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It is eleven years ago today that mum died. Those eleven years seem to have passed very quickly, yet that day itself is hazy in my memory. I’d spent a lot of time in the hospice with her when we thought she might die at any moment, but after a few days I needed to go back to my own family, and I was in school when the news came from my sister that she had finally breathed her last.

I had a bit of a moment at work today, not only because of mum, but thinking of dad in hospital and how I’ve allowed work to get in the way of getting over to see him. As it seems to be getting in the way of pretty much everything that isn’t work, and lots of things that are, for that matter, just now. Fortunately it was a training day so I wasn’t in front of a class and between a bit of staring into the middle distance and swallowing hard I don’t think anyone noticed. I get moments like that more often when there isn’t any particular anniversary though. Often it’s when Katie does or says something that makes me think how mum would have loved to see or hear her as she loved all her grandchildren, and of course her own children, and countless other peoples’ too, for that matter.

That scrap of paper above, with the papal rosary mum wore round her neck in the hospice, contains the jotted prayers I wrote when we had a little ‘service’ at a bunk-barn in Settle for mum’s 70th. One of the lines was: ‘we thank you that she has lived to see our children born and growing’ and I always feel a little sad that Katie is the only one of her grandchildren that she never did get to meet.

Maybe when we take Jack to university on Sunday, I will have another of those face tightening, lip biting moments as I remember mum hugging me goodbye as she and dad left me at Oxford. I couldn’t imagine then how much I’d miss her.

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At the weekend I heard the sad news that my favourite English teacher, ‘Delme’ Thomas died in August. I felt saddened because it is sad news in itself, and 72 has long since stopped seeming like a ‘ripe old age’, but also at my own failure in leaving it too late to get in touch with him again. I’d intended to several times over the years, but never quite got round to it. Not long before the summer holidays I googled him to see if I could find an email address, and found one, but waited until I had time to sit down properly and think what to write. Well, of course I didn’t carve out that time. It’s too late for him to see it now, but I have taken the time to think about the teacher of mine that I most owe my being an English teacher to, and the one I have most wanted to emulate. Sometimes (it doesn’t happen often), when a lesson has gone well and the students leave the room bubbling with enthusiasm, I think, “that’s how Delme would have done it”:

His spittle-flecked enthusiasm drew us in
To 1984 in ’84.
Round shoved-together tables, clustered lads,
Set free from deadening dictatorial rows,
We mapped the tension, characters and plot
With sugar paper, coloured pens galore.
The whirling-limbed and laughter filled approach
Of those thin lips, eye-beams, that signpost nose;
The floppy fringe flicked back Fred Trueman-like
As he threw back his head with a guffaw,
Then bent, nicotined-breathed, to chat with us
As though we mattered, since, to him, we did.
He led us then down the glass corridor
To watch Dench and McKellen in Macbeth
On huge en-cabinned screen, on video.
(He made the ‘d’ alone last half that word!)
In that melodious South Walian lilt
He spoke of cinema, scarce drawing breath,
Yet somehow no superfluous words were spilt.
We went to Harrogate theatre: Oscar Wilde’s
Coruscating wit seemed no more sharp
Than what we heard each day in Delme’s class,
Addressing politics, Pontypridd or Pope,
Cynddylan on a Tractor, Evelyn Waugh,
A Neath fly-half, or Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’.
That he was younger then than I am now
Seems quite absurd; he had such gravitas –
Yet leavened with a levity of touch.
I wish I’d written, got to see once more
My English teacher, whom I owe so much.

Donations in his memory can be made at: https://www.justgiving.com/GordonDelmeThomas/, and those who knew him can leave tributes at: http://gordondelmethomas.co.uk/

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“There’s no right and wrong in English” I often hear people say. Well, right. And wrong.

Certainly, with regard to analysing literature, I think you can be wrong, while at the same time doing things that are in one sense right, and certainly would be likely to gain marks in an exam. What I mean should become clear by following this exchange I recently became involved in on an English language teachers’ email list that I’m a member of.

The first message was this:

A pupil of mine suggested that the regular rhyme scheme in Dulce et Decorum est made the poem sound more upbeat and that this contrasted with the actual content of the poem. Another student developed this, suggesting that in the same way the truth of war had been sugar-coated or disguised by the government or leaders of war, the horrors detailed in the poem were similarly sugar-coated by rhyme. I thought this was a highly interpretative and valid response. A colleague of mine disagrees.

What do others think?

To which someone responded:

Well justified and original. Far better than parroting what is in revision guides. Why doesn’t your colleague agree? I wish some of my students could come up this level of response.

Which was then countered by:

Not sure how the rhyming makes it feel ‘upbeat’?

At which point I weighed in with my first response:

Maybe you should ask 10,000 Maniacs about that:

10000 Maniacs (Natalie Merchant) singing The Latin One on The Word

(For the record, I love most of the work of 10,000 Maniacs and Natalie Merchant but think this was NOT their finest hour).

I think this is one of those tricky ones to deal with in the classroom context. On the one hand you’re wanting to encourage creativity and exploration in response; on the other hand some responses are more valid than others, and you have to look at the wider context of the poem, and indeed of poetry in general.

Does it really look as though Owen is trying to ‘sugar coat’ the horrors of war? Plainly not, surely? Yes, the rhyme scheme is regular, but does a regular rhyme scheme automatically suggest ‘upbeat’? Well, Gray’s Elegy doesn’t exactly get me dancing a jig, for example, and in Dulce, the positioning of the rhymes relative to the metre and syntactical structures resists a neat ‘sing-songy’ rendering (as Natalie’s reggae style mangling of the poem seems to attest!).

So I’d be saying something along the lines of “Fantastic kids, well done! Brilliant thinking – exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for. Now, let’s see if you can work out why that brilliant thinking has led you up a blind alley, and you need to turn back and retrace your steps.

Another colleague reinforced that view by adding:

The problem here is that our students, by and large, hear with 21st-century ears accustomed (apart from song lyrics) to rhyme only in light verse, often comic (think Spike Milligan, Roald Dahl or Pam Ayres); most of the ‘serious’ poetry they’ve had to study will have been free verse or (with Shakespeare) blank verse.

I remember having to teach Byron’s When we two parted from the old Edexcel GCSE anthology, and finding it impossible to take seriously: for us, that tripping dactylic metre is always light-hearted. But I doubt very much that Byron and his original readers felt that, or he couldn’t have written a poem which one assumes is meant to be deeply moving.

So your pupils are to be commended for actually thinking about the poem – but I don’t believe that Owen would have agreed with their interpretation, given those famous words of his: “My subject is war and the pity of war” – the horrors are indeed horrors. Students need to train their responses by reading much more poetry from past centuries.

Getting back to the poem, and the original students’ idea, George contributed:

I often teach that the perfect rhyme in Dulce (unlike many of Owen’s half rhymes in other poems) has this effect. His form shows what he’s mocking – the outer appearance of things being ‘dulce et decorum’ when actually they’re not. So – yes – I think that’s valid

Which was further supported by this contribution:

Surely though it’s an interpretation and they’d get marks at least for coming up with something original? I remember sitting at a poetry live event and a student giving their interpretation of one of Gillian Clarke’s poems – she turned around and said she’d never thought of her poetry in that way but what an excellent analysis of it.

Does it necessarily matter if the poet didn’t intend to use it in this way as long as the student is justifying their response which is what we ask them to do all of the time? Otherwise do we not just end up with the same repetitive comments being made?

The chorus of approval was joined by this:

The students’ interpretation was valid in my view, which is beginning to make me question my ability as a teacher! His tone, after all, is ironic, when he begins “my friend” and it is irony that the young students had been discussing prior to talking about rhyme. Furthermore, it was the notion that rhyme was being used in an ironic way, that was their suggestion.

And after a couple of further objections to the original idea of the rhyme scheme of he poem making it ‘upbeat’, George acknowledged:

Yes – ‘upbeat’ maybe isn’t quite the right word – cynical or satirical rather

A this point I felt an urge to counter the ‘anything goes’ idea that so long as students are engaging with the poem all is well, so I pitched in with quite a lengthy contribution (I was procrastinating; there was coursework marking to be done):

I think you’re right that students would get marks for such an interpretation.

However if I felt that all I was doing in teaching poetry was teaching students to get marks I would have to pack it in.

I also think that the thinking behind the interpretation that started this discussion is the sort of the thing that should be encouraged, and that while it can be said to be ‘valid’ it is also ‘wrong’. Valid, because it draws a logical conclusion from the evidence available, and the premise from which the students started (that rhyming poetry is more ‘upbeat’ than non-rhyming). It’s just that the premise, as I suggested, and Sue rightly developed, is wrong (or at best, only sometimes right).

I also agree (and teach very strongly) that the meaning of poetry is in the reader’s encounter with it, not purely in the poet’s intention. Of course, once a poem leaves a poet’s hand it is open to interpretations that the poet may not have intended (and even that the poet may have fiercely resisted as feminist, Marxist and psychoanalytic readings often show). However I still firmly believe that a reading should fit the whole evidence of the poem, not just the bit you happen to have noticed, and that it must at least take into account any obvious intentions of the plain meaning of the poem. Gillian Clarke is right that an excellent analysis of her poetry may be one she’s never thought of, but she’s also very instructive on the issue of paying most attention to the plain sense of a poem. See here: http://www.sheerpoetry.co.uk/gcse/gillian-clarke/notes-on-gillian-clarke-poems/baby-sitting.

George’s interpretation goes further than the original students did in ascribing a satirical purpose to what was being read as a ‘sweet and fitting’ effect of the rhyme scheme, and though it has made me think about it harder (and a little differently) than I ever have before, I think it needs qualifying. The ‘decorum’ bit, I can run with: there is a sort of decorum in the regular rhyme scheme and underlying metre, but the natural stress patterns of English are frequently straining against the iambic pentameter. Try reading ”Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,” with a neat iambic rhythm, for instance. And if the rhymes (several of them feminine rhymes, further breaking any sense of ‘neatness’) are all full-rhymes rather than the half-rhyme frequently used elsewhere, then perhaps that serves only to heighten the horror or misery of so many of the words that are thus rhymed: sludge/trudge, blind/behind, blood/cud, and – formally unfitting, but tonally and semantically apt – ‘drowning’ rhymed with itself, as if the poem is indeed beginning to drown in its own form that cannot be fully sustained against the bitterness from which it rises. Thus, as we draw towards the end of the poem, we reach a stage where perhaps it can be said that the metre and rhyme does satirically echo a more ‘upbeat’ song-like tone with ‘zest’ paired with the ‘Dulce et decorum est’ in the mouths of ‘innocent tongues’: that zealous sound driven by air from ‘lungs’ that we know later in time (because of what we have just read in the poem) will be ‘froth corrupted’ by the ‘Gas’ of a new and horrifying form of mass warfare. Finally the ‘fittingness’ of the metre breaks down completely in the bathos of ‘glory’ being rhymed with ‘mori’ (‘to die’) in the only metrically incomplete line in the poem: the poem literally cut short (like the lives of the soldiers themselves) by death, after the bitter sputtering plosives of ‘pro patria’, severed by the line break from the ‘dulce et decorum est’ sweetness that Owen recognises -and insists we now recognise – as a lie.

A few people made some quite encouraging comments about what I’d written, and then this:

An excellent analysis of a vexed area Ant. I agree so much with your second paragraph!

I am continually at the moment so often being horrified by the attitude that students must accept the ‘right’ interpretation, that a discussion like this restores my faith in English teachers.

So many of our local schools came down last summer in their English results yet to my shock so few of them appear to have modified their approach to encourage independent thought in their students. Although I do not totally concur with the students’ views, they are so firmly rooted in the text that they deserve the credit for independent thought they are giving and not, as I saw last week, the comment of ‘This is NOT what I taught you’ when a student dared to offer a view which varied from the rigid formula being taught. A view which, incidentally, I had not taught but which I too found interesting and which led to an interesting and rewarding debate with the student.

So there you have it. Don’t just follow some party line from teachers or revision guides, but nor should you think you can just say what you like. (An interpretation properly informed by wide reading, attention to the whole text, and influenced by more experienced readers will certainly be better than one you just concoct off the top of your head.

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Rooting around, looking for an envelope to send coursework mark sheets to the exam board, I came across a couple of sheets of supplementary exam stationery from many years ago, in the days when teachers did the invigilation of exams.

It was a peculiarly tedious task, and on a couple of occasions I clearly wiled away the time writing sonnets (not being very vigilant, clearly.

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A while back, folded in the inside pocket of a jacket I rarely wear any more, I came across a couple of sheets of paper covered in my pencilled scrawl.

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Some considerable time before, I’d been looking at the film Whale Rider with my year 8 class at the time. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, the central character, a young girl named Paikea gives a speech in honour of her grandfather at a public speaking competition, beginning: “This speech is a token of my deep love and respect…”. I asked my students to write a similar speech, and got some wonderful pieces of oratory from many of them. As they were working I wrote my own speech, too. I thought it only fair that if I were asking them to pour their heart and soul into their writing, as Paikea had done in the film, that I should be prepared to do likewise.

Here, for mothers’ day, is the speech that I wrote some seven years or so ago.

This speech is a token of my deep love and respect for Jean Muriel Heald: my mother, and the mother of my six brothers and sisters.

It will be four years this September since she died, but she is every bit as real to me now as she was when I lay my head on her chest with her cancer-ravaged arms around me, her youngest child, and I sobbed my goodbyes to her for the last time.

My mum was proud of me, and loved me, from before I was even born, and I knew that pride and love throughout my life. So did my brothers and sisters; we knew it, and are privileged to share it still, along with the thousands of children that passed through the playgroup she ran, each one of them loved too (she ran that playgroup for love and never made much real money from it). Many of those children, now grown up, came to her funeral or sent tributes. A few of them were not fortunate enough to know much love at home, and so my mum became for them the model of love that she is for us, her own children.

My mum was proud of me for my vocation, for my becoming a teacher, and I look to her for inspiration, as she was my first teacher. If I can pass on even the tiniest fraction of what I learned from my mum, and that she in turn learned at the knee of my granny that I never knew except through mum’s words, and whose wedding ring I now wear, and my grandad who is a shady memory of a kindly man sitting me on his knee, giving me sweets from his bottom drawer; if I can pass on a fraction of that ancient river of love to some of my students, then my life will have been worth something.

It is not so easy to pass on love to adolescent children for whom that word is so easily turned into a joke rather than a precious treasure to be nurtured at all costs. But if I am going to be true to the legacy passed on from my mum, it is my duty to try, even when I fall short, even when I fail, even when the love and care and concern I want to show is rejected or mocked or ignored.

And I will hold to those moments that allow me to think that sometimes my mum’s dedication has, however imperfectly, flowed through me. As she treasured every card and gift from her own children and those in her care, I will treasure those far more rare tokens that come to me. The pen bought by the A-level group delivered by the student who came to the staff room to say, “Sir, you’re a better teacher than you think you are.” The card from the student who said, “Thank you for believing in me when no-one else would.” Even, the smiles in the corridor, and the “thank you sir”s by the classroom door. For each of these is a reflection of the love we are all capable of, and which I learned first from Jean Muriel Heald, who died on September 22nd 2002, and whose love – to me – can never die.

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Rising midnight,
twenty-six years ago,
snow swirled outside the window
of my college room.

Oxford was hidden.

Doncaster lies open
outside my window now,
swirling in snow.

I was writing,
speculatively, recklessly, hopefully,
that first letter to her
who all too briefly,
all too many weeks before,
I’d tried to woo
at the Brewhouse.

My written words worked,
Somehow.

(She sleeps beside me now.

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In the very small hours of Christmas Day I sent an email to my students. Copying it below gives me a chance to share a T S Eliot poem that had somehow slipped my mind, if it ever lodged there in the first place. I am familiar enough with the other Ariel poems, but this ‘addendum’ to the series, sent out, I understand, as a Christmas greeting from Faber’s, the publisher where Eliot worked at the time, seemed strikingly apposite.

I have assembled my daughter’s new bike and brought it inside; the presents have been put under and around the tree; I have bitten off the stalk end of a carrot; eaten a mince pie, taking care to leave plenty of crumbs; and written a letter from Father Christmas in a painstakingly shaky hand, sealed with red sealing wax.

I can now go to bed, not with the same excitement as my daughter did several hours ago, but with perhaps a stronger sense of waiting, because I know my waiting is for something far greater, far further off, and far less certain than the wait to open a few presents in the morning.

Many of you too will be thinking towards your future, and back to simpler childhood times, amidst one of the last festive seasons before you face a fully adult Christmas. My favourite poet, T S Eliot, knew about this, so you I offer you his poem on the subject as my Christmas greeting to you.

Merry Christmas, and all best wishes for a happy and successful 2013, and beyond.

Mr Heald

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

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On the English Language teachers’ email list last week someone asked:

Subject: Quick question on rhetoric

“Eyes the colour of warm whiskey”

What figurative language is being used here, if any?

and within a few minutes they got the response:

None as it’s a literal description. The intended connotations, however, given a particular literary context, might suggest some use of metonymy.

Hmm – quick question yes, with a quick answer, but I couldn’t accept it was that simple, and responded to that effect.

I think this is the kind of issue where the desire to pin a specific label (and I love labels and classifying and categorising more than most) can get in the way.

I imagine that what triggered the question is the fact that the expression somehow feels figurative, but “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” seems not be a simile (as it doesn’t us ‘like’ or ‘as’), and it doesn’t quite seem to be a metaphor, because the eyes aren’t being described as if they in some sense ‘are’ warm whiskey. Those are the two simple tests that I think most of us probably teach our students to use to recognise the difference.

However, I can’t accept that there is no figurative language here. It seems to me much more figurative, than, say, a straightforward simile such as “the moon is like a big ball” or even a metaphor like “the moon’s a balloon”. I would certainly want to say that “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is metaphorical (even if we might not want to say that it is a metaphor.)

I think I can see what is meant by suggesting that there might be a hint of metonymy, in that the eyes could be seen as a signifier of the whole person, but I think that could be true more-or-less regardless of what is actually said about the eyes (it is an established convention that we think that we can tell important things about a person from their eyes; that the eyes can be used as a kind of metonym of the person).

Here, I think that the description of the eyes is much more figurative than literal, and I think it’s important to see literal and figurative not as simple alternatives, but as ends of a spectrum, or perhaps (better) as overlaid fields of varying prominence or transparency. At the literal level, so long as we have an idea of the colour of whiskey, then it can ‘simply’ tell us the colour of the eyes. However, if the writer wanted to describe the colour of the eyes literally, then the approach to take to ensure that it was taken merely literally would be to use colour terminology (‘light brown’, perhaps, or if greater precision were required, a term that is conventionally used for colour – especially colour of the eyes – such as ‘hazel’ or ‘amber’ – though even these have at least the potential to convey connotations that go beyond the literal, particularly if they are being used in a literary context rather than the wikipedia entry on eye colour.

However, “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” goes beyond that. Whiskey is not conventionally used as an identifier of eye colour (although it is more common in US English). See this ngram for an interesting comparison of hazel, amber and whisky/whiskey in a position of syntactical dependency to ‘eyes’. Use the drop down menu to switch between overall English, British English, American English, and English fiction for some interesting comparisons.

So describing eyes as being the “colour of whiskey” positively invites a figurative interpretation that we are likely to apply to the owner of the eyes. It might suggest drunkenness, a sense of fun, a hard-bitten cynicism, a sultry sexiness, or a number of other qualities depending on context, and the audience’s experience of and attitude toward the drink.

But it goes further even than that. The eyes are described as “the colour of warm whiskey”. Now, as it is my day off today, I have been able to experiment with a bottle of pleasantly peated Ardmore single malt, and I can confirm that it is exactly the same colour (at least to the naked eye) at a range of temperatures between 6C – which is definitely cold and 45C – which is definitely warm — well, quite hot, actually.

So this cannot be simply a literal description. The adjective ‘warm’ modifies not the eye colour, nor even just the whiskey (even though that is the word it modifies syntactically) but the whole figurative (metaphorical? symbolic? semiotic? I think any and all of these apply) qualities of the eye colour. As a colour is being described, in part, in terms of something that it is not (ie. heat) then the expression is clearly, at least in part, metaphorical. The fact that it is ‘warm whiskey’ knocks out, for me, the possibility that it is meant to convey negative connotations of alcoholism, or cynicism. No: warm whiskey is comforting; warmed in the glass with the hand it is sociable, even sensuous. Warmed to a higher temperature yet, it is restorative, reviving, even curative (the hot-toddy).

The possessor of these eyes the colour of warm whiskey is someone I want to get to know, and who is open enough (after all, the eye contact is clear enough for me to see the colour so clearly) to want to get to know me, as the dusky aroma of the whiskey, swirled in the glass, envelops us. Not only that, but because the spelling is ‘colour’ rather than ‘color’, the encounter is taking place on this side of the Atlantic (in a convivial and rather old-fashioned pub, with pitted dark oak tables and an open fire), but as the spelling is ‘whiskey’ rather than ‘whisky’ then she must surely be Irish. I say ‘she’ of course, because I am a heterosexual male, so with no other contextual information to go on, it makes sense for her to be female. And Irish. And a whiskey drinker.

(Perhaps my ‘experiments’ are getting the better of me, but, whatever it is, “Eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is not mere literal description.

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Today has been my wife’s birthday.


I scrawled and scribbled but the words would not come;
Each scratched phrase failed to catch
My sense of you. Then a sigh,
A stirring of the bedclothes,
The imprint of your cwtch against my back,
The graze of a toenail, a half-eyed gaze
At your dim form fringed with sleep,
Reminded me of the words, the only words
We ever uttered that really mattered:
’I do’ and ’till death us do part.’

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Katie made this collage:
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And I wrote this:

O God of moving air we adore you
In the breath that fills our lungs, that gives us life,
In the mutter and murmur of words barely spoken,
In thrumming of larynx, in strumming of sitar,
In sounds of every harmony and timbre,
From whisper to whistle to fiddle and foghorn.
O atmospheric God, we detect you
In nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide,
Shifting in current and vortex and eddy,
In every loving phrase we utter,
In every flutter of leaf on tree,
In every billow of washing on line,
In every bellow. In every kind
Of flurry and hurry of breeze and blow,
In blast of tempest, in motion of mistral,
In distant rumble of lightning storm’s thunder,
In blunder of typhoon, in twist of tornado,
In whirlwind and cyclone, in chinook and zephyr.
O God of hurricane and vapour,
Of respiration and inspiration,
Speak to us in the turbulence,
And in the small, still, silent,
Sweet voice of calm.

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