Pentecost, 597

Today’s poem recognises the work of Augustine of Canterbury and the monks sent by Pope Gregory in the 6th century to convert England. Augustine (not to be confused with his more famous African namesake) is perhaps most famous for converting King Ethelbert of Kent, a king significant both for having a marvellous name and also for later becoming a saint himself. Since the conversion took place on Pentecost, and today is the eve of Pentecost Sunday, I felt this was a fitting subject for a poem.

Pentecost, 597 (For Augustine of Canterbury)
And after certain days coming into the island, [Ethelbert] chose a place to meet them under the open sky, possessed with an old persuasion, that all spells, if they should use any to deceive him, so it were not within doors, would be unassailable. They on the other side called to his presence, advancing for their standard a silver cross, and the painted image of our Saviour, came slowly forward, singing their solemn litanies…
(John Milton, The History of England)
With silver standard came Augustine’s
Monks to Britain’s singing shores,
Silver voices singing songs
Of Christ the Sovereign, Saving King.
Meeting them there on the beach,
Ethelbert the King of Kent
Heard them preach the Word because
Their brave, long voyage had impressed him;
And though he did not then believe
He gave them leave to share with him
And with his people that which they
Believed to be the best to share;
So under open sky they shared
With Ethelbert, his heart prepared
To stand against the spells they’d cast,
And hearing them, he thought it fair,
But still too strange, too new to take yet
To his heart. Their spell, it seemed,
Had that day failed. Yet he prevailed
On them to stay and live in peace.
And so they dwelt in Canterbury,
The stronghold of the Kentish king,
And there set up their sacred See,
Their silver songs still ringing there,
Although the king could not yet hear,
His holds too strong; but when it came
To Pentecost, the story goes, that
He believed, the sovereign king,
Upon his sinful, shaking knees.
Undone. What silver words did they
Speak, these monks of silver tongue?
None that carried their own power.
A solemn painting sternly shows
A dove above the monks preaching,
Their hands didactically raised and there
Behind them Pentecost’s red clouds.
No spell but this could fell the king:
The fire that in Peter burned,
Burning through the stronghold and
Blazing saving-silver bright.

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