“On the Death of Karl Barth” by Jack Clemo

 

December 10, 1968 was a day of loss for the church of Jesus Christ, as two of her intellectual giants, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, died within hours of each other.

On this eve of the forty-first anniversary of their deaths I offer this poem by the late British writer and poet Jack Clemo (1916-1994). Clemo, who was from Cornwall, became deaf as a young man and blind around the age of forty. His poem is entitled:

 “On the Death of Karl Barth”

He ascended from a lonely crag in winter,
His thunder fading in the Alpine dusk;
And a blizzard was back on the Church,
A convenient cloak, sprinkling harlot and husk—
Back again, after all his labour
To clear the passes, give us access
Once more to the old prophetic tongues,
Peak-heats in which man, time, progress
Are lost in reconciliation
With outcast and angered Deity.

He has not gone silenced in defeat;
The suffocating swirl of heresy
Confirms the law he taught us; we keep the glow,
Knowing the season, the rhythm, the consummation.
Truth predicts the eclipse of truth,
And in that eclipse it condemns man,
Whose self-love with its useful schools of thought,
Its pious camouflage of a God within,
Is always the cause of the shadow, the fall, the burial,
The smug rub of hands
Amid a reek of research.

The cyclic, well-meant smothering
Of the accursed footprints inside man’s frontier;
The militant revival,
Within time and as an unchanged creed,
Of the eternal form and substance of the Word:
This has marked Western history,
Its life’s chief need and counter need,
From the hour God’s feet shook Jordan.

We touched His crag of paradox
Through our tempestuous leader, now dead,
Who plowed from Safenwil to show us greatness
In a God lonely, exiled, homeless in our sphere,
Since his footfall breeds guilt, stirs dread
Of a love fire-tongued, cleaving our sin,
Retrieving the soul from racial evolution,
Giving it grace to mortify,
In deeps or shallow, all projections of the divine.

(From The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Edited by Donald Davie, 1988, p 290-291)

(Portrait of Jack Clemo by Betty Penver)
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