Category: poetry


A Christmas Poem

Courtesy of the Bible Society, here is a neat, child-friendly, summary of the meaning of Christmas:

Enjoy!

An Advent hymn

Help, I’ve already had two Christmas lunches and a carol service and Christmas is still three weeks away. I suppose it doesn’t matter that much – not one has died as a result of not keeping Advent. However, it was suggested that perhaps we get so caught up with Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ first coming, that we lose sight of the other meaning of Advent. As well as looking forward to Christmas there is looking forward to Jesus’ return, his second coming, just as he promised. I sense (and this includes me) that many Christians may well nod in agreement with the idea of Jesus’ return and yet. And yet, while we may still be waiting, we have given up expecting him.

So as a reminder to myself I re-read this old Advent hymn. It was written around 500 years ago by John Milton. As with all poetry, it is better read (or sung) out loud.

The Lord will come and not be slow,
his footsteps cannot err;
before him righteousness shall go,
his royal harbinger.

Truth from the earth, like to a flower,
shall bud and blossom then;
and justice, from her heavenly bower,
look down on mortal men.

Rise, God, judge thou the earth in might,
this wicked earth redress;
for thou art he who shalt by right
the nations all possess.

The nations all whom thou hast made
shall come, and all shall frame
to bow them low before thee, Lord,
and glorify thy name.

For great thou art, and wonders great
by thy strong hand are done:
thou in thy everlasting seat
remainest God alone.

John Milton, the elder (c.1563–1647) based on verses from Psalms 82, 85, 86
from “Ancient & Modern”, no. 51

Elizabeth and Zechariah

I was going to call this poem a “sonnette” because my original intention was to write a sonnet. However, I was too impatient to shape my ideas into a sonnet form yet I did want it to resemble one. “A little sonnet” or a “sonnette” seem a bit too pretentious for what is really just a run-of-the-mill poem made from lines thrown together in the midst of some Bible study. It is a snap-shot of my thinking process: half-baked, you might say, but then again, some people enjoy the sauce that comes with the not-quite-baked sponge pudding.

The occasion is when Elizabeth and Zechariah, who are both too old to have any children, are both told that they will have a son – the person we have come to know as John the Baptist. He was born some six months before Jesus; Elizabeth was Mary’s sister, thus making Jesus and John cousins. The miracle of John’s conception forms part of the overall story of God coming to us as a human being, the incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas.

Elizabeth and Zechariah

Two loyal servants of God, long in years
who wrestle with blessing and prophecy
in the house of the divine and in the prose of humanity;
Hidden in her womb, a miracle, a blessing;
knowledge of another soon to follow
He serves faithfully yet doubts the angel’s message
a word that leaves him dumbfounded
– astonishment will evolve into confidence and joy
for now makes him speechless
There is wonder-ing and then there is questioning
There is keeping one’s counsel and there is being lost for words.

There are Zechariah and Elizabeth – good and faithful
There is what they believe: Zechariah doubts; Elizabeth trusts
There is what they are told about their son:
There is what will happen next:

Faithfulness will be vindicated in the end

Exhibition Road

Natural History Museum, London

Natural History Museum, London

We knew it would be busy at the museum with it being half term but we were not expecting the crowds to be quite as big as they were. The queue was so long that they took us on a tour of the grounds including garden areas we did not even know existed let alone seen before. Most of the queues was for the dinosaur exhibition which we have visited a couple of times before but this time it was not on our itinerary.

Our destination was the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition which features its winners and finalists. Naturally we were not permitted to take any photos so you will have to take our word for it when we tell you that some of the pictures were truly stunning. I can see why the overall winner got first prize but, for myself, I did not enjoy the sight of one fox carrying the bloodied corpse of another. True to life, “nature red in tooth and claw” and all that, but not pretty.

After lunch we wandered down Exhibition Road. This street made the news recently as an experiment in pedestrian/traffic management. There are no kerbs and all travellers are supposed to share the same space. Think of a pedestrianised street down which everyday traffic is allowed to travel: bicycles could and did go anywhere, for instance. It sort of worked in that it slowed everyone down. Meanwhile we came across this sculpture…

"When Soak Becomes Spill" by Subodh Gupta

“When Soak Becomes Spill” by Subodh Gupta

It is supposed to show a drink poured out and over flowing (think of a fizzy drink being poured into a glass, bubbling up and over). It was made from various steel buckets, pots and pans.

close up of "When Soak Becomes Spill"

close up of “When Soak Becomes Spill”

You can see it on the corner between the Victoria and Albert and Natural History museums. The sculpture was said to represent a comment on the wastefulness of consumer society. I thought that there was a resemblance of the ancient notion of a cornucopia: a horn of plenty. That represented good harvests, more than enough for everyone, a generous blessing. How did we get from generosity to wastefulness? Perhaps the difference is whether we use left overs on another day or simply throw them away; whether we use the generous blessings we receive for ourselves alone or to help others as well.

I offer you a rough and ready poem:

What ails the wind

What ails the wind thrums my soul, my ears buffeted red and raw
I regret not checking the roof when the sky was calm and dare not venture out now
Lest a tile or tree come crashing down to test my mortality
The howl and hum and whoosh and groan are artefacts of house and wall and wire and ground
The racing heart, the running step, the watering eyes and dribbling nose testify to the gale’s power
Now the breeze rises and falls while painting the house with rain and jabbing every crack in the walls with a gust that mocks the mortar
And all this sitting in the warm, glad to be indoors, contemplating a cup of tea
Imagining, not experiencing; remembering more than knowing.
I am not at sea bouncing on waves indifferent to my fate;
I do not trudge across civilised plains hoping for a welcome or at least a crumb of comfort
It is not my job to sweep up the leaves even to keep the trains running on time.
Is it enough just to spare a thought for those caught out in the wind and rain
or should we do something for them as well?

There are some children’s hymns and songs which seem rather twee and the one I am sharing with you could easily fit into that category. However, the other day, as the grey clouds lowered and it grew gloomier, I found myself whistling the tune and repeating “You in your small corner, and I in mine”. It is not a complete theology by a long stretch but it is cheerful enough if you know the tune. The general point is that Jesus, the light of the world, is with us during our daily tasks, no matter how dark and dull it is outside.

1. Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

2. Jesus bids us shine, first of all for Him;
Well He sees and knows it if our light is dim;
He looks down from heaven, sees us shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

3. Jesus bids us shine, then, for all around,
Many kinds of darkness in this world abound:
Sin, and want, and sorrow—we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

Susan Warner, 1868

… is everywhere.”

Too often of a Sunday when we sing a well-known hymn it is marred by over-familiarity and we stop paying attention to the words. Or rather, stop paying attention to the meaning. Recently we sang this hymn by John Mason (“How shall I sing that majesty?”). I realise now that I have sung it a few times before but to another tune. This time it was not an easy sing, with an tune new to me, and I really had to concentrate. In order to do so I listened to the first verse before joining in. Although this hymn/poem is well over three hundred years old, it struck a chord.

A day later and I re-read the the hymn. The first reading is sounded pleasant to the ear. The second time round, as I work through the 17th century turns of phrase, I began to get the poets idea: singing praise to God here on earth, pales in comparison with the songs of heaven. That said, he still wants to join in. Like most poetry it works better when read out loud. It is reproduced below and I commend it to you.

How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?
2 Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing, because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.
* 3 Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
inflame it with love’s fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
4 How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

John Mason (c.1645–1694)

A haiku for National Poetry day: Light

Illumination
ease the burden of darkness
beaming light relief

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Plato

A haiku for 30th September 2015

melting Autumn sun

soft against the silver sky

nips at Summer’s heels

Something understood

George Herbert lived at the turn of the 16th/17th centuries during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I (by English reckoning) and Charles I. He is chiefly remembered for his poetry and for his faithfulness as a pastor during one of the many periods of religious turbulence in England. I don’t find his poems an easy read – some of that is down to the distance of years where words and turns of phrase have shifted in meaning or, more often, simply unfamiliar. This one “Prayer (1)” piles on the metaphors and similes for prayer, most of which takes some time and effort to digest. It is a poem to read more than once.

For myself, one message is that prayer is not just so many words said, sung, written or signed. There is something else going on inside us. Prayer could be accompanied by this notice: “Warning! Holy Spirit at work!”. Although I more or less stumbled upon this poem, I found that I recognised some of the phrases such as “heaven in ordinary” and “something understood” which writers and also friends of mine have quoted. I would like to draw attention to “the soul in paraphrase”, “heart in pilgrimage”, “reversed thunder”, and  “church-bells beyond the stars heard”. Each phrase would repay turning over in the mind in meditation. Alternatively, they could be the titles of four books in a series of fiction. I wonder who the main characters might be?

Prayer (1)

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

George Herbert (1593-1633)

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