Tag Archive: Poetry


Funeral Speed

AMDG

A while back I had the unusual experience of a 45-minute journey, in a hearse, to a graveyard after a requiem mass,  longer than usual.  Often it is a much shorter journey to the place of committal from the church.  In this instance, the person had insisted that their funeral take place in a church that was precious for them, that they frequented even though it was about 12 miles from where they lived.  They also wanted to be laid to rest in the local graveyard where it was easy for family and friends to visit and tend the grave.  So his final journey was longer than normal.

The journey in the hearse was quite a revelation. Whilst on duty, a funeral cortege usually moves slightly slower than normal traffic, as a sign of respect.  I was told that this is known in the trade as ‘funeral speed’.  Sitting in the front of the hearse, I was shocked by how impatient some of the other drivers were.  Some people were irritated, occasionally overtaking in an aggressive manner,  we were even ‘honked’ a couple of times.  I was shocked although the chauffeur seemed calm.  On the way back, without the coffin and family in the back, driving at normal speed – he admitted that this insensitivity by other drivers was becoming more common, ‘funeral etiquette’ was certainly on the decline. We both agreed that ideally, you would want the procession to take place in a stately way, you can’t legislate for other drivers. I was impressed with how calm he was but sad about how the family must have felt with the ignorance on display.

A school I used to teach at, was close to a big crematorium. This meant that the students were often waiting at bus stops to come home when a funeral procession would pass by.  It was a great credit to them that they would always stop larking around, bless themselves and bow their heads when a hearse passed.  The headteacher told me that he would occasionally receive letters from families who were very moved by these schoolboys showing such respect.   These things leave lasting impressions and speak more than anything about the ethos of a school, and the culture in which someone is brought up in.  You notice when people stop out of respect when a hearse passes…. I still bless myself when an ambulance roars past.  When you are in raw grief, you are hyper-sensitive to whats happening around you, I still remember as a teenager…  the night my nan died, I needed to take a walk and felt angry that normal life was going on, people were enjoying themselves in bars, out shopping etc…..  How dare they!  As W.H.Auden memorably said…

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

 

A poet touching heaven

AMDG

rsthomas_2It was an unexpected treat falling asleep last night listening to the poetry of R.S.Thomas last night.  ‘Poetry Please’ on Radio 4 was repeating a program to mark the 100th anniversary of the Welsh Poet/Priest .  A fascinating amalgam of extreme nationalism, misanthropic bitterness but also wonder and almost mysticism. His poetry is so powerful that he was short-listed for the Nobel Prize for literature.  It was almost too much listening to poem after poem on the program as they are so rich – it was like being forced to eat a banquet of great food too quickly.  However there was one poem that made me get out of bed to go and dig it out of my small collection of his books. I don’t now why it hadn’t registered before – but I think it is worth reading again and again.

THE ANSWER (by R.S.Thomas)

Not darkness but twilight
In which even the best
of minds must make its way
now. And slowly the questions
occur, vague but formidable
for all that. We pass our hands
over their surface like blind
men feeling for the mechanism
that will swing them aside. They
yield, but only to re-form
as new problems; and one 
does not even do that
but towers immovable
before us. 

Is there no way
of other thought of answering
its challenge? There is an anticipation
of it to the point of
dying. There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

AMDG

Chandra Observatory launched in 1991, at the time the heaviest payload, designed for 5 years, still going strong …pic from NASA

It is striking how well drilled Indian students are in learning and knowing about the lives of the towering figures of Indian History. Gandhi, Ambedkar (the Dalit author of the constitution), Roy, Nehru, the list goes on and on.  I was surprised yesterday in the Hostel with a conversation I had with a very bright student who has just returned. I had put up a display of images of the Solar System, rockets, astronauts, observatories and satellites, with a special focus on Indian hardware.  One of the three space observatories left is the Chandra X Ray Satellite.  NASA named this satellite after a great Indian physicist Chandraseka and it allows us to collect data from deep space.  I was trying to explain this to a gaggle of students who were pressing around, and one older girl knew all about him. I was surprised and very impressed.  Knowledge of these great figures serves to instill national pride and shared identity, a unifying factor to combat communal violence.  However as one of the Jesuits said to me, the education system, still heavily based on rote learning is not geared to encouraging a similar creativity and ingenuity in the majority of students.  Widespread corruption in the examination system is also preventing good practice and good schools to be identified and copied, especially in areas far from the metropolis.

My favourite among these Indian giants is the poet and educationalist, and author of the National Anthem,  Rabindrath Tagore (right).  He is known in India as ‘gurudeb’ – the great teacher.  I remember discovering his poetry at university and at once being mesmerised by its beauty and mysticism.  Tagore won the Nobel  Prize for Literature in 1913 after  Yeats did a lot to get translations of his work published and promoted on a visit to London.   He was knighted in 1915 but repudiated the honour four years later after a terrible massacre by British troops.  Like Ghandi his thoughts on Christ have always fascinated me, although remaining a Hindu he admired Christ greatly. However he did not admire Christians whom he identified with the British Imperial power he was working to overthrow.  In a letter to E J Thompson he said  ‘Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”

I am currently reading a biography of his – so imagine my delight when I found out that he was sent to a Jesuit school – St Xavier’s in Kolkota. It would be nice to say he loved school, this was by no means the case. He hated formal education and being a ‘mere pupil’.  In fact he was sent to St Xaviers as a last desperate attempt by his mother after other institutions had failed. At least it had some impact on him, in a previous school ‘the presidency college’  he only lasted one day! When his mother died he gave up school for good at the age of 13. Ironically he became one of Indias greatest educationalists setting up his own school in Santiniketan. In his memoirs, however I have discovered one reminiscence which I find beautiful ….

2010 – 150 year anniversary

One precious memory of St. Xavier’s I still hold fresh and pure—the memory of its teachers……. This is the memory of Father DePeneranda. He had very little to do with us—if I remember right he had only for a while taken the place of one of the masters of our class. He was a Spaniard and seemed to have an impediment in speaking English. It was perhaps for this reason that the boys paid but little heed to what he was saying. It seemed to me that this inattentiveness of his pupils hurt him, but he bore it meekly day after day. I know not why, but my heart went out to him in sympathy. His features were not handsome, but his countenance had for me a strange attraction. Whenever I looked on him his spirit seemed to be in prayer, a deep peace to pervade him within and without.We had half-an-hour for writing our copybooks; that was a time when, pen in hand, I used to become absent-minded and my thoughts wandered hither and thither. One day Father DePeneranda was in charge of this class. He was pacing up and down behind our benches. He must have noticed more than once that my pen was not moving. All of a sudden he stopped behind my seat. Bending over me he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and tenderly inquired: “Are you not well, Tagore?” It was only a simple question, but one I have never been able to forget. I cannot speak for the other boys but I felt in him the presence of a great soul, and even to-day the recollection of it seems to give me a passport into the silent seclusion of the temple of God.

Teachers often do not realise the impact they are having for good or ill, and what we think is success or failure might turn out different in the grand scheme of things!

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