St. David’s Day 2021

Archbishop George Stack

Today the church celebrates St David’s Day, which is also kept as a national day in Wales. He probably flourished in the sixth century, or possibly earlier, and while many sites and foundations have associations with him, it is difficult to know much for certain about the incidents of his life.  His reputed last words, however, supposedly given in a sermon on the day before he died, have an authentic ring and have proved popular:

‘Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us’.

For the National Saint of Wales I have chosen a poem by the National poet of wales, Gillian Clarke. This beautiful poem, ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’, tells the true story of how she was giving a poetry reading in a mental hospital on St David’s Day. Both the ward and the gardens outside were full of daffodils, and suddenly a man who had been silent his whole time in hospital stood up and recited Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ poem from memory. Asked in an interview what she thought had made him recite the poem, Gillian Clarke replied:

“I think two things set the poem going in his mind. One was the daffodils in the room and in the grass outside. The other was that I was reading poetry. The rhythm of the poems, and the sight of daffodils reminded him that he had loved poetry once, and the moment set him free from dumbness”.

That sense of the rhythm and music of poetry unlocking and releasing something inside us seems an essential insight, and one of the reasons why it is good to fold poetry into our prayer life. What she says of this man, suddenly released into speech, might hold true for many of us:

Since the dumbness of misery fell

He has remembered there was a music

Of speech and that once he had something to say.

The early Celtic saints, among whom David is numbered, had a reputation for a kind of ‘nature mysticism’ for responding to the beauty of the world around them and sensing, sometimes, the presence of the divine flaming through it. It seems appropriate, therefore, that this poem with St David in its title should end on one of those moments of transfiguration:

We observe

The flowers’ silence. A thrush sings

And the daffodils are aflame.

Miracle on St David’s Day  Gillian Clarke

They flash upon that inward eye
which is the bliss of solitude.
The Daffodils, William Wordsworth

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big, mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites ‘The Daffodils’.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers’ silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are flame.

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