“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.
“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
Even as she spoke she was not,
Nor any word said he,
He only heard, still as he stood
Under the old night’s nodding hood,
The sea-folk breaking down the wood
Like a high tide from sea.
Tag Archives: poetry
“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.
Fearfully plain the flowers grew, Like the child's book to read, Or like a friend's face seen in a glass; He looked; and there Our Lady was, She stood and stroked the tall live grass As a man strokes his steed. Her face was like an open word When brave men speak and choose, The very colours of her coat Were better than good news. She spoke not, nor turned not, Nor any sign she cast, Only she stood up straight and free, Between the flowers in Athelney, And the river running past. One dim ancestral jewel hung On his ruined armour grey, He rent and cast it at her feet: Where, after centuries, with slow feet, Men came from hall and school and street And found it where it lay. "Mother of God," the wanderer said, "I am but a common king, Nor will I ask what saints may ask, To see a secret thing. "The gates of heaven are fearful gates Worse than the gates of hell; Not I would break the splendours barred Or seek to know the thing they guard, Which is too good to tell. "But for this earth most pitiful, This little land I know, If that which is for ever is, Or if our hearts shall break with bliss, Seeing the stranger go? "When our last bow is broken, Queen, And our last javelin cast, Under some sad, green evening sky, Holding a ruined cross on high, Under warm westland grass to lie, Shall we come home at last?" This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs: "I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, Save that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher." Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'. Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.
The 18th Century curate and scientist saw no conflict between these two ways of looking at the world; here it is science inspiring him to a prayer in poetry.
The crocus sativus, the vernal, and the autumnal crocus have such an affinity, that the best botanists only make them varieties of the same genus, of which there is only one species; not being able to discern any difference in the corolla, or in the internal structure. Yet the vernal crocus expands its flowers by the beginning of March at farthest, and often in very rigorous weather; and cannot be retarded but by some violence offered: — while the autumnal (the saffron) defies the influence of the spring and summer, and will not blow till most plants begin to fade and run to seed.
This circumstance is one of the wonders of the creation, little noticed, because a common occurrence: yet ought not to be overlooked on account of its being familiar, since it would be as difficult to be explained as the most stupendous phaenomenon in nature.
Say, what impels, amidst surrounding snow,
Congealed, the crocus’ flamy bud to grow?
Say, what retards, amidst the summer’s blaze,
Th’ autumnal bulb till pale, declining days ?
The GOD of SEASONS; whose pervading power
Controls the sun, or sheds the fleecy shower:
He bids each flower His quickening word obey;
Or to each lingering bloom enjoins delay.
Letter XLII from The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White.
London’s Irish Chaplaincy will host a ‘Fireside Gathering’ concert on February 5th 2021 at 7.30pm. Headlining again is the London Celtic Youth Orchestra, and we’re delighted as well to have Thomas McCarthy on the bill. Thomas, an Irish Traveller, singer and storyteller was named Traditional Singer of the Year in the Gradam Ceoil Awards 2019. Various other talented musicians and poets will complete the line-up, there will be a special message from the Ambassador and it promises to be a great and uplifting evening. The event will be Live on the Irish Chaplaincy Facebook Page and is free to watch. Follow the Fireside Gathering link to find the flier.
I have to say that by no means all of Emily Dickinson’s verse speaks to me; this deceptively simple poem does, though I’m reluctant to analyse it too much and lose it. But ‘docile as a boy’? Sometimes a boy is docile and easily led and the sea can be docile, sometimes. ‘Along appointed sands’, as here in Margate, seen from another poet’s perch, the shelter where Eliot wrote. ‘Obedient to the least command’ does not sound like a statement of fact, more a statement of intent: from a storm-tossed Kent, I pray that the Good Shepherd will lead us beside quiet waters this year of Our Lord 2021.
The moon is distant from the sea,
And yet with amber hands
She leads him, docile as a boy,
Along appointed sands.
He never misses a degree;
Obedient to her eye,
He comes just so far toward the town,
Just so far goes away.
Oh, Signor, thine the amber hand,
And mine the distant sea, —
Obedient to the least command
Thine eyes impose on me.”
Series 2, Love XIII from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete
Another poem by Mary Webb; this one sprung to mind one January afternoon, as I walked home from the Goods Shed Farmers’ Market, passing this well-laden hawthorn tree. A few more cold days, and the blackbirds – see below – will have stripped it.
A Hawthorn Berry
How sweet a thought, How strange a deed, To house such glory in a seed-- A berry, shining rufously, Like scarlet coral in the sea! A berry, rounder than a ring, So round, it harbours everything; So red, that all the blood of men Could never paint it so again. And, as I hold it in my hand A fragrance steals across the land: Rich, on the wintry heaven, I see A white, immortal hawthorn-tree.
Let’s stay with Mary Webb today. Here is the blackbird; he is too preoccupied to sing, with that annoying human standing right next to his lunch. Mrs Blackbird was hidden behind the ivy in the first picture.
Mary Webb once more takes us from the things we hardly see for familiarity to the immortal, eternal. Infinity in a grain – a seed – of hawthorn. A hawthorn seed planted in her time would be ablaze with haws now, if not stripped by the birds, and then creamy white in May, the original Mayflower. This very bush is special to me. Walking by one day after an operation, I realised my sense of smell had returned, an unexpected gift from surgery elsewhere in my head. I try to remember in passing, and be consciously grateful.
Ah, hush! Tread softly through the rime, For there will be a blackbird singing, or a thrush. Like coloured beads the elm-buds flush: All the trees dream of leaves and flowers and light. And see! The northern bank is much more white Than frosty grass, for now is snowdrop time.
It’s a while since we tapped into Mary Webb, but she gives pause for reflection. Rime is the soft hoar frost that coats the ground and trees and disappears as the sun gets to work. This short poem is full of hope, inviting us to look and listen and ‘dream of leaves and flowers and light.’ And the snowdrops are a promise that those things will come.
Once you could buy posies of violets or snowdrops bundled with glossy ivy leaves. The snowdrops someone planted a few yards from our door are increasing, year on year. They are working towards a self-sustaining community with the trees above them – and below them, for tree roots run deep, bringing nutrients up to where the bulbs can harvest them.
Enjoy your walk today!
Irish Chaplaincy will host a ‘Fireside Gathering’ concert on February 5th 2021 at 7.30pm. Headlining again is the London Celtic Youth Orchestra, and we’re delighted as well to have Thomas McCarthy on the bill. Thomas, an Irish Traveller, singer and storyteller was named Traditional Singer of the Year in the Gradam Ceoil Awards 2019. Various other talented musicians and poets will complete the line-up, there will be a special message from the Ambassador and it promises to be a great and uplifting evening. The event will be Live on the Irish Chaplaincy Facebook Page and is free to watch. Follow the Fireside Gathering link to find the flier.
Christina Rossetti called the poem from which this is taken ‘Advent’. My working title for this post was ‘Noli me tangere: Christ’s ‘do not hold me’ to Mary on Easter morning, and I would have used it for Easter week had I not received the last two posts from Tim and Sheila; it fits in nicely here, on the day when the Sun peeps over the horizon in Greenland: winter is on his way out!
I’ve been careful these last weeks: as I write our county is a hotspot of Covid19 and my family want to hold me fast for a while longer. We do appreciate what a blessing touch is, with two young grandsons to ram the message home. But only essential shopping is being done in person and we have been attending Mass on-line, at our own parish except when our tech or the church’s was malfunctioning. As my wife says, perhaps the best thing we can do is to keep away from infection and not take up the health service’s time. And take the vaccination when offered. But it also means not attending the most popular Masses. That’s one of those things we have to accept. But the Mass is the one sacrifice; it can be said to have begun with the Nativity (or even the Annunciation) and continued through the passion that, as Rowan Williams reminds us, was Christ’s life, to the passion that was his death and resurrection. My attending on a computer screen instead of in the pew does not reduce its saving efficacy.
And as Christina Chase suggested to me, this absent-presence can lead to a greater desire to receive Christ sacramentally, making St Alphonsus’ Spiritual Communion a prayer powerful in our own lives. But here is that other Christina, Christina Rossetti:
We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.”
( Advent from “Poems” by Christina Georgina Rossetti)
D H Lawrence meant before the Great War, 1914-18. When he is not trying to be over intellectual and convey abstract ideas in poetry, when he is being human, as here, he is a better poet. We can surely all sympathise with his mixed emotions, as Christina and I discussed a while back. The Embankment would be described as a dyke or levee elsewhere; busy roads and broad footpaths run along it, under trees. Let’s not forget those people it is hard to help this Christmas.
By the river
In the black wet night as the furtive rain slinks down,
Dropping and starting from sleep
Alone on a seat
A woman crouches.
I must go back to her. I want to give her
Some money. Her hand slips out of the breast of her gown
Asleep. My fingers creep
Carefully over the sweet
Thumb-mound, into the palm’s deep pouches.
So, the gift! God, how she starts!
And looks at me, and looks in the palm of her hand!
And again at me!
I turn and run
Down the Embankment, run for my life.
But why?—why? Because of my heart’s
Beating like sobs, I come to myself, and stand
In the street spilled over splendidly
With wet, flat lights. What I’ve done
I know not, my soul is in strife.
The touch was on the quick. I want to forget.
” (from “New Poems” by D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence 1885-1930)