Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas Poems (13): Earth cannot bar flame from ascending by Christina Rossetti

Poets’ Corner in the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, New York

Patrick Comerford

Many of the poets and writers I have been discussing over the past two weeks are commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, including George Herbert, John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, TS Eliot and Sir John Betjeman. But there is also an American Poets’ Corner in the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City.

The American Poets’ Corner was created in 1984 to provide a memorial for American writers of the highest repute. Modelled after the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, the New York corner is located in the Arts Bay of the cathedral. It is made up of stone slabs, both on the wall and on the floor, each with a writer’s name, dates of birth and death, and a memorable quotation from his or her work. For Hart Cane, his words “Permit me voyage, love, into your hands” were chosen. Edna St Vincent Millay is remembered with the words: “Take up the song; forget the epitaph.”

So far, over 30 writers have been honoured in this corner. Before 2000, the cathedral’s board of electors chose two new writers each year (one poet, one novelist) but since then they have limited election to one writer a year, alternating between a poet and a novelist.

Those who are commemorated in the Poets’ Corner in New York include Walt Whitman, Washington Irving, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes and Gertrude Stein.

There were debates about whether the poets and writers selected should be chosen solely on the merit of their work, or whether their character should be considered too. In 1999, the task of nominating new poets and writers created uproar among the electors, cathedral patrons, and the dean of the cathedral. Many people were outraged by the proposal to place Ezra Pound in the corner because of his notorious anti-Semitic views. Eventually, he was excluded.

Apart from the Poets’ Corner, the cathedral also has a Poetry Wall, created in 1976 in the ambulatory by the poet Muriel Rukeyser as a place where poems will always be accepted. She said “the whole idea is openness, a free giving and accepting of poetry. Poets meet so many rejections in their work. This is the place where poems will always be accepted. They can be signed or unsigned and in all languages.”

The Eagle Lectern in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Its name alone makes the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine such an appropriate place to remember and celebrate poets. In art, Saint John the Divine, or Saint the Evangelist, is often depicted as an eagle, symbolising the poetic heights to which he rises in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel, and to signify the majesty and divine inspiration in this Gospel. And there are poetic passages throughout the Johannine writings – the Fourth Gospel, the three Johannine Letters and the Book of Revelation – though these are often missed by readers when they are presented as prose narrative in translations.

Saint John’s Close ... a street sign in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Eucharist for today [27 December 2011], the Feast-Day of Saint John the Evangelist, or Saint John the Divine, is the first part of the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-9). Although narrative translations miss the poetic and dramatic presentations of the Fourth Gospel, we are all familiar with the dramatic presentation of the Prologue to this Gospel as the Gospel reading on Christmas Day. Yet the Prologue is first and foremost poetry. It is a hymn – a poetic summary – of the whole theology of this Gospel, as well as an introduction to it.

Raymond Brown presents a translation from the Greek of the Prologue in a poetic format:

1 In the beginning was the Word;
the Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God.
2 He was present with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things came into being,
and apart from him not a thing came to be.
4 That which came to be found life in him,
and this life was the light of the human race.
5 The light shines on in the darkness,
for the darkness did not overcome it.

(6 Now there was a man sent by God, named John 7 who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that through him all might believe – 8 but only to testify to the light, for he himself was not the light.)

9 He was the real light
that gives light to everyone;
he was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world,
and the world was made by him;
yet the world did not recognise him.
11 To his own he came;
yet his own people did not accept him.
12 But all those who did accept him,
he empowered to become God’s children –
those who believe in his name,
13 those who were begotten,
not by blood,
nor the flesh,
nor human desire,
but by God.
14 And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
And we have seen his glory,
the glory as of an only Son coming from the Father,
rich in kindness and fidelity.

15 (John testified to him by proclaiming: “This was he of whom I said, ‘The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me’.”)

16 And of his riches
we have all had a share –
kindness in place of kindness.
17 For while the Law was a gift through Moses,
this kindness and fidelity came through Jesus Christ.
18 No one has ever seen God.
It is God the only Son,
Ever at the Father’s side,
who has revealed him.

Christina Rossetti, author of two poems about Saint John the Divine, was the model for the Virgin Mary in the painting ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’ (The Annunciation), 1849-1850, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Two poems by Christina Rossetti

For my choice of Christmas poems this morning, I have chosen two poems written by Christina Rossetti celebrating Saint John the Divine or Saint John the Evangelist: ‘Earth cannot bar flame from ascending,’ written before 1893; and the shorter ‘Beloved, Let Us Love One Another,’ written before 1886. However, like so many other poems she wrote, they were not published until ten years after her death, in the 1904 collection, The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti.

Earth cannot bar flame from ascending by Christina Rossetti

Earth cannot bar flame from ascending,
Hell cannot bind light from descending,
Death cannot finish life never ending.
Eagle and sun gaze at each other,
Eagle at sun, brother at Brother,
Loving in peace and joy one another.

O St. John, with chains for thy wages,
Strong thy rock where the storm-blast rages,
Rock of refuge, the Rock of Ages.
Rome hath passed with her awful voice,
Earth is passing with all her joys,
Heaven shall pass away with a noise.

So from us all follies that please us,
So from us all falsehoods that ease us,–
Only all saints abide with their Jesus.
Jesus, in love looking down hither,
Jesus, by love draw us up thither,
That we in Thee may abide together.

‘Beloved, let us love one another’ by Christina Rossetti

‘Beloved, let us love one another,’ says St. John,
Eagle of eagles calling from above:
Words of strong nourishment for life to feed upon,
‘Beloved, let us love.’
Voice of an eagle, yea, Voice of the Dove:
If we may love, winter is past and gone;
Publish we, praise we, for lo it is enough.
More sunny than sunshine that ever yet shone,
Sweetener of the bitter, smoother of the rough,
Highest lesson of all lessons for all to con,
‘Beloved, let us love.’

Tomorrow: ‘The Holy Innocents’ by Laurence Housman.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin