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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

07 July 2017

Malcolm Guite ventures into the margins


BLISS. I have escaped for three days to the book-lined walls, the intricately carved wooden galleries, and the civilised calm of Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden.

For a bibliophile, it doesn’t get better than this: a library you live in, where the magic password of your room number lets you take your book and drift into the spacious common room, all worn leather sofas, old chessboards, and whisky from the honesty bar; or into the library’s own nooks and crannies and special-collections rooms, where you curl up with your prize and read, read, read, uninterrupted and guilt-free.

All the books are on shelves or in presses, nothing in a vault; so browsing is an indulgence and an inspiration. Every distraction turns out to be a crucial clue, something you should have read in the first place.

At the core of the collection are the Grand Old Man’s own books, brought down from the castle in wheelbarrows by that august personage himself. And in his books are his annotations and underlinings, his fascinating marginalia.

Today I held in my hand Gladstone’s copy of Hallam Tennyson’s memoir of his father, the poet. Gladstone has heavily marked and annotated Hallam’s account of how Tennyson wrote In Memoriam, the beautiful poem in memory of his namesake Arthur Henry Hallam, the young man whom Gladstone and Tennyson both loved so dearly. It’s a poem I love, too, and it’s still the best guide through doubt and grief.

The page fell open at a passage where Tennyson’s son writes about his father’s last days: “A week before his death I was sitting with him and he talked . . . of the love of God, that God whose eyes consider the poor, who catereth even for the sparrow. ‘I should’, he said, ‘infinitely rather feel myself the most miserable wretch on the face of the earth with a God above, than the highest type of man standing alone.’”

Tracing the exclamations pencilled in the margins of this passage in Gladstone’s own strong hand, I felt our physical and spiritual links as I held the book that bound so many loves together.

But it’s not just in these great libraries that such connections live and kindle. How much of our own lives and passions are somehow bodied forth in the rubbed pages, worn bookmarks, and pencilled marginalia of our shared books!

And there is more; for we ourselves are living volumes, unfinished; and we write on one an­­other’s pages, sometimes tentative marginalia, sometimes heartfelt appeals across the main text.

Browsing this paradisaical library on the margins of Wales, I remembered the words of John Donne’s 17th meditation — words of hope for the day when the broken texts of our lives will be translated at last into the language of heaven:

”God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.”

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