‘Rublev’ – A poem for Trinity Sunday
By Rowan Williams
taken from After Silent Centuries,
published by The Perpetua Press, Oxford, in 1994
One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.
I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.
These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I shall make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth
For ever, I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth
To the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.
Notes on the Poem
From Carol Rumens in The Guardian
A poet’s day-job can result in labelling that nibbles into an identity, and priests are among those who may feel the pinch of a compound title rather sharply. In a comment quoted on the book’s back-jacket, Williams explained his opposition to the title “religious poet,” and said that he preferred “to be a poet for whom religious things mattered intensely.” In a recent interview with David Hare in the Guardian, the Archbishop warmed to a similar theme. Asked if he was happy to inherit the tradition of Welsh poet-priests such as George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and RS Thomas, he retorted that Thomas is “a poet, dammit. And a very good one. The implication is that somehow a poet-priest can get away with things a real poet can’t, or a real priest can’t.” Perhaps I should start by saying, for the benefit of any new reader, that Williams’s poems address a wide range of subjects besides the spiritual, and that I chose “Rublev” for poetic, not religious, reasons.
Andrei Rublev (1370-1430) also embraced two vocations: he was a devout monk as well as a superb icon-painter. The poem responds to one of his most famous works, a beautiful representation of the three persons of the Trinity as angels seated around a table bearing a single cup. For all its gentle solemnity, this icon has the intimacy of a Russian kitchen. A custom that began somewhat later than Rublev’s time, when Krushchev raised the price of vodka to three roubles, brought improvised and not-very-holy male trinities together on street corners and playgrounds, to split a half-litre of vodka between three. I can’t help thinking of that, too. The harshness of the Russian climate, not to speak of Russian politics, has always underpinned the emphasis on private hospitality and informal co-operatives.
The poem is spoken by Rublev. The monk had taken a vow of silence, and, knowing that, we can treat the poem as a metaphor of inner experience. But it is convincing as straightforward narrative. It plunges us into a world where sacred things are ordinary, with the arresting announcement, “One day God walked in … ” The offhand tone, the sense of God as a fallible fellow-mortal, owes something to RS Thomas. It’s a perfect voice for Rublev, whose relationship with God must be conveyed as utterly down-to-earth.
So God appears, but there is no radiance; only a literal, wind-bitten, travel-drained, very human-looking deity, dropping in unexpectedly. He asks for colour, as a real traveller might ask for food and drink. It’s a strange god who needs to be brought to greater life by one of his creatures (could he be pretending, just so as to get Rublev up to speed?).
Rublev regards his visitor not merely without piety, but with a certain impudence: “These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh.” In this line, “God” doesn’t even get a capital letter. In parenthesis, the title seems almost sarcastic, a mumbled aside, a grumbled curse. Rublev then waxes eloquent. He agrees, with a vengeance, to give God colour. Williams’s choice of colours is faithful to Rublev’s own. In the icon, they enhance the mood of tender melancholy. In the poem, they are especially chosen to remind God of bloodshed, pain and decay – the flaws in His creation.
The three-line verse-structure connects us to the concept of the Trinity. It is solidly held together by rhyme – not the terza rima we might expect, but a patterning equally substantial. Using para-rhyme, Williams links the first two lines of each tercet: “steppe/ stopped”, “people/ purple” and so on. All the final lines rhyme consonantally: mouth, death, birth, forth, earth. And there are internal rhymes (“I trust I shall make you blush”) reminiscent of the Welsh form, cynghanedd.
It’s not only the rhyme-words that have pith and texture. Throughout the poem, concrete nouns are placed like depth-charges: blood, wood, beechmast, bread, sand. There are strong transitive verbs, too, like colour, breathe (used transitively in that astonishing command, “Breathe your blood into my mouth”), root, stain, bake. The artist’s character and something of his technique emerge in the physicality of his diction. As the poem progresses, he speaks with increasing fire and authority. God stays silent.
The poem, like the icon, sets out to know God, fix Him in time, make Him flesh and blood and earth. But, while the icon depicts the Trinity, the poem depicts a pair: God and Rublev, Creator and procreator, face to face across the table. In George Herbert’s poem, “Love”, God is the host, the poet the humble guest, reluctant to eat, overcome with shame, but in this poem, bold Rublev is the host. He has made God blush, he will feed him only the frugal “bread of beechmast“. And he will never let Him go.
I wouldn’t call “Rublev” a religious poem, and it certainly doesn’t preach religion. If it preaches anything, it’s artistic courage. But, perhaps coincidentally, the poem illustrates something that Williams has said he wishes for Christianity – that it might “again capture the imagination of our culture”. “Rublev” helps us imagine how shocking such a transformation could prove to be.