Tag Archives: poetry

28 March, Desert XXIX: Proverbs 21.3, More acceptable to the LORD.

poperinge.2

To do righteousness is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

PROVERBS 21:34

This postcard was sent during the Great War from Poperinge, a village in the small enclave of Belgium that was not overrun by the Kaiser’s armies. You may be able to see where the censor obliterated the town’s name for security reasons.

‘Pop’ was a place of rest for allied troops, and an Anglican Chaplain had an open house there. His name was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, alias Woodbine Willie, from the pungent cigarettes he distributed far and wide.

He had the reputation of a poet, often writing in dialect, as he does here. This is from a longer poem, ‘Well?’, describing a soldier’s dream of the Last Things. We include it here since it challenges any smugness that we might have accumulated during our ‘Lenten Observance’ – the man is in the ultimate desert place – or so he feels.

How would you answer that ‘Well?’

For more about Woodbine Willy, see Remembrance Sunday 2015: Woodbine Willie

And day by day, and year by year,
My life came back to me.
I see’d just what I were, and what
I’d ‘ad the charnce to be.
And all the good I might ‘a’ done,
An’ ‘adn’t stopped to do.
I see’d I’d made an ‘ash of it,
And Gawd! but it were true.

A throng ‘o faces came and went,
Afore me on that shore,
My wife, and Mother, kiddies, pals,
And the face of a London whore.
And some was sweet, and some was sad,
And some put me to shame,
For the dirty things I’d done to ’em,
When I ‘adn’t played the game.
Then in the silence someone stirred,
Like when a sick man groans,
And a kind o’ shivering chill ran through
The marrer ov my bones.
And there before me someone stood,
Just lookin’ dahn at me,
And still be’ind ‘Im moaned and moaned
That everlasting sea.
I couldn’t speak, I felt as though
‘E ‘ad me by the throat,
‘Twere like a drownin’ fellah feels,
Last moment ‘e’s afloat.
And ‘E said nowt, ‘E just stood still,
For I dunno ‘ow long.
It seemed to me like years and years,
But time out there’s all wrong.

What was ‘E like? You’re askin’ now.
Can’t word it anyway.
‘E just were ‘Im, that’s all I knows.
There’s things as words can’t say.
It seemed to me as though ‘Is face,
Were millions rolled in one.
It never changed yet always changed,
Like the sea beneath the sun.
‘Twere all men’s face yet no man’s face,
And a face no man can see,
And it seemed to say in silent speech,
‘Ye did ’em all to me.
‘The dirty things ye did to them,
‘The filth ye thought was fine,
‘Ye did ’em all to me,’ it said,
‘For all their souls were mine.’
All eyes was in ‘Is eyes, – all eyes,
My wife’s and a million more.
And once I thought as those two eyes
Were the eyes of the London whore.
And they was sad, – My Gawd ‘ow sad,
With tears that seemed to shine,
And quivering bright wi’ the speech o’ light,
They said, ”Er soul was mine.’
And then at last ‘E said one word,
‘E just said one word ‘Well?’
And I said in a funny voice,
‘Please can I go to ‘Ell?’
And ‘E stood there and looked at me,
And ‘E kind o’ seemed to grow,
Till ‘E shone like the sun above my ead,
And then ‘E answered ‘No
‘You can’t, that ‘Ell is for the blind,
‘And not for those that see.
‘You know that you ‘ave earned it, lad,
‘So you must follow me.
‘Follow me on by the paths o’ pain,
‘Seeking what you ‘ave seen,
‘Until at last you can build the “Is,”
‘Wi’ the bricks o’ the “Might ‘ave been.”‘
That’s what ‘E said, as I’m alive,
And that there dream were true.
But what ‘E meant, – I don’t quite know,
Though I knows what I ‘as to do.
I’s got to follow what I’s seen,
Till this old carcase dies.
For I daren’t face the land o’ grace,
The sorrow ov those eyes.
There ain’t no throne, and there ain’t no books,
It’s ‘Im you’ve got to see,
It’s ‘Im, just ‘Im, that is the Judge
Of blokes like you and me.
And boys I’d sooner frizzle up,
I’ the flames of a burning ‘Ell,
Than stand and look into ‘Is face,
And ‘ear ‘Is voice say – ‘Well?

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Going viral V: cast a cold eye

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fordwich-grave-skulls-date.jpg

There’s a virus about, so maybe we don’t want to look at skulls or gravestones right now. But Henry Brown of this town (Fordwich near Canterbury) has some fine lettering above his plot as well as the two skulls. Whatever else was wrong in England in January 1720/1, there were skilled stonemasons about, and they needed no W.B. Yeats to urge them to cast a cold eye on death.

The date 1720/1 does not indicate that the mason did not know exactly when Henry Brown left his town. It just shows the confusion that prevailed between England and Continental Europe in the years between Pope Gregory XIII introducing the calendar that bears his name in 1582 and its adoption by Britain in 1752. Although the Gregorian was more accurate and sorted out most of the slippage between the earth’s year and the calendar year, the British were not going to accept this crazy, Catholic, continental innovation. Not in 1720/1 anyway.

Why was I in Fordwich? Despite the virus, I’m still allowed exercise and I was preparing the way for a L’Arche pilgrimage, and Fordwich to Canterbury is the last 5 km stage. No major hazards is the good news!

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,   
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,   
On limestone quarried near the spot   
By his command these words are cut:  

Cast a cold eye   
On life, on death.   
Horseman, pass by!

W.B. Yeats Under Ben Bulben

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5 March, Desert VIII: Fear 1

trees-wind-moon

Edward Thomas wrote ‘Out in the dark’ when he knew he was about to leave for the front during the Great War. No wonder fear drummed on his ear. Like Dylan Thomas, who admired him and claimed him as a Welsh poet, he was aware of the creative nature of night, but he was also often downcast.

We have to love the night, the dark, which is safe for the fallow deer, but does not feel safe to Thomas. Always remember that Jesus was afraid that Thursday night in the garden. Feeling fear is no sin or weakness but we must face our fears.

Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And I and star and wind and deer,
Are in the dark together, — near,
Yet far, — and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

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26 February, Ash Wednesday. The Desert, I: This Space

cold-grey-sea

This Lent we will offer daily reflection on the Desert. We begin with a few lines from the Canadian poet, Kate Braid, which set the scene admirably.

This space is not emptiness,

This space is not, as you would say, Nothing there.

It is a space of fullness, open

to possibility. You would say, A foolish space.

Perhaps.

This is not denial. This is joy,

an empty palette waiting, bone

against the sky.

We are so afraid of the larger space.

Kate Braid, Inward to the Bones, Victoria BC, Polestar Book Publishers, 1998. The book explores the life and work of the artist and desert dweller, Georgia O’keeffe.

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6 February. Brownings XX: In a great light

francis stargazing

Elizabeth is still considering  the creative process in this post.

“One should study the mechanical part of the art, as nearly all that there is to be studied—for the more one sits and thinks over the creative process, the more it confirms itself as ‘inspiration,’ nothing more nor less. Or, at worst, you write down old inspirations, what you remember of them … but with that it begins.

‘Reflection’ is exactly what it names itself—a re-presentation, in scattered rays from every angle of incidence, of what first of all became present in a great light, a whole one. So tell me how these lights are born, if you can!

But I can tell anybody how to make melodious verses—let him do it therefore—it should be exacted of all writers.”

One way to learn to write melodious verses I borrowed from Christina Rossetti and her brothers. It worked for teenage pupils, even if it did not produce much high art: the pupils are given sheets with blank lines split into syllables, with the last word alone given, thus:

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ cloud

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ hills

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ crowd

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ daffodils.

I don’t think I ever used that verse though! My point is that the discipline that EBB advocates enables the creative process to get under way; not necessarily smoothly, but surely. And that applies in other areas of life as well.

 

(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)

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5 February. Brownings XIX: struggling to communicate.

amsterdam.attic.dove

Elizabeth again, on the process of writing. Where does the idea come from, how does the writer express it? Kathleen Raine would argue that certain poets, at least, had access to eternal springs that provided the light that led to their words. EBB has the same idea

“Yes, I quite believe as you do that what is called the ‘creative process’ in works of Art, is just inspiration and no less—which made somebody say to me not long since; And so you think that Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ was of the effluence of the Holy Ghost?’—rather a startling deduction, … only not quite as final as might appear to somebodies perhaps. At least it does not prevent my going on to agree with the saying of Spiridion, … do you remember?… ‘Tout ce que l’homme appelle inspiration, je l’appelle aussi revelation*,’ … if there is not something too self-evident in it after all—my sole objection!

And is it not true that your inability to analyse the mental process in question, is one of the proofs of the fact of inspiration?—as the gods were known of old by not being seen to move their feet,—coming and going in an equal sweep of radiance.—And still more wonderful than the first transient great light you speak of, … and far beyond any work of reflection, except in the pure analytical sense in which you use the word, … appears that gathering of light on light upon particular points, as you go (in composition) step by step, till you get intimately near to things, and see them in a fullness and clearness, and an intense trust in the truth of them which you have not in any sunshine of noon (called real!) but which you have then … and struggle to communicate.”

  • Whatever people call Inspiration, I also call Revelation.
(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by 8Robert Browning)

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3 February, Brownings XVII: a sort of fungus of the brain.

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning 
Here is the permanent invalid Elizabeth writing to Robert about one of the doctors who helped to keep her that way. For all the light-hearted tone, this is an intimate confession of her situation.
“I had a doctor once who thought he had done everything because he had carried the inkstand out of the room—’Now,’ he said, ‘you will have such a pulse to-morrow.’ He gravely thought poetry a sort of disease—a sort of fungus of the brain—and held as a serious opinion, that nobody could be properly well who exercised it as an art—which was true (he maintained) even of men—he had studied the physiology of poets, ‘quotha’—but that for women, it was a mortal malady and incompatible with any common show of health under any circumstances.
And then came the damnatory clause in his experience … that he had never known ‘a system’ approaching mine in ‘excitability’ … except Miss Garrow’s … a young lady who wrote verses for Lady Blessington’s annuals … and who was the only other female rhymer he had had the misfortune of attending. And she was to die in two years, though she was dancing quadrilles then (and has lived to do the same by the polka), and I, of course, much sooner, if I did not ponder these things, and amend my ways, and take to reading ‘a course of history’!!”
(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)

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31 January: O if we but knew what we do

Corot.villedavray.750pix

We follow Alice Meynell’s reflection on felled poplars with Gerard Manley Hopkins’. Rightly he cries, ‘O if we but knew what we do’: and we ought to know more about the role of trees than he did 150 years ago. But he knew beauty; perhaps if we spent less time in brick or metal boxes, and got out and walked, then so might we know beauty at first hand. Corot again: his poplars do look vulnerable.

Binsey Poplars felled 1879

MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
  Of a fresh and following folded rank
              Not spared, not one
              That dandled a sandalled
          Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
      When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
      Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
          To mend her we end her,
      When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
      Strokes of havoc únselve
          The sweet especial scene,
      Rural scene, a rural scene,
      Sweet especial rural scene.”
(from “Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins Now First Published” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Bridges)

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January 12: Thomas Traherne XXI, Walking

hereford.lane.b&w.cottage

A village in Herefordshire, Traherne’s home county. Where does the lane lead?

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev’n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
The glory that is by;
Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
The bliss in which they move;
Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
Yet never see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
To mind the good we see;
To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey;
Admire each pretty flow’r
With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
The marks of his great pow’r.

To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
To cull the dew that lies
On ev’ry blade,
From ev’ry blossom; till we lade
Our minds, as they their thighs.

.assisi.clouds.hill

Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
The fructifying sun;
To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
May rich as kings be thought,
But there’s a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk,
‘Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
For we may by degrees
Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
From viewing herbs and trees.

Thomas Traherne

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January 10, Thomas Traherne XIX: Joyful Sense And Purity

pilgrims way2

The Prospect was the Gate of Heaven, that Day
The ancient Light of Eden did convey
Into my Soul: I was an Adam there,
A little Adam in a Sphere
Of Joys! O there my Ravished sense
Was entertained in Paradise,
And had a Sight of Innocence.

All was beyond all Bound and Price.
An Antepast of Heaven sure!
I on the Earth did reign.
Within, without me, all was pure.
I must become a Child again.

Thomas Traherne

Interesting to see the Italian word ‘antipasto’, meaning appetiser or starter, was anglicised in Traherne’s day (1638-74). He was an Anglican priest whose poetry and meditations were lost till early last century. In this continuing Christmas season, it is good to be reminded to become a child again, and to accept and enjoy the moments when we find ourselves in a bubble of joy.  Just because the bubble bursts we should not think it is not real. WT.

The image shows the first prospect of Canterbury Cathedral seen from the West on the Pilgrims’ Way.

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