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Word from Wormingford

11 October 2013

Ronald Blythe reflects on the survival of a Welsh border poet

THIS week, the lectionary says, we remember Thomas Traherne. But who, once introduced to him, could forget him? They call him the master of the affirmative way. Lost for centuries, he famously turned up in one of those second-hand bookshops, having been through every kind of fate to make him non-existent, including burning.

But there it was; a Mr Brooke found him, charred, but still so starry that he was thought to be Henry Vaughan - "My soul, there is a country far beyond the stars." Vaughan and Traherne were Welsh-border people, near neighbours in time, who gloried in the holiness of children. Once a year or so, I travel through their territory to see my friend Edward Storey, who dwells - who is perched - on Offa's Dyke.

The view from my old house is one of exclusion by hills. I dwell in a leafy bowl, and in great quietness. Except when the badgers are about. Last October, Patrick Barkham sat up in a tree to watch them. Although he wore two jerseys, two windcheaters, and a woolly hat, he pretty near froze to death, but all in the science of badger-watching.

We spoke of the historic fear of the dark. Badgers come out just pre-darkness. I had told him: "Everything changes at night. The trees change. Even places you know backwards take on another life at night. They become mysterious. I don't find it fearful, but there is a history of people finding it fearful."

Years ago, I had forbidden the local hunt to draw my wood, chiefly so as not to frighten my badgers. The aspens I planted there now reach for the sky. And the badgers have made lanes in the grass to the brook; a grumpy progress at dusk. The brook feeds the Stour, and is glitteringly clear. The white cat, as well as the wild animals, drinks from it, her face tipping the water.

According to Patrick's book Badgerlands, I had told him that I was acquainted with the night. Which indeed I am.

I love the story of the cautious Nicodemus, in St John's Gospel, who took care to come to Christ by night. After all, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, not some local fisherman, and too important to be seen with this unofficial person. There is a rare portrait of him in the east window of St Michael's at Discoed, the man who took his reputation in his hands in spite of creeping through the dark streets. What did they talk about? It was the necessity of rebirth.

It was during this furtive conversation that Jesus said, alarmingly and wonderfully: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

After the death of Jesus, Nicodemus came out, as we say. He "brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundredweight", to wind into the shroud, when Joseph of Arimathea gave the poor body his own grave, and thus, in a series of Welsh border thoughts, the October day brings me from East Anglia to a Welsh shepherds' church. A subdued light is the norm there, but not here. A fine rain falls.

What shall I talk about in church on Trinity 19? Badgers and Counsellors? Are we to sing Lamentations? It says so in the book. "Mine eye runneth down with water, because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me. . ."

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