Moments of Vision, A Poem by Andrew Thornton-Norris

daffodil Andrew Thornton-Norris offers readers his new poem, Moments of Vision, along with an explanation of its composition. An Englishman based in the west of England, whose work is admired and published on both sides of the Atlantic, Andrew teaches literature and poetry at Pontifex.University.

Andrew wrote an earlier blog posting called 'Redeeming Romanticism' by which he meant raising the purpose, or end of the genre to something higher, what it ought to be. In this poem he gives an example of what he was describing. I find it fascinating how he brings modern ideas of form into what has at its heart a traditional structure.

Moments of Vision

1. The Apophatic (After T.E. Hulme)

O moon hanging there not lighting up The darkness but just leaving it obscure, Reflecting light that's hidden for a time: You are the blessed sacrament that shines Upon the darkness of their majesty.

2. Helen's Face

The female body is the battlefield In the war that's taking place between The Word, the world, the devil and the flesh: The judgement cast upon it, lust that it Betrays and crimes that are committed there.

3. The Hymn of the Nuptial Mystery

In intimate relation we are in Eternal intimate relationship Within our souls and beating in our hearts The passion of transcendent being back Together that we thought we'd left behind.

4. Lent

The Forty Days and Forty Nights is when God's Kingdom is the desert where we meet Him in the hidden fasting and the prayer That separates us from the world outside And brings us to the peace of penitence.

5. Dead Souls

All beauty's holy and eternal and Destroyed by commodification, Which brings it back to dust in an Embittered fall from heaven earthward but The hope of faith is in the Death of God.

6. The Flower Bed

When I went back to the place where I Had slept and saw the mess of lying there I felt forboding of the grave and rushed To get away but now I see perhaps One heaven sent and love to contemplate.

7. WWW

When the whole world and all its life And history is here to hand and at The touch or click upon a button then The only way to turn to get away Is inwards, walk into the world within.

8. Sapperton Tunnel

Between the catchment of the Severn and The Thames, the way of life is different, The valley sides that crumble down into The houses flowing streamward down below, Suggestive of the valley of the Wye.

9. The Passion of the Lord is the Birth of Love

As fires from tiny flames great cities fell My love for you began with just a glance A word and then the conflagration grew Until the world was all aflame like stars That fall from skies above into our hearts.

10. The Walled Garden

Narcissus, yellow archangel, and then, Because of sympathetic magic, so Called lungwort: metaphysicians of the spring; But why are winter snowdrops purest white, O winter what has happened to your sting?

Brief note for students

This poem deals again with the subject of central concern to me: the deepest longings of the human heart, for love, joy, and peace for example, their frustrations, and how these experiences are most perfectly responded to, of any available belief system, by Catholicism. Its form is ten titled sentences of blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter. I chose this form because this is roughly how the ideas for the individual stanzas came to me as a group all around the same time. The idea of collage, or collection of disparate elements arranged around an overall theme rather than a logical narrative or argumentative structure is a modernist technique employed in other arts as well. Here it is combined with the most traditional form of English verse. The overall title is from a collection of poems published by Thomas Hardy in 1917.He is the last representative of a peculiarly English late-Romanticism, described as the last words of a dying protestantism by John Powell Ward in his book, The English Line. That line begins with Milton and only Philip Larkin was to attempt its resuscitation, describing himself as an "Anglican atheist". In Catholic terms, the title represents the moments of vision or contemplation when the pure of heart see God. It is therefore an attempt to redeem the Romantic form and subject through re-establishing the proper relationship of art to religion that I described in the last post.


Dionysius, a poem by Andrew Thornton-Norris

Padua-Baptistry-CeilingI know I said I wasn't going to write much, but I just saw this. It's a poem that I actually like. It's by Andrew Thornton-Norris. He wrote it after reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's description of the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Von Balthasar is almost as always hard work for me . He seems to be saying the right sort of things and I know that because all right sorts of people quote him when talking about beauty, so he must be good...but when you actually get to his texts I find he's very difficult to understand. Perhaps it is a mark of his genius, that H U von B has managed to produce a valid commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius that is even less intelligible than the original.

So, it's always a relief to let somebody else you can trust do all the hard work of reading Hans Urs von B. and then condense it and explain it you. This was once reason I am so glad that we have Pope Benedict. Anyway here's Andrew's succinct poetic summarization.

As he says, heaven is revealed in the liturgy......


As form contains the meaning of the work

So heaven is revealed in liturgy

The inward grace in sacramental sign

The mystery of being uncovering.


Ineluctable trinitarian light

The beatific vision happiness

The love that moves the sun and other stars

Our brother sun and sister moon and stars



Andrew is an Englishman and Resident Poet at the Imaginative Conservative (where this poem was published). He is also the author of a Spiritual History of English which has been endorsed by no less than Roger Scruton and Fr Aidan Nichols and was reviewed by the Times (that's the 'London Times' to Americans).. and amongst many others, myself. My review of his book is called - A Book for Anyone Interested in the Evangelization of the Culture.

I like the way he talks about literature and poetry. He analyses content and form and relates them to the world view of the poet or author. In this there are many parallels to my own analysis of art. In his book he describes how the structure of the English language and the use of vocabulary has changed to reflect the broadly held worldview of the English speaking peoples of the time. In his analysis, the language itself, and not just the way it is used has become gradually more impoverished since the time of Shakespeare and the language we speak today is a direct reflection of the cumulative effects of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Modernity.

So if you have complaints about my prose, I say it's not my fault... it was the Reformation wot dunnit.




A Country House and Grounds - a Model of Manmade Harmony and Order

And how a 'marvel of Renaissance verse' describes precisely this, by Corey French. This article started out as a simple description of a country house that I visited on a recent trip to Britain. It is in North Wales and is called Bodysgallen Hall.  I was introduced to the house by a friend who took me there for the very British event of afternoon tea. What a delight that was! A number of things struck me about it. First was the harmony between house and grounds and the surrounding countryside. The gardens are more formally laid out close to the house, then they change into the less formal English cottage style and planting (a la Gertrude Jeckyll) and then into managed woods. Even the vegetable garden was arranged in an ordered and beautiful fashion, everything in its proper place. From the grounds we could see  and sheep fells on the Welsh mountains in the distance, beyond the Conway valley.

Second, is that every aspect of what we see is man made. There is no part that has not been shaped by the activity of man. This is not the untamed beauty of nature, but something even greater: nature conforming to a higher order. It has been raised up by the work of man.

Another aspect of note is the date in which the house was made. Or rather, dates. The various wings of the house were built over centuries ranging from the 17th to the 19th centuries. I could tell because each wing year of construction placed visibly on it. Despite this there is a unity to the whole because each part uses traditional proportions. These are the proportions that go back to the ancient Greeks and are derived from observation of the order and beauty of the cosmos. (There is one part that is an exception, it seems - the tall tower in the centre, which has even sized windows).

I was just contemplating this when I received an email from Corey French, who is currently working on his doctorate in English Literature at the University of Virginia, with a focus on 17th century British poetry. He had attended the first summer retreat of the Way of Beauty Atelier this year. I mentioned to him that I am a literary philistine with little regard for poetry. Undaunted he told insisted that his specialist area would be of interest to me. This is because, he said, they often refer to the ideal of beauty and harmony that I had been talking about in my lectures.  He told me that many even have and 'architecture' (ie structure) that incorporates he sacred number theory that I had mentioned. This piqued even my interest and I had asked him to send more information.

Here is the first poem he sent me. It is called Penshurst and it is by Ben Jonson. There is a link to the poem itself here. It is the subject matter, rather than the form which is of interest here. It describes how the country house is a model of beauty. In his letter to me Corey describes how it reflects exactly the ideas I had been discussing of the liturgy of the Church as an ordering principle of cosmic beauty. You can see what he has written below in italics. Before that here is the closing stanza of the poem:

Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee

With other edifices, when they see

Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else,

May say their lords have built, but thy lord dwells.

'The poem itself is a marvel of Renaissance verse and inaugurated a minor school of English poetry--the country house poem.  (Although there were other country house poems before "Penshurst," such as Emelia Lanyer's "Description of Cooke-ham," Jonson's poem establishes the conventions of the trope through the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries.)  In any event, the overall schematic of the poem traces a movement from the grounds around Penshurst Place (ranging from the copses of Gamage and Sidney to the Medway) into the manor-house itself, culminating in the middle of the poem with a depiction of a feast and then launching into an excursus on the hospitality of the Sidneys.

First of all, the poem begins with a meditation on the virtues of Penshurst Place as an edifice compared with the "prodigy houses" of more recent construction.  As the poem presents it, Penshurst's architecture manifests an organic harmony that extends through time, pulling together through a unified tradition both its ancient and more modern aspects.  In this way, the house becomes an emblem of the virtues which reside therein and which subsist in the Sidney family.  The other houses, "built to envious show," are merely objects of conspicuous consumption, discordant in their architectural programs and intended only to display wealth.  Penshurst's own harmoniousness extends to the natural world as well, and we find the entire natural order revolving around life in the manor house, even offering itself sua sponte for the enrichment of the manor's tables.  As we travel around the grounds, the poem leads us through the natural topography of the place, yet it insists upon our simultaneously recognizing it as a moral topography.  The concord of the land reflects the virtuous concord of its landholders.

Then the poem takes us into the feast, and we find that it is the feast that resides at the heart of Penshurst, the energy which drives its entire harmony.  Now, I'm absolutely convinced that Jonson intends this feast to be an image of the Eucharist.  He spent several years as a recusant Catholic before reverting to Anglicanism, and I cannot help but think that he understood the intrinsic necessity of the liturgy.  Indeed, what I see in this poem is precisely your concept of the liturgy as the ordering principle of the cosmos, as the source and summit of human life.  The entire poem centers around this scene of feasting in which "all come in" and all are fed to satiety with "thy lord's own meat."  I've written some on this poem, and to my surprise, no one has argued substantively for a reading of the poem as a profoundly liturgical and sacramental poem.  Even Harp's article [see below], which raises and considers the Eucharistic elements of the poem does not, I think, unravel the full implications of this reading.

Additionally, the history of "Penshurst" criticism is a bit of a case study in the deformations of modernism.  The reigning scholarly interpretation of the poem (though one that has met with its share of push-back in recent years) is the Marxist reading put forward by Raymond Williams and Don Wayne.  They attack Jonson for colluding with the structures of power represented in the manor house and thereby using his poem to "write out" the inequalities of labor by depicting the land as offering itself up without human intervention and by suggesting that the life of the tenant farmer was little more than attending soirées at the manor.  Immediately one realizes how truly malicious such an interpretation is; indeed, like most contemporary literary theory, it manages to base an entire interpretation of the poem on what isn't there rather than what is.  Richard Harp produced a rather admirable essay in which he dismantles the Williams/Wayne approach entirely and points to the poem as a poem of festival.  He suggests that Jonson hasn't "overlooked" labor to suit the ends of power but has chosen to write instead a type of Sabbath poem in which labor is given its reward of rest.  The Williams/Wayne reading simply demonstrates the inevitable consequence of having recourse to no other worldview than one in which "labor" is the defining mark of human life and in which transcendence ceases to be possible.








The Need for Beauty and Form in Poetry

I want to say at the outset that, as a general rule, I hate poetry. In fact my idea of perfect hell is to spend an evening at a poetry recital. I say that this applies generally because occasionally some do strike a chord and I love the psalms, which I am told are poems. I chant and read them just about every day. I am talking here about the sort of stuff that people who do English Lit study and feel the need, irritatingly, to talk about at dinner parties. It's all that analysis and discussion I can't stand. As soon as that happens I feel like running to the nearest television to watch an elevating game of football, or to a laptop to play a computer game (that is, if I knew how to play one).

I was once told that when asked if he had any regrets Woody Allen said that he had one: he wished that he had never read Beowulf. Well I am one up on Mr Allen. I have never read it and have no intention of doing so. Most of the things that people want me to read, rather than revealing truth, seem to hide it behind a veil of long or obscure words and convoluted sentences; or even no sentences at all. If I make the effort to get past this and work out what they are on about or perhaps someone explains the meaning to me, like Mr Allen  I usually regret having made the effort. My reaction is usually, well if that is what you are trying to say why make us wade through your turgid verse in order to do so? Why not just say it in a way we can understand?

Before anyone tries to contact me and tell me that I am a brutish and uncultured so-and-so then let me say that you are probably right. But I am unrepentant. You read poetry if you want to, I'll look at art, listen to music and go for country walks. I have no sense of any obligation to try to understand something that is written to entertain, when I don't find it entertaining.

Now that I've got that out of the way, I present an essay on form and beauty in poetry. It is not written by me you won't be surprised to hear, it is written by Mark Anthony Signorelli (h/t Tom Larson of Goffstown, NH). I present it because despite what I have just written I am prepared to acknowledge that I am an ignorant philistine in this regard and that poetry, or some of it at least, does have something to recommend it, even if usually I can't see it. I like this essay because the arguments he makes in regard to poetry correspond very closely to what I argue in regard to art. Put simply, he says that the best poetry is the most beautiful poetry because this will communicate truth most eloquently. I would say that this is the poetry that even when read by someone like me, strikes to the spirit and is understood intuitively. Signorelli argues that in order to be beautiful, the poet must take into consideration the form as well as the content. The form, that is, the style, reflects the worldview of the poet as much as the words contained within it. And traditional values are communicated through the medium of traditional form. This corresponds, I would argue, to the principles that apply in art. I have written about this in an article called Make the Form Conform - How the Style of Art Reflects Truth.

You can read Mr Signorelli's piece here, it is called Form and Transcendance: A Reply to Micah Mattix. Please do read it, even if you don't like poetry. It is well worth it!

I should say that beyond what it written here I know nothing about the site on which it appears or Mr Signorelli...except that this is what he looks like: