Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

by
19 January 2018

Blessing ploughs is no mere exercise in quaint nostalgia, Malcolm Guite finds

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LAST Sunday, I was called on, in my capacity as poet, to assist at the blessing of a plough on an old hill-farm in Essex. I had driven through winding and increasingly narrow and shadowed lanes, past quickset hedgerows, and up the steep farm track, admiring the rambling old farmhouse, which seemed pieced together from every period in the past 400 years, and yet still at home with itself.

But this was no quaint exercise in picturesque nostalgia, blessing the rusted wings and single blade of some hand-guided horse-drawn plough that hadn’t seen service in years (though there was just such a plough in the barn). The plough we were blessing meant business: it was a great long apparatus of paired bright sharp circular blades, capable of churning through the earth as efficiently as the old “screw steamers” churned the ocean, and yoked behind an enormous modern tractor.

Yes, there had been a sense of tradition and continuity in the service; I had read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Follower”, with its lovely opening:

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
 

The farmer had a display, in one of his barns, of relics and artefacts from the continuous human flourishing on his acres since Roman times. But, for now, we all stood in the muddy farmyard in our wellies, ready to bless today’s hi-tech farm machinery, the present labour, the contemporary human flourishing.

And, just before she came to bless the plough, the priest asked everyone gathered there to bring forward, and hold beside it, the implements of their own work. Gardeners came with trowels; a man who had been coppicing the woods and laying hedges that morning came forward with a bright-bladed axe and the other fascinating tools of his trade; children held out model tractors; and, taken by surprise, I held out my pen.

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“Let us each offer to God in our hearts our own work,” she said.

“God speed the plough!” and “God speed the plough!” was our response.

Afterwards, I read them my sonnet “Daily Bread”, which remembers

. . . the ones who plough and sow,
Who pick and plant and package whilst we sleep,
With slow back-breaking labour, row by row,
And send away to others all they reap,
We know that these unseen who meet our needs
Are all themselves the fingers of your hand. . .
What if we glimpsed you daily in their toil
And found and thanked and served you through them all?
 

I don’t know what the theologians and the philosophers would say had happened there, how they would discern the difference that a blessing makes, but I do know that, somehow, that farmer would turn the soil of God’s good ground with a renewed sense of blessing, and the gardeners return to their gardens with a new awareness, for I felt it, too.

 

WHEN I had come home, washed the mud from my boots, and was sitting at my desk, that plough-blessed pen poised in hand, I had some sense of a difference made — some sense that, with this pen, like Heaney before me, I might dig a little deeper.

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