No more Protestant poets

Oct 18th, 2010 | By | Category: Ministry

A Dublin friend commented that being in a country parish must give time for doing lots of others things.  “If it does, I hadn’t noticed; I must be doing something wrong!”

Passing a threshold birthday, there was a realization that being a country parson no longer equated with the ideal figure of former times, that the Protestant clergyman, who makes the occasional, seemly appearance in the pages of William Trevor novels, seems now to have disappeared.

There seemed a time, perhaps lost and gone forever, when the priest of advancing years might cut a different figure.  There was the avuncular cleric, sat in in his study with a pipe of tobacco and a cardigan with frayed sleeves, staring into the burning coals of the fire, but there was also the cleric whose gentle words bore a stark contrast to the fierce strictures of the bishops; who bore no-one ill will and accepted without complaint the slings and arrows of 20th Century Irish history

It is to such a cleric that Ulster poet John Hewitt is a guest in his 1946 poem Freehold:

I found my poet-parson and his fire
expecting me. When unobtrusive care,
that natural acceptance of a friend,
had eased my tired bones, and my weary mind
had stretched its knotted sinews, that still man
and his quick wife, the doctor, once again
confirmed intention, slowly making plain
that by heart’s blind wisdom I had found
my seeming-aimless feet on solid ground;
that, when good talk had brimmed my singing head,
the lamp, the shallow stairs, the friendly bed,
till chortling blackbird in the neighbour trees
woke me to sunshine and the cruising bees.

Such a friendship now seems an unlikely phenomenon, clergy publications rarely stray beyond the ecclesiastical or the biographical; but it is more than a question of publication, it is the huge cultural gulf that has opened.

Poets would now be regarded with suspicion in a utilitarian and managerial church.  They would be regarded as holding mistaken beliefs amongst the anti-intellectual wing; seen as a irrelevance by planners and strategists; felt to be unruly and anarchic by those with an obsessive desire to impose alien liturgies upon our quiet low church congregations. Were John Hewitt alive, he would be welcomed at a few doors, but there might not be many other doors where a Protestant of uncertain orthodoxy would find hospitality.

Poets and parsons seem now to inhabit different worlds, to the loss of the parsons.  The increasing loss of engagement with the intellectual world outside has left the church to talk to itself, satisfied with its circular arguments, smug in its own self-importance.

Perhaps ragged cardigans and slippers beside the fire represented an age where material poverty was matched by a cultural richness.

4 comments
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  1. Ian,
    I’m sure you are familiar with one of the greatest lyric poets of the 20th century; and certainly one of the greatest religious poets of all time, the Anglican priest R. S. Thomas. So, this is for anybody who might stop by and who hasn’t read him:

    The Belfry

    I have seen it standing up grey,
    Gaunt, as though no sunlight
    Could ever thaw out the music
    Of its great bell; terrible
    In its own way, for religion
    Is like that. There are times
    When a black frost is upon
    One’s whole being, and the heart
    In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

    But who is to know? Always,
    Even in winter in the cold
    Of a stone church, on his knees
    Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
    Steadily through the hard spell
    Of weather that is between God
    And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
    That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
    On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

  2. The clergy conference for Dublin and Glendalough diocese in 2000 was held in Llandudno. It included a Saint David’s Day pilgrimage led by A.M. Allchin; a pilgrimage that concluded with Holy Communion in the church where R.S. Thomas had been Rector. During the administration of communion, Allchin read poems by Thomas. I cannot read lines from him now without thinking of that magical, unrepeatable day from ten years ago.

    I wonder if we would have space for a Thomas now.

  3. I wonder if we would have space for a Thomas now…

    …of course we could. Despite a hugely paradoxical personality, he wrote with ferocious honesty and stark clarity about nature and about the nature of the human soul. His ‘Collected Poems’ is a constant bedside companion.

  4. We could; I’m not sure we would, though! Bishops would be loathe to appoint someone so potentially troublesome.

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