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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

04 August 2017

Malcolm Guite is moved to ponder the transfiguration

TREASURING a little leisure in idle August, I lie on my back at the fringe of the wood on Rivey Hill, and look up at the shimmer of light through leaves, enjoying for a moment the very thing that Coleridge glimpsed in his lime-tree bower:


Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine!


Then the cloud comes back and it is gone; I stir my stumps and continue my walk. That little glimpse of translucence has set me in mind of this Sunday’s feast of the Transfiguration, a favourite for me. I’d climbed Linton’s little hill and had my glimpse of light, but now I contemplated that other mountain, where the sudden radiance was not just a glimpse but a vision.

I love that story, just as I love the story of Moses and the burning bush. I like the truth they both disclose: that the divine presence does not annihilate what it meets, but transfigures and fulfils it.

The bush is not consumed, but stays as true and rooted in earth as ever, though now resplendent with heaven. And Moses, who gives it new attention, and feels at last, with unshod feet, God’s holy ground, does not cease himself to be grounded or to see the common bush in front of him — only now he knows that nothing is common.

So, too, the divine nature does not do away with the ordinary body that Jesus shares with us, but on that mountain the veil is lifted and we see “Heaven in ordinary”. Somehow, I feel that the moment of the burning bush and the moment of transfiguration are the same moment: what is promised in one, “I will come down”, is fulfilled in the other. And in the gospel story, Moses is there to see it happen!

My own sonnet on the transfiguration opens with a sense of those moments in both testaments meeting:


For that one moment in and out of time
On that one mountain where all moments meet. . .


Certainly this feast is central for all painters and poets:Earth’s crammed with heaven”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, “And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

It’s the painters and poets who invite us to take off our shoes and open our eyes. So Herbert urges us not to “stay . . . [our] eye” on the world’s glassy surface, but “through it pass and then the heav’n espy”.

We leave Mount Tabor with eyes newly opened:


As fresh and pure as water from a well. . .
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed.


Edwin Muir’s lovely lines on the transfiguration were also in my mind when, at the end of my sonnet, I imagined the disciples, amid the darkness of Good Friday, remembering that light:


Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

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