Small Voice Calling > The Call > Image

“To dust you shall return.”

Canopus was an engine
That steamed down to Pentewan

In his song ‘Canopus’, Ralph McTell tells the tale of a narrow-gauge steam locomotive that hauled wagons of china clay from the quarries at St Austell to the ships in Pentewan harbour…

And then the bloody war came
And they took the train and tracks up

…until track, engine and wagons were requisitioned for the war effort and relocated to Flanders, where the cargo of clay was replaced by soldiers destined for the front line:

Their bodies raped by bullets
Laid underneath the top soil
And were folded by the plough
Returned to earth and mud
As it started so it finished
God made man in his image
Shaped him out of clay
And made him flesh and blood

In contrasting how Canopus was used in peace and war, Ralph uses three biblical images of man’s creation and destiny, one each from the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis:

God made man in his image, from Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 26 (Gen 1: 26): God said, “Let us make mankind in our image”.

Shaped him out of clay and made him flesh and blood, from Genesis Chapter 2 Verse 7 (Gen 2: 7): Yahweh God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.

Returned to earth and mud, from Genesis Chapter 3 Verse 19 (Gen 3: 19): By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.

But how can ‘bodies raped by bullets’ be said to bear God’s ‘image’?

How indeed? We need to look at what the Bible means when it says God ‘made man in his image’. 

It’s not about what God looks like, as in a photograph or a mirror image. It’s rather a question of what God is like – his character and attributes. There are hints to these in the opening verses of Genesis 1:

  • ‘God created the heavens and the earth’  (v 1). God is creative, and all he makes is ‘very good’ (v 31). Mankind shares God’s creativity, but does not always use it for good.
  • ‘The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ (v 2). God is spiritual, and has given mankind soul, not just flesh and blood. Souls need nourishment as much as bodies do.
  • ‘God said, Let there be light…’ (v 3). God is communicative, and has given mankind speech – and the free will to use it to speak well of others, or to badmouth them.
  • ‘God said, let us make man…’ (v 26). God is relational. There’s an ‘us-ness’ in God’s nature, that translates into mankind’s social communities – which can be inclusive and supportive of others; or exclusive and discriminatory.

It’s when we misuse our creative gifts, neglect our souls and badmouth our neighbours, that we become grotesque caricatures of God’s image and turn on each other in war.

Canopus saw both sides of man’s use of his God-given attributes. Use for the good of the local economy as it transported clay from the earth; and use to serve man’s destructive streak as it transported soldiers back to the very mud from which God had made them.

Of course, Canopus was just an engine. It had no control over the use to which it was put…

Hauling men or clay
Makes no difference to an engine
It’s what it was designed for
It’s all one and the same

From ‘Canopus’ by Ralph McTell
Full lyrics in ‘The Unknown Soldier’ CD booklet