Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Divine Landscapes: The Writings of Ronald Blythe

Susan Southall

Picture of Ronald Blythe at home,  via the Daily Telegraph (London)

“In the Village Church where I often preach there are two kinds of window, that filled with clear glass and that with painted glass. In heavenly terms both have to be looked through, not at. Through the clear glass we glimpse nature — a cloud, a yew, a passing bird. Through coloured glass we glimpse other worlds than this.”

Spiritual Reading Group met in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday 21st October, where Susan Southall gave this introductory paper on Ronald Blythe, who is considered to be England’s finest country writer. He is a cathedral canon, lay reader, and preacher. He belongs to a tradition which sees the divine hand in a landscape filled with nature, history, literature and art. He calls himself ‘a listener and a watcher’: his unique style curves this way and that, relaxed and exact, both dreaming and real. Prayer, he says, is part of the pattern of life. Here is Susan’s opening paper, with quotes from some of Blythe’s work.

Early in 1947, Ronald Blythe was living near Aldeburgh, in a rented house found for him by the woman he describes as his muse: Christine, wife of the painter John Nash. Christine Nash had met Blythe while he was working in Colchester Library as a reference librarian, but he was leaving his job to undertake a career change while still in his twenties. John and Christine Nash became patrons to Blythe, who was determined, in his shy and quiet way, to become a writer.

On this snowy day, Blythe saw in the street E.M. Forster, who was staying in Benjamin Britten’s house for the Aldeburgh Festival. When Blythe got home, there was note from Forster inviting him to Britten’s place and when he got there, he found the living room covered in paper, pages spread over every available surface. Forster was writing a biography, and he had no idea how to construct an index. This was simple for Blythe, who made quick work of the pages, and that was his introduction to working at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Ronald Blythe is in his 93rd year now, in 2014. In 2013 he published the memoir of his association with the Festival, the artists, painters and musicians he knew at that time, for the centenary of Britten’s birth, and this book was received with much acclaim. A number of his books are collated from his weekly essays for Church Times, his diary entries, and sermons he preaches in his parish church: three of them! His latest volume records some 33 published works, most of them non-fiction, though he has written three novels and a book of short stories. He views himself as an essayist and poet, and the book that brought him early and lasting success is a longer work, Akenfield.

Akenfield (1969) gives voices to a vanished way of life, the agricultural world of rural villages that was passing away by the 1950’s. It was a world that revolved around the church in its daily, weekly and seasonal ceremonies. The world of The Book of Common Prayer. The artisans and farm workers Blythe interviewed lived in deep poverty, but they held a strong spiritual connection to the land. Akenfield was made into a film by Peter Hall, (with music by Michael Tippett, as Britten was too ill to contribute), and it has now become a classic.

The Blythe family has lived in Suffolk for centuries, near to the river of that name. Ronald Blythe has spent most of his time in East Anglia, in the house he inherited from John and Christine Nash, called Bottengoms Farm. It is by observing the passage of seasons through the surrounding countryside, the birds, plants, animals and weather, and the ritual year of the church, that Blythe gives expression to his spirituality.

Introducing Wormingford, the place where his farm is located, Blythe first says that it was the home of John Constable’s people. Blythe is said to write landscapes — and part of the landscape is the inhabitants — through history, literature and art. History isn’t linear but depth, layer after layer, over the landscape. He’s president of the John Clare Society, and has written about George Crabbe, the realist poet- parson, all these references slipping into the landscape and the seascape around him. In an essay about the sea, he says:

“There is Benjamin Britten's house. Sea-trained by his Lowestoft origins, he would have found the interior silences of my native scene sterile, maybe. No thud and crash of water, no pitiless distances, and an absence of drama. No glitter to life. What was sometimes wearying to me was reviving to him. George Crabbe, the great realist poet, heard the Aldeburgh sea calling to him wherever he went. He would make long journeys to it, just to breathe it in. His snowy bust looks up at Britten's memorial window in Aldeburgh church, and away from congregations.

“The Revd George Crabbe was given a hard time when he re- turned to Aldeburgh as a curate. But the mighty sea solaced him, and while he could be said to have taken his revenge in The Borough, an exposé of a poem if ever there was one, in his head the sea put all human behaviour in its place. And so here it is once more, diminishing, yet somehow praising us mortals.

“There are no oceans in the King James Bible, only seas, and these abundantly. Awe accompanies the many references to them. It was St Paul who used the word "peril" in relation to them. Most scriptural references show humanity acknowledging the sea's supremacy. Those who wrote them would not have heard of the Pacific or the Atlantic. They would have seen them as roads, and the Gospels have a marine flavour to them.”

This shows a little about the way Blythe works. He begins with something autobiographical, his own experience, with its interior silences, which immediately brings to mind Crabbe, whose poem The Borough inspired Britten to write his opera Peter Grimes. And from there he goes directly to the church, and its stained glass windows. And from there to the sea, the way humanity is put in its place. And from there to the King James Bible, and how the sea was anciently perceived: with awe. And then to the Gospels, and the voyages of Paul, who travelled on sea roads bringing the church to the world. So the church is central to his spirituality: it means he doesn’t have to be complicated about it. He isn’t going to be a person who says “”I’m spiritual but not religious.” He doesn’t even think he is particularly religious, either. And yet he is a churchman.

Blythe was once invited to become a priest, but he pointed out that he was far too quietly disposed ever to be able to run a parish. He spends hours, he says, daydreaming. He says he’s a Reader who happens to be a writer, and so there’s this deep well of sensibility to draw on. The oration for his honorary doctorate from the University of Essex says: he talks of “the living, the departed, the abundance, the dearth, the planets, the prayers, the holiness of things.”

An editorial from The Guardian for Blythe’s 90th birthday in 2012 notes that “tucked away on the back page of the Church Times each week is one of the most elegant and thoughtful columns in British journalism. Word from Wormingford mixes acute, elegiac rural observation with a strand of English mystical thinking that often seems to reach back to its 17th-century roots.”

From Word from Wormingford:               

“Reading has always been my way to the Way, always my way of knowing anything. I read the poet John Clare for his authoritative village sounds. One has only to open a page of him to hear every day of that Northamptonshire year, the cries, the grind, the song, the humanity, the creatures… I tell the flock about St. Thomas, that so-like-us man, who demanded physical proof of a spiritual reality. A week before him there was St. John of the Cross, Spain’s Traherne, with his daring Christian imagery, and who found that the very waiting for Christ enchanted the landscape, making the beautiful river country at Baeza distractingly lovely. For this writer scenery became the physical proof of his Lord. I have to make the best of outdoors on lessening days.” (17)

He’s telling us about his spirituality by telling us about other people’s spirituality. A domestic scene from Village Hours (2012):

“Forget the economy: the big question is: can I say at St. Andrew’s this Sunday what I said at SS Peter and Paul last Sunday? Would this be sloth, or a fair distribution of genius? The white cat sits in the window, grumbling at green woodpeckers devouring Waitrose chicken strips. It really is the limit.

“The day is grey and sweet. The wood is full of snowdrops. The study is piled with books. Epiphany is fading into Before Lent. There isn’t a sound except little animal-grousings…

“I have an ancient ash on which ivy has created or founded a kind of leaf city for countless creatures. It feeds on pond water, and generously sheds dead boughs for kindling. It has been here for ever: since 1900, say. It sings, along with its birds.”

There’s just this simple security. He writes: “A Medieval King would keep his Christmas at Woodstock or Westminster, or wherever he happened to be.  And God keeps us, wherever we happen to be.” He tells about the Christmas festivities when James I saw the play Twelfth Night, and Lancelot Andrewes was the preacher. And Andrewes forgot his lines. He says, “Nobody was more understanding than James, for whom the word ‘baby’ was so wonderful that he went on calling his son and lover this when they were in their 20’s, signing them ‘Your Dad and Gossip’. Seated below the pulpit, he heard Bishop Andrewes approaching the stable on Christmas morning with his theology pat, his severe face all set for the great occasion, his notes crackling in his hand.  And then — a newborn boy. The Saviour of mankind. The preaching went out of his voice, King and court went silent. Not a sound in the freezing chapel. But Andrewes was not in it; he was in Bethlehem. ‘An infant —the infant Word— the Word without a word— the eternal Word not able to speak a word— a wonder sure…” And Blythe says, “One should long ago have been surfeited with all this. How does it all stay so fresh? How do babies cause one to be at a loss for words? How strange it all is.”

All words quoted here are copyright Ronald Blythe. The Carmelite Library has a good and growing collection of his writings.

See also his blogspot:   wormingford.blogspot.com.au

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Pamela Carswell writes to Philip Harvey in December 1993

Pamela Carswell was already into retirement when called upon by the librarian of the Joint Theological Library (today the Dalton McCaughey Library), Dr Lawrence McIntosh, to work there on rare books and cataloguing. Pamela, Lawrence, and I were for many years editors of the Australasian Religion Index (ARI), something we did inside library time over maybe two to four days, depending on the load of indexing received, and its complexity. Complexity of some kind or other appears to be at the forefront of Pam’s mind when she typed this letter in December 1993. The letter itself surfaced during a clean-out of old stuff at home over the weekend. Why she wrote rather than just told me may be because I was on leave and she needed to unload her troubles long distance. Those were the days when we still unloaded and before we started uploading or downloading. ARI indexers and other readers are here given a rare glimpse into the backroom thoughts of the ‘razor-sharp’ mind of Pamela Carswell. ‘Razor-sharp’ was a term she herself used whenever referring to someone of high intellect, usually with her tongue in her cheek. The context is that Pamela has taken home the draft printout of Volume 5 for correction. Footnotes follow the letter.

Saturday (11 Dec. 93)

Dear Philip –

                      Have done 900/971ths of ARI vol. 5, which I promised LDM (1) to bring up on Thursday. I’m becoming increasingly exasperated with that CD-ROM thing. I mentioned Missions – Directories, which is perfectly good LC but simply not permitted by the Thesaurus (2), either by way of the standard subheadings or by analogy with some other entry in the body of the text. The CD has it, many times over. Similarly, while the Thesaurus has Christians – Relations – Jews see Jews – Relations – Christians, the CD allows both – which again I imagine is LC practice and probably an LC imperative. The Thesaurus seems so often to go out of its way to differ from LCSH, and yet the RIO indexers are happily using both, including LC subdivisions.

As for Wagga – it’s not just their computer, it’s them. (3) Surely the computer can just as easily file Women’s Christian Temperance Union after Women, Catholic as before it? Or Women, Catholic before Women missionaries as after it? The Thesaurus follows the ALA filing rules – why should Wagga set up a system of its own? Quite apart from the computer’s inability to recognise articles, prepositions and conjunctions most of the time – most of the time, not always – the filing is quite perversely different from that in the Thesaurus (or in any card catalogue I’ve seen), e.g. Freedom (Theology), Freedom of speech, Freedom, Religious, (an instance, note, where the computer has decided to recognise the ‘of’ – you see, it can do it if it wants to). Just noticed another: Women (Theology) – Biblical teaching followed by Women – Bibliography.

Then of course there are the plain blues such as the one I showed you, where Paul VI is weaving in and out of all the Paul the Apostles.

I thought that’s one of the things computers were miraculously good at, putting things in whatever order they’re told to. Anyway, I’ve rather changed my mind about those see refs., I don’t think Wagga could cope with the interfiling of them.

I’m glad the entry-by-entry, descriptor-by-descriptor checking and checking against the index is almost through. The first 4 vols. weren’t so bad but with this one about a third of the things I queried were on the CD, so it seems a waste of time to check the descriptors against anything else. Tho’ I scored one or two – e.g. Depressions – 1929 – Australia (Depressions, Economic … and that one didn’t stop at 1929), plus Mysticism - Jewish [ - Judaism] and Cambodia [Kampuchea since 1976] and the odd misprint and blind ref. Apart, that is, from the quick-flip-through list LDM asked for a couple of weeks ago, which he checked against the wretched CD thing – seems most were OK, including to my chagrin Christians – Relations – Jews, and Missions – Directories.

Kay and Michael Cole (4) had lunch here yesterday – nice, easy guests and never before have I had such success with a pud – a chocolate mousse, one whose ease and foolproofness in making is entirely due to the appalling richness of the ingredients, no beating, no separating of eggs, no food-processing, just all casually stirred together. I managed to pile the recipe for six into two individual dishes (naturally I couldn’t eat it) and expected them to give up about a third of the way through. I watched fascinated as they didn’t even slacken speed till they got to the dish-scraping stage. I think had they been alone they would have gone on to the dish-licking stage. I was gratified almost to the point of tears and when they fell to their knees and pleaded for the recipe it was very nice to be able to produce a photocopy on the spot. I see no reason now why I should go to the bother of cooking anything else when I ask people for lunch.

Totally unexpected Xmas note from Janet yesterday, I’m glad she hasn’t despaired of my lack of rapport with Esmeralda. (5) But she rather suggested by delicate implication that by way of contrast with her life-affirming paganism (pagan is the word she used) I’m to be classed with the monkish flagellants of the Middle Ages, turning their flayed backs on the delights of this world for the joys of the world to come. I suppose I’ve brought it on myself – who could endure the Pritikin diet were it not for pie in the sky? (6) But I’ll have something to say about that (delicately phrased) as soon as I’ve finished that dratted ARI (only 71 entries to go). I’m really glad she’s resumed contact.

Almost came to blows with my Croatian friend (the Einstein of Rosanna) about the word ‘strive’. (7) Very alarming, she now thinks we discuss these things on equal terms. She showed me a job application letter she was particularly proud of, in which she expressed her admiration for the strive displayed by the firm with whom she was seeking employment, the strive for good employer-employee relations. ‘Striving’, I said. ‘Strive’ is not a noun. ‘But I like the word ‘strive’,’ said Debbie. ‘It is a good strong word.’. ‘Yes, it’s a good strong verb’, I said, ‘but tho’ you can admire someone’s drive or dive you can’t admire their strive. It’s not good English.’ ‘But I have seen this word used just like that, many times!’ ‘Look, Debbie, IT IS NOT GOOD ENGLISH. You mustn’t use it in your job application!’ We fair glared at each other. And do you know I woke in the night and almost convinced myself that these days it’s quite acceptable to say things like ‘You know, the sheer strive of the man is undeniable’ and ‘What would I do for a tenth of his strive?’ Next day – when I knew she would have put this thing through their laser printer – I said I hoped she’d amended strive to striving or thought of another word, and she grinned and said she had. But next time - ?


Since I last addressed you, the knob on the cold water tap on the bathroom basin disintegrated in my hand so that I couldn’t turn it on or off without savage use of the massive pair of pliers I picked up in the street some years ago, and only then with very great difficulty. Brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink didn’t appeal and anyway I felt as outraged as if one of my legs had dropped off while out shopping so all indexing/letter-writing/eating/calm thought ceased till things got back to normal. It is now less than six hours since the crisis broke and there is now a new and better knob on the cold water tap in the bathroom basin and – just as a bonus – a new and better washer too. All for $10, which is about the price of the knob and washer. It’s not that I have a friend who is a plumber, but a plumber who is a friend – even on a Sunday. And  I’ve finished ARI vol. 5. I’m sure that Lawrence will see the point of this particular objection, nor even that you will – but I don’t like these descriptors for one of the articles: 1. Religion, Primitive - Mangaia (Cook Islands). 2. Mangaia (Cook Islands) – Religion. I mean, I don't like the first one, surely it's a value judgement? Why not just 1. Religion, Primitive. 2. Mangaia (Cook Islands) - Religion ...? I mention this in case it comes up for discussion but I feel LDM is deciding all these things himself with the help of Pope CD-ROM and the only thing we’ll perhaps be discussing is the filing problem. Anyway, I’m sick of ARI and even sick of trying to sever Timor Timur from Indonesia, it’s a lost cause. (8)  The main thing is I can turn the cold water on in the bathroom and turn it off again, whenever I like.

love – Pam


(1)   Dr Lawrence McIntosh, librarian of the Joint Theological Library (now Dalton McCaughey Library) in Parkville, Victoria, 1982-1996.

(2)   Religion Index Thesaurus, the subject list of descriptors of Religion Index One (RIO) used for indexing ARI, loosely based on Library of Congress Subject Headings (LC or LCSH) but with its own subject-specific variations and subheading structure.

(3)   ARI was at that time published by the Library Studies department of Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, where data input took place. I hasten to say that Pamela is here engaging in ‘razor-sharp’ annoyance and intends no harm of anyone living or dead. Her subsequent complaints are directed at technology and not humans.

(4)   Kay Cole was librarian of Corpus Christi College Library in Clayton, since shifted to Victoria Parade, East Melbourne and renamed The Mannix Library.

(5)   A mutual friend who had, at the time, adopted the unusual name of Esmeralda and expected her friends to call her by the same.

(6)   Janet seems to have assumed that Pamela was still a practising Roman Catholic.

(7)   Pamela lived in the north-eastern suburb of Rosanna. Debbie was one of her neighbours, recently arrived from the Balkans.

(8)   A major bone of contention inside editorial at the time was the independent status of East Timor. Pamela argued for its independence while consensus held that, whatever one’s political beliefs, Timor was part of Indonesia. After self-determination at the turn of the century the country became known as Timor-Leste.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Australian Poetry and Spirituality

Philip Harvey

Michael McGirr and I gave the final session of Poetry for the Soul on Wednesday evening. This year’s subject was Australian Spirituality, so my approach was to find fifteen poems that spoke, in one way or another, of those large-meaning words: Australia, Poetry, Spirituality. My thought was to follow the air currents across the continent west-east, which is about as much structure as necessary. One could spend a whole day or lifetime following this method of reading Australian poetry, but the time limit was 50 minutes. In the end I only had time to read eleven of the fifteen poems, given there was commentary as well, still here is the sequence with three-sentence remarks on each poem.

Bound for South Australia
Traditional shanty
The vessels crossing the southern oceans in the 19th century carried with them the divided inheritance of European Christianity: Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others. They also carried the Enlightenment project, which was both hostile towards and questioning of that inheritance, materialist and blindly faithful to scientific worldviews. It is this rich mix of spiritualities that informs to this day even the most seemingly non-religious poetry written by the European Australians.

Philip Salom
His quote is Sigmund Freud (“The best remedy for the mind is love and work”) while the poem itself appears to argue for acceptance of the body and the mind. Is the life-force faith, or faith the life-force? While the image of the body as a hive fills up with life, the poems fills up with questions.

Archie Weller
We ask, by contrast with Salom’s world, what faith means in this picture of local Indigenous society, where young men are “drunken stumbling warriors.” Connection with the natural world of the “flashing silver king” happens at the same time as the reality of loss and dispossession. A busted old couch in the open serves as throne for the elder who knows he rules this challenging scene.

The Urumbula Song
Europeans love to play the game of Top Ten Everything, including Top Ten Poets, persisting in doing this against their own better nature. But who are the greatest Australian poets when we have no names before 1788? This awesome cosmic ritual song of fertility is a communal poem, known by all, with no special claims on its authorship.

The Song of Hungarrda
David Unaipon
It gives us heart to know we now have two poets on our bank notes. Unaipon felt it required to employ ‘thine’, ‘thy’ &c. for his magnificent poem about the “Bright, consuming Spirit”, which makes it sound fixed in Edwardian time while making effortful apostrophes to translate the untranslatable language of the Coorong original. We ponder with some wonder the magnitude of the original, however it may run.

Night Thoughts
Gwen Harwood
Humour is never far away in this poet’s writing, as here where she plays out the role of a psalmist trying to get at the meaning of hell. It is a curiously Tasmanian poem, locked into its sense of no escape while dealing with the tests of self and world. We can hear Harwood reciting this equally well with a theatrical malign cackle in her voice during playtime, or the very real pleading of a vestry member at the Sunday lectern.

Bruce Dawe
The cleverest aspect of this poem is how the poet takes for granted that his readers understand all the religious language upon which the humour and meaning of the poem rely. Melburnians enjoy calling their football religion, though I believe that football culture actually and more accurately reflects the commercial and mercantile changes of the city, especially given that the game is run by businessmen, not bishops. The undying allegiance to one club is highly reminiscent of bygone Melbourne faithfulness to a particular denomination, so that even though the Uniting Church has existed since 1977 there are still people today who will tell you they are first and last Methodists, even if they don’t go to church.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe
A poet of deceptive simplicity, whose main questions and concerns hover around the edges of his hymns of praise. Humanism will always come back into fashion while there are humans interested in humanness and in things that are more than skin-deep. Everything described in the poem, inside and outside the skin, is home for this poet, we are left sensing.

Emmaus Vic 3130
Aileen Kelly
While we shouldn’t expect Mary Magdalene to show up in Blackburn, another part of us asks, why not? Or rather, Blackburn is as good a place as any to meet the revelation unawares and be made thus fully aware. There is even something quirkily biblical about the bewildered way the poet says, “So maybe I’ll see you around?”  

My Mother’s God
Geoff Page
The hardness and determination in this portrait of a certain kind of Protestant reminds us of the concept of Australian old-fashioned values, such that we wonder if this is not where it all came from. A Judaic ethic and Calvinist belief in predestination go hand in hand with a severe materialism. We are almost grateful to move on into the community-minded happiness of the next poem.

Patrick Joseph Hartigan (‘John O’Brien’)
Said Hanrahan
This is a useful poem to analyse in the context of Australian attitudes toward climate change. While we laugh at the doomsayer at the church door, we each of us have some Hanrahan inside us and ponder if he is a pragmatist, a pessimist, or a real Cassandra. The poet’s detail and voice is masterful as he describes the movements of conversation and manners.

Robert Harris
The Cloud Passes Over
Somewhere in Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, somewhere. The poet builds up a subtle list of related landscapes only then at a crucial moment to put it all down to one thing. We listen attentively for the psalmist to claim the Lord’s attributes.

Our Lady’s Birthday
Francis Webb
By contrast, here is a poet who names out of the turmoil of his mind in language of painful analogy, the same difficult recognitions. The violence and energy of the experience exists in contrast to the calm of the library where, we are left to surmise, the poet is making up his poem. Intensity must find some release, whether in prayer or poem making, and here in both.

Poetry and Religion
Les Murray
This is not dogma, but the poet is very confident of the orthodoxy of his assertions. Poets can be known for a line or a word and this poet is remembered for ‘sprawl’, an excellent self-descriptive word with an ‘a’ to start with in the middle and everything else spreading out around it in all directions. This poem is the gentle rejoinder to fundamentalist secularists who want religion banned from the Earth, just because they don’t like it.

To Hafiz of Shiraz
Judith Wright
A hafiz is someone in Islam who can recite the entire Qu’ran, a thought worth considering during an evening of poetry reading from paper and in a world where jihadists would rather bomb Shiraz than learn anything from its Sufi poets. Imagine the poet sitting up on the mountain talking to this wonderful individual about the uniqueness of everything in our world. She talks about ‘everything’ in terms of its special existence, not its type or number, which is the lesson she is telling Hafiz that he has taught her, across centuries.