A Mass of Poetry

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On Thursday evening at 7.30pm, in the Guild Chapel, in the centre of town, the church that Shakespeare attended as a schoolboy, and which stood next door to his great house, New Place, there will be a Poetry Mass.

It will be seventh of its kind and is presented as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival.

A Poetry Mass, which was an idea that I first tried out in Durham in 1994, turns to the mass of poetic tradition and selects poems which are then spoken with the intention of prayers in the context of a religious service of Holy Communion, Eucharist, Mass. The consecration of the bread and wine follows the traditional, authorised liturgy of the Church of England.

The theological underpinning is the Christian understanding of the incarnation: that God becomes fully human in the person of Jesus and that therefore there is nothing in creation, in the universe, that is beyond the scope of God’s love.

This year the Poetry Mass includes contributions from T. S. Eliot, George Herbert, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Nashe, Julian of Norwich, St Teresa of Avila, Louise Glück, William Blake, and Anne Brontë. John Donne’s great sonnet beginning-

‘I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite;
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, O both parts must die’ –

is used as ‘The Confession’. W. H. Auden’s ‘Nocturne’ becomes a prayer for friends:

‘Make this night loveable,
Moon, and with eye single
Looking down from up there,
Bless me, One especial
And friends everywhere.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley is surprised to find himself in the liturgy. The last verse of his remarkable sounding ‘The Cloud’ becomes ‘A prayer in hope of Resurrection’:

‘I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb,
Like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.’

And there are three appearances of Shakespeare. Lear’s speech inspired by his shivering Fool on the heath becomes ‘A prayer for the homeless and the dispossessed’:

‘Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.’ (King Lear 3.3.28-36)

Cardinal Wolsey’s lines introduce the sharing of the Peace, ‘A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience’ (All is True or Henry VIII 3.2.380-1). The great Sonnet 30 beginning, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past’ becomes ‘a prayer for those who mourn.’

The Guild Chapel will be full, and its wonderful acoustic will make the poetry and the hymns (by Charles Wesley, William Blake, Timothy Dudley Smith, and George Herbert) truly resonate.

It will also be my first celebration of the Holy Communion as a priest. It is my hope that people will leave the Guild Chapel feeling newly glad to be alive.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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