Tag Archives: religion

‘Death, be not proud’ by John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

This poem, Divine Meditation 10 is one of Donne’s best-loved and most-quoted sonnets. The message of the piece is simple enough – a notion surely common to all religions (at least, to the Judeo-Christian faiths): “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians, verses 15-26). The poet personifies Death as he addresses it directly, and he does so with such confident, triumphant defiance that one cannot fail to be seduced.

Donne warns Death against pride, and affirms that he is not “Mighty and dreadful”, as he has been so perceived throughout history. “For”, explains the poet, those who he believes he “overthrow[s]/ Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me”. This kind of bravure on the part of a poet is irresistible.

The poet goes on to express the idea that Death’s role is simply the kindness to deliver us from this earthly plane and the pain of human suffering: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery”. Rather than depicting the terrifying traditional image of Death as the ‘reaper’, choosing his ‘victims’, Donne suggests that Death itself is in fact the ‘victim’, and by no means at the top of any hierarchy; Death is “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”. It is “fate” (God’s will?), “chance”, or else human actions and decisions that conjure Death. Death decides nothing.

Donne also delivers the idea that Death is inferior to drugs (“poppy or charms”) in terms of giving us rest and sleep, for on the other side of Death we “wake eternally”. “Why swell’st thou then?” I love this direct, exultant question, and the delicious use of “swell’st”.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” So ends the poem, and in the final analysis (the poem is entitled  Divine Meditation 10, so we might have guessed from the start) the sonnet seems to have a very religious tint to it – in that great hope of eternal life.

However, the hope in this poem, though evidently religious, can also, I think, encompass hope in human endeavour and discovery. It is particularly the line, “And dost with… sickness dwell,/ And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well” that brings this idea to me. The notion of man’s capacity to create remedies for pain and sickness is present here. I feel like there is a sort of sub-plot to this sonnet, where Donne is foreseeing that man will make great discoveries and advances in medicine, and that indeed in many instances it will certainly be the case that “Death, thou shalt die”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘London’ by William Blake

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
I quoted this poem in my last post about Auden’s Their Lonely Betters, so I thought I would write about the whole piece. The phrase “mind-forged manacles” is one that I’ve never forgotten since I first read it. I think it must be inspired by Rousseau’s statement, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”. It expresses beautifully the idea that it is man’s own mind that limits and emprisons him.
This poem describes the London that Blake (1757-1827) knew when he was alive. However, there is a timeless and universal truth to it. Blake begins by describing the “charter’d streets” and the “charter’d Thames”. That word “charter’d” gives a sense that everything is mapped out; that every stone is named and accounted for; that there is no room for mystery in the world anymore. This reminds me of Keats’ famous “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, unweave a rainbow”.
The tragedy of poverty, the hypocrisy of the Church and the injustice of the class system are all present in this poem. They are dissatisfactions that lead to revolution. The poet describes the chimney sweeper’s cry ‘appalling’ the Church, and this really gives us a sense that Blake perceived a jarring incompatibility between what the Church preached and how it treated the many impoverished of the city. The “hapless Soldier”‘s blood running down Palace walls also amplifies the notion of injustice…
Most noticeable, according to Blake, is the “Harlot’s curse” blighting “with plagues the Marriage hearse”. This is really interesting to me, because the poet seems to consider society’s conventions surrounding Love as the most obvious contributors to human sorrow. It is true that Victorian mores really corseted women in particular with regard to marriage and having children. To call marriage a “hearse” is very extreme, and very dramatically effective, I think.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The More Loving One’ by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

I’ve been a little obsessed with Auden lately (even if I haven’t been writing blog posts about poetry, I’ve still been reading!)

This piece is one of my favourites. It’s so unusual, touching, and deals with something that Auden experienced very painfully in his own life – unrequited love. In The More Loving One, Auden develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people, or lovers. I also feel that this poem might be about religious faith, which Auden struggled with throughout his life – abandoning it through many of his younger years, and returning to it in old age.

I particularly love the opening to this poem. I love the way that the first line could easily lead on to a cliched second line, but that it doesn’t. Instead, Auden, contemplating the stars, affirms that – for all they care – “I can go to hell”. I love that blunt phrasing. He goes on to remark that indifference is not the worst thing in the world; there exist reactions we ought to fear far more.

The second verse poses the question, “how would we like it” if the stars burned with a love for us that we couldn’t reciprocate? What would it be like to be loved so intensely by someone we could not love? Which side is more painful in unrequited love? Auden tells us his choice through what I think are the ‘star lines’ of the poem: If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me. I wonder whether Auden choses to be “the more loving one” because it is the less painful option, or because he cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer as he does.

Of course, if you read this as a poem about religious faith, this second verse suggests that Auden would rather keep his faith and love for God, even if it is completely in vain. Even if heaven doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, he would still prefer to be the ardent lover – the one that feels, rather than the one that is cold.

As much as he admires “stars that do not give a damn”, the poet tells us in the penultimate stanza, he can’t say that he missed one all day. During the daytime there is the sun, and all of nature to admire and love. In romantic terms, I think Auden is trying to convince himself (not very successfully) that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. In religious terms, I think he’s just saying that it’s easy for him to forget God during the times when he is happy or involved.

The final verse contemplates a scenario where all the stars have disappeared or died. Faced with this eventuality, Auden informs us that he would “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime”. However, that “might take me a little time.” Auden seems unsure whether he could learn to appreciate a life without the one he loves so much, yet who does not return his love. It would take time, and much effort. The same goes for a world without God.

As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways. He gifts us an emotional honesty that I find incredibly touching.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae,
the chain of the difficult spine.
Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear, with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.
Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No, no desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.
We looked at this poem in a poetry workshop I went to recently, and I found this a fascinating piece. In it, the poet expresses the notion that the spirit is “too blunt” or vague a thing to create the intricate perfection that is a human baby.”Nothing so unskilful as human passions” could have “managed the intricate/exacting particulars”, writes Stevenson. This statement puzzled me, when I first read it. I think it is true (but also untrue!) and ironic, because human passions are exactlywhat create new life… Of course, something other than human passion is needed to create a baby (and the poem goes into great, clinical detail about “meshings of ganglia” and “neural filaments”) but you still need passion in order for two people to come together (whatever passion that might be — lust, love, or something hateful).The poet talks about “the body’s ignorant precision”. This line really stood out for me, and I think it sums up what Stevenson is saying about the body in this poem. She is presenting the body to us as an unthinking, efficient machine. It is something quite miraculous, and I find it very interesting that she goes into such detail about its inner workings in the medical, scientific language that is so seldom found in poetry. I think Anne Stevenson does this because, although she is praising the great machine of the body, she is also subtly hinting at the coldness or pointlessness of a perfectly working body if there is no passion or love.Any “passion” — any “desire or affection” — is depicted as vague and imprecise in the poem, and incapable or creating anything so useful as the human body. For me, this evokes the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps I’m taking it too far, but this poem reminded me of a person trying to disprove God’s existence by saying how precise the body’s chemical reactions are, and insisting that the “spirit is too blunt an instrument” to be the cause of life. It is not love that creates life, but rather the ignorantly precise and obliviously diligent chemical reactions in the body. It is left to “the vagaries of the mind to invent/ love and despair and anxiety/ and their pain”.I haven’t really come to a conclusion about what Stevenson wants to say in this poem. I suspect her intention is to provoke thought, rather than to offer any definitive argument. It certainly made me think! I am fascinated by the conflict in the poem between the forces of “vague love” and “ignorant precision”. But I don’t  see why they should necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I hope you all enjoy this beautiful poem by Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. Thomas was an anglican priest, as well as a poet, but I think this piece is full of profound wisdom for everyone, regardless of creed.

The Bright Field speaks about those shining moments in life — moments of grace, beauty, inspiration, epiphany — where we fleetingly encounter the divine or feel a deep connection to the universe. This image of the bright field evokes for me various ideas: the moment you see your child’s face for the first time, the moment you realise you’ve fallen in love, or when you read and understand some complicated scientific theory about the universe, become transfixed by Shakespeare or an incredible piece of music… or, of course, when you pray or meditate, and feel a connection to the divine.

The poet confides that he has often seen the sun “illuminate a small field” for a moment, and continued on his way and “forgotten it”. But, says Thomas, he knows that that field was “the pearl of great price”; that moment was something rare and beautiful, to hold on to and spend your life searching for. He is admitting here that he has experienced moments of profound connection to God, but that he has proceeded to move on, without dwelling on it. However, he has now come to realise that he must “give all that I have/ To possess” that moment — that “bright field” — again.

Another quality of these “bright” moments becomes clear as we enter the second stanza; the poem says that life is not “hurrying on/ to a receding future” or “hankering after/ and imagined past”. These lines deliver to me the notion that these bright moments of grace are in fact moments where we are intensely present. These are the moments we are most alive, and when we feel most connected to life, the universe, and/or God. This is as relevant for prayer and meditation as it is for all the other instances I have mentioned where one might experience a moment of exhilarating and glorious connection to the universe.

The poem ends with the beautiful image of the burning bush from the story of Moses. Thomas tells us that life — and these moments — is about “turning/ like Moses to the miracle/ of the lit bush”. Again, there is a real sense of intense presence in this image. I think the way the bright light — which is God, and grace — is described in the final lines is just exquisite: though it had once seemed “as transitory as your youth”, it is in fact “the eternity that awaits you.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Last night’ by Jalalud’din Rumi

Last night
I begged the Wise One to tell me
the secret of the world.
Gently, gently he whispered,
“Be quiet,
the secret cannot be spoken,
it is wrapped in silence”.

This poem is taken from the collection of Rumi’s quatrains called Whispers of the Beloved, translated by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin. This particular poem really touched me when I read it, and I thought it would be a lovely one to post on here.

There is not much I want to say about it; my usual reaction to Rumi poems is quiet reflection! I will say, however, that the wisdom of this piece is just so beautifully expressed (beautifully translated!), and that I am in love with that final line, “it is wrapped in silence”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘All things will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Clearly the blue river chimes in its flowing
Under my eye;
Warmly and broadly the south winds are blowing
Over the sky.
One after another the white clouds are fleeting;
Every heart this May morning in joyance is beating
Full merrily;
Yet all things must die.
The stream will cease to flow;
The wind will cease to blow;
The clouds will cease to fleet;
The heart will cease to beat;
For all things must die.
All things must die.
Spring will come never more.
O, vanity!
Death waits at the door.
See! our friends are all forsaking
The wine and the merrymaking.
We are call’d–we must go.
Laid low, very low,
In the dark we must lie.
The merry glees are still;
The voice of the bird
Shall no more be heard,
Nor the wind on the hill.
O, misery!
Hark! death is calling
While I speak to ye,
The jaw is falling,
The red cheek paling,
The strong limbs failing;
Ice with the warm blood mixing;
The eyeballs fixing.
Nine times goes the passing bell:
Ye merry souls, farewell.
The old earth
Had a birth,
As all men know,
Long ago.
And the old earth must die.
So let the warm winds range,
And the blue wave beat the shore;
For even and morn
Ye will never see
Thro’ eternity.
All things were born.
Ye will come never more,
For all things must die.

This poem is supposed to be read in partnership with the previous poem I posted yesterday, Nothing will die. Today’s poem, as you can tell from its title, is a lot darker, though I don’t think that it’s necessarily sadder, in the final analysis.

You will notice that this poem contains many of the same elements as yesterday’s; we still have the “stream”, the “wind”, the “clouds” and the “heart.” However, in the shadow of mortality hangs heavy over this poem, and we are constantly aware that the time will come when the stream will “cease to flow”, the wind will “cease to flow”, the clouds “cease to fleet” and the heart “cease to beat”. From the perspective of this poem, nature is not an unending cycle, but rather something heading inevitably for its definite end; “Spring will come never more… Death waits at the door”, writes Tennyson.

The piece becomes quite harrowing as we get into an actual physical description of death. The jaw “falling”, the “red cheek paling”, “Ice with the warm blood mixing” and “the eyeballs fixing” are all images that made me feel very cold as I read this. Death, in this poem, is long drawn out (the passing bells ring “Nine times”) but the departing souls are “merry”. Perhaps it is their awareness of mortality that spurs them to partake of “wine” and “merrymaking”, and their hearts to beat “in joyance”… I think that it is our awareness of death that encourages us to enjoy and savour life, as well as to make progress as a species.

For me, the defining notion in this poem is this: “The old earth/ Had a birth… and the old earth must die”; “All things were born… all things must die.” This is the exact opposite to the ideas presented in Nothing will die, where we see a cyclical world that was never created, and will “never fade” — where there is no death, but only change. Here, the earth was created and so must die — it is not eternal. This world is full of suffering, sadness, and death, but there is also joy and passion, and perhaps love (the poem ends with, “Ye will come never more”).

I find the contrast between these two poems (today’s and yesterday’s) really fascinating because to me they evoke the contrast between a belief-system that includes reincarnation, and one that does not. Our beliefs about life after death or otherwise surely make a huge impact on the way we live our lives. I’m wondering if life feels more precious if you feel this life is your only, fleeting chance to experience this world, or if feeling part of an unending cycle is something that brings great peace… but that’s a conversation for another time! What do you think?

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Nothing will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
Ever will be
Thro’ eternity.
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.

This in an early poem by Tennyson, which appeared in his first book (Poems, chiefly lyrical) published in 1830. I like this poem, and the poem that will follow it tomorrow (the cheerfully titled, All things will die). I thought it was most appropriate to post them consecutively because they seem to go together. They present entirely contrasting perspectives on the world and on existence, and I think it is really interesting to compare the two.

In this first poem, Nothing will die, the speaker seemingly believes in a world that is in constant motion, constant change, always going “Round and round,/ Thro’ and thro’”. The world depicted is one where nature never tires of its cycles: “The stream flows,/ The wind blows,/ The cloud fleets,/ The heart beats,/ Nothing will die.” I love the way Tennyson uses this energetic rhythm here to reflect the rhythms of the natural world (I also love ‘fleet’ as a verb!) Life moves constantly through the seasons, always coming full circle to Spring, which fills it “with life anew”.

The defining statement in this poem, I think, is “The world was never made;/ It will change, but it will not fade.” This is a beautiful expression of the idea that if the world was never created/’born’ then it need not end; if something is born it must die, but if something simply exists, without being born or created, then it can be said to be eternal. Our notions of God (in most religions, I think) tell us that he is uncreated and can never die (i.e. he is eternal.) I like this idea of death not existing, but of it simply being a change, and part of a continual cycle.

I think that this poem could also be read as being a poem of denial – the voice of one so afraid of death that he tries to convince himself that ‘Nothing will die’. Read in this way, the rhythm of the poem seems feverish and frantic – a mantra to convince oneself of a fantasy. However, I don’t personally read it like that.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘As kingfishers catch fire’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

 

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This is an utterly fabulous poem, exquisite in its language and expression. When I first read this one, I remember being so taken by the deliciousness of the sound of it that I forgot to pay attention to what the words actually signified. I think this poem is really extraordinary; Hopkins uses language in such a unique and playful way, even coining new verbs of his own invention.

The opening line is just breathtaking. The image of kingfishers ‘catching fire’ is one that anybody who has ever seen a kingfisher’s plumage catch the sunlight can picture. Their feathers are of such a splendid vividness that in bright sunlight they would appear almost to “catch fire”. The dragonflies, in a similar fashion, “draw flame”. I took a photo of a dragonfly on a reed once in France, zooming right up close to it so that you could see every fleck of colour, and it is just startling the brightness of the colours; this sentence reminded me of that photo.

Moving on to the next line, this is just incredible. I love the “roundy” wells (there’s a new adjective coined by Hopkins) and the way he communicates the essence of a stone by saying that it “rings” as it tumbles over into the well. You see, the essence of the kingfisher is expressed as he “catches fire,” and the dragonfly’s as he “draw[s] flame”. The stone “rings” and then (I think this is my favourite part of the whole poem) “each hung bell’s/ Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name”; the bell expresses its essence as it gongs. This is the bell speaking its name, saying “What I do is me, for that I came”. I just adore this first half of the sonnet. Hopkins tells us that “Each mortal thing” does the same thing — the thing it was born to do, the thing it has come to this earth to do. And here we find the first new verb that Hopkins coined in this poem: “Selves” (in this poem, ‘to selve’ seems to mean to express and embody one’s essence).

In the second half of the poem, Hopkins goes further (“I say more”). He says that, in the same way as the kingfisher and the dragonfly, the stone and the bell have their essence to express, their purpose to fulfil, “the just man justices”. This is the second verb coined by the poet in this piece: ‘to justice’ means “to act in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – /Christ”. I think this is just a beautiful expression of God dwelling in every person; Christ “plays in ten thousand places” — he is everywhere. The phrase “lovely in limbs” I think refers to the fact that, according to Christianity, Christ was God made man. This gives hope to humanity, since God can live within us, “lovely in eyes not his”. God’s essence can find expression through “the features of men’s faces”.

I think this is an incredible poem, and that it can be appreciated whether or not you are of a Christian or spiritual bent. To me, it is perfectly crafted and its use of language is an example of real poetic genius.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘To the evening star’ by William Blake

Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.

 

In my little book of selected Blake, this is the first poem. It is from his ‘Poetical Sketches’. It is a poem to the evening star, which is described in the first line as a “fair-hair’d angel”. This star, that watches over the evening, is addressed as though it were God, or some great Being overlooking the world in its twilight.

For me, phrases like “thy bright torch of love” and “thy radiant crown” reinforce this sense of a deity; this is religious language. It is even the star, according to the poem, who “drawest the/ Blue curtains of the sky”, and brings the evening. Blake continues with his prayer-like language as he invokes the star, asking it to “Smile on our loves”, “scatter thy dew/ On every flower”, and “Let thy west wind sleep on/ The lake”. I love that line about the west wind.

But this star is of the evening, not the night, and “Soon, full soon,/Dost thou withdraw.” Once the star is no longer visible, and it is true night, the “wolf rages wide”, and the “lion glares”… and the speaker’s flock is in danger. Blake ends the poem with a final supplication: since the fleeces of the sheep are “cover’d with /Thy sacred dew”, he asks the star to “protect them with thine influence.”

I think this is just a beautiful poem. You can read it as a shepherd superstitiously supplicating the evening star to protect his sheep in the night, or also as a man asking God (or whatever means the Good [thank you, Auden]) to protect those he loves. I love the image of the wolves and lions being kept at bay by their knowledge that the star is watching them — by the fact that they can see it, bright in the sky, observing their actions. As soon as they do not think that they are being observed — as soon as total darkness falls — they go for the sheep. They become monsters. I think that some human being are like that too; we need to believe that our actions matter — that they are being witnessed, considered, even judged.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh