Sunday 30 January 2022

'The heaven-reflecting, usual moon...'

 I recently posted Charles Causley's ekphrastic poem on Arshile Gorky's haunting painting of The Artist and His Mother.  Here, from the same collection (A Field of Vision), is an evocative sonnet inspired by one of Samuel Palmer's greatest Shoreham paintings, Coming from Evening Church (which hangs in Tate Britain, as we must now call it). He captures perfectly the dream-like, and heaven-like, atmosphere of the scene...

The heaven-reflecting, usual moon
Scarred by thin branches, flows between
The simple sky, its light half-gone,
The evening hills of risen green.
Safely below the mountain crest
A little clench of sheep holds fast.
The lean spire hovers like a mast
Over its hulk of leaves and moss
And those who, locked within a dream,
Make between church and cot their way
Beside the secret-springing stream
That turns towards an unknown sea;
And there is neither night nor day,
Sorrow nor pain, eternally.

This particular painting of Palmer's also inspired another poem, by the Lahore-born English poet Moniza Alvi, who sees it in terms of the figures on a stained-glass window miraculously brought to life... 

Coming from Evening Church
after Samuel Palmer, 1830

Suppose we did walk straight out of a stained-glass window,
through the churchyard and up the slope,
an endless gilded procession,
framed by the overarching trees.

Roof, hilltop, spire, a series of echoes.
Leaves printed on the moon
like patterns on a lamp.

We'd be purposeful,
held in the flaring lap of the earth.

Bearded like prophets, tall as saints,
we'd descend to the homesteads,
the ivy as real as we could want it.

And with our children and flowers
we'd keep on walking
in exceptional brilliance,
in the glass certainty of the world.

The painting, like most of the products of Palmer's early genius, owes more to Blake (especially the Songs of Innocence and the woodcut illustrations to Thornton's Virgil) than to anything else. It is suffused with Palmer's sense that, in his Valley of Vision (the Darent valley in Kent), he had found a paradise on earth, a landscape of hills and dells illuminated by the soft, forgiving light of heaven. Though no poet, Palmer did write a good deal of verse in his notebooks and sketchbooks. This early poem, 'Twilight Time', reflects the 'sweet visionary gleam' of many of the Shoreham paintings...

And now the trembling light
Glimmers behind the little hills, and corn,
Ling'ring as loth to part: yet part thou must
And though than open day far pleasing more
(Ere yet the fields, and pearled cups of flowers
Twinkle in the parting light;)
Thee night shall hide, sweet visionary gleam
That softly lookest through the rising dew:
Till all like silver bright;
The Faithful Witness, pure, & white,
Shall look o'er yonder grassy hill,
At this village, safe, and still. 


  1. Nige: Here is another poem inspired (I suspect) by Palmer's painting:

    Returning from Church

    That country spire -- Samuel Palmer knew
    What world they entered, who,
    Kneeling in English village pew,
    Were near those angels whose golden effigies looked down
    From Gothic vault or hammer-beam.
    Grave sweet ancestral faces
    Beheld, Sunday by Sunday, a holy place
    Few find, who, pausing now
    In empty churches, cannot guess
    At those deep simple states of grace.

    Kathleen Raine, The Oracle in the Heart (1980). (Those last five lines bring Larkin to mind.)

    Palmer's "A Hilly Scene" (c. 1826) (which I'm sure you know) is reminiscent of "Coming from Evening Church": the hills, the spire, the moon (a crescent this time). All of those wonderful Palmer moons.

    Thank you for the lovely post.

  2. Thanks, Stephen – I'd never come across that one. A beautiful ending.
    Palmer wrote that churches 'are, to the Christian’s eye, the most charming points of an English landscape – gems of sentiment for which our woods and green slopes, and hedgerow elms, are the lovely and appropriate setting'. Not only to the Christian's eye...