Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

22 September 2017

Malcolm Guite learns that naming nature enhances appreciation of it

IN MY peregrinations round Britain over the past few months, I have carried with me Robert Macfarlane’s stimulating book Landmarks.

Macfarlane explores the rich word-hoard that links landscape and language. From waterlands to woodlands, edgelands to earthlands, he unearths the earthiest, the most embodied and particular, words with which we have sought to name and know, shape and reshape, imagine and reimagine the woods and waters among which we live. The glossaries that accompany each section of the book are a joy in themselves.

Macfarlane’s contention is that naming nature — its features, its sounds, its minute particulars — enables us to know and appreci­ate it in new ways, and also initiates both namer and named into a kind of covenantal, almost sacral relationship, making it less likely that we will trash or degrade the world around us.

Certainly, his book has clarified, and fine-tuned, my awareness of place, my appreciation of where I am, and how I am compassed about by life and beauty. But it has also brought me to the brink of language, as much as to the brinks and edges of landscape.

As I stood on the brink of a burn that flows by my uncle’s old croft in the wilds of Wester Ross, I listened to the water rush and fall over stone and under heather, and felt that it was both spilling and spelling itself, that there was a kind of speech — indeed, a kind of poetry — in its mellifluous sounds.

Macfarlane’s book had given me some wonder­ful new words to apprehend that sound: threeple and tripple, Cumbrian dialect words for “the gentle sound made by a quick-flowing stream”; and, from Scots dialect, jabble, for “the agitated movement of water; a splashing and dashing in small waves or ripples”.

But, even with Macfarlane’s help, I could not really spell or capture what I heard the burn singing; its utterance was just upstream of human language.

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Coleridge, who loved and beautifully de­­scribed the welling and movement of streams and waterfalls, came to my mind. A lively passage from one of his letters comes closer than I ever could to what I heard and saw: “What a sight it is to look down on such a Cataract! — the wheels, that circumvolve in it — the leaping up & plunging forward of that infinity of Pearls & Glass Bulbs — the continual change of the Matter, the perpetual sameness of the form — it is an awful image & Shadow of God & the World.”

I can never find language entirely adequate to the beauty and particularity of the world around me, but Coleridge also comforts me with a radical thought. He reverses the flow and makes me see that I am not just the namer, but also the named. For Coleridge, the whole world, and all of us within it, are not just objects, but are also an utterance. We are words from the Word, as he speaks us into being:

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters.

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