Sunday 31 January 2010

An honest English face

The setting: a Channel steamer, travelling from Boulogne to Folkestone. The hero of Charlotte Yonge's novel Heartease overhears a conversation between two disreputable-looking men, in which they are being vaguely disrespectful about some unnamed people. He realises that he knows one of the men and the people they are talking about, but they don't know him. They notice he is listening:

As he spoke, the stranger turned on him an honest English face, the lips compressed into an expression of the utmost contempt, while indignation flashed into the penetrating gray eyes that looked on him steadily. His bold defiant gaze fell, quailing and scowling; he seemed to become small, shrink away, and disappeared.

Such a Victorian scene. I wish such things could really happen.

Saturday 30 January 2010


To God
by Robert H

LORD, I am like to mistletoe,
Which has no root, and cannot grow
Or prosper but by that same tree
It clings about ; so I by Thee.
What need I then to fear at all,
So long as I about Thee crawl ?
But if that tree should fall and die,
Tumble shall heav'n, and down will I.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Wither's Rocking Hymn

Another Oxford Book of Carols classic. This is Vaughan Williams at his best - sweet without being sentimental. The words are by George Wither (1588-1667).

1. Sweet baby, sleep; what ails my dear?
What ails my darling thus to cry?
Be still, my child, and lend thine ear
To hear me sing thy lullaby.
My pretty lamb, forbear to weep;
Be still, my dear; sweet baby, sleep.

2. Whilst thus thy lullaby I sing,
For thee great blessings ripening be;
Thine eldest brother is a king,
And hath a kingdom bought for thee.
Sweet baby, then, forebear to weep,
Be still, my dear; sweet baby, sleep.

3. When God with us was dwelling here,
In little babes he took delight:
Such innocents as thou, my dear,
Are ever precious in his sight.
Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep;
Be still, my dear; sweet baby, sleep.

4. A little infant once was he,
And strength in weakness then was laid
Upon his virgin mother's knee,
That power to thee might be conveyed.
Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep;
Be still, my dear; sweet baby, sleep.

5. The King of kings when he was born,
Had not so much for outward ease;
By him such dressings were not worn,
Nor suchlike swaddling-clothes as these.
Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep;
Be still, my dear; sweet baby, sleep.

6. The wants that He did then sustain
Have purchased wealth, my babe, for thee,
And by His torments and His pain
Thy rest and ease securëd be.
Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep;
Be still, my dear; sweet baby, sleep.

Cæli enarrant gloriam Dei...

The average Catholic Mass regularly provides a number of trials for a person who wants to worship without being distracted by infelicitous language or music. One of the hardest - for me, at any rate - is the Responsorial Psalm, which every week, without fail, is one of the oddest linguistic constructions ever to masquerade as a sacred text. This morning we were treated to a few verses from Psalm 18, which I actually managed to forget (until I got home and looked it up) is one of my favourite psalms. This is the whole thing:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handy-work.
One day telleth another, and one night certifieth another.
There is neither speech nor language, but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words into the ends of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course.
It goeth forth from the uttermost part of the heaven, and runneth about unto the end of it again, and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of the Lord is an undefiled law, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple.
The statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, and endureth for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is thy servant taught, and in keeping of them there is great reward.
Who can tell how oft he offendeth? O cleanse thou me from my secret faults.
Keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me: so shall I be undefiled, and innocent from the great offence.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Quite apart from anything else, this is an extraordinary piece of poetry. The version we hear in church has not a trace of its fluent elegance, its glorious imagery. We heard the flattest, most pedestrian bit of prose you can imagine. Here:

The law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul.
The rule of the Lord is to be trusted, it gives wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, they gladden the heart.
The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is holy, abiding for ever.
The decrees of the Lord are truth and all of them just.

May the spoken words of my mouth, the thoughts of my heart,
win favour in your sight, O Lord, my rescuer, my rock.

I suppose we must leave aside the fact that this omits the first half of the psalm - that majestic picture of night and day, planet and star, all time and all creation rejoicing together in the greatness of God - and the verse about "secret sins" which I personally have always found a helpful prayer; that might not be the translator's fault. I can just about forgive the first three verses, flat and uninspiring as they are.

But what kind of unimaginative person would choose, in translating that portion of the psalm, to omit the verse about the law of the Lord being more precious than gold and sweeter than the honeycomb? That's the poetic climax of the three preceding verses; the rhetorical structure, which has been repetitive, changes to give force to the climax. That is the beautiful, memorable image which fixes the previous three verses in the mind.

Something about "the spoken words of my mouth" (as opposed to the words of the mouth which are just mimed?) is no substitute.

All the psalms at Mass are like this - every week. They're not exactly offensive, the way some bad music is; to anyone who cares about cadence, though, they grate badly. I say this as someone who has had to sing these texts as a cantor on numerous occasions, and struggled desperately to find profundity in them worth bringing out in the music. I choose the music to set the psalms I sing very carefully, but when you're stuck with banal words, there is only so much you can do to bring beauty to it. At least we heard it read this morning and not sung, because the repetition makes this an especially tough psalm to sing without sounding like a strange robotic machine (and notice how the fourth verse is shorter than all the rest? That will catch the congregation out every time. The psalm translations we have to use are full of such needless snags to comprehension). Eventually I found a Gregorian melody to sing it to, and then it was a thousand times better. But that doesn't improve the words.

Luckily we're singing the whole thing at Evensong tonight. Anglican chant. Proper dignified translation. Poetry, and praise. I will be happy.

Saturday 23 January 2010


Over the Christmas vacation, I found myself in the little village of Ickham in Kent. Ickham is right next door to Wickhambreaux (though I think it's just coincidence that the names rhyme so neatly) but its church had a very different feel. That might just be because we went on a winter's day - Old Year's Day - and it was already growing dark when we got there. But then again, it might not. It's fascinating to me how two churches which are so close - not ten minutes' walk apart - can be so different.

Would you like to know something about the Anglo-Saxon history of Ickham? Of course you would:

'Offa, king of Mercia, in the year 791, gave to Christ-church, in Canterbury, fifteen plough-lands in Ickham, Perhamsted, and Roching; and in several dens in the forest of Andred, the pannage of hogs, which he granted free from all secular service and regal tribute, which was afterwards increased by one Athelward, who in the year 958, gave more lands here to that church. After which this manor continued part of that church's possessions, and on the division made by archbishop Lanfranc between himself and the priory, it was allotted to the share of the latter; accordingly, in the survey of Domesday, it is thus entered:
In Dunebafort hundred, the archbishop himself holds Gecham. It was taxed at four sulings. The arable land is twelve carucates. In demesne there are three, and twenty-nine villeins, with sixty cottagers having sixteen carucates and an half. There is a church, and four mills of one hundred shillings, and thirty five acres of meadow, and wood for the pannage of thirty hogs. The whole manor was worth, in the time of King Edward the Confessor and afterwards, twenty-two pounds, now thirty-two pounds. Of the land of this manor, William his tenant holds as much as is worth seven pounds.'

Everywhere in this part of Kent, you see the influence of Canterbury. We're far in the east here, and it's a surprise to me that the king of Mercia ever owned land here, powerful as Offa was. You see there was a church here as far back as the Domesday Book, but the present building is thirteenth-century. Look as its spindly spire:

I bet the person who built that was proud of it. The chimneys are part of a charming redbrick Elizabethan (I guess) house which was so pretty it almost distracted me from the church. This is a great part of the world for the game of "imagine if we lived there."

This is the view looking back from the church across the green - see how dark it was at three in the afternoon! The white-tipped towers, in case you're not familiar with this most Kentish of sights, are oasthouses, for the drying of hops. Nothing could be more evocative of the Garden of England.

It was beginning to feel ominous, what with the dark and the cold and the bare tree-branches stretched out to the sky, but the church seemed a refuge from it all...

... until we couldn't find the lights in the church. It looked like this:

This is, of course, really the best way to view medieval churches - they weren't built with electric light! - but it is also quite a shock. You feel your way around, trying to make out the monuments in the dim light; dependent on those high windows, able to see only what they show you. Imagine coming to Evensong on a winter's night like this, walking across the fields in the damp or in the snow, with only that thin spire to show the way; and the darkness in the church, with pools of candlelight, and shadows and vaults of blackness beyond the light.

There was a large Christmas tree on one side of the nave, and I got a little obsessed with trying to capture on camera how strange and surreal it was in the near-dark to brush against the branches of an almost invisible tree. They often say that a cathedral is like a forest; well, here the pillars and the tree really were soaring up together. I felt like Lucy in the wardrobe, pushing past the fur coats and suddenly finding herself among the fir trees.

I loved the way the glass ornaments looked against the window-light:

Nothing could be more different from the April day we went to Wickhambreaux, basking in the light and colour of its extraordinary windows, surrounded by the lilies of Easter; the last day of the year is a very different place. It has its own beauties.

Friday 22 January 2010

Lord, for thy tender mercies sake

This is just beautiful.*

* I will spare you the lengthy meditation about the etymology and history of the phrase "for x's sake" which this piece inspired. Be grateful.

Monday 18 January 2010

The World's Desire

Christmas seems like a long time ago. Less than a month ago, I was looking forward to going home; then we had Christmas, New Year, Epiphany; I came back to Oxford, and went away to a conference, and came back again, and that was a week ago... and now it's the middle of January. I've read a lot (most of it rubbish!) and thought a lot; my mind is crowded. January feels long and cold, and the snow whose arrival induced a temporary feeling of holiday-time has melted and gone. Even at church, it's Ordinary Time again.

It's something to be glad of that time goes on - that every season has its beauties, and that we're alive to enjoy them. As the hymn says, "new every morning is the love / our waking and uprising prove". But I hope it's not wrong to look back to Christmas, to that warmth and light in the darkness, and find comfort there; even if it is facing backwards, it gives strength for the long cold months ahead.

The World's Desire

1. The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

2. The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

3. The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

4. The Christ-child stood at Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

G.K. Chesterton

Friday 15 January 2010

Summer in Winter

Every year, I spend most of the month of December with The Oxford Book of Carols permanently attached to my hand. By this time I know it inside and out and back to front, but every year I still find something new and surprising. This year it was the song to which the editors give the title 'Summer in Winter' (I wish I could post the tune, but I can't find it on the internet. Go check out the book - page 250!). The words are excerpted from a longer sequence of verses by Richard Crashaw, a seventeenth-century Catholic convert. I'd never heard of him before, but his life story is extremely interesting. Do read it, but read the poem first.

Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble infant lay.
The babe looked up and shewed his face;
In spite of darkness it was day.
It was thy day, sweet, and did rise
Not from the East, but from thine eyes.

Winter chid aloud, and sent
The angry North to wage his wars.
The North forgot his fierce intent,
And left perfumes instead of scars.
By those sweet eyes' persuasive powers,
Where he meant frost, he scattered flowers.

We saw thee in thy balmy nest,
Bright dawn of our eternal day!
We saw thine eyes break from their east
And chase the trembling shades away.
We saw thee, and we blessed the sight,
We saw thee by thine own sweet light.

Welcome, all wonder in one sight,
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man!
Great little one! whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

picture: a window in Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire