THE THIRD REALM

The Third realm sounds mysterious, perhaps mystical, but is simply like this.

It is English class and a group of students look at a poem, let us say this by Wordsworth.

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky,
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
  Or let me die!.
The Child is father of the man 
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety. 

It is a well focused class. The teacher reads through the poem twice with them and then they discuss it.

Here is the question: ” As they listen and discuss the poem where is the poem?”

Yes simple as that : Where is the poem?

Is it on the page in those black marks? Or written in the past is it a document that belongs to the year 1802 or whenever Wordsworth wrote it?

This does not seem satisfactory.

The poem has been recreated in experience by the reading. It is not just black marks on a page and it is made vividly present not an antiquated document from back there.

Is the poem then in the minds of the teacher and students?. Well yes , that can be said.

Is it purely subjective experience then? Perhaps, but it is a common subjective experience and yet each subjective mind no doubt has a slightly different take on the poem.

In the discussion the teacher asks questions: like why “behold” rather than “see” , “view” “observe”?. What are the connotations, the sound, the meaning, the length of “behold” that makes it appropriate Wordsworth chooses that word.

Why the three lines beginning “So was it” “So is it” “So be it”. What is being done by that format?

How does this development of past, present and future lead to the general statement: “The child is father of the man”.

What does the poignant sounding “Or let me die” suggest?

How does the finale complete the meaning of the poem?

There are loads of questions to explore.

The students seem alive to the poem and what it has to offer. One smart guy points to the opening rhythms of the opening lines “Are they not a wee bit slack the sort of emotive sound and rhythm that can easily be mocked?” You see the point. Wordsworth can be so overly simple and emotional sounding his work can often get parodied. At the same time the teacher sees this possible weakness compensated for by the strong binding rhythm of the centre of the poem.

Lots to discuss; the class remains well focused.

Where in all this interaction is the poem?

The 1802 poem is being recreated, it is a sustained following through the making of the poem making it alive again.

That is the third realm. The poem is there in the exchange of reading listening, discussing, imaginative re-reading.

It is real experience; all have been vividly involved. But the experience is not directed towards objective truth. It is not like a scientific experiment where verification happens when the liquid in the test tube turns colour. Nor is it simply subjective. The teacher is not saying “Take away your own meaning and be satisfied with that.” The focus is all on the meaning achieved by the poem.. One student might say this and you might want to interject “Yes, but..”.

It is a learning experience but you are not just looking for a definite answer to the meaning of the poem, as in the scientific experiment; objectively established. You are seeking to bring together through discussion, what T. S Eliot spoke of as the common pursuit of true judgement. You are looking to establish Wordsworth’s arguable meaning, not propose your own individual one.

The third realm: discussion in which minds meet.

Now read this quotation from F.R. Leavis:

It is in the study of literature, that one comes to recognise the nature and priority of the third realm… the realm of that which is neither merely private and personal nor public in the sense it can be brought into the laboratory or pointed to. Y ou cannot point to the poem; it is “there” only in the re-creative response of individual minds to the black marks on the page. But -a necessary faith- it is something in which minds can meet. The process in which this faith is justified is given fairly enough in the account of the nature of criticism…..The implicit form of a judgement is: This is so, isn’t it? the question is an appeal for confirmation is that the thing is so; implicitly that , though expecting, characteristically, an answer in the form, “yes,but- ” the but standing for qualifications, reserves, corrections. Here we have a diagram of the collaborative creative process in which the poem becomes established as something “out there”, of common access in what is in some sense a public world. It gives us, too, the nature of the existence of English Literature, a living whole, that can have its life only in the living present, in the creative response of individuals, who collaboratively renew and perpetuate what they participate in – a cultural community or consciousness. More it gives us the nature in general of what I have called the “third realm” to which all that makes us human belongs.

F.R. Leavis “Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow.” Richmond Lecture 1962.

This is dense and precisely focused argument. Note how the discussion of say a poem, by which it is placed as something admired (or not) is a paradigm for the way in which the idea of a literature becomes created by criticism ( Shakespeare is supreme where Ben Jonson is simply very good).- though criticism is always open to revaluation and agreement will never be universal. But also, and perhaps especially, note how the “third realm” also stands for the way in which a language is created and the way in which we belong to a particular form of the human world within that language.

Phew!

I’ll come back to this!

MUSIC THAT MURDERS SILENCE

You cannot escape it can you? That loud over-powering pulsating beat! We have gone to a bar cafe for a late Saturday lunch and all we want to do is enjoy the meal-we know the food to be good- and have a chat. But you cannot escape the noise that is pretending to be music. How is it conceived that this is something customers want? Yet it seems not to bother them. There they are all dressed up in Saturday ostentation that declares that though this is afternoon the night they are going to enjoy starts here, chattering as if to chat with that deadening beat in the background is as normal as chatting over the fence with their neighbour.

This all came to mind as I read this from Joseph Conrad’s superb novel Victory. Set on an island in the South Pacific a travelling band of musicians is doing a concert for hotel guests including the hero Heyst who has unwillingly joined the audience.

The Zangiacamo band was not making music ; it was simply murdering silence with a vulgar ferocious energy. One felt as if witnessing a deed of violence; and that impression was so strong that it seemed marvellous to see the people sitting so quietly on their chairs, drinking so calmly out of their glasses and giving no signs of distress, anger or fear. Heyst averted his gaze from the unnatural spectacle of their indifference.

Joseph Conrad Victory 1915

“Murdering silence” is a good way of putting it. The thump of the “music” is designed to dominate, to desensitise the auditors . You are not in fact “listening”: listening involves choice and you have no choice, just as you have no choice if a helicopter flies low overhead or you have to walk past as an electric drill breaking up the road. You are a victim.

So to Heyst the other guests seeming indifferent is unnatural. The word “unnatural” reminds me of a passage in D. H.Lawrence- also about so-called music: a singing class in a school in the industrial Midlands:

Standard Five girls were having a singing lesson, just finishing the la-me-do-la exercises and beginning a “sweet children’s song”. Anything more like song, spontaneous song, would be impossible to imagine: a strange bawling yell followed the outlines of a tune. It was not like savages: savages have subtle rhythms. It was not like animals: animals mean something when they yell. It was like nothing on earth and it was called singing.

D.H. Lawrence Lady mChatterly’s Lover 1928.

Murdering silence”, “vulgar, ferocious energy” a “strange bawling yell”; yet something it is assumed we should accept as normal or natural. “Unnatural”: in the Lawrence passage the “bawling” indicates a lack of sensitivity to what the song requires; in the Conrad it suggests an audience desensitised to what music might be.

Too late on that Saturday afternoon bar visit we recognised the mistake. The bar music was in fact aimed at its clientele. Its aim was to get them in the mood for an ongoing period of pleasure stretching into the small hours. Noise deadens sensitivity; it lowers inhibitions; voices are raised just to hear; drink is constantly needed to keep up the conviviality. As Conrad puts it “ferocious energy” is needed. The music helps to shape you into being a true party participator; bludgeoning the mind into acceptance of what the party demands……..

If the frantic, fervid quality of modern pleasure is unnatural the noise of its music murdering silence is integral to what it requires.

EXPANDING SCIENCE AND THE DECLINING CENTRE.

As though the scientific edifice of the modern world were not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful collective work of the mind of man.

C.P. Snow The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Rede Lecture 1959

It is pleasant to think of Snow contemplating, daily perhaps, the intellectual depth, complexity and articulation in all their beauty. But there is a prior human achievement of collaborative creation, a more basic work of the mind of man (and more than the mind), one without which the triumphant erection of the scientific would not have been possible; that is, the creation of a human world, including language. It is one we cannot rest on as something done in the past. It lives in the living creative response to change in the present.

F.R.Leavis .Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow Richmond Lecture 1962

But the religious virtue of knowledge was become a flunkey to the god of material success.

D. H. Lawrence The Rainbow

I was at school in Northern Ireland when the furore over Leavis’ radical dismantling of C.P.Snow’s Rede Lecture (known as the Two Cultures lecture) took place. Not that as a schoolboy I knew much about it. Nevertheless the time was coming when one had to choose between specialising in Science subjects or the Arts. There was no doubt which of the two was considered superior. Science was given an intellectual weight beside which the arts were made to seem to be rather light and flimsy; my interest, however, was in the arts and I concentrated at school and then university on English Literature and History.

This dispute might seem long gone, an academic affair that has become outdated, of interest only to academics. Not so! It is still very much with us.

Ostensibly Snow’s argument seemed attractive. There was a gap and the gap should be narrowed between education in the sciences and education in the arts. It was begun at school and went on into life, making for two groups of educated people who could not share intellectual and cultural interests. If it had been left at that fair enough.

But the thrust was plain. Scientific education should be backed at the expense of the arts because it was the sciences rather than the arts that contributed to the good of society. “Scientists had the future in their bones” whereas the literary representatives of what Snow called “traditional culture” are “natural luddites“. The arts were fine but only as something ornamental, an attractive display that added grace to life. Real knowledge, real progress belonged to Science and to adjusting our education so that more science got taught, there was greater specialisation in science. Ultimately this would lead to greater prosperity and the material improvement of life for all and this is what was primarily needed.

Well the argument is still with us. The other day Sir Patrick Valance involved in the health response against Covid pleaded for more iintegration of science and politics. Government responds by launching a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy declaring its aim to make Britain “a science super-power”.

Leavis’ argument however was concerned less with the need for more Science( which he did not dispute) more for the importance for society to develop critical intelligence rooted in culture. For only a rooted culture could provide us with a centre which materialism could never provide -though it might dissipate such- and Snow’s educational remedies were externalist ( note the image of the “edifice” in the quotation) directed towards science and technology creating the jobs that would give the population sufficient “jam” (yes, that was his term!) to live on.

I won’t go into the “nitty-gritty” of the argument here though I plan to discuss it further in future posts. For me however, as a young man seeking his way in life when I eventually studied the matter in more depth on reading the two sides it was Leavis who stood not only for humanitas but for the human spirit. Snow’s focus was purely materialist. For him it was a question as to what the country needed materially for its advancement and only that,. Leavis’ challenge was :

” what we need and shall continue to need not less, is something with the livingness of the deepest vital instinct for the sake of our humanity, for the sake of a human future … to maintain the full life in the present -and life is growth- of our transmitted culture”

It might be said he understood, as Snow did not show any sign of doing, that Science and material welfare could not provide a country with a centre. He understood, that is, what Yeats meant, when he wrote:

 "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. 
W.B. Yeats The Second Coming.

It was this awareness that drove me as it had done many others influenced by Leavis, perhaps the greatest teacher of English, as well as the greatest critic we have known in the last century, to become a teacher of English, because in English we saw a meeting ground with pupils and students wherever they were at; for the value of absorbing literature is perennial not because of its external benefits but because it develops us in our sympathies and understanding in the common pursuit of true judgement. And without that pursuit strongly pursued society wilts.

It was Snow of course who succeeded Endorsed by Harold Wilson who offered him a place in his government and spoke of the “white heat of the technological revolution” as something the country must embrace. Polytechnics, admirable institutions designed to provide a technical education, became universities. Universities packed with specialisms became multiversities designed to give their paying career savvy- students the vocational preparation they needed. Arts students were poor relations.

University once meant a centre for the gathering of knowledge in an attempt to integrate knowledge: a collocation of specialisms cannot offer that. In the meantime religious faith has dwindled and cultural choice is more and more directed by market values. Political debate is concentrated on economic matters and “culture wars” are responses to bitter divisions over questions of rights- divisions stirred by social media.

The question of restoring the centre is one of urgency; but it cannot be done without faith and rooted intelligence.

HAS LITERATURE A FUNCTION IN THE STATE? IT HAS…….

Has literature a function in the state? …. It has. And the function is not the coercing or emotionally persuading or bullying or suppressing people into the acceptance of any one set or any six set of opinions as opposed to another set or half-dozen set of opinions.

It has to do with the clarity and vigour of ” any and every” thought and opinion. It has to with maintaining the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself. Save in the rare and limited instances of inventions in the plastic arts, or in mathematics, the individual cannot think and and communicate his thoughts, the legislator cannot act effectively or frame his laws without words, and the solidity and validity of these words is in the care of the damned and despised literati. When their work goes rotten -by that I do not mean when they express indecorous thoughts- but when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten ie. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and individual thought and order goes to pot. This is a lesson of history , and a lesson not yet half learned

Ezra Pound

KNOWING WE DO NOT BELONG TO OURSELVES : DIFFERENT VIEWS.

What know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

(1.Corinthians 6.19)

But during the long February nights with the ewes in labour, looking out from the shelter into the flashing stars, he knew he did not belong to himself. He must admit he was only fragmentary, something incomplete and subject. There were the stars in the dark travelling, the whole host passing by on some eternal voyage. So he sat small and submissive to the great ordering.

D.H.Lawrence The Rainbow

“I did it my way”

Frank Sinatra “My Way”

Newspaper reports in the United Kingdom have suggested that most people want a secular rather than a religious funeral and that the favourite music is Frank Sinatra’s song “I did it my way”.

But does your life belong to you? And is your satisfaction (or disatisfaction) in it because of that? Or are you responsible to something beyond yourself?

Christ said” I am the way, the truth and the life”.(Gospel of St.John 14.6)

INSPIRATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY WRITERS ARE INSPIRED?

Biblical literalists will tell you the Bible is inspired by God and a picture has arisen of the writers faithfully transcribing God’s inspiring Word. However, poets have long sought from beyond themselves the inspiration of the Muse. That there might be similarity with the Biblical in the kind of inspiration in some artists’ and prophetic voices is suggested by the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who claimed in The Oak and the Calf that for the final draft of The Gulag Archipelago three large volumes written in seventy three days, his was merely the recording hand.

William Blake, referring to his pictures, though he might well have said the same of his prophetic poems, “though I call them mine I know they are not mine”.

The idea of divine inspiration is reflected by D.H. Lawrence, reflecting to a colleague on his approach to his work:

I know how hard it is. One needs something to make one’s mood deep and sincere. There are so many frets that prevent our coming at the real naked essence of our vision. It sounds boshy doesn’t it? I often think one ought to be able to pray, before one works- and then leave it to the Lord. Isn’t it hard, hard work to come to real grips with one’s imagination- throw everything overboard? I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me-and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist. I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said, “Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.

(To Ernest Collings, 24th February 1913 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence)

That it was possible for Lawrence- son of a coal miner- in 1913 to pitch his inspiration at so high a level- scarcely imaginable in a writer in English a hundred years later- demonstrates an intense seriousness in his conception of the possibilities and meaning of art in the twentieth century, which links it closely with the Biblical idea of inspiration.

Whatever, both Blake and Lawrence were brought up as Nonconformists; one was the earliest great English Romantic and the other developed into perhaps the last representative of that great outcrop of writers. Solzhenitsyn, a faithful follower of the Russian Orthodox church writes out of the the great tradition of the Russian novel, but all three writers develop their work out of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

But to get back to the Bible, perhaps you remember the second story of creation in Genesis 2:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2: 7 KJV

Hence inspiration -the breath of God breathed in by Man; with Man as “living soul” created in the image of God (Genesis1.27) ;there follows creative speech (Adam is to name the animals) developing into what, in time, Lawrence is to call “art speech” (“art speech is the only speech”) properly and originally inspired in Man by God.

The idea of inspiration is central to the Old Testament. God inspired Moses, much against his will, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When Moses argues he has not the gift of eloquence he is told by God:

Who hath made man’s mouth…………Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say.

Genesis 4 11-12

The great Hebrew prophetic tradition follows in similar vein. Jeremiah similarly protests about being unable to speak for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1.6) and God reassures him Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me “Behold I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jeremiah 1.9). We hear of Ezekiel’s vivid visions followed by the words:

Son of Man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thy heart, and hear with thine ears“. (Ezekiel 3.10)

The prophetic tradition demonsrates most obviously the Biblical idea of inspiration. The prophets are men with a deep sense of accountability to God, deeply disturbed by the way in which their nation is going and finding, through inspired vision, a voice to express what they are convinced is God’s will. While much of what they say is directed towards the plight of their nation at a particular time, within the fluctuations of Middle-eastern geopolitics, from them emerge great visions like those of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, visions that were to inspire future prophets and indeed Jesus himself , who seemed particularly influenced by Isaiah’s idea of the “suffering servant” and Daniel’s apocalyptic visions.

Yet inspiration is not confined to the prophets. The Genesis stories of creation and the Fall are told at a depth which makes them continue to be deeply meaningful thousands of years later. The psalms are poems written by poets inspired to address God, some in gratitude to the good shepherd, some in distress to a God seemingly turned away. Job’s great drama daringly imagines God giving voice to the creation of the cosmos.

Biblical literalists then are not misguided in seeing inspiration as central to the creation of the books of the Bible. However the power to be a prophet or seer does not guarantee authenticity in itself. The Bible speaks of false prophets. Ezekiel is warned to distinguish true prophecy from those so called prophets who “follow their own spirits and have seen nothing” (Ezekiel 13.7). Of them God says

Have ye not seen a vain vision and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say,The Lord saith it albeit I have not spoken.

Ezekiel 13.7

We are disturbed by Biblical visions that speak of the the destruction of the Ammonites. These are visions, based on an idea of tribal purity at odds with later Christian ideas. Peter’s wonderful vision of being commanded to eat foods he instinctively considers impure (Acts 10. 9-16) is a revelatory turnaround of what he has learned from his religious heritage.

We need, in other words, as well as revelation, critical discernment . It is not enough to claim the inspiration and expect immediate endorsement. Prophecy may stretch the bounds of credibility or seem confusing or downright wrong as sometimes do the later Blake and the later Lawrence.

Yet inspiration, that is true inspiration, has an authority about it that we should be wary of countermanding:

And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.

Gospel of St. Mark 1.27

The voice of Jesus saying and doing what intellectual traditionalists of his day find outrageous, yet calls forth, as the revelatory does, wonder at the voice of counter- authority.

We, of the English language, have been peculiarly fortunate in a tradition of great prophetic voices who from Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Dickens, Lawrence, Leavis have represented a continuity of voices protesting against mainstream thought systems that have led to modern day scientism and technological- Benthamism (the phrase is Leavis’ characterisation of the age) which have vitiated our modern culture and depressed and diverted the religious spirit of the people.

Inspired voices? Our age desperately needs to learn from them.

HOW DO WE GROW?

We may say that when we use language, or a probe, or a tool, and thus make ourselves aware of these things as we are of our body, we interiorize these things and make ourselves dwell in them. Such extensions of ourselves develop new faculties in us; our whole education operates in this way; each of us interiorizes our cultural heritage, he grows into a person seeing the world and experiences life in terms of this outlook. (from Michael Polyani “The Logic of Tacit Inference” (Knowing and Being)

What do you think of this quotation?

I love it because it challenges the idea that education is an accumulation of facts, of external knowledge, of developing skills detached from who we are.

Education is to do with “indwelling”, within a science, an art, a language, a literature, a history; so that it becomes “interiorised” within our person.

It challenges the idea that education is simply for utility and not for our personal growth.

Let me know what you think.

THE MARRIAGE AT CANA (PART 2)

Last time we looked at a poem on the Marriage of Cana -which if you have not yet read I would encourage you to look at. Here is the story as described in St. John’s Gospel.

And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there. And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus, saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. And there were set there six waterpots of stone after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now and bear to the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was (but the servants which drew the water knew) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

Our first reaction reading this as if for the first time might be to say “What an extraordinary story!”. We might it also find it a very mysterious one. The mystery is less as to the actuality of the miracle : “Did it happen?” or “How did it happen? ” and more on its significance: “Why has John decided to make this the first “sign” of Jesus’ ministry?”

Another way of looking at it is its sheer strange aliveness. We are caught up in a story we are not sure we fully understand so that at the critical moment, when the “governor” of the feast tastes the water, we are filled with suspense. How will he react to this drink that is prepared as water and is purportedly wine? All we are given is a good humoured, genial reaction demonstrating that transformation has indeed been wrought.

The reader’s curiosity is roused by John’s choice of this story, not one of healing as the opening sign of Jesus’ ministry. There is clearly a significance in the use of waterpots normally used for purification purposes. And the underlying significance seems to be contained in the summing up phrase “You have kept the good wine till now”. Wine is used in John’s gospel by Jesus as something he brings as the “true vine”. The Communion service as introduced by Jesus at the Last Supper (not included as such in the gospel unless this story is seen as an alternative symbolic reference) relates the transformation brought in us in drinking the “wine ” of Jesus.

More simply this is a story whose significance is less bound up with the amazement of a miracle but the transformation Jesus brings in his ministry and through his death and Resurrection. The realism of the telling combines with a mysterious hinterland of points of significance that engages our sense of wonder as readers of a fascinating story.

At the heart of Christian belief is the idea of transformation. John’s gospel and this story that is the first sign manifesting Christ’s glory is one that invites us into a reading that takes us beyond the literal, beyond the happening to the significance of the presented happening.

It might be called an inspirational story. John clearly was to inspired to develop the story and give it a primary place in his gospel. The Christopher Morgan poem we looked at last time is an inspired imaginative reflection on the story. With Jesus’ new wine readers are encouraged to seek inspiration.

“Enjambment! Or would You Prefer the French Version, Sir?”

Book Talk

( PLEASE NOTE. Having mentioned the term “enjambement” once or twice in my last blog on The Marriage of Cana : A Poem I here present this from an earlier August 2020 post )

Is there a word the sound of which-whether uttered correctly or incorrectly -makes youwince?

In French -for me, “enjambement” is not like that. It is rather such a sweet sounding, elegant intonation. I love to hear it pronounced by a good French speaker. And I , in turn, attempted, in my rudimentary French to repeat that sound as best I could when I used it teaching in tutorial.

But, turn the beautiful French sound into English and the resulting sound is a crude horror. It certainly does make me wince. “Enjambement” becomes “Enjambment” and with the silent “b” the English jam, then with the “m” doubled becomes your central syllable : so “Enjamment”. In French…

View original post 421 more words

“THE MARRIAGE AT CANA” : A POEM. (1)

The following poem gives a wonderful sense of the mysterious vitality of the story of Christ’s first sign or miracle from the Gospel of St John.

THE STEWARD’S TALE”

We did not usually run out of wine;
My chief, a stern man, took his stewardship 
So very earnestly. There had been, 
You might say, an administrative slip.

This was, you understand, a marriage feast 
Of consequence. The guests had come from far 
And wide. I startled when I saw the last 
Drops slowly draining from my serving jar.

Word of the shortage had not got around; 
The chief knew nothing. How could I tell him? 
Then the voice of one who knew his own mind 
Bade me fill up six pitchers to the brim.

I turned to see a young man standing there, 
One of the guests, quiet, knowing, benign. 
Do as I bid he said, and have no fear. 
You bring me water I will give you wine.

Strange to say I did not hesitate, though 
Even at this time it seemed absurd. 
Those pitchers were so heavy it took two 
To lift them. I obeyed without a word.

It was with trepidation that I took 
A sample for approval to the chief. 
He sipped, nodded and with a puzzled look, 
Sent me away. Imagine my relief.

Later, as the feast progressed, I heard 
Him laugh and chat, politely tease the groom 
Uncannily an atmosphere of  shared 
Peace almost of blessing had filled the room. 


I often wondered about that young man, 
When I left Cana for another place, 
Another life. Until today, watching 
Them unfix the Nazarene from the cross,
 I recognised at once his gentle face.    

Chrsitopher Morgan in this poem (in the short collection Stalking the A4 The Brynmill Press 2009) is presented by critic Ian Robinson as one of the few contemporary poets whose work continues to “haunt” him

. “He is the best practitioner of English verse I have read in our time. Especially in the twenty first century it is not faint praise to call a writer a supreme master of the iambic pentameter and Morgan’s fluency in other forms is amazing.”

The Marriage of Cana in St John’s gospel is one of the great tales of the gospel. Rich meaning is distilled through Jesus’ direction leading to the transformation of water to wine.

The steward’s predicament here gives another perspective: the telling the tale from another imagined angle, through a dramatic monologue of one who has no previous knowledge of the man Jesus, so giving a fresh view on the power of his influence in creating an atmosphere of “shared Peace, almost of blessing” through the room. Behind this feeling is the cryptic and powerful prediction the Lord has made: “You bring me water I will give you wine“.

The steward speaks in exact, measured terms as one seeking to describe the events simply for a hearer. The precise account and the sure poetic use of enjambement (last Drops), the surprise of the single word active verb for “startled” (it is usually in passive voice) enables us to focus on the steward’s predicament. The introduction of Jesus is striking: first by unexpected voice-he is heard before he is seen- “ the voice of one who knew his own mind“- and then his appearance “quiet, knowing, benign” confirming the authority of voice when the steward is at a loss as to how to break the news. The decisive command is intriguingly reinforced by the fine chime of “wine” with “benign”.

The immediate effect within the poem is witnessed by the steward, in trepidation as he watches the master of the feast imbibe that drink he knows was poured out water. His relief at his master’s reaction is developed into wonder by the transformation wrought in the room.

This is beautifully wrought poetry. The steward’s wonder is prepared for by “uncannily”. As we return to the word we realise it is a stretched four syllable word drawing out the sense of the steward’s feeling as he sees the transformation gradually taking place. Note how the enjambement throws the emphasis on the keyword “Peace”( rhythmically elongated) . We are seeing the room through the steward’s eyes. His additional “almost of blessing” reminds us this is the voice of one who does not know Jesus, trying to find the right word and lighting on the powerful word “blessing” with its strong religious implications (of grace, of revelation) to describe the effects of his action.

That could have ended the poem but there is an additional five line stanza bringing us up to date linking the forgoing story with the crucified Jesus. The one who brought blessing and new life, the one whose “cup” he invited his disciples to drink as his blood at the Last Supper, is the one whose potential is declared in that opening miracle of John’s gospel.

The poem is thus an inspired re-telling of the first sign the inspired gospel writer, John brings of one who continues to have the power to transform.