O sweet poetry
Exploring Faith through Poetry Talk at St. George’s 7.11.18
I should like to start this talk with a wonderful poem, called Love, by George Herbert, the early seventeenth century priest and poet.
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here.
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.
Surely one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. And a true testament to faith. In my edition of George Herbert’s poems there appears underneath the poem the words
Glory be to God on high and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.
George Herbert is, of course, part of a long and rich tradition in which men and women of faith have expressed themselves in poetry. Many like Herbert, were themselves priests; John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S Thomas, Andrew Young, to name but a few. But many lay men and women, have written poetry inspired by their Christian belief; these include, to give a random selection, Queen Elizabeth 1, Alexander Pope, T.S. Eliot, Siegfried Sassoon, Christina Rosetti, Joyce Grenfell. There are recurring themes; faith, and doubt, love, death, and the life hereafter, hope, compassion, love of beauty, thankfulness, repentance, forgiveness and praise.
In the sixteenth century Sir Walter Raleigh wrote this simple poem;
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
Can poetry instil faith? Maybe. Faith is a gift from God. It comes to people in different ways and perhaps poetry may be one such conduit. Certainly, poetry may reaffirm faith, share wonder at the beauty of the natural world and at the strength of the human spirit, give solace, give hope, be a refuge, inspire, open eyes to new perspectives and in stirring the imagination of the reader, connect two human beings from different walks of life, sometimes across the centuries.
When Father James invited me to give this talk, I thought that I should examine how poetry had informed my own faith. Many poems resonate with me because they mirror or reinforce my beliefs, or open my eyes to a wider vision, but I thought my faith in God was pretty well established before ever I read any poetry. However, I realise that I have, in fact, heard poetry all my life, in the form of hymns.
I was brought up in a loving, Christian family. My grandfather was a vicar, as were many of my father’s family and forbears and church going was part of my childhood, so when very young I became familiar with the poetry to be found in such simple hymns like All Things Bright and Beautiful, There is a green hill far away, Once in Royal David’s city and New Every Morning is the Love all by Mrs. Alexander. So perhaps the seeds of my faith were were, indeed, sown by poetry; the poetry of the English Hymnal.
I was also brought up on Lear and Belloc and there is quite a strong versifying gene in my father’s family. I write metric rhyming verse, not much in fashion today, but the formula with which I feel happy and I suspect that my love of metre and rhyme may have started in church. Of course, children love verse as Julia Donaldson wonderful children’s books attest.
George Herbert’s Teach Me My God and King, started life as a poem. The metre is one found in many hymns and one into which I readily fall when writing rhyming verse. Just to remind you;
Teach Me My God and King
In all things thee to see
That what I do in anything,
I do it as for Thee
The title of this talk is Exploring Faith through Poetry. I am not going to give an academic discourse on the poetry which has, over the centuries, expressed aspects of Christian faith. I am not qualified to do so and there will be those far more knowledgeable.
But Father James’s invitation made me examine how I have explored my Christian faith through my own poetry. I cannot remember a time when I did not believe in a loving and merciful God, though I turned my back on him for a while in my early twenties, and I can talk of how my faith has informed and inspired my work as well as that of countless others. I shall read several poems by way of illustration, many of which appear in Widening Horizons, a collection of my more contemplative poems.
I have chosen an eclectic collection of poems by other poets with whom I can identify and whose works resonate with me. The selection will, perforce, be personal and very limited. Some great poets will not get a mention! I hope this will not disappoint! Here is the list.
My first foray into writing verse might have been an answer to prayer. It gave me the means of escape from a very trying two weeks holiday in France. I lost myself in writing; mainly humorous verse inspired by the characters and situations to hand.
Over the years my poetry has developed from light-hearted verse about the quirks of human behaviour to more serious contemplative poems. I attribute this to my deepening faith as I travel the spiritual path. I hope some of these poems will resonate with you.
I am no theologian. Mine is a simple faith in the love of God and his presence within us through the Holy Spirit. I believe in redemption and forgiveness and the life of the world to come. My poetry is similarly straightforward.
For some the beauty of the natural world and the richness of creation are the way into belief in a benevolent God and they have been the inspiration for artistic expression of all kinds; painting, literature, music, dance. I have written many poems inspired by nature.
One, Sylvan Delights, is a sort of hymn of praise, which I wrote after walking through beautiful woods on the west side of Derwentwater in the Lake District.
The first two lines read
The larch tree is lifting her branch tips in praise
The slender birch seeming to wave in assent.
And the last two
It is a paradise here in this wood.
Surely such beauty shows God must be good.
Of course, countless poets have written beautifully of nature, Wordsworth, Robert Frost, RS Thomas, immediately spring to mind, but on a more superficial level this little poem by Joyce Kilmer, which I came across recently, appeals to me. My verse is similarly uncomplicated!
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray.
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair.
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.
Our creator has poured out beauty in abundance. Grand mountain landscapes can inspire awe and wonder, but the small scale can be just as wonderful in its way. It is all around us if only we will open our eyes. Seek and ye shall find!
R.S Thomas, the Welsh parson poet, wrote a wonderful poem called The Bright Field, which makes just this point.
I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field
For a while, and gone my way
And forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had
The treasure in it. I realize now
That I must give all that I have
To possess it. Life is not hurrying
On to a receding future, nor hankering after
An imagined past. It is the turning
Aside like Moses to the miracle
Of the lit bush, to a brightness
That seemed as transitory as your youth
Once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I am constantly amazed by how often beauty appears in the mundane, perhaps the topping on a cappuccino, or the grain in a piece of wood, or in this case a leaf.
This is a poem called
Take Another Look
Such subtlety of colour and tenderness of line!
The richly coloured landscape surely speaks of the divine.
For amazing as it is (it almost beggars one’s belief)
This glorious vista nestles in a single maple leaf.
I believe that the call to creativity, in any form, is a gift from God – an Invitation to co-create. George Eliot, better known as a novelist, also wrote poetry
‘Tis God gives skill
But not without men’s hands. He could not make
Antonio Stradivari’s violins
And of course we should not hear any music played without musicians.
The last words of George Eliot’s poem are ‘Get thee to thy easel’ which really resonates with me. I paint, as well as write and there are many parallels in their respective creative processes. In both you choose a subject, or none, You choose a palette, you choose a metre, You choose a mood, you choose a tone. In both cases there is a total loss of self in the search for meaning and truth.
This loss of self is, as Tom said in his talk last week, true of all artists be it writers, painters, sculptors, composers, musicians, performers.
But while painting and music can convey feeling, mood and beauty it is only in the written word that the artist can convey precisely how is thinking. All the more so in the pared down discipline of poetry.
I enjoy addressing challenging subjects in simple language. The discipline of structured verse forces me to express as precisely as I can what I believe to be true. But what is truth? There must always be room for doubt and uncertainty. I came across this wonderful poem by Yehuda Amichai , an Israeli poet, which brings a warning about closing your mind to other versions of ‘truth’
From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.
But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow
And a whisper will be heard where the ruined house once stood.
Birth and Death and the quest for meaning in life are always with us. My daughter’s comment, after giving birth for the first time, was ‘Birth’s a binary moment, isn’t it?’ which gave me pause for thought. She is a mathematician with a very logical, scientific approach, so I could understand why she would describe it as such. But to me, it didn’t ring true at all, and when I examined why that was so, I found the answer in creating this poem.
Birth’s a ‘binary moment’
From one point of view,
There’s before and then after.
First one, then two.
Now mother and child ,No more just you.
From another perspective
You are never ‘just you’.
Each soul that is born,
It matters not who
Is a minuscule part of,
Though integral to,
The whole sweep of creation
All centuries through.
Life’s fabric is seamless
So this baby so new,
I imagine is ageless from
God’s point of view.
As T.S.Eliot famously wrote in Burnt Norton, in his beautiful, dense, sometimes impenetrable poetry
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps in time future
And time future contained in the past.
It is, indeed, all ONE
Now to love; Poets from Shakespeare to Wendy Cope have written of love, human and divine; of love and loss, of joy and heartache.
I wrote this poem for my goddaughter on her marriage to someone she had met on line, like so many of her generation.
Some marriages, they say, are made in Heaven,
Those to whom true happiness is given,
Doubly blessed unions between souls on earth
Who meet and recognise their mutual worth.
How this occurs no-one can ascertain
Nor chemical analysis explain.
God moves, we know, in a mysterious way.
Perhaps in world-wide cyberspace today
The tap of keys, not flap of angel wings,
Alerts us to the message that He brings;
His truth, which penetrates the mind’s dark maze,
No less profoundly than in ancient days.
Life’s meaning has its source in Heaven above.
This meaning is the mystery of Love.
In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, ‘In Memoriam, he
wrote this, of love
Love is and was my Lord and King
And in his presence I attend
To hear the tidings of my friend
Which every hour his couriers bring.
Love is and was my King and Lord
And will be, tho’ as yet I keep
Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompass’d by his faithful guard
And hear at times a sentinel
Who moves about from place to place
And whispers to the world of space
In the deep night, that all is well.
And what of death, an enduring preoccupation of human kind? For a Christian death is the start of a new life. I have experienced two near death experiences, the first of which was in a serious car crash which I was very lucky to survive. I was sure that I was going to die when the Volvo I was driving, having been hit from behind and sent spinning, headed at speed for a sheer bank. In fact,the car did a somersault, went through 180 degrees and landed up facing back down the motorway. The point is that I had absolutely no fear of dying. It was fine.
I can’t remember when I first came across John Donne’s marvellous poem
‘Death, Be Not Proud’
Whose last two lines are
‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die’
So I have no fear of death and when I attended a friend’s father’s funeral in a little church in Preshute, near Marlborough I had a real sense of his welcome into the nearer presence. As soon as I could I wrote a poem called Journey’s End which has, I have been told, been of comfort to people.
Welcome Home my darling.
It’s wonderful you’re here.
You’ve had a rotten journey,
Now there’s nothing left to fear.
You’ll have a great reception
From all the loving folk
Who’ve gathered here to greet you.
There are some, and here’s the joke,
You never really cared for.
You will find you were so wrong.
It’s all quite complicated,
But you’ll soon pick up the song.
You’ve been through tribulations.
We know. We’ve heard you pray.
But now you’re safe and sound at last,
For ever and a day.
Sometimes I receive flashes of insight, unbidden and vivid. Soon after my beloved aunt died my second grand daughter was born. Some- time later I had a striking vision of the two of them on a moving escalator;
Here is the resulting poem, called Swapping Places
There is an endless circling stair
Where souls are wont to meet.
A few years back I saw my aunt,
Her right hand raised to greet
My youngest granddaughter, now three
Then not to us yet known.
The one to take her place on earth
The other going Home
You may find my faith childlike, my attitude Pollyanna-ish. I have not often wrestled with the dark night of the soul or experienced the existential anxt known to so many artists. But that is how I am.
An important element of my faith is the belief that good will come out of what we may perceive at the time to be bad. Looking back on my life before and after that accident I can see how enormously enriched it was as a result. Learning to come to terms with being incapacitated, acquaintance with pain and how to deal with it, contact with healing of all kinds, expanded my understanding and experiences in ways that have been of enormous value since.
God knows what he’s about!
I love George Herbert’s poem Paradise:
I bless thee, Lord, because I grow
Among thy trees, which in a row
To thee both fruit and order owe.
What open force, or hidden charm
Can blast my fruit, or bring me harm
While the enclosure is thine arm?
Enclose me still for fear I start.
Be to me rather sharp and tart
Than let me want thy hand and art.
When thou dost greater judgement spare
And with thy knife but prune and pare
Ev’n fruitful trees more fruitful are.
Such sharpness shows the sweetest frend:
Such cuttings rather heal than rend:
And such beginnings touch their end.
Illness, pain, bereavement, are all part of the human experience. Grief is, it has been said, the price we pay for love. This is beautifully expressed in a poem entitled Song by an Aboriginal poet called Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal.
Life is ours in vain
Lacking love, which never
Counts the loss or gain.
But remember, ever
Love is linked with pain.
Light and sister shade
Shape each mortal morrow
Seek not to evade
Love’s companion, Sorrow,
And be not dismayed.
Grief is not in vain,
It’s for our completeness.
If the fates ordain
Love to bring life’s sweetness
Welcome, too, its pain.
Joyce Grenfell, whom I admired enormously as a performer, was also a poet. I love her sense of humour and I share with her a love of the Lakes.
Salvatore Quasimodo wrote that ‘poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognises as his own.’ Several of Joyce Grenfell’s poems resonate with me.
This one is called The Reason for Joy,
The reason for joy
Must always have been known –
The moment of awareness
Of sun and son, of sudden light,
Of finding we are not alone.
The reason for joy
Is that Christ rose again
To show us that one’s life is whole,
In spite of what the world’s eye sees,
In spite of crucifying pain.
That is the point – the suffering
Was never blessed of itself,
Nor is the struggling human gain.
The reason for joy
And its satisfying grace
Is that the place we live in
Is the only heaven, and is now
Including all – including space!
The reason for joy
Is God, our very being
God is (therefore we are)
The very essence of
Our loving, living, seeing.
Suffering, love and loss.
Life is ours in vain
Lacking love, which never
Counts the loss or gain.
But remember, ever
Love is linked with pain.
Which brings us to the cross of Jesus.
The role of suffering is hard to understand, not possible to explain and faith can be challenged when confronted with appalling images of starvation, desperation and misery from around the world. But in scenes of seemingly unendurable pain the spirit shines.
In the midst of the horror of war Siegfried Sassoon wrote the poem Everyone Sang
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green field; on -on -and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted:
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away……..O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless;
the singing will never be done.
What a testament to the spirit that dwells in the human heart.
I have written several poems directly inspired by the life of Jesus. I was asked to write poems for Christmas charity concerts and this prompted me to produce several on the Christmas theme. I have often chosen animals to be the narrator in my poems.
Palm Sunday was the source of a poem called Donkey Soliloquy.
I’m accustomed to being belittled.
For me it has always been that way.
Horses look down their noses at me;
They disparage the way that I neigh.
But I never pay much attention
To their rude insults and cheap jibes.
I respond by remaining silent
Whilst emitting conciliatory vibes.
My coat is not tended and glossy,
You will find my hair rough to the touch.
My ears are both long and ungainly.
My looks never amounted to much.
But my eyelashes humans would die for!
My feet are turned out and petite.
Whenever I meet little children
They invariably say I am ‘sweet’.
I am used as a poor beast of burden.
I suppose it’s for that I am made.
I can sometimes escape to the quiet
To regain my strength, in the shade.
My ancestors told wondrous stories
Of places and things they had seen.
There is one among these which is golden.
Let me try and explain what I mean.
I feel myself part of the now famous story
That began on that first Christmas night.
I was trudging around, with this couple,
The girl heavily pregnant, a pitiful sight.
The weight of my burden was crippling.
My poor back bent under the strain.
But she, bless her, was bearing a burden,
And I never once heard her complain.
I was there at Christ’s birth in the stable,
I was there when they had to take flight.
I bore mother and child into Egypt,
We escaped under cover of night.
When grown, Jesus often had need of me
Whilst he journeyed around doing good.
Sometimes the crowds were enormous.
He was weary. I well understood!
There’s one journey I’ll never forget;
I can see it now, clearly as day.
The clip clop of my small hooves was silenced
By fresh palm leaves they’d strewn on the way.
That ride to Jerusalem was exhausting.
Wildly excited, the crowds push and shove.
But the One on my back is gentle, for-
Bearing. He radiates patience and love.
God chose us donkeys to carry His Son.
In the world’s eyes our status is low,
But me, I rejoice in our calling,
For as Jesus once showed us, we know
That to serve is the best way to live;
To bear burdens for others the Way.
We animal parables teach what
He taught: Be humble. Be loving. Obey.
A friend who read this poem told me a fascinating fact about Ethiopia, a very ancient centre of Christianity. Here, horses used to be the pack animals and the donkeys carried people. Donkeys were revered as the animals which carried Christ. I did not know that when I wrote the poem and I had entirely forgotten G K Chesterton’s poem The Donkey, which starts ‘When fishes flew and forests walked’ which as a child I had not much liked, but immediately resonated when I read it recently; the last two lines are
’There was a shout about my ears and palms beneath my feet.
The connection with other poets is one of the joys of writing. Sometimes a poem rings so true to what I have written and felt that it is almost uncanny. I feel my fellow poet and it is wonderful to experience such connectivity.
In 2000 Michael Fuller organised a week of prayer at St. George’s. I went along because I thought my prayer life was wanting and it was an enriching time. My mentor was Kim Nataraja, who is here tonight. Kim introduced me to Christian Meditation, an ancient form of Christian prayer which involves stillness, silence and the interior repetition of the mantra, Maranatha, Aramaic for Come Lord Jesus. In Meditation you lose your ‘self’. The ego is banished. In the words of John Main, the Benedictine monk did so much to revive the practice of this ancient form of Christian prayer ‘The important aim of meditation is to allow God’s mysterious presence within us to become more and more not only a reality but the reality which gives meaning, shape and purpose to everything we do, everything we are.’ Daily meditation has become absolutely fundamental to my life and it is no coincidence that my poetry has developed along more contemplative routes over the last 18 years. Several poems have been directly inspired by Meditation and prayer
How Should I Pray?
How should I pray?
One word, you say?
Every new day,
Pray come what may.
This ancient way
Comes fresh each day.
Put doubt away
And in faith pray.
Empty your mind.
Leave self behind.
Then you will find
Silent and still,
Thought brought to nil,
Let Him instil
His loving will.
I am ever more aware of how many blessings have been poured upon me. A loving husband, children, grandchildren, friendships, community, health, opportunities to see the world, material comforts. I wrote a poem called Count Your Blessings which is a sort of hymn of thanksgiving. It inspired Andrew Wells to set it to music.
Count Your Blessings
The grace in the line of an arabesque.
The sheer exuberance of the burlesque.
The heart stopping sounds in music’s cadence.
The glorious wonder of colour’s radiance.
The delight of children loving their bath.
The carefree pleasure of sharing a laugh.
The scent of a rose on a summer’s day.
The warmth of the sun and freshly mown hay.
The astonishing shape of birds in flight.
The clarity of a full-moonlit night.
The bubbling joy when a Missel-thrush sings.
The potential that every moment brings.
Each beautiful thing has something to say.
What richness we have to savour each day.
I feel on the same wave length as Gerard Manley Hopkins who, some 150 years ago, wrote a wonderful poem called Pied Beauty:
Glory Be to God for dappled things_
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced --fold, fallow, and plough
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim:
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him
I am ever, and increasingly, aware of not being grateful enough for all the wonders of this life and the blessings I have received. This prompted me, last year, to write a poem called Forgiveness
You gave me talents I’ve underused.
Your generosity I’ve abused.
Yet never once have You refused
I see more clearly every day
How I have wandered from the Way.
So it is this for which I pray:
I sense within, below, above,
The presence of Your infinite love
Bringing, as softly as a dove,
Nearly 400 years ago John Donne wrote the most beautiful
poem about forgiveness
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I run
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? And made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by thy self that at my death thy Son
Shall as he shines now and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.
As Tom so eloquently explained in his talk, the creative process itself, is a form of prayer, involving, as it does, a total loss of self.
I came across this poem by a contemporary performance poet called Philip Wells which, I think, hits the spot!
The best way is simplicity.
Move yourself out of the way,
And the word floods the ditty.
Let God choose the channels.
The middle’s defined by the edges
So climb out, put up the solar panels
And hook up to real sky TV.
It’s simple, but not easy, the way:
Becoming what your heart sees.
I believe in a loving and omnipresent God. He is within us in the spirit of Jesus and all around us. We are all part of His creation. We are one in Him.
I should like to end by reading you a poem called I Am, the last poem in my latest book.
I am the builder
I am the dancer
I am the sire and
I am the dam.
I am the cleaner
I am the doctor
I am the patient
I am, I am.
I am the mother
I am the father
I am the baby
Asleep in its pram.
I am the optimist
I am the pessimist
I am the therapist
I am, I am.
I am the sibling
I am the stranger
I am the shepherd
I am the lamb.
I am the life force
I am love‘s energy
I am the source of all:
I am, I am.