Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 November 2018

A falling leaf brings a moment of clarity to Malcolm Guite

THIS morning, I took a Sunday walk with George and Zara, the two retired greyhounds whose job it is to teach me returning and rest (Poet’s Corner, 16 March 2018, 29 September 2017).

We ambled through bright autumn sunlight, beneath some trees on the fringes of the village green, and I paused to watch a single leaf fall, effortlessly, and find its place, exactly in the centre of a tessellated pattern of red and gold, as though placed and fitted there by the last touch of an intent and careful artist.

Indeed, the leaf did not so much fall as descend gently in a fine, flattening curve, and, in its last movement, glide, almost horizontally, inches above the ground, before settling, stilled, quieted, perfect. The air seemed still to me, and yet that smooth flight told me that the leaf was winging on some imperceptibly small current; that the perfect curve of its gentle descent expressed, outwardly and visibly, a balance between those two invisible mysteries that shape our world: gravity and air.

These moments of beauty are everywhere, almost always unobserved — a part of the “charge” of the “grandeur of God”, as Hopkins called it, that fills and fulfils the world with something overflowing: a pleroma, an uncountable abundance that we mostly miss.

Thankful that I hadn’t missed this moment, I recalled the opening words of one of Wendell Berry’s “Sabbaths” poems:
 

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing. . .
 

In his great essay “The Redress of Poetry”, Seamus Heaney says that poetry ‘‘offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has to be its own reward”.

I once had a conversation with him in which he developed that idea further. “Sometimes,” he said, “it is not necessarily the whole poem, or the poem as it is read on the page, but just a phrase or two that comes to you, surfaces in your mind in the right place at the right time and offers you phrases that feed the soul.”

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I felt that Berry was offering me just that. Wandering beneath the trees with my dogs, more phrases from his “Sabbaths” poem came to my mind, phrases that had the effect of focusing and clarifying for me where I was, and what I was seeing, poised between time and eternity.

So I spoke Berry’s words out loud as a kind of litany, a praise poem:
 

. . . the trees
rise in silence almost
natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but
not quite. . .
 

The end of that poem does something even more remarkable; for the poet sees that the person on his sabbath walk, whose mind rests in the sight of the falling leaf, delighting in its goodness and beauty, is himself participating in a deeper rest and a greater beholding, in which the “Maker of all this”, in his eternal sabbath, beholds all things, both man and leaf:
 

. . . Even in me,
the Maker of all this
returns in rest, even
to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly
falling, and is pleased.

 

In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99); 978-1-78622-097-4.

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