The feature Hugh’s Journals appears here each Sunday. For some basic background on Rev. Hugh Bebb Jones and his notebooks click here.
Hugh’s notebooks have a number of poems in them… both good and bad. You will find pages with Byron and Keats, MacLeish and Eliot. But you will also find pages and pages of the kind of poetry that is much too often published in churchy publications: sincere and urgent rhymes written by sincere and urgent rhymers.
I like to think that Hugh knew the difference between the two kinds of poems he collected: the truly great and merely sincere. He must have because it is obvious in every other way that he was he was a careful and thoughtful reader.
Hugh was first and foremost a pastor. The poems he collected were not the poems a poet would collect, or an English professor, or even a simple language-lover. They were poems collected for specific purposes… a sermon, a home-bound visitation, study and meditation. That, of course, is true of all of the quotes that he collected: bible texts he took the time to type, prayers, book and article excerpts, and all the poems good and bad.
Today’s page from Hugh’s Notebook shows this literary tension quite well. On a single page we have lines excerpted from one of the most famous poems in the English language typed directly below a poem by an unknown poet with one of the worst extended metaphors one could imagine. What could these two poems – one great… one un-great… possibly have in common?
Both are, of course, lyrical nature-poems. “Tintern Abbey” (or more properly, “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798″) is famous precisely because it makes the case so eloquently for there being a place in poetry for the lyrical nature-poems. Indeed, Ms. Chaffee’s poem is the poor poetical kin of what Wordsworth… and the Romantics… worked so hard to bring into poetry and art. Only because Wordsworth had written “Tintern Abbey” could Ms. Chaffee years down the road write her poem about October.
From a poetical point of view, there are no other similarities between the two poems. Ms. Chaffee’s poem uses a loose rhyme scheme, Wordsworth’s is simple blank verse. Wordsworth is subtle where Ms. Chaffee is heavy handed, clumsy, obvious to a fault. Wordsworth requires thought and concentration… while Ms. Chaffee’s requires nothing at all.
But theologically, and that after all is the ultimate point of Hugh’s notebooks, the two poems are quite similar. Both point to the fact that we can see and experience and know something about God through nature. From this point of view, it is clear why the two two poems are put together on a single page.
According to Hugh’s notation system, the Chaffee poem with the bad pirate metaphor was used twice in a sermon… exactly 5 years apart. It is difficult to tell from the notation system whether he also included the lines from Wordsworth as well.
Read from a pulpit Wordsworth can be hard to digest. Not so much the Chaffee lines. They are simple and straightforward, extremely accessible. And for a preacher… that would have been the most important thing of all. The pastor thinks about poetry in a much different way than the poet. And that is how it should be.