Tag Archives: poetry

1 December: Over the stile with Emily

Stile near Silverdale, Lancashire, England.

Once more I find myself disagreeing with Emily: this time with her possibly tongue-in-cheek condemnation of science. However, her light-hearted, joyful acceptance of creation and of death are refreshing and appropriate for Advent. Refreshing too, her final image of the Father lifting her over the stile of pearl into Heaven. I can almost feel those hands, half circling my chest to lift me to himself, though now it is my privilege to lift grandsons to where they need to be. ‘You have to help me’, even when the child is ‘helping’ you.

No pearls on the stiles shown here, but good, solid, dependable limestone, that humans and dogs can get over, perhaps with a little help; that deer can leap with grace, but sheep are too woolly to manage. Not the best image for Heaven’s gate, perhaps, but there again, the stile is not the gate, not the official entrance where the sheep go in. This is a short cut, and it is not Peter or Michael but the Father himself that is watching here, ready to lift the naughty ones into his everlasting arms.

XX. OLD-FASHIONED.

 Arcturus is his other name, —
I'd rather call him star!
It's so unkind of science
To go and interfere!

 I pull a flower from the woods, —
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath,
And has her in a class.

 Whereas I took the butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in cabinets,
The clover-bells forgot.

 What once was heaven, is zenith now.
Where I proposed to go
When time's brief masquerade was done,
Is mapped, and charted too!

 What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I 'm ready for the worst,
Whatever prank betides!

 Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven 's changed!
I hope the children there
Won't be new-fashioned when I come,
And laugh at me, and stare!

 I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl, —
Old-fashioned, naughty, everything, —
Over the stile of pearl!" 

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

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30 November: Oscar Wilde awaits the harvest

On Hearing The Dies Irae Sung In The Sistine Chapel

Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.

Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
And the fields echo to the gleaner’s song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.

from “Selected Poems of Oscar Wilde

On this day in 1900, Oscar Wilde died in Paris, an autumn death and apparently a peaceful one, accompanied by a priest and a friend. He had had his share of terrors and thundering, and was ready to be gathered in.

Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest. Matthew 9:37-38.

Let us pray that we might be ready to do for others whatever is asked of us today: perhaps sowing a seed rather than reaping a harvest, or even clearing brambles or nettles to make room for plants being choked of light. And let us trust God to have sent his angels to bring all sinners home.

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25 November: Falling through the night sky, Creation XXXVI.

Another reflection on the stars by a writer who loves the wild places where dark skies are more likely, the stars more visible. Robert Macfarlane is moved, almost physically, by gazing up - or is it down? into the night sky. 

The unconverted and limitless nature of the night sky ... is given a depth by the stars that far exceeds the depth given to the diurnal sky by clouds. On a cloudless night, looking upwards, you experience a sudden flipped vertigo, the feeling that your feet might latch off from the earth and you might plummet upwards into space... Our estrangement from the dark [due to street lighting] was a great and serious loss.
Robert Macfarlane, THE WILD PLACES, London, Granta, 2007.

A similar emotion struck David, who must have spent many a night under the stars:

For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded.
What is man that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him?
Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour:
And hast set him over the works of thy hands.
                                                                                           Psalm 8:4-7

Before we get carried away in gratification, let Macfarlane remind us that the loss of the night sky to urban dwellers is serious and stunting.

About the photograph: Image of the night sky above Paranal, Chile on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the galaxy to which we belong. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. Three of the four 8.2-m telescopes forming ESO’s VLT are seen, with a laser beaming out from Yepun, Unit Telescope number 4. The laser points directly at the Galactic Centre. Also visible are three of the 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes used for interferometry. They show small light beams which are diodes located on the domes. The exposure time is 5 minutes and because the tracking was made on the stars, the telescopes are slightly blurred.

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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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November 17: There’s nothing like the sun.

Sweet last-left damsons.
There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said—
Or, if I could live long enough, should say—
"There's nothing like the sun that shines to-day."
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

Edward Thomas.

Edward Thomas challenged his melancholy by getting out of doors, with friends such as Robert Frost but often enough alone. November sun in England, especially against a south wall, or south cliff, is warming. Mid-November last year we went walking and foraged damsons, sweeter than they would have been a month earlier, but recorded that in prose, not poetry.

‘There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead’, and then? Why then we shall learn who the sun is like.

And there shall be no night there; 
and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; 
for the Lord God giveth them light: 
and they shall reign for ever and ever. 
                                                                                    Revelation 22:5.

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16 November: Ready.

Here is Walter Savage Landor writing ‘On his Eightieth Birthday’. His loss leads to a narrowing of horizons in earthly life, but he is ready for the call to eternity.

To my ninth decade I have tottered on,
And no soft arm bends now my steps to steady;
She, who once led me where she would, is gone,
So when he calls me, Death shall find me ready.

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15 November: digesting grief III. Can salt lose its taste?

It was caring for a mutual friend that brought Dermot and me together, so far as she allowed anyone to care for her, that is. Dermot and Margaret did more than most, living opposite. But our friend had to go into a care home, and finally to hospital where she died. Soon after that Margaret’s cancer returned and she went to her Maker, and now Dermot’s brother Joe has died.

‘Everyone that made me laugh has gone’, he told me, and all younger than me.’

He carries on, taking on the responibilities his wife had had around their home, adrift at times, but ever ready for a few words of conversation, for he has hope, despite the encircling gloom.

LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
          Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
          Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.


I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
          Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
          Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.


So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
          Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
          The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

John Henry Newman

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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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