29 December 2015

‘Stay back, stay high, and stay dry,’
as Storm Frank hits the Irish coasts

Waiting for Storm Frank to hit the coast at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

“Stay back, stay high, and stay dry,” is the advice weather forecasters and the Coast Guard are giving as Storm Frank, the latest winter storm hits the coasts of Ireland this evening.

Everyone is being advised to show extreme caution while walking on exposed seafronts and piers, with the expectation of high tides and forceful weather over the next few days. High tides are expected offshore and inland along with winds of up to 80 kph or higher in coastal areas, bringing exceptionally high waves on western and southern coasts and storm warnings for all vessels.

As the high tide arrived in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, this afternoon, two of us crossed the railway line and the rocky coastal defences for a walk along the shoreline.

Two years ago [7 January 2014], I was soaked up to my knees in the same place as another storm blew in with high waves and high winds along the east coast. It was relatively calm early this afternoon, and while the waves were high they seemed to lose their ferocity as they reached the pebbly and rocky shore, and never quite reached the rocks and boulders that protect the Dublin-Wexford railway line.

Flooded lands in Kilcoole this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

However, the farmland behind the railway line is flooded, and in the face of extensive television news reports of flooding in the west and along the Shannon Basin, it is important to note that farmers and residents are suffering throughout Ireland this winter.

From Kilcoole, we drove north, back through Killincarrig and Greystones to Bray, for another walk along the beach. In Bray, Storm Frank seemed to be gathering strength, and the sound of the waves beating against the shore sounded like a train trundling along, parallel to the rail line behind me.

Undeterred, posters along the promenade are advertising the Bray New Year’s Day Sea Swim at 12 noon on Friday [1 January 2016]. Last year’s Sea Swim raised €8,684 for Bray Stroke Club, Caring for Carers, Bray Poor Relief Fund, the Bray Branch of Enable Ireland, and Bray Lions’ Club Senior Citizens’ Holiday.

This annual event was set up 32 years ago to have some festive fun and to raise funds for local charities. In the years since, the Bray Se Swim has raised €313,488 for a long list of worthy local causes. Many swimmers turn out in fancy dress, making this a fun, colourful event.

The charities chosen for Friday’s swim are: Marino Community Special School, Lincara Daycare Centre, Open Door Daycare Centre, and Bray Lions’ Carers’ Fund.

We retreated to Carpe Diem on Albert Avenue for a late lunch, including a glass of Ibisco and double espressos.

As we left, darkness was closing in on the seafront. It could be a storm night tonight.

Waves beat against the rocks as darkness closes in on Bray this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Christmas with Vaughan Williams (6):
‘Hodie’, 7, 8 and 9: Song, Narration, Pastoral

Trinity College, Cambridge, in the winter snow... both George Herbert, whose poetry is part of ‘Hodie,’ and Vaughan Williams were students here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this Christmas season, I am inviting you to join me each morning in a series of Christmas meditations as I listen to the Christmas cantata Hodie (‘This Day’) by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), drawing on English Christmas poetry from diverse sources, including poems by John Milton, Thomas Hardy and George Herbert that reflect a variety of Christmas experiences, and the narration of the Nativity story in the Gospels.

Hodie, with its blend of mysticism, heavenly glory and human hope, was composed by Vaughan Williams in 1953-1954 and is his last major choral-orchestral composition.

This morning [29 December 2015], I invite you to join me in listening to the seventh, eighth and ninth movements of Hodie, which are inspired by poems by Thomas Hardy and George Herbert, interspersed with a short reading from Saint Luke’s account of the Christmas story.

7, 8, 9: Song, Narration, Pastoral

7, Song:

This movement features the baritone soloist, and is introduced by quiet and atmospheric woodwinds. The text is ‘The Oxen’ by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928):

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

The poem ‘The Oxen’ was by Thomas Hardy in 1915, at the height of World War I and in this short poem he encapsulates the urge to faith that persists even in the face of all better judgment.

Hardy was familiar with the legend that cattle would kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve, and he had drawn on this legend many years earlier in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). When Tess arrives at Talbothays looking for work as a milkmaid, Dairyman Crick tells her the story of William Dewy, who was walking home to Mellstock late at night after a wedding. Crossing a field, he is chased by a bull, but tricks the bull by breaking into song with a Christmas carol. “William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon.”

When he was writing his last symphony, the Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-1957), Vaughan Williams’s intended to create a programmatic symphony based on Tess of the d’Urbervilles, although the programmatic elements eventually disappeared as his work on the composition progressed.

8, Narration:

The eighth movement of Hodie is a narration using a single verse from the Nativity narration in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2: 20):

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God
for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was
told unto them.

“Glory to God in the highest.”

9, Pastoral:

This song is again scored for the baritone soloist, and is a setting of a poem by George Herbert:

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.

Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.

I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.

Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.

This is the second part of the poem ‘Christmas’ by George Herbert (1593-1633), which comes from his collection, The Temple, edited and published by Nicholas Ferrar after Herbert’s death.

George Herbert is remembered for carefully and pastorally nurturing of his parish and his parishioners, and for his poetry, much of which has been adapted as hymns. His spirituality is the Anglican Via Media or Middle Way par excellence, which his poetry provides constant evidence of the intimacy of his dealings with God and his assurance that, alone in a vast universe, he is held safe by the Crucified Christ.

George Herbert was born in Wales but is generally regarded as an English poet. His mother was a patron and friend of John Donne and other poets, while his older brother, Edward Herbert (later Lord Herbert of Cherbury), was an important poet and philosopher. From Westminster School, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA and MA and was elected a fellow. In 1618 he was appointed Reader in Rhetoric in Cambridge and in 1620 he was elected to Cambridge University orator, a position until 1628.

As an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert intended becoming a priest, but he came the attention of King James I, and served at the royal court and for two years in Parliament as the MP for Montgomery in Wales.

Herbert gave up his secular ambitions in 1630, at the age of 37, and was ordained in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his life as the Rector of Fugglestone Saint Peter with Bemerton Saint Andrew, a rural parish in Wiltshire, near Salisbury.

George Herbert was known for his unfailing pastoral care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan described him as “a most glorious saint and seer.”

Throughout his life, he wrote religious poems that were characterised by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets.

In a letter to Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, Herbert described his writings as “a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master.”

In 1633, shortly before his death, Herbert finished The Temple, a collection of poems that imitates the architectural style of churches through the meaning of words and their visual layout.

Some of his poems survive as hymns, including as “King of Glory, King of Peace,” “Let all the world in every corner sing,” and “Teach me, my God and King.”

Herbert died of tuberculosis only three years after his ordination. On his deathbed, he gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding – the community that later inspired TS Eliot – telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” but otherwise to burn them.

George Herbert … his poems were collected and published in ‘The Temple’ after his death, and many continue to be used as hymns

Herbert’s poems were published subsequently in The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations, edited by Nicholas Ferrar. These poems are religious, some continue to be used as hymns, and many have intricate rhyme schemes, with variations of lines within stanzas described as “a cascade of form floats through the temple.”

Herbert also wrote A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson), offering practical pastoral advice to priests. He tells them, for example, that “things of ordinary use,” such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to “serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths.”

Richard Baxter later said: “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.”

Although George Herbert died on 1 March 1633, he is remembered in Church calendars throughout the Anglican Communion on 27 February. Herbert influenced the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, and he in turn influenced William Wordsworth. Herbert’s poetry has been set to music by Vaughan Williams and many other composers, including Benjamin Britten, Randall Thompson and William Walton.

George Herbert ... the poem Christmas is included in his collection, ‘The Temple’

Christmas (I)

All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,
With full crie of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inne I could finde,

There when I came, whom found I but my deare,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging then a rack or grave.

Christmas (II)

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.

The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light houres.

Then we will chide the sunne for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.

I will go searching, till I finde a sunne
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipt sunnes look sadly.

Then we will sing, shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my musick shine.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow