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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

25 May 2018

Malcolm Guite delights in the glories of spring

I HAVE been luxuriating in the lush exuberance of late May. All my familiar walks, lovely as they were at the beginning of the month, are somehow richer, fuller still with bright yellow buttercups and fringes of the flowering hawthorn hedge, the luxuriant grasses by the river an even fresher green.

Once it was my greyhounds, George and Zara, nosing scents, who slowed me down, but now I delay them with my dawdling, my stopping to draw in breath at views that are everywhere breathtaking, fuller, and more luxuriant than they were the day before.

The May of 1819 was rich like this one, and I almost feel the presence of Leigh Hunt standing with me as I pause to gaze, for he put it all better than I can, seeing the very same things, and rising to his account of them in prose that lilts, even as it lists, and trembles on the brink of poetry:

The grass is in its greenest beauty, the young corn has covered the more naked fields; the hedges are powdered with snowy and sweet-scented blossoms of the hawthorn, as beautiful as myrtle flowers; the orchards give us trees, and the most lovely flowers at once; and the hedge-banks, woods and meadows, are sprinkled in profusion with cowslip, the wood-roof, the orchis, the blue gemander, the white anemone, the lilly of the valley . . . and when the vital sparkle of the day is over, in sight and sound, the nightingale still continues to tell us of its joy.

If these words from The Calendar of Nature, published on 9 May, came to the brink of poetry, they did much more than that. Fortunately for us, they reached Hunt’s young friend John Keats, who read them just at the beginning of his annus mirabilis, and that same month, transmuting Hunt’s prose, and so much more, into his golden verse, he wrote the “Ode to a Nightingale”.

Keats takes up the rich theme almost where Hunt leaves off, at sunset, and it is all the richer for being sensed intensely at night. Hunt’s list is now a litany:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine. . .

The sheer abubdance and profusion, the extravagant, generous overflow of nature in this month is more “seasonable” still for those of us who keep the liturgical calendar alongside Hunt’s “Calendar of Nature”.

The long expected and still overflowing abundance of Pentecost suits with the season. The apostles were not drunk on new wine, but on something headier still, as Keats, too, turned from his “draft of vintage, full of the warm south” to the stronger stuff of poetry.

Like Hunt and Keats, St Luke finds himself compelled, by sheer abundance, to chant a list: this time, a list of all the nations, the rich and varied tongues into which the Spirit poured the rich wine of the gospel:

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.

There’s a poem in there somewhere!

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