Gilbert White introduced the Natural History of Selborne (1789) with a selection of his verses, including this description of one family’s harvest time. Their field would have been much smaller than this expanse of barley, ready for the combine harvester, but barley it might well have been, grown for the breweries of London and nearby Alton. Every year, White would have seen the harvest gathered in by hand as he records here. By the sweat of their brow this couple took their part in God’s creation.
Waked by the gentle gleamings of the morn, Soon clad, the reaper, provident of want, Hies cheerful-hearted to the ripen’d field: Nor hastes alone: attendant by his side His faithful wife, sole partner of his cares, Bears on her breast the sleeping babe; behind, With steps unequal, trips her infant train; Thrice happy pair, in love and labour join’d !
All day they ply their task; with mutual chat, Beguiling each the sultry, tedious hours. Around them falls in rows the sever’d corn, Or the shocks rise in regular array.
But when high noon invites to short repast, Beneath the shade of sheltering thorn they sit, Divide the simple meal, and drain the cask: The swinging cradle lulls the whimpering babe Meantime; while growling round, if at the tread Of hasty passenger alarm’d, as of their store Protective, stalks the cur with bristling back, To guard the scanty scrip and russet frock.
Our final selection from EBB’s verses on The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus. I disagree with the poet’s suggestion that Jesus never smiled, nor had the heart to play: that’s not a real human child, unless one that has learned not to through cruelty. Perhaps the poet is suggesting that Jesus in his earthly, human life had access to divine knowledge of his death by cruelty. That is to deny his humanity altogether. But we can no longer interview Barrett Browning, and we know that Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart, and she would have pondered these things in her heart.
It is enough to bear
This image still and fair,
This holier in sleep
Than a saint at prayer,
This aspect of a child
Who never sinned or smiled;
This Presence in an infant's face;
This sadness most like love,
This love than love more deep,
This weakness like omnipotence
It is so strong to move.
Awful is this watching place,
Awful what I see from hence—
A king, without regalia,
A God, without the thunder,
A child, without the heart for play;
Ay, a Creator, rent asunder
From His first glory and cast away
On His own world, for me alone
To hold in hands created, crying—Son!
That tear fell not on Thee,
Beloved, yet thou stirrest in thy slumber!
Thou, stirring not for glad sounds out of number
Which through the vibratory palm-trees run
From summer-wind and bird,
So quickly hast thou heard
A tear fall silently?
Wak'st thou, O loving One?—
Art Thou a King, then?
Come, His universe,
Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
Their light where fell a curse,
And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—
What is my word? Each empyreal star
Sits in a sphere afar
In shining ambuscade:
The child-brow, crowned by none,
Keeps its unchildlike shade.
Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!
Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear
An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.
No small babe-smiles my watching heart has seen
To float like speech the speechless lips between,
No dovelike cooing in the golden air,
No quick short joys of leaping babyhood.
Alas, our earthly good
In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee;
Yet, sleep, my weary One!
And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,
With the dread sense of things which shall be done,
Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?
That "smites the Shepherd." Then, I think aloud
The words "despised,"—"rejected,"—every word
Recoiling into darkness as I view
The Darling on my knee.
Bright angels,—move not—lest ye stir the cloud
Betwixt my soul and His futurity!
I must not die, with mother's work to do,
And could not live-and see.
It’s Mary’s feast today. She matters because she is the mother of Jesus. Let’s read the thoughts of a 19th Century Protestant Englishwoman.
Elizabeth Barrett published this suite of twelve verses in 1838, before she met Robert Browning. I say ‘suite of verses’ for each one can stand as a poem in its own right. In these first two verses Mary speaks tenderly to her Son, trying to establish what their relationship will become. Jesus new-born, sleeps on, exhausted. What will become of them both? We will publish a further selection of the verses over the next three days.
In the stained glass window Jesus is old enough to learn to read and be in Joseph’s workshop, with a rose bush and a palm tree outside.
THE VIRGIN MARY TO THE CHILD JESUS
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
But see the Virgin blest Hath laid her babe to rest. Milton's Hymn on the Nativity.
I. Sleep, sleep, mine Holy One! My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know A name that seemeth not too high or low, Too far from me or heaven: My Jesus, that is best! that word being given By the majestic angel whose command Was softly as a man's beseeching said, When I and all the earth appeared to stand In the great overflow Of light celestial from his wings and head. Sleep, sleep, my saving One!
II. And art Thou come for saving, baby-browed And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving? The palm that grows beside our door is bowed By treadings of the low wind from the south, A restless shadow through the chamber waving: Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun, But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth, Dost seem of wind and sun already weary. Art come for saving, O my weary One?
More from EBB tomorrow; the whole suite can be found on line.
In order to give the superiors a little encouragement in the way of making a missionary of me, I at last was able to acquire a second hand motor-bike and sidecar (plus of course a debt!) and was given charge of five villages (don’t imagine “village”, think of forests, banana gardens, cotton fields + very scattered huts). I did the sick calls for a month + two safaris. Bedding and everything packed off to a mud house in the woods seven miles away and then I nearly died of fatigue. Quite frankly exhausted. Hut to hut visiting over fields, rocks, ruts …. For hours and hours each day. Little sleep at night because of rats and spiders …. How I learnt to admire the real missionaries! Those who do this always.
It’s 1934, and Fr Arthur Hughes, recently arrived in Uganda, is trying to get away from being a desk jockey; he was the bishop’s secretary. Different times! The missionaries had vast areas to cover and the motor bike was a reasonably efficient and cheap means of getting about; he had used one extensively in England earlier. Not very many years before this, a push bike was considered something of a luxury for a missionary. Arthur is writing to his sister Winifred in London; we have kept his punctuation.
Nowadays there are many Ugandan priests, serving God and their people, but from before Fr Hughes’s time to the present day, the Church has been held together through the work of lay catechists. Tomorrow we will be visiting them in Uganda, and finding more about this long-established ministry which has at last been formally recognised by Pope Francis.
Spiders look bigger in the dark with only a hurricane lamp to see by.
John McCrae was a Canadian military doctor during the Great War. He is best known for his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. This post describes an incident he witnessed 105 years ago, on 1 June. It is from the introductory material selected by his editor.
“Tuesday, June 1st, 1915.
1-1/2 miles northeast of Festubert, near La Bassee. Last night a 15 pr. and a 4-inch howitzer fired at intervals of five minutes from 8 till 4; most of them within 500 or 600 yards—a very tiresome procedure; much of it is on registered roads.
In the morning I walked out to Le Touret to the wagon lines, got Bonfire, and rode to the headquarters at Vendin-lez-Bethune, a little village a mile past Bethune. Left the horse at the lines and walked back again. An unfortunate shell in the 1st killed a sergeant and wounded two men; thanks to the strong emplacements the rest of the crew escaped.
In the evening went around the batteries and said good-bye. We stood by while they laid away the sergeant who was killed. Kind hands have made two pathetic little wreaths of roses; the grave under an apple-tree, and the moon rising over the horizon; a siege-lamp held for the book. Of the last 41 days the guns have been in action 33.
Captain Lockhart, late with Fort Garry Horse, arrived to relieve me. I handed over, came up to the horse lines, and slept in a covered wagon in a courtyard. We were all sorry to part—the four of us have been very intimate and had agreed perfectly—and friendships under these circumstances are apt to be the real thing.
From “In Flanders Fields and Other Poems” by John McCrae.
Boswell was struck by this passage in Samuel Johnson’s papers, recorded at Easter 1777. He was at church, even on Easter Sunday aware of his sinfulness, but on this Easter Day he received a personal revelation of God’s peace.
I was for some time distressed, but at last obtained, I hope from the GOD of Peace, more quiet than I have enjoyed for a long time. I had made no resolution, but as my heart grew lighter, my hopes revived, and my courage increased; and I wrote with my pencil in my Common Prayer Book,
Vita ordinanda. Order my life. Biblia legenda. Read my Bible. Theologiae opera danda. Study works of theology. Serviendum et lætandum. Serve and rejoice.*
He continued later: ‘I passed the afternoon with such calm gladness of mind as it is very long since I felt before. I passed the night in such sweet uninterrupted sleep as I have not known since I slept at Fort Augustus.’ In a letter to Boswell he says:—’The best night that I have had these twenty years was at Fort Augustus.’ His good nights must have been rare indeed.”
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)
It is a strange thing this bed, this mimic grave, where we stretch our tired limbs and sink away so quietly into the silence and rest. “O bed, O bed, delicious bed, that heaven on earth to the weary head,” as sang poor Hood, you are a kind old nurse to us fretful boys and girls. Clever and foolish, naughty and good, you take us all in your motherly lap and hush our wayward crying. The strong man full of care—the sick man full of pain—the little maiden sobbing for her faithless lover—like children we lay our aching heads on your white bosom, and you gently soothe us off to by-by. Our trouble is sore indeed when you turn away and will not comfort us.
How long the dawn seems coming when we cannot sleep! Oh! those hideous nights when we toss and turn in fever and pain, when we lie, like living men among the dead, staring out into the dark hours that drift so slowly between us and the light. And oh! those still more hideous nights when we sit by another in pain, when the low fire startles us every now and then with a falling cinder, and the tick of the clock seems a hammer beating out the life that we are watching.
From Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome.
Jerome was writing in 1886, making his way out of poverty. He had lost his parents as a teenager, and left school early to work. He would have had real sympathy for the people represented by today’s image. All too often, over the last few years, a homeless person’s pitch has been replaced by bouquets of flowers following their death in a disused shop doorway or under a tree. This winter, the corona virus led to their being swept up off the streets. Will they be still under a roof when the crisis is over?
A few more extracts from Jerome follow; have we improved our country and our world since 1886?
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
So let’s be a little more serious about the sorrow we looked at yesterday. Sorrow and depression are real. Hopkins bids us take comfort, even if we are tossed about by a whirlwind of spinning emotions and thoughts. We know our sorrow will at least have an end in death: life death does end. But does this mean that death brings an end to a frightful life, or that life puts an end to death? I would suggest both arguments hold true. And each day dies with sleep, ‘and another succeeds it’ is the subtext of that word ‘each’. We always have another chance to open our eyes and say with another of Wales’ poets, WH Davies:
Good morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful.
It may feel all wrong at this moment to be uttering such a prayer, but that does not mean that it is actually wrong to make an act of hope.