“SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL FOR GOD”: COLLECT FOR SECOND SUNDAY LENT

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thomas Cranmer Book of Common Prayer

Mother Teresa claimed her work was to make something beautiful for God. If beauty matters to God then questions must be raised about public prayer in the banal language so prevalent in churches today.

Cranmer ( 1489-1556) developed powerful and beautiful prayers by in turn developing the English sentence. He is rightly adjudged one of the first great writers of English prose. And he did so, as did Tyndale(1494-1536) and Coverdale (1488-1569), for the praise and worship of God. Read this prayer slowly, take in its sense and admire the perfect balance and rhythmic strength, which comes from placing the beat on the words or sounds that most require it, so that the meaning is brought to life by the style. Just as a medieval cathedral should be treasured so should a prayer of this quality.

SIXTY NOT OUT!

Dear Readers,

Sixty not out refers to the number of blogs you can access by scrolling down the blog page. Before this the cut-off point was around thirty. I have found out how to adjust this (it takes me time to learn these things!) so you can now go back to my first steps at blog writing on Good Friday, last Easter.

Lots of interesting stuff for new readers, I hope: some lovely poems on Poppies and D. H. Lawrence on the “Imagination of God” and “The Body of God”. T.S. Eliot’s beautiful poem “Marina” (surely, once you get to understand what he is doing, one of the loveliest twentieth century poems) was early discussed as was the applicability of a section of “The Four Quartets” to Lockdown: “The whole earth is our hospital endowed by the ruined millionaire”.

I also explored mythic stories like Plato’s Cave, the Biblical “Tower of Babel” and the curious Genesis story of God getting Adam to name the animals.

Etymology might sound a dry study but the history of word “Romantic” is tied up with so much history that I found it fascinating to write about.

I tell you all this to encourage you to explore, scroll down the Blog page and take your pick!

Happy browsing!

Thank you once again for your support.

Alan

“ALL OUR DOINGS WITHOUT CHARITY ARE NOTHING WORTH”

O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

“Charity” is in Latin “caritas”, in Greek “agape”, in modern English translations, simply, “love”. It is, for Christians, but not only for Christians, the essential virtue.

The prayer appears in Thomas Cranmer’s The Common Book of English Prayer 1549 rev.1552). It is a collect (a short prayer, in Cranmer of one sentence, read by the minister in the Anglican liturgy) used on the Sunday before the start of Lent, the period of forty days leading up to Easter in the Christian calendar.

I have many readers who are Christian but also readers of different religions and probably readers with no religion at all. To some the above prayer will (perhaps) be both beautiful and profoundly moving, to others perhaps interesting, but without stirring any form of commitment. Its theme, however, is universal.

In a recent post I named Cranmer (along with the King James Version of the Bible, the Authorised Version, and Shakespeare ) as a maker of the English language during its freshest, most potent and expressive phase, making possible an extrordinary flourishing of the language and representing a standard by which English today might be tested.

Cranmer’s prayer is simple, direct , powerful. Monosyllabic words predominate. We seem to be moving to a positive from “O Lord who hast taught us that all our doings” to anticipate a favourable effect, whereas what we get is the negative counterplay of the second half of the phrase “without charity are nothing worth” resulting in the surprising force of the conclusion of the phrase, empowered as it is by inversion. We, today, would tend to say “are worth nothing” which would flatten the rhythm (with a slack ending) ; “nothing worth” (with two beats on first syllable of “nothing” and “worth” makes both words powerful, giving climactic force to the declaration.

Notice again ” doings”. Again we would attenuate it “the things we do” or else we would make them “actions”: same meaning, but more abstract and distant than the physically active “doings”.

The words are given, where possible, physical force. Along with “doings” look at the verbs “taught, “Send” , “pour”. Where there is superlative “that most excellent gift” the gift is given further substance: “the very bond of peace and all virtues” – or what holds all the virtues together meaningfully.

Then another powerful and daring climax : “without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. After all those monosyllables a clutch of longer words marked by alliteration makes us pick out the words precisely before the shock force of the living being “counted dead”. How can the worldly great or the self-centred in general be so discounted? The daringness is to be given a God’s eye view presented as we know it through Christ’s teaching on the primacy of “Love”. If charity is a Heaven-sent gift, which gives us life then all that is contrary is counted dead. “Dead before thee” shows the damning force of God’s valuation contrasted to what the world values.

The prayer holds together a dramatic conjunction of two forces: one making for charity, one in negation of charity within the perspective of God, who in Love provides those with faith in His gift of charity the blessing of fuller life as opposed to those lacking the gift who are rendered as naught without it.

The prayer has, I suggest, still the power to shock. We may think ourselves the star turn- leading goalscorers, sexy singers, the richest businessman in town, a top academic-one whose actions leads to a sense of self- importance – but we are suddenly told, our “doings”, our achievements, our ambitions ” without charity” are “nothing worth”. Charity comes before everything else and has to contain our “doings”, not the other way about, as the “rich young ruler” also found out.

The power of the message of the poem cannot be distinguished from the power of the style of writing. It is true Cranmer and his associates are often translating traditional material from the Latin but Cranmer’s greatness is to create a distinctive English style that reads well in public for centuries.( I have heard reports it is regaining popularity in Anglican services). To do this he developed English speech rhythms where the beat would fall on the words that need it most “whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. (Probably the final two words read best as anapaestic, rather than equivalent beats, with a rise in emphasis on each syllable to the long e-sound of “thee” acting to perpetuate the eternal consequences of being before God as Judge. There is a strong emphasis on monosyllabic , physical sounding words of Anglo-Saxon origin, consolidating English as a language of muscular force rather than a more musical romance language, like Italian.

The critic Ian Robinson places Cranmer as the starting point of modern syntactic English prose:

“Cranmer developed an English prose syntax, the first time this had been done since King Alfred the Great insisted that translations from the Latin must be into genuine English”.(1)

Almost five centuries later we remain his beneficiaries.

NOTES

  1. Robinson, Ian The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment Cambridge University Press 1998

A POEM FOR ST. VALENTINE’S DAY: “TIME WAS AWAY AND SOMEWHERE ELSE”

            THE MEETING-POINT
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs):
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream's music did not stop
Flowing through heather limpid brown
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise-
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise;
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched round the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash 
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God, or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body's peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was, 
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

Louis MacNeice (April 1939)

   

Louis MacNeice was an Irishman as might be guessed by the refrain “Time was away and somewhere else”. It is a line carried by the colloquial rhythm of Irish speech. You might say it is a line that is tautological, as it has two phrases which, just about, say the same thing. But that is the charm of the way the Irish speak their English. The two phrases point to the transcendent nature of the experience of the two lovers completely at one in their coffee shop room. The love they know is eternal and knows no time. The stanzas all collaborate to suggest this experience of togetherness in a perfect world, while never allowing us to forget the actual setting of an ordinary cafe. The pictures in each stanza-the stream, the bell, the camels, the tropical trees evoke meaningful pictures or imagined ideal landscapes and moments of stillness for the lovers.

It is a beautiful poem for St. Valentine’s Day that relates love to eternity within the mundane surroundings of a coffee shop.

“WHERE HAS THE LANGUAGE GONE?”: A CONVERSATION.

Questioner: Excuse me, I am looking for language. Where can I find it?

Answerer:”I’m not sure what you mean. You are using language.

Q: Yes but where is the centre of the language I am using ?

A: Ah get a good dictionary. The Oxford one has a good reputation.!

Q: Yes, I have seen that. But it just gives me words and their meanings.

A : Ah, so you must need a book of grammar!

Q: That gives me the rules but it still doesn’t tell me where the centre is.

A: Again I am not with you. The English language is words in the minds of people who speak English. Likewise the French language is in the heads of French people. And so it goes on.

Q: So language is just subjective?

A: Yes and no. We need dictionaries to tell us the correct words and grammar to tell us the correct grammar. And language is public and it is important that it is used to tell truth and not lies. Hence all the controversy about fake news.

Q: So language is both subjective and objective, private and public.?

A: Yes. It’s rather like money. You have it in your pocket-it’s your private possession but then you take it out to buy something in public, in the market place. Langage is like currency. It’s in your head but it is also shared with others.

Q. : So, like the currency has or, at least had, the gold standard to give it official status and guarantee its validity, language has the dictionary and the grammar book.

A: Ah, now you’ve got it!

Q. : But no I haven’t!. I haven’t got to the centre of it yet. The dictionary is just lists of words and the grammar book is just rules to do with use. I guess I mean not so much language as individual words, but words in thinking, words in speech. Where does language in speech centre?

A: I’m baffled at what you mean. There are millions of dialogues , conversations, group discussions going on all the time. There is no centre, there is just development.

Q: So are there models of good speech, are there speech modes that guide people?

A: Well, there are examples of good speaking! There is received pronunciation. There is Queen’s English . There is great oratory-like say Winston Churchill. There is poetry. There are phrases from great books like the Bible or Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer or Shakespeare that have seeped into the language. Do you mean that kind of thing?

Q : Well that’s getting closer!

A: The thing is, these kind of models operate on people less and less. They are not so fashionable. No one bothers if you speak proper or not. Perhaps we are more democratic today and don’t need models. Or perhaps we live such fast lives we don’t develop speech as an art anymore. Perhaps its new electronic technology that affects laguage and the way we use it and it is all very much more streamlined.

Q: Now here’s a thing. All these speeches you referred to, going on all the time-as they have done in every era, carry with them evaluations what is good, what is bad, what is cool. fashionable. That is they carry with them moral implications of the good and the bad; right and wrong. The society of the day gives a certain weight of approval or disapproval to these valuations. They may vary according to political views etc.- one person might be politically correct in their speech. Another might be deliberately provocative. Is that right?

A: Yes as long as you accept- as towards the end of what you said- there that these “evaluations”, as you call them, will be tremendously various.

Q: Now before that you said something tremendously interesting. You mentioned Churchill but also great works of literature like Shakespeare and also having religious significance like the Bible and Cranmer. Apart from Churchill, did you notice all these works stemmed from around the Elizabethan age- a little before with Cranmer , a little after with the Authorised Version?.

A: Yes, but nowadays you don’t hear the Authorised Version even in church . They all use modern translations with up to date commonplace language, not so much for the public voice. Cranmer is rare. Shakespeare, too, may be popular but is a minority interest.

Q: Exactly. Now for centuries English centred there. The language of the Bible, of Cranmer and what his language made of the language of marriage-“for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish and forsaking all other” and funerals: “Rest eternal grant unto them, O lord; and let light perpetual shine upon them.” This language and its rhythms penetrated the lives of everyone, whether they attended church or not because they still got married and went to funerals. It did not mean they held to the valuations but the valuations were known to them. Shakespeare too is all about the moral evaluations of an immense array of characters. He would have been known to the educated. Remember the character in Jane Austen who said,” Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s consitution.” And this language of strong moral evaluation was carried on by the great poets and writers. But now if all that is gone I repeat the question: “Where does English centre? Where is or are the great public forums where the language is most profoundly alive as it was alive and is still alive in Cranmer, Shakespeare, the Authorised Version created for public worship. Where is the real English now ? Where does it centre? “

A: I’m afraid I cannot answer that.

NICOLA BENEDETTI: MUSIC AND FAITH.

Nicola Benedetti , the violin virtuoso, and passionate advocate of music in education, has thought very interestingly about the ways in which the love of music and the development of faith act upon us. In an interview with Vikas S. Shah in “Thought Economics” she is reported in The Times to have said in relation to music : “people relate to it in the same way they relate to religion”.

“They have a sense of faith and belief, that what music is and what it does for them, can never fully be understood, yet the truth of what it does to them they don’t necessarily need to understand. That’s the humility of faith. That’s how I feel about music”.

That underlies St Paul, I think , when he writes “we know only in part”. What we do know is great enough to inspire us to go on .

She proceeds: “That invisible quality of music gets inside us and attacks thoughts, feelings and things in the brain which we simply do not understand yet. The fact that music infuses all these parts of who we are so powerfully just fills me with humility, faith and awe.”

Find that which is great, that acts on us greatly, and live in the faith of it.

“CHAUCER AT LEICESTER; NOT!”

For a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I did not do Latin at my grammar school. People would say when they knew “What relevance today is Latin anyway, a dead language!”. Some would retort, “It is useful for medicine”-or whatever. Now I am deeply sorry I did not do Latin at school. It is true that had I strong enough motivation I should have found an opportunity in my later years. But you know how it is-there is so much else to do. So I have never learned Latin-and something important is missing from my education!

I was reminded of all this when I read in the newspapers that Leicester University had dropped Chaucer and the earlier Beowulf ,indeed all English literature prior to 1500. Since the fact universities have been quietly dropping their responsibility to teach the literature of the past has been going on for a long time I was somewhat surprised -and pleased- that this particular matter had reached the press. At least it was being dealt with as of serious concern to readers.

The Leicester response to criticism has been that it has so much to offer the students in job- directed courses that there was no place for the more ancient literature. What are these more relevant courses? They are to deal with issues of race, ethnicity, sexuality, diversity, post-colonialism. Issues such as these are central to the modern world-so the discourse goes. These courses are popular. The Arts are in decline. University economics determines students should be treated as customers. It is a matter of supplying demand in a failing market. That’s how education today is looked after by the Authorities in the English- speaking West.

We do not- or should not- go to university merely to read what we have learned, or been indoctrinated to believe, to be relevant. We should not go to confirm the significance of what we want to know. There are piles of books in any bookshop with so-called “challenging ” views on “race, sexuality, diversity” etc. Students can find out about these at their leisure over a lifetime -or until the fashion changes. What they tend not do, however, is go to books that on the face of it may seem obscure and distant-like Chaucer- unless they are encouraged to read beyond their immediate concerns and ideas of relevance. For , if we are simply not going to be mouthers-of- fashionable concepts, we need at university stage to stretch ourselves to find why it is Chaucer, as a very great poet of human nature, and also a critical starting point to the understanding of English Literature (among others) might be important for us to learn to read.

As Rory Waterman puts it in an article on the subject (“Geoffrey Chaucer: A Victim of the University Drive” ) in Unherd:

When you study this fascinating subject (ie. medieval literature), you learn all about the formation of this country , its language, the ways in which people thought and felt. You look down a well, you didn’t really kmow was there and you see a reflection that isn’t quite yours. And then you’ll come back to that, all the time, in ways you did not expect.

That is you will experience what education really is!

BURNS’ SEASON: TO A MOUSE

              To A Mouse.
On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough
             November 1785

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
    Wi' bickering brattle!          (hasty scurrying)
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,  (loath)
    Wi' murdering pattle!      (a wooden plough-scraper)  

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union'
An' justifies that ill opinion
     Which makes thee startle
At me thy poor, earth -born companion
    An' fellow mortal !

I doubtna, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave    (an ear of corn in sheaves)
    'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin' wi the lave,           (rest)
    An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!         (walls, winds)
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,       (build)
    O foggage green!                        (growth)
An' bleak December's wins enduin,
    Baith snell an' keen!             (both bitter and biting)

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary Winter comin' fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,     (cosy)
    Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past     (plough-blade) 
    Out thro thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,   (stubble)
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
    But house or hald,
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
    An' cranreuch cauld!                  (hoar-frost cold)

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
THE best-laid schemes o' Mice an'Men
    Gang aft agley,                (go often wrong)
An' lea'e us nought but grief an'pain,
    For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'ee
    On prospects drear!
An'forward tho' I canna see,
    I guess an' fear!   

Like “To a Louse” (see earlier post) this poem uses the Habbie Samson metric form for a dramatic monologue arising out of Burns’ work as a small farmer. The speech is directed to the mouse with the narrator (we inderstand Burns himself) expressing genuine sympathy for the mouse’s predicament, having had her nest turned up in wintry conditions.

The use of the term “man’s dominion” in Stanza 2 is set against the Nature’s “social union”. Man’s overlordship here is seen as leading to the distressful situation for the mouse. The word “dominion” is taken from Genesis 1.26 where man is given that kind of power by God over animal -life. “Social union” implies a relationship which Burns is in favour. We have seen in songs like “Ye Bonny Banks” and ” Corn rigs and Barley Rigs” the bonding between human and the natural world.

In fact, Burns’ sympathetic feeling for the animal and its needs is an expression of that kind of social bonding, as is suggested by the phrasing “fellow-mortal”. Indeed, living close to the land in a humble cottage Burns as a small farmer would have been well aware of the dangers of poverty, hunger and homelessness, as is suggested by the “fear” the poem ends with. So in commiserating with the mouse he is expressing feelings very real to him.

The strength of this connection is specially brought out in the poem by the lines :

Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste 
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here beneath the blast,
     Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter passed
    Out thro'thy cell.

 

Tremendous power is given, by the poet, to “Crash!”. This is reinforced by the continuing alliteration of that “c” sound in “cruel coulter”. Although the coulter is specific to the mouse’s nest the sharp blade of the plough is a potent image of violent attack. Looking at the stanza as a whole we can see that every thought would be as apposite to peasant life as it would be to that of the life of the mouse, and indeed more so. It is difficult, then, not to see that the extra power given to the crash of the coulter would be equivalent to a rich master using his dominion tyrannically by taking cruel possession of the tenant’s land. Indeed when we go throught the poem we discover the equivalence between the poor peasant and the mouse is maintained throughout.

So, although our first reaction to the poem might be that it is a pleasingly sentimental picture of animal life, its very power is, in reality, a more profound study of the ways in which animal life and tenant and peasant life may be under attack by cruel, or heedless, dominion.

The poem then shows not only the poet as gentle and sympathtic in his feeling for the mouse but passionately opposed to heartless treatment of the vulnerable.

BURNS’ SEASON: “The Rigs o’ Barley”

It was upon a Lammas night,      (harvest festival)
  When corn-rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon's unclouded light,
  I held awa'to Annie;
The time flew by, wi' tentless heed    (carefree)
  Till tween the late annd early,
Wi' sma' persuasion she agreed
  To see me through the barley.

Chorus
Corn rigs, an' barley rigs,
  An' corn rigs are bonie:
I'll ne'er forget that happy night,
  Amang the rigs wi' Annie.

The sky was blue, the wind was still,
  The moon was shining clearly;
I set her down wi' right good will,
  Amang the rigs o' barley:
I ken't her heart was a' my ain;
  I lov'd her most sincerely;
I kissed her owre and owre again,
  Amang the rigs o'barley.

Chorus

I lock'd her in my fond embrace;
  Her heart was beating rarely:
My blessings on that happy place,
  Amang the rigs o' barley!
But by the moon and stars so bright,
  That shone that hour so clearly!
She ay shall bless that happy night
  Amang the rigs o' barley. 

Chorus 

I hae been blythe wi' comrades dear;
  I hae been merry drinking;
I hae been joyfu' gath'rin' gear;   (making money)
  I hae been happy thinking:
But a'the pleasures a' I saw, 
  Tho' three times doubl'd fairly-
That happy night was worth them a', 
  Amang the rigs o' barley.

Corn rigs an' barley rigs,
  An' corn rigs are bonie:
I'll ne'er forget that happy night 
  Amang the rigs wi' Annie.

First printed in the Kilmarnock Edition 1786.
Tune: Corn Rigs are Bonie. 

 
Even for an aging puritan like myself there is something irresistible about this song!  There is the wondrous delight it gives of young love mutually shared! Also,there is that wonderful open-air quality to this poetry, with the wonderful moonlit Lammas night at harvest time, the unclouded light, the stars so bright. So the  -"lock'd in my fond embrace" does not suggest only constrictedness but rather a sense of unity between the vast airy, outer world of moon, stars, fields and the concentrated world of the lovers, where "her heart was beating rarely". The lovers, concentrated in their togetherness, are also held by the vast, living universe around them.
Of course  with my critical awareness I could also add that the fate of the young woman might well become similar to that of the despondent voice of "Ye Banks and Braes". The future might become another story. 
Yet the poem is triumphantly true to the delight of the moment and for readers, like myself that joy cannot be vanquished.


BURNS’ SEASON : “Ye Banks and Braes”

Ye banks and braes o' bonie Doon,
  How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair;
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
  And I sae weary fu' o' care!
Thou'll break my heart thou warbling bird, 
  That wantons thro' the flowering thorn:
Thou minds me o' departed joys,
  Departed never to return.

Aft hae I rov'd by bonie Doon
  To see the rose and woodbine twine;
And ilka bird sang o'its Luve,
  And fondly sae did I o' mine.-
Wi'lightsome heart I pu'd a rose, 
  Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree;
But my fause Luver staw my rose, 
  But ah! he left the thorn wi' me.

First printed in Johnson's S.M.M.1792.
(Scottish Musical Museum 1787-1803).
 l

 

A beautiful, haunting sorrowful song giving expression to the voice of a loving young woman betrayed by her lover.

Burns characterised Scottish song, in general, as having “a wild happiness of thought and expression”. He also noted its quality of “rustic sprightliness”.

“Wild happiness and “rustic sprightliness” are both shown by a phrase like “Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose””. The word ” lightsome” suggests an openness to experience encouraged by the cheerfulness of Nature, in its early summer abundance of growth and bird-song. But instead of living in continuity with the Nature expressed in its blooming and chanting and wantoning birds the young woman’s openness has been betrayed by cruel abandonment. It is noteworthy that very little is said of the betrayer other than “fause lover”, but the limitedness is a strength because the analogy to what he has done is brought out with all the more power and poignancy by the use of the rose and thorn imagery creating the powerful climax:

Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose
  Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree
But my fause lover staw my rose
  But oh! he left the thorn wi'me.