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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

30 November 2018

Malcolm Guite looks to Classical languages for words to describe the current political turmoil

IS IT wrong, I thought, as I leaned on the railing of the Lady Bridge, in Linton, and watched the Granta’s clear stream go curling and rippling beneath me, bearing the last of autumn’s flame-coloured leaves away to their rest — is it wrong to contemplate and rest in these ephemeral beauties, while the country is in crisis?

Or does the contemplation of our village stream, at once an emblem of all that passes, and of all that remains, comfort and clarify the mind, so that it can bear to turn once more to the speculations, the rumours, and the forebodings that accompany political crisis?

Actually, it was the word “crisis” that occupied my thoughts as George and Zara tugged at their leads and nudged me into continuing our morning walk. The present crisis turns, I thought, on issues of national identity; but, ironically, the word for which we all reach is not English, but Greek. Rooted in the Greek verb krinein, “to decide”, it was taken over in Latin to mean a decision and, by extension, a decisive turning-point; and then came into Late Middle English via medical Latin, where it meant the decisive turning-point, for better or worse, of a disease.

All of its many senses seem apposite now. The word “crisis” also summoned up, for me, memories of doing “the Tragedy Paper” as an undergraduate. We wrote essays on Greek tragedy before we were allowed to tackle Shakespeare, and crisis was one of a clutch of three Greek words with which we had to be familiar; the other two, coming to my mind unbidden, as I crossed the Granta again on my walk, also seemed strangely and strongly relevant: hubris and catharsis.

There has been plenty of scope in our national life for noticing hubris: the overweening pride that precedes come-uppance and calamity, although people might differ over which of the current players are most hubristic. But, beyond the crisis brought on by hubris, there is the possibility of catharsis, purification, cleansing: the experience, even vicariously, of pity and fear, felt so deeply that they might lead to renewal and clarity, might deliver us from hubris and undo its damage.

So I continued on my morning walk, revolving my three Greek words, wandering past St Mary’s, the little church that had seen its village through many a crisis, weathered civil war, reformation, and revolution, absorbed and expressed in its patient grey stone the hopes, fears, and prayers, of 800 years of local living.

I took some comfort in that, and the sight of the church made me reach for a fourth Greek word, a word that we were never taught in the Tragedy Paper, but which I learned when I came back to Cambridge, years later, to train as a priest, a word that Christ himself can bring to all our tragedy: agape. When Homer used that word, it simply meant affection, but, on the lips of Christ and in the writings of Paul, it was transfigured into something far deeper: the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, that never fails.

When we come through this crisis, whatever lies on the far side of it, we are going to need — to receive and to share — all the agape we can get. Thank God that, in Christ, there is a limitless supply.

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