How is it that daffodils appear so suddenly, Ronald Blythe wonders
COLLECTING the post, there they were, where they had been since time immemorial: my wild daffodils under the plum tree – the ones that Dorothy Wordsworth drew her brother’s attention to. Although he did not acknowledge this when he wrote, “And all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils.”
But their immediacy is true enough. One day, there is just fresh spring grass; the next this golden host, nodding and waving in a chilly breeze. And loud birdsong above them. And the white cat padding through them. And the horses looking through the hazels at them. And then Narcissus Pseudonarcissus. It descends from the medieval Latin affodile, our Lent Lily. How long have they been here, this Wordsworthian patch that spreads? A cold coming they had of it.
Passion Sunday. I take matins. “Were you there when the sun refused to shine? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble. . .” And, in this instance, passing from the mental sufferings of Jesus as he went the way of the cross. You did not have to walk very far from Jerusalem, or from any Roman city, to see the crucified. It was: “Keep the peace, or this is what will happen to you.” I often think of this when we give each other the Peace in church. “The peace of God, David, Merial, Mrs. . . I’ve forgotten your name.”
Passion Sunday first appeared in the Book of Common Prayer in 1928, so what shall we sing? The sumptuously sad “O sacred head”; the unsparingly painful “When I survey”; “My song is love unknown”, which a neighbouring priest wrote for the men in his parish. All of them, and a bitter anthem, and that last glimpse of Jerusalem before the sight faded from those dying eyes. No cheerful goodbyes at the church door.
Floods of crocuses. Scaffolding round the tower. Then carloads of flowers for Easter Day waiting to take over. Early in the week, lunch with a young prison chaplain, myself wondering – marvelling, indeed – at his quiet ability. “But then I couldn’t do what you do,” he says, simply, and I think of the multiplicity of the Church.
Now that King Richard’s bones have been translated from a car park to Leicester Cathedral, the author of Don Quixote, the first novel, is to be suitably laid to rest. Miguel de Cervantes was almost contemporary with Shakespeare. Don Quixote de Mancha sends up the knightly quest, and is the originator of many of our popular sayings. The following were all said in Spanish before we borrowed them: “Time out of mind”, “A finger in every pie”, “Put you in a pickle”, “Thank you for nothing”, “No better than she should be”, “Within a stone’s throw of it”, “Give the devil his due”, “You’ve seen nothing yet”, “I begin to smell a rat”, “My memory is so bad that I sometimes forget my own name.”
But there are sayings of his that deserve a new currency: “Youngsters read it, grown men understand it, and old men applaud it.” Which sent me to the bookshelf to heave down my own, two-volume copy, in French, with wonderful drawings, sometimes two to a page, dated 1836. My name is scribbled in it.
One of Cervantes’s sayings is: “Can we ever have too much of a good thing?” Enthralled, it is well past midnight when I put the Don to bed. “Mum’s the word.”
In the morning, I hurry breakfast to see the eclipse, but invisibility reigns. “As well look for a needle in a bottle of hay” (Cervantes).
This Easter, as every Easter, we’ll all be celebrating new and renewed life, sharing in the ‘new start’ which nature makes every year. Easter bonnets are (were?!) a sign of putting on new or renewed clothes just as nature does; bunnies are certainly a sign of fertility and development; and eggs are a reminder of new birth with the promise of emergence and growth.
And it’s at this time of year that we celebrate the renewed life of Jesus, his resurrection from the tomb after the hideous events of Good Friday. That’s the one event which is distinctive about the Christian faith – God’s demonstration of power over life and death, and therefore the existence and availability of eternal life.
Our experience helps us believe, even when we’re in the depths of winter, that warm weather will arrive, flowers will grow and spring will eventually come. But what helps us believe in the promise of eternal life?
Firstly, that Jesus was a real person – history supports it and historians acknowledge that. Secondly, that His life, death and resurrection were written about, long before the event, by prophets who declared that He would be a human being with God’s nature. Thirdly, that he himself explained his mission, even though it put him on a collision course with the authorities – so much so that his death at their hands was inevitable. Fourthly, that he died, in a public event attested by Roman soldiers, and buried. Fifthly, that he was raised to life. That fact is also reported in history, and not only by four separate writers whose books have been gathered into the Bible, but by others too, including non-Christians. Some 30 years later, St. Paul wrote that after the Resurrection, Jesus was seen by more than 500 people, and that at the time “many of whom are still alive” – if it were not true, he would not have dared write that.
Jesus also predicted those events – and that he came to earth from heaven and was returning there. So the question is not whether he existed, but whether he was who he said he was. CS Lewis once said that by making those claims he was either the Son of God he claimed to be – or a madman.”He did not leave any other option open to us – he did not intend to”.
Most of us hope that this earthly life is not “all there is”; indeed, there seems to be a general yearning for something spiritual in life. Jesus came to us as living proof of the existence and nature of eternity, and that it’s a fact of life that death is not the end. So this Easter we can celebrate, even in the winter of our lives, that there will be renewal and new life in God’s Kingdom.
Yours in Jesus,
Ronald Blythe prepares for the oilman to bring a year’s worth of warmth
RAW spring days. The wind whistles through the thin hedge. There is a profusion of birds and primroses. Duncan’s fields have been polished by cold rains. I rake up ancient leaves, for the oilman cometh. The small tanker, bringing a year’s warmth, will float to me on a bed of leaves, and the driver and I will fervently pray for a safe delivery, for the tractor not to be called on. He has a glass of milk. He has been a soldier, and has a way with enormous vehicles. I am safe until next April.
Writing is a static activity. Artists move about, shifting this way and that. My friend John Nash stood with his back to the north light from ten until four every day, regular as clockwork. Sandwiches arrived at one sharp; tea was by the fire, or in the garden. When he and his wife went to Cornwall or Scotland twice a year, he cleared a place in the studio for me to write. But I wrote outside in the garden when it was hot, and downstairs by the Rayburn when it was cold.
The great rural poet John Clare often wrote in hiding, lying low in a field or under a hedge, so that the neighbours could not see a ploughman engaged in matters which were none of his business. But he compared himself to the nightingale who “hides and sings”. He led a double life in the village, although eventually it became a marvellous single existence of traditional labour, and the right words to describe it. Those who had previously written about the land and its seasonal demands had rarely put a hand to it; after Clare, it would be different.
Much of my writing is done on a rickety kitchen table under a fruit-tree, although indoors I write with my back to the window, as the view is distracting. Somehow, this is no view when I am in it. And especially when digging and raking, keeping my eyes on the ground. Now I must make the sweet-pea wigwam.
My friend Tony Venison is due. Learned and appreciative, for many years his gardening column in Country Life guided us all. We met in the garden which Sir Cedric Morris created at Hadleigh, a few miles away, and Tony has inherited both its workaday genius and its spell. We will sit in the pub and go over our past.
Mutuality is a marvellous thing, especially when it is controlled by a shared learning – although here I have to confess that mine has stopped somewhere at the elementary stage where gardening is concerned. But I am an expert and tireless, or uncomplaining, weeder. According to religion, Paradise, a sheltered garden, is where we should be. My first botany was in one of those Bibles which did not end with Revelations, but with a list of plants. And I sometimes hear God questioning us as we enter Paradise: “My beautiful Earth; why didn’t you enjoy it more, its trees and flowers?”
Lent is a kind of fertilisation of the spirit. It is the time when we have to find the space to let it grow. Its desert must bloom. I find that simplicity, not self-denial, is the better aid for this. It is what the Quakers tell us. I have just given a talk in their meeting house in Sudbury, Suffolk, my home town, and felt quietly blessed all the time.
Ronald Blythe feels pity for the cold suffered by the homeless Saviour
RAW spring days. Early walkers squelch down the farm track, calling my name through the budding hedge. There is a profusion of birds and primroses. Sharp rains have hit the ploughing. Equally sharp winds tear through the trees. I might as well be bare, for all the protection of my clothes. It goes right through you, it does, as we say, year after year.
My saffron is out in force, making me think of one of the most beautiful of Essex place-names. Ancient farm lawns have flowers before grass. In March, there are muddy edges, not a stripe in sight. Blackbirds bounce about, robins take an oblique look at the world. Humanity might pause to consider a housing shortage, but every other living thing simply makes the shelter it needs. John Clare’s poem “The Nightingale’s Nest” is the best-observed account of this homemaking, and should be an example to us all. I once read it at a naturalist’s funeral, as it seemed to embody both an earthly and a heavenly shelter.
The homeless Christ shivered during the bitter Palestinian nights, envying the snug creatures in their burrows. Young soldiers like my father, brought up on blazing views of the Empire, were nonplussed by their experiences of the Holy Land at night and at noon, unable to comprehend a temperature which could swing from Arctic to heatwave in a day. He used to say that there was nothing about this in Sunday school.
But I have always felt a pity for the homeless Saviour, and a special love for that little family of sisters and brother who took him in, listened to him, and fed him, and remembered that he was human as well as divine.
Tramps were a common experience of my Suffolk boyhood. Both men and women pushed laden prams from workhouse to workhouse. Gypsies had no part of this. Proud to the point of arrogance, they wouldn’t have a house if you gave them one. They wintered in Epping Forest, or in the wilds around Norwich. Clare summed them up – he envied their freedom, and was taught to play the fiddle by them, but realised that he could never be one of them. Between him and the Romanies, a great gulf was fixed. He wrote: “‘Tis thus they live – a picture to the place; a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.”
It took us a long time to distinguish tramps from Gypsies – not that they would have cared. They were at ease in the world. Walking across the fields, I would see where they had been, the ashes of a fire, the sordid evidence of a squat, the beaten grass, the human litter. And I would think of those 40 years when Israelites trekked over Sinai, and, as we said, “Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, were the only two who ever got through to the land of milk and honey.” What a litter they would have left in their wake! And then – in sight of the Promised Land! Jordan!
We know a little of the baptismal river where the followers of Jesus had the old life washed away, and where “the dove descending breaks the air.”
Clare’s famous trek was from Epping to Northampton, with bleeding feet, some 90 miles. It would end in a lunatic asylum. But his song would never end. Everyone who loves the English countryside hears it still, and especially in springtime. It vies with that of the birds and winds, the soundless flowers, and should tune into the rural work pattern. Only, as far as I can see, nothing is done; only an April walk on a Sunday afternoon. The same feet that will hurry to the station to work will tread my track for an hour or two. “Lovely day,” they call out.
Ronald Blythe recalls the development of an enthusiasm for Herbert
LONG ago, I would take over a remote Suffolk church and read George Herbert to a hustled-up congregation: myself, and three writers who lived in and around Colchester. They were my guru, James Turner; the South African poet R. N. Currey; and the Ulster poet W. R. Rodgers. There we would be, our breath clouding the cold nave, turning each ancient spot into another Bemerton.
Currey’s family were distinguished Methodists; “Berty” Rodgers had been a minister; and I was yet to be anything, with everything to play for. Or to live for. I was, of course, writing – but secretly, my friends being older and established. I was pretty good at programming, and at being enthusiastic where Herbert was concerned.
And there would be my first visit to Salisbury; and, many years later, a kind of implanting of part of my life there. I entered Herbert’s little church for the first time, holding on to the iron latch that he himself touched four times a day, and eventually giving his silver cup to those who were kneeling where he had knelt. It had been kept in a glass case in Salisbury Cathedral, but soon Canon Judy Rees would take it back to where it belonged.
And my friend Vikram Seth would buy Herbert’s rectory, where, unbeknown to anybody, Herbert would write the greatest poetry in the Anglican language. And where he died in the room next to mine, one February day, choking with the fenny ague. Yet singing!
Vikram and I once strolled in the darkening Stour marshes, as I identified for him reeds and flowers. Herbert was a tall, thin, ailing man, who rode, not walked. “This is where he kept his horse,” Vikram said, pointing to a small meadow. And we sat by his hearth, the logs spitting and blazing.
He sang his window-songs morning and evening, to the lute. To go to heaven at 39 would not have been an early death, then. His mother, Magdalen Herbert, a great lady, would sometimes lay a place for Jesus at her dinner-table. But Herbert would run into him at the “ordinary” in some inn. The ordinary was the main meal in a pub, where you sat down with everyone who happened to be there, and where there was no being above or below the salt.
It was the tradition for great folk to come to church at sermon-time only, but when his aristocratic family did this at Bemerton, Herbert locked them out. He wrote a rather severe guide to country worship, and to rural priesthood itself. Much of it still stands up.
My Herbert rule-book is his exposition on church architecture. Pevsner would have bewildered him. Being who he was, he could have had a Cambridge college, or some semi-wrecked cathedral, but all he asked for was a ruined village altar. It would last him less than two years.
Herbert was born, wed, and carried to his grave in February, too concerned with heaven to stand another English spring. The 17th century was nipped to the bone by ice and snow. The Thames – and the Wiltshire Stour – were frozen over for months at a time. I imagine him sitting by Vikram’s fire, rubbing his dying hands, and calling for ink and paper.
The house was full of anxious women: wife, nieces, maids. But he was far away, thinking of Little Gidding, and that fat parcel of poems that had to reach there before another spring.