Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Poetry and hymns with lost music ...

In spare moments on the bus today (when not completely squashed by the sheer numbers trying to get on) I've been pondering poetry and prose, how poetry at its best speaks in ways that are pleasing yet unfathomable; how it can also seem contrived, trite, overwrought. A line or two of poetry can sum up books of philosophy, years of experience and more besides. Bus journeys are good for these sorts of passing thoughts - in the car I get too involved talking to the driver!
Tonight opening J. Philip Newell's Each Day and Each Night Celtic Prayers from Iona, I was struck by how morning and evening prayer for Tuesday begin with fragments from Psalm 139

If I ascend to heaven
you are there, O God
And if I make my bed in hell,
still you are with me. (Ps. 139:8)
The Psalms were originally meant to be sung, poetry set to music, yet we do not have the melodies anymore. Yet even though we no longer know the tune, and have not known the tune for generations, the Hebrew poetry in translation continues to move, comfort, challenge and sometimes revolt us (the visceral smashing of our enemies children should not sit easily with us, even if we can "understand" the emotion). And of course we sing and chant the Psalms to many different tunes, during my time in the French Protestant Church I have grown to love singing from the Genevan Psalter. Yet it is a dying art even now. One day that music too will be lost.
Seeing those words from Psalm 139 "and if I make my bed in hell, still you are with me" brought me great comfort this evening - I'm still not sure why, I shouldn't try to understand everything. But I have some sense of comfort also from the fact that even when the tune is lost the poetry may not be - perhaps if I were more of a musician I would find comfort from the tune remaining when the words disappear, but words are my milieu more than music.
Life is prosaic, much of it has no melody or harmony, it's easy to feel as if the tune has been lost. Yet my prosaic life is often lifted by fragments of poetry, ancient poems, once sung to an unknown tune, once holding a meaning quite different from the comfort and sense I make out of the same words today.
This web of differently tuned melodic meanings stretches back in time and space; it helps give meaning to me today ... and perhaps also tomorrow. It may not be pure poetry but it lifts me out of my prosaic existence even when I make my bed in hell.
You are behind me
and before me O God.
You lay your hand upon me. (Ps 139:5)