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Lay for the Day
14th April

‘Saint’ Peter Gonzalez (1190–1246) was never officially canonised. (He was beatified, by Pope Innocent IV in 1254.) But because of his years spent preaching in the seaports of Galicia, the sailors of Spain and Portugal adopted him as their patron saint, and his cult was confirmed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741.
He was often invoked as “St Elmo”, nautical tradition having confounded him with another patron of sailors, St Erasmus (of which Elmo is a diminutive form). Erasmus was a third-century martyr, who was said to have continued preaching quite unruffled when lightning struck near him, and hence was called upon for protection in storms. An electrical discharge which plays about the rigging of ships at sea, particularly after a storm, was nicknamed St Elmo’s Fire and said to be a sign of his protection.
St Peter Gonzalez is commemorated on 14th April, the anniversary of the 20th century’s most notorious shipwreck. Shortly before midnight on 14th April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg; she sank a few hours later.
The poem refers to the most southwesterly of the Isles of Scilly, many of whose men have been lost over the years as they went to the aid of ships in distress.

Memorials of the Boatmen of St Agnes

Pitched against crabbed seas
to where the drear descended,
that they began and were ended
the stone agrees.

On the teething reef
to hang or stumble, as though
they could no otherwise but go,
bearing relief

from whey-thin islands
to curdled, deceasing brine,
stung with the sere lifeline, to mine
ore of silence,

the quick and the dead
out of the greed of the waves:
why this, their unforthcoming graves
have left unsaid.

Granite they spring from
mills them into the kingdom,
its lichens their wreaths. They spill, lift
up as spindrift.

John Gibbens
from Pisces

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar

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