Monday, 23 December 2013

A Historian Reflects upon the Christmas Stories

In the middle decades of the Twentieth Century there was a lot of time devoted to arguments between science and religion. They were still going on when I was at school. Now it seems like a lot of time wasted. For it now seems obvious, to me at any rate, that there can be no conflict between good science and good religion because they deal with entirely different aspects of the human experience. They use different methods and ask entirely different questions. Many of my religious friends are eminent scientists and find this no problem at all. The problems start when attempts are made to use the approaches of religion to tackle scientific questions, and vice versa; but there is no requirement to do this.

What is not always so well understood is that exactly the same point applies to religion and history. The job of academic historians is to find and analyse evidence in an effort (doomed never to be unchallengeably successful) to find out exactly what was going on in the past. The job of history teachers like me is to try to communicate the findings of the scholars to the general public, especially to the young.

Where some religious people come unstuck, and many critics of religion, is they try to apply the methods and standards and questions of History as a discipline to religious stories.

Very few of the stories in the Bible (a great library of stories, poems, philosophy and so on) were produced by writers who had any intention of thinking or writing like modern historians. Every one knows that one of Jesus’s main teaching methods was to tell stories, and in this he was in a long tradition. The stories of Jonah, and of Job, for example, are as much stories as the story of the Good Samaritan and (at last I come to my main point) none the worse for it. For a story can contain as many truths, and matter for life-enhancing thought, as any piece of history.

“Othello” for example says a huge amount about the impact of jealousy on love. Young people probably get more truths, and ideas to discuss, about love and marriage and about the role of women in society from “Pride and Prejudice” than from any other single book. “Richard III”, as we all know, is not good history. But it contains all sorts of thought-provoking truths about the court as jungle.

And it is stories that are one of the main types of religious writing. The very earliest religion we know about consisted of human beings making up stories to try and explain the world and to tackle the big questions that the methods of science and history could not answer.

So, this Christmas, do not worry about whether there “really” were angels, or where the Wise Men “really” came from, or whether Mary “really” was a virgin. Listen to the stories, enjoy the stories and think about the stories. They are full of food for thought, and great truths.

Here are two that strike me.

Herod may or may not have ordered the Massacre of the Innocents exactly as described. But the story contains a great truth, which is that killing innocent people for the sake of public security is something that governments do. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid it – consider the bombing of cities during the Second World War - but it is a terrible evil. Herod is not a comic pantomime villain, nor a one-off cruel king, but a character to provoke thought in all rulers who wield authority over security forces.

Then there are those intellectuals searching for God – the “Wise Men”. And where do they find God? In a new-born baby, child of refugees, in an out-house. As Evelyn Waugh, among others, has pointed out, the Magi arrived late, misunderstood what was going on and inadvertently provoked the Massacre of the Innocents. Plenty of great truths and life-enhancing reflection for all would-be intellectuals in that story.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

"The Hammer and the Fire" - Review

“The Hammer and the Fire” by Henry Marsh 

Henry Marsh has just published his fifth major volume of poetry, “A Voyage to Babylon”. Its principal focus is on the Covenanters. His third volume, “The Guidman’s Daughter”, began with thinking about Mary Queen of Scots. I intend to review the new book – just published – in due course. But to whet your appetite I will post my reviews of Three and Four. The review of “The Guidman’s Daughter” is already on my blog. Here is my review of the fourth collection, “The Hammer and the Fire”.

John Knox is the subject of the opening section in Henry Marsh’s fourth collection of poems. The hammer and the fire of the title refer, in their first layer of meaning, to the hammers that smashed and the fires that consumed during the violent iconoclasm that accompanied Knox’s Reformation of the 1550s. (In the interest of balance it should be noted that similar “holy bonfires” also raged in Queen Elizabeth’s England, encouraged by the bishops, and that most of the image-breaking for which Oliver Cromwell has been blamed happened before he was born.) We feel the plight of the victims as
Grey friars wept in their sarks
their habits smouldering.

The adjectives of darkness applied to Knox accumulate in poem after poem: the black Knox; small, black-cloaked; with darkness wrapped about him; like a wet crow. In the very first poem in the book, “At the High Kirk, St Giles’” the contrast is made with
                        light streaming through the east windows.
                        A dawning that reminds us of the life of Christ.

Poem after poem also captures the violence of Knox’s language, sometimes direct quotation, sometimes refined by the poet’s imagination. But for Marsh we can be sure that the worst is not the abusive language but the narrow intolerance, the “scorching clarity” of a doctrine that leaves no room for mystery or ambiguity, or even for love.

But there is an honest and humane empathy with Knox as well. A different fire consumed his mentor, George Wishart, burnt for heresy; and slaving in a French galley was Not a time for subtlety. In the very short poem In Thrall a sort of kinship is admitted across the centuries:
                        This wrestling with a wraith.
                        I suspect, old fellow,
                        You’re cast in my own shadows.
And all the intense, highly pressurised contexts of Knox’s world are evoked in memorable grimness. Not really an excuse, but at least an explanation. Had things been different
                        Oh, you might have been
                        a son of the morning, were it not
                        for your justified heart. Driven
                        by the time’s plague – war of heresies.

There is a burning fire on the cover of the book – a photo of the Rosette Nebula. And this leads us on to a second theme of the book, the wonder of scientific discovery. In one of Knox’s debates with Queen Mary (and you may remember that Marsh’s previous volume, The Guidman’s Daughter focussed on her) we hear Renaissance curiosity dismissed:
                        Nicholas Copernicus, my erse.
But this collection goes on to celebrate the imaginative genius of Johannes Kepler. His mother was threatened with the agony of burning - rehearsal for Hell by a narrow-minded dogma that Knox would have enjoyed (albeit in a Catholic country). But Kepler had the openness of vision that moved mankind’s understanding of the universe forward.
                        Like magnetism, he thought,
                        the influence of sun and planet.
The contrast between the life-affirming, questing imagination of the scientist and the cold, restricted narrowness of the preacher is all too apparent.

Admirers of Marsh’s work have always loved his capacity to evoke in very few words the joy and wonder of the natural world. They will not be disappointed here. The poems on Kepler include reactions to the weird landforms of Iceland, where
                        Like infernal porridge pots, fumaroles
                        Slurp and burp.
Even greater pleasures are to be found once the focus moves to Darwin – another of Marsh’s heroes – for this in not the Darwin of voyages to the exotic Galapagos but the Darwin who both observed and loved the superficially “ordinary” life that teemed in his garden of Down House where there was
                        ivy stalking through stems of seeding
                        blue-bells, gathering for a leap
                        into a likely tree.
There follow a series of beautiful, heart warming poems to lift the spirit, as we see anew, through the precision of the poet’s vision and language, sundew, kestrels, spiders, daddy long-legs and many other creatures and plants.

Perhaps it arises from the influence of the harsh era of Knox, but I sense that the ruthlessness of nature is more readily apparent than in previous volumes, as foxes gnaw carrion, moles have poisonous bites and
                                                A heron shakes
                        its head in a bright rain
                              swallows. You watch
                        the slow
                        the endless

This last quotation also illustrates the occasional pleasure Marsh gives us by playing with the visual shape of the lines; never as a mere indulgence but to match his subject: the swirl of whirligig beetles, the flicker of reflections or the hammer-blows of Knox’s logic.

All through this collection we can hear the song of birds. There’s a sudden scraitch of gulls in Wishart’s ears as he is led to execution at St Andrews. Swifts scream when made homeless by the destruction of the abbeys. When Kepler’s mother outfaces her interrogators and emerges into the sun she hears sparrows are chirping. In Darwin’s garden fledgling Magpies squeal like damaged rabbits. In his Marsh’s own garden April shimmies through pollen and song.

In the final section of the book the poems become personal reflections, on private family moments but all with a universal application. Here is
                        The girl that I married now a woman
                        in a crowd.

This takes place at an Eco Demo, when Marsh, in a direct link to his objections to Knox, confesses that
                        Slogans make me bristle.

We also meet the man in the next bed in hospital
                        Worked thirty years as a miner,
                        smoked like a chimney. His lungs seemed
                        almost solid, his coughs heaving
in their Iron Maiden. I lay wincing,
dragged out of shallow dozes.

There are affectionate memories of loved ones now passed away –and again we hear the song of birds: the twitting flight of greenfinches or pewits tumbling in a wind. The birth of his youngest grandchild was also marked by a gust of jackdaws.

There are ninety-three poems in this collection, and the editor would not print my review if I referred to them all. If you have enjoyed Henry Marsh’s previous collection you will enjoy this one, and find greater depths as he tackles tougher themes and as the body of his work is enlarged. For those who come new to his writing, prepare to be transported by short, beautiful and neatly precise words to South Uist, to the lanes around Loanhead, to the life of verges and hedgerows, and to the harsh world of the old patriarch.

Many themes and images recur across the book, and more will be found as you track back and forth. For all the blinkered intolerance of Knox’s preaching, nevertheless he helped make Scotland what it has been
                        And Reid, Davy Hume –
                        the voyagers – set sail
from your Promised Land?
For all that, however, our eye is caught by the judgement of Bunty Wallace wi clorty wains:
                        Priest or meenister – wha
                        Gies a tinker’s curse?

If you know anyone who loves wild nature, or cares about Scotland’s complexities, or who wants to read some of the best of Scottish new writing, what better gift could there be?