Guest poem submitted by Mac Robb:
(Poem #1834) Verses Turned...
Across the wet November night The church is bright with candlelight And waiting Evensong. A single bell with plaintive strokes Pleads louder than the stirring oaks The leafless lanes along. It calls the choirboys from their tea And villagers, the two or three, Damp down the kitchen fire, Let out the cat, and up the lane Go paddling through the gentle rain Of misty Oxfordshire. How warm the many candles shine Of Samuel Dowbiggin's design For this interior neat, These high box pews of Georgian days Which screen us from the public gaze When we make answer meet; How gracefully their shadow falls On bold pilasters down the walls And on the pulpit high. The chandeliers would twinkle gold As pre-Tractarian sermons roll'd Doctrinal, sound and dry. From that west gallery no doubt The viol and serpent tooted out The Tallis tune to Ken, And firmly at the end of prayers The clerk below the pulpit stairs Would thunder out "Amen." But every wand'ring thought will cease Before the noble altarpiece With carven swags array'd, For there in letters all may read The Lord's Commandments, Prayer and Creed, And decently display'd. On country mornings sharp and clear The penitent in faith draw near And kneeling here below Partake the heavenly banquet spread Of sacramental Wine and Bread And Jesus' presence know. And must that plaintive bell in vain Plead loud along the dripping lane? And must the building fall? Not while we love the church and live And of our charity will give Our much, our more, our all.
How wonderful now to be into John Betjeman! If we were to work our way through Philip Larkin's version of the English canon Betjeman of course ranks high on the roll. Here is another [poem by him; see Poem #1815 for the previous example -t.], from Betjeman's survey of English country churches. You don't have to be a staunch Anglican or an Anglican at all to enjoy these poems. (Possibly these days that is a bit of an oxymoron in any case, but I'm certainly far from it, either by ancestry or conviction. I am, though, an anglophone of some few generations' standing and it's my adoptive culture, so to speak. Doubtless at least some subscribers to the Minstrels share that view.) The pieties in Betjeman's lovely little poem about the parish church at Chislehampton in Oxfordshire (for so it is) are in the long view of these things a little off the mark. But it contains a potted history of matters which while now vastly irrelevant at one time issues considerably exercised the full range of national life in England, from ecclesiastical potentates to the judicial committee of the Privy Council to ordinary churchgoing citizens. Readers of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charles Dickens will be well attuned to them, quaint though they may now seem. The actual church is indeed a lovely little gem of Georgian (the 18th, not the 20th century Georges) elegance, with, certainly, a.. The "high box pews of Georgian days." Eighteenth century Anglican churches had box pews in which the congregation sat facing each other screened from each others' view for the decidedly non-sacramental recitation of prayers, the hearing of a sermon and the singing of hymns led by a band in the gallery. b.. The Ten Commandments on the wall over the Communion Table (sic, for certainly that's what it was in the 18th century - no "altars" in those days). This was the standard decoration if, indeed, the chancel wasn't entirely blocked off from view so as not to cause anyone erroneously to infer any "popery" from the unseemly display of the pre-Reformation site of the altar. c.. A lofty pulpit for "pre-Tractarian sermons./Doctrinal, sound and dry." Well, maybe they were dry, but generations of the faithful seem to have found them sustaining and indeed Methodism sought to raise the sermon to even greater prominence. d.. Below the pulpit, the desk where "firmly at the end of prayers/The clerk.[w]ould thunder out 'Amen.' The Prayer Book services of Morning and Evening Prayer were in some measure a duet between the parson and the clerk, who took the part of the congregation, in the manner that in pre-Vatican II Catholic churches there was a duet between the presiding celebrant and the altar boy. e.. And a west gallery for a parish band to lead in "Tallis's tune to Ken" (ie the non-jurant bishop Thomas Ken's Morning and Evening Hymns - "Glory to thee who safe has kept/And hast refresh'd me while I slept" and "All praise to thee my God this night/For all the blessings of the light/". "Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise him all creatures here below." The 19th century saw the introduction of pipe organs and elegant chancel choirs, possibly robed in cassock and surplice - somewhat known beyond Anglicanism by the popular recordings of choirs such as those of Kings College Cambridge and Westminster Abbey, and also in prosperous evangelical Protestant denominations of other historical traditions - but 18th century parish worship was heartily led by a gallery band of trumpets, strings, and other catch-as-catch-can instruments. It is, indeed, a considerable anachronism: a parish church whose "living" is (or till recently was - haven't checked up on the current state of affairs) in the gift of the local squire. Betjeman rather gilds the lily with 19th century piety when he suggests sacramental small-c catholicism in such a place: it is quintessentially of the kind of stoutly Protestant Anglicanism that Samuel Pepys knew in the 1660s - when he spoke of going to "hear Mr X preach," assuredly not to "take the sacrament." An old friend of mine is a Canadian Anglican prelate and a cousin of the squire of Chislehampton who vastly relishes the quaint family prerogative of visiting there and dressing up in 18th century rig complete with clerical bands (alas, not a wig though) to say Morning Prayer or Evensong. Far more Congregationalist or Presbyterian than Anglican by current sensibilities, to be sure, but authentically a part of English history. Mac Robb Brisbane, Australia External links: John Betjeman home page [broken link] http://www.johnbetjeman.com/oldhome.htm