Young Heron
David B. Hart Gripes About Grammar Etc.

Caryll Houselander: The Flowering Tree

Sunday Night Journal — July 31, 2011

I picked up this little book at a used-book sale a few weeks ago and immediately began reading it, partly because it’s so short. I’ve had a copy of The Reed of God sitting around the house unread for years, and have encountered intriguing samples of Houselander’s work here and there, but this is the first extended exposure I’ve had to her. It looks like a book of poetry, but Houselander doesn’t claim that description for it; rather, she calls these free-verse meditations “rhythms.” That was nicely diffident of her, because they aren’t especially good when considered as poetry. But as vivid devotional and theological pieces they are very good.

These Rhythms are not intended to be poems in a new form but simply thoughts, falling naturally into the beat of the Rhythm which is all around us.... The theme which recurs in them is the flowering of Christ in man.

Her use of the word “flowering” in that sentence would seem to be deliberate: it is her consistently used analogy for the Christ-life within us all. Neither is “man” an accident; she did not say “Christian,” because it seems to be a central aspect of her view of the world that Christ is present in all of us, not only in those who profess him.

The book was published not long after the end of the Second World War, and many of the pieces refer to the war, and so it is often the crucified Christ that she sees. And the tree that flowers is of course the Cross. “In an Occupied Country” is about the anguish of a woman standing in the ruins of her home, “Frans” about a refugee boy. The final piece, “Holy Saturday 1944”, describes the preparation for Easter Mass in a time of war, and the hope which includes and transcends hope for peace in this world.

Perhaps it’s only because the room in which I’m writing this has suddenly grown dark from the approach of a thunderstorm, and I’d rather watch it than write, but I’m feeling rather impatient with the role of book reviewer here. I think I’ll just reproduce what is at the moment my favorite of these meditations; better that you should read one of them for yourself than my attempt to describe them.


The Young Man

There is a young man
who lives in a world of progress.
He used to worship a God
Who was kind to him.
The God had a long, white beard.
He lived in the clouds.
But, all the same,
He was close to the solemn child
who had secretly shut him up in a picture book.

But now
the man is enlightened.
Now he has been to school
and has learnt to kick a ball
and to be abject
in the face of public opinion.
He knows, too
that men are hardly removed from monkeys.
You see, he lives in the light
of the twentieth century.

He works twelve hours a day
and is able to rent a room
in a lodging house
that is not a home.

At night he hangs
a wretched coat
upon a peg on the door
and stares
at the awful jug and basin
and goes to bed.
And the poor coat,
worn to the man’s shape—
round-shouldered and abject—
watches him, asleep,
dreaming of all
the essential,
holy things
that he cannot hope to obtain
for two pounds ten a week.

Very soon
he will put off his body,
like the poor, dejected coat
that he hates.
And his body will be
worn to the shape
of twelve hours’ work a day
for two pounds ten a week.

If he had only known that the God in the picture book
is not an old man in the clouds,
but the seed of life in his soul;
the man would have lived,
and his life would have flowered
with the flower of limitless joy.

But he does not know,
and in him
the Holy Ghost
is a poor little bird
in a cage,
who never sings
and never opens his wings,
yet never, never
desires to be gone away.


That last image is worthy of any poet, though Houselander's line in general lacks the mysterious tension of free verse at its best. Her writing seems to have been only one part of her work; she was also a wood carver and, perhaps most importantly, a mystic with a gift of spiritual healing. The Wikipedia article seems to be a pretty good introduction, and there is more material in the external links provided there. I notice that the library which houses my office has her autobiography; I plan to read it next.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

What is the name of the autobiography?


A Rocking-Horse Catholic: because she was baptized when she was six or so, thus not a cradle Catholic.

I've always liked the little bits of Houselander that I've read over the past 30 years. I must read a whole book!

Yeah, that's what I had been doing. This very short book is a good way to get past that.

Same here. I looked last night and I have 5 of her books, but I've only read bits. What happens when I read her books is what happens when I read something by Josef Pieper. I read a bit and then come across something that I really want to think about, so I put the book down and then never pick it up again because I know I will need time to read it and I only have bits and snatches of time.


I like this poem so much I am going to get the book from abe books

This is to me the best of the book on literary merits, at least on the basis of one not-always-very attentive reading. It's a nice book for the bedside table.

I have just returned from the 4th floor of the library where I found The Letters of Caryll Houselander and many other interesting things including about 20 years of Christmas Ideals


I think I saw the letters on the shelf here, too. Also Maisie Ward's biography. I envy the Ideals find. What are they doing there?!?

Who knows. We do have about 90,000 books, so a little bit of everything.

You can find good stuff in almost any library.

Unfortunately, the pile of books beside my bed is four feet high!

Well, it is a sort of strange find for a theological library. But, you know, those pastors have to make their parishes look nifty for Christmas.


I taught in 2 Anglican teaching training colleges over six years, and I've been in other out of the way places, eg a Catholic college in a former Black Baptist funeral parlour. But I could always, always, find something excellent which had somehow ended up in their library. If you don't look through the catalogue, but just hang out with the books themselves, you will find something.

That's what happens. I go up there looking for one book and the only thing that keeps me coming down with 10 is that I have to carry them down 3 flights of steps.


Libraries have a tendency to draw treasures to themselves. Then, one day, a librarian will spot it and sell it for pennies.

Whenever I can I check an old book which no one has read for so long it has no bar code. So they have no excuse to sell it. Books are lucky to be sold these days. Many are incinerated. When they built the new library at Aberdeen (just opening around now, I think), many books were sold and destroyed because. I can't quite write this. It has less shelf space than the old, ie, 1960s, library.

Our homeschool group used to meet in an old Catholic school that was not being used. The library was full of wonderful out-of-print Catholic children's books. When the Christian Brothers took over the school, they threw them all away.


I have gotten a few jewels discarded from the library of this Catholic college. There are many more still on the shelves (e.g. those Houselander books) that are never checked out. I don't know if I'll have a chance to rescue them--I fear not.

"less shelf space"...A moment of silence is called for, I think.

When I checked out Witness it had been 48 years since it had been checked out.


Of course when I got to abebooks I didn't get just the one. I bought two or three bks under the name Caryll Houselander. First to arrive yesterday afternoon was one about the Rosary. I started reading it eagerly. It was ghastly syrupy stuff with factual errors. I did a double take on the title. The text is by someone named Vail. The poems are by Houselander. The poems are OK. The rest is dire.

You had me alarmed for a minute there! From the brief bio stuff I read online, she doesn't sound like a syrupy person.

A couple of books actually written by Caryll Houselander arrived last night. They are very good.

That's a relief.:-)

I've had Rocking Horse Catholic on hold for a week or so--been very busy at work, and also have gotten into that annoying situation of having too many books going at once. I may start it next week.

I'm loving it.


I'm reading The Reed of God and enjoying it.

I'm going to try to get my Book Club to discuss RoG. I hate the book we are reading this month.


That's the one that's been sitting around my house for years. I suppose I could pick it up and open it...

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)