WHAT KIND OF READER ARE YOU?

Quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

Readers may be divided into four classes: 1. Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. 2. Sand- glasses who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for getting through the time 3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read 4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also. (Coleridge Notes and Lectures Upon Shakespeare And Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists )

Dear Reader, I cannot claim to be anything like a mogul diamond, though all reports from Coleridge biographies suggest that was very much what he was, from the days when as a schoolboy in the dormitory of Christ’s Hospital school he would enchant his fellow pupils with stories from what he had read to the time when at university he would relay the latest speeches verbatim from pamphlets he had read earlier on the progress of Wilberforce’s Anti-slavery campaign in Parliament to fellow students.

The other day I heard the actress Miriam Margoyles speak passionately about the great English critic F. R. Leavis in his English classes who would inspire her and countless other students with the passion of his love of literature. How we need to be in the presence of teachers like that! In days when there is so much talk of teaching being done by internet, how we must emphasise the importance of the teacher being present, sharing his or her passion.

I would not dream of putting myself beside these “diamonds”. However, if in these blog posts, in an infinitely more modest way, I have gained profit from what I have read, my hope I can pass on some of that profit too.

WORDS TO RE-CHARGE 1: “COMFORT YE , COMFORT YE MY PEOPLE”.

When words are allowed to weaken, they may need to be re-charged. After all language, as well as being out there, is within. When a valuable word becomes softened something is diminished within us: a meaning that might be precious. Take the word comfort” or its cognate “comfortable”. We say to “live in comfort” and we mean to live at ease, in comparative prosperity. “Comfortable” we may associate through advertising and colour supplements with furniture: a comfortable sofa. “Are you sitting comfortably, then I will begin!” reminds us of being young children, listening to a story.

It may surprise you then to hear that the word originates from the Latin fortis meaning “with strength”. To give strength, to give encouragement to, is its verbal meaning, widening to being a source of solace, relief or support in distress or affliction.

It is the emphasis on strengthening or solace that tends to be its Biblical meaning. So the quotation, in the heading, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people ” is from the prophecy of Isaiah (Is, 40: 1-2). You may well have come across this use of the word from the stirring Handel aria of that name from the oratario The Messiah . Dr Patrick Sookhedo of the Barnabas Charity for persecuted Christians writing in the Charity Newsletter adds a further dimension to our understanding of the word.

“the Hebrew word is nachamu …..Its literal meaning is “to cause to breathe again”, letting ones breath out in relief. It is an emotionally charged word that certainly includes the idea of consolation in grief… But it means more . It also describes a process of learning to think differently about a situation. A rabbi explains : ” Comfort begins when we can re-frame the immediate pain of a loss in a larger, more encompassing way”.

All of which suggests in using the word we should think less of material and physical benefit, more of spiritual strengthening. For finding ” comfort” as spiritual strengthening may lead to a deeper, wider understanding of your affliction and encouragement to face the future with renewed determination.

“APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH”: TWO POETS, TWO MEN, TWO AGES

April is the cruelest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain, 
Winter kept us warm, covering 
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding 
A little life with dried tubers. 
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbargersee 
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. 
Bin garkeine Russin, stamm'aus Litauen, echt deutsch. 
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's, 
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, 
And I was frightened. He said, Marie, 
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. 
In the mountains, there you feel free. 
I read much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow 
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 
You cannot say or guess, for you know only 
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, 
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, 
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only 
There is shadow under this red rock, 
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), 
And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. 
              Frisch weht der Wind 
              Der heimat zu 
              Mein Irisch Kind, 
              Wo weilestdu? 
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; 
"They called me the hyacinth girl"
- Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, 
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not 
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither 
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 
Looking into the heart of light, the silence 
Oed' und leer das Meer.
T.S.Eliot The Wasteland.

April: the month that heralds the season of spring; after long winter, the release towards renewal and regeneration; the time of year traditionally when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. Also, usually, the month of Easter, of faith gathered round the ritual of death and resurrection.

Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month denies all this” negates, as it remembers, all this. His April sees no possible fruition. Hence the cruelty of memory mixed with desire; he lives in a place and time gone sterile: the desire for love, the desire for sex, the desire to celebrate faith in unity are all still remembered but no longer meaningful.

“The Wasteland” decisively confirms a new age of poetic expression in English. The Great War, the First World War, is over but the poetry has nothing to celebrate: there is, apparently, no hope of European renewal, only an awareness of lack of continuity of the desire for life, faith, renewing love. Hence, a poetry of changing voices, fragments, with no narrative progression.

Was this the problem of Eliot or the age?. Eliot’s wife suffered from a severe hormonal condition that eventually led to being a patient at a mental institution. Eliot wrote in a letter: “To her the marriage brought no happiness to me ot brought the state of mind that led to The Wasteland.” (Collected Letters of T.S. Eliot Vol 1).

Yet it also reflected powerfully an age, devastated by war, torn by fragmentation and a lack of cultural continuity and shared faith. Given the continuation of all these through the century the wasteland may be seen as not only personal but societal.

Compare this with the opening of The Prologue of Chaucer’s masterpiece “The Canterbury Tales” also featuring April.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote [sweet]
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote  
And bathed every veyne in swich licour [plant vein,liquid]
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; [potency]
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth [west wind,also]
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth  [woodland,heath] 
The tendre croppes and yonge sonne      [shoots]
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, [Aries]
And smale foweles maken melodye         [birds]
That slepen al the nyght with open ye   [eye] 
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); [incites, their, hearts]
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken stronge strondes [professional pilgrims]
To fernes halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; [far-off shrines, known]
And specially from every shires ende 
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,  [go] 
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,    [blessed,Thomas Becket]  
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.  [helped, sick]
 

In Chaucer there is a continuity, lacking in Eliot, from the Nature that pricketh in the hearts to the longing to go on pilgrimage. In Eliot the holiday , going to the Alps in winter is exclusively enjoyed by the well off, not by the variety of classes which “The Prologue” shall introduce us to . And though for many of Chaucer’s pilgrims the religious aspect is less holy day than holiday there is no need to inquire, using the Biblical prophets: “What are the roots that clutch out of this stony rubbish” ; there is a combination of faith and culture that holds it all together.

Eliot’s sterility is replaced by a perceived vital connection linking the life of Nature with the life of folk with shared faith.

As a man Chaucer is in mid-career, a successful diplomat and an experienced poet. He is a Londoner where Norman French is the common tongue of Court and upper society so he is helping to develop the possibilities of a new poetry in “southren” English in that great era of English poetry with Langland and the poet of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight developing on the alliterative tradition of North WestEngland.

Chaucer is now recognised as one of the very greatest of poets in English. Eliot after “The Wasteland” journeyed towards a renewed Christian faith that found expression, specially, in “The Four Quartets”

For Chaucer the world was all before him, for Eliot, at this point, the world was collapsing around him.

CONSTITUTIONAL REFLECTIONS

edinburgh news. scotsman.com

Life in the United Kingdom has struck the pause button since it was announced on Friday that the death had taken place of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, married to the Queen for seventy four years. A period of national mourning for eight days has been announced.

The existence of the monarchy gives nations the opportunity to share significant historical moments. A death of one of the stature of Prince Philip makes possible a period of communal recollection which brings into comparison the past and the present and the ways in which , for better or worse the nation has changed.

We need means of doing this. As Edmund Burke memorably said ” Society is a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn”. The monarchy makes particularly visible, this sense of continuity, especially when we remember one who helped to give the monarchy direction in a period of transformational change. A veteran from the Second World War who served in the Royal Navy with distinction, he married Princess Elizabeth shortly after in 1947. With a background that taught him stoicism and an education that encouraged self-dependence and resilience of character he gave up his promising career to serve the monarchy when Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, after the relatively early death of her father, King George VI.

This post is not meant to present a potted biography of the Prince. That is readily available. Reflections, however, on what his achievement is and the way in which he helped to steer the monarchy through a period of rapid change might be of interest.

Speaking in Canada in 1969 the Duke of Edinburgh declared “It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch. It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people, …If at any stage any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is up to them to change it.”

Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert, in an excellent article in “The Times” discussed the way in which the Duke by skilful direction has helped to steer the monarchy during the reign of the Queen to become a beneficial agency widely accepted throughout the United Kingdom. The guiding idea was to direct the monarchy towards public service. This he managed not only through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme (in which 6.7 million young people in the UK have taken part) but also by supporting the National Playing Fields Association, now Fields in Trust, which sought to protect parks, playing fields and nature reserves to ensure all youngsters had access to open spaces. In addition the Duke became engaged in an amazing range of charitable activities. “The Duke” Bogdanor writes, “was apparently involved with more than 800 charities as an active problem solver as well as a fundraiser, an involvement only ending with his retirement at the age of 96.” All this is separate from his global work as a supporter of conservation which started early in the 1960’s when he helped, for example, to found the World Wildlife Fund(1961).

This energetic application undoubtedly enabled the monarchy to develop a strong and distinctive role in initiating schemes of social benefit and supporting a wide range of charities. Prince Charles, Princess Anne and the younger generation of Royals have continued assiduously the idea the Duke started. To illustrate this Bogdanor quotes the example of Chris Mullin, left-wing Labour MP and former editor of Tribune (that is not a naturally Royalty- supporting background) telling how he was invited to Clarence House fund-raising dinner where he heard Prince Charles speak : “without notes, with passion and self-deprecating humour, holding our attention for a full twenty minutes. Always he comes back to the same point. How to widen the horizons of the young, especially the disaffected, the unlucky and even the malign. I confess I am impressed. He has a track record of achievement clearly visible for anyone who cares to look. Let he who has done more cast the first stone.”

And again David Lammy, LabourMP for Tottenham, points out that after the riots in his constituency many MPS visited, but once, while the Prince of Wales returned five times, bringing charities and businesses to the area to achieve practical results.

Likewise both William and Harry (until he moved away) have continued the tradition with a wide range of impressive charity work most recently in mental health.

Bogdanor concludes on the benefit of constitutional monarchy for those countries that still have them : ” monarchy , by sustaining civil society , also sustains that sense of national cohesion without which democracy cannot function successfully.” That it continues to perform this role in our much divided society is owing not only to the Queen, as our widely loved and much respected sovereign, but also to the insight, dedication and loyalty of the now mourned Duke.

THE JOURNEY TO EMMAUS

St Luke 24. 13-35( KJV 1611)

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about three score furlongs.

And they talked together of all these things which had happened.

And it came to pass, that while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.

But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad.?

And the one, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things that are come to pass there in these days.

And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people:

And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death and they crucified him.

But we trusted it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done.

Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre:

And when they found not his body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive.

And certain of them which were at the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:

Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

And they drew nigh unto the village whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.

But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is towards evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together,and them that were with them,

Saying the Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.

And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them by the breaking of the bread.

Comment.

The story of the Journey to Emmaus is one of the great short stories within the Gospels. Its spiritual value is developed, especially in the King James Version of the Bible, by its strengths as literature. It focuses on the walk of two disciples, we presume to their village home, following the crucifixion of their master. Their walk is clearly intended to be one way, but becomes, through the nature of their encounter on the road, a return journey. So they end up at the place they started from but utterly changed.

On the road from Jerusalem to their village the mood of the disciples -one of obvious despair and bewilderment- is expressed by the walkers’ body language as “they communed together and reasoned”. “Communed” suggests the close intimacy of their communication and their sadness is conveyed to the one who overtakes them. The sound of the ancient word “holden” (from the verb “to hold” so meaning something like “held” by their preoccupations ) is perfect for conveying this heavy downcast mood which makes them unable to look properly upward and outward to see that the stranger might be Jesus. Giving a perfect summary of the reasons for their sadness the stranger surprises the listeners with his critical response that challenges their understanding of the meaning of what they have experienced. Based on scriptural authority, the stranger shows them there is another perspective. They, in their misery, have not seen what is there to be seen.

We, as readers, are in the position of knowing who the stranger is so we are in a privileged position. We can watch what they do.Yet, as readers, we can identify with the disciples seeing things as they do-so too would we. Thus we watch in knowledge while we are also dramatically involved in the effect that the revelation is going to have on the two disciples.

Obviously stirred by the words of Jesus, the disciples urge him to “abide” with them. The word “constrained” ( compare “invited”) suggests the pressure inside them to urge him. It is the sharing of the meal that brings revelation. The wonderful sentence that leads to this deserves special attention: “And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, that he took bread,and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.” Count the commas!. The commas ensure pauses, adding the slow rhythmic build- up reinforced by the alliteration of “bread”, ” blessed”, “brake” all rhythmically accented. The pauses with the “and”s (four of them including the start) help to isolate each stage of the action, each of significance to the hosts (who will know, anyway, of the Last Supper ritual).

The King James’ Version is rightly famous for its appropriateness for public reading. It is both formal and simple. In addition however it opens the way to imaginative contemplative reading. The build up of clauses and the start “And it came to pass” which works like the word “behold” (at the start of the story) to invite contemplative focus. These phrases help to concentrate the reading for this kind of focus on the significance of what is to pass or be beholden.

The revelation “and their eyes were opened and they knew him” brings it into direct contrast the beginning of the encounter “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him”. Glancing through a variety of recent translations no modern version makes this kind of strong linkage using the eyes: though several have “their eyes were opened” none specifically use the contrasting sense of their eyes being earlier blinded. At this point Christ vanishes. The point of recognition reached, his visual presence is required no longer.

The revelation impels action. The joyous journey back contrasts with their initial outward state of dolour. Their conversation reflects their wondrous joy: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he opened to us the scriptures”. (Again notice the effect of two strong words “hearts” and burn” being placed side by side, slowing speech to emphasise the significance) . Where they were blind before, now they see.

It is this kind of slow , strong rhythmic beat emphasising key words and not allowing a more flat kind of recording prose to predominate. The point of scripture is that it is not there to be ordinary to be presented in an ordinary kind of conversational prose but to direct attention to what is truly significant. What we have in the King James Version is the story beautifully told to bring out the potential for renewed vision enabling a movement from despair to joy.

“NOW THE GREEN BLADE RISETH”

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. St John 12. 24.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain, 
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain; 
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:  
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

 In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain,  
Thinking that never he would wake again.  
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen: 
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.


Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain, 
He that for three days in the grave had lain. 
 Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:  
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green. 

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,  
Thy touch can call us back to life again; 
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: 
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green. 

J.M.C. Crum 1872-1958  

“MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?”

Gethsemane presents a new situation. Before this Jesus would retire from the multitudes, and also from his disciples to be apart. He sought out solitude to be with God. Three times in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel he seeks to be in solitary places with the God he calls Father. Gethsemane, however, for the first time, reveals a new pressure. He appears to be at odds with the purpose the Father is guiding him towards.

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast and kneeled down and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.(Luke 23.41-42)

What he most longs for is in opposition to what is being imposed upon him by God from which it is clear the only way out is that he must die. This may puzzle us, simply because, we understand from all the gospels that Jesus is preparing himself and his disciples for the inevitability of his condemnation to death. We must allow, however, there to be a difference between the vision of an inevitable future and that future become present.

Does Jesus fear death? Perhaps, being human, he has to know that fear in particularly terrible form:

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. (ibid. 22.44)

But the story of Gethsemane moves from distress and agony to resolution. Through soul-wrenching prayer he has accepted what God has required of him; he stirs the sleeping disciples, for now, he is ready to face his captors.

Has Jesus, however, had for the first time to glimpse aloneness?- the possibility, not only of being apart from the rest of humanity, but also separate from the beloved Father? Perhaps the early stages of Gethsemane show what will become much more so on the Cross, leading to the cry: Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani? or My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15.34).

Here Jesus’ plight on the Cross, a sufficiently barbarically cruel punishment in itself, is increased beyond measure by the sense that he is abandoned, the God who has always been faithful to him seems no longer present to him; or, at least his purposes seem unfathomable. What he is suffering seems beyond any sense of purpose.

What are we to make of this? Does Jesus’ life end in defeat after all? True,in Luke, he is recorded as later saying:

Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” and having said this he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23.46)

and in John “It is finished”. (19.30).

But in Mark the agonised question is made the final utterance. And is this not something sceptics, like Albert Camus, have latched on to? Jesus’ ministry ends in defeat. He has been proved wrong.

Step back! Consider Auschwitz, holocaust, genocide, slavery -ships. Think of the children Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov speaks of suffering unspeakable cruelty. How we might ask, can Christians dare to preach a gospel of hope knowing of such examples of people suffering abandonment and torture? The message should be strangled in our throats before it could be uttered, unless we have faith that the Crucifixion and the forsaken Jesus were not the end of the story.

For hope can only be uttered because Jesus knew what the crushing sense of abandonment really means. Ultimately without that cry on the Cross Jesus could not be the saviour of all the abandoned and tortured because, for them, there are levels of pain that he might not be seen in his own life to reach.

A small group of disciples, many of them women, watched him on the Cross. For them, Calvary, would be a scene of defeat-a great enterprise ending in disaster. But if that were the case these words would never have been recorded in print. There would be no good news , no gospel. The disciples, by whose witness the words of Jesus’ ultimate loneliness were transmitted to the world were those who, miraculously supercharged with purpose, were able, following the Resurrection, to say, “Look abandonment and death does not end it all. We are not in the end alone and abandoned. Christ is risen! God is, after all, faithful”.

But Christians cannot sound naive or unrealistic in their preaching and spreading of the good news because they know so many are suffering that ultimate loneliness and to them we can speak in knowledge of the Saviour abandoned as well as the Saviour risen.

EASTER POEMS

The Crucifixion

“String him up,” some repoman shouted, (repossessor)

He’s a weirdo” “In the bin, in the bin”,

Yelled another and grabbed some thorns,

Sharp as needles, twisting them round

A fresh-cut-thorn branch. He made

A wreath and forced it down on his head,

The pain piercing his flesh. “Morning vicar”,

This comedian said and darted twigs

At him, aiming at his eyes. With three

Nails, he nailed him naked to the cross,

Lifted bitter drink to his lips, telling

Him drink and stop dropping off, hang

On a bit longer. “Now if he’s really something,”

He said, “He’ll get himself out of this one.

If you’re Christ, and if Christ is God’s

Son, come on down off that cross.

We’ll believe it then, you’ve got a life

On a string, you’re nevergoing to be

A goner”

“That’s it”

Christ said,

“That’s it”.

His senses

Began to fade

Pale and piteous

Like a prisoner

In death, the Lord

Of life and light

Closed his eyes, day

Shrank back, appalled,

And the sun darkened.

The Temple wall

Shattered and split

The solid rocks

Of earth ruptured,

It was dark

As thickest night,

Earth convulsed,

Quaked like a live thing.

The noise brought

Dead men clambering up

From the coffined depths

Who told why the tempest raged so long.

One corpse said

“There is in darkness

Here a bitter fight

Life and Death

Destroy each other, None can know

For sure who wins

Till Sunday

As the sun rises”,

And with these words

Sank back in earth.

From Piers Plowman by William Langland 1330?-1400?

translated by Ronald Tamplin. (from “The Lion Christian Poetry Collection” compiled by Mary Batchelor Lion Publishing 1995)

This translation combines a vivid recent colloquial language with the freshness of Langland’s great medieval poem ( contemporary with Chaucer). Tamplin gives us a sense of Langland’s realism in the frank brutal savagely comic talk going on round the crucifixion spectacle. The cosmic consequences of the death is based on some less familiar details to be found in Matthew’s gospel, much more readily grasped by the common people in the medieval period.

“And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom ;and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves opened: and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came of the graves after the resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many”.

I’d be delighted if this extact encouraged readers to look at Langland’s work which has become too much neglected in recent years. Langland was a contemporary of Chaucer who uses Middle English rather than Chaucer’s “southren”. It is in unrhymed alliterative form based on Old Germanic (as was Beowulf in Old English).

Try reading aloud to get the sound of the alliterative verse. Individual words can be checked from the above translation- although this will not always be exact. The two Latin phrases quoted from the Bible are in Latin (” “It is finished” and “Indeed this was the Son of God”).

The passage from Langland starts from “His senses Began to fade” in the translation. Enjoy having a go and getting a feel of our ancient tongue and its poetry!

Consummatum est, quod Crist,and comsede for to swoune,
Pitousliche and pale as a prison that deieth;
The lord of lif and of light tho leide hise eighen togideres.
The day for drede withdrough and derk bicam the sonne.
The wal waggede and cleef, and al the world quaved,
Dede men for that dene come out of depe graves,
And tolde why that tempeste so long tyme durede. 
"For a bitter bataille" the dede bodie seide;
" Lif and Deeth in this derknesse, hir oon fordooth hir boother.
Shal no wight wite witterly who shal have the maistrie
Er Sonday aboute sonne risyng- and sank with that til erthe
Some saide he was Goddes sone, that so faire deyde:
Vere filius Dei erat iste
And some seide he was a wicche- "Good is that we assaye
Wher he be deed or noght deed, doun er he be taken."   

FOR PALM SUNDAY : THE DONKEY

          
Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorns, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil's walking parody 
  On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth 
  Of ancient crooked will,
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
  I keep my secret still.

Fools for I also had my hour 
  One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears
  And palms before my feet.

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

I love the way this poetic monologue gives a sense of the astonishing oddity of the donkey. The picture is humorous, self- mocking without ever being self-abusive. There is an inner self-worth that is to be justified by the finale.

The first stanza offers a fantasising version of an evolving creation with its outlandish projection of a world in which “fishes flew and forests walked”. The alliteration underlies the playful amusement of the picture The comic strangeness anticipates the weird creature presented in the second stanza.

It is worth noting , however, that the spiritual significance of the climax of the poem is suggested as early as the first stanza with the line “And figs grow upon thorns”which will remind all Biblically- literate readers of Christ’s saying (Matthew 7:16) “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” The witty suggestion of Chesterton is that there was a nascent stage of creation where this confusion was possible and it was from that kind of state the donkey emerged.

The comic strangeness of the creature develops in the second and third stanzas. “Sickening cry” is followed by the excellent phrase “errant wings”. “Tattered outlaw of the earth” reminds us we might expect to see a handsome horse but rarely a smart-looking donkey. “Outlaw” confirms its oddity. But the third stanza moves to the reaction to the “outlaw” of public condemnation. “Scourge” and “deride” point to the unfolding connection with the passion story-to the One who, made an “outlaw,” was also scourged and derided. The poem as it moves towards “the secret” is revealing the donkey as a victim- primarily a victim of public scorn and this is preparing for the paralleling of the creature with Christ, the victim of the Easter story with which the donkey is to be connected. But if the victim triumphs, if Christ triumphs through the Resurrection, then his chosen creature has the confidence to tell its story as one of vindication. Because of Christ the one who was rejected is no longer incongruous:

Fools for I also had my hour 
   One far , fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears 
  And palms before my feet.

  

On a first reading we await that revelatory final line for the full meaning of the poem to come home to us. It is only then we realise the significance the poem has been so skilfully leading us towards. The donkey owes its sense of worth to being an important participant in a drama of universal human significance.

The poem leaves us with a very interesting question to which the Easter story proffers a possible answer: “If I am made a victim, in what might my sense of self -worth consist?”

“WIST YE NOT…”

Language is not natural but a young child’s love of language, of words, of rhymes, of rhythms seems to be part of who they are, as essential to their development as learning to eat, to walk, or to explore. They absorb the words spoken to them and seek to repeat those words. They are taught nursery rhymes and told fairy stories. This love of rhythm or desire to explore words is not something that children should be weaned away from, as babies from the breast, to be replaced by sturdier more prosaic studies it is something that should be fostered through all levels of schooling.

“Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business” said the twelve year old Jesus to his bemused parents when they lost him and rediscovered him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the clerics there. When I first heard the word “Wist”, no doubt read out from the pulpit, I was puzzled and fascinated. What could this word mean? I loved the sound of the word. It caught my attention, made me wonder.

“Wist” is of course, now I can put it in more learned words is the past participle of the verb “to wit”. It is an ancient word deep rooted in Anglo-Saxon. “To wit” was the verb to know; from “witan” (cognate with German wusste, past tense “wissen” to know”). So I learn from an etymological dictionary .

It has been a disastrous error of both churches and schools to say “We must simplify the language of possibly difficult texts so that they are within the easy understanding of all children, especially the less bright”. Good language read with feeling will attract children even when they do not understand particular words. From the context, given age-careful choice of reading, they will grasp enough of the meaning and will find pleasure in seeking to feel their way into what the word might mean.

The important thing that teachers should instil into children is a love of language and from that a readiness to follow unfamiliar language because the sound of it awakens something in them, that makes them keen to follow. There are many stories of gifted teachers able to teach supposed limited learners Shakespeare with amazing success.

I will always be grateful that I emerged from school with a varied knowledge of Shakespeare plays and some acquaintance with the major English poets. I also was fortunate as a church-going youngster of hearing the Authorised Version of the Bible read every week.

Making the word alive for children does not mean keeping close to the language that is familiar to them and relevant to their lives but leading them into places they would otherwise not know about .

So love your language, find what is deepest in it and pass the love on to the children in your care!