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Monday 29 December 2008

Death of an Anti-War Horse

A bad time, the festive season turned out to be in terms of losing people. First on Christmas Day came the shock news that Harold Pinter had died, and then on the same day Eartha Kitt took her leave of us. They had in common the fact that they were both great anti-war campaigners. They also had in common the fact that they were both heroes of mine, but that, as they say, is another story.

I will stick my neck out and say that Pinter was by a distance the greatest playwright of the late twentieth century, and that only Beckett got anywhere close to challenging that position.
Pinter used everyday speech forms - yours and mine - and from that rock face cut his poetry.
As a poet he wrote prose poetry, but yes, he was a poet also, and a scriptwriter - and, as I wish to stress here (for others can write with greater authority on his plays), an effective anti-war campaigner. Yes, I use the word effective, though I'm not sure how much notice was taken... but then are we ever? I know with my own conscience that it sometimes has to nag for quite a while before I allow it to take effect.

Here is part of his speech of acceptance for the Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry ; 18 March 2005

This is a true honour. Wilfred Owen was a great poet. He articulated the tragedy, the horror, and indeed the pity -of war - in a way no other poet has. Yet we have learnt nothing. Nearly a hundred years after his death the world has become more savage, more brutal, more pitiless....

... We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people, and call it Bringing freedom and Democracy to the Middle East.But as we all know, we have not been welcomed with the predicted flowers. What we have unleashed is a ferocious and unremitting resistance, mayhem and chaos.

You may say at this point, What about the Iraqi elections? Well, President Bush himself answered the question only the other day when he said: We cannot accept that there can be free democratic elections in a country under foreign military occupation. I had to read the statement twice before I realised that he was talking about Lebanon and Syria.

And here an extract from a Dear Prime Ministerletter written to Tony Blair in 1998 - after the 1997 election:

We have been reminded over the last few weeks of Saddam Hussein's appalling record in the field of human rights. It is indeed appalling: brutal, pathological. But I thought you might be interested to scrutinise the record of your ally, the US, in a somewhat wider context. I am not at all certain that your advisors will have kept you fully informed.

The US has supported, subsidised and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945.

He went on to give details of the death toll in Guatemala, East Timor, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Indonesia and the devastation wreaked in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, before signing off on a somewhat more friendly note:

Oh, by the way, meant to mention, forgot to tell you,we were all chuffed to our bollocks when Labour won the election.

Two Poems

The Disappeared

The Disappeared Lovers of light, the skulls,
The burnt skin, the white
Flash of the night,
The heat in the death of men.

The hamstring and the heart
Torn apart in a musical room,
Where children of the light
Know that their kingdom has come.


Weather Forecast

The day will get off to a cloudy start.
It will be quite chilly
But as the day progresses
The sun will come out
And the afternoon will be dry and warm.

In the evening the moon will shine
And be quite bright.
There will be, it has to be said,
A brisk wind
But it will die out by midnight.
Nothing further will happen.

This is the last forecast.

March 2003

Saturday 27 December 2008

words should have role models

I was quite sure that couple of weeks before Christmas, or thereabouts, Jim made a remark, commenting on one of my posts concerning words and their meanings, expressing his interest in the subject and his continual surprise that we are ever able to talk to each other. (or something like that.)Unfortunately, though I have trawled my recent posts and their comments, I have done so without success. Just maybe, therefore, it was some other post and not one of mine to which he appended the comment. That he did make the remark, or one very like it, I am in no doubt, for it inspired this poem - and another, to be revealed later, D.V.
I wrote it there and then, in one go, no drafts, and only one small change since - They've for they have. It must be the first time ever I've known for sure that a poem was finished. I wrote "for what they might become" and the beast stopped and dug its heels in. There was no more to be done, nothing else forthcoming. Reading it through now, it sounds very W.S.Graham, but I know it isn't, I'm sure it's mostly Jim - the comment in question and others in the past. This business of words and what they mean intrigues him, I think, as it does me.

The words you hear me speak
are mine. I borrowed them from you,
but in the borrowing they changed,
did not stand still. They are like
homing pigeons now, are proud
to bring you my reply. What will you do
with them now they've returned?
Tell me, will you change them back
or recognise their new integrity?
Or might you change them further yet?
Some were mine from the beginning.
Those I sent like doves in search
of land where they might rest.
Recouperate.What will you do?
How will you recognise the unfamiliar
from that which you knew well?
Might you not send them back
as hawks in search of prey?
If so, how shall I see them then
for what they are? Or should I search
their souls for what they might become?

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Christmas Pebbles

This from the local paper: Newquay, Cornwall. 03.12.2008 (much edited):

Someone, a local artist has been leaving his own hand-painted gifts around the town centre in an effort to spread 'the real meaning of Christmas' which he feels has been lost.
He has painted more than 150 pebbles with an image of the baby Jesus.
More than 70 of the ornately decorated pebbles have already been placed around the town and have been discovered by residents.
The small fist-sized pebbles are laid out at random on small heaps of hay. As shoppers flock to the town centre in the run-up to Christmas the artist hopes that they will discover his handiwork and the 'real message' of Christmas.

Pebbles from a beach
and on each
the baby Jesus.
Christmas within reach.

The Christ Child on a stone.
The pebbles have their bounds,
each a different set.
He accomodates them yet.

Pebbles from a beach
strewn along the street,
A Christ Child by the gate.
Around the market: eight.

The Christ Child pocket-sized:
each a comfort stone,
pebbles to be prized
and worried to the bone.

Pebbles from a beach,
harder than that crib
in its far off stable.
Everywhere, he's able.

Cots from a pebbly shore,
Saviours tucked in stone.
How many will be drafted?
We each must find our own.

Saturday 20 December 2008

Christmas Tipples With the Poets

But first

a very good Christmas to you all,

with much happiness, good health and

prosperity in the new year -

if that last is not tempting providence too severely!

And on the subject of tipples, but before we get to the poets, whilst still soporific this morning (20.12.08) I heard a Radio 2 voice informing me that one of our police forces (Kent?) has issued its officers with a list of words that are difficult or impossible to say after having over-imbibed. (World shortage of breathalysers perhaps?) I didn't get all the words, but they included: innovative, preliminary and transubstantiation. The Radio 2 voice later suggested that aurora borealis (which have been Christened The Northern Christmas Lights, apparently) might be added to the list. So here's a sort of Christmas challenge for anyone foolish enough to take it on: using those 4 words, write a Christmas poem that only we more sober souls will be able to read aloud on Christmas Day.

And now to those tipples... This is a recycled (i.e. expanded and much improved) version of a post I made a year ago in which I got to wondering what if some of our best poets had become producers, not of poetry, but of fine wines? Are these the sort of wines we might have been enjoying this year?

Seamus Heaney
A generous, authoritative, rather earthy wine with a peaty, even gritty flavour and holding a wide range of subtle hints needing to be teased out by a knowledgable and sensitive drinker. Nevertheless, it is easy to like on first acquaintance and has become highly popular as a result. It comes into its own when accompanying a serious meat dish, but can be tenjoyed with any dish - or with none.

W.B Yeats
A somewhat grandiloquent wine, at times having more the characteristics of a slightly sticky liqueur. Ideal for the grand occasion, though be warned that this fine, slightly hallucinatory drink, has suggestions both of majesty and rebellion in its heady bouquet.

George Szirtes
A wine for all occasions, having great strength and clarity of both colour and bouquet. It is the perfect accompaniment for the big occasion or the gourmet meal, though it will not let you down at party time.

John Betjeman
I know of connoisseurs who consider this a low-alcohol drink. They are wrong. If few have menaged to become incapacitated on the strength of it, many they are who have grown merry with its help..

Sylvia Plath
A dry white with a sensuous texture, often missed until the palate has been acquired.

Hugh MacDiarmid
The product of a robust grape that thrives in either of two soils, the one resulting in a refreshingly wild and unambiguous flavour, the other in a cloud of hints and associations.

W. H. Auden
A serious taste beneath a lively, jovial bouquet. A wine for either public or private occasions.

W. S. Graham
The punch with a punch. The first draught may be totally befuddling, but eventually - probably a day or two later - a cold clarity will hit. And you will never forget that you drank! No spirits and only the finest grapes are used, those that are the result of geography, of the soil, the climate, the very atmosphere in which they grew. Remarkable then, how well it travels!

Elizabeth Jennings
A quiet, restrained and unassuming wine that by eschewing fashion has won for itself considerable popularity among discerning drinkers.

T.S. Eliot
One for the connoisseur, having in both its taste and its aroma many associations to be enjoyed by the cognoscenti.

R.S. Thomas
A severe wine with an enduring, uncomplicated flavour. A happy complement to simple fare.

Marianne Moore
Edith Sitwell once referred to this wine as "thick and uncouth", which is strange, considering its allusive and tantalising nature. Perfect with a light meal.

Robert Graves
A traditional wine, though with more than a touch of the free spirit. Ideal for the picnic hamper on a hot, sunny day, or to accompany a Mediterranean-style meal. A wine for lovers everywhere.

Even as you draw the cork you will feel the presence of the English countryside. It could not have come from anywhere else.

Elaine Feinstein
A dry white wine with a spare, wry flavour.

Thom Gunn
A supple, dark and sexy red.

Friday 19 December 2008

On poetry and religion : After-thoughts

It has occurred to me sinc reading through the comments (including my own!) on my most recent post, Poetry and Empty Heaven, that the debate on what constitutes the finest religious poetry (and particularly Art Durkee's parallel approach to the numinous and his remarks about beliefs being internal to the poem), the aspect which I had set out primarily to discuss was not so much any of those, fascinating though I found them to be, as the reality or otherwise of (as Wallace Steven, for example, saw it) poetry taking the place of religion. This was the reason I decided that, with the exception of the poetry of The Bible, I would not discuss religious poetry per se. I made mention of Nick Laird's quasi-religious return to poetry in a time of extremity, and of the fact that to a degree poetry has supplanted religion in my own experience. Poetry and religion do seem to me to be parallel in many respects, and at times to stand-in for each other. One interesting question that I did not raise might be that of whether poetry replacing religion must of necessity be religious in some generally accepted meaning of the term.

I was fascinated, then (by the continuing synchronicity as much as anything else), having posted that, to read (in the T.L.S.) in a review of the recently published interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones, the following:

A Catholicism of the imagination is voiced in the book, in contrast with his position in the 1960's, when he would have been "diffident" in answering questions about the teachings and ceremonies associated with the "first visionary world" of acradle Catholic. So his fresh starts have included reversions, and the book is particularly interesting in its discussion of the scope of his born-again imaginative Christianity - if that is not to overstate, for there was never an outright abeyance or denial.

God is no longer dead, at all events, as Heaney may have been moved, with his generation, to wonder in the 1960s. The poet sees ghosts, and his poetry, when it began in him,was experienced as a "redemptive grace". There is, if not an after-life, an "after-image of life". This does not make him a theocratic defender of Ireland's Catholic Church, but it may be that he has followed a different course from those of its flocks who are now less faithful than they were once.

My thanks to all those who took part in the earlier debate, and particularly to Art Durkee and Sorlil for their contributions.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Poetry and Empty Heaven

And synchronicity goes marching on... Art Durkee first mentioned it in his comment to my Schweitzer (Part 1) post. I then picked up the thought in Schweitzer Part 2, intending to run with it not very far, but it out-paced me. In that post I also referred in passing to the way in which my bookshelves, which had once been crammed with tomes on theology, became gradually divested of those and restocked with books of poetry. I posted it on Sunday morning. In the afternoon I sat down, as is my wont, to read the Review section of the Guardian from the day before - I have given up on the Sunday papers, finding enough in Saturday's Guardian (usually) to last me through the weekend.
In the Review I found Nick Laird ((here) writing about poetry and religion.
I don't like faith, I read, but I'm fond of its trappings - the kitschy icons, the candles, the paintings, the architecture and, especially, the poetry. Both religion and poetry, he goes on to say, work at the borders of the sayable. After a fascinating discussion on the poetry of The Lord's Prayer, he goes on: But give me real poetry over religion. Poems have the mythological dimension of religion... through which the invisible world is symbolised - but lack the doctrine.

Theology tries to systematise the accumulated revelations of religion... Poetry admits everything is apocrypha, that all things are open to faith or nothing is
. In systematising, he says, religion tries to pick and choose, to say we'll have this, but not that. (That becomes heresy - my insertion.) Poetry can hold oppositions in equilibrium, life tends to paradox and poetry can cope with that.

Finally, he quotes Les Murray's (A true poem is dreamed and danced as well as thought)poem Poetry and Religion in which he (Murray) argues that the two things are:

The same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror,

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There'll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given and intermittent,
as the action of those birds - crested pigeon, rosella parrot -
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

So Nick Laird, having introduced poetry's most obvious connection with religion, then somewhat shies away from it - which is, I guess, not far from the position most would take these days. I shall do likewise (save for one exception, which I shall come to later), if only because the obvious connection - shall I call it the first connection? - of poetry with religion is important enough for a post or two all to itself. As with painting, so much poetry from the past was produced, either in the service of religion or by those whose lives were ruled and ordered by religion.

In Grey Gowrie's Third Day: New and Selected Poems, the poems of the selected were written back in the 60's. He seems not to have written thereafter - until a life-threatening illness resulting in a heart transplant in the 90's brought him back to poetry and resulted in a stupendously moving sequence called The Domino Hymn. He writes with verve and distinction on the areas in which poetry is most potent: life, art, love. music and death. These, of course, are the great themes of religion also. His thirty year absence from poetry and his sudden return in a moment of crisis have all the hallmarks of a person in extremity refinding his religion - and we should not overlook the hint or resurrection in that Third Day in Gowrie's title.

Perhaps it might be in order at this point to say a word or two about the one promised exception to my self-imposed ban on poetry produced specifically to serve a religious purpose. My exception is the poetry of the Bible. It is, I think, different from other such poetry because it underlies, not just Christianity, but our whole (Western) civilisation, including, of course, our literature, in a way that no other poetry does. I am not able to speak on the poetry of any of the other great religions and their societies, except to point out that the majority of the world's great epic traditions, unlike the Bible, are in verse form. The Bible's narratives are almost all in prose. In view of this, it is maybe even more surprising to discover that almost one third of the Old Testament is poetry. And a very terse and evocative form of poetry it is, too, mainly because it is in binary style, achieving its effect by the juxtapositioning of short lines connected by ambiguous conjunctions or by none. (The connecting word/letter waw can mean and, or, but etc.) Often therefore, the specific relationships between lines are not made plain. Furthermore, other items of syntax are often omitted. The individual poetic units (usually 2 or 3 lines) often seem to me to have something of the character of a haiku. This from the Book of Judges, for example (5:25):

Water he asked
Milk she gave:
In a lordly cup she offered cream.

Those of you familiar with the concept will have noticed that the above quote is also a good example of parallelism, as is much Old Testament poetry. Parallelism is the pairing off of lines or half lines by giving them the same linguistic or semantic character. So in the quote above Water he asked is grammatically equivalent to milk she gave. In the case of semantic parallelism the second line or half line might reflect the first by echoing its meaning, by reversing it, extending it or intensifying it.

Other characteristics of Biblical poetry include word repetition, word association, ellipsis, chiasm (an A-B-B-A pattern of words, grammatical structures or lines and imagery.

My short introduction to the Bible's poetry will, I hope, emphasise the importance, indeed, the closeness of poetry to religion, without putting off those who might already be familiar with the points or be indisposed to the whole subject of organised religion.

Such and, (I sincerely hope) most others may be more predisposed to the thoughts of Wallace Stevens in The Man with the Blue Guitar, his long hymn to the special relationships existing between poetry and the other arts and religion, which has it that:

Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,

Ourselves in poetry must take their place
Even in the chattering of your guitar.

Empty, I think, not because Heaven now has nothing to offer, but because in the modern world it has no takers. The people have left themselves with only poetry to which they can turn.

Stevens was much burdened by the idea of the passing of the old truths and beliefs, and could see nothing with which to replace them but that offered by his notion of The Supreme Fiction, a fictive replacement for the idea of God. In his wonderfully satirical poem, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," he offers the readily available notions of the modern world, but finds them less than satisfying to the human soul:

Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began.
J. Hillis Miller says in his book, Poets of Reality, that Wallace's saxophones squiggle because the theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement. In the end, all that remains is reality.

I thought I would let Nick Laird take it and finish it from this point, for he seems to me in so many ways to be the voice of one crying in today's wilderness with more than a little of today's zeitgeist:
I've spent a lot of late nights over the past year working on a long poem that I hoped would pull everything together, would unify all my little thoughts and theories. It was meant to be a hymn to the natural world, but also touch on neuroscience and evolution and quantum physics. It had sections set in the past in Northern Ireland, in the present across several continents, and a scene set in the future. One bit was split into three sections meant to represent the ego, id and superego. It contained riddles, a recurring alter ego, and two creation myths. It is - was - an unbelievable mess.

A good poem is a closed belief system, and I was trying to create, I think, a kind of religion to supplant the one I was raised with, and have now lost.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Thaumaturgic Protection for a Turkman Boy

A similar garment in The Britsh Museum

Seven tents gave seven of their finest
cloths, and chose from sempstresses those souls who,
skilled both in the occult and with thread, knew
best their ancient lore, and were the most blest
of the tribe. Once seamed, the guardian vest
received their magic signs to see him through
life's ills: their bells, coins, cowrie shells and blue-
as-azure tokens of their love - for zest
and health in all he'd do. The hem, unstitched,
hung free to propagate the tribal line.

Today, the boy might think his coat bewitched,
kept safe by our much stranger science: nine
red eyes, those modern talismans of ours,
protect the old protector's ancient powers.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Double Header

Who looks down on whom?

In my second post on Albert Schweitzer, The Quest I told of a discussion that arose from a painting of mine, a discussion concerning the physical appearance of Jesus, and how it could be argued that in the Biblical story of Zaccheus climbing a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd, the phrase for he was a small man could be taken to refer to Christ as easily as to Zaccheus - the traditional interpretation.

Commenting on this, Hope at The Road Less Traveled, said: It's funny, I never thought of Jesus being the "short" one instead of Zaccheus. Guess it was that song I learned as a kid, "Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see..."

Which is pretty much the general reaction when the idea is first floated.

I also had a couple of emails on the subject, including this from a very good friend of mine:
In the course of your latest blog I was prompted (& amazed to be able) to recall a ditty which I remember my mother singing to me over-&-over when I was young. ( I still remember, word for word, a number of such verses reproduced from her own childhood learning) . . .

Now Zaccheus was a very little man,
And a very little man was he.
He climbed into a sycamore tree
For the Saviour he wanted to see.
And when the Lord passed by that way
He looked into that tree,
And said “Now, Zaccheus, you come down
For I’m coming to your house for my tea!”

On googling 'climbed into a sycamore tree' I came across the verse with virtually the identical words on the 'stickykids' website. It was preceded by a longer variation of the story with a sample sound track - not the same as the one my mother used! Not of any great interest to you perhaps, but fascinating to me as it must be 60 or so years since I ever even thought of Zacchias!

Keep up the good work. Bill

Back to School

I was somewhat amused to read and hear on the TV that the people who decide these things (in this instance led by Sir Jim Rose, adviser to the government, and a man with much good work behind, one who has always had my admiration) have decided that our school curriculum is twenty years old and no longer up to the job of preparing our young people for life and work. The trouble lies in the subject boundaries, so they plan to completely modernise (even revolutionise) this twenty year old curriculum - with an idea that we were all familiar with in the 60s and 70s, a way of teaching that was highly popular when I began teaching even further back than that and which I used a great deal until (20 years ago, would you believe?) I was told by my inspector that it would have to go as it was no longer up to the job of preparing our young people for life.

Projects, are to be the great new-old thing in education. Children should follow a project which requires them to research across several traditional subject areas. They will work and learn instead, in the following areas: English, Communication and Languages : Mathematical Understanding : Scientific and Technological Understanding : Understanding Physical Health and Wellbeing : Understanding Arts and Design

Learning by project worked very well, once - well enough to show that it can work. That was when what you learnt was more important than how you were taught because that was in the days when what you learnt was more than a matter of box ticking. It is true that in its heyday it was not always well used. Sometimes the checks to ensure that the necessary ground was covered were not rigorous enough; sometimes the projects were not intrinsically related to the subjects they were supposed to be covering; sometimes the method was pushed to extremes. However, with its demise, and by the time I retired, I was beginning to think that teachers were becoming more and more like tour guides. They had their itinerary, known as a curriculum, and they behaved as tour guides traditionally are supposed to behave: they show you Buckimgham Palace, St Paul's Cathedral and Piccadilly Circus, take you on the London Eye and round The National Gallery - and that's it, x number of boxes ticked, London done, let's go and look at Wales! The concept of experiencing a subject area was fast disappearing. It has gone much further down that road in the years since.

The argument centres around the point of contention that it has always centred around: the usefulness or not of inert learning (learning that has no immediate relevance for the child, but will become relevant later). But whenever I hear that discussion being rerun it reminds me of Henry Reed's great WWII poem Naming of Parts from his Lessons of War sequence. Here are the first two verses:

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

Doesn't that put the case rather succinctly?

Sunday 7 December 2008

Girl Possessed

Girl Possessed : Paul Klee

Aglow with light and bright
as any stormlamp, yet
no light is shed, no gloom
is lifted where she walks.
Possession has dispossessed her,
and her wooden eyes are bled
of light - or blinded by it -
and look out from what
might seem eternal emptiness,
in search of the internal.
Possession has hollowed her
of inwardness. She is
deceived. The entity
has hold of her,
the not-her, and has drained
her of control, of all
the attributes of life
beyond the physical.
Capping the body she was born
with, this prosthetic face.

Thursday 4 December 2008

The Quest...

A day or two after my post on Albert Schweitzer, I turned my thoughts to the question of whether or not to produce a follow-up. I had already determined that if I was to write one it would be on The Quest of the Historical Jesus, the book that was probably responsible for first thrusting him fully into the public gaze - and for sure into my gaze. Then I read the comment byThe Weaver of Grass on my original post, pointing out that we (The Weaver and I) are of about the same age and that Schweitzerhad been a very real presence during our childhoods and adolescence - which said at least part of what I had been trying to get across, while putting it much more succinctly than I had managed. And then I found myself at Box-Elder reading her Books Lying About post, and the three things came together somehow in the deeper recesses of my mind to remind me of the way in which my book collection has changed since those far-off years. When - and maybe partly because - Schweitzer was such a towering presence, my bookcases were largely filled with works of theology. I was an altar boy at my local (Anglican) parish church and later would become a Methodist lay preacher (a somewhat heretical one, if the truth be told), but over the years, and I think partly through the influence of The Quest of the Historical Jesus I became less and less interested in what I came to see as the rather sterile Philosophy of God. Slowly the shelves were taken over by books on art, literature (with an emphasis on poetry), some science and a few selected novels. That is my rationale for choosing to post on The Historical Jesus: the influence it had on me. I do not say that Schweitzer was entirely responsible for the shift in my concerns and interests, that would be too simple, but he was one who happened along at that time and so became part of the process.

However, the question of synchronicity becomes more fascinating by the day. It was first raised in this connection by Art Durkee in a comment to my Reverence for Life post. He had been re-reading Frederick Franck's To Be Human Against All Odds when my post appeared. Franck was a disciple of Schweitzer and Franck's life was very much modelled on the master's. I am grateful to Art for the comment, for I have not read any of Franck's work, but intend to rectify that omission ASAP.

If Schweitzer is not as well-known as I believe he should be, The Quest of the Historical Jesus seems even more neglected. It is easy to see why this would be, and certainly I do believe that in today's world more than ever it is the philosophy of Reverence for Life that it might be redemptive for us to adopt as our default life-style, but, as I have pointed out, The Quest played a part - and a big part - in my early and development and in my early and developing interest in Schweitzer. Partly it was, I am sure, that society had different concerns in those days. Maybe it was the lead in to the age of the celebrity. Whatever it was, Schweitzer's emphasis on Christ's humanity seemed to fit the public mood exactly. One anecdote might illustrate. In my teens I was invited to paint a mural for a small, country church. It had to show something of Christ's ministry. I duly produced a painting as a cartoon for the proposed work. In fact, the project never came about, and I heard - and saw - no more of either the matter or the cartoon. The whole busines had died a natural death so far as I was concerned. Unknown to me, however, it was not quite dead: the cartoon had found its way into a local art exhibition. (Local to the church, not to me.) The local paper sent a reporter to cover the exhibition. He wrote a longish piece on my painting. It never appeared in the local paper, but still without my knowledge, it was syndicated - whatever that might mean in media terms - and appeared (apparently - for I still knew nothing of all this) in various places around the world. And I never would have known, had not some kind person collected a wadge of cuttings and sent them to me anonymously. I found the whole business to be quite amazing. I had not realized that so much material was available on the subject of Jesus the man, or that it would generate so much interest. One correspondent had referred, for example, to an official report by a Roman Centurion to his superiors describing Jesus in some detail. Most, though, drew conclusions from gospel passages. One I recall based his argument around the act of Zaccheus in climbing a sycamore tree to get a good view of Jesus as he passed by. The Gospel record says he wanted to see what Jesus was like; but he could not, on account of the crowd - for he was of small stature. That last remark - for he was of small stature - has usually been taken as referring to Zaccheus, but several correspondents pointed out that it could as easily refer to Christ. All rather dull and academic - in the present climate. I have related it, though, to show how attitudes have changed. That lengthy debate would rate perhaps a whimsical letter in The Times today, but not much more, I think. (Though the various images of Jesus are culturally important, no undisputed record of his appearance is known to exist - here - though it is interesting, perhaps, to note that there is more to go on than is the case when, for example, we discuss the appearance of Shakespeare.)

Of course, the physical appearance of Jesus is not the stuff of Schweitzer's book. He is interested in deeper matters, but my anecdote illustrates, I think, how times - and interests - have changed. For me the book was a breakthrough. I was having severe trouble with the Son of God bit. Schweitzer put it differently: that Jesus was not born the Son of God, but that during his ministry he became increasingly conscious that he was, as we all are, the Son of God, though in his case in a unique way, i.e. he was The Only Son of God. The title, the role and the implication of both were freely entered into by him as a fully conscious and accepting being.

I will not attempt a synopsis of The Quest of the Historical Jesus. There is so much on the web, that one only has to Google Schweitzer's name or anything to do with him to be almost embarrassed by a wealth of riches. I will simply give some quotes as I did for Reverence for Life, enough, I hope, to give sufficient of its flavour for you to judge whether or not it is a book for you..

"But the others, those who tried to bring Jesus to life at the call of love, found it a cruel task to be honest. The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a school of honesty. The world had never seen before, and will never see again, a struggle for truth so full of pain and renunciation as that of which the Lives of Jesus of the last hundred years contain the cryptic record."

"When we have once made up our minds that we have not the materials for a complete Life of Jesus, but only for a picture of His public ministry, it must be admitted that there are few characters of antiquity about whom we possess so much indubitably historical information, of whom we have so many authentic discourses."

"There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign."

"For a hundred and fifty years the question has been historically discussed why Judas betrayed his Master. That the main question for history was what he betrayed was suspected by few and they touched on it only in a timid kind of way ... The traitorous act of Judas cannot of consisted in informing the Sanhedrin where Jesus was to be found at a suitable place for an arrest. ... The betrayal by which he brought his Master to death, in consequence of which the rulers decided upon the arrest, knowing that their cause was safe in any case, was the betrayal of the Messianic secret. Jesus died because two of His disciples had broken His command of silence; Peter when he made known the secret of the Messiahship to the Twelve at Caesarea Philippi; Judas Iscariot by communicating it to the High Priest. But the difficulty was that Judas was the sole witness. Therefore the betrayal was useless so far as the actual trial was concerned unless Jesus admitted the charge. So they first tried to secure His condemnation on other grounds, and only when these attempts broke down did the High Priest put, in the form of a question, the charge in support of which he could have brought no witnesses.
But Jesus immediately admitted it, and strengthened the admission by an allusion to His Parousia in the near future as the Son of Man.
The betrayal and the trial can be rightly understood when it is realized that the public knew nothing whatever of the secret of the Messiahship."

"Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity."

Finally, for good measure, some more quotes from Reverence for Life

"The plowman does not pull the plow. He does not push it. He only directs it. That is just how events move in our lives. We can do nothing but guide them straight is the direction which leads to our Lord Jesus Christ, striving toward him in all we do and experience. Strive toward him, and the furrow will plow itself."

"But the man who dares to live his life with death before his eyes, the man who receives life back bit by bit and lives as though it did not belong to him by right but has been bestowed on him as a gift, the man who has -- overcome death in his thoughts--such a man believes in eternal life because it is already his, it is a present experience, and he already benefits from its peace and joy. He cannot describe this experience in words. He may not be able to conform his view with the traditional picture of it. But one thing he knows for certain: Something within us does not pass away, something goes on living and working wherever the kingdom of the spirit is present. It is already working and living within us, because in our hearts we have been able to reach life by overcoming death."

"I do not want to frighten you by telling you about the temptations life will bring. Anyone who is healthy in spirit will overcome them. But there is something I want you to realize. It does not matter so much what you do. What matters is whether your soul is harmed by what you do. If your soul is harmed, something irreparable happens, the extent of which you won't realize until it will be too late."

"These three great temptations unobtrusively wreck the presupposition of all goodness. Guard against them. Counter the first temptation [indifference, followed by uselessness] by saying that for you to share experience and to lend a helping hand is an absolute inward necessity. Your utmost attempts will be but a drop in the ocean compared with what needs to be done, but only this attitude will give meaning and value to your life. Wherever you are, as far as you can, you should bring redemption, redemption from the misery brought into the world by self-contradictory will of life, redemption that only he who has this knowledge can bring. The small amount you are able to do is actually much is it only relieves pain, suffering, and fear from any living being, be it human or any other creature. The preservation of life is the true joy.

As for the other temptation, the fear that compassion will involve you in suffering, counter it with the realization that the sharing of sorrow expands your capacity to share joy as well. When you callously ignore the suffering of others, you lose the capacity to share their happiness, too. And however little joy we may see in this world, the sharing of it, together with the good we ourselves create, produces the only happiness which makes life tolerable. And finally, you have no right to say: I will be this, or I will be that, because I think one way will make me happier than another. No, you must be what you ought to be, a true, knowing man, a man who identifies himself with the world, a man who experiences the world within himself. Whether you are happier by the ordinary standards of happiness or not doesn't matter. The secret hour does not requires of us that we should be happy--to obey the call is the only thing that satisfies deeply.

So I tell you, don't let your hearts grow numb. Stay alert. It is your soul which matters.

A good thought on which to end, perhaps.

The first image above is of Jesus as depicted in the Ravenna Mosaics.