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Word from Wormingford

23 November 2010

Ronald Blythe prepares for frost — and recalls his first-ever poet

HEAVY FROST, they say. Ancient sheets and curtains are thrown over pelargoniums and succulents that haven’t been brought inside. The following night ditto — only that when I look out the next morning, there is no frost, and I am con­fronted by various horticultural versions of Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

The air is soft and rainy, and countless birds fill the far distances. I hang the damp sheets in the hot pump-room, and find pots for the outsiders. Late, late, is what I am. Always. “You’ll be late for your funeral,” they said. Reading is the problem, they said. The things they said.

One February night, his baby son sound asleep, the fire nearly out, and in an “extreme silentness”, the youth­ful Coleridge wrote: “The Frost per­forms its secret ministry, Unhelped by any wind.” Arriving at St Edmunds­bury Cathedral, I discover it doing exactly the same thing, tidying up the gardens, stinging my skin, send­ing the everlasting plume of smoke from the sugar-beet factory sky high.

In Coleridge’s poem it is “the night thatch” that “Smokes in the sun-thaw”. I witnessed this as a boy. And St Edmund would certainly have seen it at Bury, which was then a thatched farm. I now tell the Cath­ed­ral Guild about my “first poet”, a long-dead though for me a still-living influence, James Turner, whose houses, strewn from Suffolk to Cornwall — they were enthu­siastic movers — were littered with the works of Thomas Traherne and George Herbert.

It was where I first encountered them. And where I first met with tuberculosis. Not that it was ever mentioned. It was just present, and with it its strange gift of vivid creativity to accompany the fine pallor. When he died, I was given his Traherne. Old black-and-white photos show it lying about in summer deckchairs and winter rooms.

Last week, the Traherne Society generously made me a patron. We do not know whether this wonderful prose-poet had consumption, but he left the scenes that so enchanted him, as did Herbert, in his thirties. Coleridge grew old and cranky, and was never able to regrasp the vision. Few can. It is why we take drugs — some of us. R. S. Thomas wisely watched birds in his eighties. Multi­tudinous birds perpetually winging between him and Holy Island. Timeless man­oeuvres, screeching liturgies, endless patterns, abstract intentions, though better for the soul than afternoon television.

I have just finished a new book. It is an odd feeling. It is packed up and posted. “What value is it?” asks the post-office lady. A judgemental voice has ordered me to counter number 21. Bumpy Christmas parcels are being weighed in the balances. The High Street sways with corporation light. Back at the ranch, I put away my second copy, my “papers”, just in time to prevent the white cat from nesting in them. The desk — the coast — is clear.

The wet garden says: “What about me?” All in good time. I am not a perfect gardener from Bury St Edmunds. In fact, I may not lift a finger until Advent. I may put on another log and read. Heavy frosts, warns the Scottish voice, but in Scot­land. There is nothing for it. The last plants must come in — must serve their sentence in the big larder window until 1 May. Else — disaster.

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