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.