I had a few posts left to prepare for February’s blog but lacked inspiration. Mental fog had descended upon me! One afternoon Mrs Turnstone and I had been invited to a wassail party at the Glebe after which we walked home beside the River Stour. Robins, blackbirds, and even I think, a blackcap, were singing their dusk chorus. Mary Webb sprang to mind. Here we find her in melancholy mood.
The birds will sing
The birds will sing when I am gone To stranger-folk with stranger-ways. Without a break they’ll whistle on In close and flowery orchard deeps, Where once I loved them, nights and days, And never reck of one that weeps.
The bud that slept within the bark When I was there, will break her bars– A small green flame from out the dark– And round into a world, and spread Beneath the silver dews and stars, Nor miss my bent, attentive head.
A close and flowery apple in our two-treed orchard; a few weeks ago both leaf and flower buds were still dormant, along with most trees. Valentine’s day, the birds’ wedding day may not easily lift that Seasonal Affective Disorder, but the small green flame of a bursting bud breaks the bars in the writer’s heart, a heart attentive to the world of Spring.
An excuse for revisiting Raeburn’s portrait of his friend Robert Walker, is this quotation from one of his sermons.
Too many of those who make a profession of religion … indulge themselves in a bitter, censorious disputation, more allied to peevishness than either to virtue or religion … their conversation is gloomy, their countenances and manners forbidding. From such unfortunate examples, it is too often rashly concluded, that the nature of religion itself is harsh, melancholy and severe.*
These days we have perhaps lost much of the gloominess, though covid and climate change do tempt some to adopt that attitude. What seems to persist is the censorious disputation which can become bitter. Let us pray for the grace to see ourselves as we are in relation to others, and to step back from disputation that divides and brings the Church into disrepute.
Perhaps each one of us needs time to be alone with God and nature as Robert is here. Not much skating this winter in Kent, but walking is always available, free of charge, to set the spirit free.
*See The Skating Minister, by Duncan Thomson and Lynne Gladstone-Millar, Edinburgh 2004, p33.
O, GOD, giver and preserver of all life,
by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained,
look down upon me with tenderness and mercy;
grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed;
that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness.
O, LORD, let me not sink into total depravity;
look down upon me, and rescue me at last from the captivity of sin.
Almighty and most merciful Father,
who hast continued my life from year to year,
grant that by longer life I may become less desirous of sinful pleasures,
and more careful of eternal happiness.
Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt;
but as my age advances, let me become more pure in my thoughts,
more regular in my desires, and more obedient to thy laws.
Forgive, O merciful LORD, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws.
Give me such a sense of my wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance;
so that when I shall be called into another state,
I may be received among the sinners to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon,
for JESUS CHRIST'S sake.
From "Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784" by James Boswell
Boswell acknowledged Johnson as a most pious friend, who was by no means as wicked as the reader might imagine. Johnson was inclined to melancholy and to a deep sense of his own sinfulness, but any of us could make our own the last paragraph of this prayer.
Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder dates from some 20 years after Johnson’s prayer. May they both be received among the sinners who have obtained pardon.
Let’s rejoice in true friendship. On this occasion, Boswell missed Johnson’s company and longed for a letter. Johnson excuses himself with great eloquence! But who would like a letter or email from me – or you?
I set a very high value upon your friendship, and count your kindness as one of the chief felicities of my life. Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write; nor has any man at all times something to say. ‘That distrust which intrudes so often on your mind is a mode of melancholy, which, if it be the business of a wise man to be happy, it is foolish to indulge; and if it be a duty to preserve our faculties entire for their proper use, it is criminal.
Suspicion is very often an useless pain. From that, and all other pains, I wish you free and safe; for I am,
dear Sir, Most affectionately yours,
(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)
James Boswell published this letter from Samuel Johnson after the Doctor died. Both men had melancholy times; Johnson more severely than most.
“I never was so much pleased as now with your account of yourself; and sincerely hope, that between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance. Whatever philosophy may determine of material nature, it is certainly true of intellectual nature, that it abhors a vacuum: our minds cannot be empty; and evil will break in upon them, if they are not pre-occupied by good.
My dear Sir, mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian. After this, ‘tristitiam et metus Trades protervis in mare Creticum Portare ventis.’*
‘If we perform our duty, we shall be safe and steady.
Life of Johnson by James Boswell.
Jesus put it this way:
And when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation.
Luke 12: 43-45.
‘Be preoccupied by good’ sounds like a good Advent motto to me! Spelt out for Boswell quite clearly: mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian.
*While in the Muse’s friendship blest, Nor fear, nor grief, shall break my rest; Bear them, ye vagrant winds, away, And drown them in the Cretan Sea.’ Horace, Odes, i. 26. I.