Analysis of The Cathedral Builders by John Ormond

John Ormond was born in Dunvant in 1923. The son of the village shoemaker, Ormond did not come from an affluent background, but the nature of his father’s trade gave him a lifelong appreciation of the value of skilled labour and artistic craftsmanship. These egalitarian convictions were further informed by his religious upbringing. Ormond wrote ‘Cathedral Builders’ having taken a break from writing poetry for some years. In 1963, he visited the region of Arezzo in Italy to produce a film. The sight of builders singing and working on scaffolding high above him one day inspired him to write 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 aging of the cathedral builders – from young men to old who are no longer able to engage with their work.


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 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, a subtle criticism on the building of monumental cathedrals.

Narration: Third person narration, may be the observation of the poet himself.


Deep-end Analysis

Although the poem is a one long sentence, it is divided into several parts for the purpose of analysis.


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,


satire: they climbed on sketchy ladders towards God (though they build a cathedral to honor God, they are far away from spiritual devotion)

visual imagery: sketchy ladders

kinesthetic imagery: with winch and pulley hoisted hewn rock into heaven.

consonance: hoisted hewn rock into heaven/ inhabited the sky with hammers (‘h’ sound reveals the breathlessness of builders at work)

word pun: defied/deified

metaphor: deified stone (exalt an ordinary rock to the position of something divine/ rock=cathedral)


These lines graphically show the miraculous endeavor shown by the builders. They build a tall cathedral and work high above the ground. They pull heavy stones into the sky resisting the gravity. The poet reveals that the builders are the one who do impossible to give divine power to a monument. They, climbing on ‘sketchy ladders’ may be a visual imagery to show the height of the building from the poet’s perspective who stands on the ground. Poet seems to be glorifying the hard work of the builders in order to build the cathedral.   


took up God's house to meet him,

and came down to their suppers

and small beer,


metaphor: god’s house (sky)

allusion: small beer (an old name for a weak alcoholic drink commonly brewed and drunk in medieval times)

There is a contrast in the actions of workers: they elevate themselves to God’s house and they decline themselves after the work. (took up/came down) Cathedral builders drinking alcohol might be too ironic. However, the poem is about the builders and their ordinary day to day life. This seems to be a real account of their way of celebrating small moments amid of their long, hard and monotonous work.


every night slept, lay with their smelly wives,

quarrelled and cuffed the children,

lied, spat, sang, were happy, or unhappy,

and every day took to the ladders again,


These lines show the home lives of the workers. Their lives are fabricated around the building of the cathedral and their regular pattern of living. The poet uses down to earth language to describe their unsophisticated living style.


impeded the rights of way of another summer's swallows,

grew greyer, shakier,

became less inclined to fix a neighbour's roof of a fine evening,

saw naves sprout arches, clerestories soar,


ironic: impeded the rights of way of…swallows (building the cathedral disrupts the nature)

metaphor: grew greyer, shakier (getting old)


This section of the poem shows the development of the building and workers getting old - implying the passing of time. It obviously takes a lifetime of a worker to finish a cathedral. With the cause of time they become weak and less productive as workers. With their sweat and blood, they see the cathedral is raising into the sky taking shape.


cursed the loud fancy glaziers for their luck,

somehow escaped the plague,

got rheumatism,

decided it was time to give it up,

to leave the spire to others,


allusion: escaped the plague (epidemic plagues out broke killing a huge number of people at Medieval times)


They curse the glass workers (though it is against holy Christian norms) as they do an easier work relatively the hard work done by the builders. Since they climb up and down the ladders, they get joint pains like rheumatism. When the work is done, they have to leave the place to elite ones as it does not belong to them. The poet seems to be critical about this treatment. 


stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the


envied the fat bishop his warm boots,

cocked a squint eye aloft,

and said, 'I bloody did that.'


metonymy: vestments (represents the elite people)

metaphor: warm boots (physical comfort)


The latter part of the poem reveals the social segregation: though they build the cathedral, they belong to the working class, 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 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.’

What are your ideas about the poem? Please leave a comment to add or omit ideas to and in the post. Share the post among your students and colleagues. Now you can receive posts to your mail box by subscribing to the blog. 


Sources: Cathedral Builders- A help sheet for teachers by Dr. Kieron Smith / Resource book provided by NIE


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