Week 479: Eddi’s Service, by Rudyard Kipling

This week a slightly belated Christmas poem, another example of the multi-talented Kipling’s gift for small-scale myth-making. The story seems to be entirely of the poet’s own invention, though there was a real Eddi, Eddius Stephanus, a Kentishman who was choirmaster and biographer of Wilfrid, Archbishop of York, and who plays a major part in the story that accompanies this poem in Kipling’s ‘Rewards and Fairies’, ‘The Conversion of St Wilfrid’.

As so often with Kipling’s work, I don’t quite know how to place this poem. I can see that it does not have the wistful resonance of, say, Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’ (see week 426), to which I personally feel more attuned, but on the other hand I don’t think it would be fair to dismiss it simply as a piece of sentimental populism. So, I hear you ask, why worry about placing it at all? Why not just enjoy its idiosyncratic charm, without necessarily surrendering to it? Quite right.

Eddi’s Service

(A.D. 687)

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
  In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
  For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
  And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
  Though Eddi rang the bell.

“‘Wicked weather for walking,”
  Said Eddi of Manhood End.
“But I must go on with the service
  For such as care to attend.”

The altar-lamps were lighted, —
  An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
  And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
  The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
  Pushed in through the open door.

“How do I know what is greatest,
  How do I know what is least?
That is My Father’s business,”
  Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.

“But — three are gathered together —
  Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!”
  Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
  And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
  That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
  They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
  Eddi preached them The Word,

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
  And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
  Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
  Said Eddi of Manhood End,
“I dare not shut His chapel
  On such as care to attend.”

Rudyard Kipling

Week 478: Mirror in February, by Thomas Kinsella

I see that the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella has just died at the age of 93. He did great service to Irish literature with his translations from the early language, and I certainly wish I had had his version of the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’ (Cattle-raid of Cooley) to hand when as an undergraduate I was fighting my way with Cuchulain step by step through the original text of that barbarous, magnificent epic. But he should also be remembered as a fine original poet, and here is one of his justly most popular pieces, a reflection on lost youth.

Note: ‘the age of Christ’: according to tradition Jesus was thirty-three years old when he died.

Mirror in February

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed — my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy —
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the wakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities;
And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young, and not renewable, but man.

Thomas Kinsella

Week 477: The Porch, by R.S.Thomas

It is not easy to know exactly what is going on in this poem, but I take it to be essentially a poem of yearning and alienation, by a man who has a foot in two worlds, human and preterhuman, but is not entirely at home in either – ‘neither outside nor in’. Clearly the poem focuses on an intense spiritual experience, though as often with Thomas it is hard to align this with the religious orthodoxy that might be expected given his calling as a parish priest. So he has no power to pray, and he acknowledges that the universe knows nothing of him and cares nothing for him – this is not your normal Sunday sermon material. I think Thomas’s problem is that while his vocation may commit him to the idea of a personal deity who looks out for us and listens to our prayers, his intellectual honesty compels him much more in the direction of the physicists’ god, of Einstein’s metaphorical ‘Old One’, the mysterious source of order in the universe, the elusive and uncaring creator of all those exquisite calibrations that underwrite our existence. The result in Thomas is a cognitive dissonance that is painful for him but fruitful for us when it results, as here, in a poem vibrant with a cold clarity and a passion that even unbelievers may bow to. 

The Porch

Do you want to know his name?
It is forgotten. Would you learn
what he was like? He was like
anyone else, a man with ears
and eyes. Be it sufficient
that in a church porch on an evening
in winter, the moon rising, the frost
sharp, he was driven
to his knees and for no reason
he knew. The cold came at him;
his breath was carved angularly
as the tombstones; an owl screamed.

He had no power to pray.
His back turned on the interior
he looked out on a universe
that was without knowledge
of him and kept his place
there for an hour on that lean
threshold, neither outside nor in.


Week 476: Consider, by David Sutton

Though I gave up on the latest Brian Cox TV offering (for heaven’s sake, enough with the background music, just show us the pictures and let the man talk) I am in general fascinated by anything to do with cosmology, especially the search for alien life, and if there is one thing I would like to live to see it is the resolution of that most fundamental question: are we alone in the universe? Rationally I’m not sure why this should exercise me so: after all, the discovery of life on some far distant planet seems unlikely to make much difference to my own, and there are wonders enough on earth I still know little about. Call it, maybe, the last rays of pure curiosity from the setting sun of my mind. At any rate, this week I offer my own somewhat pessimistic take on the matter.


Consider how they move, the galaxies,
Through the ocean of night like driftnets
Dragging deep space, though nothing we know is there
To be caught in that radiant star-knotted mesh.

Consider how they pass through one another
Like ghost armadas: let the stars be ships
A million miles apart: still that belittles
The loneliness of those bright galleons.

Consider light: by that same token see
A snail track silverthreading black Saharas
Between the stars, yet nothing anywhere
Outpaces that immortal messenger.

And then consider: who shall know us, what
Companion us: in all the shadowed room
What hands might cup this candle, flickering
In time’s wind, in the vast forever dark.

David Sutton

Week 475: To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

This poem was written rather more than a hundred years ago now (Flecker died in 1915), and I feel that any poet who has the chutzpah to address an audience a thousand years in the future at least deserves an intermediate review a century or so on. And I do think there is something touchingly vulnerable about it, especially given that Flecker was only thirty-one when he died, though I find its premises limited. Nothing wrong with wine, music, statues and bright-eyed love as subjects for poetry, but it’s surely good that since Flecker’s time poetry has moved away from a rather narrow aesthetic whereby certain subjects were considered ‘poetic’ towards a joyous engagement with whatever comes along.

But it is interesting to speculate as to what Flecker might have thought of poetic developments after his time. His rather ornate and dated play ‘Hassan’ contains the following passage, famous in its day:

CALIPH ‘Ah, if there shall ever arise a nation whose people have forgotten poetry or whose poets have forgotten the people, though they send their ships around Taprobane and their armies across the hills of Hindustan, though their city be greater than Babylon of old, though they mine a league into earth or mount to the stars on wings–what of them?

‘They will be a dark patch upon the world.’

So, would Flecker consider these prophetic fears to have been fulfilled? I think at one time, when the twentieth-century scene was dominated by the extremer forms of modernism, he might have done, but happily the later years of the century saw the reemergence of poets – Larkin, Hughes, Heaney and R.S.Thomas to name but a few – who at their best wrote poems that were not only very good but were also capable of giving immediate and lasting pleasure not only to litterateurs but to any intelligent reader with no professional axe to grind. Of course, there are dangers in populism, and I am myself not so much interested in bringing poetry to the people as in bringing the people to poetry. But at any rate, I like to think James Elroy Flecker would not be entirely disheartened by what came after, and here and there continues to come.

Note: Maeonides: a name for the poet Homer, from Maeonia, an ancient country in present north-west Turkey thought by some to be his birthplace.

To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure in the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

James Elroy Flecker