Parable and Paradox

Parable and Paradox: Sonnets on the Saying of Jesus and Other Poems, is Malcolm Guite’s latest collection of poetry. As he did in Sounding the Seasons, Guite uses the Bible as a springboard for many of his poems, and as the title suggests, in this case it is Christ’s words, such as his “I AM’s” and his “hard sayings”, that form the basis of his poetic reflections here.

“When it comes to hearing the words of Jesus, our great problem is over familiarity”, Guite writes in his preface, and in his poems on Christ’s sayings, he intends, as he writes in one sonnet, to “peel aside the thin familiar film” and help us feel the force of Christ’s words again.

Guite does this both in beautifully comforting poems such as “Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled” (which you can read here) and in challenging ones like “A Sword”, which begins “Oh, you have come indeed to send a sword/We feel it in the keening grief that cuts/Through kinship, blood, and culture.”

The collection also includes some wider-ranging pieces (akin to those found in his The Singing Bowl) where Guite celebrates themes such as nature, wordplay, and—yes—decay (in which latter he praises the “old and mouldering” in the face of “the shiny new,/Persistent plastic choking out our life”).

As in his previous collections, I appreciate Guite’s spiritual insight, the beauty of his language, and his commitment—for the most part—to using poetic forms rather than free verse. Two of my favourite couplets show off his skill:

 

“Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.”

 

And

 

“For longing is the veil of satisfaction,

And grief the veil of future happiness.”

 

 

Let me finish with one of my favourite poems, which is a sequence of seven roundels mirroring the seven days of creation, while also tying in the theme of each day with the story of our lives now. The first, deeply satisfying, roundel begins

 

“Let there be light as I begin this day,

To draw me from the darkness and the night,

To bless my flesh, to clear and show the way,

Let there be light.”

 

Amen.

For the Glory

Tim Challies recently reviewed For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton’s new biography of Eric Liddell, who is best known for his 1924 Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres, after refusing to run in the race he’d planned to run in when to do so would have involved running on a Sunday. His Olympic story has been famously told, of course (with a generous helping of artistic license, it turns out) in the film Chariots of Fire. I bought a copy of For the Glory on the strength of Challies’ review and finished it last week. I wasn’t disappointed.

I took real pleasure in Hamilton’s skill as a writer. Biographies run the risk of being rather dry, but For the Glory makes for compelling reading, with the past coming for life through Hamilton’s careful and lively attention to detail, whether it’s the description of an old photograph, the thrill of a race, or the squalor of the civilian internee camp in China where Liddell lived out the final years of his relatively short life. As Challies mentioned in his review, Hamilton’s recounting of Liddell’s famous race is splendid. I knew what the outcome would be before I started reading, of course, and I’ve had the thrill of watching it numerous times in Chariots of Fire. Yet Hamilton tells it in such a way that I still felt excited simply by reading his prose.

I can’t resist mentioning my favourite line in the book, which is Hamilton’s description of the clothes the English athletes had to wear to the 1924 Olympics: “The team went to the chicest city on the globe in outfits that looked to have been cut by a myopic tailor with a grievous grudge against both them and the Games.”

But of course, what stands out so much more than Hamilton’s brilliant prose is the man about whom he was writing. As Challies says, “Hamilton’s telling of Liddell’s life is uniformly positive, perhaps because he simply couldn’t find any major blemishes.” To me, this is fascinating, since Hamilton certainly doesn’t seem to be a Christian himself. Furthermore, he’s written other sports biographies and so, one assumes, he did not set out to write a hagiography of Eric Liddell. And yet, not only does he fail to highlight any moral failings in Liddell, but his deep admiration for the man is evident throughout. It’s not that Hamilton is incapable of criticising people—the acerbic comments he directs towards the British Olympic Association and the London Missionary Society prove that he can criticise with the best of them—but simply that he does not feel that Liddell deserves any such censure.

Reading Hamilton’s account, I can only agree and stand in awe at such a man. No mere mortal is perfect, of course, but one can’t help feeling that Liddell was about as good as any sinful man could be. It’s not just the principled stand at the Olympics for which he is best known, or even that he left the possibility of further fame—not to mention all the money he could have made—for the mission field. It’s not even how he poured himself out for others from morning till night while imprisoned in the internee camp, thousands of miles from his wife and children. It’s that love, gentleness, humility, courage, and determination pervaded his life, in the small things as well as in the momentous ones. His final words, “It’s complete surrender”, were not spoken glibly. They were the story of his life.

The Little Prince

A pilot who finds himself stranded in the Sahara encounters a little prince from a distant star who asks him to draw him a picture of a sheep. This is the premise of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s exquisite story The Little Prince, translated by Katherine Woods.

I remember that we had a copy of The Little Prince years and years ago. I remember looking at it, and perhaps I read it. If so, however, I’d long forgotten the story. But I don’t regret not having my first meaningful encounter with it until adulthood: while ostensibly a story for children, its depths can perhaps be better appreciated when one is older.

To say that it’s a book that highlights what’s truly important in life, and that what is truly important is to love others and to be a giver rather than a taker in relationships, is a simplification, and also runs the risk of making this delightfully wise piece of fantasy sound moralistic. And as the narrator himself says, “I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist”. But yet, this little story (or “parable”, as the blurb on the back of my book calls it), is a gem for its insights into life as much as it is for its humorous and touching narrative.

Here are some favourite quotes.

“I myself own a flower,” [the little prince tells a businessman who is absorbed in counting stars] “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week … It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars…”.

The fox: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“’What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…’”.

And last of all, and so beautiful:

“’All men have stars,’ [the little prince] answered, ‘but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they are wealth. But all these stars are silent. You—you alone—will have the stars as no one else has them—‘

‘What are you trying to say?’

‘In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You—only you—will have stars that can laugh!’”

A talking fox. Stars that can laugh. A hidden well. And a puzzling, but charming little prince. What are you waiting for?