“Like the first morning”: For Love of Eleanor Farjeon
I didn’t know it until very late, but two of my all-time favorite songs boast lyrics by the British poet, essayist, and maker of (ostensibly) children’s stories, Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1964).
The first I’ve known since childhood, courtesy of Cat Stevens’ (aka Yusuf Islam) glorious recording “Morning Has Broken,” the lyrics of which had previously been adapted for the Anglican hymnal, though Farjeon’s original title was “A Morning Song (for the First Day of Spring).” The words, so simple and unencumbered by pretense, capture with immediacy the splendor that shines through the created world:
Morning has broken, Like the first morning, Blackbird has spoken Like the first bird; Praise for the singing, Praise for the morning, Praise for them springing Fresh from the Word.
Sweet the rain’s new fall, Sunlit from heaven, Like the first dewfall On the first grass; Praise for the sweetness, Of the wet garden, Sprung in completeness Where His feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight, Mine is the morning, Born of the one light Eden saw play; Praise with elation, Praise every morning, God’s re-creation Of the new day.
The other piece enshrining her lyrics is one that’s haunted me since my days as a Waldorf teacher, the subtly sublime Christmas hymn “People, Look East!” that likewise attends to nature’s simultaneous participation in and revelation of the Glory of the Lord.
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to track down Farjeon’s poetry. I was hoping for hardcopy first editions (or second), but have only been able to come up with scanned reprints or pdfs. Alas.
Nevertheless, her poetry excites me. Unfortunately, Farjeon is more or less excluded from scholarly consideration. My recent excavation of the scholarship on Farjeon, in fact, came up nearly completely empty, a fate I suspect that has more to do with her gender than her genius: you don’t see Tolkien or Lewis dismissed like that. And Farjeon’s Christian imagination is in every way equal to theirs, if not superior.
Indeed, I would go so far as to describe Farjeon’s vision as sophiological and because of this I included “A Morning Song” and her poem “The World’s Amazing Beauty” in my anthology of Sophiology, The Heavenly Country, the latter poem originally found in her 1918 collection, Sonnets and Poems. “The World’s Amazing Beauty,” I think, is nearly a precis for sophiological insight:
The world’s amazing beauty would make us cry
Aloud; but something in it strikes us dumb.
Beech-forests drenched in sunny floods
Where shaking rays and shadows hum,
The unrepeated aspects of the sky,
Clouds in their lightest and their wildest moods,
Bare shapes of hills, June grass in flower,
The sea in every hour,
Slopes that one January morning flow
Unbrokenly with snow,
Peaks piercing heaven with motions sharp and harsh,
Slow-moving flats, grey reed and silver marsh,
A flock of swans in flight
Or solitary heron flapping home,
Orchards of pear and cherry turning white,
Low apple-trees with rosy-budded boughs,
Streams where young willows drink and cows,
Earth’s rich ploughed loam
Thinking darkly forward to her sheaves,
Water in Autumn spotted with yellow leaves,
Light running overland,
Gulls standing still above their images
On strips of shining sand
While evening in a haze of green
The calm receding tides—
What in the beauty we have seen in these
Keeps us still silent? something we have not seen?
As often happens in souls attuned to Sophia, there is what one could call a pagan streak in Farjeon, which is perhaps most obvious in the title of her first collection (and its first poem), Pan-Worship (1908). As she writes there,
O virgin Greece, standing with naked feet
In the morning dews of the world against the light
Of an infant dawn! old Greece, ever-young Greece,
The pagan in my blood, the instinct in me
That yearns back, back to nature-worship, cries
Aloud to thee!
Farjeon knew that to be a good Christian, one need not destroy the groves sacred to Apollo or Pan. Such zeal, for her, had no place in the religion of Christ:
I cannot unite with those who serve destruction so idolatrously. Too often their zeal confuses the false worshipper therein, and seeks to reduce both to common ruin. Theirs is the intolerant Christian spirit that shattered the world’s wonder at Ephesus in the fourth century of Christ—Christ’s self already forgotten…. Old legends where beauty walks in mystic light are true legends still, and ancient altars where faith once lit its starry flame are holy places still, for they have been breathed on by eternal types.1
Not everything was glory for Farjeon, however, though, at least in her poetry, even those aspects of life characterized by regret or suffering are capable of revealing splendor. In her sonnet, “Farewell, you children that I might have borne,” for example, Farjeon, who never married or had children, meditates on such a condition (though it’s difficult to say whether she speaks of herself):
Farewell, you children that I might have borne.
Now must I put you from me year by year,
Now year by year the root of life be torn
Out of this womb to which you were so dear,
Now year by year the milky springs be dried
Within the sealed-up fountains of my breast,
Now year by year be to my arms denied
The burden they would break with and be blessed.2
It is as a sophianic poet that Farjeon’s power—and delightful strangeness—lies. We can see this in the following poem (with its echoes of Henry Vaughan’s “Cock-Crowing”) and its clear sophiological understanding of the world:
Love of the light compels the lark to singleness
And brims his tiny body with a spark;
The nightingale draws music from a spring
Out of the bosom of the belovèd dark;
But on man’s twofold nature God has breathed
The double soul of beauty like a spell,
And dark in light or light in darkness sheathed
His spirit still must sing the miracle.3
And so may we always sing.
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including courses on Sophiology and Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot.
1 Eleanor Farjeon, Trees (London, 1914), 14–15.
2 In Sonnets and Poems.
3 From Dream-Songs for the Belovèd (London, 1911).