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Lay for the Day
25th May

The feast-day of two Anglo-Saxon saints, both of them monks renowned for their poetic gifts. One is St Aldhelm (639–709), abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of west Wessex. King Alfred told the story of how Aldhelm was upset by the casual attitude to Mass among the townspeople of Malmesbury. So he dressed as a gleeman, a wandering minstrel, and stood on the town’s bridge with his harp, singing songs, telling jokes and stories, but weaving religious teaching into his routine. “Aldhelm won men to heed sacred things,” wrote Alfred, “by taking his stand as a gleeman and singing English songs on a bridge." He was said to be an adept player on every musical instrument of his time, but none of his English poems or songs have survived, though there are a number of Latin works in both verse and prose. He is also said to have translated the Psalms into his native tongue.
The second of our saints is the Venerable Bede (673–735), a Northumbrian monk who wrote the first history of England, along with many scriptural commentaries, and translated the Gospel of St John into Old English, a task he completed just before he died. His feast was 26th May in the old English calendars, but was usually celebrated on the 27th to avoid a clash with another important English saint’s day, that of St Augustine of Canterbury. In the Roman calendar his feast is 25th May. Bede, the only Englishman to appear in Dante’s Divine Comedy, had an enormous influence on Christian learning, and is the patron saint of scholars. He was also a lover of poetry and a singer of songs.


A Question

Where’s an art so good it’s impossible
To speak well of it, that will render
Inconsolably the inconsolable,
Though form’s consoling prompts the heart’s surrender;
Off the white, right-angled page
To head with difficulty
For its lair in the ribcage?

Whose laborious pen can make guilty
The dancing eye and fluting mental voice
For concentrating their strong faculty
Here, not in the making of a life’s choice?
To undress the injury
Without healing intention
Is a worse-than-perjury.

“Harmony, that mends the soul’s dissension,”
Replies my flatterer, “is the great sun
To which your wings bent draw our attention.”
When what is done now in the world is done
I’d not teach a soul assent.
God the Son confessed himself
An arsonist, impatient

To set alight the planet’s selfish pelf.
How can the poem so stir the embers
You’d not even return it to the shelf
But yearn to act while the heart remembers,
Leaving the pages unclosed
In stillness of November’s
Light, like a true question posed?


John Gibbens
from Makings ’77-’83

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar

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