Every now and again, something happens to wake me out the routine of religious duty in which by choice I live, to remind me that I have another life focused on words, on their meaning and beauty in the works of great writers of many languages, especially perhaps, in poetry. This is a life which I share with my wife who has an incomparable memory for such words, and with my late best friend, Bob Cummings, whose knowledge of the history of literature was the envy of other great scholars. To some of my readers this may seem a kind of life which is a bit precious and privileged, at some distance from the “real world.” But no, for me it has always helped my engagement with mundane reality that there is another dimension where words are neither banal nor ugly but come dancing with precision, rhythm, melody and meaning. If verbal langauge is one of the defining abilities of humanity, then surely its good use is one of our defining glories. Sometimes the great words may be profound like the opening of George Herbert’s poem:
“Love bade me welcome but my soul drew back
guilty of dust and sin”
or they may look quite ordinary. When Hugh McDiarmid was asked for his favourite line of poetry, he surprised the questioner by answering:
“ye arena Mary Morrison”
yet I agree that it memorably expresses the vexed particularity of romantic love.
Belonging to this world of words means that one’s everyday existence is accompanied and occasionally pierced through, with words from other times or places that make it harder to live superficially. I am not claiming some virtue here; I like superficiality as much as the next man or woman, but my heritage of great language is also intrusive.
These reflections are inspired by two experiences this week. One was pausing at the end of my almost daily run on the beach to look at the sea on a bright spring morning, only to have come into my head, Shakespeare’s lovely platitude,
“Like as the waves do make towards the pebbled shore
so do our minutes hasten to their end;”
Did I want reminded of that at my age? No, but the words stayed with me long enough to set me thinking about my dear dead ones, and more selfishly, about a bucket list of desired experiences before I snuff it.
The other was reading an obituary of the poet Derek Walcott, whose work I have enjoyed over many years. Shortly afterwards I came across a review of his latest published book, “Morning, Paramin” a collection of poems written to accompany an equal number of paintings by Scottish- born artist, Peter Doig, which I ordered immediately and received yesterday. It is one of the most beautfiful books I have seen, with each painting answered by a short poem on the facing page. Peter Doig is a figurative painter who focuses on people and places. These paintings are mainly inages from Trinidad where he lives. Walcott is a renowned poet, who is capable of great simplicity, wit and melody, in the same poem, as in the one about his dead wife which begins:
“To me the waking day is Margaret:”
It is a privilege to possess such a book and to have the meanness of my own perceptions challenged by the colourful generosity of its authors’. I guess that’s the heart of my citizenship of this other world: through good words it allows me to particpate in lives that are more vibrant than my own; to enlarge my experience by entering into the deeper experiences of others. When Virgil wrote:
“Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”
literally, There are the tears of things and mortalities touch the mind,
he was not just expressing the sorrow of existence in great words, but also reacting to the great words of his predecessors.
In fact of course this human ability to enter, through words, into the lives of others, is also central to my religious life, since it is by that same ability that I can make contact with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. For how does that passionate, wise, humorous, courageous, loving first century Jew burst into my twenty first century existence if not through his astonishing words recorded in the gospels:
You have heard that it was said by them of old times, ” You shall love your neigjbour and hate your enemy, but now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.”
The words are such a refusal of all normal human consciousness and conduct, such an explosion of alien intelligence into our world, that it’s no wonder my tradition tells me I cannot enter into them without the help of the alien intelligence it calls the Holy Spirit. If nevertheless, I have entered into them, they give me access to what my tradition has called the humanity of God.
“Oh the Lion of Judah shall break every chain
and give us the victory again and again”
Bass drum and kettle drum and brass cornet
backed by the Salvation Army choir, black, few and scrawny
at Chisel Street corner seventy years ago. It breaks
my heart quietly every time I hear it.
( A Lion is in the streets. Morning, Paramin, Derek Walcott and Peter Doig, Faber &Faber)
Images by Peter Doig