Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

by
06 June 2017

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Malcolm Guite asks

MY Saturday began amid the lush green hills of Herefordshire, where, as Chesterton says:

 

The soft feet of the blessed go
In the soft western vales,
The road the silent saints accord,
The road from Heaven to Hereford,
Where the apple wood of Hereford
Goes all the way to Wales.

 

I had been invited to speak at the Traherne festival, and started my day gazing from the church porch at Credenhill across to the Hay Bluff, utterly open to all that Thomas Traherne had seen when he stood there and glimpsed “the orient and immortal wheat . . . and young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty” — the eternal, for that immortal poet, always and everywhere translucent through time.

But my day did not end there. It ended in Southwark. For that evening I travelled from Hereford to Paddington and thence to London Bridge, and walked through the Borough Market, minutes before the terrorist attacks.

I made my way to the Dean’s house in readiness for a Pentecost sermon. It was never preached. I had just been welcomed into that lovely house by the Globe Theatre when suddenly the phones buzzed, the texts came through, the sirens sounded outside as police boats sped up the river, and the emergency was upon us.

As soon as he grasped what was happening, the Dean left the house and walked back towards danger to see if he could open the cathedral. But he was held back by the police and returned, bringing a distressed Muslim friend with him, and all we could do was pray.

As the first shaky footage from mobile phones came through on the news, I found myself as utterly open to the shock and horror of those woundings I had missed by minutes as I had been to the lucent beauty of Credenhill. Its hard to hold these things together.

 

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days?

 

Shakespeare’s words had been haunting me since the Manchester bombing, and now this. Was the frailty of poetry, the gossamer web of vision, simply to be blown away by these battering days?

Somehow the opposite happened: beauty’s action, in every blossom, in every gesture of grace, seemed stronger than ever. The rage in me surged and went.

In the morning, when, the cathedral still out of bounds, I checked my phone to see what route I might take home, I saw the blocked ways: the bridge, Borough High Street, the Thames-side roads to left and right, picked out on the screen in red, forming a distinct cross, a cross at whose heart was the hurt, and I remembered Traherne’s lovely words to Christ: “I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings advance you to glory: but by the gentle ways of peace and love.’’

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