The flowers left thick at nightfall in the woodThis Eastertide call into mind the men,Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, shouldHave gathered them and will do never again.
Category Archives: poetry
THE SIGN-POST by Edward ThomasTHE dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy.And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,Rough, long grasses keep white with frostAt the hilltop by the finger-post;The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffedOver hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.I read the sign. Which way shall I go?A voice says: You would not have doubted soAt twenty. Another voice gentle with scornSays: At twenty you wished you had never been born.One hazel lost a leaf of goldFrom a tuft at the tip, when the first voice toldThe other he wished to know what ‘twould beTo be sixty by this same post. “You shall see,”He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—“You shall see; but either before or after,Whatever happens, it must befall,A mouthful of earth to remedy allRegrets and wishes shall freely be given;And if there be a flaw in that heaven‘Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may beTo be here or anywhere talking to me,No matter what the weather, on earth,At any age between death and birth,—To see what day or night can be,The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,Standing upright out in the airWondering where he shall journey, O where?
Christ Jesus who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.
Edward Thomas, The man that loved this England well,1 wrote about The South Country before he became a poet. Wandering through Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, he recorded what he saw and felt along the way. Here he is in a Sussex village near where the poet Shelley was born; he has just been discussing the romantic poets.
Edward Thomas died this month in 1917, leaving a wife and family.
Note how he values the two villagers, Robert Page and his presumed descendant, as equally worthy of consideration as the poet.
In a churchyard behind I saw the tombstone of one Robert Page, born in the year 1792 here in Sussex, and dead in 1822 — not in the Bay of Spezia1 but in Sussex. He scared the crows, ploughed the clay, fought at Waterloo and lost an arm there, was well pleased with George the Fourth, and hoed the corn until he was dead. That is plain sense, and I wish I could write the life of this exact contemporary of Shelley.
That is quite probably his great granddaughter, black-haired, of ruddy complexion, full lips, large white teeth, black speechless eyes, dressed in a white print dress and stooping in the fresh wind to take clean white linen out of a basket, and then rising straight as a hazel wand, on tiptoe, her head held back and slightly oh one side while she pegs the clothes to the line and praises the weather to a passer-by. She is seventeen, and of such is the kingdom of earth.
And bearing in mind all those saintly women, Agnes, Agatha, Eanswythe, Tydfil, Mildred; we should perhaps affirm that ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ Despite his melancholy, Edward Thomas can lead us to the gate thereof this Eastertide.
So too could William Blake, who also lived in Sussex. Surely this little engraving shows the cliffs and downs of nearbyBeachy Head?
1 WH Davies’ description of his friend. The poet Percy Bysse Shelley was born in 1892 and died at the Bay of Spezia in 1822.
I thought too, at first, that the feeling on your part was a mere generous impulse, likely to expend itself in a week perhaps.It affects me and has affected me, very deeply, more than I dare attempt to say, that you should persist so—and if sometimes I have felt, by a sort of instinct, that after all you would not go on to persist, and that (being a man, you know) you might mistake, a little unconsciously, the strength of your own feeling; you ought not to be surprised; when I felt it was more advantageous and happier for you that it should be so. In any case, I shall never regret my own share in the events of this summer, and your friendship will be dear to me to the last. You know I told you so—not long since.”
from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846″ by Robert Browning, available on Kindle and online.
It can be hard to accept that we are loved, whether by God or another human being. Surely we have experienced those ‘mere generous impulses’ which come to nothing but scratch a few scars on the heart in the process.
Jesus – in this world, in his time – stayed long enough to reassure his disciples that their friendship was dear to him to the last. And while Peter (the past master of generous impulses) may always have regretted his share in the events of that spring, he received the grace to feed the Lord’s sheep and be faithful to the last.
The clasped hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, cast by Harriet Hosmer, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Among Elizabeth Barrett’s letters to Robert Browning I found this final paragraph from February 1846:
“May God bless you, best and dearest. If you are the compensation blessed is the evil that fell upon me: and that, I can say before God.”
Elizabeth had been housebound and largely bed bound for some years. Robert fell in love with her from a distance, a love that had firmed up on closer acquaintance. He seems to have gained entry to her room as a fellow poet, in Elizabeth’s father’s eyes a fellow-artist, not the potential husband he had become. It would not be possible to conceal this relationship for ever.
I was reminded of the line from the Exsultet which the deacon sings before the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil:
O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem. O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.
It is good to have pictures, physical or mental to understand redemption. Words are not enough, but we must use them. Elizabeth Barrett’s personal epiphany is a way into understanding the poetry of the Vigil Anthem and the theology of our redemption. She came to realise that Robert Browning loved her as no-one had loved her before. He wanted with all his being to share everything with her. He did not pity her but loved her. That allowed her to love him.
If all God felt for human beings was pity he could have sorted out our redemption and the mess we are making of our world with a word, at a distance. But love meant he shared everything: he lets us experience the divine ‘best and dearest’, seeing his glory as far as our feeble frame allows; but also himself sharing human experience to the full. ‘The Word was made flesh and lived and died among us. He rose again and prepares a new life for us, as Robert Browning did for Elizabeth, but in God’s case on what Pope John Paul II would call a cosmic scale.
Wikipedia, Public Domain.
“The Presence” is a reflection on God’s dwelling among his people down the ages, and upon how, wherever he truly is might be regarded as a “temple”. John’s Gospel records Jesus referring to his own body as the temple. It was only through the destruction of that “temple”, and its being raised up after three days, that the dark powers of this world could be brought down.
The chains keeping us bound to those powers and to their dehumanising influences have been broken, and so we, as we respond to him, find ourselves becoming “temples”; God chooses to dwell in our own lives. It is when we turn our faces towards him in thankful praise and true worship (as would be appropriate in a temple of God) that “the blessing”, once given to the Israelites in the wilderness, becomes for us a healing, present reality.
Where Presence filled each sight and sound
With harmony and life,
And one who, fashioned from the ground,
Delighted in his wife;
Where grace and kindness filled their days
And joy was in the air,
As all creation joined in praise
To Him who’d set it there.
To Him, who walked the very space,
Who knew and loved his own,
Where they could gaze upon his face
And wouldn’t feel alone.
The One who spoke as loving friend,
Who shared his perfect will,
Was pleased to dwell where all was well
And everything was still.
Then all was lost to pride and death
And sickness, lies and shame;
The very ones he’d given breath
Now trembled at his name.
And fear and hate and hate and fear
Would hold the nations bound
To lifeless idols, sword and spear,
And blood upon the ground.
If love with love could be revealed
And life with life remade,
And broken, hurting souls be healed
Because a debt was paid;
And those forgiven could forgive,
And angry hearts could mourn,
And if the dead began to live
Because a veil was torn –
The Presence on an ancient hill,
Beaten, nailed and speared –
But stubborn will rejects him still,
And sneers as once they sneered.
The Presence, whose ways and thoughts
Lift bitterness and care:
Better one day in his courts
Than a thousand spent elsewhere.
Image: Worship by Jun Jamosmos
Laetare Sunday tomorrow, so a change of gear! I thought we could use a reflection on the beauty of the world we live in and which Christ loved infinitely, and still does. And Mrs Turnstone wants to go on a wild garlic hunt today; so here goes! WT.
I doubt Gerard Manley Hopkins expected his diary to be published; his superiors had suppressed his poetry, after all. Think of that! This sentence from the diary could be laid out on the page as a poem.
End of March and beginning of April, 1871 —
One bay or hollow of Hodder Wood is curled all over with bright green garlic.
In Gerard Manley Hopkins, Selected Poems and Prose, Edited by Ruth Padel, London, Folio Society, 2012, p125.
Did the Jesuits of Stonyhurst gather the garlic for their Lenten kitchen, I wonder? Well, Let’s thank GMH and say Laudato Si’!
A poem for the Feast of the Annunciation, from Sheila Billingsley, mother in the days before scans and ultrasound, and now grandmother and great-grandmother – and poet.
And the Word …
Sitting before the scan,
An embryo great-grandchild.
Fitting so safely, so securely.
What are you feeling ?
What are you hearing ?
Did you hear your mother singing ?
Her laughter ?
Did you feel in your enveloping nest,
Her touch as she moved ?
The warmth of your sun ?
The deepening silence of your night ?
Oh! Minute yet transparent child,
With those predestined hands and feet ?
And later, did you feel joy
In your growing infantile strength,
Those fingers that would touch and heal ?
Your limbs so weak, so strong, the skin so soft.
Until the womb could no longer hold you.
Did you hear your angel voices that night ?
Feel your winter’s chill ?
The hands that held you, wrapped you, touched you …
Oh, but your eyes
Opening tentatively in the dim light,
Your eyes, did they seek
The eyes that sought for yours ?
Today’s poem also comes from The Ballad of Saint Barbara. A Second Childhood by GK Chesterton urges us not to ‘grow too old to see / Unearthly daylight shine’. May we, despite our sins, grow ever new as we grow old; and may we never grow too old! And may we stop and stare, and Laudato Si!
When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.
Wherein God’s ponderous mercy hangs
On all my sins and me,
Because He does not take away
The terror from the tree
And stones still shine along the road
That are and cannot be.
Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for wine,
But I shall not grow too old to see
Unearthly daylight shine,
Changing my chamber’s dust to snow
Till I doubt if it be mine.
Behold, the crowning mercies melt,
The first surprises stay;
And in my dross is dropped a gift
For which I dare not pray:
That a man grow used to grief and joy
But not to night and day.
Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for lies;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Enormous night arise,
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of eyes.
Nor am I worthy to unloose
The latchet of my shoe;
Or shake the dust from off my feet
Or the staff that bears me through
On ground that is too good to last,
Too solid to be true.
Men grow too old to woo, my love,
Men grow too old to wed:
But I shall not grow too old to see
Hung crazily overhead
Incredible rafters when I wake
And find I am not dead.
A thrill of thunder in my hair:
Though blackening clouds be plain,
Still I am stung and startled
By the first drop of the rain:
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain.
Strange crawling carpets of the grass,
Wide windows of the sky:
So in this perilous grace of God
With all my sins go I:
And things grow new though I grow old,
Though I grow old and die.
I found my first edition of The Ballad of St. Barbara by G.K. Chesterton the other day. A treasure that cost 50p in a charity shop. I’ve chosen a couple of poems to lead us into Lent, both looking at conscience. Before we read The Sword of Surprise we should remind ourselves of the verse that it meditates upon, Hebrews 4:12.
For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
As we have said before, an examination of conscience should encompass more than our ‘daily falls’. If we count our blessings we can put our sins into perspective, so let us pray for the grace to see also the daily wonders, and to feel life’s brave beat.
Sunder me from my bones, O sword of God,
Till they stand stark and strange as do the trees;
That I whose heart goes up with the soaring woods
May marvel as much at these.
Sunder me from my blood that in the dark
I hear that red ancestral river run,
Like branching buried floods that find the sea
But never see the sun.
Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes,
Those rolling mirrors made alive in me,
Terrible crystals more incredible
Than all the things they see.
Sunder me from my soul, that I may see
The sins like streaming wounds, the life’s brave beat;
Till I shall save myself, as I would save
A stranger in the street.