01 November 2008

A Poem for All Saints' and All Souls' Days

The Wikipedia entry on Scottish poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) says that he ‘described his own religious beliefs as “Zen Calvinism”, a comment typical of his half-humorous, half-serious approach to life’. An obituary by Angus Calder in The Independent (London) says that he ‘had no religious convictions, though his poetry is infused with the seriousness of the Presbyterian tradition’.

Calvinists/Presbyterians believe in the Communion of Saints. One of MacCaig’s poems, Country postman, evokes for me the Communion of Saints, especially in the context of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. I don’t know if the poet had the Communion of Saints in mind when he was writing.

Norman MacCaig divided his time mainly between his native Edinburgh and Assynt, a remote area in the north-west of Scotland. (Photo below taken in that area).

In Britain and Ireland, and I’m sure in many other countries, the country postman has often been the only person trusted by persons living on their own. He has been an unofficial social worker and a person known to be utterly reliable. Someone like the postman in the poem who walks fifteen miles – about 24 kms – every day to deliver letters is a great symbol of commitment and of faithfulness, the kind of anonymous saint the Church honours today.

But on All Souls’ Day we remember those who have been faithful and have been saved but need the purification of purgatory before entering the presence of God, perhaps like the postman in the poem.

Ogle Burn (Glen Ogle), mentioned in the poem, is prone to landslides.

Country postman

Before he was drowned,
his drunk body bumping down the shallows
of the Ogle Burn, he had walked
fifteen miles every day
bringing celebrations and disaster
and what lies between them
to MacLarens and MacGregors
and MacKenzies.

Now he has no news to bring
of celebrations and disasters,
although, after one short journey,
he has reached
all the clans of the world.

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