I saw him standing
Under the dark trees, there he stands,
there he stands; shall he not draw my eyes?
I thought I knew a little
how he compels, beyond all things, but now
he stands there in the shadows. It will be
Oh, such a daybreak, such bright morning,
when I shall wake to see him
as he is.
He is called Rose of Sharon, for his skin
is clear, his skin is flushed with blood,
his body lovely and exact; how he compels
beyond ten thousand rivals. There he stands,
my friend, the friend of guilt and helplessness,
to steer my hollow body
over the sea.
The earth is full of masks and fetishes,
what is there here for me? are these like him?
Keep company with him and you will know:
no kin, no likeness to those empty eyes.
He is a stranger to them all, great Jesus.
What is there here for me? I know
what I have longed for. Him to hold
Ann Griffiths (1776-1805), translated by Rowan Williams
ANN GRIFFITHS lived in a small village ten kilometres from Llanfyllin, in what is now Powys in mid North Wales. Her father was a tenant farmer, and, although the farm was very isolated, it was near the main coaching routes to Holyhead, London, Chester, and Cardiff, so the family could be in touch with wider events. As has been remarked, they were better served by public transport then than the residents are today.
Griffiths was brought up as an Anglican, but, like her brothers, she was drawn to Methodism and, in 1796, joined the Calvinistic Methodists. For most of her life, she was known by her maiden name of Ann Thomas, but, after the death of both her parents, she married a young farmer, Thomas Griffiths, and they took over the family farm. She died in childbirth at the age of 29.
The area was, culturally, a very rich one. There was an emphasis on music and poetry, with its intricate Welsh forms, full of alliteration and assonance; and 73 praise poems can, with confidence, be attributed to Griffiths, of which 30 have become hymns. They were preserved by the local minister and his wife and were published after Griffiths’s death. Eight letters have also survived.
The poems are regarded as one of the highlights of Welsh literature, and the longest one has been described by the Welsh intellectual and dramatist Saunders Lewis as one of the great religious poems of Europe. Outwardly, Griffiths’s life was short and relatively uneventful, but, as another Welsh-language poet, Waldo Williams, wrote in his poem “What is man?”:
What is living? The broad hall found
Between narrow walls.
“I SAW him standing”, beautifully translated by Rowan Williams, who is himself a poet of distinction, begins with Griffiths’s seeing Christ under the dark trees in the shadow. Perhaps it was a period in her life when Christ did not seem as clear and close as he once did, and she longed for the time when she would see him in the clear light of morning.
The second verse sees Christ as healthy and beautiful. The Rose of Sharon appears in the Song of Solomon as a description of “the beloved”. Originally a love song, it came to be interpreted mystically, with Christ being the beloved and, hence, the Rose of Sharon. The verse describes how the beauty of Christ is so enthralling, so strong in its drawing power, that it can be said to compel us, as when we say that an argument in favour of something or a beautiful scene is “compelling”. The word “compel” appears in both the first and the second verse.
This is not a compulsion achieved by coercion, but a drawing to him of our love by the sheer enchantment of the beloved. There is a paradox here: God does not compel us, but the beauty of his love is compelling. As a fellow Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, put it in his poem “Perhaps”:
To yield to an unfelt pressure that
In itself, had the character of everything
The final verse expresses the sense Christians have always had of belonging to a different realm from the one too often shaped by the false values of humanity, and for which we must all take some responsibility. The world is full of the fronts we put up for other people, to hide what we are really like, and the absurd things that we think important and we cling to. Those empty eyes are so different from those of Christ, for whom the poet longs.
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.
English translation of “I Saw Him Standing” reproduced by kind permission of Rowan Williams.