Cathedral Builders by John O. Thomas: Summary

Cathedral Builders explores the lives of the men who built the Cathedral, their families and their fellow workers and the story behind the church.
Summary of Cathedral Builders by John Ormond Thomas

Summary and Detail Analysis of  Cathedral Builders by John Ormond Thomas

Cathedral Builder’s Summary

The single-line poem Cathedral Builders was broken into 26 lines in order to understand the meaning of the entire poem.  The poet observes a group of builders building a cathedral step by step. The latter part of the poem reveals the social segregation: though they build the cathedral, they belong to the working class, and they are not given the front seats at the church. Their hatred towards the class division is visible by they ‘envied the fat bishop his warm boots.’ However, they are proud to be a part of a collective effort to build one of the most magnificent, ornate buildings on the earth.

It is, of course, the builders who have the last word in this poem: at the end of one single sentence, which has conveyed work, life, love, illness, children, marriage, happiness, unhappiness – the whole story of collective life – it is the builders who have the right to stand back and stake their claim to the completed building, in the superbly bathetic, idiomatic phrase, ‘I bloody did that.’

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Title: Cathedrals are some of the most magnificent, ornate buildings on earth, designed to inspire awe and religious devotion. Yet the poem is not about these grand structures or the church elites who occupy them. Rather, it is a celebration of the ordinary lives of the uncelebrated workers who actually build cathedrals.

Form: Poem is a single sentence, void of standard rhyme or meter. The one-sentence form itself suggests the grandeur of construction and the void of standard parameters suggests that it is about ordinary people who build cathedrals.  

Theme: a celebration of the unsung lives of anywhere and everywhere, human perseverance and achievement, social exclusion, and subtle criticism of the building of monumental cathedrals.

Narration: Third-person narration, maybe the observation of the poet himself.

The entire poem analyses all aspects of the builders' public and private life.  The poet describes the builders as superhumans who do their building process in the daytime. The poet brings biblical reference to the Tower of Babble of the Old Testament.  The last few lines conclude the poem by describing the ordinary life of the superhuman builders of the Cathedral. 

Cathedral Builders spend the night with their family, with their wife and with alcohol.  Their diversions are just their smelly wife and the alcohol.   They lead miserable life.  They fight with their wives and their children.  They lead dull life.  Every day is a struggle for them.  The poet points out that the builders of God’s cathedral should have peace in their life, but they lead painful life.

Detail Analysis of The Poem Cathedral Builders

“They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God,
with winch and pulley hoisted hewn rock into heaven,
inhabited the sky with hammers,
defied gravity,
deified stone,”

The first stanza describes the builders at work.  The workers climbed up on the ladders.  They climbed the ladders towards the top of the cathedral.  They carry heavy stones, and the tireless work of the builders is described as “hewn rock into heaven”  “H” sound brings out their efforts to complete the job to make the cathedral divine.

In “Defied gravity” the builders use scientific technology to make the stone into deified stone which questions the presence of God. But the builders do their tireless services in completing the spiritual work of Deifying stone to worship HIM.

“took up God's house to meet him,
and came down to their suppers
and small beer,
every night slept, lay with their smelly wives,
quarrelled and cuffed the children,
lied, spat, sang, were happy, or unhappy,”

They work in God’s house and make the cathedral holy and divine for worship but they come down to take their dinner with a small beer and sleep with their smelly wives, the poet describes the natural lifestyle of the ordinary builders.  Their hard work and their leisure time both contradict. 

They do holy work as building the cathedral but they lead a very normal life with poverty and struggles.   They get into family feuds, punish their children for their naughtiness, spat and sing happily or when they are in pain.

The poet with simple language brings out their poverty-stricken life.  there is no change in their lifestyles as they work in the holy cathedral and construct to make it a divine place for worship. 

“and every day took to the ladders again,
impeded the rights of way of another summer's swallows,
grew greyer, shakier,
became less inclined to fix a neighbour's roof on a fine evening,
saw naves sprout arches, clerestories soar,
cursed the loud fancy glaziers for their luck,”

This part of the poem shows the everyday work of the builders. They take the ladders again to do the work.  They become old and weak and they could not continue their work and let others do their life’s work.  The poet says even the builders become less inclined to fix their neighbour’s roof. 

With the builders' hard work, they made the made cathedral raising up to the sky taking a divine shape, but now they are too weak to continue the work.  They curse the glass workers as they don’t have to work as hard as the builders who carry the ladders up and down every day to build the cathedral.  The poet brings out the natural and real feelings of the desperate builders.

“somehow escaped the plague,
got rheumatism,
decided it was time to give it up,
to leave the spire to others,
stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the consecration,
envied the fat bishop in his warm boots,
cocked a squint eye aloft,
and said, 'I bloody did that.”

The sufferings of the builders are described in this part.  Since they climb up and down the ladders to do their work they get joint pains and rheumatism.  After completing the work they are supposed to leave the place to the elite ones as they don’t need any more there.  

On the day of the consecration of the cathedral, the builders who are now old stand among the crowd just as others.  Their works are not appreciated and acknowledged.  They are now old and hungry and they envy the fat bishops and their warm boots. 

The poet brings the social discrimination against the rich and the working class. They are not given importance even though they have given their sweat and pain to build.  But they can say proudly “I bloody did that”.  Their anger is expressed with pride.   They are proud to say that they build the holy place.  Their works might not be valued historically but he stands tall in front of the cathedral with pride.  Human creativity makes the stone a holy place.

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Literary Devices in the Poem

The poem is one long sentence and has been divided into several parts for deep analysis.

The poem is about the cathedral builders who find their life very hard and sweat a lot to earn for their family.  Their struggles for decent survival are unimaginable.

The poet uses satire to bring out their hardships in the poem

“They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God”

They build only the cathedral to make it a holy place for all.  But they are far from religion as they don’t have time to think about god.  For they struggle every minute for their survival.

Visual images bring their hard work to the readers even though they are not appreciated and acknowledged. “Climbed on sketchy ladders towards God,” 

and came down to their suppers

and small beer,     very simple day-to-day action.

every night slept, lay with their smelly wives,

quarrelled and cuffed the children,

lied, spat, sang, was happy, or unhappy,”  natural lifestyle of the Builders.  No fabrication.

Readers could feel the lifestyle of the builders.  It also symbolizes their hard life.

A simple Alliteration gives a powerful effect on the builders who are not recognized by any. “Hoisted hewn rock into heaven”

Allusion “somehow escaped the plague” indirectly tells the killing of a massive number of people during the medieval period.

The metaphor “took up God's house to meet him,   god’s house key. The builders work at great heights and it has been described as if they are touching the sky the house of God.

“Warm Boots” refers to the comforts of the rich who will occupy the cathedrals to worship ignoring the hard work of the builders.

“Deified stone” an ordinary stone turns into a divine one as it becomes part of the holy cathedral.

Final Takeaways of The Poem

The poem explores the lives of the men who built the Cathedral, their families and their fellow workers. There is a human story behind every grand monument which is often ignored. The poet talks about the ageing of the cathedral builders – from young men to old who are no longer able to engage with their work.

The title; Cathedral Builders gives us the hint to go into the poem with a clear focus.  The title gives the theme of the poem and the difference between the rich class and the working class.   The poem is not about the cathedrals and their beautiful structures.  But the poem says about the hard life of the builders and how they are ignored by society.

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