The Shell

What fun it was as a child to lift the sea shell up and cup your ear. It never failed to surprise and delight. The sound of the sea surging, the roll of the rocks, the wrestling of the waves, their ebb and flow, oh the delight, which fed the imagination. Turning once again to my High School, Albatross Book of Verse, 1960 edition I found a poem by the Irish novelist and poet James Stephens. A contemporary with James Joyce, and Joyce is reported to have said that if he died before finishing his work of Finnegan’s Wake the only person who would be capable of completing it would be Stephens! Stephens is sometimes known only for his novel, The Crock of Gold.

Today, lift up Stephen’s poem as if itself was a shell, and put it to your ear and give your imagination plenty of space to both hear and read his words. Once again return to those childhood runs along the beach to find the right shaped shell to place to your ear. No earbuds needed, no technology wanted! What do you hear? Where did you go? Now gently return to the busy street!

AND then I pressed the shell
Close to my ear
And listened well,
And straightway like a bell
Came low and clear
The slow, sad murmur of the distant seas,
Whipped by an icy breeze
Upon a shore
Wind-swept and desolate.
It was a sunless strand that never bore
The footprint of a man,
Nor felt the weight
Since time began
Of any human quality or stir
Save what the dreary winds and waves incur.
And in the hush of waters was the sound
Of pebbles rolling round,
For ever rolling with a hollow sound.
And bubbling sea-weeds as the waters go
Swish to and fro
Their long, cold tentacles of slimy grey.
There was no day,
Nor ever came a night
Setting the stars alight
To wonder at the moon:
Was twilight only and the frightened croon,
Smitten to whimpers, of the dreary wind
And waves that journeyed blind-
And then I loosed my ear … O, it was sweet
To hear a cart go jolting down the street.

I rejoice in the gift of hearing.
That first cry of the new born child,
that teething cry for that first tooth,
and the painful cry of first scratched knee.
All these sounds I have come to love.
The sound of the morning bird song
welcoming the dawn with hope and promise.
The evening echo of the owl, heard but seldom seen,
declaring that all is well with the world.
The never ending evening chorus of frogs.
And soon the 17 year sound of the cicadas
will surprise and delight us.
All these sounds I have come to love.
The sounds of Broadway, Nashville, Memphis,
The sounds of Jazz in Kansas City or New Orleans,
The sounds of Kentucky bluegrass punctuated by
the horn of the freight train day and night.
All these sounds I have come to love.
Lord God for these sounds and more
keep my ears tuned and my heart open,
and with imagination allow me to hear
the sound of hope and holiness in places
where, and at times when, I least expect it.
Blessed are those who hear…

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