Berry and Chaucer or “sorwful ymagynacioun”


The last few mornings I have been reading poems by Wendell Berry from his volume, This Day: Collected and New Sabbaths. The book was a Christmas gift from my brother, Mark (thank you, Mark!). The day I opened the gift I accidentally tore the cover. I was mortified since it is such a beautiful book and immediately hid it from the rest of the people in the room. Despite this, I picked it up this week and started reading.

I have read all of the poems from 2012, the last section in the book. I am curious how sane people like Berry view things from the vantage point of being alive today.

I also read the “Preface” and “Introduction.” I was amused to see Berry commenting on the word, “spirit,” which reminded me of yesterday’s blog on Merton’s sentence on art. I am still reading Merton but finding him less entrancing, more dated. Berry (and another writer whom I will mention in minute) seems a bit of an antidote.

Berry says this about “spirit.”

“In the earlier poems [of the collection] I used the words “spirit” and “wild” conventionally and complacently. Later I became unhappy with both. I resolved first to avoid “spirit.” This was not because I think the word itself is without meaning, but because I could no longer tolerate the dualism, often construed in sermons and such as a contest, of spirit and matter. I saw that once this division was made, spirit invariably triumphed to the detriment, to the actual and often irreparable damage, of matter and the material world.”

“Dispensing with the word “spirit” clears the way to imagine a live continuity, in fact and value, between what we call “spiritual” and we call “material.”

Good point. Not sure how this connects to my little story about all music being “spiritual.” To a musician like myself who is bound to music as an action Berry’s duality might not obtain with quite the same force it does to him. Underlying his poems and stories is always his concern with our lack of stewardship of the “material world.”

Earlier in the preface, Berry indicates that these “poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors. A reader will like them best, I think who reads them in similar circumstances—at least in a quiet room.” He goes on, “They would be most favorably heard if read aloud into a kind of quietness that is not afforded by any public place.”

This reminded me of my practice of reading poetry aloud. I haven’t been reading much poetry lately. So this morning I read Berry aloud in to my “quiet room” and early morning solitude.”

At the end of the introduction, Berry comments that his “thoughts have returned again and again to the practice devotion to Nature in the poetry of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope.”

All of these poets are ones I admire. I had the impulse to pull out Chaucer. This morning I read several pages aloud of his poem “The Book of Duchess.” This is a larger poem and not from the Canterbury tales.

The mention of Chaucer always seems to evoke a dusty, stiff academic atmosphere. But then reading him one remembers the strong charming personality of the poet that seems to shine through all his work.

For sorwful ymagynacioun

Ys alway hooly in my mynde

from The Book of Duchess by Chaucer, 14-15

This edition has copious helpful information in it about the poetry. A footnote informs the reader about Chaucer use of the word ymagynacioun: ”Jehan le Bel, a contemporary of Chaucer… explains imagination as the faculty which retains what is perceived by the senses; here equivalent to memories, thoughts.” from  Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Albert C. Baugh, editor


Spiritual, Traditional, Alive


I’ve been reading Merton’s collection of essays, Disputed Questions (1960). The last two I have read have left me a bit cold. They seem lodged in a moment of time that has passed. Even though I love Merton I found them a bit muddled and dated in their grappling with Communism and the fear of a nuclear holocaust.

I am reading this collection because it contains an essay that was influential in shaping my thinking for years: “Sacred Art and the Spiritual Life.” I think I have mellowed over the years. This is not surprising. Merton has a phrase in this essay that stuck with me since I first read it. “One does not offer lollipops to a starving man in a totalitarian death camp.”
There was a time when I could tell you what I thought the modern “lollipops” of art were. I can remember struggling to perform “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at a funeral. I did not see the tradition in the song. I heard it as a bit of trivial art. Now I do not.

I can remember riding in a car with one of the editors of the Episcopalian Hymnal 1982 (Alec Wyton). I told him that he and the other editors had included music in it that was insipid (lollipops) and that he could avoid their use at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. But those of us in the parishes would be forced to use them. Now I am very happy to use anything in the extended resources of the Episcopal Church.

I say all this because this morning I read a sentence in Merton’s essay on Sacred Art which got me to thinking.

“The work of art must be genuinely spiritual, truly traditional and artistically alive.” Merton

It struck me how this sums up for me neatly some things I think about in a way Merton may or may not have approved.


Not too long ago I was hired to play for a local Winter Solstice party. The giver of the party was a self conscious anti-church atheist from what I gathered. Kind of a hippy dude. At one point the group was talking and he directly addressed me with a question, “Is the music we have asked you to play spiritual?” To his apparent surprise (since he had me pegged as a church guy who did church music) I replied automatically, “All music is spiritual.”
This even surprised me, but I think it said something that I may think true at a very basic level.

I think of spiritual partly as authentic human meaning. Definitely music is that for me.


I have been disappointed to find so many musicians stuck in a narrow place in music. I am thinking here of people who are entrenched in popular musics. Musicians who don’t read music. Musicians who are interested only in the music they are skilled at. Musicians who ignore music history.

I think its important to widen ones horizon. Personal and professional curiosity is for me one of the joys of life. To ignore vast swathes of one’s own area limits possibilities tremendously.


Conversely, one needs to be aware of the entire present moment. I always thought that’s what Zappa meant by including Edgar Varese’s quote on most of his album covers: “The Present Day Composers refuses to die.” Probably not, but I still maintain a vital interest in music that is being written now.

I also think this applies in church music which brings me back to Merton’s essay on Art and Spirituality. I lurk on many Facebooger church music and organist groups. While there are many commentors who surprise me by sharing my own eclecticism, there are many others who trouble me with a narrowness that confuses me.

At Obama’s funeral speech, the AME organist apparently punctuated the speech like a sermon with organ music. There were comments on Facebooger about the lack of inappropriateness of this. This struck me as possibly narrowness on the part of commentors.

There are parishioners at my church who have said to me how they appreciate singing hymns from their old denomination. Often these hymns are tunes that at one point in my life I would have shuddered to include in liturgy. At another point in my life, they were what we were singing regularly in my Dad’s church. At this point in my life I find it satisfying to include them and other kinds of music with as much stylistic and vigorous integrity and interpretation I can muster.

It feels more alive.