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Malcolm Guite envies the finesse of his dogs’ noses — and finds sensual intensity in poetry

16 March 2018

Malcolm Guite envies the finesse of his dogs’ noses — and finds sensual intensity in poetry

GEORGE and Zara, my two amiable greyhounds, continued their task of teaching me today. At their behest, we paused on our early-morning walk so that they might enjoy the rich mélange of scents which God was bringing to their noses. They were intensely present to the moment, quivering with excitement.

A human being can scarcely imagine how rich and various, how full of mystery and promise, must be the sensual experience of a dog nosing scents on a walk. It would be too much for us; we wouldn’t have the maturity to cope, although Chesterton tried to imagine it in his “The Song of Quoodle”:

The brilliant smell of water,
The brave smell of a stone,
The smell of dew and thunder,
The old bones buried under. . .

But, as I paused with my dogs, my eye was caught by the gleam, the concentrated bead of light prismed in a single drop of the recent rain, still held in the valley-fold of a bent blade of grass, and I stooped to look at it more closely. I thought of Heaney’s lovely lines at the end of “Rainstick”:

You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.

Those puzzling and beautiful words seemed a little clearer as I saw reflected back not only the light, but everything, made tiny and beautiful. Coleridge had a moment like that, too, and said in his Lay Sermon “The Statesman’s Manual” that he was “struck with admiration at beholding the cope of heaven as imaged in a dew-drop”.

Suddenly, as is sometimes the way in the summoning chamber of my memory, I found that other poets were gathering around me to gaze on the same tiny bead of light. I heard Dylan Thomas urging me:

[to] enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn.

And behind him stood William Blake, reminding me
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I may envy George and Zara the finesse of their noses, I thought, but I do have this to intensify my experience: I have poetry. Coleridge called on poets to remove the “film of familiarity”, to “awaken the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and direct it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure for which we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not and hearts that neither feel nor understand”.

The curved reflective surface of the drop, its dizzying changes of scale and perspective, had the effect of making it, as all poetry should be, both a mirror and a window. And, even as I thought this, one last poet seemed to join us: George Herbert. “A man that looks on glass,” he said,

On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass
And then the Heav’n espy.

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