‘My lord, although we cannot know
The mysteries of the afterlife
The span of time we spend on earth
Appears to me to be like this:
Imagine sitting in your hall
In winter, feasting with your chiefs
And counsellors – your faces glowing
From flames that crackle in the hearth.
Outside, the wintry night is lashed
By winds and driving rain and snow.
Suddenly a sparrow darts in
Through a door, flits across the hall
And flies out through another one.
Inside, cocooned in light and warmth
It can enjoy a moment’s calm
Before it vanishes, rejoining
The freezing night from which it came.
Such is our journey through this life.
But as to what’s in store for us
Beyond the doors of birth and death
We are completely in the dark.’
by James Harpur
from The Monk’s Dream
Copyright © James Harpur 1996
James Harpur had two new collections of poems out in October 2007, but this is from an earlier book, The Monk’s Dream. It is a good example of his skill in using an anecdote to telling poetic effect – the vignette of the sparrow comes from Bede’s A History of the English Church and People, 11:13. Harpur’s style combines plainness, i.e. under- rather than over-statement, and elegance. His two new collections are The Dark Age, with poems focusing on the “dark ages” of Europe and the struggles of early Christianity; and Fortune’s Prisoner, a translation of the poems from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.
Born in 1956 of Anglo-Irish parents, Harpur studied Classics and then English at Trinity College. He now lives in Co. Cork, Ireland. As well as his three collections of poetry from Anvil, A Vision of Comets, The Monk’s Dream and Oracle Bones, he is author of Love Burning in the Soul: The Story of the Christian Mystics, from Saint Paul to Thomas Merton (Shambhala, 2005).
Anvil Press Poetry was founded in 1968 and publishes English-language poetry and poetry in translation, both classic and modern.
This is the last Weekly Poem for 2007 – a very Happy Christmas and New Year to you all.