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T. S. Eliot prompts Malcolm Guite to ponder poetry and cheese

05 January 2018

T. S. Eliot prompts Malcolm Guite to ponder poetry and cheese

I ENJOYED Richard Harries’s review of the latest volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters in a recent issue of this paper (Books, 15 December), and I particularly savoured a sentence from near the end of that review: “He wrote a strong letter to The Times in support of Stilton, and remarked that one of the purposes of life was in discovering new cheeses.”

One feels that there is something still right with the world when someone can write a strong letter to The Times in support of a particular cheese, and, of course, one could hardly write a mild letter in defence of so strong a cheese.

But Eliot’s stern defence of Stilton put me in mind of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful essay about finding himself in an inn in the village of Stilton, only to be told that they had no Stilton available. He makes that a parable for our times. It is, as he says, “a strange allegory of England as she is now; this little town that had lost its glory; and forgotten, so to speak, the meaning of its own name”. And, then, channelling his inner Wordsworth, Chesterton breaks into a sonnet beginning “Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour. . . England has need of thee.”

It was also in that essay, I think, that Chesterton made his famous remark “The Poets have been mysteriously silent about cheese.” This is very true, and it’s a pity that Eliot’s love of cheese didn’t find expression in his poetry, though perhaps the phrase “or even a very good dinner”, from “The Dry Salvages”, implies, in Eliot’s cryptic way, some excellent cheese.

Musing on Chesterton’s remark about the silence of the poets, I began to wonder about the poetic qualities and attractions of cheese itself, and, like Chesterton before me, I found that my musings had taken the form of a sonnet:


The poets have been silent about cheese
Because, whilst every subject is the message,
Cheese is the very medium of their work.
We drink in language with our mother’s milk,
But poets curdle words until they bite,
With substance and a flavour of their own:
So Donne is sharp and Geoffrey Hill is sour,
Larkin acerbic, Tennyson has power
(But only late at night, taken with port).
I like them all, and sample every sort
From creamy Keats with his “mossed cottage trees”,
Tasting the words themselves like cottage cheese,
To Eliot, difficult, in cold collations,
Crumbling, and stuffed with other folk’s quotations.


I’m sure that readers of this column will disagree with me about my attribution of particular cheeses to particular poets, but, then, what better way to spend an evening than to gather a good variety of cheeses, a fine selection of poetry, and a few of those excellent wines which bring out the best in both, and enjoy a few hours in good company testing their qualities and pairing them more appropriately?

It would be a pleasant pastime for what Eliot called, again in “The Dry Salvages”, “the evening circle in the winter gaslight”.

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