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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

15 June 2018

Malcolm Guite visits a church in Highgate, where a poet is buried

LAST Saturday morning, I found myself climbing Highgate Hill, pausing to catch my breath just at the spot where Andrew Marvell’s cottage used to be, and then pressing doggedly on, up past the elegant reading rooms of the wonderfully named Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, and on at last to St Michael’s, a Neo-Gothic church built in the last years of Coleridge’s life, whose dedication he attended, and where his body is now laid to rest.

That body has been in the news recently, as his coffin was rediscovered during restoration work, interred in part of an old wine cellar. The papers, as you can imagine, had a field day, The Guardian leading with: “It probably wouldn’t have surprised his long-suffering friends, but the remains of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been rediscovered in a wine cellar.”

While it is true that there were times when Sara Coleridge, who is buried alongside the poet, did have some trouble keeping her husband out of “Inns and Pot-houses”: in fact, in his last days, when he became known as the “sage of Highgate”, it was eloquence, clarity of vision, and a profound insight into how we are all included and constantly renewed in the creative life of the Holy Trinity which really lifted his spirits.

Indeed, I was visiting St Michael’s to give a talk on Coleridge as a Christian thinker: part of a whole day called “Reclaim the Crypt”, raising funds for a proper restoration and memorial to mark his resting place. Many of the present-day Coleridge family were there, in some of whom something of the poet’s own features, living and breathing again, could be seen, and in all of whom there seemed to be a genuine sense of the genius and the suffering, the insight and the faith, of their great ancestor.

There was much to be enjoyed that day: lectures, dramatic readings, and new musical settings of famous poetic passages. But the heart of it came at the end, in a prayerful rededication of the memorial stone whose epitaph Coleridge himself had composed, which begins “Stop, Christian passer-by! Stop, Child of God. . . O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.” And stop we did. The Vicar, the Revd Olakunle Ayodeji, read out the epitaph, then paused and allowed a rich silence to fill the church. After so many words, the silence was full, replete, and I thought of those lines in the Mariner:

No voice; but oh! The silence sank
Like music on my heart.

In that deep silence, I also remembered how I had come to this church, many years before, and had been moved, standing before that stone, to compose a sonnet expressing something of my own debt to the great poet:

Stop, Christian passer-by! — Stop, child of God!
You made your epitaph imperative,
And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad
To stop with you and start again, to live
From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,
Whose living power is imagination,
And know myself a child of the I AM,
Open and loving to his whole creation. 

Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,
To let his light transfigure all my seeing,
To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,
And make with him the poem of my being.
I follow where you sail towards our haven,
Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.

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