The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?
The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.
There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.
The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.
A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
The bloodless word will battle for its own
Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
The generations tell
Their personal tale: the One has far to go
Past the mirages and the murdering snow.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
As we arrive at Passion Sunday, our meditation is on the Word made flesh. The Incarnation cautions against the siren song of theological abstraction with its theories and elegant argument. Beyond bloodless philosophy stands Immanuel – God with us.
In today’s poem, Edwin Muir warns us to fix our gaze on the profound essence of God the Son. As Malcom Guite writes in The Word in the Wilderness:
We have been trying, he says, to ‘unmake’ the Incarnate One, to refuse the gift of God’s solidarity with us in our flesh, his closeness, and instead push him back to some infinite distance of abstraction. To do this we ‘betray the image’, we prefer ‘the bloodless word’, the ‘cold empire of the abstract man’. In a chilling and utterly memorable line Muir sums up the way the abstract theology of ‘Calvin’s Kirk’, the Scottish church of his boyhood, had substituted its syllogisms for the incarnate, image-laden, flesh and blood presence of Christ:
The Word made flesh here is made word again.
Is it difficult for you to think of God as flesh and blood?
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
(1887–1959). Edwin Muir was one of the chief Scottish poets of his day writing in English. He is also notable as the translator who first introduced English-speaking readers to the works of Franz Kafka.
The son of a tenant farmer, Muir was born on May 15, 1887, at Deerness, on the island of Orkney off Scotland’s northeast coast. Evicted from their farm, his family moved to the mainland when Muir was 14. They settled in the city of Glasgow, where he lived for nearly 20 years. His time in the slums of Glasgow was grim: both his parents and two of his brothers died, and Muir himself suffered from poor health. He married Willa Anderson in 1919, and the couple moved to London, where Muir did book reviewing. In 1921, the Muirs went to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where they taught English and collaborated on translations of such writers as Kafka, Sholem Asch, Hermann Broch, and Lion Feuchtwanger.
Muir’sFirst Poems appeared in 1925, but his stature as a poet did not become widely recognized until the publication of The Voyage (1946) and The Labyrinth (1949). His Collected Poems, which reveal his meditative and myth-haunted vision, appeared in 1952. His critical works include Latitudes (1924), Transition (1927), and The Structure of the Novel (1928). His three novels are The Marionette (1927), The Three Brothers (1931), and Poor Tom (1932). Muir’s Autobiography was published in 1954. He died on Jan. 3, 1959, in Cambridge, England.
“Muir, Edwin,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
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.
Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.