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Language giving life to the soul  

15 July 2016

Mark Oakley on the use of poetry to aid reflections on death

Our Last Awakening: Poems for living in the face of death
Janet Morley
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JOHN DONNE once praised God’s style as an author: "thou art a figur­ative, a metaphorical God . . . in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors . . . such curtains of allegories, such high heavens of hyperboles, so har­monious elocutions . . . as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps; thou art the dove that flies."

Donne was praising scripture and similarly, through the centuries and in many faith traditions, God has been acclaimed to be the creative Poet of life. Because of this, language has been reverenced by some believers as being sacramental, and poetry itself as the purest "soul language" which we have this side of eternity. So it is that at life’s most fragile and distilled moments we turn to that poetry for the solace of recognitions and the hope of possibilities. Life’s deepest echoes stop us in our tracks as the ink and space of words break out of prosaic relationships.

Thanks must go to Janet Morley for helping us to know where to turn, teaching us how to listen for the echoes, and pointing us to their Source. In this latest anthology, with thoughtful short reflections, she introduces us to poems that connect us to the truth we often try to ignore — that the lives we live on earth are not for ever.

It is a book that might be given to someone asking for words to help them live with a terminal illness or adjust to the absence of a loved one. It is a resource for those planning a funeral or memorial celebration. It is a quiet pool in which all of us could begin some cleansing.

The poems are written by a wide range of poets from George Herbert to Philip Larkin, Charlotte Mew to John Bell and Graham Maule. They are arranged in six sections, includ­ing "Fears and fantasies", "Immedi­ate grief", and "Hope".

Morley writes with clarity and without simplification. Her theology is humane, experiential, and fed by the same poetry of scripture which Donne held so close. Morley’s God is not some object of our knowledge but the deepest cause for our wonder, through death as much as through life. She doesn’t unweave the poems by over-commenting on them, but allows enough unsaid for them to continue their work.

I think Donne would be more than happy to have this book named after one of his own reflections on "our last awakening".


The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. His The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry is published next month by Canterbury Press.

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