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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

14 December 2018

For Malcolm Guite, the pleasure of gazing on the moon is intensified by memory

AS NIGHTS grow darker and longer, I see more of the moon, and am drawn, like every poet, to her mystery, her pallor, her luminous and beautiful changes. Were I more of an astronomer, or if I remembered more of those early episodes of The Sky At Night, I suppose I would know where to look for her, in what quarter she would be resplendent, and at which hour, and none of her phases would surprise me.

As it is, my ignorance allows me a series of happy surprises: the veil of a cloud is drawn aside, and there she is again, unexpectedly new, unfathomably old. And the pleasure of gazing on the moon is, of course, intensified by memory — not just the memory of other moonlit nights, but the memory of all the poets who have gazed on her before, from love-lorn Philip Sidney, imagining the moon as wan and sad as himself —

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face! 

— to a rueful Philip Larkin, answering Sidney, in the poem “Sad Steps”:

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare.

As I gaze on the moon tonight, I am neither love-lorn, sad, nor rueful, just poignantly aware of how her reflected light gathers so many memories and reflects them back as both change and constancy. Even as I glimpse her through my study window while I am writing this, I have a sudden and vivid memory of staring at the moon through another window, on another winter’s night.

It was a high window, in a high room: a hospital ward in Cambridge, where I lay, fasted and empty, waiting for an operation to mend a broken leg. An operation that kept being postponed kept me on “Nil by mouth”, my only companion a comforting, if strangely dislocating, drip of morphine. My tired mind was just slipping into a Coleridgean free-wheeling reverie when clouds parted and the full moon herself slipped into view.

In her light, the falling snow made strange and beautiful patterns that seemed to lift me, assisted perhaps by the morphine, up towards the moon herself. I tried to capture it in these lines:

The moon is full and snow falls soft tonight
In silver filigree. I seem to fall,
Floating through the chapel of her light,
The moon is full.

The white lace of the snowfall makes a veil
Through which I glimpse her face, a paler white,
Whose pallor calls to me, a tidal pull

That gathers in me, loosens, lifts the weight
That palls and pulls me. In her light I feel
Fasted and lifted, empty, open, light,
The moon is full.

That was years ago, and now, just as in Keats’s “The Eve of St Agnes”, “full on the casement” shines “the wintry moon”. Unfortunately for her, she does not shine on the beautiful Madeline saying her prayers, “her hands together pressed . . . and on her hair a glory like a saint”; she shines, instead, on a grey-haired man in his cluttered study; but he, too, makes a chapel of the moonlight, and he, too, is about to say his prayers.

In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99); 978-1-78622-097-4.

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