Shortly after James Fenton’s “God, A Poem” appeared in the TLS, P. J. Kavanagh asked in the Spectator what had happened in the three centuries since Henry Vaughan to make his kind of poetry “almost impossible” and Fenton’s wry poem “a reasonable summing up of a contemporary mood”. Kavanagh concluded that as well as losing Vaughan’s faith in God we had also lost the faith in ourselves that was meant to replace it: “You’re a serious mistake in a nightie / You’re a grave disappointment all round”.Peter Porter called this poem “a fine blasphemy”. But Fenton himself has pointed out that “the mockery of religious usage . . . as ancient a practice as the most ancient civilizations we know, was not considered blasphemous. It was a sign of being on good terms with one’s religion”. In that case, perhaps what Kavanagh sees as a piece of stoical gallows-humour could also be read as a tongue-in-cheek tiff in which God and man merely squabble over who is the bigger disappointment. (from TLS)
God, A Poem
A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You’d thought would be firm as a rock,
A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you’ll get from th’Almighty,
Is all that you’ll get underground.
Oh he said: “If you lay off the crumpet
I’ll see you alright in the end.
Just hang on until the last trumpet.
Have faith in me, chum – I’m your friend”.
But if you remind him, he’ll tell you:
“I’m sorry I must have been pissed –
Though your name rings a sort of a bell. You
Should have guessed that I do not exist.
“I didn’t exist at Creation,
I didn’t exist at the Flood,
And I won’t be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud –
“Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I’m a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.
“You’re a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You’re a drawing-pin caught in my sock.
You’re the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I’d have thought would be firm as a rock,
“You’re a serious mistake in a nightie,
You’re a grave disappointment all round –
That’s all that you are”, says th’Almighty,
“And that’s all that you’ll be underground”.
JAMES FENTON (1983)