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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

27 July 2018

Malcolm Guite takes his Tennyson-inspired canoe up to the Huntingdonshire town of St Ives

I HAVE had a lovely day sailing, paddling, but mostly drifting in Willow, my little sailing canoe (Poet’s Corner, 22 June). She has delicate lines and is light on the water, and I take pleasure in the contrast with the much bigger, heavier motorboats, in whose wash she dances disdainfully.

She is named from some lines I love to chant from The Lady of Shalott (and so restore their enchantment):

By the margin, willow veil’d
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot

T. S. Eliot said that Tennyson had the finest ear, of all the poets, for the music inherent in the English language, and you certainly hear it in “The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d”. It’s a pleasure just to say those words, and a lovely turn of Tennyson’s to recover and share the distinct word “shallop”, a 17th-century term for “a shallow-drafted boat moved by sail and oar”. There is poetry not only in the sound but also in the contrast between the heavy barge, trailed by its slow horses, and the light shallop, flitting and skimming with the wind in its silken sails.

Sadly, there are no slow horses trailing barges now, but my little Willow certainly flits and skims, although today I was not skimming down to Camelot but up to St Ives.

The Huntingdonshire St Ives is a fine little town on the banks of the Great Ouse. It has a remarkable medieval bridge — one of only four in England still to be crowned, on its central arch, with a chapel.

It is especially beautiful as you approach it from the river (more so if you are in a silken-sail’d shallop rather than a heavy motorboat), and, as you sail closer, you notice another strange feature: the arches on each side of the bridge are different — four of them are the original Gothic arches, but the last two, beyond the chapel, spanning to the old London road, are later rounded arches.

This difference is witness to the tragedy of the English Civil War, but also to healing and recovery. When Cromwell’s troops held the town in 1645, they partially blew up the bridge, destroying two of the southern arches, and installed a drawbridge instead, to defend the town from the Royalists. When peace returned, the bridge was rebuilt with two new arches in the more modern rounded style.

As I sailed gently towards it, I found myself reflecting that it was no bad emblem for our own troubled times, for a country at odds with itself and its neighbours, for a time when many bridges and lines of communication are being broken and thrown down.

In the end, we will always need the bridges back, and somehow we will find a way of building them again. They will be different, they will have new tales to tell, but they will still be bridges. After all, this quintessentially English town was named for St Ivo, a reputedly Persian bishop, and its bridge chapel dedicated, in 1426, to St Leger, a Burgundian martyr. We are all more connected than we think.

I left Willow at the town quay, and went to say a prayer in the bridge chapel, giving thanks for that other great bridge between heaven and earth, which God founded in Christ, and which no power on earth can destroy.

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