I ALWAYS enjoy going to Salisbury and seeing the magnificent cathedral sitting on the grass like some vast, landed spaceship. I was there to lead a study day on W. H. Auden at Sarum College. Exploring Auden’s work is to encounter the full sweep of the 20th century in all its achievement and devastation. Although some recall his face, with its deep and craggy creases (what he described as “a wedding cake left out in the rain”), his poems are not always as well known — but they should be. As one contemporary of Auden said, on encountering his work, “I read, I shuddered, and I knew.”
What the participants really enjoyed, though, was the story of Auden’s dinner-party at which a female guest was shocked by the dirt and chaotic mess of his apartment. The final straw was when she saw a bowl on top of the WC, full of a thick, brown swill. Holding her nose, she poured it down the lavatory. A little later, back at the table, she discovered that she had just disposed of the chocolate mousse intended for dessert.
Hearts to heaven
AS I write, I’m preparing to go to the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, where I’m speaking on the little introductory book on George Herbert which I have just had published. Evelyn Underhill said that, at the end of the day, the only interesting thing about religion was God. Herbert’s poems are about God.
There are a little more than 170 of them. Richard Baxter wrote, in 1681, that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth in God. . . . Heart-work and Heaven-work make up his Books.” This has made them appeal to a wide range of people. Charles I read Herbert in prison, and Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain recommended him to his friends. Coleridge said that Herbert helped him with his “tendency to self-contempt”.
I also like his proverbs, though. One came to mind every time I attended my deanery synod: “The itch of disputing is the scab of the Church.”
AFTER Bloxham, I go north to Leeds. I’ve been part of a project that has encouraged people to write poems of praise, prophecy, and protest about their great home city. The result is an anthology that I am helping to launch.
It’s a marvellous collection by young and old, and some of the poems took my breath away. I hope all the members of the local council will take a look.
We read poetry to bring into the room the part of us from which poetry comes — a part that often gets sidelined or ignored in boardrooms, workplaces, and the competitive, box-ticking frenzy we call life today. One of the poems, by Eileen Palmer, “Resurrection”, ends:
What do you believe
To be gold
In all this treasure
We tiptoe through?
Another Lenten question, perhaps?
A dog’s life
I AM a great animal-lover. The older I get, the more I find myself agreeing with Madame de Staël: “The more I see of men, the more I admire dogs.” I had Fritz, my wire-haired dachshund, for 14 years, and tears still come to my eyes as I sit here and recall that it is only a month since I had to take him to the vet to be put to sleep. Age wearied him, and the years condemned.
When I was wondering, all those years ago, what sort of dog to have, I saw two elderly and rather grand ladies walking their dachshunds in a Copenhagen park. “Are they a good breed to have?” I asked. “Wonderful!” one said. “But you need to know that, occasionally, when you call them, they just stop, look you in the eye, and say ‘**** you!’”.
She was right. But I miss him, and, since God kicked the humans out of Eden but kept the animals, I like to think he’s in safe hands.
I HAVE been having trouble with my nuts. I put them out in a feeder for the birds, but James Bond, the local squirrel, always manages to get to them.
Looking like a contented Buddha, he can hardly move after stuffing himself. A squirrel’s front teeth never stop growing; so he’s all set to defeat any cunning plan I might contrive. I’m told that, in dreams, squirrels represent happiness and satisfaction. Hmm.
As the winds howl around the house in the storms, I calm myself with thoughts of Fritz, whose ears would flap happily in a windy garden. Auden was right: “In times of joy, all of us wished we possessed a tail we could wag.”
Out of tune
AS LENT — that welcome snowfall in the soul — begins, poems are a good way to help us to distil. When Auden was asked why he believed in Jesus, he answered, “Because he is in every respect the opposite of what he would be if I could have made him in my own image.” He went on to say that, because of this, “all sides of my being cry ‘Crucify him!’”
So hard is Christ’s sharp song to hear, and attune oneself to, that we try to muffle it. It’s a disarming question to take into Lent: what does God become in my own mind and heart if left to my own devices? How can we put the “odd” back into God? That’s my own Lenten challenge this year — and, once again, the poets will help me.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.