Tag Archives: poetry

June 7: The Poetic Pillar Box.

 

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We see above a pillarbox at Centraal Station in Amsterdam, nicely bringing together two strands of today’s reflection from GK Chesterton’s Heretics. Of course, railway signalmen – and they were men in England a century ago – needed greater vigilance then and could not offload much responsibility onto technology. But both postmen and signalmen had to be men of integrity. Over to GKC:

The word “signal-box” is unpoetical. But the thing signal-box is not unpoetical; it is a place where men, in an agony of vigilance, light blood-red and sea-green fires to keep other men from death. That is the plain, genuine description of what it is; the prose only comes in with what it is called. The word “pillar-box” is unpoetical. But the thing pillar-box is not unpoetical; it is the place to which friends and lovers commit their messages, conscious that when they have done so they are sacred, and not to be touched, not only by others, but even (religious touch!) by themselves. That red turret is one of the last of the temples.

Posting a letter and getting married are among the few things left that are entirely romantic; for to be entirely romantic a thing must be irrevocable. We think a pillar-box prosaic, because there is no rhyme to it. We think a pillar-box unpoetical, because we have never seen it in a poem. But the bold fact is entirely on the side of poetry. A signal-box is only called a signal-box; it is a house of life and death. A pillar-box is only called a pillar-box; it is a sanctuary of human words. 

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Not just an excuse to share two favourite photos! But this 19th Century box (at the top VR means Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria) is at Sabden, Lancashire. Text from Project Gutenberg. It’s no good imagining the Brownings posting their letters into such a box: they were not introduced for some years, although the penny post was speeding letters around the country from 1840. More from the Brownings soon. ‘Heretics’ is available on Kindle or Project Gutenberg.

 

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June 6: Beauty in ignorance.

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Chesterton had a good stab at understanding Robert Browning and his work, which at times can be as densely obscure as at others it rings out clear. But I am not sharing this as an exercise in literary criticism, rather as an insight into a creative view of the world. By that I mean one where we have an awareness of creation as still on-going, even if we just miss hearing the Word creating;  and a world where we have an awareness of ourselves as responsible co-creators. Laudato Si!
“It is well sometimes to half understand a poem in the same manner that we half understand the world. One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”
from “Robert Browning” by Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Wild Rose in June, near Edinburgh MMB

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31 May, Pilgrimage to Canterbury, XI: Verses for Pilgrims – II

 

50.40. pilgrimage

Verses for Pilgrims – II

Here again is the verse that will be recited during our prayer services on our third day of pilgrimage. It still seems strange to me that this verse by Father Andrew SDC came together so opportunely with the window in Patrixbourne.

It is not strange that one blest night
Should shine a star exceedingly bright
To lead three Kings upon their way
To Bethlehem, where Jesu lay,
All lowly, cradled in the hay –
Their journey’s happy ending!

And while the sentiments of Christmas are heart-warming, Friday’s verse reminds us that we may be suffering a little with blisters and sore and swollen feet. We’ve read this verse from Joyce Kilmer before. He was another Great War Poet, but unlike Robert Graves, he did not survive. The full poem appeared on the centenary of his death.

My shoulders ache beneath my pack

(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back).

I march with feet that burn and smart

(Tread, Holy Feet, upon my heart).

Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me

Than all the hosts of land and sea.

So let me render back again

This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.

May we be grateful for shoulders, knees and toes that ache and burn and smart. We are alive, we are together, we live in a relatively peaceful land.

And when we arrive at Saint Mildred’s, our closing prayer and closing feast!

 

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30 May, Pilgrimage to Canterbury X: Verses for Pilgrims—I

pilgrim-stone

As well as our Scripture readings I have chosen a verse for each day to help our prayer.

Day 1 began at Dover Beach, with this prayer for a blessing on our feet. It comes from our old friend Fr Andrew.

O dearest Lord, thy sacred feet
with nails were pierced for me;
O pour thy blessing on my feet
that they may follow thee.

Father Andrew SDC

Day 2 led us not through desert but through England’s green and pleasant Land, though we had our dark Satanic mills in the shape of the coal mines at Betteshanger, Tilmanstone and Snowdown, all close by, not to mention the unsuccessful ones we went by yesterday. This verse is from the war poet, Robert Graves.

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May we speak words of grace today, as our late friend and miner George did. Today’s walk ends in his home village of Aylesham.

Christ of His gentleness
Thirsting and hungering,
Walked in the wilderness;
Soft words of grace He spoke
Unto lost desert-folk
That listened wondering.

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10 May: Far from home.

daffodils
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
Edward Thomas wrote this poem, IN MEMORIAM (Easter, 1915), before he joined up and went to the front. If Eastertide means what we Christians claim it means, we should read and remember these lines, let them filter down into our hearts, and teach us how we can proclaim the message of the Prince of Peace. Meanwhile, we remember with gratitude those who gave their lives in battle. 
MMB.

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May 4: The Signpost

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THE SIGN-POST by Edward Thomas
THE dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy.
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ‘twould be
To 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 all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
‘Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To 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 air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?
Edward Thomas was another who suffered from depression – At twenty you wished you had never been born. He would walk it off for hours.
Here he has been walking, walking, facing the mouthful of earth that awaits him in death, but now acknowledges the wish to be anywhere talking to … maybe his wife Helen? ‘And with a poor man of any sort, down to a king.’ Whatever Thomas meant by that, the words ‘down to a king’ put me in mind of Philippians which we touched on yesterday. Continuing chapter 2:6-8:
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.
And then there is the story of the walkers to Emmaus being overtaken by one they should have recognised. (Luke  24:13-35) He is there at the crossroads, knowing all too well how each of us has our own cross to bring to the hilltop. And death shall be freely given – Sister Death as Francis put it. Not to be snatched before time! Had Thomas killed himself at twenty, we would have been the poorer without his word painting: The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft. 
Sometimes it is good to stop, stand upright and look around us, even at a falling leaf. After all, Christ himself told us to consider the lilies of the field. And then walk on in his company.

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22 April: Blessed is the evil that fell upon me. Brownings IX.

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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.

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April 6: Before the Cross XXII: Greater love hath no man.

soldier.crucifx.hthe

This image has always troubled me, since the day I first found a copy in a second-hand picture frame. This window is at Hythe in Kent, remembering a nineteen year old officer of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, Robert Aubrey Hildyard, seen dying at the foot of the Cross, his right hand on Christ’s feet, the feet Mary anointed with precious oil. At the foot of the cross lies Robert’s helmet, and a scroll reading, ‘Greater love hath no man’. We can all complete Jesus’ words: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13).

soldier.crucifx.hythe.detailRobert looks peaceful, asleep, while once again we behold a risen Christ: alive, with good muscle tone; his wounds not bleeding. Robert’s rifle and bayonet and an artillery piece are behind the two figures; there is a hill of mud in the background and angels in attendance above.

Surely this comforted the parents of Robert Hildyard, and no doubt others who lost loved ones, but it makes me uneasy. It seems to associate Christ with the war. Yet no less a poet than Hopkins wrote of a soldier or sailor (a tar):

Yes. Why do we áll, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless
Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part,
But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less;
It fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art;
And fain will find as sterling all as all is smart,
And scarlet wear the spirit of wár thére express.

Hopkins recognises that the men are no plaster saints, but if a man wears a brave uniform we – and he – hope, we and he want to believe him as bravehearted as he is smartly dressed. But no-one was smart at the Somme, where Robert died. Their heroism was different: men drowned in mud or were cut down by machine-gun fire before coming to close combat. Robert himself was killed when a shell hit where he and Godfrey James Wilding were sheltering.

Hopkins continues:

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can handle a rope best. There he bides in bliss
Now, and séeing somewhére some mán do all that man can do,
For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss,
And cry ‘O Christ-done deed! So God-made-flesh does too:
Were I come o’er again’ cries Christ ‘it should be this’.

For love Christ leans forth to kiss Robert and cry … ‘So God-made-flesh does too!’ What did God-made-flesh do in the War? He did not conquer death and sin with violence.

I think of Jesus, asleep on the rugs in the sinking boat. A flimsy shelter, causing his friends to fear. Jesus sensed their fear, knew that death was close by, calmed the storm. But there was no dramatic rescue for Robert and Godfrey in this world, and no more that they could do. ‘It should be this’: not killing other men, but putting oneself in the firing line.


Why did Robert and Godfrey lay down their lives?

The gesture of touching Christ’s feet suggests that Robert’s parents wanted to associate his death with Christ’s, and saw it as freely given.

Here is another soldier’s take on the daily sacrifices of being a soldier in the Great War. For Joyce Kilmer the freely accepted, everyday deprivations were as a millionth part of Christ’s sufferings:

My shoulders ache beneath my pack 

(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back). 

We published his poem on the centenary of his death last July; click on the link. The post following that is Christina’s response to Kilmer’s poem: Is All Human Suffering The Same Suffering?. Do read that as well.

May we unite our sufferings with the Lord’s, may we grow into the persons he wants us to be, and may we be aware of our own lack of importance and ‘let us render back again /This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.’

MMB

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25 March: The Annunciation of our Lord.

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,

Complete

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 ?

 

 

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5 March. Chesterton: A Second Childhood

Abel.bluebells

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.

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