Burnham Norton, St Margaret's Church - Kevin Crossley-Holland

Swarm and Honeycomb

Kevin Crossley-Holland

Section ii is concerned with the Celtic-Saxon saints (such as Cuthbert and Cedd) of our east and north-east coast; section iii, takes its lead from the prayer ‘God be in my head’ – and it has been used in some local churches; section v refers specifically to St. Margaret’s and some of its features, such as the moving outline for a mural of the Virgin and the rather ham-fisted carvings of acanthus leaves, but not in detail to the outstandingly beautiful wine-glass pulpit; section vi remembers the way in which, during my childhood, wild bees swarmed in the tower. It quotes three passionate lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Seafarer’, and tries to show how the church has been a ‘cave of energy, and making, and sweetness’ in which the achievements of earlier generations empower the living.

This poem is the copyright of Kevin Crossley-Holland and is reproduced by permission of the Enitharmon Press.


in memoriam Margaret Douglas-Home 1906-1996

I Mediterranean Saints

England's a-buzz with saints!


A cloud of purposeful women and men

hiding in sedilia and flaking rood screens,

cut from grey oak and sundry limestones,

impasted on rancid beef-fat and lime.


Abo the perfumer and Agatha with breasts

the shape of bells; Barlaam the shepherd

(also that Barlaam who never existed);

Cecily who withstood steam and heat. . .


These are our Mediterranean saints,

galleoning above us: a troublesome ferment

who led devout lives and often met bizarre

or excruciating deaths. But how few

we know, and how little we care for them.


Xystus the pope with a sword in his gut, .

Yves the attorney and the housemaid Zita . . .


A flying alphabet! Hermit and cenobite,

anchoress and tertiary, but also the almost

unsuspecting - as if you, or I, were obliged

by circumstance to speak out and die.

II Saints of the Foreshore

Who hum among bee orchids, wink and

wilt again with each wilting sea campion.


Who heard the German Ocean rasp, and suffered

draughts, damp cold and like punishments.


They grew into ground, stay-at-home pilgrims

drawing near with faith in the company of seals


and avocets; partners in stubborn understandings

with thrift and anguished hawthorn-trees.


Rinsing ascetics at the head of foundations

and kindly teachers of knock-kneed novices;


contemplatives islanded in their own cells,

distillers of sweetness, harvesters of God.


Celtic mothers and Saxon fathers: their piety

most enviable because uncomplicated,


though hard-won. But who said anything

should be easy? Not the crusted stanchions


on the foreshore, nailing together earth, sea, sky.

III Jesus of Norton

Infant of the bubbling spring

well in my heart.

Child of the sighing marsh

breathe in my head.


Son of the keen light

quicken my eyes.


Rebel of the restless creeks

tumble in my ears.


Disciple of the rising tide

dance in my heart.


Teacher of the gruff salt-wind

educate my tongue.

IV Half-Saints

Near as a heartbeat yet foggy and far

one bell swings in the high tower.

One heart beats and a modest crowd of folk,

some of them strong and all of them weak,

make a bee-line for church.


of small change for good causes; doctors

of the heart; dependable helpers

who befriend the lonely; stitchers and quilters;

two Samaritans, not quite anonymous; makers

of church marmalades; aid-workers on leave,

leathery and haunted;

                                 few of them known

outside their own communities, none heroes

or victims, but singular women, singular men

who expect the arduous and mundane

and avoid plaudits.

                                 Lives of the spirit!

Bees circle them as they sleep.

V Crossing-Place

This is the house of the unspectacular

and invisible;

                                 the threshold of some dream

or of something we once knew.


     Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God.


This salt-bleached tower!

Who conceived it and who ordained it?

Who hired the master-builder and was he paid

on time? Who blessed the quoins?

Who moved the stone?


     Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God.


Pulpits, rood screen, Virgin in outline,

acanthus leaves:

                                 one gift for love

of God, another in memoriam;

this one a matter of appearances;

that, down payment on a passport to heaven.


     Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God.


To step inside time

by answering the pulsing bell

our grandparents heard

                                 and seeing stars

of sunlight at play on an ancient wall

is one way back, and forward;

to sense worn hands and lives

in fabric visionary or homespun

is to cross the threshold

                                 scalloped by love.


     Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God.

VI Honeycomb

A swarm of wild bees swirled around this tower.

They fizzed through the openings and nested

in the belfry. They made honey here.


Time-grey high-riser, bedded on the last ridge

before land yields: hive-home of purpose,

cave of energy, and making, and sweetness.


Here my heart leaps, my mind roams with the waves,

returns again to me, eager, unsatisfied;

a lone bird screams and urges me onward. . .


To line ourselves with lead is wrongdoing.

Guilt has its own place, but no less

all we have done and can do:


bright knots, women, men, releasing

and entwining generations: the gift

of the honeycomb fulfilling each of us.

VII Bee-Music

A naked woman and a naked man

laughing and playing catch-as-catch-can

on downy leaves beneath spring trees

surrounded by a whirl of white bees. . .


No! It has never been the same

since Eden. Guilt instead of game;

tearing thorns within each crown;

a ring of thunder; and the bees are brown.


Bur here at the hive, listen! Remember

as the bees half-remember.

They forfeited the words to the rising moon

but still hum the first, innocent tune.


Ring the bees! Tang the swarm!

Bring the storm in out of the storm

to rest on each lip and hand and head

and dress the spirits of quick and dead.


Bees without, saint-souls within:

light this your church and fly us home.


For more information about Kevin’s work visit www.kevincrossley-holland.com

St Margaret's Church, Burnham Norton - NHER 1770 

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