Winter in the Wilderness: Poems to Light the Way

It has been difficult recently to find our way through the days in this strange elongated time of not much happening or changing, even while the world keeps on spinning and making demands of us. I think that is what has brought the idea of the wilderness to mind. But of course 2020 is not the only time we have been there, and in putting this little collection of poems together I have been thinking about what I might myself have needed when I have got lost or stuck in other ways. I am hoping this is a collection I can return to in future, not because it enables me finally to make sense of everything, but because it might give me some thoughts I can work with when I’m not sure where to look next.

I am aware, too, that this month is the season of Advent. This is something I have never fully celebrated in the traditional way, though I often find myself at this time of year wanting to be able to dip into its attitude of waiting and hoping, or wondering and inwardly preparing. As a concept it can feel closer to where I am at than what we get at Christmas, which is the glorious fulfilment of a story that you either have to enter into as a complete vision of the world reborn, or somewhat ignore as a narrative that in its very completeness might feel like just too much to take in. A few of the poems below, then, do speak to the place that such a season can bring me to, although I have steered away from making this a collection about Advent and tried to widen it out further, beyond the themes of faith and belief. 

In the rest of this post I have made a start on thinking about each of the poems, but I will also be sharing some readings of them over the next twelve days, so do follow along with me either on Twitter (@sanityandgrace) or Facebook if you’d like to hear them read aloud. 

1) Among All Lovely Things My Love Had Been, William Wordsworth 

There is excitement to be had at this time of year, as we play the game of spotting the best Christmas lights that we can see as we travel around town at night. But I love how in this poem our attention is drawn to the more humble glow-worm, though Wordsworth’s joy in discovering it does not seem to be any less. The scene, too, is not picture-perfect; it is a stormy night that brings out the earth-bound creature, and yet the storm does not hold any real power to dampen spirits here. 

2) Let my first Knowing, Emily Dickinson

This feels like another love poem, though I am not certain what kind of being is being referred to as ‘thee’. I like the poem better for this openness.

3) Abide with me, Henry Francis Lyte

Henry Francis Lyte wrote both hymns and poems, and though for us these lines now come coupled with the tune by which we know it, the words do hold a particular resonance when taken more slowly or allowed to stand on the page. I like the combination in the five different verses of a deep sense of need, along with a confidence in the one who can meet that need. There is also proportion and an idea of scale: everyday realities are exchanged here for a larger reality in which the threat of darkness, temptation, ills and death can only by met by trusting in someone who is more constant and who survives beyond all of these things.

4) In Memoriam A. H. H., 67 – Alfred Tennyson

Though Tennyson is here addressing the friend he has lost, it is as if the poem finds a way for him to still feel connected in the present to one who in more than one sense now resides far away. What I find hopeful here is that Tennyson is able to experience at least for one night a settled peace, allowing him to sleep, and that this keeps him in time for once with the natural order of things, which in itself is a mercy: as the night precedes the dawn.

5) To my small Hearth, Emily Dickinson

Light here is in itself a kind of salvation, and it seems to arrive unbidden, bringing with it a change that could almost be permanent. 

6) The Old Woman, Joseph Campbell

This is a poem in which stillness has its value. Instead of winter being a time when things are simply dead, here it becomes instead a time to shine. What has been done in the past is sufficient, and there is now no need to “do” any more. 

7) Shadows, D.H. Lawrence

In this poem God is both known and unknown, and the way in which he is known and experienced is continually in flux. But unusually, here, God is in the shadow as opposed to the light: it is as if he participates in the same seasons of shadow that Lawrence goes through, and to which the earth itself is subject. While life itself moves through phases of pain and trouble, the shadowy element brings a kind of cushioning that is able to preserve body, soul and spirit until ‘new morning’ comes. 

8) In Memoriam A. H. H., 124 – Alfred Tennyson

These lines tell a story that can feel almost impossible to tell or to identify for oneself: of what it can feel like to come up against the threat of losing one’s faith, or whatever it is that gives a person that sense of the world holding together. But the lines also give ear to something that only poetry seems to have the right kind of space for. The voice of the heart speaks up, and for a time, within these little stanzas, what the heart says is enough.

9) The Birds begun at Four o’clock, Emily Dickinson

This is not strictly a winter poem, since dawn begins much later at this time of year, but I have included it nonetheless because of what it has to tell us about things of wonder and beauty going on without our awareness, even when many of us may still be ‘asleep’. It is a poem that carries a reminder that there are tremendous forces of life at play, even within the spaces that we physically occupy in the world, and that human life is not the sum total of all that there is. 

10) Light Shining Out of Darkness, William Cowper

These lines might risk feeling too easy, and it could be tempting to gloss over them. But I do, personally, want to retain the possibility that there might be a natural law or pattern at play that is higher than my own understanding can reach. ‘God is his own interpreter, / And he will make it plain.’ 

11) Winter Rain, Christina Rossetti 

I can often associate the rain with dreariness, especially when it is so frequently cold and dark at the same time. But there is none of that here, and as the lines of Rossetti’s poem run on, they compel me to feel that in fact, the more rain the better.

12) The Oxen, Thomas Hardy

This is a poem to come to when the old traditions feel worn out and spent. It revolves around an ‘if’, allowing that the hopeful bit may never be realised, and yet in that ‘if’ there is still always the chance that as the year rolls round again, old feelings might once more be revived. 

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 


Music for Our Time

When everything is a bit monotonous except for the bad stuff, it pays to find something new. But for me I think the best way I can realize this is by making an effort to look into what is already available, that predates me and my concerns. Of the pieces that follow there are a number of which I would already have been aware, but I hope that thinking about them in this light will deepen the way I engage with them, not only now but also into the future. 

  1. ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Aaron Copland

(recommended recordings: by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra)

It was hearing this again that prompted me to write this post. The sound of the timpani and the trumpets offers a signal that everyone should fall silent for a moment. But this is not as a sign of respect for the bigwigs or royal heads of our society. This piece is dedicated to those who do the jobs that at other times might be beneath our notice. Writing in 1942, when the U.S. had just entered World War II, Copland was inspired in his composition by a speech given by then-Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who said: “the century which will come out of this war […] must be the century of the common man.” Copland would later echo the same sentiment, saying, “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.”

2. “Comfort ye” from the Messiah (Part One) by George Frideric Handel

For over two hundred and fifty years these words have been sung. We are familiar with the overarching narrative and the celebratory peaks that come with it. But it starts with “comfort ye”, and “speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem”. Noël Bisson notes in his listening guide how the ‘slow moving strings’ that introduce and precede these words ‘immediately create an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity’ for the entry of the solo tenor. In a way it is another version of the signal given in the fanfare above: “pay attention,” “give us your ears,” but here not through command but soft entreaty. Matthew Henry, in his 1706 commentary on the biblical text, writes: ‘Comfort you, comfort you —not because the prophets are unwilling to do it (no, it is the most pleasant part of their work), but because sometimes the souls of God’s people refuse to be comforted, and their comforters must repeat things again and again, ere they can fasten any thing upon them.’

3. ‘Humming Chorus’ from Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini

This piece could not be more unlike the sound I tend to associate with opera. There are no words, there is no exaggerated vibrato, and no obvious excitement. But the melody, and its delivery, still seems to tell a story. Kate Hopkins comments, on behalf of the Royal Opera House, that ‘the melody and its repetitive, lulling accompaniment are as simple as a lullaby.’ Perhaps this is what a lullaby for adults might sound like. In an account by Los Angeles Opera, the origins of the chorus are explained: Puccini had been entranced by an uncharacteristically long moment of silence featured in a dramatic production of Madame Butterfly. Butterfly, a Japanese geisha, has been abandoned by her American naval officer husband, Pinkerton, but now holds an overnight vigil, awaiting his return. There is an optimism here that is soon to be shattered by the arrival of Pinkerton and his new wife. Optimism is often beautiful in its frailty. And yet it survives, too, in so many different forms, as this piece I think illustrates. 

4. ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams

In her article on the work, Vanessa Thorpe reports that it actually dates from the day Britain entered the First World War, when Vaughan Williams was holidaying on the coast, and walking the cliffs. There’s a great sense of space in the music, I think, which feels good for us at this time. But there is fullness too in the accompaniment that the orchestra provides to the violin. We are not on a lone journey here, but a part of the world that we observe. Prior to the walk, Vaughan Williams was inspired also by the poem of the same name written by George Meredith (published in 1881). It is a long one, but the lines below were among those included on Vaughan Williams’ manuscript:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes;

5. ‘My Life Flows On’ (How Can I Keep From Singing)

This is a nineteenth-century hymn, and the version by Audrey Assad (which I like) retains the Christian framework, but others also have adapted a few of the lines to their own taste, in adaptations that span the genres of folk, blues and Celtic music. I find it encouraging that the song has this versatility which enables people of different persuasions to find life in it. But there is a reason why I include a hymn here and I suppose there are two things that I like about this traditional form. One is that, as is the case with the Psalms, hymn writers never seem to forget that life has its trouble, and in fact that this is often why we need to sing. I find the acknowledgement in this form often feels honest without being depressing. The second thing though which I really like is how a hymn provides a structure to belief (even in its very straight, regular rhythms) and how on some level it doesn’t matter whether I feel able to subscribe in that moment to it or not. Presumably people with much stronger faith would be disappointed with me here. But I just love how the song carries on regardless. A song can leave me with my feeble and perplexed brain gloriously behind, and I get to listen in. Wonderful. I hope that’s what heaven sounds like. 

6. ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’, from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Franz Liszt

I wanted some piano music for my list, but not something that I was already so familiar with that I knew what to expect from it. This piece is much longer than the others I’ve noted, so there is some opportunity for further listening than I would normally be doing. It references a two-volume collection of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), and in both the poetry and the music there is an attempt to point towards a divine presence in all creation. But in a quote from Lamartine which prefaces Liszt’s work, there is also a reflection on how we experience time when our sense of the world is in flux: 

When barely on my brow a few days have slipped by,
It seems that a century and a world have passed;
And that, separated from them by a great abyss, 
A new man is born again within me and starts anew. 

7. Theme from The Mission (1986), including ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, by Ennio Morricone 

(recommended recording: conducted by Morricone himself)

The music here lifts even whilst it expresses a kind of beauty that is allied to pain. It’s one of the most emotionally intense pieces in this list. And yet it is ok if we are not quite sure exactly what is being expressed. Writing for ABC (in Australia), Dan Golding reviews the narrative of the original film and the place of the score within it, but at the same time suggests that the music has taken on such a life of its own that it can be taken on its own terms as quite distinct from it. He acknowledges that you might well not know the story behind the score: ‘For many, there is simply no association to dwell on while listening.’ I don’t think, in this case, that this is a cop out. 

8. ‘Stay Alive’ by José González

(for the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)

In an interview for Vogue, Gillian Sagansky asked: ‘Would you describe your sound as more melancholic or hopeful?’ González: ‘I know I’m producing music on the borderline between those two emotions, and I always try to have a hopeful twist underneath. I know a lot of people think my sound is melancholic. Towards the end of the song I always want to convey a sense of hopefulness or at least anger underneath the melancholy. It’s hopelessness that I’m trying to avoid.’

So much of this song speaks to me of depression. I find it a most comforting companion piece. Sometimes we need to stay muted, but to know that there is also a rhythm persisting in the background, and that there will come a point when we’ll feel able to meet it. Stay alive, friends.

9. ‘Deep Peace of the Running Wave’, / A Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter

(recommended recording: by the Cambridge Singers with the City of London Sinfonia)

Anything by John Rutter is a treat. But ‘peace’ is I suppose what is most needed. And yet whilst I like that repeated refrain in this piece, I do have a funny relationship with the words here which almost seem to mean less the more the music takes over. It starts with a kind of groundedness though: those unchanging characteristics of the ‘running wave’ and ‘flowing air’ which manage to withstand the forces of human turmoil and invite us, in turn, to stand still. 

10. ‘Over the Rainbow’, for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Lyricist Yip Harburg said that when he was trying to write the song, he had in mind a little girl who “had never seen anything colorful in her life except the rainbow.” That is what the song stands for, I think: a reminder of the thing that seems out of reach except that we have at some point managed to catch a glimpse of it. There are many well known versions of course, and some that are in frequent circulation, but just now I’m minded to turn to Frank Sinatra’s 1944 recording. It is light and misty, and good for transporting us out of where we are to quite another time, which is really what this song is all about. 

Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay