here is part 4!
St Edward, King and Martyr, Cambridge
A Poem a Day for Lent with Malcolm Guite
Part 4 from Tuesday, 25th March
to Monday, 31st March
Tuesday 25th March. The Feast of the Annunciation
It seems appropriate that one of the little ‘interludes’ in Lent, the little lifts from penitence into praise, should be the feast of the Annunciation. Of course this feast falls nine months before Christmas, and so always in mid-lent, but If Lent is in part about turning our attention back to God, about coming close to him and preparing ourselves to respond with joyful and obedient hearts to his presence in our lives, then this feast gives us the very epitome of openness, discernment and response! This is the day we remember how the Angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary with the bliss and the blessing of Heaven, with the promise of the coming holy spirit and the glory of the saviour to be born. It is the story of how, in her courageous and open Yes to God, Jesus, God’s own Yes to all humanity, was conceived and came into the world. With this glimpse in the midst of Lent we look forward to Christmas, and to the gift with which our own true life begins. Edwin Muir’s great poem seems to me to go to the heart of the mystery.
Annunciation by Edwin Muir
The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break
Wednesday, 26th March
Our theme, last week and this, has been prayer and spiritual life understood as conversation with God and with one another as fellow pilgrims on the journey. In prayer as we have seen we have many ways of hearing and speaking with God, as Mary did so fruitfully at the annunciation, but in our wider spiritual life we are companioned, and in conversation with friends both in the here and now and also the ‘great cloud of witness’. The poet who models that ‘companionship most brilliantly, and has been seen as a companion by many other poets is Dante and in the next four poems we will share something both of Dante himself and of other’s responses to Dante. Dante’s chief companion for the first two stages of his pilgrimage is, famously, not a fellow Christian at all, but the pagan poet Virgil. Here is the wonderful moment, when, lost perplexed and frightened, running from a ravenous she-wolf, Dante suddenly realises who has joined him on the road. This is Allen Mandelbaum’s translation:
52 The very sight of her so weighted me
53 with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
54 of ever climbing up that mountain slope.
55 Even as he who glories while he gains
56 will, when the time has come to tally loss,
57 lament with every thought and turn despondent,
58 so was I when I faced that restless beast
59 which, even as she stalked me, step by step
60 had thrust me back to where the sun is speechless.
61 While I retreated down to lower ground,
62 before my eyes there suddenly appeared
63 one who seemed faint because of the long silence.
64 When I saw him in that vast wilderness,
65 Have pity on me, were the words I cried
66 whatever you may be a shade, a man.
67 He answered me: Not man; I once was man.
68 Both of my parents came from Lombardy,
69 and both claimed Mantua as native city.
70 And I was born, though late, sub Julio, and
71 lived in Rome under the good Augustus the
72 season of the false and lying gods.
73 I was a poet, and I sang the righteous
74 son of Anchises who had come from
75 Troy when flames destroyed the pride of Ilium.
76 But why do you return to wretchedness?
77 Why not climb up the mountain of delight,
78 the origin and cause of every joy?
79 And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
80 that freely pours so rich a stream of speech? I
81 answered him with shame upon my brow.
82 O light and honor of all other poets, may my
83 long study and the intense love that made me
84 search your volume serve me now.
85 You are my master and my author, you
86 the only one from whom my writing drew the
87 noble style for which I have been honored.
88 You see the beast that made me turn aside;
89 help me, o famous sage, to stand against her, for
90 she has made my blood and pulses shudder.
91 It is another path that you must take,
92 he answered when he saw my tearfulness,
93 if you would leave this savage wilderness;
Thursday, 27th March
Many of us can probably point to a figure like Virgil in our lives, someone, an author or a living friend and teacher, who meets us at the right moment, sets us on a good path and guides on our journey. In this poem, written in Dante’s Terza Rima, I celebrate someone who did that for me, the teacher, in fact, with whom I first read Dante. My poem takes its point of departure from the end of the inferno when the poets emerge at last from the dark and see again the sky and stars, ready to begin the painful and yet joyful ascent of Mount Purgatory.
I thank my God I have emerged at last,
Blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars,
Bewildered by the shadows that I cast.
You set me on this stair, in those rich hours
Pacing your study, chanting poetry.
The Word in you revealed his quickening powers,
Removed the daily veil, and let me see,
As sunlight played along your book-lined walls,
That words are windows onto mystery.
From Eden, whence the living fountain falls
In music, from the tower of ivory,
And from the hidden heart, he calls
In the language of Adam, creating memory
Of unfallen speech. He sets creation
Free from the carapace of history.
His image in us is imagination,
His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath
Upon the letters of his revelation.
In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
That leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,
You showed me how my halting words might reach
To the mind’s maker, to the source of Love,
And so you taught me what it means to teach.
Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove,
Climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.
Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,
As fellow pilgrims on a needful journey
Friday, 28th March
Everybody will find themselves in different places, at different times on the place-map of the spiritual journey that Dante has left us. TS Eliot, for whom Dante was indeed a fellow-pilgrim is drawn to the end of the Purgatorio, when the poets are on the brink of returning to paradise, our first garden, of returning to the place we began and knowing it for the first time. But the garden is surrounded by ‘that refining fire’ the circle of flame through which Dante must pass before he can be reunited with Beatrice. In Little Gidding the ‘Fire’ poem of The Four Quartets, Eliot evokes an encounter with Dante that parallels Dante’s own encounter with Virgil. The scene is the London Blitz, and Eliot, as a fire watcher is walking through the post-raid, pre-dawn, when he encounters a stranger:
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! are you here?’
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other—
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
And so, compliant to the common wind,
Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
I said: ‘The wonder that I feel is easy,
Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
I may not comprehend, may not remember.’
And he: ‘I am not eager to rehearse
My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both bad and good. Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.’
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.
Saturday, 29th March
And what might it mean to be ‘restored by that refining fire’? When Dante and Virgil arrive at last beyond the flame, in the garden of our beginnings the very nature of the pilgrimage changes, the weight falls off, the wings, as it were begin to grow, the old ecternalised forces of law and discipline, symbolised by the secular crown and the religious mitre become the interior authority of mature freedom. A good place to leave them on the eve of ‘Refreshment Sunday’.Here is how Dante puts it in the very last verses of the Purgatorio, again in Mandelbaum’s translation:
115 Today your hungerings will find their peace
116 through that sweet fruit the care of mortals seeks
117 among so many branches. This, the speech,
118 the solemn words, that Virgil spoke to me;
119 and there were never tidings to compare,
120 in offering delight to me, with these.
121 My will on will to climb above was such
122 that at each step I took I felt the force
123 within my wings was growing for the flight.
124 When all the staircase lay beneath us and
125 we’d reached the highest step, then Virgil set
126 his eyes insistently on me and said:
127 My son, you’ve seen the temporary fire
128 and the eternal fire; you have reached
129 the place past which my powers cannot see.
130 I’ve brought you here through intellect and art;
131 from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
132 you’re past the steep and past the narrow paths.
133 Look at the sun that shines upon your brow;
134 look at the grasses, flowers, and the shrubs
135 born here, spontaneously, of the earth.
136 Among them, you can rest or walk until
137 the coming of the glad and lovely eyes
138 those eyes that, weeping, sent me to your side.
139 Await no further word or sign from me:
140 your will is free, erect, and whole to act
141 against that will would be to err: therefore
142 I crown and miter you over yourself.
Sunday, 30th March. Mothering Sunday
This fourth Sunday in Lent is sometimes known as Refreshment Sunday, but it is also Mothering Sunday. As society grew more secular Mothering Sunday eventually became ‘Mother’s Day, but it is good to remember its rich roots and to see how the celebration of God’s nurturing care for us, the nurture of our parents, and the church community as a place for nurturing and growth are all essentially linked together.
It is a festival that is still evolving and for me it seems a very good day to remember, pray for and support the many single parents in our society: the ones who may have been abandoned or betrayed by their partner, the ones who have stayed to raise and care for children. So in my sonnet for this day of thanksgiving for all parents, especially for those who bore the fruitful pain of labour, I have singled out for praise those heroic single parents who, for whatever reason, have found themselves bearing alone the burdens, and sharing with no-one the joys of their parenthood. It’s my prayer that the church, the local Christian community wherever it is, can become like a mother for those lone parents and an extra parent for their children, so that they ‘who have been in sorrow’ may also ‘rejoice with joy’.
At last, in spite of all, a recognition,
For those who loved and laboured for so long,
Who brought us, through that labour, to fruition
To flourish in the place where we belong.
A thanks to those who stayed and did the raising,
Who buckled down and did the work of two,
Whom governments have mocked instead of praising,
Who hid their heart-break and still struggled through,
The single mothers forced onto the edge
Whose work the world has overlooked, neglected,
Invisible to wealth and privilege,
But in whose lives the kingdom is reflected.
Now into Christ our mother church we bring them,
Who shares with them the birth-pangs of His Kingdom.
Monday, 31st March (John Donne)
John Donne died on March 31st in 1631 and so the Church remembers him on this last day of march. He is not remembered as a saint, but as a companion poet for our journey, as flawed as we all are but able to articulate so well for us what the journey itself is like. So it seems appropriate on this day to read a poem of his which is at once a confession of sin and a memorialisation of his name. Turning beautifully on the spindle of just two rhyming sounds its final turn, on the slender thread of ones last request, is a sudden release of light in the face of death, in the face of Christ:
A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne
WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was 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 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 ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.