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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 May 2018

As April turns to May, Malcolm Guite finds bluebells teeming with spiritual significance

THE bluebells are out at last, long-expected and yet still surprising, new, miraculous. They are sprinkled and scattered in strokes and splashes alongside the paths around college, as though just laid on by a fast-working Impressionist, painting en plein air.

But in the sloping woods on Rivey Hill above Linton, they are spread as a delicate carpet, a delicious shimmer of blue threaded through with the underlying greens and browns of the forest floor. These, surely, must be among “the heaven’s embroidered cloths” that Yeats wished he might have, and at the sight of them I draw in my breath and tread softly.

Even as I stand in this one particular wood, I imagine for a moment all the bluebells in all the woods of England: shimmering pools of blue wherein the souls of so many are treading softly with bare feet, as though they paddled in water. Even those who stand outwardly obdurate on the paths in their stout walking shoes are inwardly wading there and are refreshed.

What is it that gives bluebells their particular enchantment? It is not simply that they have been breathed into being by the long-awaited spring, and are harbingers of good things to come, that they are among the lovely lowly things that bring good news.

It is more than that: it is the colour itself; for it is the colour of the sky, suddenly come down to earth. When we look up into that enticing blue, it always escapes us, always recedes; it is everywhere and nowhere. However high we fly, the blue is always beyond us; but, here, in these secret scatterings and holy showings deep in the woods, that blue is on our level, beckoning us to look down as well as up, and to take off our shoes on holy ground. In that sense, they are a sign of incarnation, of that great descent of heaven itself to earth which began in Mary’s womb. Perhaps that is why it is so fitting that she is always shown clothed in blue, and her annunciation comes in spring.

When I was coming out of a dark winter and walking abroad for the first time in many months, still on crutches and testing the mend of a badly broken leg, I walked the coastal path at Brancaster, and felt a healing touch in the blue of Norfolk’s wide April skies, something I celebrated in my poem “First Steps”:

The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.

But now, as April turns to May, I have that blue laid out at my feet, inviting me to touch it like the hem of Christ’s garment. And, as I do just that, I realise something new: blue is not only the colour of heaven; it is also the colour of sorrow. The blue mood, the blue tone, the blues themselves that I sing and sometimes feel, are the very things taken up and redeemed when Heaven came down to earth.

And now, amid the bluebells, looking down towards the village and its church spire, I hear another bell, summoning me to give thanks for all of this.

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