Thursday, 20 December 2012

Short Measures iv: Crashaw’s Nativity Hymn


  ‘Shepherds are honest people; let them sing’

                                                    George Herbert, Jordan (i)

Short Measures is a very occasional series in which I discuss a short poem: no more than twelve lines. But I must begin this Christmas blog by admitting that I’ve broken my own rule: the lines below are actually part of a much longer poem. My defence is that these six lines are almost (a weasel word, I admit) a self-contained poem within a poem; it’s certainly true that they often appear on their own at Christmas time, detached from the longer poem to which they belong. That poem is ‘Hymn to the Nativity, sung by the Shepherds’, by the metaphysical poet, Richard Crashaw.

I am pleased to report that at the St. Sidwell’s C of E Primary School Nativity Play yesterday, the shepherds were in good voice. They needed to be: the cast of hundreds included a flock of sheep – a Nativity Play feature I had not previously seen. The local church was packed for the performance, which was met with great applause. For most of the children – 4 to 7 year-olds – it will have been their first experience of being on stage in front of an audience: something they won’t ever forget.

St. Sidwell’s shepherds, arriving at the manger and nudging the poor donkey out of the way in their excitement yesterday, put me in mind of Crashaw’s shepherds:

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
   Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
   Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

These six lines, addressed to the child in the manger at Bethlehem, contain ten different paradoxes. Each one attempts to find a way of summing up the Incarnation: God in man - Eternity shut in a span, as the shepherds sing.   

Crashaw’s Hymn is an eclogue. And since it is about a significant birth, it gestures towards Virgil’s celebrated Fourth Eclogue, the poem that foresees the birth of a child and the start of a new, golden age. Virgil begins:

Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus.
            Muses of Sicily, let’s sing a more serious song.

Crashaw begins with a Chorus of Shepherds:

Come, we shepherds whose blest sight
    Hath met Love's noon in Nature's night;
    Come lift up our loftier song,
And wake the sun that lies too long.


This may sound at first like a piece of pastoral whimsy in the manner of ‘Nymphs and shepherds, come away’. Straight away, though, the conjunction of two opposites -  ‘Love’s noon’ with ‘Nature’s night’ – suggests that the ‘loftier song’ will be celebrating something more significant than Flora’s wedding day. After the opening chorus, two shepherds, Thyrsis and Tityrus, report what they have seen after their encounter with the infant Jesus and his mother:

The babe no sooner ’gan to seek
   Where to lay his lovely head,
But straight his eyes advis’d his cheek,
   ’Twixt mother’s breasts to go to bed.
Sweet choice (said I) no way but so,
Not to lie cold, yet sleep in snow.

There’s something, I find, too artificial here, the poet pursuing the conventions of the eclogue and indeed of 17th century erotic poetry further than I want to follow. ‘Straight his eyes advis’d his cheek’ simply doesn’t work for me, artificiality descending to absurdity. By contrast the six lines beginning ‘Welcome all wonders’ communicates the excited bafflement the shepherds feel: their exclamation, ‘Great little one’, combines metaphysical paradox with na├»ve enthusiasm. Each of the paradoxes is succinct, epigrammatic even; but the way they come spilling out, one spiralling round another ( … ‘Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’) in a kind of poetic double-helix, is compelling and convincing. Does it matter that one wouldn’t realistically expect the shepherds to have spoken like this? Not in the least, surely. It reminds me of the opening words of Thomas Becket in TS Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral:

Peace. And let them be, in their exaltation.
They speak better than they know, and beyond your understanding.

Crashaw himself had a similar idea, which he worked out in a later verse of his Nativity Hymn, contrasting the shepherds that utter such heartfelt conceits with those ‘Slippery souls with smiling eyes’ who inhabit the courts of ‘earthly kings’. Crashaw’s ‘poor shepherds’ are

                                     home-spun things,
Whose wealth's their flock, whose wit, to be
Well read in their simplicity.

One of this year’s highlights, for me, has been my discovery of the fine Kempe stained glass in the church of Cherry Burton, a village near Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The window there depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds supplies the illustrations to this blog, and I am struck by how well the artist who painted the shepherds’ faces has caught their look of astonishment, of being ‘sore afraid’. With characteristic antithesis, Crashaw has written about this too:

That the great angel-blinding light should shrink

His blaze, to shine in a poor shepherd's eye;

That the unmeasured God so low should sink

As prisoner in a few poor rags to lie …
That a vile manger his low bed should prove

Who in a throne of stars thunders above.


There is a further paradox, underpinning all these lines: the poem from which this verse comes is spoken as if by the voice of Satan. Banished into hell, he is astonished and unable to understand the great mystery of the Incarnation: how is it possible, he asks, that shepherds in the fields abiding should be literally enlightened in a way that is denied to him?

Borrowing that line from Crashaw’s Nativity Hymn, I’d say the answer is that those who, like the shepherds, are ‘well read in their simplicity’ may indeed know and understand more than those of us who pride ourselves on a ‘good' education.

Happy New Year, and – if you have been – many thanks for following my blog during  the past eighteen months!

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: details from the Adoration of The Shepherds window (by C.E. Kempe and Co., 1909) in Cherry Burton Church, Yorkshire East Riding.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

In Praise of Archivists


Archivists, according to Patricia Bell, “live on in the footnotes to the works of authors they have helped”. Patricia’s memorial service was held this week in Bedford (she was the Bedfordshire County Archivist from 1968-1986) and I am sorry I could not be there. When I read her obituary in The Guardian recently, I recalled three occasions our paths crossed. She was someone who lives on not just in authors’ footnotes but in their memories.

It’s easy to imagine archivists leading quiet lives in dusty basements, cataloguing, conserving, dealing with enquiries, making the best of whatever limited resources (shelf space as much as subsidy) they can get their hands on. Patricia Bell certainly began her career in such surroundings: Richard Wildman, author of the Guardian obit., and the leading authority on Bedford’s architectural heritage, spoke of her working in the “cramped conditions of the Victorian Shire Hall”. But when I first met her, she was the presiding spirit of the new Records Office, housed in spacious and welcoming quarters in the riverside County Hall. She had helped to plan these new premises, and they were designed to prove that working with archives could be enlightening literally and academically.

The timid novice researcher – as I certainly was – found Patricia a daunting, larger-than-life figure; but when I told her I wanted to research the history of punting on the River Ouse in Bedford, there was only a momentary pause before she rose to the challenge and said, “Well, everybody has their own particular itch, and if punting’s yours, we’d better help you scratch it.” This she and her staff duly did, revealing to me the mysteries of the newspaper catalogue, the photographic archive and the microfiche. They even put me in touch with surviving members of the Bedford boating families, the Chethams, the Biffens and the Bryants. I like to think the encouragement I received from Patricia is indeed reflected in the footnotes – and in the main text too – of my article, ‘Punting in Bedford’, published eventually in The Bedfordshire Magazine.

A little later, I went back to the Record Office. ‘Still on punting?’ asked Patricia briskly, her tone perhaps suggesting it was time I applied myself to something less frivolous. When I told her that now I was researching the work of the architect George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), she brightened immediately. ‘Excellent!’ she beamed. ‘We’ve got a lot of the great man’s letters here, but I warn you, his handwriting will give you a headache.’ She was quite right, and though after thirty years I can now decipher Bodley’s scrawl as well as anyone, it was Patricia’s enthusiasm that got me started. Even then, I remember being impressed by how she instantly knew what her archives contained that would be of interest to me.

Archivists don’t usually loom large in literature, but there is an excellent – and in my view underrated – novel by the American writer Martha Cooley called The Archivist. In this novel the eponymous archivist, Matthias Lane, looks after the special collections of an academic library that contains one great treasure, an archive of letters and unpublished poems written by T.S. Eliot over several decades to his close friend Emily Hale, the New England teacher he’d known and loved before he settled in London and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Although this archive is embargoed until 2020, Matthias knows what’s in it – he and he alone has read these letters – and he knows that one day they’ll be a treasure equal to the original mss. of The Waste Land, which eventually surfaced after lying undetected for more than forty years in New York Public Library.

The book is about the dilemmas facing Matthias. He believes that ‘a good archivist serves the reader best by maintaining … a balance between empathy and distance. It is important, I’ve discovered, to be neither too close to nor too distant from a reader’s desire.’ (p.246) Faced, though, with a young researcher determined to get her hands on the Eliot/Hale letters, he has to rethink his responsibilities towards the woman who took her revenge by placing Eliot’s letters where he could not get at them, and to Eliot himself, horrified that these revealing documents were now beyond his power to retrieve.

In the course of The Archivist, Matthias Lane has revealing things to say about his job.  He feels a strong sense of the power he wields in controlling access to the material in his care. Above all, though, he likes to be alone with his archive:

I need these hours of silent physical labor, when I am alone with the collection and can experience it in its entirety. It’s become almost a living thing for me. The bound books and loose-leaf manuscripts and files of letters and photos are a many-voiced convocation I attend as a kind of permanent host. Whenever I can, I read. Familiarity with the collection is my first obligation. (p.9)

Some archivists might disagree: they’d say preservation of the collection comes first. I’ve never met an archivist who would allow the de-accessioning of any holdings in the way librarians tolerate, reluctantly, the de-accessioning of surplus or outdated stock. ‘Some day someone just may want to look at this’ is the reflex of the true archivist.

While I still lived in Bedford, I was entrusted with an archive of marginal local interest: a collection of school magazines, prospectuses, photographs and newspaper cuttings. They were what remained of a now-long-defunct boarding school on the Beds-Bucks border of the county, the one I’d first attended at the age of 7. The archive wasn’t large and it sat in my cupboard, almost (I confess) forgotten until I was about to move to a far county. Diffidently, I offered it to the County Record Office. ‘Of course we’ll take it,’ said Patricia Bell. ‘You never know, it might be even more important than the history of punting.’

I suspect she was right. Judge for yourself: you can visit part of this archive right now. Click here.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: The Archivist (Abacus, 1998) and The Bedfordshire Magazine (vol.19, no.145, Summer 1983).