In a parish I once knew, long ago, there was a splendid cabinet in the vestry. Made from fine timber, it was a large chest with many drawers – in which, liturgical vestments were stowed. It had been given in memory of their father by two members of the choir.
When I was present to lead worship on a Sunday I often spent time in the vestry before the liturgy began. On several occasions these members of the choir would voice concern about something to do with ‘father’s chest’. An alien object had been placed on the top; or a drawer was sticking out; on more than one occasion it appeared to have been moved an inch one way or the other. The cry would go up: ‘what have they done to father’s chest?’
Over time a question began to form in my mind. Had this object really been given? The continuing bonds of attachment seemed so great, so proprietary, that it was hard to think of this as a gift that was given free, unencumbered and without strings.
“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.
Matthew 6: 3-4 NRSV
On Ash Wednesday I think there is much to consider about giving and detachment. The ashes remind us that our physical life is temporary, and that all we own will one day be dust. More significantly, God gives Jesus without any sense or implication of ownership. Horrifically, human beings did with this gift what happens to far too many lives. Even on the cross and hearing the cry of despair, God is silent. This is a gift – a true gift, and therefore God can make no claim even on that desperate day we shall mark six weeks on Friday.
All out genuine acts of letting go echo something of this divine gift. If we give we can never claim ownership or, indeed, any greater interest than anyone else. Perhaps this is why gifts are so rare. In his poem ‘Walking Away’ C Day-Lewis reflects on the moment his young child disappears, momentarily, for the first time:
That hesitant figure, eddying away Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem, Has something I never quite grasp to convey About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay
I have had worse partings, but none that so Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly Saying what God alone could perfectly show – How selfhood begins with a walking away, And love is proved in the letting go.
Over ten thousand feet above sea level in central Peru it was surprising to find a whole industry dedicated to the production of salt. The Maras salt pans go back over a millennium to the Chanapata culture. As this civilisation gave way to the Inca Empire, they continued to provide their distinctive pink salt far and wide. At such a distance from the sea, and at such altitude, the steady supply of salt seems miraculous. Long ago, this land was below the sea and left salt hidden in the hills. A spring which runs through the complex of underground passages this enables the striking ‘pink gold’ to be extracted from the small stream that emerges above the pans. The rights to salt production are handed down through the generations, back to a time now lost to memory, with tourism adding further value to the enterprise. It is hard work, but the rewards can be significant.
For all of my life salt has been readily available and cheap. This was not always the case and for most of human history salt has been a precious commodity. In the Roman Empire it was taxed, and served a wide variety of uses – religious sacrifice, medicinal, fish preservation and, of course, the seasoning of food. Like anything that is taxed, this also made salt political. In Matthew chapter five, when Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth’, it follows only a few verses after the calling of the first disciples. In a way largely missed today, the leap from those involved in fishing, to an image of salt, was entirely natural. Everyone was connected to salt in some way; and no one doubted its value.
In the Jewish Scriptures there are intriguing references to the ‘covenant of salt’. In the various covenants God made, such as with Noah and Abraham, there is a theme of constancy (at least on God’s part). Probably due to its properties of preservation, salt was often used for these moments of commitment. In Numbers 18:19 we hear about the relationship of God to the people as ‘a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants’. A commitment made in salt was expected to endure.
In Greek and Latin the words for ‘salt’ also carry the sense of wit and sparkle. Salt put the zest into a meal, transforming the plain into the delicious. As an image used by Jesus (‘salt of the earth’) to address the crowds who came to hear him, it suggests that those who are alive to God should be the people changing the taste of living. Like the image of yeast used by Jesus, this isn’t about changing what would become the Christian Church, but about how the baptised are called to transform the world.
is it really the salt that really matters or is it the bitterness that wakes us up and lets us know what this life is all about
Ric Bastasa, 2009, The Salt of the Earth
Salt is undoubtedly a powerful and necessary part of our lives, but it is not benign. We talk about ‘rubbing salt into the wound’. When we distrust what we are being told we ‘take it with a pinch of salt’. Spilling it is seen by many as bad luck. The language about salt reminds us that anything significant can be used for good or ill. As Ric Bastasa conveys in his poem, we can spend too long wondering about the salt – and not enough time thinking about the changes it brings. Portrayed as the salt of the earth, the crowd was being encouraged to preserve its sparkle; never to lose its wit and flavour. Jesus may be suggesting – by comparison – that the religious leaders had grown bland and stale: ‘but if salt has lost its taste… It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot’. Without the responsibility to enliven others these leaders had failed in their calling: to enable people to be God’s salt for the world.
Part of what was so moving about Thursday’s events, was the experience common to so many families of sudden and unexpected news; the dash to a bedside; the realisation that life is ending. As a hospital chaplain I witnessed on many occasions the anxiety of families as to whether everyone would get there in time, the inevitable sorrow once the moment of death arrived, and the imperceptible shift in relationships that death precipitates. In many instances a death can be the end of an era. The moment when some familiar conversations about long-deceased relatives and neighbours are no longer possible.
The BBC series, The Hollow Crown, began in 2012 and featured several of Shakespeare’s history plays. It was a tour de force of casting and direction and will no doubt remain an important part of the BBC’s archive. One of the sublimely acted moments featured Simon Russell-Beale as the comic character, Falstaff. Sitting by a fireside at night, Falstaff reminisces with Shallow and Silence about the days of their youth. It is at once a sad and honest recognition of our mortality, and the days that pass so quickly.
Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.
King Henry IV, part II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare 1660
In the conversation about their past, the protagonists avoid detail. Although the play is set in another era, looking back over the 55 years from the date of its performance, audiences would recognise how dangerous it was to discuss history. The beliefs, convictions and actions of one period could bring plaudits at the time but a decade later put someone in peril of trial and execution. It was much safer to say simply: ‘Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen!’
We do not now live in a country that presents this kind of risk. There may be a social expectation about public conduct and comments during the period of official mourning for the Queen, but there are no punitive sanctions. We can speak about the past, and voice convictions that may be at odds with the prevailing mood. This is not a freedom enjoyed everywhere and, travelling in Cuba some years ago, I was aware of how cautious local people could be in speaking about their society and its history.
The title for the BBC series is taken from Richard III and concerns the mortality of kings: ‘within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court’. Despite all the layers of privilege and deference, sovereigns are mortal and death can come quickly. The empty crown is the enduring motif of royalty, with its void filled instantly, silently and seamlessly, the moment its last occupant dies. In the past this could be contested and fought over, whereas now the British monarchy’s succession is no longer disputed. After a reign of astonishing longevity, while its trappings and function may change, the likely succession of sovereigns appears guaranteed deep into the 22nd century.
While in no sense a presence in people’s immediate relationships, the departure of the Queen will be felt by many as the loss of a vital connection with the past. Her experience of WWII, and Prime Ministers from Churchill to Truss, highlight a consistency spanning generations. On the news of her death my thoughts went to my mother and grandmother, both keen supporters of the Queen. As an early and life-long member of the Mothers’ Union, my grandmother was an active participant in an organisation for which the Queen was Patron up until the moment of her death.
The poet John Donne was 31 years old when Elizabeth I died in 1603. His subsequent rise to become Dean of St Paul’s relied on Royal patronage, and was accompanied by the composition of some of the finest Metaphysical poetry in the English Language. Donne was very concerned with death, and one of his most memorable texts adopts the idea of literature to explore his theme.
When someone dies: “one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another”.
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; Meditation XVII.
Understandably, the Queen’s life contained a series of volumes – possibly its own library – of public interactions and comments. Not to mention the private moments, the scattered leaves, that are also part of our story. She is now being translated into posterity and, spiritually, to a better place. To give Shakespeare the final word, even a long and notable Royal reign is fleeting in the sweep of human history. Our time on stage comes to an end and, when the ‘insubstantial pageant has faded’, no grandeur alters the truth we all hold in common: that ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’.
Wharram Percy is perhaps England’s most celebrated deserted village. What had been a thriving community set in the rolling and rich landscape of the Yorkshire wolds, expired from a range of causes. There is probably no clear identification of a seminal bow, but a host of factors eventually led to the eviction of the last two families, Even if the Black Death had not impacted on the village directly, it led to a host of vacancies in city trades and no doubt acted as a magnet for younger workers who sensed that the tide was turning on rural life. Famously, in The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith depicts a bucolic haven that gradually gives way to the corrosive influence of commerce and the appetite for wealth. Goldsmith’s observations omit the pressures and constraints of rural living, but the gist of the changes he describes have left echoes across England. It is estimated that 3,000 villages became deserted during the Middle Ages.
‘Here as I take my solitary rounds, Amidst thy tangled walks, and ruined grounds, And, many a year elapsed, returned to view Where once the cottage stood, the Hawthorne grew, Remembrance wakes with all her busy train, Swells at my breast, and turns the past to pain’.
The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith, 1770
A generation earlier a similar theme was explored by Thomas Gray in his famous Elegy. The subject here is not a deserted village but rather the individuals who lived and died in an English village. Like Goldsmith’s later work, the virtues of a simple life are extolled and contrasted with the vanity and pomp of new wealth. It marks the emergence of a theme which lasted for the following two centuries – and includes the work of the Romantic poets. It was becoming clear that a way of life was ending in England and there were plenty of people who lamented its loss. It must be said that, on the whole, these writers were not the ones living without the convenience of a growing range of emerging technologies or, if they did, it was through choice. Even today, wi-fi access is an issue where rural communities often have to wait long after towns for the delivery of services most people take for granted. This was true for everything from measures to improve public health to electricity and the telephone. On a personal note, it was my parent’s generation which was the last in our family to have a living connection to people still working the land. In the 18th century most urban dwellers would have had links to relatives living and working in a rural context. They would have heard at first hand how life was changing.
In more recent literature, such as Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes, the focus is not on deserted towns or distant generations, but on the supplanting of one people by another. Hughes observes changes that saw one set of trades giving ground to new occupations – or no occupation. He writes reflectively on life in the Calder Valley as industries declined and nature reclaimed the land while sealing the scars of human labour. In poems such as Crown Point Pensioners Hughes commemorates the ‘survivors’ who reached advanced age despite the legacy of war and the demise of traditional industries. Published in 1979 the collection of poems could not have been more timely: it was the year when Thatcherism began to eviscerate much of the North with devastating effect. Today, nature has indeed reclaimed many places once reduced to rubble, but the damage wrought by political change in towns and villages has passed down the generations. As Dr Jane Roberts observes in a paper published in 2009, drawing on her experiences as a GP working in Easington, government policies have frequently had the effect of disadvantaging people in communities where structural violence has had the greatest consequence. Narratives of individual improvement only add to the sense of failure for those whose life-opportunities have been dismantled and removed.
‘As long as we fail to acknowledge and confront the realities of patients whose illnesses and distress are often the manifest expression of the structural violence which encapsulates their lives we collude with the system and deny patients their basic human right to health and equal access to healthcare resources’.
Roberts, J. H. (2009). Structural violence and emotional health: a message from Easington, a former mining community in northern England. Anthropology & Medicine, 16(1), 37-48.
The last two families in Wharram Percy were evicted sometime around 1500 (to make way for sheep). It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like to abandon the village and make a fresh start elsewhere. There will always be change in the economic and social life of communities, but there is no doubt that some forms of change are better supported than others. When we understand that structural violence is a choice, rather than an inevitability, we create space for society to act in ways that promote a more inclusive social justice. In England, in the 2020s, we may all be forced to learn what the victims of capitalism around the world have known for centuries. Our economic way of life accelerates the acquisition of resources by the rich as it simultaneously increases the relative (and absolute) poverty of the people who generate that wealth. The question as to whether our economic system can continue to widen this gap will become more urgent this winter with steep rises in energy costs. To paraphrase Goldsmith, the deserted villages are a graphic example of the dramatic change ‘Where wealth accumulates’ and people rot.
A literal reading of the story of The Flood would surely see God in the dock for genocide. Apart from one family, life in the world is washed away by a Deity impatient with the sinful state of humanity. According the Genesis 5:7, it is a decision to ‘blot out form the earth the human beings I have created’. In the York Mystery Plays performing this week, it is only Mrs Noah who makes a ‘din’ at this sudden and devastating loss of life:
But Noah, where are now all our kin And company we knew before?
The resonance of these words to audiences that lived through plague years can only be imagined. People survived and wondered what had become of their neighbours; their extended families; and their friends. All the guilds that performed in the plays would have experiences the painful deaths of colleagues, with the plays being performed after a gap caused by the worst excesses of infection. Perhaps a full cast was harder to find and familiar figures were noticeable by their absence?
Some of the problems of the story are touched on in the narratives of the play. At the end, when the waters subside, an innocent son asks: ‘how shall this life be led Since none are in this world but we?’ Populating a new world from one family raises its own problems and risks. There is humour in the son’s question but also a serious point about the regeneration of humanity. In the streets of York such blunt questions were permitted in a way that was unlikely to be acceptable in the Minster and churches of the city.
In England the Archbishop of York proclaimed that the plague was “surely… caused by the sins of men who, made complacent by their prosperity, forgot the beauty of the most high Giver”.
Understandably, and perhaps addressing the unspoken questions of an audience wondering about the repetition of such a catastrophe, one son asks whether the empire of the world will now last forever. Noah gives the assurance that there will not be another flood – but that the world ‘shall once be waste with fire, And never worth to world again’. The final cataclysm will be a blazing end to God’s creation. In current circumstances it might indeed feel that this is where we are heading – although the Deity only needs to sit back and watch as we pursue lifestyles that may lead to this ultimate conflagration. As the Mystery Play wagons roll through York this week they will follow a pattern, and repeat the words, used back into the mists of time. In every age they offer food for thought and hopefully, entertainment, which reflects on both our place in the world and the consequences of our actions.
We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain, Our oars promises from God. We live—and the rest of Humanity dies. We travel upon the waves, fastening Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies. But between Heaven and us is an opening, A porthole for a supplication.
The New Noah, by Adonis, translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa
I was very sad when John Donne died. This wasn’t recently (in fact, 1631), nor is it a plot spoiler, but is retold in the culmination of Katherine Rundell’s absorbing recent biography of the poet. Like so many in his generation Donne had a momento mori close by on his desk – a reminder of mortality present at all times. To modern sentiments this may seem mawkish, but in an era when sudden death was far from rare, it was wise to live with an active awareness that your current experience could came to an abrupt full stop.
The awareness of death is a characteristic consistent with Donne’s relentless attention to the material world, no matter how grim or gritty it got. There was nothing too impolite or unseemly to be dragged into the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral and shared with the multitudes. Life, Donne told his hearers, is like a journey between a goal and a place of execution. A short trip that ran from crime to punishment, darkness to death. Except that this wasn’t the lesson of his analogy. Donne was provoking the congregation to contrast our human inattention with the alertness of someone knowingly going to their death. As he put it, on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn, no one sleeps. Yet, Donne argues, we are heading towards the same certainty spending significant parts of the journey asleep. His call echoes the Biblical and Advent theme that ‘now it is time to wake out of sleep’. To be stirred up, ‘now, in the time of this mortal life’.
Donne is not a wholly attractive figure. As a financially challenged poet his obsequious letters to various grandees grate in a more egalitarian age. His rise to high office in the Church of England required careful nurturing of royal connections. Despite this, he brought to the Deanery a fierce intellect; an astonishing mastery of language; and a theological sensitivity to the complexity of the times. The combination of his gifts and experiences enabled Donne to further what we might now call ‘the Anglican Project’ – establishing the groundwork for an expression of Christianity shaped by the heritage and nuances of English experience. There was certainly an appetite for his approach, with large crowds flocking to hear him preach. A few years ago, an experiment took place to see how audible Donne’s sermons would have been from the outside pulpit at St Paul’s, surrounded by hundreds of people.
Perhaps the most curious, visceral and haunting detail in Rundell’s book describes Donne’s preparation for death. As the end approached Donne saw its prospect as one final dramatic moment. He ordered an urn and shroud to be made, then lay in the shroud so an artist could sketch his appearance at full scale. This became the image from which his statue was carved following his death – still in St Paul’s today, one of very few to survive the Great Fire of 1666.
“Donne made himself ready; part, perhaps, of a desire to have things done exactly as he had imagined them – an artist of ferocious precision, dying precisely. His last words – ‘I were miserable if I might not die.'”
Rundell, K, ‘Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne’, Faber 2022 p. 290
It is fitting that Donne is most often remembered for his poem beginning ‘No man is an island’. Fitting because it addresses two themes which ran throughout Donne’s life: mortality and connectedness. He lived at a time when the fusion of the material and spiritual, the sensory and the abstract, was an acceptable way to write about the world. Given the ubiquity of death, including young family members, mortality made Donne’s life an ever changing landscape. Undoubtedly these losses were never welcome, but they contributed to a vivid celebration of life and determination to be awake and alert. Donne notices the world in a way that comes from an acute sense that each and every day is gift that will not be repeated.
Sadly, neither music nor sculptures stop tanks. Military bands, uniforms and insignia may all demonstrate the way art can be conscripted into morale boosting service, but these are details rather than the main event. Many people will be tempted to see artistic talent in current circumstances as a ‘nice to have’ at a time when many people in Ukraine are searching for bread, shelter, safety and warmth. Yet the countless social media clips of singing children, firefighter violinists, and heavily sandbagged civic statues, suggest a deep determination to make sure that a people’s culture endures.
I am a great admirer of the ceramic sculptures created by Antonia Salmon. In a recent circulation to her contacts, Antonia reflects on the state of the world and the point of art:
“In one sense it could be easy to regard the arts as frivolous at a critical time such as this. Both the quality of our Presence and regard for our fellow human beings, and for our planet as a whole, is vitally important at this time. I’m certain that in whatever way you are able you will contribute to the awareness and growth of human connection, to love and to beauty.”
Antonia Salmon, Spring Update 13 March 2022, email quoted with permission
In the same week as receiving Antonia’s email I heard an excellent reflection on lament. This was given by Wendy Lloyd in a Lent series for York Minster. With the title Prayer as Lament and Hope, Wendy set out the idea of prayerful lament as a way of ensuring we continue to hold the vision of how things could (or should) be, especially when life is at its most difficult and destructive. All the acts of art or culture we are seeing in Ukraine suggest that in adversity people need to sustain a vision that amounts to far more than nostalgia. It constitutes a progressive hope focused on a time when all these slivers of Sabbath become the life we lead. As we maintain and re-pattern our creative senses and connectedness, art can make us restless with many aspects of the world in which we are living. As such, lament prevents us colluding with the failings and distortions of the world. In her reflection Wendy quoted an excellent article from a recent issue of The Financial Times:
Lament understands that naming reality is part of what enables one to address it and move towards a new reality. It is a way of bearing witness to injustice when we see it, to the unfairness of life, and yet also to a deeper belief in a world where we can seek help and have the agency to make decisions and take action so that pain and suffering are not the accepted order of the day.
When we see courageous acts of creativity and beauty in the midst of horror it reminds us all that we cannot afford to abandon the very things that make human beings their best selves. The arts have an invaluable role in both naming the injustices of life whilst simultaneously expressing the hope and possibility of something far better. In Lent, for Christians, the temptations of Jesus illustrate the tawdry shortcuts that will never achieve the splendour of what might be – of the time when all creation finds its true peace and purpose.
Sermon preached at the Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York Epiphany 2 2022
Today we continue in the season of Epiphany – weeks when in the darkness of winter we reflect the light of Christ come into our world. I was going to say, ‘reflect on’ – but the truth of Epiphany is not that we simply contemplate the light shining in the world, but that we invite this light into our lives – to bear something of the brightness of Christ in all that we do, day by day, and among those we meet.
It can feel at the moment, as we listen to the news, that there’s an awful lot of darkness compared with what we may feel to be our faint and flickering lights. Perhaps it was always thus – and our calling to hold our light steady is even more important when the shadows lengthen.
One of my most valuable books is a 1939 edition of William Temple’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Written in nearby Bishopthorpe, when he was Archbishop of York, his reflections on the Gospel are the wise words of both a pastor and a theologian. Yes, it comes bearing the marks of a different era, but many of the points Temple makes are pertinent today. Perhaps even more so in our recent experience because it was written in the upheavals of war.
The turning of water into wine is the first miracle John describes in what we might call the long epiphany of his Gospel. Out of the four evangelists John is the most consciously theological – he conveys to us what the life of Jesus means for all places; for all times; and for all people. It is magisterial in its scope.
Yet given the scale of what John addresses, his account of Jesus is rooted in the real and the everyday. There was a wedding. Across millennia and across cultures, weddings are profound moments of change. Two people become one. Families are bound together – friends rejoice and dance. If you’ve ever seen the Veronese painting ‘The Wedding at Cana’ you can’t miss the sense of overflowing conviviality on his vast canvas. Everyone is talking, laughing and rejoicing – apart from one figure: in serenity, Jesus gazes out at the viewer, a still point amid the commotion. In this picture the figure of worldly splendour is the groom. Decked out in his wedding finery he holds a champagne coupe, staring at it in perplexity as the chief steward tells his tale. ‘How could this have happened?’
John begins this account with the casual comment that it took place ‘on the third day’. Four words that for any Christian signify not the start of Jesus’ ministry, but its joyful conclusion. Another day of reunions and delight: the day of resurrection.
Christ is not a grim task-master in obedience to whom life becomes gloomy. He compared himself to children playing at weddings.
William Temple, ‘Readings in St John’s Gospel’ 1939, Macmillan
This is a miracle that marks the difference between the ways of men and the ways of God. The steward is bewildered. The organisers of this feast have not done what they were supposed to do: give the guests quality wine at the start, and then they won’t notice when you switch to the cheap stuff later. No. What God is doing in Christ isn’t about what we expect – it’s about what we need.
The 17th century Metaphysical poet Robert Crashaw described it with beautifully economy: ‘the modest water saw its God and blushed’.
Offered to God – brought before Jesus – what we may consider the modest water of our lives can be transformed. Perhaps we think the best years are behind us – that the time we have to offer now is weak and watery compared with our past vigour. Tell it to God.
Water become wine.
Faith is all about offering what we have, not what would be ideal. The disciples weren’t the intellectual stars of their generation. They weren’t conspicuously wealthy or influential, they don’t appear to have been known to the religious authorities. Jesus took what was offered and forged the foundations of the church. Time and again people came to him who had little to give, and he took it and blessed it and broke it – and it was transformed.
We may feel like we hold a flickering light of faith – so fragile a gust of wind might extinguish it. This Gospel says ‘don’t worry’. Bring to God what you have. Share what may seem watered down and weak, and Jesus will use whatever we have, and it will be changed.
In a world where there is so much darkness God asks us to offer what we have. Because, when we place it into the hands of Jesus, who knows what it will become. Two thousand years ago they brought him water at a wedding: today we share wine that becomes the life-blood of our faith – and we go out refreshed, to be God’s light in our world.
The Sunday after John Betjeman died Philip Larkin went to church. I was in St Mary’s Cottingham for Evensong when the familiar figure of the university librarian entered – just after the service had started. While Larkin was well known for church going, he preferred to make sure there was ‘nothing going on’ inside before crossing the threshold. I’ve no idea whether or not he stayed to the end, but his silent presence made a poignant homage to the senior poet. In death, Betjeman got Larkin into a church service, which would probably have raised a chuckle from the poet renowned for his passionate interest in all things ecclesiastical.
Like most undergraduates at Hull, I had very little to do with Larkin. He appeared during induction to speak about the library and offered the advice: ‘spending your grant on library fines is a very silly way to part with your money’. Once during a student all night work-in opposing Thatcherite cuts to higher education, Larkin stomped about in the theology and philosophy section, huffing and puffing, until a fellow student – unaware who was creating the noise – expelled a loud ‘sshhh’ in his direction. We were very studious in those days.
Although different poets, Larkin and Betjeman had a respectful and constructive relationship. In 1964 Betjeman interviewed Larkin in a BBC Monitor programme. It begins with an exploration of Larkin’s chosen context, the city of Hull. The isolation and ‘end of England’ ambiance chimed with the poet who felt so suited to its remoteness.
November often brings Betjeman to mind. His poem Winter at Home captures an England long departed. A season of quiet when the appearance of fog is welcomed as it grounds aircraft and adds to the sense of stillness. For Betjeman it is a time for reading long novels, and noting the small changes that mark the slow shift of the seasons. The moment when the Michaelmas daisies are too frost bitten for use in church and dried arrangements are put in place instead. An era when the limited supply of international goods meant people were compelled to work within the limitations – and opportunities – of the season.
John Betjeman’s devotion to the Church of England and the unique and prevailing Anglican temper of his character and imagination have been amply explored…
Gardner, K. J. (2014). Strange deliberations: John Betjeman and protestant nonconformity. Christianity & Literature, 63(2), 225-256.
When it came to Christianity and Church Larkin and Betjeman could not have been more different, yet the Monitor interview suggests that there were spiritual touching points despite the outward differences. Sitting with Betjeman in an overgrown cemetery, Larkin muses that ‘everything I write… has the consciousness of approaching death’. While having a very limited knowledge of churches, Larkin says that he developed a habit of visiting them (when empty). He comments: ‘I always welcomed the feeling I had going into a church’. There is a deep interest here in the liminal, the mortal, and the endless.
I am not sure whether Larkin’s silent Evensong tribute to Betjeman is recorded anywhere. Eighteen months later Larkin himself died, and two of England’s most significant post-world war poets were gone. A tribute by the English department took place the day before I left Hull for good. It was a highlight of my three years in the university city, with Larkin’s ‘loaf-haired secretary’ present along with others who were, in one way of another, caught up in his poems.
Writing about a theological approach to Larkin, Theo Hobson makes a persuasive case that the poet’s attention to the realities of life challenge a complacent secularism. At the same time, “his pursuit of ‘undeceived’ honesty… becomes a personal myth”. This leads Larkin to flirt with nihilism but not to succumb to it. For the complacent secularist as much as for those developing a deceptive ‘sub-theological gospel’, Larkin crafts poetry that disturbs seemingly self-evident narratives.
I wonder if anything in Evensong struck a chord with Larkin’s thoughts that evening? Was there the slightest lifting of an eyebrow as the words of the Magnificat cut through the blent air: ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’.