Tag Archives: religion

Words, words words…

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William Shakespeare was ‘the onlie begetter’ of those words, which have been in my mind in this month of poetry.

I’ve discovered that in the United States, very few children learn poetry by heart any more, and I suspect that the same is true of education in most Anglo- Saxon cultures. I think it’s a shame… my mind still teams with the phrases and rhymes,  and the glorious words of poets and prayers learned throughout my distant childhood. They sustain me in good times and in bad… and though there’s so much beautiful poetry written today, does anyone recite them anymore?

I go back to my childhood, learning my first poem when I was four… Charles Kingsley’s, ‘I once had a dear little doll, dears’ – it came from a fat book of children’s poems – with no pictures. By eight I had decided to become a poet, by nine I was learning the poems of Water Scott and Elizabeth Barret Browning, at eleven we were learning ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’, ‘doing’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, at school, and learning the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare …’ I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows’… the next year it was ‘The Tempest’… ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’… ‘Julius Caesar’… ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’, and ‘Henry V’… ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies,’… ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends,’… ‘we few, we happy few, we happy band of brothers,’… ‘Richard II’… ‘This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,’… ‘The Merchant of Venice’… ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes,’… ‘Hamlet’, ‘words, words, words’, indeed, and not least that amazing speech, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and so many phrases we still use today…including: ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’… ‘to shuffle off our mortal coil’… ‘’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished’…

And finally, in the Upper Sixth, Anthony and Cleopatra… ‘Age shall not wither her, nor the years condemn’, words I have hugged to myself as a hope and example, as I near four score years. Our acquaintance with Shakespeare was cursory but better than the nothing that seems to rule in schools today.

It was a matter of pride among my friends to be able to recite poetry – in the third form we all learned Walter de la Mare’s long poem ‘The Listeners’…. ‘Is there anybody there? asked the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door,’… and some of us even tackled ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and though no-one got to the end, we never forgot phrases like ‘A painted ship upon a painted ocean’. No difficulty remembering the exquisite rhythms and quatrains of Omar Khayyam… ‘Awake ! for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which put the stars to flight’….

‘Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest’…

‘They say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep’…

But poetry was more than beautiful words and pictures and ideas. It opened up our hearts and minds to deeper meanings, ideas and symbols, and to the beauty of rhyme and rhythm. When my father died unexpectedly when I was in my twenties, and far from home, I turned to John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end, as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that Nature wrought…

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…

I rocked to and fro to the rhythm of the words, and found a bleak comfort to tide me over into the next stage of grief. The insistent beat of that poem was a distant memory of the comfort of the rhythmic rocking which all babies receive, whether floating in the womb, rocked in their mother’s arms or pushed in a rocking cradle. Rhythm is one of the deepest and oldest memories for human beings. And rhyme is a joy that even toddlers discover as they chant simple verses, before stumbling onto the deliciousness of alliteration as words become their treasure.

For my generation the glory of words, poetry, rhyme and rhythm didn’t stop in the classroom. Every day in assembly we sang hymns with words that still linger in my memory, and swim to mind appropriately… like the glorious day looking from my cliff-top cottage and the lines, ‘cherubim and seraphim , casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea’ made land. We sang ‘Morning has broken’ long before Cat Stevens made it famous.

We listened to daily readings from the King James Bible and the poetry embedded itself in our consciousness… ‘to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven’…. ‘If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’…’And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds’…

When we weren’t listening to our daily dose of the Bible, we were using the exquisite words of Archbishop Cranmer’s 1553 Prayerbook,… ‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word’… ‘come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’… ‘Oh God, give unto thy people that peace which the world cannot give…’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee oh Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all the dangers and perils of the night’… words and phrases that lifted the spirit and gave comfort when needed, in times to come.

The vocabulary of roughly eight thousand words of the King James Version of the Bible, printed in 1611 had a ‘majesty of style’… and has had more influence on the English language that any other book, apart, perhaps, from Shakespeare’s works, with a vocabulary of sixty thousand or so words. In the past, the words, the rhythms and cadences of these two influences shaped the speech and the writing, and seeped into the consciousness of people all over the world, who grew up speaking English.

They thought and wrote and spoke without even thinking, in the beautiful, simple rhythmic prose they heard every week at church, and throughout their schooldays. Sullivan Ballou’s famous and profound letter written to his wife before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War, is as much a product of that heritage as the wonderful last lines of John Masefield’s ‘The Everlasting Mercy’.

It saddens me that this common heritage of prose and poetry and prayer, those wonderful words of beauty and meaning, has dribbled away under neglect, lack of appreciation and understanding. Modern education seems to treasure instead new and shallower ideas.

Alan Bennett’s brilliant play and film, ‘The History Boys’ encapsulates my point of view perfectly! It made me feel I was not alone in my regrets at the passing of our rich poetic literature, and so much that has added to the sum of civilisation.  I love much that is new – too much to list –  and there’s so much to explore… but the learning by heart, the exploration of the genius of Shakespeare, the absorption of great prose and poetry often seems less important in today’s education system, than technological expertise and business knowhow, women’s studies and sporting prowess.

This is called progress I know, and I know too, I am old fashioned, but in these matters, I am a believer in not throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Hic transit gloria mundi… thus passes the glory of the world.

PS I completely forgot to answer the comments on my last blog while we were cleaning up after our massive storm/cyclone.. apologies, I loved them, and will be answering them shortly

Food for threadbare gourmets

Saturday supper with friends, and something we could eat on our laps round the fire. So, it was salmon risotto. Just the usual recipe – onions in butter, arborio rice added and fried until white, plus garlic, then a glass of good white wine poured in. I no longer bubble it away, but add the hot stock quite quickly, plus a teaspoonful of chicken bouillon.

For a fishy risotto, it should be fish stock but I had some good leek and potato stock saved, and I also used the liquid from poaching the salmon. All the recipes tell you to use lots of different types of fish, but I only had prawns, and salmon. I had thought I’d also use smoked salmon, but at the last minute changed my mind, and then wished I had more of the poached salmon … (which I’d eaten for lunch with freshly made mayonnaise!)

Anyway, I added cream and some fennel when the rice was almost soft and just before serving, threw in a grated courgette to get some green colour from the skin in, plus a handful of baby spinach leaves… and after stirring around, added the fish and more cream…. forgot parsley! And then the Parmesan of course….

Amounts? To one large onion, I used a cup of rice, several garlic cloves – medium sized – glass of dry white wine, hot stock as it needed it… a cup of prawns, and half a fillet of salmon – should have used more – plus the courgette and spinach as you fancy. Half a cup of cream, depending on how moist the risotto already is …  or I might use a big knob of butter and not so much cream…This doesn’t stick to any of the recipes… I just use what I have…this was enough for four.

Food for thought

“I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.” Elizabeth von Arnim, author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and other books

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The upsides and the downsides of being a woman

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Something made me re-read a book for girls which my Victorian grandmother had pressed on me when I was seven. It was about a girl who’d lost her mother, and whose military father was absent. It pressed a few buttons for me, though at seven I didn’t realise why. ‘The Wide Wide World’ by Miss Wetherell, was published in 1850, and became an instant best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a vivid picture of rural America in the 1840’s, and the forerunner of all those other girls books. Jo March reads it in ‘Little Women’.

Ostensibly the story of an orphan who becomes a fervent Christian and whose faith sustains her throughout constant miseries and trials, re-reading it I saw something else. It was a perfect picture of the powerlessness of women, and of how ingrained this powerlessness was.  Ellen, the heroine, never has any choices, and even when she finds happiness with the upright Christian, John Humphreys, she is totally subservient to him, and finds her greatest happiness in pleasing him. So powerlessness was held up to generations of girls as being a virtue.

This theme of powerlessness was on my mind, after reading a wonderful list in another blog, of a person’s rights, which included having the right to say no, to remove oneself from an abusive situation, not have to explain oneself etc. And as I thought about these rights, and how I’d painfully allowed myself to claim them over a long life of invalidating myself, I realised that the reason most people – but especially women – have to be reminded of these rights is because they do feel powerless, and this is too often the result of the way we bring up our children.

We don’t allow them to be angry and say no, or choose what foods they eat, or what subjects they will take at school… too often from the day they are born, children are treated like brown paper parcels, and rarely given information about where they’re going or what they’re going to be doing; often their needs are secondary to the needs of parents or other pressures, and in so many tiny ways we unwittingly make children feel powerless and without a voice. They learn to please their parents by giving away their power and conforming. I’m not talking about permissive parenting here, but about the courtesy we give to adults, but not to children

In the book, Ellen is often in floods of tears, which reminded me of my childhood, and it’s only well into life I realised that I was always in tears as a child because I so often felt powerless and therefore angry. Saying how we feel, expressing anger, was not allowed, and it’s a skill that many of us haven’t mastered or taught our children.

So the only other way people can express their anger and powerlessness, is to be destructive, and we see this constantly in the courts, on the roads, and in relationships. But it was comparatively safe for a child to cry, so many children from Ellen onwards, learned to divert their anger into tears. As a mature adult whenever I was angry, to my annoyance I would cry…  until I realised that this was the way I’d dealt with anger as a child. They were tears of powerlessness.

It was gentle Anne Bronte in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, published two years before ‘The Wide Wide World’, who challenged this powerlessness of women in her book which was considered shocking when it was published, and instantly became a best seller! In the book, which is about a woman trapped and terrorised by a drunken and sadistic bully, the wife, driven to desperation, slams the bedroom door in his face and locks him out, before eventually escaping.

This one act of slamming the door in her husband’s face reverberated throughout Victorian society. She had violated her husband’s rights, and broken the law at the same time. Some have called this the first feminist novel. This heroine had defied the centuries old acceptance that a woman was a father’s property until she married, when she became her husband’s property.

When Mrs Caroline Norton, whose husband was also a drunken bully, famouslyleft her husband in 1836, she not only had no rights to her children and no rights to divorce him, but when she earned money to support herself it became her husband’s property. The Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, finally allowed women some independence in England. But women were still powerless in many other ways, as Mary Lincoln’s incarceration in a lunatic asylum for no reason other than eccentricity, unresolved grief, and falling out with her son over money, showed.

While slavery – owning a person, buying and selling them, breaking up their families and working them to death  – became illegal in the western world, it wasn’t for many more years that women achieved the vote and a measure of freedom. And still, in some places in the west women are struggling for equal pay and equal rights.

Religion has not been on the side of women – as President Jimmy Carter has said:  “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”

They have in fact chosen to play the power game. And it isn’t just Christianity which has made this choice. There’s hardly a religion in the world which doesn’t rate women as lesser beings. In Jerusalem these days, women are now segregated on buses, not allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall, and subject to increasing discrimination by extreme members of the Jewish faith. And we all know the fate of too many women in Muslim, Hindu and other religious societies.

Marve Seaton in her courageous blog about the abuse of women, continually draws attention to female circumcision, breast ironing, gang rape, acid attacks, stoning and “honour” killings, (a euphemism for male sadism, ego, and heartlessness) amongst other outrages inflicted on women. Most religions, including extreme Christian sects, still think that it’s okay, and a husband’s right to beat his wife.

The UN figures show that two thirds of illiterate people in the world are women, that women work harder and longer hours than men as well as being responsible for their households, and  that men own most of the land in the world, and most of the money.

Women in the west who feel powerless, who are struggling with low wages, male chauvinism and hostility from the far right of some Christian churches, have it easy compared with their sisters in the third world and elsewhere…  and women everywhere are often too emotionally connected to the needs of their children to find any way out of their dilemmas of poverty and powerlessness.

But when I look back at the position both of slaves and of women and children a hundred and fifty years ago in the west, I can see how far we’ve come. And now it’s the time for our sisters in the rest of the world to start to edge towards their freedom too, which for many of them means feeling safe. Anne Bronte’s book also preached universal salvation, and it must have seemed an unattainable vision when she wrote ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

But western men did change their minds, and western women are well on their way now. So it IS possible that things can and will improve for our sisters in the rest of the world, that the climate of thought can change other men’s minds. Changing the way men think is the challenge for those women, and it’s our challenge to support them in doing it. We’ve come so far, that we can be optimistic that the time will come when we will all be free. Progress does happen. Change does happen. This is the blessing of modern times.

As Emily Dickinson said back then: “Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Deep disappointment today! Desperate for something sweet, I decided to make myself a banana split. I knew I had some ice-cream in the deep freeze, because I’d seen the plastic container. Alas. It wasn’t labelled, and turned out to be soup. Undeterred, I dashed up to the village shop and bought a packet of vanilla ice-cream. By the time I was home I’d changed my mind, and instead of banana I made a quick hot chocolate sauce to pour over the ice-cream. It’s heaven, and used to be the children’s favourite pudding outside chocolate mousse.

It comes from Mrs Beeton, the famous Victorian cookery writer. All you need is one rounded dessertsp of cornflour, two of cocoa and three of sugar, half a pint of water, half an ounce of butter and some drops of vanilla. Mix the cornflour, cocoa and sugar together with a little of the water. Boil the rest of the water, and pour over the chocolate mix. Pour into a saucepan and boil for two minutes, add the butter and vanilla, and pour over the ice-cream. Delectable and cheap.

 

Food for Thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, loving-kindness, and caring.   Samyutta Nikaya 47.19  Verse from the Buddhist scripture

 

 

 

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