Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.
We forget ‒ I kept saying ‒ that we are children of the King.
From where we come there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was and will be.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago ‒
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef ‒ they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfilment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
It has become colloquial if not cliché to say we are “comfortable in our own skin.” Whatever else this means, it is usually meant to describe a certain peace with oneself that might be tainted by the stoic resignation of earlier aspirations. Our poet will have none of that. Late Ripeness was written by Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz when he was in his nineties. Far beyond a weariness of age, Milosz stands on new thresholds of ‘a door opening in me’ and ‘the clarity of early morning’ – and he bids us to join him.
As Malcom Guite writes in The Word in the Wilderness:
And this clearing, or opening, is not a preparation to face nothingness or death, as it might have been with a poet like, for example, Phillip Larkin, but rather a readying and steadying of the mind for new work, as everything that has been, in his lovely phrase, ‘assigned to my brush’ comes closer.
On this Sunday, as we pause from Lent and once again celebrate resurrection, let us likewise renew our commitment to a service in God’s vineyard which is born in grace and nurtured by gratitude.
What’s next for you?
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
D I G D E E P E R
Czeslaw Milosz ranks among the most respected figures in twentieth-century Polish literature, as well as one of the most respected contemporary poets in the world: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Born in Lithuania, where his parents moved temporarily to escape the political upheaval in their native Poland, as an adult, he left Poland due to the oppressive Communist regime that came to power following World War II and lived in the United States from 1960 until his death in 2004. Milosz’s poems, novels, essays, and other works are written in his native Polish and translated by the author and others into English. Having lived under the two great totalitarian systems of modern history, national socialism and communism, Milosz wrote of the past in a tragic, ironic style that nonetheless affirmed the value of human life. While the faith of his Roman Catholic upbringing was severely tested, it remained intact. Terrence Des Pres, writing in the Nation, stated that “political catastrophe has defined the nature of our.. [age], and the result—the collision of personal and public realms—has produced a new kind of writer. Czeslaw Milosz is the perfect example. In exile from a world which no longer exists, a witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.”
Source The Poetry Foundation
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.