Scintilla 4

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Table of contents

 

Author Title #
Jeremy Hooker What is Sacred Poetry? 7
Kim Taplin Possible Openings 23
Jeremy Hilton Lighting up time 25
Peter Abbs Drive In 29
Peter Russell A Bullfinch? 30
D.S. Hall Instance 31
Reflector 31
Within the Locked Wave 32
Ruth Bidgood Circles 33
Ways of Life 34
Shards 34
Driving through 95% Eclipse 35
Liam Aspin Wirds 36
Peter Gruffydd Looking Back 38
Alan Rudrum For then the Earth shall be all Paradise 39
Gary Allen Ferae Naturae 53
Geological Notes 54
Jean Earle Shadows 57
Anna Wigley The Confinement 58
Ted Walter The Divide 59
Phil Maillard The Gatherers 60
Brigid Allen The Vaughans at Jesus College 68
Open Poetry Competition 79
      Preface 80
      Pat Earnshaw My Cat Vince (1st Prize) 83
      M. C. Newton M. C. Newton Third Window (2nd Prize) 96
      Mary Macrae Mary Macrae Knitting (Third Prize) 101
Roland Mathias Reasons, reasons 109
Mercer Simpson Mercer Simpson Saint Colossus of Arona 125
John Freeman John Freeman Parliament Square 127
Holy of Holies 129
Wayne Burrows Duet 130
Clare Crossman Clare Crossman Silent Reading 132
Michael Woodward Michael Woodward Ice Man 137
Ric Hool Ric Hool Opthalmic Appointment 140
Annemarie Austin Annemarie Austin Isolation Hospital 141
Robert Wilcher Feathering some slower hours: Henry Vaughan’s Verse Translations 142
Jay Ramsay Improvisation On Flower Mountain 162
Paul Davidson Paul Davidson Interferometry 173
Rose Flint Rose Flint The Blue Gate 175
Myra Schneider Myra Schneider Repair 180
David Hart David Hart Trust the Poem 185

Illustrations taken from paintings and sculptures by Lorna Graves appear on the cover (“Woman with Wing”, ceramic sculpture) and on pages 22, 56, 82, 139, 172. The editors wish to thank the artist for permission to reproduce her work.

Excerpt

What is Sacred Poetry?

BY JEREMY HOOKER

S4-img1

Lorna Graves. “The Temple”, ceramic sculpture, 12″ wide.

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong
wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks
before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and
after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in
the earthquake:
After the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not
in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
(1 Kings 19, 11-12)

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame
of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and,
behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not
consumed.
And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this
great sight, why the bush is not burnt.
And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see,
God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and
said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.
And he said draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes
from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest
is holy ground.
(Exodus 3, 2-5)

 

What is sacred poetry? I have written this paper because I would like to know,
rather than because I think I have the answer. The question is a difficult one,
not least because of the diversity of religious traditions. In this paper I shall
accordingly be concentrating on poetry in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and
attempting to frame some definitions, while remaining open to the force of
the sacred, that answers the questioner with a presence that questions him. I
have chosen to begin, therefore, with two passages in which that force manifests
itself, and from which we can derive ideas fundamental to the Western
religious tradition.
Analysis can take us some way towards answering the question. First, the
sacred is a power. Genesis begins with God’s creation of the universe (‘the
heaven and the earth’). He is Creator of all things, and he has the power of
destruction over his creation. Man is subject to this power, and knows of God
only what God chooses to reveal to him. Rudolf Otto’ described the holy as
the tremendous and fascinating mystery, the ‘wholly other’, which is experienced
as numinous.
Secondly, the sacred disconfirms human ideas.’ God disposes of human
ideas and images as, on Horeb, he breaks the mountains and burns but does
not consume the bush. We expect him to be in the storm, or the earthquake,
or the fire. But he is not in these. He speaks with ‘a still small voice’. But God
does speak.
Thirdly, God manifests himself in creation. Mircea Eliade designates ‘the
act of manifestation of the sacred’ by the term hierophony.3 In the first
passage quoted above, God speaks to Elijah. In the second, he addresses Moses
by name. God, then, enters into dialogue with his prophets. He establishes
with his people what Martin Buber called an ‘I-Thou’ relationship.4 Sometimes
God speaks directly. More often, He speaks through his mouthpieces,
the prophets. In the Western tradition, prophecy and poetry are closely allied,
sometimes identified with one another. Prophecy is a high calling, but the
exalted prophet is humbled in his worldliness. The tradition of poet as prophet
descends through the Metaphysical poets, John Milton, William Blake.
We may hear echoes of it in the twentieth centur y, in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’
for example:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yo urself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. 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.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language
of the living (5)

I thought I knew these lines from Four Quartets, but I did not know their
prophetic power until I visited Little Gidding, and was unexpectedly confronted
by them, on a wall in the church. In that context, I felt their force as a
personal address, and experienced them, as every visitor surely must, as a
religious command.
Fourthly, hierophanies, manifestations of the sacred, occur in place, so that
sacred places, like Horeb or Little Gidding, are centres of holy power in the
profane world. The sacred awe, the wonder and fear, that is felt in holy places
testifies to their liminality: they are thresholds, or frontiers between the sacred
and the profane, the natural and the supernatural. David Jones described man
as ‘a “borderer”, he is the sole inhabitant of a tract of country where matter
marches with spirit’ .6 In the twentieth century liminality, and associated ideas
such as ‘rites of passage’, survive as richly suggestive metaphors for writers
who would not necessarily think of themselves as religious.
Ideas about sacred power drawn from the Bible would have been integral to
the structure of the minds of the Metaphysical poets in the seventeenth
centur y. It wasn’t, however, primarily the Old Testament that inspired their
idea of the sacred, but the Incarnation, which was read back into the Old
Te stament so that ancient events were seen to prefigure the life and death of
Christ. The Metaphysical poets were incarnational poets.
What this means may be expressed most succinctly by quoting a verse of
Christopher Smart’s:

God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made (7)

 

By taking on human flesh, God became ‘a native of the very world he made’.
This idea has many poetic manifestations; here, I want to mention only two of
them. First, making and re-making, or restoration. Man was made in the
image of God; he fell from grace, and was restored by the redemption. To this
faith we owe poetry in which the poet is intensely, abjectly, conscious of his
physicality.

[1] Das Heilige, Breslau, 1917; transl. John W Harvey as The Idea of the Holy, 1923.
[2] My use of “disconfirmation” , and the thinking behind it, have been influenced by Stephen
Prickett, Words and ‘The Word’, Cambridge, 1986, especially by his treatment of Elijah on Horeb.
[3] The Sacred and the Profane, New York, 1959.
[4] lch and Du, 1922; transl. Ronald Gregor Smith as I and Thou, Edinburgh, 1937.
[5] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Faber 1944, pp. 50-51.
[6] David Jones, Epoch and Artist, Faber 1959 , p.86.
[7] ‘Hymn 32: The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’, in Christopher Smart:
Selected Poems, ed., Karina Williamson and Marcus Walsh, Penguin Books, 1990, p.193.

In Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example:

Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me
flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing.8
In Henry Vaughan:
You draw nearer and break that mass which is my rocky
heart, and that which was formerly stone is now made flesh (9)


0 knit me, that am crumbled dust!
(R, p. 165)

0 how in this thy choir of souls I stand
(Propped by thy hand)
A heap of sand!
Which busy thoughts (like winds) would scatter quite
And put to flight,
But for thy might;
Thy hand alone doth tame
Those blasts, and knit my frame …
(R, p. 182)

 

In each instance, dissolution or reintegration is felt intensely, and absolutely
depends upon God the creator and redeemer. The poet, abjectly conscious of
his fragile physical being, is also filled with hope at the promise of being made
whole in Christ and of the resurrection of the bod y.
Secondly, it is the sense of God being ‘a native of the very world he made’
that gives such vitality, such quickness, to natural imagery and organic metaphors
in Metaphysical poetry, as in the following passages from Vaughan:

[8] ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, in Poems and Prose of Gerald Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H.
Gardner, Penguin Books, 1953, p.12.
[9] Henry Vaughan. The Complete Poems, ed. Alan Rudrum, Penguin Classics, 1995 (1976),
p.137. Further Vaughan verse quotations are from this edition referenced R in the text.

Some drops of thy all-quickening blood
Fell on my heart; those made it bud
And put forth thus, though Lord, before
The ground was cursed, and void of store.
(R,p.145)

with what flowers,
And shoots of glory, my soul breaks, and buds!
(R, p. 179)

How rich, 0 Lord! how fresh thy visits are!
‘Twas but just now my bleak leaves hopeless hung
Sullied with dust and mud …
(R, p. 198)

 

The supreme instance is George Herbert’s ‘The Flower’:

How fresh, 0 Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring …
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse …
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write … (10)

 

We may wonder what writing has got to do with it. Has Herbert confused a
writer’s block with a spiritual crisis? Does he value ‘versing’ more than a priest
should? Of course not. In the Christian scheme of things, human creativity is
bound up with God’s creative act. In the early nineteenth century Coleridge
would found upon this a complex theory of the imagination: ‘a repetition in
the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’.” In the
[10] The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. C. A. Patrides, Everyman, 1974, pp.171-2.
Further Herbert quotations are from this edition referenced H in the text.
[11] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Everyman, 1947 (1817), pp.145-6.

twentieth century the Russian religious thinker Nicolas Berdyaev12 would
define man as the being of the Eighth Day whose function is to continue
God’s original act of creation. But it all seems to have been much simpler for
George Herbert, whom we can envisage walking in his garden, feeling like the
flowers he sees, and knowing himself part of God’s native realm. As a created
being, he too makes: ‘in age I bud again/After so many deaths I live and write’.
Through the creation and the Incarnation the human soul, as God’s image,
is connected to the divine. This belief had a shaping influence on ideas
of distance and depth, on internal and external space in Western religious
thought. In his indiv idual way, Meister Eckhart affirmed a traditional truth:

What the masters tell us about the dimensions of the
heavens beggars belief, and yet the least power in my
soul is broader than the heavens, not to mention the
intellect, in which there is breadth without breadth.
In the head of the soul, in the intellect, I am as
close to a point located a thousand miles beyond the
sea as I am to the place where I am presently standing.(13)

Here there is nothing of Pascal’s terror at ‘the eternal silence of those infinite
spaces’ between the stars.14 Nor is there in Thomas Traherne:

That things are finite … we learn by our senses but
infinity we know and feel by our souls: and feel it so
naturally, as if it were the very essence and being of
the soul. The truth of it is, it is individually in the
soul; for God is there, and more near to us than we are
to ourselves. So that we cannot feel our souls,
but we must feel Him, in that first of properties,
infinite space. (15)

The sense of being at home with infinity gives the soul limitless depth. But
this is of course only part of the story. The Fall, and belief in hell, are causes
of terror. Intimacy with God and fear of absolute separation from Him are
[12] See for example Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act, Gollancz, 1955.
[13] Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings, Selected and Translated by Oliver Davies, Penguin
Books, 1994, p.114.
[14] Blaise Pascal, The Pensees, Penguin Books, 1961, p.57.
[15] Thomas Traheme, Selected Poems and Prose, ed. Alan Bradford, Penguin Books, 1991,
p.220.

the poles of the Christian experience, and often they are experienced in rapid
succession – as in Herbert’s ‘The Temper (l)’:

How should I praise thee, Lord! how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Although there were some fourtie heav’ns, or more,
Sometimes I peere above them all;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score,
Sometimes to hell I fall.

0 rack me not to such a vast extent;
Those distances belong to thee:
The world’s too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.
{H., p74)

 

For Herbert, as for Henry Vaughan, and for biblical man generally, God is
‘Thou’. But God is also immeasurably greater, and more powerful, than any
human image or concept can grasp. Herbert knows that it doesn’t matter
whether he discerns ‘some fourtie heav’ns, or more’, because the act of measuring
is absurd. What he knows is his feeling of swinging between spiritual
height and terrible depth, salvation and damnation: his soul’s vertigo. The
‘distances belong’ to God; they are altogether too much for Herbert. Any
measurement of man against God is absurd. The most Herbert can do is say
‘the world’s too little for thy tent,/ A grave too big for me’. The latter is an
image in which we not only see a man in his grave, which has to be bigger than
his body if he is to fit into it, but hear that the small space is more than he
deser ves, which is tantamount to saying death is too good for him! There is
only one way in which the immeasurable disproportion can be resolved:

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there:
Thy power and love, my love and trust
Make one place ev’ry where.
(Ibid)

As for John Donne’s lovers in ‘The Good-Morrow’ love makes ‘one little
roome, an everywhere’, so in Herbert’s poem the mutual love between God
and man makes ‘one place ev’ry where’. Donne’s ‘little roome’ suggests retreat
into privacy. Herbert’s ‘one place’ is the ground where man and God meet; it
makes the distances between earth and heaven and earth and hell bearable.
Henry Vaughan’s incarnational poetry shows a complete structure of religious
thought. ‘Cock-Crowing’ begins with the exclamation ‘Father of lights!’,
and is filled with imagery of light. With the aid of Alan Rudrum’s notes, (R,
pp.597-99), we can assign the images to several different spiritual and intellectual
sources: Epistle of James, Thomas Vaughan’s idea of ‘a spiritual metaphysical
grain, a seed or glance of light’, the Cambridge Platonists, alchemy, 1
Corinthians, Song of Solomon. As so often with Henry Vaughan, the diverse
sources on which he has drawn show the integrative power of his imagination.
The underlying idea of ‘Cock Crowing’, as Rudrum notes, seems to be ‘the
hermetic notion that animals fulfil their God-ordained functions by instinct,
whereas in man instinct is astray, so that men can only act rightly by following
reason’, (Ibid., p.597). This idea recurs in Vaughan’s poetry, and is the main
source of that reverence for nature which is one of its most attractive features
to a modern reader. The question doesn’t arise of Vaughan reverencing nature
for its own sake. Nature is God’s creation; it is Christ’s ‘all-quickening blood’
that sanctifies the natural world and all that exists.
What Vaughan especially values in the nature he perceives is its expectancy.
He would surely have sympathised with the following passage in Martin
Buber’s I and Thou:

Believe in the simple magic of life, in service in the
universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that
alertness, that ‘craning of the neck’ in creatures will
dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look!
round about you beings live their life, and to whatever
point you turn you come upon being. (16)

 

A similar reverence, with the same biblical background, animates Buber’s
thought and Vaughan’s poetry, though they do of course represent different
religions. Vaughan’s ‘And do they so?’ is based on the text from Romans: ‘For
the creatures, watching with lifted head, wait for the revelation of the sons ?f
God’.

[16] Ed. cit., p.15.

In ‘Cock Crowing’:

Their eyes watch for the morning hue,
Their little grain expelling night
So shines and sings, as if it knew
The path unto the house of light.
It seems their candle, howe’r done,
Was tinned and lighted at the sun.

If such a tincture, such a touch,
So firm a longing can impower
Shall thy own image think it much
To watch for thy appearing hour?
If a mere blast so fill the sail,
Shall not the breath of God prevail?

0 thou immortal light and heat!
Whose hand so shines through all this frame,
That by the beauty of the seat,
We plainly see, who made the same.
Seeing thy seed abides in me,
Dwell thou in it, and I in thee.
(R, p. 251)

 

The poem is instinct with an apprehension of God’s creative and redeeming
power: in the light by which nature and man (‘thy own image’) were made,
and which shines in the creation, and dwells in ‘seeds’ of light in the creatures.
‘Cock Crowing’, and Henry Vaughan’s poetry generally, constitutes a model
of the Christian universe as complete as a medieval cathedral. Ironically, he
constructed his cathedral in words at the moment when the Church itself had
been stripped and closed. Vaughan’s thought had, nevertheless, a good deal in
common with that of the sectaries. Neither party could have foreseen the ruin
of the Christian order, which we, in retrospect, can see underway, as far as
England is concerned, in the Civil War. But ruin of a spiritual and intellectual
order, while it dismays the faithful, also releases energies which may empower
new ideas.
Two lines in particular in ‘Cock Crowing’ – ‘O thou immortal light and
heat!/Whose hand so shines through all this frame’ – recall another great
poem about sacred power:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? (17)

 

William Blake’s poem, too, generates a feeling of awe at a mysterious and
terrible power, so that we may describe it, in Otto’s terms, as numinous. The
tyger, however, is not ‘wholly other’ like the Creator of ‘Cock Crowing’.
Blake’s imagery of fire, of twisting and grasping and framing, of hammer and
chain and furnace and anvil, is drawn from industrial manufacturing
processes. His poem is not about the God of Moses and Elijah, the God of
Henry Vaughan, but the man-made idea of God that presides over the
Industrial Revolution. The chief text that stands behind Vaughan’s hymns, by
contrast, is: ‘That they should seek the Lord, if happily they might feel after
him, and find him, though he be not far off from every one of us, for in him
we live, and move, and have our being’. (Acts XVII 27-28).
Vaughan’s sacred poetry is about living, and moving, and having our being
in Christ. Blake’s universe turns Vaughan’s inside out: ‘All deities reside in the
human breast’.18 In retrospect, we may see this view, which inverts the traditional
religious idea of divine creativity in the West, as one of the origins of
the modern thought world, which psychologises the metaphysical, making the
divine a construct of human thought or emotion. But for Blake the deities
remain deities: powers, energies. Blake constructs a dynamic idea of the human
imagination, and shows man making and unmaking his world, liberating or
enslaving himself. For Blake, imagination is a creative and destructive human
power, as it is for many poets who follow him. For Roy Fisher in A Furnace,
for example:

This age has a cold blackness of hell
in cities at night. London
is filled with it, Chicago cradles it
in ice-green glitter along
the dark of the lake. Birmingham Sparkbrook,
Birmingham centre, Birmingham Castle Vale
hang in it as holograms. For now

Puritan materialism dissolves its matter,
its curdled massy acquisition; dissolves
the old gravity of ponderous fires
that bewildered the senses,
and for this
glassy metaphysical void. (19)

 

[17] Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Nonesuch Press, 1961,
p.72.
[18] ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, ibid., p.185.

 

While Blake exposed the metaphysics that fuelled the furnace of the Industrial
Revolution, Fisher is the poet of that world in decline, his poetry fired by
transformative energies.
The idea that sacred poetry is dead comes with the Victorians. Matthew
Arnold mourned Wordsworth’s death as that of ‘a sacred poet’ ‘in an age
which can rear them no more!’20 Arnold saw Wordsworth as Adamic: ‘a priest
to us all/Of the wonder and bloom of te world’. The partiality of this view
compared to biblical holy power, and incarnational poetry, exposes the limitations
of Arnold’s idea of the sacred, and sells Wordsworth short.
Perhaps the principal way in which Wordsworth was a sacred poet was
through his naturalising and psychologising of the soul’s depth. One of the
finest examples is ‘There was a boy’, in which Wordsworth recalls the boy
who ‘blew mimic hootings to the silent owls/That they might answer him’. As
the owls did, ‘responsive to his call, with quivering peals,/And long halloos,
and screams, and echoes loud/Redoubled and redoubled’.

And, when it chanced
That pauses of deep silence mock’d his skill,
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents, or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that.uncertain heaven, receiv’d
Into the bosom of the steady lake. (21)

 

Thomas De Quincey commented on this passage, or his misremembered
version of it: ‘This very expression, “far”, by which space and its infinities
are attributed to the human heart, and to its capacities of re-echoing the sublimities
of nature, has always struck me as with a flash of sublime revelation’ .(22)

[19] Roy Fisher, A Furnace, Oxford, 1986, p.35 .
[20] ‘The Youth of Nature’, The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 2nd edition ed. Miriam Allot,
Longman, 1979, pp. 261-62.
[21] Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, Routledge, 1991, (1800), p.134.
[22] Thomas De Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, ed. David Wright,
Penguin Books, 1970, p.161.

In the thought of Eckhart, in the tradition that Traherne and Vaughan and
Herbert inherited, ‘space and its infinities’ are attributes not of the human
heart but the soul. It is the soul, moreover, that might be said to re-echo ‘the
sublimities of nature’ – it depends how it is said. Poets such as Vaughan, in the
tradition of mystical theology, would not have understood what the phrase
meant to De Quincey.
Wordsworth, here, is naturalising a religious vision: ‘the sublime revelation’
is of a reciprocal relationship between man and nature, and it is expressed in a
language drawn from nature – unlike the voice of God which speaks to Elijah
and Moses, and intervenes in poems by Herbert and Vaughan, the owls do not
speak human words; the boy borrows the owls’ cries in order to elicit a
response. The image of ‘that uncertain heaven, receiv’d/Into the bosom of the
steady lake’ is, as it were, a double undoing of the universe of the Metaphysical
poets. It contrasts the uncertainty of heaven with the steadyness of
nature, and it reverses the Christian idea of God’s fatherhood by returning
‘heaven’ to a feminized nature (the ‘bosom’ of the lake). The direction of
reverence in the poem is towards nature and the human mind. That is the
emphasis of Wordsworth’s feeling in all the poetry which he did not twist into
the shape of his religious orthodoxy.
Fundamentalists naturally favour an absolute idea of the sacred. Thus
Philip Sherrard writes: ‘the very idea of the sacred presupposes to start with
the presence of the Divine or the existence of God. Without the Divine –
without God- there can be no holiness, nothing sacred’.23 It sounds as though
Sherrard almost allows an idea of the Divine without God, but won’t let
himself. One supposes this kind of absolutism holds for believers in specific
creeds, but it cannot be true for all who claim to reverence the sacred. Among
the Biblical verses which follow the Preface to Silex Scintillans Henry Vaughan
includes: ‘The living, the living, he shall praise thee’, from Isaiah 38. The same
words are carved on Llewelyn Powys’s sarsen memorial stone which stands
near a high cliff on the Dorset coast.
Standing beside the stone, one may recall Powys’s atheistic sense of reverence:

At the hour when the foxes are stirring out of their
holes, if we stand on the edge of a high chalk cliff
overlooking the sea, all is made clear. The rounded
form of the earth is outlined against infinity and
feathered grasses are waving free against the tattered
banners of the masterless clouds.
The vision before us is God-empty, God-void. The
excited spirit trembles with regenerate exultation. All
is prepared for the celebration of an unhallowed mass.
Far below ancient world-waves break upon the
congregated pebbles, break and surge back as they have
done without cessation from the earliest ages. All the
aeons of geology are in the sound of this recurrent
sea-muttering, all that has been and will be. (24)

 

One is aware here both of Powys’s post-Darwinian reaction against his
evangelical family background and of the influence upon him of Thomas
Hardy – the writer whose favourite biblical passage was the one about the still
small voice, which Elijah heard on Horeb. But in Hardy and Powys the power
of the sacred has passed from that voice to the elements in which God was not
present. A sense of sacred presence investing the elemental world owed a great
deal both to Wordsworth and to scientists such as Charles Darwin and Charles
Lyell. While the geologists led to some Victorians, like John Ruskin, losing
their religious faith, they excited in others a new sense of reverence for the
Earth, and awe at temporal depth. Except in devout Christian poets such as
Hopkins and Christina Rossetti, visionary manifestations of time and space in
land and sea tended to replace hierophany in Victorian religious poetry.
This feeling for the Earth is still with us, enhanced now by our perception
of the planet from space, and by the web of life – the vision and the idea that
have so influenced the sense of the sacred during the past twenty or thirty
years. ‘The rounded form of the earth’ is available to us as an image as it was
not to Llewelyn Powys. In the words of Lewis Thomas: ‘Viewed from the
distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the
breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of
the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath
the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only
exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos’.L’
In the words of John Keats: ‘The poetry of earth is never dead’. In our time,
it is newly alive. As well as the vision of Earth from space, and the paradigm
shift from the idea of nature as an arena of competition to the idea of the web
of life, another major influence upon sacred nature poetry has been the
feminist revolution, especially that aspect of it which has been described as the
return of the Goddess. The implications of this are well described by Elinor
W Gadon:

[23] Philip Sherrard, The Sacred in Life and Art, Golgonooza Press, 1990, p. l.
[24] Llewelyn Powys, Glory of Life and Now That The Gods Are Dead, Bodley Head, 1949, pp.
17-18.
[25] Quoted in Louise B. Young, The Unfinished Universe, Oxford, 1993, p.113.

Wholeness is not the hero’s journey of individuation
and separation, which has been glorified since Homer.
In the way of the Goddess the path leads to a
consciousness that is responsible to all that is alive.
What we have called matter is not separated from
spirit; matter is impregnated with spirit. (26)

 

There are links between Blake and Wordsworth and the energies released by
scientific and feminist ideas in the twentieth century. We apprehend a fluid
world, closer to the Ta oist conception of reality than the Old Te stament.
Einstein’s revolution replaced a world of static objects with a field of dynamic
forces. Towards the end of a weekend of dialogue the physicist David Bohm
said: ‘we discussed that there may be a universal energy pervaded with intelligence
and love which is the ground of everything – without belief and without
disbelief. What I suggested was that saying the name of “I am” signified
this universal energy’. 27 Rather than rejecting the idea of God, it seems that
Bohm believed it ‘was originally rather limited, then came the notion of this
universal God; but perhaps chis notion has to develop or evolve further by
inquiry’. The sculptor Lee Grandjean, influenced by ideas drawn from the
new physics, has spoken of: ‘that ground of elemental energy from which all
matter emerges and into which all things are eventually enfolded’ . 28
For Grandjean, ‘God’ is a human construct that gets in the way of the
wonder of the universe, as new scientific ideas and technologies are revealing
it. With our microscopes we see deeper into the structure of cells and with our
telescopes we see farther into the universe than previous generations. There
are affinities between the creative forces we see and the apprehension of
fluidity and connectedness associated with the way of the Goddess. To invoke
this idea is not to identify woman as nature, which has been a ploy of
patriarchal ideology. The revolution in consciousness made available to us by
science and feminism concerns men and women equally. Changing gender
ideas and images make possible a new, enlarged human image which we may
describe as androgynous: a new version of a traditional idea of wholeness, an
idea that is a perennial human aspiration rather than the last word of a dogmatic
absolutism.
One may feel about the return of the Goddess that it is, among other things,
an answer to the image-breakers, from Josiah to the Puritans, who violently
insisted upon a discarnate idea of the sacred. They broke what they thought
of as pagan images. Now, though, it is the patriarchal God who has been
knocked off his pediment and broken into pieces, like some statue of a
dictator in a former communist state. In his place, the numinous is strongly
invested in nature and an idea of the Goddess. We are in danger perhaps of a
new idolatry, in which nature receives all reverence, and the idea of ‘God’ is
out of bounds.
The sacred, the ‘wholly other’, both causes us to make images and requires
us to break them, because it is beyond our comprehension. God manifested
himself to Elijah and to Moses in unexpected ways. R. S. Thomas, in ‘The
White Tiger’, says: ‘you can imagine that/God breathes within the confines/of
our definition of him, agonising/over immensities that will not return’. (29) We
can ‘imagine’ this; but why should we suppose ‘immensities … will not
return’? The sacred has always defied our definitions, disconfirmed our
notions. That is how it has retained a sense of possibility that mocks human
limitations. To Henry Vaughan, ‘life is, what none can express, IA quickness,
which my God hath kissed’. (R, p. 308) To the author of a modern book called
The Unfinished Universe: ‘There is something within life, within nonliving
matter, too, that is not passive – a nisus, a striving that is stimulated by challenge’
. (30) To the religious thinker Leon Shestov: ‘The fundamental property of
life is daring; all life is creative daring and thus an eternal mystery irreducible
to anything finished or intelligible’. Whether for Moses and Elijah, or for men
and women at the end of the twentieth century, the sacred reveals itself as a
power that humbles attempts to define it, and opens the mind to a new sense
of creative possibility.
[26] Elinor W. Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess, Harper Collins, 1989, p.370.
[27] David Bohm, Unfolding Meaning, Routledge, 1985, p.172.
[28] Lee Grandjean , ‘The Background to the “Four Winds” Drawings’, Scintilla 2, 1998, p.155.
See also Groundwork: Sculpture by Lee Grandjean and Poems by Jeremy Hooker, Djanogly Art
Gallery, University of Nottingham, 1998.
[29] R. S. Thomas, Frequencies, Macmillan, 1978 , p.45.
[30] Louise B. Young, op. cit., p.87.

 

 

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