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A bridge of angels

11 March 2022

We continue our Lent series, drawn from a book of seasonal poems chosen and with commentary by Richard Harries

Neil Setchfield/Alamy

An angel climbing Jacob’s ladder, on the west front of Bath Abbey

An angel climbing Jacob’s ladder, on the west front of Bath Abbey

In No Strange Land

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air —
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars! —
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places; —
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry, — and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry; — clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

FRANCIS THOMPSON’s father was a doctor in Preston who had become a Roman Catholic. Francis was a shy but studious child at his Catholic school. Though not physically strong, he became an ardent, lifelong cricket fan.

Urged by his father, Francis studied medicine at what is now the University of Manchester for six years, but he had no real interest in medicine and ran away to live in poverty in London, doing odd jobs, including selling matches. He took opium for his health and became addicted, living rough with other homeless people in the Charing Cross area. He contemplated suicide but was saved by a vision of Thomas Chatterton, the 18th-century poet who did kill himself at a young age. Eventually, he was given a home by a prostitute, whom he called his saviour.

In 1888, after three years on the streets, he sent some of his poems to the Meynells, a married couple who were publishers and who recognised their quality. In all, he published three volumes of poems, which were very well received. His most famous poem is “The hound of heaven”, in which God is thought of as pursuing us with “deliberate speed, majestic instancy”. Thompson died in 1907 of tuberculosis.

In the wonderful poem above, the first verses depict our dwelling in the all-enveloping presence of God as fish live in the ocean, eagles in the air, and stars in the sky. We don’t have to look to space to find God; he “beats at our own clay-shuttered doors” (perhaps Thompson is referring to the creation account in Genesis 2, when humanity is described as being made of clay).

Heaven is all about us, “The angels keep their ancient places”; it is only our estrangement that causes us to miss this many-splendoured thing. However, when all our human resources are exhausted and we turn to God in desperate need, we find Jacob’s ladder, with angels ascending and descending, and see Christ walking on the Thames, not just in Charing Cross, but wherever we may be.

Behind this verse is the famous story of Jacob’s dream, in which he saw a ladder between heaven and earth, with angels going up and down it. When he woke up, he said that God was in that place (see Genesis 28.10-22).

It is an image that is taken up in John 1.51, where Nathaniel, an Israelite without guile, is told he will see angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, Jesus himself. He is the one in whom we see the glory of God. He is the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity are joined, never to be unjoined. We discover him in our need. Our needs are angels, as a friend once said to me. They open us to God and allow him through.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry, – and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and . . .

wherever we are.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty poems for Lent and Easter by Richard Harries is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-0-281-08629-0.

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