Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the reflective season of Lent for Christians. We always change parts of our house decor for the various seasons, and Lent is no exception. This year we hung a print of a watercolor of a poem by George MacDonald from his book Diary of an Old Soul. MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish preacher, poet, and writer of fantasy. You may have read his stories The Light Princess or, one my childhood favorites, At the Back of the North Wind. MacDonald’s writing (he penned 52 books) was hugely influential on the work of both C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They loved his evocation of the North and all the myth that surrounded it.
Diary of an Old Soul is a collection of 366 sonnets – one for each day of the year – that MacDonald wrote toward the end of his life. I first learned about them through a sad story about Paul Rogness. Paul was a son of Alvin and Nora Rogness. Al was the president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1960’s. Paul had been studying in England. After he had returned to the USA, but before he had returned home, he was killed in an accident. The family found these MacDonald sonnets handwritten in his pockets and later traced them to the MacDonald book. Al arranged for the book’s publication by Augsburg Publishing in 1975, with a foreword about Paul. The poems have old language and sometimes stilted meter, but each one gives you good time and thought for reflection. They are excellent reading for this or any season.
The artist and St. Olaf College art professor Arnold Flaten (1900-1976) was given a copy of this newly published book in 1975. Flaten knew he had cancer and started sketching from themes in the poems and then did watercolors. They are lovely ways to engage MacDonald’s poem. (You can learn more about Arnold Flaten at http://www.arnoldflaten.com.)
I have copies of five of the Flaten watercolors. Here’s the one we put up this year. It’s the poem for January 14 in MacDonald’s book.
MacDonald’s complete title for the book was A Book of Strife in the form of a Diary of An Old Soul. Although the edition I reference is not in print, there are many editions available. I picked this cover because of the picture of MacDonald. It looks like he is flying At the Back of the North Wind!