Word from Wormingford

03 April 2007

Ronald Blythe considers the author of ‘My song is love unknown'

LONG WALKS in blue weather. Hills, water, the firmament, the rising corn, all azure, their blueness mistily integrating, so that I can see everything, yet nothing as it usually is.

One walk to Tom’s new reservoirs to watch the shelducks glide. The first reservoir has a kind of floating hedge of pussy palm, the sallow catkins that we, as children, took to church on Palm Sunday. Mallard shuttle from it, even their dark green heads touched with electric blue. As for the Suffolk bank of the Stour, it is Monet’s blue palette range, spreading from murky to paradisal.

A willow copse has burst its rabbit guards, and dirty plastic writhes in the fresh nettles. Must return with a black bag. Must sow seeds; must mow. Must go to church most days. Must make time to do nothing in this turquoise scene. Just look.

Scripture takes a medical interest in it. “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil” — Proverbs 20.30. The hymns are agonising, often too tragic to sing. “Can death thy bloom deflower?” Their physicality is unavoidable. I think of the young Christ walking in springtime, and the lake shining and its water-birds rising.

Another hike to the Hennys, great and small. They are high up and fairly Himalayan in our terms. It was here that Samuel Crossman wrote A Young Man’s Meditation in 1664, having read in George Herbert that “A Verse may find him who a Sermon flies”. One of Crossman’s meditations was “My song is love unknown”. Geoffrey Shaw took John Ireland out to lunch in a restaurant, pulled this poem out of his pocket, and said: “Can you set this?” Ireland read it, then set it on the back of the menu.

There are two other Crossman poems with the same metre, should a present composer like to try his hand alongside John Ireland. One is about resurrection — “I said sometimes with tears, Ah me! I’m loath to die!” Crossman was only in his 20s, and, well, looking down at the Stour on a blue day. . .


The other poem is, naturally, Heaven.

  Earth’s but a sorry Tent, 
  Pitch’d for a few frail days, 
  A short-leas’d Tenement; 
  Heav’n’s still my song, my praise.

  Earth’s but a sorry Tent, 
  Pitch’d for a few frail days, 
  A short-leas’d Tenement; 
  Heav’n’s still my song, my praise.

He would spend his last two years on earth as Dean of Bristol with the horrors of the slave trade whirling round him. “I come, my Lord! The floods here rise, These troubled Seas foam nought but mire. . .” I tramp along the narrow Henny lanes thinking of this youthful poet who had quite a rough time of it, ecclesiastically speaking, as he worked out his complex rhyming scheme. He once preached at St Mildred’s in the Poultry on “The Quiet Rest of God’s Ark”.

When I was a boy, the Sudbury Boat Club always heaved its way along the river to Henny Swan, there to drink the local bitter and devour hot cross buns, and row its way home again, feeling pretty sick. Except for the Reach, as they called it, the Stour was in parts quite unreachable, the locks fallen in and the pussy willows and every watery plant imaginable joining up to block its flow.

In winter, it flooded and could look like a miniature Mississippi, and was a blue as ice. It wound through the medieval common pastures on which, after Easter, the cattle would be turned out. They would stand stock-still for a minute or two, unable to believe their luck, then gamble, romp, feed, cry a little. It was heaven.

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