The Orkney poet, novelist and short story writer George Mackay Brown was one of Scotland's finest writers of that kind of poetry that carries the sound and smell of its geographical context. Apart from his education years he lived a lifetime on Orkney, and learned from its silence, stillness and what others have called the bleak beauty of the islands.
There is a long running discussion, mostly inconclusive, about the terminology to be used of poetry written by "religious poetS", by which I mean a poet writing out of an overt, self-conscious faith commitment, but not always writing about religious themes. Devotional poetry, or religious verse can refer to poetry whose content is religious and which explores spiritual experience, and on occasion, are intended to evoke religious feelings and spiritual responses. But such literary influence and exposition of theology and spirituality do not exhaust poetry which, with more often with no overt religious intent, can equally explore, suggest and point to themes of transcendence and human longing for the divine.
George Mackay Brown converted to Catholicism in 1961 and was a practising communicant of the Catholic church until his death. Much of Brown's poetry is enlivened with the glimmers and shadows of Christian theological themes and convictions, and even when there is no overt reference, the poetry unfolds in rhythms and resonances of what earliest critics discerned as grace. One of the finest examples of Brown's poetry, "The Harrowing of Hell" presupposes in the reader a high level of biblical literacy and spiritual sensitivity to those longings and fears, hopes and anxieties which both sanctify and terrify the human heart aware of morality, mortality and judgement, yet still hopeful of mercy.
The Harrowing of Hell
by George Mackay Brown
He went down the first step.
His lantern shone like the morning star.
Down and round he went
Clothed in his five wounds.
Solomon whose coat was like daffodils
Came out of the shadows.
He kissed Wisdom there, on the second step.
The boy whose mouth had been filled with harp-songs,
The shepherd king
Gave, on the third step, his purest cry.
At the root of the Tree of Man, an urn
With dust of apple-blossom.
Joseph, harvest-dreamer, counsellor of pharaohs
Stood on the fourth step.
He blessed the lingering Bread of Life.
He who had wrestled with an angel,
The third of the chosen,
Hailed the King of Angels on the fifth step.
Abel with his flutes and fleeces
Who bore the first wound
Came to the sixth step with his pastorals.
On the seventh step down
The tall primal dust
Turned with a cry from digging and delving.
Tomorrow the Son of Man will walk in a garden
Through drifts of apple-blossom.
Those last two lines read with the optimism and delicacy of Traherne with his extravagant depictions of nature overflowing with the life-enhancing glory of the Creator. The Old Testament saints are drawn to the wounded Redeemer, and on the seventh step, the primal dust, that from which the Creator formed humanity cries out in hope and joy at a renewed creation, as the seond Adam walks in the garden, and the apple blossom, great contours of white and pink drifts of it, promise a new crop of apples which will come to fruition in the purposes of the Son of Man. This is a playully serious theological meditation on creation, fall and redemption, framed within the medieval fascination with Christ descending to the place of departed spirits, and plundering the kingdom of darkness and lifelessness as the bringer of light and life.
The photo is my personal possession, passed to me by a close friend of GMB, taken some time in the 1960's she thought.