For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Monday, 8 April 2019

La Passione e Morte (I)

Unlike the cool mountain vesper rest – joy’s
Quiet beat replied by bass of night’s fall,
Mind’s sight eyes, sleepless, her unmelting snows,
O'er my bed’s vale her heights swing star-hung tall –
Unlike this toss and turn, this hedged-in room:
Love sickens to drain down death’s heaviness.
I wake astert, find love, bowed in the gloom,
Reproach and smite me for my chariness,
Then trail to face the crowd. The daily crowd
Sees here no deity. They know not what
They do. Stripped common, a furrow over-ploughed,
I hid my face when love’s noon turned a blot.
My nib thrusts to love’s dead heart through his side
To draw in blood. Its well and point has dried.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

To a Modern Girl

I wrote this poem To a Modern Girl eleven years ago in my late 20s, as a private joke in an e-mail. A friend had suggested to me in a wonderful piece of spontaneous alliteration that men want a girl to be model, minx, muse & matron all at once. This poem was my reply to him. Since I am posting a few poems here I thought I would dig this out and was surprised to find that I still had it stored in my sent mail box.

Girl, Woman yet lissom-limbed, bring home the long,
The dark ripe fruit, the low hung apples of posterity,
In the volum'nous skirts of femininity.  In one be divers.
Be model, stalk out repulsing all possession, pulsing hauteur,
O leopardess, concede no wanton curve in your spartan geometry,
Unless an arch look soon pulled taut.  But stop not there.
Be muse, dight too the fashion of an ancient age, up-gather
Softer tresses, that your bright Beàtrician head may kneel
O'er lyre, and gentler lips pierce by clean flightéd notes
From their enamell'd chastity: and of me worshipped be.
But be elder yet.  Before a damsel of Apollo, you were in the streets,
A minx.  Let loose hair teasing kiss brown shoulder (the artlessly
Half-naked one), and o'er it, in a glance, show you would ease
An ache fore night: then (curse you) twist that lithe body, play
A pouting game, and make us wait all day.  But lest I weary
Of all these: be eldest of them all, primaeval Eve, a matron be.
Hands beautiful from labour; as Dian many-breasted; thy womb
Like Nature's teeming.  I to thee by Mother Earth of our one clay
Bound, thou to me by fast oaths fastened on heaven's floor
Bound, in one creaking well-worn bed, a comfortable hearth,
And daily bread.  So - be a Gucci model, slave-girl Fotis be,
And fair Mnemosyne.  But more be Rachel, Leah and
O most! Penelope.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Ombra e Mistero

This is a poem called Ombra e Mistero by the Italian poet, artist and literary critic Luigi Cerantola: below is my attempt at translation.

San'Agata, quel piatto in che tu reggi
le gemmanti bella - candidi scogli,
e cupida sirena a sortilegi
che ai naviganti sfrondano li orgogli

ma chi l'occhio sospinge oltre i rigogli
della carne del senso, altri vagheggi
scopre nel mite vespro e nei vergini
silenzi del crepuscolo, sui colli

quetando la sua guerra in discoloro
di luce e tempo, via dall'ora ignota
sospesa sulla torre, entro il cipresso

ombra e mistero - lontananza immola
forse di paradisi, e nimbo d'oro
raggiante a noi l'illimite riflesso.

Saint Agatha, that platter where the buds
gem-bright thou lift'st, white reef-rocks, lovely Girl
(she, sea-siren insatiable, chants such spells
to shred the sailors’ every yard of pride,

Yet he whose eye prevents luxuriance
of fleshly lusts, in cool of the day's eve,
and the dusk’s falling virgin silences,
finds there diverse desires; upon the hills

His strife sinks quiet in the ebbing hue
of light and time, beyond the hour unknown
pendent on the tower, within the cypress

Shade and mystery), that offer up from far;
mayhap thy aureole or celeste spheres' light
mirrored may strike on us immeasurable.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

L'Epifania (II)

The city’s neon sheen left marrow-cold
These bones, wandering, chill-numbed, years lost down
Paths from fabled youth’s jewelled east. For, not old,
My spring drab autumn turned, prime's purpose drowned.
Glib priests professional heaven's way advised,
An end, indoors, they stirred not to pursue.
My face turned to night's road. I saw arise
Love’s star – unsought, almost forgotten. I viewed,
Then knelt and wept, removed the tinfoil crown
Of all I thought to be. Close have I found
Flesh full of God, girl holding mastery,
All my hope and desire soft on her knee.
Write gold, lead pencil; fume, spirit's incense-grains;
Enounce her myrrh-balm pulsing wine-sweet my veins.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

L'Epifania (I)

Her light: never have I known light like this.
Six thousand suns and lamps and moons that bend
Wave streams round bodies, cities, vistas; lend
The wide coloured mirror visual bliss,
Hang themselves separate. But here within
Her bright cloud-glory quakes the holy place,
Dense in her look, air, movement, clothes, hair, face,
Cloud that I stand in, cloud me indwelling,
Cloud where my eye and mind and blood are light,
Dark-rending syllable, fiat God-sung.
Love's liquid lark-ascent hailing her dawn,
Chant clear washing the pages of the night:
This scribbled writ, light, veiled eternity,
Transfigure radiant to her epiphany.

Monday, 4 March 2019

La Vita Rinata (II)

Love’s form, virgin-conceived, in mind’s wordless
Womb swollen, joy close-confined shamefaced lest
Judged profane the bright herald’s swift advent
In flesh and blood, nor flesh nor blood’s descent.
Things germane leap to hear my voice, pregnant
Its timbre with meek mild magnificence,
Possessed of a burden, that weariness
Of the lead world makes light of. Wyrd-driven, sent
Without men’s wall, I scarcely know or care -
For love, a pain-expected birth, is borne
In shower of gold, and without travail, there
I look upon a God of glory shorn.
This pen’s a sword that severs with a smart
And pierces sore love’s bearer to the heart.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

La Vita Rinata (I)

In the second her lovely load listed
Through roll and slow sway from left hip to right,
A smile – between breath and breath – she lifted,
It shivered, shattered me into delight.
Sudden, love hatched in the warm golden hay
Of her hair, nestling slew me in her eyes,
Drenched sweet in delight and dread disarray,
A glory has humbled, laid bare all disguise.
Flaring, the Ancient of Days’ instant fire
Burst a flaming phoenix, I its straw pyre,
A second – then two – her face moved away,
The bird has flown: but the bright ashes stay.
The ink blacks this page with desire’s soot
A smile burns my soul from the tip to the root.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Per quem haec omnia

Per quem hæc omnia, Domine, semper bona creas, santificas, vivificas, benedicis, et præstas nobis.

Through whom, O Lord, thou dost alway create all these good things, dost sanctify, quicken, bless, and bestow them upon us.

This prayer comes just before the concluding doxology in the Roman Canon. Jungmann and a few other scholars I have read seem agreed that it originally followed on a blessing of some kind - possibly produce on various feasts or seasons of the year - that once concluded the Eucharistic prayer. The idea was to bring the gifts offered for blessing into proximity to the gifts offered for the holy sacrifice. The "good things" that the Lord creates, makes holy etc. include both the offered bread and wine and the additional things brought for blessing.

What has puzzled me on hearing the words for the last five years every Sunday is their order. Why does bless come after sanctify, for example? And why does vivify come in between those two? Is there a reason for the sequence? On casting around to find a rationale, it might help to think of the context of (1) creation and (2) eucharistia or thanksgiving. We (1) take the things of creation, (2) offer them with thanksgiving, and then God raises them to another level.

Take (1) creation first of all. In the original account God creates: "In the beginning God created"; then makes living things (days 3, 5 & 6); with blessings of fecundity following on day 5 (the blessing of fish and birds) and day 6 (the blessing of mankind, male and female); and then bestows plants for food. The obvious creation order is therefore creas, vivificas, benedicis, præstas nobis. The sanctifying is done last, on day 7, the Sabbath, which God both blesses and sanctifies. The idea is that in the Sabbath rest (a rest from the work of creation) God is making holy the day of completion and enjoyment and therefore making holy the completed and perfectly ordered cosmos. The sanctifying comes at the end, after the bestowal and blessing and all the rest: whereas in the Roman Canon it is the second term.

However the context (2) of the Eucharist is different. Here the world is being re-made, re-created. The divine Image is being impressed on creation in a new and higher way.

First, creas. The new creation is begun on the eve of the Sabbath, with the pouring of the water and blood from Christ's side. We enter this moment of Christ's death in baptism, washing away our sin and dying, unmaking the old corrupted creation. Bread and wine - made from grinding down and crushing up the stuff of the old creation - are also an image of this moment, the bread being Christ's dead body and the wine the blood that has poured from his side.

Then (sanctificas) the Sabbath is the day when we have entered into the mystery of the death of Christ, beneath the waters of baptism, when the Spirit is hovering over the darkness of inchoate existence, ready to give it new life. In the Eucharist one can draw an analogy with the Spirit fluttering above the offerings that have been set apart as holy things, ready to impregnate them with the life of God.

Vivificas: in the original creation order the Word generates light, the land emerges from the sea, and life germinates and breeds upon it. This life is of two kinds: plants bearing seeds (from which we make bread) and trees bearing fruit (from which we make wine). In the new creation, the resurrection of Christ generates the divine light of faith, and with him the Church emerges from the grave and the waters of baptism, just as the dry land rises out of the sea. The bread and wine, the seed-bearing and fruit-bearing substance of the old creation, are now re-made in Christ, and given new life as the Bread of Life and Cup of Everlasting Salvation.

The blessing (benedicas) of the fish, birds, and then Man in the creation week is a benediction to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. In the setting of the new creation the fish that multiply to fill the sea are the people of God who increase in faith, and in number, filling the nations. But there is an additional blessing given to Man who is also to exercised dominion over all creation. In the blessing of the new creation, Christ the last Adam weds his Bride, the Church; and so in the Eucharist the mystery of the making one flesh of Christ and his Bride is accomplished. The Church gives birth to many sons and daughters, and with her Lord produces the fruit of goodness, and rules the healthy but bestial parts of human nature. The blessing is ultimately a nuptial blessing, a blessing of the Supper of the Lamb and the Bride, and issues in God's committal of all things in heaven and earth to Christ's rule, and the nations to the rule of Christ's people.

Præstas nobis: the bestowal of the seed and fruit bearing plants upon mankind for food in the original creation is taken up to a new height of grace in the new creation, in which the divine life is given to us as bread and wine. This is a giving not just of life and nourishment, but is the pouring into us of the very life of God, in which we become partakers of the divine nature and everything else besides. He who delivered up for us his own Son, "how shall he not with Him also give us all things?"

The reason for this prayer's inverting of the original creation order (of God's first blessing and then sanctifying the whole at the Sabbath completion of his work) is because the Eucharist is a feast of the new creation: the order of re-making and restoration is necessarily different than that of creation. In the new creation God first makes his Son holy, and then through him restores and blesses and pours out gifts on the whole. In authoring the new creation the divine irony reaches a glorious height: God sets the new creation in motion by dying, by taking into himself the old and dragging it into death; he continues by sanctifying not the whole creation but its corpse; he then animates this with his own divine life, presents it as a King in marriage to the fallen world, and through that nuptial rite bestows his own life to the new world.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Myths About Little Gidding

Apropos a book I have just read about Nicholas Ferrar who retired from Court, high politics and business with his wider family to set up a household for prayer in an out-of-the-way farm, here are some myths about Little Gidding that need to be dismissed. (And perhaps there is a note of warning in what follows for those of us who are thinking of a similar kind of structure to live out the so-called Benedict Option.)

(1) It was a rich family buying a nice farm where they could afford to live with servants and carry on hobbies and pray together.

They were financially straightened. Only one of Nicholas's letters goes into financial detail, an exasperated response to his wastrel younger brother who lived in London. His brother was asking yet again for more money, with protestations of deep repentance for having wasted the last installment. Nicholas tells him that his mother's legacy of £180 per annum is already providing him with £40 per year, that they are hundreds of pounds in debt, and face ruin without some unexpected providence. He also details that they have only two or three servants left (the household was probably around 30 people), have cut back drastically on daily food - his nieces Mary and Anna are weighing theirs out - and that his mother can just about afford the clothes on her back. It seems to me like the letter of a man trying hard to keep his temper, who says: right, you are asking for money, let me tell you just how much we are living on here in our opulence.

(2) Nicholas retired to Little Gidding because of the collapse of the Virginia Company through the loss of James I's favour, and his elder brother's financial ruin, which left his worldly and political hopes bereft.

He received offers of a powerful Privy Council post after the Virginia Company had its charter withdrawn, as well as an offer of at least one other diplomatic post, and when his friends found out that he had received deacon's orders and was retiring to Gidding they thought they would help him out by offering him lucrative livings if he would take priest's orders. He refused all offers. There is every reason to suppose from his letters that he had conceived the plan to retire to a life of prayer years before, and the fall of the Virginia Company was the signal that he had been waiting for to leave his London life.

(3) Life there was peace and harmony, secluded and cloistered.

Three things that I read dispel this idea. (i) They were scarcely a day without a caller, because the house - although in a remote village in Huntingdonshire - was only three miles' distance from the great North Road from London to Edinburgh. Many of these callers were strangers, turned up unannounced, and included a large number of the idle curious. (ii) Nicholas's sister-in-law Bathsheba (wife of his elder brother John) was not at all happy at Little Gidding, and perhaps deserves some sympathy although she certainly managed to make John's life a misery for much of the time, and cause considerable upset. (iii) Once the little school was up and running, some nobility would send their sons there for tutoring, and there are hints in Nicholas's letters that some of these youngsters needed a firm hand and had perhaps been sent because the kindly discipline and ordered round of life at Little Gidding was felt to be what they needed to give them some self-control and moral fibre.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

For Loyal Irishmen

An interesting genealogy of the Royal Family from John O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees (1892). A nice touch that it takes us right back to Adam, who was (as it sayth in St Luke his Gospell) the son of God.

Historically, I think there is a fairly good claim that the most ancient lineal descent of our Royal Family runs back through the patriarchal head of the Scottish royal house, Kenneth MacAlpin, to Fergus Mor MacEarca (see no. 90 on the list) who may have been a contemporary of St Patrick, and it is anyone's guess as to where the list prior to Fergus passes over from history into myth.

My own conviction is that Conn of the Hundred Battles (born in the fifth generation after Christ, c.200), has too cool a title to be written out of history; and it is cooler still that when a debauched man called Nero was president of the EU and the legions were building their horrid motorways all over the green English countryside, Ireland was ruled by a man called Fiacha of the White Oxen.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The House of Special Purpose

On account of the date, I was reading tonight about the last days of the Romanovs, and came across a few odd coincidences.

The last imprisonment of the family as Ekaterinburg was at Ipatiev House, designated "The House of Special Purpose" by the Soviets. Ipatiev (the Wonderworker) - Saint Hypatios in English - was a Bishop of Gangra in Galatia, in the north of Asia Minor, martyred in 326 on his way home from the First Council of Nicaea where he had sided with Athanasius against the Arian heresy.

The Romanov dynastic rule began at the monastery of Ipatiev (by Kostroma, close to the Volga) in the seventeenth century when Mikhail, staying there at the time, was chosen as the Tsar by the Russian parliament, the Zemsky Sobor. Mikhail was a nephew of the last Rurik Tsar, Feodor I, a dynasty that had founded Rus in the ninth century; therefore Tsar Nicholas had been heir to 1000 years of royal rule.

The brutal murder of the Romanovs, 405 years after the election of Mikhail at Ipatiev monastery, was in the basement of Ipatiev House. I wonder if anyone has written anything of these curious coincidences; are there any Russian poems or works that draw out the poignancy of this juxtaposition?

And another couple of questions: why doesn't the Orthodox church in Russia recognise the authenticity of the last two Romanov bodies? Is it just a matter of time before further tests are completed, or are there other complicating factors? And is there the remotest interest in Russia or outside it among emigres in re-establishing a Romanov dynasty?

La Passione e Morte (I)