poems, a century apart; two poems about War in Belgium. The first is the last stanza of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Field of Waterloo’, the second chosen by grieving parents of a man so young they were still reckoning his age in years and months. But Scott’s ‘The son, whom, on his native shore, The parent’s voice shall bless no more’ is yet blessed by his parents’ ‘trust in Christ to meet again’ and their prayer, ‘Rest in peace’.

The Raid on Zeebrugge was an unsuccessful and bloody attempt to block the port which was used by German U-boats to attack allied shipping. RMLI was the Royal Marines Light Infantry, based in Cheriton where George lies buried.

Was there much progress in a hundred years? Let us pray that all casualties of war may rest in peace, and that all of us now alive may live in peace.

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18 November: The Field of Waterloo, I.

The chapel at Deal Castle, now a memorial to all who fell in conflict.The Duke of Wellington had his official residence as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports nearby at Walmer Castle, Kent.

Sir Walter Scott wrote a long poem on the Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815. This extract is from near the end of the epic and is addressed to the Duke of Wellington, Commander of British forces. Scott justifies Wellington’s gallantry as always ‘for public weal’. He has a point when Napoleon’s imperial ambitions are considered. But as we shall see tomorrow, there was and still is another side to conflict; death, injury, bereavement, loss. Hardly Heaven’s decree.


For not a people’s just acclaim,
Not the full hail of Europe’s fame,
Thy Prince’s smiles, the State’s decree,
The ducal rank, the gartered knee,
Not these such pure delight afford
As that, when hanging up thy sword,
Well may’st thou think, “This honest steel
Was ever drawn for public weal;
And, such was rightful Heaven’s decree,
Ne’er sheathed unless with victory!”

(from “Some Poems” by Sir Walter Scott)

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11 November: Why do men go to War?

Remembrance sand art portrait of Wilfred Owen, 11.11.2018, Folkestone.

It is the late 1930s. War looks inevitable. We break into a discussion that Virginia Woolf is holding with herself – herself as an imaginary male lawyer – on how to prevent war. She asks, ‘Why do men fight?’ She sums up her previous few paragraphs thus:

Here, immediately, are three reasons which lead your sex to fight; war is a profession; a source of happiness and excitement; and it is also an outlet for manly qualities, without which men would deteriorate. But that these feelings and opinions are by no means universally held by your sex is proved by the following extract from another biography, the life of a poet who was killed in the European war: Wilfred Owen.

Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely, that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill … Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

And among some notes for poems that he did not live to write are these: The unnaturalness of weapons … Inhumanity of war … The insupportability of war … Horrible beastliness of war … Foolishness of war.

from “THREE GUINEAS: A book-length essay” by Virginia Woolf, via Kindle.

Quite what Wilfred Owen would have said in the face of the bullying, outrageous killers of the Third Reich is another question, but he would have had no reason to change his mind about war’s unnaturalness, inhumanity, foolishness and the rest. Has war ever been a contest between two groups of men with no involvement of civilians and their way of life? Of course not.

See also this post and search Agnellus Mirror for Wilfred Owen for more reflections on the Great War.

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9 November: Only the surface is wrinkled.

Looking towards Llyn

This is an old man’s poem: short and bitter-sweet, but nourishing. I came to it in Jim Cotter’s Etched in Silence collection, Canterbury Press, 2013, which Cotter presents as a pilgrimage through R.S. Thomas’s poems, one for each week of the year. This is allocated to week 45, this second week in November.

I look out over the timeless sea
over the head of one, calendar
to time’s passing, who is now open
at the last month, her hair wintry. 

Am I catalyst of her mettle that,
at my approach, her grimace of pain
turns to a smile? What it is saying is:
“Over love’s depths only the surface is wrinkled."

R.S. Thomas, ‘I look out over the timeless sea’, in Collected later poems, 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books 2004 p72

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8 November: Duns Scotus’s Oxford.

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

from “Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins Now First Published” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ed. Robert Bridges.

Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was one of those remarkable Franciscans – the first of them was our patron, Agnellus of Pisa (1195-1236 – who helped make the early Oxford University into one of the great European centres of learning. Hopkins, the 19th Century Jesuit priest and scholar, admired Scotus, who died on this day in 1308, in Cologne. How European we were in those times!

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6 November: Providing for Autumn and Winter.

apricot.stones.mouse
No need to disturb an anthill to illustrate this post. This is the work of a provident mouse, who amassed these apricot stones, snatching the blessings of the plenteous days of summer.
Doctor Johnson paraphrased Proverbs 6:6-11 in the verses below.

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard.” Proverbs: 6-11.

Turn on the prudent ant thy heedful eyes, 
Observe her labours, sluggard, and be wise: 
No stern command, no monitory voice, 
Prescribes her duties, or directs her choice; 

Yet, timely provident, she hastes away, 
To snatch the blessings of the plenteous day; 
When fruitful summer loads the teeming plain, 
She crops the harvest, and she stores the grain. 

How long shall sloth usurp thy useless hours, 
Unnerve thy vigour, and enchain thy pow'rs; 
While artful shades thy downy couch inclose, 
And soft solicitation courts repose? 

Amidst the drowsy charms of dull delight, 
Year chases year with unremitted flight, 
Till want now following, fraudulent and slow, 
Shall spring to seize thee like an ambush'd foe.   

From "Volume 1 The Works of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., in Nine Volumes", via Kindle.

This is one of those instances where we actually have to think when trying to live by Bible teaching. Panic buying, anyone?

After the parable of the rich farmer filling his new barns with grain up to the day before his death, Jesus goes on to say: Consider the ravens, for they sow not, neither do they reap, neither have they storehouse nor barn, and God feedeth them. How much are you more valuable than they? Luke 12:24.

We should be thinking of other people’s barns, empty because of climate change or conflict. There are Cafod and other Church and secular agencies that we can help fill them.

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5 November: Autumn.

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away, —
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone, —
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.”


 

We should perhaps have posted this earlier in Autumn, when Summer was still perceptible in the afternoon, but we were then in the season of Creation and listening to Pope Francis. But here it is now, a remembrance of the beauty of summer and a challenge to seek the different beauties of the present season. Emily is in a less fraught state than yesterday, inviting us to spend time in quietness, looking over Nature’s shoulder.

(from “Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete” by Emily Dickinson)

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