HOW can poetry help people to reflect on the significant experiences of life — and how can cathedrals provide a space in which to do it?
In many churches, poetry is regularly use — in William Blake’s — to “cleanse the doors of perception”, both liturgically and spiritually. In an exhibition that opens in Leicester Cathedral next week, we hope that visitors will want to explore these questions in a poetry trail that will use writings from ancient times to the present to find spaces and provide prompts for reflection.
The poems will explore a series of “defining moments”. The opening poem, “Had I not been awake”, by Seamus Heaney, is about a moment of attentiveness to the wild beauty of nature. Another, the ancient Gaelic “The Rune of Hospitality”, tells of an encounter with a stranger who is welcomed and given food and drink. This experience leads to revelation:
And the lark said in her song,
Often, often, often,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.
Leicester Cathedral/Richard JarvisLeicester Cathedral/Richard JarvisEach poem will be linked to an object or image. “The Rune”, for instance, will be placed near a 16th-century Russian icon of the hospitality of Abraham, while a First World War poem about seeing the figure of Christ in a line-up of wounded soldiers (Wilfrid Gibson’s “The Conscript”) will be connected to a broken silver crucifix rescued from the burning ruins of Ypres Cathedral by a soldier from Leicestershire.
The writings of John Donne and Wendy Cope offer further reflections on moments of the here and now. As they follow the trail, visitors will be invited to reflect on the moments that have shaped their own lives.
THE idea of displaying poems in cathedrals goes back to the fifth century, when Perpetuus, the Bishop of Tours, commissioned Gallic poets — among them Paulinus of Périgueux — to write verses to be inscribed on the walls of St Martin’s, Tours.
These days, the public would have little truck with such a hagiographical use of verse. Rather, it is poetry’s freedom from the religious Establishment, as well as the capacity of even secular poems to offer points of access to the spiritual, which has informed the choices for this exhibition.
The Californian scholar the Revd Professor William Countryman, in his book The Poetic Imagination, suggests that poetry is a particularly Anglican spiritual tradition. While it is hard to argue with the idea of poetry as a crucial part of a distinctive Anglican spirituality — think of Vaughan, Donne, Herbert, and their successors, through to T. S. Eliot and R. S. Thomas — the poetic imagination is lit up spiritually from all sides. Emily Dickinson explodes into poetic life against the restrictive backdrop of New England Puritanism.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, even while he was struggling to work through his doubts about whether poetry could be a right expression of his faith as a Jesuit priest, found a wonderful way of expressing the Ignatian habit of “finding God in all things”. Rumi and Hafiz’s huge popularity prove that spiritual poetry in not part of the Christian tradition alone, even if many of us know little of the poetry to be found in other faiths.
THE exhibition also explores a recent defining moment for the city of Leicester: the rediscovery and reinterment of King Richard III’s remains.
In connection with this event, the cathedral commissioned works such as Tom Denny’s Redemption windows, the anthem Ghostly Grace by Judith Bingham, and the poem “Richard”, by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, which Benedict Cumberbatch read out at the reinterment service. This poem is also included in the exhibition.
My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.
These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time — an unknown, unfelt loss —
unless the Resurrection of the Dead . . .
or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.
This poem enables the dead man himself to speak in a new defining moment in his story. From one perspective, he is no more than a set of human remains. The opening image of bones reminds us of the moment when Richard III’s skeleton was discovered under a car park. He lies open, not only to be exhumed, but to be read, acted, and interpreted, “scripted” as “a human braille”.
This is a man whose reputation has been polarised. At one extreme, he is seen as the infamous child-murderer and tyrant of Shakespeare’s play; at the other, he is a just and fair monarch, maligned by a Tudor smear campaign. His skull upon the soil may be “emptied of history”, but that history persists, below the poem’s surface.
Duffy is equally interested in the subject’s status simply as a human being, however: as a soul like ourselves. He is not “King Richard III” — the poem’s title is simply “Richard”. The perspective is characteristic of this Poet Laureate’s democratising approach to her subjects. Richard asks us, his readers, to participate in making meaning out of him — notice the number of imperative verbs in this poem — while he implies that the way we respond to him reflects on us.
This poem is concerned with how we tell stories — not just about Richard, but also about ourselves. Richard invites us to “describe” and “imagine”. Like incense, or the smoke of a votive candle, his soul is “vanishing” beyond definition. At the same time, he displays a deeply human need to be remembered, for his existence to be marked in some tangible form. The strongest line of the poem is also its most direct plea: “Grant me the carving of my name.”
We are asked to take our part in recovering his Christian identity. We are not merely visitors or pilgrims to his “relics” at Leicester Cathedral, but placed into a priestly role, being directed to “bless” them. The poem quietly registers the different places we come from: our varied beliefs and unbeliefs, and the difference between the religion of Richard’s day and that of our own.
Joe Whitmore Silver crucifix from Ypres CathedralThe last verse is not about our imagining Richard, but Richard’s imagining us. Our present moment is his future one, and it is also an eternal one, as prayer defies the constrictions of linear time. The theatrical reference in the next line (like “scripted” in the very first) prompts us to think of Shakespeare’s great anti-hero, but this Richard, who senses us from “the backstage of” his death, is no villainous anti-hero treading the boards. There is something more tentative in his reaching out to a dreamt future, even if he does so as a king.
Flickering and indefinite to one another, we connect with the dead across the centuries only through our simple moments of commemoration, ritual, and prayer. Duffy’s poem moves from one soul that is ethereal and “vanishing” to all of us. We are “sensed”, but we are no more than “shadows”.
While her writing draws its power from the mysterious sound of the speaking dead, it ends by making us, the living, into another mystery.
Dr Mary Ann Lund is Lecturer in Renaissance English Literature at the University of Leicester. Canon Rosy Fairhurst is the Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Richard” is © the author, and reprinted by permission of Leicester Cathedral Chapter. Leicester Cathedral’s free exhibition “Defining Moments: Poetry in the Cathedral” opens next Thursday and continues until 10 June. leicestercathedral.org