It is worth reflecting on this Feast Day how one little book, crudely produced by early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, has become the most expensive book in the world, outstripping unique versions of the Bible, Shakespeare's First Folios and Jean-Jacques Audubon's famous Birds of America.
On Tuesday, a copy of the Bay Psalm Book sold at Sotheby's, New York, for $14.2 million, a sum even Croesus would have found eye-watering. Rarity is, of course, a factor. There are believed to be only eleven of these volumes in existence. The books were so thoroughly used that most fell into disrepair sooner rather than later. These few have survived Independence Wars, Civil Wars, World Wars, boundary disputes and hard-driven migration. But their intrinsic value is surely bound up in all the hope, the longing, the nostalgia, the idealism, the quest for freedom, equality and a Promised Land, dreamed by the founding fathers of America. This was the pilgrims' rightful inheritance, in the gift of a beneficient God whose bounty was freely available to the focused and thankful heart.
Months of pitching and rolling on the Atlantic under changeable stars, in insanitary conditions and fed on a scratch diet that barely kept body and soul together, must have caused some misgivings. The sight of an expansive, untamed wilderness must have been daunting, their cultural heritage abandoned for good. For most, there was no going back. It would have taken many seasons for the magnitude of the undertaking to sink in. It is impossible to dwell on this with a dry eye.
But what did they seek in order to steel their courage and confirm the ground under their feet? A book of Psalms, the first recourse for the bewildered and anchorless, where the map of God's heart is reflected in daily human vicissitudes, a compendium of 'givens', without any challenges to theological construction and meaning.
What those pioneers sought was a new translation from the Hebrew, one fit for the realities of the New World and couched in democratic phrases. In such circumstances, the striving for commonwealth was not a design, but an instinct of survival. They wanted their Psalms in verse. Singing was their inspiration. Breathing together, chanting harmonies, strengthened a sense of family and corporate purpose whilst engraving truths in the memory.
The text is said by some scholars to be graceless and awkward. But the ministers responsible made it clear they 'attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language'. The press had to be transported all the way from England. The ink is said to be uneven, the standard of workmanship poor and the book riddled with misprints and idiosyncratic punctuation.
But what remains to the twenty-first century is a living legacy charged with the power of that virgin experience on the threshold of a vast unknown. It is a moving testimony to faith rewarded, to the hardwon fruits of labour in field and vineyard, to the population of a Continent pledged to freedom and opportunity. This little book flags the chapter in global history in which Western civilisation took root in America and led to the birth of a great nation.
What a fine irony that capitalist cultures can only express their homage to a vision via mercantile currency!
Wishing all American friends and colleagues a Happy Thanksgiving (and Hanukkah) !
On the 95th Anniversary of Armistice Day
They are focused on an interior landscape. The barrel of the lens will reach far into the future, capturing a moment in time more powerfully than any modern app. He sports a soldier's uniform, a ranked officer in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, standing a little aloof from his young wife, as resigned to duty now he is recalled to his own fireside as he was in the trenches of Ypres. Owing to injury, he's been drafted into the Corps of Military Accountants. In April, 1915, he was gassed with chlorine. One of the lucky ones. It took the company unawares as it drifted over the Flanders fields one daybreak in a nicely-judged wind, benign as ectoplasm, amid the whining blasts of shot and shell. Everything turned green in its path, metal, cloth, skin. Scores of them staggered and fell. Harrowed, harrowing. They slumped into the rat-infested mire, writhing in agony, choking with acid nausea, their lungs seared, their innards turned to fire in a spectacle reminiscent of those medieval depictions of the spheres of hell. Surely this was Armageddon, as foretold. Comrades in arms, here today, gone tomorrow. One taken, one left. Except that many were taken and only a few are left to bottle the abomination so that rising generations may enjoy peace and freedom. Men of his stamp will not speak of what they have seen. They will be wary of bitter winters, mind their diet and not complain of sensitivity to ulceration. They will not explain the nightmares, nor why they sometimes have to retire from the scene when lucid memories are triggered and they are plunged into a terrifying parallel reality. Even Guy Fawkes Night taxes the mettle.
No, he will never speak of it. Braced with youthful idealism, his wife and homeland are what he set out so loyally to defend. He bites at the ankle those rearing thoughts which protest domestic routines are an irrelevance now he knows mankind is capable of Lucifer's hubris in wanting to be God. He will adapt, keep a stiff upper lip, but will tread a lonely path through the decades of the twentieth century, unable to communicate the truth that it is better not to go there, better not to tempt fate, better to husband the gift of life and the cornucopia on your own patch. If only he could tell that to the enemy!
is seated on his right, looking askance, swaddled in rigorous
Edwardian attire with a joyful posy in her hat. George V has wrestled
his dominions from the Hun, but the stunned world, embattled for four
years, has not moved on. The long Victorian era still presides over the
affairs of hearth and nation. She dandles a two year old infant on
her lap, the first of four children, plus one adopted.
Eventually, these will disperse to various points of the compass. War
confers a sense of the global village, of common human destiny, and
that allies are not always to be found in the next street. One of
their sons will have his Halifax Bomber shot down over Brandenburg during the next outbreak
of hostilities. He will be captured and become a POW in Stalag Luft
III exactly one month before the Great Escape in which, thankfully,
he has no part.
But their first child, a little girl, was begotten against the horrors of the front line. They have called her Eva because this is 'the war to end all wars'. A new age hovers over the horizon. The world reborn. New beginnings. Her mother's mouth faintly quirks with whimsy. She has a secret. She is expecting another child. But she will not tell him yet. It's women's business. In fact, she will not consult her doctor for several months. Nature's affairs are all in a day's work. But she knows for sure. The halted cycles, the way the blood fizzes around the sinuses and scent and colour are subtly altered.
“Don't smell the poppies, Bessie,” her mother used to say as they strolled the Dorset lanes together when she was small. “They'll likely give you a headache.”
You don't need spell check
to know Love's
a four-letter word
linguists can't argue
the metaphor's tame
but nowhere near tamed
just subtle aspects
of configured stars
of latent forces
neither is the blunt
Love's neither shorthand
nor tailored to fit
tethered and tagged, you
can't save Love,
upload it to Cloud
it plucks the moment's
and plants next year's crop
for some that
goes without saying
others sustain the
with coin of far realms
Image courtesy of Anna Mason Art
On the anniversary of the birth of Johannes Vermeer, October 31, 1632, a poem from The Twain, Poems of Earth and Ether
I am passing through
a sequence of spun still frames
This too solid flesh
belongs to time's illusion
I am a whisper
in your head, a quickening
of the soul's marrow
I am mere cipher
reflection of perception
I, a backward glance
down the halls of memory
glimpse of future past
Yet am I present
in the consummate design
scintillating in the beam
of a loving eye
I am passing through
one, two, three, four dimensions
aligns the daguerreotype
In aerial latitudes
and the silent margins
of heat and cold,
day and clairvoyant dusk,
the mirage shimmers
above our wilderness,
evoking plangent echoes
of something lost and longed for.
Risk the serpentine defiles,
the jackal's jaws and searing sand,
risk the rugged rocks for miles
to gain a purchase on the land
rendered in such high relief
There we shall slake our dusty frame!
The image pales and comes to grief
All and nothing is the same.
So where to turn and how contrive
the lineaments of real estate
To dream, to sow, to dig, to strive,
to build, to spend, to save, to wait,
though noble empires wax and wane,
high thought and politics our pitch,
an out-of-line design's our bane
Exchequers fail to make us rich.
A temptress is illusion's muse
her laurels bringing frail content
ironic humour bucks the ruse
the stage, the screen, the game, were sent
to occupy the vision's see
If only this, if only that
had shaped our path, we should be free
by now to revel in delight.
The mind's eye is the heart's big screen
beguiling fictions into facts
daydreams breathe lustre on the scene
our footprints follow in its tracks
Away the promised land foursquare
whose substance sinks in shadow's maw!
But mind, the mirage memory
reflects a true celestial shore!
Images by Leipzig artist Friedrich Otto Georgi 1819 - 1874