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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

18 August 2017

Malcolm Guite recalls a powerful childhood memory

I AM staying for a while with my mother up in Scotland. She is a hale and hearty 98, and she has just told me a remarkable story.

We were looking together at a book on Coleridge and his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I dedicated to her when I published it earlier this year. I was recalling how, when I was a child, in the days when we often used to be out at sea, among the few passengers on cargo ships plying their way between Southern Africa and England, she used to recite me passages from the Ancient Mariner, and that is how, when I could scarcely hold a book or read for myself, I came to know and love that poem.

It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination, for here we were in Scotland, more than half a century later, still chanting great chunks of the poem together.

But when we got to the lines “At length did cross an albatross, Thorough the fog it came”, my mother paused and said: “Do you remember the albatross?”

“No”, I said, “at least, I don’t think so.”

“Oh”, she replied, “we were rounding the Cape of Good Hope, out there where the Indian Ocean becomes the South Atlantic, and we were up on deck together. You would have been about six, and we saw far off the great white shape of an albatross flying. That was a rare sight in itself. But then, a rarer thing happened, it flew towards the ship and came and perched a moment, high on a rail above us, and looked at us with its bright eye, then spread its wide white wings and flew on.”

This was new to me, yet somehow, as my mother spoke, I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye: the pitching deck, the great green rolling waves, myself holding my mother’s hand and above us the vast white bird. Was it my imagination inspired at once by Coleridge’s poem and my mother’s vivid recollection? Or had her words uncovered and renewed some buried memory, some image I had carried, caught in the tenacious networks of my mind, and suddenly released?

Could I remember back to that moment, as a little boy far out at sea, in the strange year of 1963? The year that Kennedy, and Aldous Huxley, and CS Lewis died.

Suddenly, linked in the intimacy of association to that image my mother had summoned, came another memory: a memory from a favourite childhood story, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a memory of the moment when Lucy, a little girl far out at sea, in darkness and dire straits, prays for help, and sees a beam of light, and, looking along the beam, sees a shape like a cross, and sees at last that it is a great white albatross! It flies close by her and speaks, in a familiar voice, the three words she needed then and I need now: “Courage, dear heart.”

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