Tag Archives: spirituality

‘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

‘A noiseless patient spider’ by Walt Whitman

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

This is another beautiful, profound and spiritual poem by Whitman. I love the use of the image of a spider launching its “gossamer thread” to create a bridge through the air in order to venture into the “oceans of space” surrounding it. This image is then beautifully likened to the Soul — the soul of any person, yes, but also the soul of the Poet — as it is ceaselessly “musing, venturing, throwing,- seeking the spheres, to connect them”. I love this last phrase because it has definite connotations of the poetic process, of making bridges and letting down anchors…”till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere”.
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Of all the souls that stand create’ by Emily Dickinson

Of all the souls that stand create
I have elected one.
When sense from spirit files away,
And subterfuge is done;

When that which is and that which was
Apart, intrinsic, stand,
And this brief tragedy of flesh
Is shifted like a sand;

When figures show their royal front
And mists are carved away,—
Behold the atom I preferred
To all the lists of clay!

This is a beautiful love poem by Emily Dickinson. I picked this poem today because it is heroic and bold, and about an enduring, spiritual love.

The phrase that really gets me in this poem is “this brief tragedy of flesh”; I think that is just perfect wording. Dickinson is telling us in this poem that of all the souls on earth, she has chosen only “one”. And when the “subterfuge” of the human guise, and the brief tragedy that is out material life, is “shifted like a sand”; when “mists are carved away” and we pass on to a spiritual realm (i.e. when we die?)… “Behold the atom I preferred/ To all the lists of clay!”

I love the tone of triumph in the final two lines. The word “atom” is interesting, here. I suppose what Dickinson is getting at here is that this spirit, or “soul” is something more than the material shell — the “lists of clay” — and cannot be seen or touched physically. I love the poet’s use of the word “lists” here because it delivers a sense of the physical plain of almost being boring; there are lists and lists of physically beautiful, materially rich people, but she has chosen one “soul” — one “atom” — who is all that she could ever want, even when the material realm has passed away.

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

‘Spared’ by Wendy Cope

“That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love… ”
Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me,
Up there, two thousand feet above
A New York street. We’re safe and free,
A little while, to live and love,

Imagining what might have been –
The phone-call from the blazing tower,
A last farewell on the machine,
While someone sleeps another hour,

Or worse, perhaps, to say goodbye
And listen to each other’s pain,
Send helpless love across the sky,
Knowing we’ll never meet again,

Or jump together, hand in hand,
To certain death. Spared all of this
For now, how well I understand
That love is all, is all there is.
 

This poem by Wendy Cope is one that she apparently wrote as a response to the atrocities of 9/11. I think it is a really special, beautiful poem and meditation on an unspeakably tragic event.

The poem expresses great sadness, but it is also triumphant; the conclusion of the poet’s musings is that “love is all, is all there is.” I love the inclusion of the quote from Emily Dickinson, as it reminds us that this is not a new revelation, but that the truth that “love is all” is something we have always known. Faced with inhuman acts of violence, we cannot help but feel our sense of love reinforced, because it is our natural reaction to such happenings to feel compassion, and the think about our own loved ones.

I love the way that Cope emphasises the idea of the mortality of each one of us in this poem. In the first stanza she talks about being “safe and free” as a survivor (“It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me”), but then she undercuts this feeling of being “Spared” with phrases such as “a little while” and “for now”; we are all mortal, she reminds us.

What is important in this poem is the love that triumphs over an act of evil. There is a sense of fervent admiration for those who have died, and who continued to love until the end (the “last farewell on the machine” and the “sending helpless love across the sky”, and even those who “Jump together… To certain death”). I also think the poem delivers a strong sense of the desire to make the most of life, particularly with the image of somebody who “sleeps another hour” and so misses a message of love…

I think this is such a touching poem; I hope you enjoy it!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Echo’ by Christina Rossetti

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

This is such a hauntingly melancholy poem by Christina Rossetti. It is a beautiful expression of grief and longing to find a loved one again after they have died. My personal feeling is that this is about a dead child (perhaps it’s something about the “soft, rounded cheeks”), though it could be read with any departed loved-one in mind.

I love the repetition of “Come” in the first stanza (“Come to me”, “Come in”, “Come with”, “Come back”), and the rhyme scheme; all of this makes the poem so enchanting, almost like a self-sung lullaby. My favourite phrase in the whole poem, is “eyes as bright/ as sunlight on a stream”. It’s such a gorgeous image, and the sibilance really makes the words sparkle…

Notice that the speaker begs her departed love to “Come back in tears”. I think that she uses these words because she yearns for her child (or whoever it is!) to come back by any means, so long and she comes back. If the only way to keep her connection to her dead child is to be constantly grieving, or “in tears”, then so be it.

I love the description of Paradise, in the second stanza. Rossetti wrote a lot of religious poetry, and I think that an element of her faith almost always shines through all her poems. I just think that the image of the “slow door/ That opening, letting in, lets out no more” is incredibly stunning. What a wonderful image of Heaven. It is the dream of a place where nobody has to depart — nobody has to die.

In the final verse the poet repeats her “Come to me” and “come back”; she is happy that her loved one is in Paradise, but she still longs to be with them, and she cannot help calling for them. She begs them to return, “that I may live/ My very life again, though cold in death.” I think this is a very significant phrase because it shows us how much this person means to the poet — they are everything: “my very life”! She cannot live herself with this consuming grief. I love the way the poem ends on a nostalgic note: “As long ago, my love, so long ago”. The repetition in this final line is really effective, I think, because it delivers the sense that, though this death happened such a long time ago, the speaker continues to be troubled and consumed by it, and by the absence of the loved one.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh