"The Heart Could Never Speak"

‘The Heart could never Speak’

The heart could never speak
But that the Word was spoken
We hear the heart break
Here with hearts unbroken.
Time teach us the art
That breaks and heals the heart.

Heart you would be dumb
But that your word was said
In time, and the echoes come
Thronging from the dead.
Time teach us the art that resurrects the heart.

Tongue, you can only say
Syllables, joy and pain,
Till time, having its way,
Makes the word live again.
Time merciful lord,
Grant us to learn your word.

Edwin Muir

"The Heart Could Never Speak: Existentialism and Faith in a Poem of Edwin Muir" is George Pattison's (Lady Margaret Hall Professor of Divinity at Oxford's) imaginative and moving commentary on this, one of Muir's posthumously published poems.

It is a poem that reminds us that we speak because we have been spoken to. Language is a communal gift that comes from love. There is a beautiful passage where Pattison uses Helen Keller's example, emerging from her deaf/blind world, to illustrate this. Her breakthrough discovery one day that the 'w-a-t-e-r' traced on her hand was the substance that tumbled, cold, over them. Interestingly though Keller is immediately recognisable, who is Anne Mansfield Sullivan? She was Helen's teacher whose creativity and suffering patience was as essential to birthing Helen as her own struggle. The communal nature of our coming to be is always present in Muir: 'WE hear the heart break... Grant US to learn your word'.

It moves from our common failure to hear the breaking heart, the sorrow that permeates our condition, as we speak through and over it, to the possibility that we might learn, in time, the art of listening that comes through recognising our own brokenness, out of which we might learn real speech, that grants to ourselves and others, words through which we might live.

The poem, as Pattison shows, works both on a 'purely' human level and on one where the sacred references are taken seriously. Where 'the Word' that makes speech possible, is the Logos on whose patterning the world was created as God's gifting'. Where the time mercifully granted that we might learn the word that is healing speech is not the simple flow of time that takes everything away, running down to death, collapsing into ruins, but the moment where time intersects eternity granting meaning to both.

The whole poem can be seen as prayer - a prayer to mend our speech and time in the mindfulness of the giftedness of both - and like prayer aims at granting a 'moment' of the stillness and silence out of which our lives can listen to a response and gift a response in return.

It reminds me that Muir was a profoundly political poet - not in terms of a commitment to particular allegiances - Auden's youthful communism or T.S. Eliot's High Tory Anglicanism - but at a more radically basic level - what do we need to imagine and be so that we can joyfully live with one another?

There can be nothing more basic than we listen to each other's broken speech and respond with a healing word by which together we can live.


Popular posts from this blog

Are not all mystics dangerous?

Three visions of living in freedom.

My friendship with Martin Buber