Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Owen Revisited

This year celebrated a particularly beautiful Feast of All Saints, my favourite feast in the entire calendar. Even when I was a child the day awoke a mixture of emotions I couldn't begin to identify; joy, longing, pain, grief, exaltation—all apply and none. I could never get through the eight verses of "For All the Saints" without weeping. In university and during my first years in the convent I used to write a sonnet every year on All Saints. And now that I am old and [partly] grey-headed, little has changed; I no longer write sonnets, but the intensity remains.

After First Vespers on Saturday evening, the community and the rest of us were embracing, laughing, weeping a bit, and wishing one another well on the patronal feast. On Sunday morning I broke down again in the second part of "For All the Saints" but managed to finish in style. Then off to Magdalen College for an all-Howells Evensong, including "Like as the Hart", surely the most alluring mystical song ever written.

On All Souls I was on the way to what I anticipated would be a very dull seminar (but I get so tired of my own thoughts), when I ran into a friend who invited me to what proved to be a most stimulating dialogue on art and the apophatic and excellent conversation over a glass of wine. I left early to catch Evensong at Queens, which was all-Byrd and, judging from the number of members in black tie present, their foundation day.

With "Justorum animae" my soul sang; both soprano parts are forever etched on my memory. I emerged from the ambiguous beauties of the over-warm Hawksmoor chapel into the lovely shadows of the darkened quad, the coolness of the autumn night caressing my face. Through the sturdy oak wicket into milling students and the roar of the High—all forgotten in the half-muffled peal cascading from Magdalen tower. The building seemed to shudder and sway with the reverberation of its ten massive bells.

I first heard a half-muffled peal twenty-five years ago on Remembrance Sunday at Canterbury, sounding through the quiet of the canons' close. The metal clappers called in a minor key to the sons and daughters of Abram for whom there had been no ram in the thicket. The reply came, as if a faint echo from the farther shore as the leathers struck in turn, a silent weeping for pride that refused sacrifice and sent them to slaughter instead. Yet bravely they went, the farmhands and the debonair, to mud and mayhem, groined tunnels, and wells too deep for war.

But last night's half-muffled majors rang the saints' laughter through the city; even the growl of traffic and students' shrieks couldn't drown the call and response back and forth across the river of death. As the bells' rejoicing expanded their pattern, I stood on Magdalen bridge, and looking over the parapet into the black Cherwell saw, in a brief moment, a fleet of ghostly punts ferrying from their respective shores the living and the dead to meet in the swift current at the centre, the embrace of a communion that death can never break.

I turned and walked on with light step over gold of damp sycamore leaves; a westerly blew fresh with sea-tang. The full moon, encircled by a ring of endless light, sailed through clouds of witness. I rounded the dark Plain and headed towards the neon glare of Cowley Road, surrounded by the living and the dead, the disciplined hunting of the bells fading behind me.


Anonymous dFish said...

Full of nostalgia...and silent joy...

1:49 am, November 06, 2009  
Blogger Bo said...

How beautiful.

8:48 pm, November 09, 2009  

Post a Comment

<< Home