Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

 The Year of the Whale
The old go, one by one, like guttered flames.
    This past winter
        Tammag the bee-man has taken his cold blank mask
             To the honeycomb under the hill,
   Corston who ploughed out the moor 
        Unyoked and gone; and I ask,
    Is Heddle lame, that in youth could dance and saunter 
        A way to the chastest bed?
The kirkyard is full of their names
              Chiselled in stone. Only myself and Yule
                  In the ale-house now, speak of the great whale year. 

This one and that provoked the taurine waves
    With an arrogant pass,
        Or probing deep through the snow-burdened hill
           Resurrected his flock,
                Or passed from fiddles to ditch
        By way of the quart and the gill,
    All night lay tranced with corn, but stirred to face
                     The brutal stations of bread;
While those who tended their lives
        Like sacred lamps, chary of oil and wick,
            Died in the fury of one careless match.

Off Scabra Head the lookout sighted a school 
    At the first light.
        A meagre year it was, limpets and crows
            And brief mottled grain.
               Everything that could float 
        Circled the school. Ploughs
    Wounded those wallowing lumps of thunder and night.
                The women crouched and prayed.
Then whale by whale 
        Blundering on the rock with its red stain
           Crammed our winter cupboards with oil and meat. 

George Mackay Brown
from The Year of the Whale (Chatto & Windus, 1965), and included in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, 2005)
[from the Scottish Poetry Library here]

Joseph Pearce provides apposite commentary:
Rejecting the illusion of progress, which he believed would be “choked at last in its own too much”, George Mackay Brown wrote works of rare beauty in which the rootedness of place is seen as the wellspring of true culture. A native of the Orkney Islands who seldom left their shores, Brown drew on their rich history and ruggedly isolated terrain for much of his work.
In Brown’s poetry and prose, the soil and the soul are in mystical communion, the bread and the breath, shining forth the enduring glory of God in the midst of all that is mortal and mutable.


There is much that I'd like to say at the beginning of this New Year and will no doubt say some of it as the year goes on. But for the moment, I'll leave it at this reminder of permanent things, together with a plea that as Catholics and Scots (or whatever) we do not lose sight of them in the unavoidable yet dangerous seduction of chatter.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Pierre Manent Mercredi (7): reconciling human experience with religion

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

Those works which successfully combine a faithfulness to human experience with a religious perspective are rare. Or, to be exact, in my opinion. there is only one work, only one text in which the two perspectives are strangely, paradoxically reconciled. Unsurprisingly it's the Bible, especially the Old Testament in which you get, at the same time, directly and immediately, human experience in its ignorance of God, and yet also, mysteriously, a presence of God which does not suppress or cover up the authenticity of that experience. The text of the Psalms especially is shocking because, in a chaotic and popular language, it maintains a balance that only the greatest spiritual masters of religion can maintain so perfectly: it is a text where human beings at the same time complain, scream, protest, want to kill their enemies, are afraid of death, are sick, and yet, also, mysteriously, there is an experience of of something which is radically different from any human experience but which does not prevent this human experience from being lived and described in all its truth, in all its nudity.


My commentary:

Manent emphasises here a characteristic position: a refusal of an easy reconciliation between different perspectives. (He talks elsewhere of living within a tension between religious, political and philosophical perspectives.) There is an echo here of twentieth century theological debates on natura pura: roughly, whether there is a sharp division between a (philosophical) perspective on nature uninformed by revelation and a theological perspective informed by revelation. (My sympathies are with the defenders of a concept of natura pura for what it's worth.)

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

On the Nativity of Christ (William Dunbar)

RORATE coeli desuper!
  Hevins, distil your balmy schouris!
For now is risen the bricht day-ster,
  Fro the rose Mary, flour of flouris:
  The cleir Sone, quhom no cloud devouris,      
Surmounting Phebus in the Est,
  Is cumin of his hevinly touris:
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,
  Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,
And all ye hevinly operationis,
  Ster, planeit, firmament, and spheir,
  Fire, erd, air, and water cleir,
To Him gife loving, most and lest,
  That come in to so meik maneir;
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Synnaris be glad, and penance do,
  And thank your Maker hairtfully;
For he that ye micht nocht come to
  To you is cumin full humbly
  Your soulis with his blood to buy
And loose you of the fiendis arrest—
  And only of his own mercy;
    Pro nobis Puer natus est.

All clergy do to him inclyne,
  And bow unto that bairn benyng,
And do your observance divyne
  To him that is of kingis King:
  Encense his altar, read and sing
In holy kirk, with mind degest,
  Him honouring attour all thing
    Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Celestial foulis in the air,
  Sing with your nottis upon hicht,
In firthis and in forrestis fair
  Be myrthful now at all your mycht;
  For passit is your dully nicht,
Aurora has the cloudis perst,
  The Sone is risen with glaidsum licht,
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Now spring up flouris fra the rute,
  Revert you upward naturaly,
In honour of the blissit frute
  That raiss up fro the rose Mary;
  Lay out your levis lustily,
Fro deid take life now at the lest
  In wirschip of that Prince worthy
    Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Sing, hevin imperial, most of hicht!
  Regions of air mak armony!
All fish in flud and fowl of flicht
  Be mirthful and mak melody!
  All Gloria in excelsis cry!
Heaven, erd, se, man, bird, and best,—
  He that is crownit abone the sky
    Pro nobis Puer natus est!