Saturday, 31 December 2011

A last walk on the beach in 2011. Happy New Year

Fading lights on the beach in Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon, looking south towards Laytown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

As the year closed in, I went for my last walk on a beach for 2011 in Berttystown, Co Meath, this afternoon.

Four us went for a late lunch in Relish, looking out over the sandbanks onto the long and expansive stretch of the Co Meath ‘God Coast,’ that runs uninterrupted from the mouth of the Boyne at Mornington to the estuary at Laytown.

But even as we were eating, the grey clouds were closing in, and the sea view from our table was being lost in mist and shadow.

Two of us still went for a short stroll on the beach after our meal. The day had come to a close even before year 2011 was brought to a close.

On the road between Laytown and Julianstown, the birds were collecting in the dark on the roadside wires and in the bare branches of the trees. We were back in South Co Dublin in less than an hour.

We had collected The Irish Times, The Guardian and The Economist in O’Donovans before eating. There is some reading to catch up on and a few episodes of Downton Abbey to watch before welcoming in 2012.

Happy New Year! May you be blessed and loved in 2012.

Yes, that was 2011. But what about the year ahead?

Patrick Comerford

What are going to be your abiding memories of 2011? The deaths of Obama bin Laden, Muammar Gadafy, Ratko Mladic, Steve Jobs, Amy Winehouse, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jung-Il? The mass murders in Norway?

Perhaps the tsunami in Japan, the earthquakes in New Zealand? The Arab Spring throughout North Africa and the Middle East? The potential collapse of the Euro? The tenth anniversary of 9/11? Or the fall ofGeorge Papandreou, Silvio Berlusconi or Hosni Mubarak?

If the abiding memory from Britain is the closure of the News of the World, then I am reminded of the quote often ascribed to News of the World reporters caught in compromising or awkward situations – “We made our excuses and left.” This time, there were no excuses, made, possible or offered, but the death of that one red-top also threatens the demise of any credibility that had been left with investigative journalism.

In England, perhaps those memories are dominated not by the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but by the summer riots, or by the “Occupy” protests outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, with the consequent resignation of Canon Giles Fraser from the chapter and the fall of Bishop Graeme Knowles as the Dean of Saint Paul’s.

Deaths, defeats and triumphs

With President Michael D Higgins at the launch of the ‘Wexford Ambassadors’ programme

At home, the main news stories included the deaths of Garret FitzGerald, Declan Costello and Brian Lenihan, the loss of economic sovereignty to the IMF, the ECB and the EU, the electoral collapse of Fianna Fail, and the election of a new government that has its hands tied not by its own policies and decisions but by the mistakes of politicians who have washed their own hands of all responsibility, trying to shift the blame to those who had funded their election campaigns in the past.

There is more than one happy outcome to the election of Michael D Higgins as President of Ireland – at least there is less likelihood that the decade of centenaries ahead of us are going to be hijacked by those who would otherwise have the Armalite in one hand and the Anniversary programme in the other.

The visits to Ireland by Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth were boosts to national esteem and self-image.

But then, so too were the Irish sporting triumphs of the year, including Ireland’s defeat of England at cricket by three wickets, when Kevin O'Brien hit the fastest hundred in World Cup history.

The year in Ireland was also marked by the end of Mary McAleese’s term as President; the collapse of diplomatic relationships between Dublin and the Vatican; the closure of the Sunday Tribune; the collapse of Sean Quinn’s business empire; and the passing of Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society.

President McAleese ... offered a warm welcome at Áras an Uachtaráin

Beach walks and more

For me, the year began as it ended, opening with a walk on the beach in Brittas Bay, Co Wicklow, on New Year’s Day, and ending this afternoon with a walk on the beach in Bettystown, Co Meath. In between, of course, there were copious double espressos in the Olive in Skerries, and lunches and dinners in Relish in Bettystown, the Beach House in Bray, and in many other places in between and further afield.

It was a year marked by sadness, with the death of former colleagues, including Seán Cronin, Ella Shanahan, Patrick Laurence and Caroline Walsh from The Irish Times (Garret FitzGerald also wrote on a regular basis for The Irish Times, Kader Asmal from days in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, CND and other campaigns, and former clerical colleagues including Canon John Crawford, Canon Robin Armstrong who worked closely with USPG for many years, Canon Eric Despard who was once one of my tutors, and the Revd Margaret Gilbert, one of the earliest women in NSM ministry in the Church of Ireland.

There were new beginnings in the Church too, with the enthronement of Archbishop Michael Jackson in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and there were new secular and social beginnings too, with the launch of the “Wexford Ambassadors” programme.

Early in the year, I was asked to be chaplain at the Anglican Primates’ Conference in the Emmaus Retreat Centre in Swords, Co Dublin. It was a week away, and an insightful week too.

The fading evening lights on the beach in Donabate one evening last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

During the year, I continued to have regular walks on the beach, especially in Sutton, Portmarnock, Malahide, Donabate, Portrane, Rush, Loughshinny, Skerries and Balbriggan, in north Dublin, Bettystown, Laytown and Clogherhead in Co Meath, and Bray, Greystones, Kilcoole and Brittas Bay, in Co Wicklow, and walks along the harbours or piers in Dalkey and Dun Laoghaire, with occasional forays to the beaches of Co Wexford and Co Louth.

There were riverside walks too by the Dodder in Rathfarnham, the Liffey in Islandbridge, the Slaney in Co Wexford, the Shannon in Athlone, the Nore in Inistioge and Kilkenny, the Kings River in Kells, lakeside lakes on the Farnham estate in Cavan, on the Castle Leslie Estate in Co Monaghan, in Blessington, Co Wicklow, and in England walks by the Minster Pool and Stowe Pool in Lichfield, by the Tame in Tamworth, by the Thames in London, and by the Cam in Cambridge.

As I climbed up the rocks behind the beach in Loughshinny one morning, I came by a hidden waterfall and was reminded of TS Eliot’s lines in ‘Little Gidding’:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

I travelled throughout Ireland during the year to attend the ordination of deacons and priests in Antrim, Armagh, Bagenalstown, Belturbet, Edenderry and Lurgan, as well as Dublin, and preached at the ordination of the Revd Paul Bogle as priest in Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, as well as attending the institution of the Revd Martin Hilliard as Rector of Kells in Inistioge, Co Kilkenny, and the institution of the Revd Stephen Farrell as Rector of Zion Parish in Dublin.

I stayed in Athlone during the clergy conference and in Armagh during the General Synod of the Church of Ireland. In Belfast, I stayed at Edgehill College, where I spoke at the retreat for students and staff at the beginning of the academic year. Earlier in the year addressed the ethics committee of Saint Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin.

Thanks to the kindness and generosity of family members, I also stayed in Ferrycarrig Hotel, Co Wexford, Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan and the SAS Radisson in Farnham, Co Cavan.

There were visits to Wexford town and Arthurstown, Ballyhack, Barntown, Bunclody, Edermine, Enniscorthy, Fethard-on-Sea, and Templeshanbo in Co Wexford; to Killarney, Co Kerry, Adare, Co Limerick, and Moneygall, on the borders of Co Tipperary and Co Offaly, even before Barack Obama got there; to the monastic sites at Kells, Co Meath, and a first attempt to climb the Hill of Tara, Co Meath; a late lunch in Virginia, Co Cavan; a visit to unique and impressive church inCollon, Co Louth, visits to Maynooth, Co Kildare, Enniskerry and Glencree, Co Wicklow, Waterford and Tramore and Passage East in Co Waterford, and to the two cathedrals in Armagh and the cathedrals in Cavan, Clonflert, Enniscorthy, Kildare and Monaghan.

And there was also a failed attempt, at the suggestion of David Diebold, the editor of Skerries News, to visit Lambay Island – although the journey was almost as exciting as the prospect of landing on the island.

Thanks to Joe Kennedy, I was able to have private visit to the ruins of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, to photograph old Comerford family tombs and monuments, and from there I went on to Ballybur Castle, the former Comerford family ancestral home near Cuffesgrange. There were two visits also to the Irish Jewish Museum in Little Jerusalem in Dublin’s Portobello.

Visiting England

Strolling under the overhanging trees in the countryside near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

During the past year, there were regular visits to England too.

I was back in Lichfield twice, staying in the Bogey Hole in Dam Street, close to the Cathedral, and later at the Hedgehog on Stafford Road. The first visit was for a retreat based on the Chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, and attending the Saint Chad’s Patronal Festival and the installation of new canons in Lichfield Cathedral. I was back again in August to see the Anglo-Saxon Hoard exhibition in the Cathedral.

During those visits, I also had lunch in the Moat House in Tamworth, once one of the Staffordshire homes of the Comberford family, returned to Comberford village, had walks in the countryside, setting out along Cross-in-Hand Lane behind the Hedgehog, or hopping off the bus between Lichfield and Tamworth. There were meals too with old and valued friends.

In Birmingham, I visited Saint Philip’s Cathedral and old Saint Martin’s, and also visited Saint Chad’s Cathedral as part of my continuing fascination with Pugin’s church buildings.

In Leicester, I took part in an interfaith conference organised by the Saint Philip’s Centre for bishops and clergy of the Church of Ireland.

Summer shade in a quiet corner of Cambridge, off King’s Parade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I was back in Cambridge on three occasions, staying in Sidney Sussex College during the annual summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Studies, visiting friends and colleagues at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and enjoying “Shakespeare in the Park at Saint John’s College.” From Cambridge, there was also a visit to the Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist, near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex, for a quiet day.

I stayed at the High Leigh conference centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, during the annual council meeting and conference of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission.

I was in London twice, staying at the Penn Club in Bloomsbury, and Saint Matthew’s in Westminster. On the first occasion, I was invited to Lambeth Palace for dinner after a private viewing of the exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the translation of the Authorised Version or King James Version of the Bible.

The second visit to London was to give a on mission and prayer paper at a conference organised by Affirming Catholicism. During that visit I was also given a guided tour of Westminster by Caroline Linehan, who works there as a Preventive Conservator, visiting the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and getting an insider’s impression of Pugin’s great triumph. I also took time for a walking tour of literary Bloomsbury.

I was invited to Liverpool by the former Dean, Justin Welby, now Bishop of Durham, to preach at the annual law service in Liverpool Cathedral. This was a great occasion of Church and State in Merseyside. I stayed in the Cathedral Close, and there were invitations to dinner in the cathedral and lunch with the High Sheriff of Merseyside. But I also took in an open-top bus tour of Liverpool and visited the Roman Catholic Cathedral, which is only a few steps along the aptly-named Hope Street from the Anglican Cathedral.

My remarks in that sermon and some of my comments on the presidential election campaign brought nasty and threatening reaction from people who warned me that I would have been better to keep my mouth shut. These very people have their voices heard today because I and other members of the National Union of Journalists took a principled stand against censorship while they were hell-bent on carnage and destruction. On the other hand, the Church of Ireland Gazette described me as “outspoken” and “straight-talking.”

Towards the end of the year, I was back in Newcastle for a football match. Just as Lansdowne Road will never be the Aviva Stadium as far as I am concerned, so I can never imagine bringing myself to call Saint James’s Park the Sports Direct Stadium. During that visit I also found time for a walk on the beach, talking the train out through Tynemouth to Whitley Bay and Cullercoats.

Weeks in Turkey and Greece

A mixture of Greek and Turkish heritage in the harbour of Kastellórizo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

My foreign travel brought me to Turkey and to Greece twice, with two stopovers in Budapest. In Turkey, I spent a week in Ovacik, near Fethiye, and delighted in visiting the Lycian rock tombs along the south-west coast of Anatolia.

From the port of Kas on the southern Anatolian coast, I caught a small boat to Greece, spending a day on Kastellorizo, the most isolated of all the Greek islands. There were two failed attempts that week to get to Rhodes. I never got to know whether the trips were cancelled because the travel agent made mistakes, because the ferry company was facing financial problems, or because of strikes in Greece.

I was back in Greece in October, spending the best part of a week in Thessaloniki., visiting churches and monasteries, and trying to trace what I imagine were my grandfather’s footsteps here while I was stationed in the northern Greek city in the cold winter of 1915-1916 during World War I.

Church visits and family outings

In Liverpool Cathedral with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Dr Patrick Kelly, and the High Sheriff of Merseyside, Professor Helen Carty

As well as preaching n Liverpool Cathedral, I preached regularly in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and I regularly took services in Kenure Church, Rush, Holmpatrick Church, Skerries and Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, while the parish was without a rector. I also preached in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh, the Chapel of Edgehill College, Belfast, and Whitechurch Parish Church in Rahfarnham, and spoke in Rathfarnham Parish Church.

I took part in a retreat on Ash Wednesday retreat in Skerries – in the Sailing Club – and spoke at a memorial service for deceased staff members of The Irish Times, in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, and took part in the annual commemoration of International Workers’ Memorial Day, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. At the end of the year, I led an Advent Carol Service in Saint Nahi’s Church, Dundrum, and took part in the annual candle-lit carol service in Marlay Park, Rathfarnham.

There was great fun with friends, family and colleagues at the Christ Church Cathedral post-auction dinner and ball in Castle Durrow, Co Laois, and the Hellenic community’s annual dinner in Donnybrook. There were dinners with family and friends in Donabate, Malahide, Rathmines, Ashford, and Wexford, in Lichfield, Cambridge, Leicester, and London. There was a family wedding in Clontarf and Portmarnock, and a family funeral in University Church, Saint Stephen’s Green – but, like all funerals, it was mixed with joyful reunions with family members long unseen.

And, of course, during the summer there was the great Portrane sale, where once again my Lynders cousins have raised an impressive amount of money to support projects in Romania and Albania.

I remain on boards and committees of USPG here and in Britain. I have stood down as secretary of the Church of Ireland’s Interfaith Working Group, and from the board of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. But I remain a member of the Standing Committee and, the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, I have been made a member of the Anglicanism Working Group, and I have been re-elected to the General Synod.

I continue as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, speaking at CND’s annual Hiroshima Day commemoration in Merrion Square on 6 August, and joining a CND delegation in talks with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

I continue to write regularly for the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory), and I write occasionally for The Irish Times, the Church of Ireland Gazette, Koinonia, and the Skerries News. I contributed to the programme for a Dutch symposium on Liturgy and Music, I was a panellist again on radio and television shows, and I was interviewed too by the Dundrum Gazette about my concern over the dilapidated state of the Ely Arch in Rathfarnham.

From Beijing to Wexford

Early in the year, the Mandarin translation of China and the Irish, which was published in Beijing by the People’s Publishing House, was launched in Dublin Castle at the beginning of the Chinese New Year. This collection of essays is edited by Jerusha McCormack, and Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfast and I have co-written a paper, ‘Heroism and zeal: pioneers of the Irish Christian missions to China’ (pp 77-92).

At the end of the year, I was back in Wexford for the launch of the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society. My paper in the Journal is a study of the life and career of my great-grandfather: ‘James Comerford (1817-1902): rediscovering a Wexford-born Victorian stuccodore’s art.’

My five-year contract at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute as Director of Spiritual Formation came to an end in August. But I began a new contract in September as Lecturer in Anglicanism and Church History.

I continue my research on Pugin’s Irish churches. My sarcoidosis is stable although the remission promised a year or two ago has never arrived. Taking my tablets is akin to sorting through Bertie Bassett’s multicoloured liquorice allsorts every morning and every evening. I continue with regular hospital tests, check-ups and consultations, and visit my GP once a month for a B12 injection. But I continue to enjoy my beach walks – even they do nothing for my symptoms, they make my soul and my intellect feel happier and lighter.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Unemptied bins spilling over onto the streets of Thessaloniki during a strike by public workers a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Facing into 2012, if I have half the blessings I received in 2011 and give and receive much of the love experienced in the past year, I shall be more than happy.

But we must all be facing 2012 with anxiety and trepidation. The crisis that has hit our whole, wider economy is threatened with implosion. As Fintan O’Toole said in The Irish Times earlier this week, “the economic model that has dominated since the 1980s – based on ever-increasing, debt-fuelled consumption in the West – is incapable of sustaining itself without, at the very least, radical reform. Its unhealthy effects have been all too visible, not just in the body politic, but in the body.”

Have we lost our priorities as well as our sense of direction as we walk on into the future? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I am worried not about the banks or the bond holders, or selfishly not even worried about the pension funds. I am more worried about the future facing those who are already caught in the poverty trap.

I am distressed by the poverty facing people in Greece. I am worried that Helena Smith’s story this week about Dimitris Gasparinatos and his wife Christina in Patras forced to hand over their children because of poverty is not so much a story from the end of the year but rather a story of what the year ahead may hold for too many:

Christmas Poems (17): from Little Gidding, by TS Eliot

“What we call the beginning is often the end ...” – TS Eliot. A lakeside winter scene on the Farnham Estate in Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

As we prepare to say farewell to 2011 and to welcome 2012, I am reminded of TS Eliot’s words in ‘Little Gidding’:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice ...
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

“ ... last year’s words belong to last year’s language/ And next year’s words await another voice” – TS Eliot ... tangled bicycles abandoned in the snow in Dublin’s Temple Bar, Dublin, last winter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

And so, for my Christmas poem this morning, I have chosen the last part of Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding,’ the fourth and final poem in his Four Quartets. The Four Quartets – ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936), ‘East Coker’ (1940), ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941) and ‘Little Gidding’ (1942) – are best understood within the framework of Christian thinking, theology, tradition and history. In these four poems, Eliot draws on the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics, such as Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.

The “deeper communion” sought in ‘East Coker,’ the “hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration that inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road to sanctification.

The Nicholas Ferrar Window in the chapel of Clare College, Cambridge

Eliot visited the village of Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire only once, in May 1936. Three centuries earlier, it had been the home of a religious community established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, and the Ferrar household lived there according to High Church principles and the Book of Common Prayer. Charles I visited the community in 1633, and he returned in 1646, fleeing Parliamentary troops.

The community at Little Gidding maintained 24 hours of prayer, including long hours of night vigils. Little Gidding was a place “where prayer has been valid” and where “prayer is more/Than an order of words”:

… You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Eliot started writing ‘Little Gidding,’ ¬after completing ‘The Dry Salvages.’ However, his work on ‘Little Gidding’ was delayed because of his declining health and his dissatisfaction with earlier drafts. ‘Little Gidding’ was not finished until September 1942, and was published the following month in the New English Weekly.

In ‘Little Gidding,’ Eliot relies on ideas also found in ‘In Memoriam,’ written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1850. But he also imagines at the beginning a meeting with meets Dante; and there are hints throughout the poem too of Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Mallarmé, Ezra Pound and WB Yeats,

As he imagines meeting Dante in the fires of war-time London, Eliot also recalls Brunetto Latini in the depths of Hades who had cried out to Dante in Canto XV of the Inferno. The dead master warns Eliot of the fate of his poetry:

and pray they [your words] be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both Bad and good. Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In ‘Little Gidding,’ Eliot draws deeply on the Catholic faith as set out by the Caroline Divines, particularly by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who also influenced his Ariel poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1930). Andrewes was also one of the key translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible, whose 400th anniversary we have been marking this year.

He echoes Lancelot Andrewes in his Christmas Sermon of 1618 – which Eliot constantly draws on in his work – in paradoxical lines that crystallise the significance of the Incarnation:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

… A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

Set in mid-winter, which is like a “spring is its own season,” when “the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,” ‘Little Gidding speaks of this “dark time of the year,” with its “windless cold,” hedgerows that are white from snow rather than the May bloom.

But, while Eliot’s one and only visit to Little Gidding was in May 1936, the poem has hints of being set in these days shortly after Christmas – “Last season’s fruit is eaten/ And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail./ For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/ And next year’s words await another voice” – and at the height of the London Blitz. Eliot was an air raid warden when the most devastating strike his London on the evening of 29 December 1940. German aircraft attacked the City of London that night with incendiary and high explosive bombs, causing a firestorm that has been called the “Second Great Fire of London.”

“... You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid” – TS Eliot ... The Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Little Gidding

Stepping through the devastation, Eliot imagines revisiting the chapel where Nicholas Ferrar and his community had lived and prayed in the past:

... You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

The destruction of the Little Gidding Community 300 years earlier did not bring an end to either prayer or hope. Just as he is caught between two years, Eliot sees himself caught between war and peace, between devastation and the promise of new life, between two worlds, between two periods of time, but with the promise of renewal and transfiguration:

... History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Despite the destruction all around him, Eliot is reassured by the words of Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.

He links the end of the year, with the end of Christ’s life on the Cross, imagining “three men ... on the scaffold.”

In ‘Little Gidding’ Eliot emphasises, time and again, time and our place within it. He focuses on the unity of the past, the present, and the future, and sees how the eternal is found in the present and how history exists in a pattern.

He concludes that in sacrifice an individual may die into new life. But out of the frost and fire come life, the fire of destruction and the rose of perfection are united, and the rose of the soul can blossom, for then “the fire and the rose are one.”

Remembering Little Gidding

The Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Little Gidding

Eliot was buried in East Coker, but in 1967, on the second anniversary of his death, he was commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey with the installation in the floor of a large stone inscribed with words from ‘Little Gidding’:

... the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond
the language of the living.

The Society of the Friends of Little Gidding was founded in 1946 by Alan Maycock, with TS Eliot as one of the members, to celebrate the life of Nicholas Ferrar and his community in Little Gidding, to help maintain the church there, and to arrange pilgrimages, visits and hospitality.
A trust was founded in the 1970s to buy the farmhouse for a new community and as a place of retreat. This community become the Society of Christ the Sower, but was dissolved in 1998. The Society of the Friends of Little Gidding was re-established in 2003. Ferrar House is owned by the Little Gidding Trust, while the church is the responsibility of the Parochial Church Council. The friends also work closely with the TS Eliot Society.

Little Gidding V, by TS Eliot

“And all shall be well and/ All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire /And the fire and the rose are one” ... sunset in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Tomorrow: ‘Ithaka’by CP Cavafy.

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

Friday, 30 December 2011

While the music lasts and the shafts of sunlight continue

Autumn turns to winter in the Harbour in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

Although autumn has turned to winter, bright memories of sunshine in Skerries throughout the past year and refreshing walks on the beaches are there to carry me though to Spring.

The year began bringing a group of varied group of multinational visitors to dinner in Tarragon. I was one of the facilitators at the international gathering of senior Anglican archbishops or primates in Swords. The week-long meeting behind closed doors and the presence of figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, drew little media attention until the conference was over. That evening in Tarragon was yet another opportunity to be a “show-off” about Skerries. But the darkness of winter and the cold weather combined so that only a few braved a late-night walk along the beach and up to the harbour.

As spring began to offer tantalising prospects of more sunshine, I took another group to Skerries. These students who are preparing for ordination in the Church of Ireland found a haven at Skerries Sailing Club for our Ash Wednesday retreat.

One morning later in March, as we climbed a path above Loughshinny beach and came across a hidden waterfall, I was reminded how TS Eliot, at the end of his poem Little Gidding, speaks of

The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

In the weeks that followed, when Ronan Browne and David Gilsenan were lost at sea, the words of Eliot’s The Waste Land came to mind constantly:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Those words kept returning, again and again, as I thought of that desperate search:

April is the cruellest month … I will show you fear in a handful of dust ...

But the cruel sea and the search brought this community together, showing the people of Skerries have warm hearts and a strong, shared identity.

Summer brought less sunshine than we hoped for, but my walks on the beach continued, speckled with unexpected meetings with old friends. An effort one evening to visit Lambay Island with Eoin Grimes was foiled by high winds and high waves. But the journey was as exciting as the destination, with views of the lawns below Ardgillan Castle sweeping down to the coast in the grey shades of dusk.

As summer turned to autumn, those beach walks continued, interspersed with coffee in the Olive, a snatched occasional moment to watch cricket, and many joyful Sunday mornings taking the services in Kenure, Holmpatrick and Balbriggan.

And now, as autumn turns to winter, TS Eliot comes to mind again and his words in the Dry Salvages:

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

While the music lasts, and the shafts of sunlight continue, my walks on the beaches of Skerries continue, enjoying the winter lightning and the hidden waterfalls.

This winter reflection was published in the Skerries News in November

Christmas Poems (16): On Christmas Day to My Heart by Clement Paman

Snow in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge ... Clement Paman was a student here in the 1620s and 1630s

Patrick Comerford

This second last day of the year, 30 December, has no other name, number or commemoration in the calendar, apart from being the “sixth day of Christmas” when my true love sent to me “six geese a-laying.” But even by today, most people fail to get that far in this Christmas song, if they ever remembered that many lines.

And so, for my Christmas poem this morning I have chosen ‘On Christmas Day to My Heart,’ a poem written around 1660 or 1661 by Clement Paman (ca 1612-1664) and was first published in Dublin in 1663. Paman and his poetry are largely forgotten today – forgotten more than today’s ‘six geese a-laying’ may be. But I have chosen him because of his links with the Caroline Divines, with the Church of Ireland and with Sidney Sussex, College, Cambridge, where I have stayed regularly during the last four years.

This poem is difficult, almost turgid, to read today, with a now-awkward reference to stretching tight by turning a screw, especially to increase the tension or pitch of a musical instrument by winding up the screws or keys:

Then, screw thee high,
My heart, up to
The angels’ cry;
Sing ‘glory’, do

The reference is so awkward that it needed a footnotes in the programme for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1999. Yet this poem also contains these memorably beautiful lines:

A shed that’s thatched
(Yet straws can sing)
Holds God.

As a poet, Paman is sometimes associated with the “Cavalier Poets,” who include Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew, and he has been described as “perhaps the most talented poet of the 17th century never to have had a poem published over his name.”

The Pamans appear to have been well-off, untitled Suffolk gentry, and Clement Paman was born in Chevington, Suffolk, in 1610 or 1611. His name is sometimes spelled Payman in Church of Ireland records. The Paman family is listed in the parish registers of Chevington, and his father, Robert Paman, probably lived at Dunstall Green in Dalham. He may have been related to the physicist, Henry Paman of Saint John’s College, who was at Cambridge at the same time.

Snow in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge ... here Clement Paman was a student of Samuel Ward

Clement Paman was educated at Lavenham School and Bury School. Atv the age of 16, he was admitted on 16 February 1628 to Sidney Sussex College, which at first had been a Puritan foundation. Earlier students at Sidney Sussex included Oliver Cromwell, who left in 1617 without taking a degree, and Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester, who graduated in 1622 and who was a key commander of the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War.

But Paman was not unusual among Sidney Sussex students for his political and religious views: John Bramhall, who had been there ahead of Cromwell, became the Archbishop of Armagh at the Caroline Restoration.

At Sidney Sussex, Paman was a student of Samuel Ward (1572-1643), Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. Ward began life as a moderate Calvinist, but as a loyal Anglican he suffered persecution during the Civil War. When Ward died after being imprisoned in Saint John’s College, he was buried in the chapel in Sidney Sussex.

Paman obtained his BA in 1632, his MA in 1635 and later became a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge University, and received the degree DD ad eundem at Trinity College Dublin in 1661. One of his earliest works is a tribute written after the death of a young Irish poet who was his contemporary in Cambridge: ‘Poem on the Death of Edward King.’ King, who was also the subject of John Milton’s ‘Lycidas,’ was born in Ireland in 1612, and was admitted to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1626. Four years later, he was elected a fellow in 1632, and he intended to proceed to ordination. But his career was cut short by the tragedy that inspired Paman’s and Milton’s poems. In 1637, he set out for Ireland to visit his family, but on 10 August the ship struck a rock off the Welsh coast, and King was drowned.

Some sources say Paman first came to Ireland along with John Bramhall as the chaplain to the Lord Deputy, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford. But this detail is confusing as Strafford was Lord Deputy from 1632 to 1639, while Paman was still in Cambridge.

But Paman seems to have arrived in Ireland by 1640 at the latest, for David Crookes, in his Clergy of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh identiifes Clement Paman with Cleremont Panham, who was Rector of Saint John’s, Sligo, in 1640. However, this rectory was lost in a subsequent dispute, and he returned to England.

John Cleveland’s epitaph on the death of the Earl of Strafford, ‘Here lies Wise and Valiant Dust’ (1647), has recently been ascribed to Paman:

Here lies wise and valiant dust
Huddled up ’twixt fit and just,
Strafford, who was hurried hence
’Twixt treason and convenience.
He spent his time here in a mist,
A Papist, yet a Calvinist;
His Prince’s nearest joy and grief,
He had, yet wanted all relief;
The prop and ruin of the state;
The people’s violent love and hate;
One in extremes loved and abhorred.
Riddles lie here, or in a word –
Here lies blood; and let it lie
Speechless still and never cry.

From 1648 to 1653, Paman was Vicar of Thatcham in Berkshire, in the Diocese of Oxford. During that time, he wrote of how he was inspired by Edward Benlowes’s poetic masterpiece Theophila, or Love’s Sacrifice, a Divine Poem (1652): “All my pleasure is, yt I have obeyed you, & somewhat rays’d my owne heart wth these imaginations.”

In 1653, Paman’s right to his Berkshire vicarage was disputed. He lost the living, and remained without a church appointment until the end of the Cromwellian era and his return to Ireland in 1661.

The ruins of Elphin Cathedral in Co Roscommon

Following the end of the Civil War and the Caroline Restoration, Paman was appointed Prebendary of Monmohenock in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in 1661, and he was Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Elphin, in Co Roscommon, and Vicar of Saint John’s, Sligo, from 1661, and Vicar of Castledermot, Co Kildare, in the Diocese of Glendalough, from 1662 until his death in 1664.

During his time as Dean of Elphin, the cathedral – which had been destroyed during the rebellion of 1641 – was rebuilt by Bishop John Parker (1661-1667), and in the following century the poet Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) attended the school attached to the cathedral.

After his death, a memorial to him was erected in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, although I have failed to find it over the past four years.

The chapel and Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Peter Davidson, in his introduction to Poetry and Revolution, describes Paman as a “moderate Protestant.” However, in Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order, Margo Todd calls him an “ultra-royalist cleric.” She says his writings on Christian charity are liberal for their time, and cites his idea that alms should be given “even to the loose and impious.”

While he was Dean of Elphin, Paman published Poems by Several Hands in Dublin in 1663. However, only three of his poems were published in the 17th century and the majority of his poems remained in manuscript collections in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

His poems are mainly of a devotional nature. Perhaps the best-known is ‘On Christmas Day to My Heart,’ a poem written ca 1660. His other poems include ‘Good Friday,’ ‘On Christmas Day 1661,’ and ‘On his death.’ He also wrote a lengthy tribute to the dramatist and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637). Peter Davidson notes that Paman’s style is complex, “abounding in extended metaphors” and more “overly Baroque” than some of his contemporaries, being a development of the “epigrammatic style of Jonson.”

King’s College, Cambridge ... ‘On Christmas Day to My Heart’ was included in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1999 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Today’s poem, ‘On Christmas Day to My Heart,’ was included in the Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1940) and in Norman Ault’s collection, A Treasury of Unfamiliar Lyrics (1938). But until the 1990s, Paman remained unknown except among those interested in the manuscript collections of 17th century poetry.

There was a renewed interest in his work with the publication of the anthology, Poetry and Revolution: An Anthology of British and Irish Verse (1998). A year later, ‘On Christmas Day to My Heart’ was set to music by Richard Rodney Bennett for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge in 1999.

On Christmas Day to My Heart by Clement Paman

Today,/ A shed that’s thatched/ (Yet straws can sing)/ Holds God … the altarpiece by the Venetian painter Giovanni Pittoni in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hark! Heaven sings;
Stretch, tune, my heart!
(For hearts have strings
May bear their part)
And though thy lute were bruised i’ the fall,
Bruised hearts may reach an humble pastoral.

Shepherds rejoice,
And angels do
No more: thy voice
Can reach that too:
Bring them at least thy pipe along,
And mingle consort with the angels’ song.

A shed that’s thatched
(Yet straws can sing)
Holds God; God matched
With beasts; beasts bring
Their song their way: for shame then raise
Thy notes! lambs bleat, and oxen bellow praise.

God honoured man
Not angels: yet
They sing; and can
Raised man forget?
Praise is our debt to-day, now shall
Angels (man’s not so poor) discharge it all?

Then, screw thee high,
My heart, up to
The angels’ cry;
Sing ‘glory’, do:
What if thy strings all crack and fly?
On such a ground, music ’twill be to die.

Tomorrow: from ‘Little Gidding’, by TS Eliot.

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

Revised: 19 January 2012

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Christmas Poems (15): Balloons by Sylvia Plath

Since Christmas they have lived with us, / Guileless and clear,/ Oval soul-animals …

Patrick Comerford

In the calendars of many member churches of the Anglican Communion – including the Church of England and the Episcopal Church, but not the Church of Ireland – today [29 December] commemorates Saint Thomas à Becket (1118-1170), one of the great martyrs of the Church.

Thomas Becket (also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, and later Thomas à Becket), was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He is venerated as a saint and a martyr by both the Roman Catholic Church and throughout the Anglican Communion. As archbishop he came into conflict with King Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church. After Henry asked, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Thomas was assassinated by the king’s supporters in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.

Selskar Abbey, Wexford ... Henry II is said to have spent Lent 1172 here in penance after the murder of Saint Thomas à Becket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Soon after his death, Thomas à Becket, was canonised by Pope Alexander III. According to local lore in Wexford, Henry II did penance for the murder by spending Lent in 1172 in Selskar Abbey, and later Strongbow’s sister Bascilla married one of the king’s lieutenants in the abbey, although Selskar Abbey was probably not founded by Alexander de la Roche until 1190.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tells the stories of a band of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Modern works based on the story of Thomas à Becket include TS Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.

Having remembered Saint Stephen the first martyr on 26 December, Saint John, who reaches soaring heights and whose concept of love reaches the furthest breadths (27 December), and the Holy Innocents, who remind us of all children at risk (28 December), this day to continues to recall the connections between the Incarnation and witnessing to the Gospel, even at the cost of martyrdom.

I was recalling on Monday how in the interlude in TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas à Becket preaches his Christmas sermon shortly before his murder. He explains that the “peace to men of good will” that the angels announced at the first Christmas was “not peace as the world gives,” but, for the disciples, “torture, imprisonment, disappointment … [and] death by martyrdom.” He links the birth at Christmas with the death of martyrdom, asking: “Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means.”

The Church and Churchyard of Saint Thomas in Heptonstall, where Sylvia Plath is buried (Photograph: Alexander B Kapp)

My choice of Christmas poem this morning makes an obscure but curious connection with both Christmas and Thomas à Becket. ‘Balloons,’ by the American-born poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), opens with a description of how these days (for some) seem to drag on after Christmas, and how the Christmas decorations seem to linger a little longer that we expect, even in corners where we have forgotten them. But I also selected this poem because I was reminded in the past week that Sylvia Plath is buried in the new churchyard at Saint Thomas à Becket Church in Heptonstall, a small hilltop village above Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

She was married to the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who was from nearby Mytholmryd. Her headstone is regularly vandalised by visitors who remove his surname, because some of her fans – particularly women, and American women – believe he was responsible for her death.

The original church at Heptonstall was dedicated to Saint Thomas à Becket, and was built less than a century after his murder, between 1256 and 1260. At later adaptations, two naves, two aisles and two chantry chapels as well as a tower were added to the church. The church was damaged by a gale in 1847, and the west face of the tower fell away. With some repairs, the church continued in use until a new church was built. The new church was consecrated on 26 October 1854 by Bishop Charles Longley of Ripon. The new church dedicated, not to Saint Thomas à Becket but to Saint Thomas the Apostle, although Bishop Longley went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury from 1862 until his death in 1868.

This ruined old church dedicated to Saint Thomas à Becket is now a shell, but it is carefully maintained and is used occasionally for open-air services. There are three adjacent churchyards: the oldest, around the old church, is now closed; the second is around the new church; and the third and newer churchyard, across Back Lane, is where Sylvia Plath is buried.

A writer’s struggle

Sylvia Plath’s grave in the churchyard in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire

Sylvia Plath died by suicide in London in 1963 following a long struggle with depression and a difficult and fraught marital separation. Almost half a century later, the story of her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy, are still marked by controversy.

She is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for two collections, The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. In 1982, she was the first poet to receive a Pulitzer Prize posthumously, for The Collected Poems. She is also the author of The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963 shortly before her death.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932 and published her first poem in the Boston Herald at the age of eight. Her German-born father Otto had been alienated from his family because of his decision not to be ordained a Lutheran minister. His death nine days after her eighth birthday had a deeply profound and lasting influence on her and shaped her personality and her writing. Raised as a Unitarian, she experienced a loss of faith after his death, and remained ambivalent about religion for the rest of her life.

Sylvia Plath was often seen pedalling furiously around the crooked street of Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

While she was a student at Smith College in Massachusetts in the 1950s she wrote over 400 poems. In 1955, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. She was enchanted with the groomed courts and crooked streets of Cambridge, and was often seen pedalling furiously around the town, her black gown billowing out behind.

... he plays on the banks of the river Cam/ like a casual faun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Cambridge, eventually, she met the English poet, Ted Hughes. Through his mother, Hughes claimed direct descent from Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of the Little Gidding community. When he met Sylvia Plath, Hughes had already graduated from Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Pembroke College, and was living between London and Cambridge:

I am here;
I wait;
and he plays on the banks of the river Cam
like a casual faun.

The two were married by special licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, on 16 June 1956, in the Church of Saint George the Martyr, in Queen’s Square, Holborn, just a short stroll from the Bloomsbury offices of TS Eliot. They had chosen the day especially because it was Bloomsday. Plath returned to Cambridge in October to begin her second year at Newnham. After some time in the US and Canada, they returned to England, and in 1960, at the age of 28, she published her first book, The Colossus in England.

For a while, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes lived in North Tawton, a country village in Devon, but their marriage began to break up less than two years after the birth of her first child.

In the cold winter of 1962-1963, she lived in poverty in a small flat in London, with her two small children – Frieda Rebecca, who is now a poet and children’s writer, and the late Nicholas Farrar Hughes, named after his ancestor, Nicholas Farrar of Little Gidding. Her flat in 23 Fitzroy Road was in a house where WB Yeats once lived. There that winter, the flat was cold, the pipes froze, there was no telephone, and the children were often ill with flu. But there she continued to write, often working between 4 and 8 a.m. before the children awoke, and at times finishing a poem a day. In those poems death is given a cruel, physical allure and psychic pain becomes almost tactile.

Early in the morning of 11 February 1963, Sylvia Plath succeeded in killing herself with cooking gas at the age of 30, while her children slept in the next room. She was buried in the churchyard in Heptonstall, beside Saint Thomas à Becket Church.

The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, published in 1981, was edited by Ted Hughes, who succeeded John Betjeman as Poet Laureate in 1984. In 1998, Hughes published Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems about their relationship. The book caused a sensation.

Ted Hughes died later that year, and his funeral was held in North Tawton, where he and Syliva Plath had lived for some time. Speaking at his funeral, Séamus Heaney said: “No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft. No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry’s children could enter and feel secure. His creative powers were, as Shakespeare said, still crescent. By his death, the veil of poetry is rent and the walls of learning broken.”

Birthday Letters went on to win the Forward Poetry Prize, the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry and for Poetry and the Whitbread Poetry Prize.

A Christmas poem

Sylvia Plath with her son Nicholas shortly before she died

The poem ‘Balloons’ was written by Sylvia Plath in 1963, less that a fortnight before she died by suicide. Both ‘Edge’ and ‘Balloons’ are dated 5 February 1963, but she left no indication of which poem was written first. These are the last two poems she wrote, and the last poems she submitted for publication. There are many parallels between ‘Balloons’ and ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’ by Ted Hughes.

The two last poems by Sylvia Plath, ‘Edge’ and ‘Balloons’, centre around images of a mother and her two children: ‘Balloons’ is the daylight poem, with its scene of realistic domesticity; ‘Edge’ is the night-time, moon poem, with its stark image of the dead mother and her two dead children.

As Sylvia Plath was bipolar, some see ‘Balloons’ as a poem about the highs and the lows in her life, her moods like balloons that might pop, making life bleak once again. Others say she is hinting once again at a common theme found in her poetry – the loss of innocence, marked by the popping of a red balloon.

In ‘Balloons,’ Sylvia Plath writes about the joy and innocent beauty we can find even in the smallest and simplest of things. She is talking to her daughter while her son is playing with one of the balloons left over from the Christmas decorations.

The balloons fill the small, lively room with a myriad of colours. But the room is small and the balloons appear to “take up half the space.” She compares the balloons with oval-shaped soul-animals. “Invisible air drifts” make the balloons drift and they become “globes of this air” that are mobile and that take us to places that we cannot be.

The world of fantasy all children believe in during the first phase of their lives is symbolised by these balloons. This other world is childish and typically idealistic, alien yet desirable.

The child exclaims: “Such queer moons we live with” – giving us the impression that the balloons, like imagination, are present but incomprehensible. The child is in awe at the balloon, for while he feels the rubber between his fingers, the air inside is inaccessible.

This inaccessibility fuels the child’s curiosity and he tries to fathom his imaginations. Despite his confusion, he finds the balloons and his imagination are “delighting.”

The single word at the end of the second stanza catches the reader’s attention. The child is intrigued and shows a kind of childish ignorance.

The small boy looks through a red balloon that makes everything look pink – an altered world.

In the last stanza, out of curiosity, the boy bites into the balloon and tries to eat it. But the balloon pops, and all that remains is the balloon’s shredded remains, “A red/Shred in his little fist.” He is neither angry nor upset, but contemplates the consequences of his action. Now he sees the world not in a different light, but as it really is.

Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, when we see reality we can realise the full beauty of the world presented to us, and seeing truly is believing.

The poet’s focus is not so much on worlds destroyed but on the wonder and beauty of unexpected change. The small boy is surprised, and yet is calm and contemplative. Childhood allows us to see the world as a beautiful, exciting place. But at some point that innocence is lost when eventually we see the reality of our lives, and we see the real world as it is. All we are left with is a small piece of what made us see the world differently in the first place. The world is no longer lively with colours but is “clear as water.”

Balloons, by Sylvia Plath

Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish—
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,

Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

5 February 1963

Tomorrow: ‘On Christmas Day to My Heart’ by Clement Paman

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

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

‘The wonder that I feel is easy, Yet ease is cause of wonder ...’

A crescent moon and an almost clear sky above the beach in Donabate this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

There is a world of difference between the weather in Dublin this week and the weather in Dublin in the week after Christmas last year. The temperatures have been higher by 15 degrees or more each day, and although there has been some rain there has been no snow and no biting cold.

There was a coastal warning today, however, and I thought we might be hit with the tail of the storms that have been battering Norway. Even though the East Coast is normally so sheltered, I thought we might get some of the storm late this afternoon as I headed out to the beaches of Portrane and Donabate in Fingal.

Dusk was settling on Portrane, the tide was out and the wind was biting, but there was no sign of a storm, although the wind was brushing across the surface of the water. Only two innocent souls had braved it out onto the Burrow Beach this afternoon. But instead of joining them, we headed back to Donabate again, parked the car at the Martello Tower, and walked down onto Balcarrick Beach, stretching below the tower and the Waterside House Hotel.

At the end of the pathway down to the beach, in the dusky lights of the evening, the rocks and sand combined in swirling shapes that made this look almost like a moonscape. But above, the clear blue sky was decorated with only a light cloud or two, and I thought of TS Eliot’s opening lines about midwinter in ‘Little Gidding’:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

A crescent moon was suspended high above, but its reflections were caught here and there, like a dancing silver spirit, in the wet ripples in the sand.

The tide was out, and the waves were rolling in, but slowly and gently, and between the blue sky and the gentle, breaking water, I felt, once again like Eliot in Little Gidding, that I was caught

... in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

The Martello Tower reflected in a pool on the beach in Donabate this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Turning back towards the hotel, the Martello Tower was reflected brightly in a pool below. Darkness had descended on Donabate, but back in the Signal Restaurant in th hotel, as six of us gathered for dinner, as family and friends, the crescent moon shone through one window onto our table. Through the other windows it was still possible to peer through the darkness out onto the sea.

‘The wonder that I feel is easy,
Yet ease is cause of wonder ...’

Christmas Poems (14): The Holy Innocents by Laurence Housman

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Domenico Ghirlandaio: the fresco is part of a series of panels in the Cappella Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, dating from 1486-1490

Patrick Comerford

Today, 28 December, is marked in the Church Calendar as the feastday of the Holy Innocents, sometimes described as the first martyrs for Christ. And so, appropriately, the Christmas poem I have chosen for today is ‘The Holy Innocents’ by Laurence Housman (1865-1959).

Today’s commemoration first appears in the calendar of the Western Church in the Leonine Sacramentary around the year 485, and this day was sometimes known as Childermas.

This day recalls the story of the children who were murdered because of Herod’s rage against Christ (Matthew 2: 16-17). In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, after the visit of the Magi, Herod, in rage and jealousy, slaughtered all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside in an attempt to destroy his perceived rival, the infant Messiah.

Christian art, poetry and popular piety have treated their memory with tenderness and sympathy, sentiments that have also been accompanied by feelings of indignation against the violence with which they were killed.

On this day it also seems to be appropriate to remember the children who are innocent victims of exploitation, abuse and war throughout the world, and those who suffer violence that threatens their lives, their dignity and their rights.

The poem ‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was written ca 1877. Like so many of her poems, including ‘In the bleak mid-winter,’ which I discussed on Christmas Eve, and her poems about Saint John which I discussed yesterday, her poem ‘Holy Innocents’ was not published until ten years after her death, when it was included in 1904 in The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti:

They scarcely waked before they slept,
They scarcely wept before they laughed;
They drank indeed death’s bitter draught,
But all its bitterest dregs were kept
And drained by Mothers while they wept.

From Heaven the speechless Infants speak:
Weep not (they say), our Mothers dear,
For swords nor sorrows come not here.
Now we are strong who were so weak,
And all is ours we could not seek.

We bloom among the blooming flowers,
We sing among the singing birds;
Wisdom we have who wanted words:
here morning knows not evening hours,
All’s rainbow here without the showers.

And softer than our Mother’s breast,
And closer than our Mother’s arm,
Is here the Love that keeps us warm
And broods above our happy next.
Dear Mothers, come: for Heaven is best.

A second, later poem, but also called ‘Holy Innocents,’ was written before 1893, and was published in the same collection in 1904:

Unspotted lambs to follow the one Lamb,
Unspotted doves to wait on the one Dove;
To whom Love saith, ‘Be with Me where I am,’
And lo their answer unto Love is love.

For tho’ I know not any note they know,
Nor know one word of all their song above,
I know Love speaks to them, and even so
I know the answer unto Love is love.

A third poem, also called ‘Holy Innocents’ but dated 1 July 1853, was published in the same volume, but appears to be about the early death of a child rather about the Holy Innocents commemorated on this day:

Sleep, little baby, sleep;
The holy Angels love thee,
And guard thy bed, and keep
A blessed watch above thee.

No spirit can come near
Nor evil beast to harm thee:
Sleep, Sweet, devoid of fear
Where nothing need alarm thee.

The Love which doth not sleep,
The eternal Arms surround thee:
The Shepherd of the sheep
In perfect love hath found thee.

Sleep through the holy night,
Christ-kept from snare and sorrow,
Until thou wake to light
And love and warmth to-morrow.

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral ... the Coventry Carol, dating from the 16th century, recalls the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Much earlier than these Victorian poems is ‘The Coventry Carol,’ which tells the story of the slaughter of the Innocents. This carol dates from the 16th century, and is all that survives from a mystery play:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Also dating from the 16th century, or perhaps even earlier from the late 14th century, is the hymn ‘Unto us is born a son.’ It has been translated by both George R Woodward and Percy Dearmer. We sang the Woodward version of this hymn at two carol services in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last week, including the third stanza:

This did Herod sore affray,
And grievously bewilder;
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer.

However, the Christmas poem I have chosen for today is ‘The Holy Innocents’ by Laurence Housman. He was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, a younger brother of the poet AE Housman (1859-1936), who is best known for A Shropshire Lad, including the ‘Six Songs’ and the poem ‘Wenlock Edge,’ set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Laurence Housman first worked as a book illustrator in London, and the first authors he illustrated included the poet Christina Rossetti. At the same time, he also wrote and published several volumes of poetry and a number of hymns and carols.

His first literary successes came with the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-Letters (1900), and the drama Bethlehem (1902). Some of his plays caused scandals because of his depiction of biblical characters and living members of the royal family, and in 1937 the Lord Chamberlain ruled that no British sovereign could be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after the beginning of his or her reign.

Housman also wrote socialist and pacifist pamphlets and edited his brother’s poems which were published posthumously. For the last three or four decades of his life he lived in Street, Somerset.

In 1945, he opened Housman’s Bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, founded in his honour by the Peace Pledge Union, of which he was a sponsor. The Peace Pledge Union, one of the earliest pacifist organisations in England, was founded in 1934 by Housman’s close friend, Canon Dick Sheppard (1880-1937) of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a former Vicar of Saint Martin-in–the-Fields (1914-1926) and former Dean of Canterbury (1929-1931) who had been radicalised by his experiences as a slum priest in the East End of London.

In 1959, shortly after his death, the shop moved to 5 Caledonian Road, London, a two-minute walk from all the King’s Cross and Saint Pancras stations. In 1974, an IRA bomb blew up the pillar box directly outside the shop – the building once housed the local King’s Cross Post Office, from the late 19th century until the 1930s. The explosion destroyed the first issue of the newsletter of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which had just been posted.

Harry Mister in Housman’s Bookshop before his death

I was first introduced to Housman’s Bookshop two years later in 1976 by its co-founder and its manager until that year, Harry Mister, after meeting him with Bruce Kent at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, that year. Harry died on my birthday in 1996, less than a fortnight after his own 92nd birthday. Housman’s Bookshop remains a prime source of literature on pacifism and other radical values.

The Peace Pledge Union has “consistently condemned the violence, oppression and weapons of all belligerents.” It has opposed the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has promoted the ideals of pacifists such as Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, it played an active role in the first Aldermaston marches, its members were active in the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and in recent years it has protested against the war in Iraq.

And so, given Housman’s association, even long after his death, with campaigns against war, it is appropriate to select his poem, ‘The Holy Innocents,’ on this day.

The Holy Innocents by Laurence Housman

When Christ was born in Bethlehem,
Fair peace on earth to bring,
In lowly state of love He came
To be the children’s King.

And round Him, then, a holy band
Of children blest was born,
Fair guardians of His throne to stand
Attendant night and morn.

And unto them this grace was giv’n
A Saviour’s name to own,
And die for Him Who out of Heav’n
Had found on earth a throne.

O blessèd babes of Bethlehem,
Who died to save our King,
Ye share the martyrs’ diadem,
And in their anthem sing!

Your lips, on earth that never spake,
Now sound th’eternal word;
And in the courts of love ye make
Your children’s voices heard.

Lord Jesus Christ, eternal Child,
Make Thou our childhood Thine;
That we with Thee the meek and mild
May share the love divine.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and president of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

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