I have written these sonnets, partly as a purely personal act of meditation and devotion, but partly also in the hope that they may call the attention of others to the depths of truth in the passage which inspired them. It may be wondered why in this age of free (and occasionally easy) verse anyone should bother to compress his thought into the archaic strait-jacket of the conventional sonnet. Nevertheless, as metal must be run into a tight mould before it can become a bell, so the intellectual and aesthetic effort required to compress an explosive idea into the formal limits of a sonnet may cause the truth within the words to ring all the more clearly. Every one of Nayler’s phrases is packed with significance, and the attempt both to expand and extract this significance, and to compress it into the sonnet form has been a joyful and illuminating spiritual experience for me. I dare not hope that the sonnets can convey much of this experience to others. I can hope, however, that they may lead others to dig in the same mines of truth.
James Nayler was born near Wakefield, in Yorkshire, England about the year 1616. He fought in Cromwell’s army against the Scots, and afterwards became a powerful preacher and one of the early leaders of the Society of Friends. “I was struck with more terror by the preaching of James Nayler than I was at the battle of Dunbar,” wrote James Gough, another early Friend.
In 1656 he was led into certain excess of conduct by the hysterical enthusiasm of some of his followers, and allowed himself to be led into Bristol on a horse while his followers strewed garments in the way and shouted “Holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” For this blasphemy, as it was considered, he was cruelly punished by an illegal action of Parliament, being severely whipped, branded with the letter ‘B’ on his forehead, and having his tongue bored through with a red hot iron. After his punishment he was imprisoned in one of the horrible “holes” of the time, but he recovered his judgment, was eventually reconciled with Friends and came to condemn his previous behaviour. He was released from prison in September 1659.
In October 1660 he set off from London northwards on foot, intending to visit his wife and children in Wakefield. On the way he was robbed, and found bound in a field. He was taken to a Friend’s house, where he died.
The passage which forms the basis of these sonnets was spoken by him about two hours before his death. It is a classic expression of a spirit too close to the source of truth to have a name. It carries a message of peace to a world at war, a clear wind of pure truth amid the fogs of propaganda and deceit, an intimation of that love which is indeed God. There are times and places in history when we feel the wings of the spirit brushing very close to earth. The tragedy of James Nayler is such an occasion. Even while we cannot approve the pitiful and absurd behaviour of his followers, yet we can agree with them in this: that here we are close indeed to the spirit of Christ. It deserves to be read slowly, and deeply, so that its truth will bum through the plausible lies which form the principal furniture of our minds.