Category Archives: poetry

24 November: Lines written in Uncertainty

See the source image

The lights are shining dimly round about,
The Path is dark, I cannot see ahead;
And so I go as one perplexed with doubt,
Nor guessing where my footsteps may be led.

The wind is high, the rain falls heavily,
The strongest heart may well admit a fear,
For there are wrecks on land as well as sea
E’en though the haven may be very near.

The night is dark and strength seems failing fast
Though on my journey I but late set out.
And who can tell where the way leads at last?
Would that the lights shone clearer round about!

These lines were written by the artist Aubrey Beardsley in 1891, 7 years before his death from consumption, and 6 before his reception into the Catholic Church. It chimes with Newman’s ‘Lead Kindly Light’. Beardsley’s sensuous life clearly did not satisfy him; but he produced startling images such as Salome with the Head of John the Baptist.

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14 November: A cat.


A Cat by Edward Thomas from Last Poems.

She had a name among the children;
But no one loved though someone owned
Her, locked her out of doors at bedtime
And had her kittens duly drowned
In Spring, nevertheless, this cat
Ate blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales,
And birds of bright voice and plume and flight,
As well as scraps from neighbours’ pails.
I loathed and hated her for this;
One speckle on a thrush’s breast
Was worth a million such; and yet
She lived long, till God gave her rest.

smart

This is a war poem insofar as it was written when the poet was waiting to go to war. Edward Thomas was aware that joining the army was a dangerous decision during World War I. Of course, we know he did not come home.

The all-killing, all-devouring cat herself lost her own kittens. That is outside her control. She herself kills because that’s the way she is, till God gives her rest. And the war lived long and killed multitudes, because that’s the way it is; out of control.

When I arrived at L’Arche’s Glebe garden the day after reading this poem, I met with this sight. There are at least three cats that patrol the place and one young blackbird the less.

We pray that God may give us a changed heart, so that His world may have a rest from War.

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12 November: The Bridge

poppy.bridge

Poets poured out the experience of the Great War in many ways. Edward Thomas does not dwell on the horrors, though he knew them, but on the peace that passes understanding, the blest moment between two lives, the one to come goodlier, lovelier, dearer, for all the pilgrim leaves old friends behind. Read the poem aloud, slowly.

This is the Poppy Bridge, at Didsbury, Manchester.

I have come a long way to-day:
On a strange bridge alone,
Remembering friends, old friends,
I rest, without smile or moan,
As they remember me without smile or moan.

All are behind, the kind
And the unkind too, no more
To-night than a dream. The stream
Runs softly yet drowns the Past,
The dark-lit stream has drowned the Future and the Past.

No traveller has rest more blest
Than this moment brief between
Two lives, when the Night’s first lights
And shades hide what has never been,
Things goodlier, lovelier, dearer, than will be or have been.

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11 November: A murky day in Manchester

gassed piccadilly

It was a murky day in Manchester last winter when I met this column of men from the Great War. The sculpture is based on John Singer Sargent’s painting in the Imperial War Museum, ‘Gassed’. He had been to the front line, though he was in his eighties, and seen the men, British and American, suffering blindness after a mustard gas attack.

They are led by a medical orderly; there is a skill to leading such a group: observing the terrain, being alert for mud, ruts, obstacles, exaggerated dropping of the left or right shoulder to lead the men to turn. There are many ways to love your fellow man: the column of men support each other in what the sculptor, Johanna DomkeGuyot calls ‘Victory Over Blindness’.

Her sculpture loves her fellow human beings: honouring the dead but challenging the living through portraying the gritty, grimy reality of unmedalled, unsought heroism. It is a bold but totally right decision to plant the men at ground level, not way over our heads, like the man on the Manchester cenotaph; an image that all but says, dulce et decorum est – how sweet and right it is to die for one’s country.

war.mem.manc.1.small

Let us not forget that the victims of war, soldiers or civilians, are men, women and children like us and ours; that cruel things have been done in our name as well as against us. Let us do all we can to bring about peace and reconciliation between nations and peoples, and within our own communities.

Lord grant us peace.

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

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10 November: The Bugle Call (No one cares less than I)

“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God,
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”
Were the words I made to the bugle call in the morning.
But laughing, storming, scorning,
Only the bugles know
What the bugles say in the morning,
And they do not care, when they blow
The call that I heard and made words to early this morning.
There are jollier words put to bugle calls than these of  Edward Thomas, a Great War soldier and poet. He was depressive, but he also knew that his chances of not coming home alive and well were real enough. He did die and is buried in France.
The sense that nobody cares for the infantryman is understandable; the War, laughing, storming, scorning, gathers him up and later drops him, broken. 
 Thomas’s prayer of acceptance of death is a morning offering par excellence: In manus tuas, Dómine, comméndo spíritum meum. Into your hands O Lord, I commend my soul.
Memorial Stained Glass window, Class of 1934, Royal Military College of Canada, Victoria Edwards

.

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9 November, Relics XXV: Borrow’s blind spot

Strata Florida as seen a few years before Borrow’s visit.

George Borrow on his mid-19th Century tour of Wales has reached Strata Florida Abbey, where the grave of the mediaeval bard Daffyd Ap Gwilym, is thought to lie.

Who knows, said I, but this is the tree that was planted over Ab Gwilym’s grave, and to which Gruffyd Gryg wrote an ode?  I looked at it attentively, and … relying on the possibility of its being the sacred tree, I behaved just as I should have done had I been quite certain of the fact: Taking off my hat I knelt down and kissed its root, repeating lines from Gruffydd Gryg, with which I blended some of my own in order to accommodate what I said to circumstances:

“O tree of yew, which here I spy,
By Ystrad Flur’s blest monast’ry,
Beneath thee lies, by cold Death bound,
The tongue for sweetness once renown’d.
Better for thee thy boughs to wave,
Though scath’d, above Ab Gwilym’s grave,
Than stand in pristine glory drest
Where some ignobler bard doth rest.”

A man came up attended by a large dog.  “Good evening,” said I to him in Welsh. “Good evening, gentleman,” said he in the same language. “Are you the farmer?” “Yes!  I farm the greater part of the Strath.” “I suppose the land is very good here?” “Why do you suppose so?” “Because the monks built their house here in the old time, and the monks never built their houses except on good land.” “Well, I must say the land is good; indeed I do not think there is any so good in Shire Aberteifi.” “Do many people come to see the monastery?” Farmer.—Yes! many gentlefolk come to see it in the summer time. Myself.—It is a poor place now. Farmer.—Very poor, I wonder any gentlefolks come to look at it. Myself.—It was a wonderful place once; you merely see the ruins of it now.  It was pulled down at the Reformation. Farmer.—Why was it pulled down then? Myself.—Because it was a house of idolatry to which people used to resort by hundreds to worship images, down on their knees before stocks and stones, worshipping them, kissing them and repeating pennillion to them. Farmer.—What fools!  How thankful I am that I live in wiser days.  If such things were going on in the old Monachlog it was high time to pull it down. Myself.—What kind of a rent do you pay for your land? Farmer.—O, rather a stiffish one. Myself.—Two pound an acre? Farmer.—Two pound an acre!  I wish I paid no more. Myself.—Well!  I think that would be quite enough.  In the time of the old monastery you might have had the land at two shillings an acre. Farmer.—Might I?  Then those couldn’t have been such bad times, after all. Myself.—I beg your pardon!  They were horrible times—times in which there were monks and friars and graven images, which people kissed and worshipped and sang pennillion to.  Better pay three pounds an acre and live on crusts and water in the present enlightened days than pay two shillings an acre and sit down to beef and ale three times a day in the old superstitious times. Farmer.—Well, I scarcely know what to say to that.”

From Wild Wales

Image in public domain via Wkipedia.

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5 November: My Youth by W. H. Davies

My youth was my old age,
    Weary and long;
It had too many cares
    To think of song;
My moulting days all came
    When I was young.

Now, in life's prime, my soul
    Comes out in flower;
Late, as with Robin, comes
    My singing power;
I was not born to joy
    Till this late hour." 
                                                  W. H. Davies

Another Welsh poet today, this one writing in English. Davies was famously discovered as a poet when he was living in a homeless hostel, walking through London, selling a little booklet of verse from door to door. Before that he had shipped cattle across the Atlantic and tramped over much of North America: the Supertramp.
Not a life conducive to singing power.

Never give up on life! Joy comes to many at a late hour, and with it perspective and understanding of the trials and depressions of youth.

The European robin sings through Autumn and Winter to defend its territory but is less vocal when moulting - growing a new suit of feathers.

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3 November: What immortal grief hath touched thee …

gatewoods (800x482)
Another lyric of Sappho, translated by Bret Carman. 
Is your heart filled with disillusion at all things human – vanity of vanity, says the preacher (Ecclesiastes 1.2); the Bible, the Word of God, explores the same feelings of ultimate dissatisfaction with things fleeting and desired, as Sappho. But the Lord God is not fettered, as the Olympians were. His love leads, but also seeks out the lost sheep. As Sappho wants to believe, there is a place of safety, where every tear will be wiped away.
Let us pray that those in the depths of disillusion may find freedom in God’s love, and that we may be a light on their path, and be wise beyond words in our dealings with them.
Soul of sorrow, why this weeping?
What immortal grief hath touched thee
With the poignancy of sadness,—
  Testament of tears?
Have the high gods deigned to show thee
Destiny, and disillusion
Fills thy heart at all things human,
  Fleeting and desired?
Nay, the gods themselves are fettered
By one law which links together
Truth and nobleness and beauty,
  Man and stars and sea.
And they only shall find freedom
Who with courage rise and follow
Where love leads beyond all peril,
  Wise beyond all words.
samaritans cards 2019
(from “Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics” by Bliss Carman)

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2 November, All Souls: How soon will all my lovely days be over …

reed bed
One of the joys of the web is access to books that the local library will not have on its shelves.
The Canadian poet Bliss Carman translated Sappho into verse; this poem is a challenge to a believer: like Sappho I am a ‘fragile lamp of clay’. But am I burning with the Light of the World, witness to a great wind from the light?
There may be occasions in this month of November to speak a word of hope to a bereaved neighbour; do not be shy of saying it.
How soon will all my lovely days be over,
And I no more be found beneath the sun,—
Neither beside the many-murmuring sea,
Nor where the plain-winds whisper to the reeds,
Nor in the tall beech-woods among the hills
Where roam the bright-lipped Oreads,* nor along
The pasture-sides where berry-pickers stray
And harmless shepherds pipe their sheep to fold!
For I am eager, and the flame of life
Burns quickly in the fragile lamp of clay.
Passion and love and longing and hot tears
Consume this mortal Sappho, and too soon
A great wind from the dark will blow upon me,
And I be no more found in the fair world,
For all the search of the revolving moon
And patient shine of everlasting stars.
LV Soul” (from “Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics” by Bliss Carman)
*Oreads were wood nymphs.
Start reading it for free: http://amzn.eu/9CjK33P

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27 October: Dylan’s birthday

A Tale of Two Singers

Saint Augustine opens his Confessions with these words:

‘To praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’+

Some 1500 years later the prologue of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems tells how, through his poetic imagination, he would overcome his fears to:

'... build my bellowing ark 
To the best of my love 
As the flood begins, 
Out of the fountainhead 
Of fear, rage, red, manalive. +

Dylan’s work is religious, laid out ‘with as much love and care as the lock of hair of a first love’.* It is confessional, in the meaning Augustine intended: a recounting of his experiences and a praise of God.

Under Milk Wood portrays Llaggerub, Dylan’s imaginary Welsh town with its roots in Laugharne where he and his family were based in the last years of his life. Is it the Chosen Land? Reading the play as a parable, Llaggerub intertwines Dylan’s earthly and heavenly towns. Dylan drank at the same source as Augustine; if philosophy opened the wells for the bishop, poetry served the ‘spinning man’ with a flood to float his cockleshell ark, and, indeed, Dylan’s work gives hope that ‘the flood flowers now’, for him, beyond the ‘breakneck of rocks’ that was his life.

+ Augustine: ‘Confessions’, Tr. Henry Chadwick, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p3.

+ All Dylan Thomas quotations from: ‘Prologue’ to Collected Poems, p1–3.

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