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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

16 June 2017

Malcolm Guite restrings his guitar

RESTRINGING a guitar is an absorbing and, at the same time, relaxing thing to do.

My guitar, like its owner, has had its adventures, dents, and scrapes, and carries, to put it politely, the patina of age. But, thanks to the occasional new set of strings, it still sounds and resounds as it should — perhaps better than it did to begin with.

What makes restringing seem so strangely restorative?

Perhaps the outward actions: the slackening of the old strings, the stretching of the new, and the gradual tautening until there is a resonance — pitched as before, but brightened now, and clarified. Perhaps there is some inner corres­pondence: the restringer is himself restrung, the tuner tuned.

That sequence — slackening, changing, renewing, and retuning — gives a better account of what happens on a good holiday, a good retreat, or even a good night’s sleep, than the usual flat cliché about “recharging my battery”. I’d rather be picked up and played than just left plugged in somewhere.

Touching the harmonics to tune my old Gibson sometimes seems to summon other resonances, too. As I tauten the strings, I think of George Herbert’s lovely lines:


Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.


The strings of Herbert’s lute were literally visceral: organic lines of gut, which, stretched and struck, set up a sympathetic resonance in the wood. I love Herbert’s theology of re­­­son­ance; of our tuned response to the striking music of Christ’s sacrifice.

His language is itself so resonant: “The cross taught all wood to resound his name” carries in the word “taught” the other sense of the tautness of the strings. Even on Easter Day, Herbert looks back to Good Friday, and in that light sees Christ’s “stretched sinews” on the cross making a new music.

I am sure that Herbert was a better musician than I, but I take comfort that he on his lute, as I on my old guitar, had to “struggle for his part”.

When I hear the rich music that rings out from Herbert’s life, music caught so well in John Drury’s book Music at Midnight, I sometimes feel that all I can manage with my own life, as with my old guitar, is a little tentative tuning up.

Then the echo of another poet-priest comes to my aid. I remember John Donne’s gentle suggestion that all we do here, and the best of all we hear, is itself no more than tuning up for heaven:


Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the Instrument here at the door. . .

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