Archives For Poetry

quarlesI had to add the parenthetical comment to the title of this column or it would have been dismissed on its surface by readers like me. Although I dabble at poetry myself, I never voluntarily choose that genre for reading. And metaphysics? As a practical pastoral theologian, I have little interest in abstract philosophies.

I have just discovered metaphysical poetry, and it is quite intriguing.

How well read are you? Do you read broadly, deeply, or both? Unfortunately, most of us restrict our reading to a rather narrow scope. This is due to two factors.

First of all is our lack of time. Few enjoy the leisure hours to indulge in the sheer pleasure of reading simply for joy.

A second dilemma arises from the deluge of new books being published every day.

It is tempting to retreat in the spirit of C.S. Lewis to the classics, and not waste our time on a volume until it has proven its worth by remaining in print. Alas, digital technology devastates that metric, since even the most worthless tripe can remain in virtual print indefinitely.

As a semi-retired pastor, I enjoy more time than I did when I was serving full time, but I still limit my reading primarily to theology, history, current events, and anything related to C.S. Lewis. I seldom have time to explore the treasure of literature that is freely available to us.

I recently spent some time doing just that.

I read some writing advice from the pen of Francis Quarles (1592-1644) who is best known for his book Emblems. It is representative of a genre (called “emblem books”) that flourished in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here are two enjoyable observations:

If thou desire to make the best advantage of the muses, either by reading, to benefit thy selfe, or by writing, others, keep a peacefull soul in a temperate body: a full belly makes a dull brain; and a turbulent spirit, a distracted judgement: the muses starve in a cook’s shop, and a lawyer’s study. (LXXIX).

If thou intend thy writings for the publique view, lard them not too much with the choice lines of another author, lest thou lose thy own gravy: what thou hast read and digested being delivered in thy owne stile becomes thine: it is more decent to weare a plaine suit of one entire cloth, than a gaudy garment checquered with divers richer fragments. (XCVII).

Lewis was, of course, intimately acquainted with Quarles’ work. Like everyone else, however, he was more influenced by the literary contribution of John Donne (1572-1631). Like Quarles, Donne is considered one of the English “metaphysical poets.”

These writers offered used “conceits,” which were similar to analogies, but compared things that were clearly different from one another. It requires significant skill to convince a reader of the similarities of things that are deeply unlike one another.

In his essay “Dante’s Similes,” Lewis discusses the subject in detail.

It will be easily seen in what sense Dante’s similes are ‘metaphysical.’ The connexion between the two members is real, ontological, intelligible, and the material need not be in itself beautiful or may be even grotesque—as when Time is represented as a tree growing downwards with its roots in a vase which is the Primum Mobile (Paradiso, XXVII, 118). And this certainly connects them, in one way, with what literary critics call ‘Metaphysical’ conceits, meaning the conceits used by Donne and his followers.

But there are only two points of contact—first, the difficult and (at first sight) unpoetical nature of the material, and, secondly, the intellectual rather than emotional connexion between this material and the thing compared with it. The spirit in which they are used is not the same in Donne and in Dante. In Donne, the connexion, though intellectual as in Dante, is as momentary, as incapable of life beyond the immediate context, as the connexions in Homer or Virgil.

It may be true that Donne cannot court a mistress without bringing in scholastic philosophy, law, chemistry, and cosmography. But he has no interest in these things except as toys and does not care in the least what place they have, if any, in the real universe—if, indeed, there is a real universe outside the present emotion. The longer you look at Donne’s comparison of the lovers to the compasses, the less alike they will seem, and the more certain you will become that the innumerable differences between them are a more interesting and fruitful field for thought than the single analogy.

But in the greatest Dantesque similes, the longer you look the greater the likeness becomes and the more fruitful in thoughts that are interesting as long as you live. This, of course, is no disparagement to Donne: a witty love song, whether salacious or saturnine, is not meant to be chewed over like the great Comedy which made its author lean. If I seem to be breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, it is only because I want to avoid a misunderstanding which would hinder our reading both of the great and of the little poet.

Sample Their Works (for free)

If you are able to carve out a few hours of your time to delight in the rich banquet provided by the three writers mentioned above, visit these links to download their books in the digital version of your choice.

Francis Quarles’ Emblems

(This edition is elegantly illustrated!)

The Poems of John Donne

(Volume I)

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

_____

The elaborate image at the top of this column is one of the illustrations found in the copy of Emblems linked to above.

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 11 Comments

anglo saxonConsider how one humble Anglo-Saxon poet can teach us about the ancient transition from the oral to written delivery of poetry.

In recent study about the transition from aural to literary communication I came upon the following fascinating fact.

In an essay entitled “Oral to Written,” J.B. Bessinger writes:

As literate authors learned to assimilate oral materials to pen-and-parchment composition, and since cultural life and centres of writing were controlled so largely by the Church, it was inevitable that the oral transmission of pagan verse would die out, or at best leave few records of an increasingly precarious existence. Meanwhile the invasion of bookish culture into an oral tradition proceeded.

Amid the overwhelming anonymity of the period, Cynewulf was the only poet who troubled to record his name, not from motives of a new literary vanity, but against the Day of Judgement:* “I beg every man of human kind who recites this poem to remember my name and pray . . .”

I’ve read elsewhere that the names of a dozen Anglo-Saxon poets were recorded, although only four have any work that has survived. I understand, however, why Cynewulf is so well recognized—several thousand lines of his poetry are extant. You can access copies of his work for free at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive.

Curiously, we know no details about Cynewulf other than his name. This he included in his manuscripts, spelled in runic characters.

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

In his diary during the 1920s, C.S. Lewis describes reading Cynewulf and Cyneheard while he bemoaned that Old English Riddles continued to represent an obstacle to him.

I set to on my O.E. Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author . . .

[Following afternoon tea, Lewis] retired to the drawing room and had a go at the Riddles. I learned a good deal, but found them too hard for me at present.

J.R.R. Tolkien paid an unimaginable tribute to Cynewulf. He attributed to the ancient poet no less than the original inspiration for his mythopoeic conscience.

In the summer of 1913 Tolkien . . . switched course to the English School after getting an “alpha” in comparative philology. At this time he read the great eighth-century alliterative poem Christ, by Cynewulf and others.

Many years later from the poem he cited Eala Earendel engla beorhtost (“Behold Earendel brightest of angels”) from Christ as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”**

Cynewulf was an inspired poet. And, it is possible to discern some Anglo-Saxon words which have made it into contemporary English when passages are lined up, side by side.

We’ll close now with a passage from his poem, Christ. These words come from the beginning of Part II (Ascension) and comprise the beginning of chapter four. For those who would like to compare the texts, a parallel version follows.*** (Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Enjoy Cynewulf’s celebration of God’s abundant gifts, extended to poets, musicians, and all others.

Then He who shaped the world, God’s Spirit-Son,

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

can o’er the salt sea urge the ocean-bark

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

steeled sword and weapon. One knoweth the plains’ direction,

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.

cynewulf

_____

* Please don’t correct me regarding the misspelling of “judgment;” this quotation comes from a British text. ;)

** From Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez.

*** This image is derived from the 1892 translation of Cynewulf’s Christ by Israel Gollancz.

The lovely Anglo Saxon cross at the top of this page was discovered several years ago in the grave of a young teenage girl who had been buried near Cambridge.

I have blogged about Anglo Saxon legacy in the past . . . here and here.

Professor Bob Dylan

February 24, 2015 — 13 Comments

dylanCan you imagine having singer Bob Dylan as your high school history teacher?

According to a recent interview,* it could have happened.

Still actively touring in his seventies and considered an American musical icon. I was stunned to hear what he said about another path his life may have taken. The interviewer posted the remark this way:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

I didn’t realize he and I had so much in common! When I did my undergrad studies in history, I took every Roman history course the University of Washington offered. As for theology . . . well, having become a pastor, my interest in the study of God’s revelation of himself to the world is a given.

Can you imagine Dylan lecturing on apotheosis in the early empire? [Apotheosis is the elevation of a person to godhood, and was a formal event after the death of some emperors. The emperors themselves knew it was a farce, of course. Seneca wrote that emperor Vespasian, on his deathbed, actually said, “Alas, I think I’m becoming a God.”]

Bob Dylan’s interest in spiritual matters is genuine. He has high praise in the interview for Billy Graham. “This guy was rock ‘n’ roll personified. He filled football stadiums before Mick Jagger did.”

In 1979, Dylan released the first of three “Christian” albums, “Slow Train Coming.” It has a number of great pieces, and I listen to the album at least once a month. One song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him the Grammy that year for “Best Male Vocalist.” It’s lyrics are sobering, and everyone should hear it at least once.

And, Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Well, we weren’t actually. But, here at Mere Inkling we usually do.

These two men bear some obvious parallels. They are masters of words. Poets extraordinaire. Lewis and Dylan both possess enviable creative imaginations. Each has accumulated a vast legacy in their work, which will continue to inspire for many generations to come.

I also learned this on the internet—they share the same Myers-Briggs personality type. At least, this site claims they are both INFPs. (I’m an ENTJ myself, a common personality aggregate for pastors.)

And, they had at least one more thing in common. They knew that in this life, there is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. When we ultimately stand before the throne of our Creator, it will not suffice to say, “Well, I didn’t do anything truly evil.”

In a moment we will listen to Dylan’s ballad about the choice before us. First, though, consider how Lewis uses the imagery of the war engulfing the world in the 1940s to describe this truth.

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.

God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world.

When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.

It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it. (Mere Christianity).

Now, as promised, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

_____

*You can read the entire interview in the current issue of AARP The Magazine, available here.

Parachute Optional

January 27, 2015 — 8 Comments

c141Under what circumstances would you tell an airman that pulling their rip cord if they exit the plane is optional? I never knew of any until I read an article about resupply missions to the South Pole.

The current issue of Air Force Magazine includes a fascinating article about resupplying McMurdo Station and a second temporary site at the Pole itself. Because of the extreme cold, 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (that’s -73.333 degrees Celsius), any airman who accidentally fell from the plane as the pallets were dropped, could not expect to be rescued before freezing to death.

Parachute-laden crewmen standing near open doors of a C-141B Starlifter during a midwinter Antarctic airdrop in 1983 were told they could pull the D-ring ripcord if they fell overboard—or just not bother. The chance of being safely recovered in the darkness and [bone-freezing] temperatures was practically nonexistent.

Putting things in historical perspective, we can consider the fate of WWI pilots in Germany. Theirs was the first nation to provide standard parachutes, and during the first 70 bail outs, a third of the pilots perished. With those statistics, one wonders how many airmen followed the “just not bother” course of action and chose to remain with their plunging aircraft.

C.S. Lewis had a friend named Leo Baker who had served in France as a pilot of the 80th Squadron of the Royal Air Force. The two combat veterans hit it off because of shared interests, including their mutual love of poetry. Here is how Lewis initially described Baker to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves, in 1920.

You ask about Baker, and I hardly know how to describe him. He was at a mixed school of a very modern type, where everyone seems to have written, painted and composed. He is so clairvoyant that in childhood “he was afraid to look round the room for fear of what he might see.” He got a decoration in France for doing some work in an aeroplane over the lines under very deadly fire: but he maintains that he did nothing, for he was “out of his body” and could see his own machine with “someone” in it, “roaring with laughter.” He has a bad heart.

He was a conscientious objector, but went to the war “because this degradation and sin might be just the very sacrifice which was demanded of him.” He maintains that everything in Algernon Blackwood [writer of ghost stories] is quite possible: and though the particular cases may be fictitious, “things of that sort” are quite common. He is engaged to be married.

In appearance, he is about my height, with very fair hair, glasses, remarkable eyes and according to the Minto [Janie Moore], rather like you. I like and admire him very much, though at times I have doubts on his sanity.

Like Lewis, Baker had been seriously wounded during the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Fortunately, it appears he did not have to rely on a primitive parachute. Or, if he did, he was one of the fortunate survivors.

Returning to Antarctica for just a moment, it seems that South Pole mission would have been an exciting adventure in which to share. Terrifying too, perhaps. Fortunately, like Lewis and Baker (and Tolkien, as well), all of the service members returned home safely, mission accomplished.

_____

The picture above is a military photograph of a pair of Emperor penguins observing an American C-141 resupply mission during the summer months.

Impromptu Poetry

May 8, 2014 — 2 Comments

eyeI had to endure a to and fro transcontinental trip this week. Endure is the right word, when flying miles above what would otherwise be a scenic, albeit lengthy, journey.

One positive thing about flying is that I have time to catch up on some of my “pleasure” reading. This week it included an article about cinquains.

A quintain is a poem with five verses. A cinquain is a specific form which has the following number of syllables in each of the lines: two, four, six, eight, and two.

I took a break from my reading and drafted a few of these small poems. I found it quite simple, and it’s likely you may as well.

I make no promises about the quality of my verse, but perhaps you’ll find one or more of them interesting. Or, at least they may inspire you to write some of your own.

Springtime

Narnian hope

Delayed by the White Witch

Borne by Aslan’s Resurrection

New dawn

Pilgrim

Traveling through

This world is not my home

Destined for a new creation

With Christ

True hope

He died for us

Emancipation now

Washed clean by the blood of the Lamb

New life

Inklings

Lewis, Tolkien

Friends rounded out the group

Imaginations unfettered

Wonder

Beware of Moths

March 27, 2014 — 12 Comments

mothI try not to hate moths. They’re obviously not so pretty as butterflies, but I remind myself that’s not their fault. They’re a nuisance around the porch lights on summer evenings, but that’s instinct, not choice.

I strive to see the best in moths, like C.S. Lewis, who was able to capitalize on their impulsiveness in his 1933 poem, “The Naked Seed.”

Oh, thou that art unwearying, that dost neither sleep

      Nor slumber, who didst take

All care for Lazarus in the careless tomb, oh keep

      Watch for me till I wake.

If thou think for me what I cannot think, if thou

      Desire for me what I

Cannot desire, my soul’s interior Form, though now

      Deep-buried, will not die,

—No more than the insensible dropp’d seed which grows

      Through winter ripe for birth

Because, while it forgets, the heaven remembering throws

      Sweet influence still on earth,

—Because the heaven, moved moth-like by thy beauty, goes

      Still turning round the earth.

I really want to give moths the benefit of the doubt . . . but that’s become virtually impossible since I learned some of them are vampiric!

Before we consider their blood-sucking rituals, I want to share a traumatic moth encounter my wife and I experienced several years ago when we lived in Eastern Washington.

We had a huge fragrant collection of plants that ran across nearly the whole of the front of our house. There was a bush at the far end, and some delightful quail nested there. The flowers brought us other welcome guests. Hummingbirds would crowd around them as sun was setting, and savor their nectars.

We loved watching them hover near the blooms, and wondered precisely what species of hummingbirds they were, since they were slightly smaller than the ones we were accustomed to.

One day I was getting a close up view of their activity and I saw something that shattered my sense of reality. Instead of a beak, these hummingbirds had tongues that curled and uncurled, not unlike those “party horns” that children blow at celebrations.

My wife said I had to be imagining what I’d seen. I assured her that I hadn’t seen anything like this in the scifi shows I regularly watched, and I was pretty sure that these abominations weren’t hummingbirds.

Eventually I persuaded her to look for herself, and she too was aghast at the question of what they might be. Some of you already know, because you’ve had the misfortune of growing up where these creepy things thrive. For the rest of you—the fortunate ones who’ve been spared the curse of hemaris sphinx moths—let me assure you, their maladapted proboscises are grotesque.

I thought they were the worst thing the world of the moths had to offer. (Well, aside from the 1961 Japanese film “Mothra.”)

That’s what I thought, until recently, when I learned that some misbegotten moths had followed mosquitoes in their descent into parasitical evil by drinking the blood of other creatures.

The calyptra moths are another proof of the fall. No longer do they flutter around from plant to plant, seeking sustenance as a proper herbivore. The aptly named “vampire moth” has chosen to adapt its proboscis to pierce the skin of other animals such as buffaloes . . . and human beings.

In the equal opportunity world of the corruption of the natural order, while female mosquitoes drink blood, it is male moths that do so. Apparently, they’ve already infested Malaysia, the Urals and Southern Europe. Now they are adjusting to the climate of Scandinavia. The question arises, where can be we safe from these monsters?

Returning to C.S. Lewis, he records an incident that occurred in Narnia involving mistaken identity.

It is a very funny thing that the sleepier you are, the longer you take about getting to bed; especially if you are lucky enough to have a fire in your room. Jill felt she couldn’t even start undressing unless she sat down in front of the fire for a bit first. And once she had sat down, she didn’t want to get up again. She had already said to herself about five times, “I must go to bed,” when she was startled by a tap on the window.

She got up, pulled the curtain, and at first saw nothing but darkness. Then she jumped and started backward, for something very large had dashed itself against the window, giving a sharp tap on the glass as it did so. A very unpleasant idea came into her head—“Suppose they have giant moths in this country! Ugh!”

But then the thing came back, and this time she was almost sure she saw a beak, and that the beak had made the tapping noise. “It’s some huge bird,” thought Jill. “Could it be an eagle?” She didn’t very much want a visit even from an eagle, but she opened the window and looked out. Instantly, with a great whirring noise, the creature alighted on the window-sill and stood there filling up the whole window, so that Jill had to step back to make room for it. It was the Owl. (The Silver Chair).

Fortunately for Jill, and the rest of the children who visited Narnia, there is no record of them ever encountering giant moths . . . vampire moths . . . or moths deceptively impersonating hummingbirds.

_____

Note: The monster moth pictured above is not (to my knowledge) a blood or flesh eater. But I still wouldn’t want one that size landing on my shoulder.

Unintentional Acrostics

March 10, 2014 — 14 Comments

letterSome writers sweat to find precisely the right word, the one that expresses the unique meaning and tone we seek to convey. We often fail, as the reference to perspiration in my first sentence readily reveals. A recent observation from the executive editor of First Things  provides me with another crippling concern.

“This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread . . . spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice. And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.”

Unless each writer maintains constant vigilance, since most of us don’t have “junior fellows” to assign the duty, it’s quite possible for unintentional acrostics to slip into our work. Like the seamen in the crow’s nest of the Titanic—I just watched a new documentary on the subject last night—we can easily miss the veiled iceberg which threatens to sink our best effort.

Prone as we are to playing with the depths of individual words, we are normally sensitive to the fact more than 90% of a word’s value in a particular context may lie beneath the surface. That does not mean, however, that we always see the larger picture.

It is not uncommon for a writer to become almost paralyzed while composing something, when the ideal word continues to elude us. It is almost “literally” painful to have to settle for a substitute, when we suspect the perfect word is floating somewhere just beyond our reach.

Dodging mundane words is not easy. They are common, in part at least, because they are so simple and easy to plug into sentences. And so, we “go” to the store, when we might just as easily “drive,” “walk,” “ride,” or even “hitchhike.” A movie is described as “good,” when readers would value a vivid word, such as, “suspenseful,” “hilarious,” “complex,” “moving,” or even “groundbreaking.”

Reflections on the Psalms, one of C.S. Lewis’ gems, explores the beauty of the Bible’s hymnal. “The Psalms,” he notes, “are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Because of this, they have nourished the worship lives of Jew and Christian alike, for thousands of years.

Even without a theological education, Lewis offers great insight into the Psalms. “I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” He candidly discusses passages he initially found difficult to embrace, as well as those which soar to spiritual and poetic heights. The following comes from his discussion of Psalm 119, which is skillfully composed around an alphabetic acrostic.

“As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. . . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”

Done like embroidery, stitch by stitch.” Many writers, I suspect, will appreciate that description. While we are sometimes forced to throw something together in a rush, the patchwork results offend our sensitivities.

Even when writing rather pedestrian things like much of our email correspondence, most writers seek to employ lively verbiage. It’s a valuable exercise, after all, to consider the pace of all of our work, and not simply those words we hope to see “published.” And, having written something worth reading, there is one more consideration.

Reviewing what we have written is well worth the time required. And, as Editor David Mills suggested in First Things, our examination should include any unintentional acrostics we may have created. After all, no respectable writer would ever wish to, even accidentally, offend their readers.