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Word from Wormingford

04 January 2011

Ronald Blythe sees the landscape emerge from under the snow

THAW, a Middle English word, which has to be said with all thy tongue. Hamlet, confronted with his icy nature, said: “O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” Lower Bottoms and the ancient track have done this, overnight. A Christmas-cake countryside has collapsed into slosh. Christmas-tree oaks provide shower-baths. Above freezing-point temperature brings a heatwave. Wet rabbits splash from tussock to tussock. The eves drip. Sky meets earth without a line. Thaw.

As I have brilliantly left the attic trapdoor open, so that the central heating could rise around the water tank, there are no bursts, no thaw aloft. There is a dull milky light that is scarcely worthy of the name, and the day grows featureless by the hour. To think that I couldn’t get to the midnight mass because of black ice!

As children, we watched our snow­man thaw. It was terrible — his running away, his stone eyes falling out, his face dissolving into death. Thaw was his killer.

The winter wheat reappears in meticulous green rows, and I go to look for the first pricking of snow­drops. And I read the opening of St John’s Gospel to myself for having missed it in church. It really is amazing. The Authorised Version lifts it from William Tyndale’s 1534 version without so much as a flicker of acknowledgement, as it does much else. Unacknowledged “borrowings”, as they were called at the time, were acceptable. Except Tyndale calls the Word “It”, and the King James men “He”.

And now it is the Epiphany. And now the Creative Word is person­ified by Jesus, and the Hellenistic Logos lives on in Christianity. If Reginald Heber was writing his Epiphany hymn in India, was he wishfully thinking of an English thaw when he said: “Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining”? Cold on my head is the melting universe; soaking into my socks is a liquid land.

The guests gone, the new book sent to the publisher, the leftovers tucked into the freezer, the house put to rights — Christmas is a kind of paper-bombing — and the log-hole by the side of the bread oven re­plenished, I take to pleasant chores, and these in a great silence. You can hear a cat purr.

I hanker to garden, but this would be mad. How quiet Duncan’s hill is without the tobogganing. It streams with thaw tears, and is in mourning for children. The river juts with tenacious ice. Here and there it clinks like a drink. It is black and fathomless under the iron bridge, at least 1000 feet deep, and so cold that your hand would fall off if you touched it.

The bridge is late Victorian. It succeeded a wooden bridge, which succeeded a fearful splash across a January ford. That is, if you wanted to get from Essex to Suffolk during a thaw. Best to stay at home and talk.

Nature-wise, Epiphany comes with minimal light. It/He has to blaze in one’s heart, in one’s imagina­tion, in one’s conviction. The superb prologue of St John’s Gospel has found words to describe the Word, words that defy analysis, at least for me. Words that say, “Eternity begins here.” Words that fail to melt and give way to “ex­plana­tion” or reduction, being the best some genius could do, con­fronted by the Word. Now read on.

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