The plough has broken the lingering snow – April 2013
Dr Linden Bicket traces some of the images and influences on Orkney poet and novelist George Mackay Brown’s devotional works on Lent and Easter and celebrates his sacramental imagination.
‘Magnify God with Mary in the coldness of March’, declares the pre-Reformation priest in an imaginatively re-created Lenten Sermon within An Orkney Tapestry (1969), George Mackay Brown’s (1921-1996) guide book to Orkney.1 It is in his poetry that Brown’s incarnational and deeply Catholic imagination can be felt most keenly. And, like his poetic predecessor Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844- 1889), Brown’s poetry points at all times to a creator God who reveals Himself sacramentally through the natural world. ‘The year’s brightness, snow and lamb and bread’ point to the ‘Lord of Lent’ in these poems.2
In ‘Ash Wednesday’, Brown presents a little panorama of Lenten devotion by islanders, encased between the opening and closing lines: ‘Remember man that thou art dust’ and ‘And unto dust thou shalt return.’3 For each participant in the Ash Wednesday Mass, Brown dedicates a stanza filled with personally appropriate Lenten reflection on mortality. Like a sheaf of corn, a ploughman ‘tilts his face / To the dust drained of warmth and light’ (ll. 12-13), and while a fisherman recognises that ‘spindrift’ will wash the ashes from his brow, still he remembers ‘between two waves / St Peter and the fire of his denials.’ (ll.15-16) Nonetheless, these ‘death-farers’ hunger after one thing: panis angelicus. It is the Real Presence in the Eucharist that stands at the heart of this solemn poem, in amongst the various descriptions of dust, ash, cinders and ‘grave stoor.’
However, Brown’s belief in the grace stemming from sacramental communion at the altar extends further, and more allusively, throughout his poetry. In ‘Chinoiseries: Small Songs for the Beginning of Lent’ from his posthumously-published collection, Travellers (2001), Brown reflects:
The way it is with old poets: swift ebbings, swift floods.
It was a low ebb this morning, The spirit of a beachcomber
– Dark swathes of seaweed.
Now, after bread and honey and tea,
‘Write a few small Lent
The old poet’s dwindling energy and low mood take on the imagery of the sea-scavenger in this short stanza, which sees him grasping after inspiration hopelessly. But nourishment comes quick, and soon the Holy Spirit urges on the creative process – the poem suggesting that the revelation of Christ given by the following stanzas make the text a means of grace in itself. Brown looks around the Orcadian landscape and finds ‘the daughter of Winter, / Cordelia of the Crocuses’ (ll. 28-9).
He presents a playful image worthy of fairy tale in his final stanza, where snow drifts past the window, created by ‘the old sky woman’ who ‘plucks her chickens.’ (ll. 47-8) Nonetheless, as in ‘Ash Wednesday’, the poet is ultimately mindful of mortality. ‘A hundred Lents from now / Who will remember us?’ (ll. 38-9) he asks, grimly. In Brown’s poetry as a whole there is a focus on both intense physicality as well as intense spirituality. His work on Lent and Easter is no exception, and reflects mortality as much as it does renewal.
In ‘Daffodils’ from Brown’s second poetry collection, Loaves and Fishes (1959), Brown places one of his favourite symbols for renewal and resurrection at the heart of his poem. In a short reflection on daffodils in poetry for the newspaper The Orcadian in 1972, Brown wrote:
‘There may be other lovelier flowers – roses and tulips – but the daffodil is specially dear because it is part of the great wave of light that surges over the world in March. It is the colour of the sun, and yet there is a coldness and purity in the blossom as if it remembered the snow.’5 In ‘Daffodils’ Brown follows the advice of the pre-Reformation priest in An Orkney Tapestry, so that God is magnified through Mary. Instead of a figure of the historical Mary, though, we are presented with a far more analogical interpretation of the Mother of God:
Shawled in radiance,
tissue of sun and snow
three bowl-bound daffodils in the euclidian season
when darkness equals light
and the world’s circle shudders
down to one bleeding point
Mary Mary and Mary
triangle of grief.6
The three Marys at the foot of the Cross are transformed into Easter daffodils here. Brown’s conflation of the Mother of God with the flowers which line Orkney’s roadsides during spring, recalls Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘May Magnificat’, in which Mary emerges amidst springtime bursts of joy, and nature shimmers with the refracted light of the God who made it. Hopkins asks: ‘What is spring?’ of Mary, ‘the mighty mother’, before concluding, ‘Growth in everything.’7 ‘May Magnificat’ is surely a subtext for Brown’s poem, but so too are the gospels. In his article for The Orcadian, Brown wrote: ‘another mouth, in Galilee two thousand years ago, touched the daffodil – tissue of sun and wind and snow – to divine immortality:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin. But yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these…”’.8
‘Daffodils’ aptly demonstrates Brown’s Catholic imagination, where God draws close to humanity, and reveals God’s immanence (rather than an overarching transcendence) if we have the imagination to read his works as in some way telling us about the life and death of Christ. The poem in Brown’s canon that demonstrates this sacramental imagination most powerfully is ‘Stations of the Cross’. In this twelve-part poem sequence from Winterfold (1976), Christ’s passion is made analogous to the work of a crofter, as he gathers in his harvest under immense physical labour. Brown believed this to be a key poem for anyone interested in his writing, and claimed:
One image I discovered when I was just beginning to write stories and poems and was having trouble sorting out important matters from trivial matters was that part of the gospel where Christ speaks of man’s life as a seed cast into a furrow. Unless the seed dies in the darkness and silence, new life cannot spring from it – the shoot, the ear, the full corn in the ear, and finally the fragrant bread set on the tables of hungry folk. That image seemed to illuminate the whole of life for me. It made everything simple and marvellous. It included within itself everything, from the most primitive breaking of the soil to Christ himself with his parables of agriculture and the majestic symbolism of his passion, and death, and resurrection.9
Indeed, ‘Stations of the Cross’ works as a kind of poetic parable itself, by using counterpoint between the crofter’s labour and Christ’s passion in every stanza. Stanzas two and three state:
Lord, it is time. Take our yoke And sunwards turn.
To dredge in furrows till you drop Is to be born10
Later, the poem stresses the violence at the heart of the agricultural process in ‘Crucifixion’ (‘The fruitful stones thunder around, / Quern on quern’, ll. 31-3), before announcing a sorrowful Orcadian pieta: ‘Mother, fold him from those furrows, / Your rapt bairn.’ (ll. 37-9)
There are many more poems dealing with Lenten tide and Easter in Brown’s poetic canon. He also writes poems specifically about Shrove Tuesday, Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and about childhood memories of Easter and the swapping of ‘pace eggs’. But in everything Brown writes about Easter, it is depicted as a season of grace – a time for looking with love on the world, which is filled with the promise of new life.
1. G.M. Brown, An Orkney Tapestry
(London: Victor Gollancz, 1972),
p. 40. The quotation in the title of this article also comes from p. 40 of this text.
3. G.M. Brown, ‘Ash Wednesday’, in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, ed. by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray (London: John Murray, 2005), pp. 497-8.
4. G.M. Brown, ‘Chinoiseries: Small Songs for the Beginning of Lent’, Collected Poems, pp. 498-500 (ll. 15-21).
5. G.M. Brown, ‘Daffodils’ (4 May 1972), in Letters from Hamnavoe (London: Steve Savage, 2002), p. 66.
6. G.M. Brown, ‘Daffodils’, Collected Poems, pp. 35-6 (ll. 19-27).
7. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘May Magnificat’, in Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, ed. by Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 139-40 (ll. 15-16)
8. G.M. Brown, ‘Daffodils’, in Letters from Hamnavoe, p. 67.
9. G.M. Brown, ‘Writer’s Shop’, Chapman, 16 (1976), 21-24 (23).
10. G.M. Brown, ‘Stations of the Cross’, Collected Poems, pp. 178-192 (ll. 4-9).
Dr Linden Bicket teaches Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.