Well, our month of looking at George MacDonald is now finished, and to conclude it here is an essay I have written on MacDonald’s work. We have been focusing here through August on MacDonald’s poetry, but his work was far broader than that, so this essay considers not only his poetry but also his many works of fantasy and criticism. I hope it can give you all an interesting entry point into the richness of his work as a writer.
Like many Victorian poets, George MacDonald often wrote poems which were far longer than they needed to be and far more flowery than readers today are comfortable with. But when he succeeded with a poem, he really succeeded, at his best when his form allowed for a simplicity and crispness of language and imagery that could be particularly powerful. An example of this is the delightful poem, “Better Things”, a series of poetic proverbs which emphasises simplicity, faith and humility above all else. I’ve used this as the basis for my own exploration of two verses from the book of Proverbs. I hope you enjoy both my poem and MacDonald’s.Sowing (After “Better Things”) Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:5-6) Guard your hearts for kisses spoil; Hidden love won’t die. Keep your dreams safe from the storm And save yourself in pride. Shield yourself from honest friends And know the lies of foes; Second-guess your blessings and Multiply your woes. Trust the lips of enemies But fear the truth that sees; Hide yourself and be unknown And stifle all your pleas. Or love and hazard everything; Know, be fully known. Give all in this harvest hope And reap as you have sown.
One of the most powerful and touching works that George MacDonald wrote, although also one of his least known, is his sequence of poems entitled, a little awkwardly, “A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul”. The book includes a poem for each day of the year, each one seven lines, varying delicately in rhyming scheme, sometimes varying in quality, but always confronting the challenges of life-long faith and the realities of doubt and despair, while always finding hope and comfort. It is well worth the read. Here is my first George MacDonald-inspired poem, a group of four seven-line stanzas inspired by MacDonald’s January poems.The Fledgling (After George MacDonald’s “Diary of an Old Soul”) I. Doubt keeps me static, safe inside my nest. The swaying branches threaten from without, Yet wings are still too downy; it is best To stay inside and settle in my doubt. But faith has winds too, blowing as I wait; A voice too beckons me to venture out, For waiting I am weighty, without flight. II. The wind has echoes in these silences; I look for arms to guide me as I fly, Yet nothing holds me but this thorniness, While other flocks fly, apathetic, by. If I should spread my wings, would this thin breeze Have strength enough to hold me, floating high? I fear the heights of mountains, depths of seas. III. The air is still; the yearning spirit sighs. My doubting feathers wait for time to come. But in the silence, there is one who says, “Don’t wait. In flight, learn who you have become.” Because you are my life, my feathers rise; Because your love is good, I soar to sun; I can, I must fly hopeful in your skies. IV. Look on me now and see, men on the land, Look on my wings, my flight; look on and learn: See how I fly, how I am fed by hands Which made and formed my feathers and each turn, Each gust of wind which holds me in his plans. Take doubt, you winds, and turn it into flight; Take flight, faint heart, and soar by faith, not sight.
Well, it’s time sadly to say goodbye to Christina Rossetti, but also time to say hello to a new poet. This month we will be looking at another great Victorian writer, the Scottish novelist, preacher and poet George MacDonald. MacDonald is more famous perhaps for his fantasy novels for children, but he was, like most Victorian writers, extraordinarily prolific, producing reams of sermons, devotions, realist novels, essays and, less famously, poems. So this month we will go on a journey of discovery through his poetry. Who knows what we will find. I hope you can all join me along the way.