Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 January 2019

Malcolm Guite seeks post-Christmas peace in Aldeburgh

WE ARE in Aldeburgh again, seeking a little post-Christmas peace and quiet in our favourite seaside town, and already the steady rhythms of wave and tide, the drift of aromatic woodsmoke from the sheds where they cure the daily catch, and the whole old-fashioned charm of the place have begun to work their magic and relax us.

Of course, there is an irony in seeking “post-Christmas peace”, if one were to understand the word “peace” in any of its deeper senses. For however hectic, bustled, and occasionally stressful the ceremonies and hospitalities of Christmas may have been, a proclamation of peace is at their heart: peace and good will from heaven to earth, and so also among ourselves. And that Christmas peace is no mere glib greeting, but real peace, real reconciliation between earth and heaven, between our conscience and our Creator, bought with the heart’s blood of the Prince of Peace, and offered to us where we are and as we are.

In fact, that deeper peace, that peace that is entirely given, but not as the world gives, has been on my heart and mind because, on this holiday, I am working on a new sequence of meditative poems responding to George Herbert’s beautiful, riddling poem “Prayer”, in which, over a mere 14 lines, he offers 27 images or emblems of prayer, and one of them is simply the word “peace”.

Knowing how often Herbert was downcast, and how much he struggled with himself and with the world, I knew that he could not mean some easy shallow peace, some mere well-wishing. Struggling with my poetic response, I was also aware, as we put Christmas behind us, of how swiftly all the seasonal wishes of peace and good will from our politicians seem to have evaporated.

After a blessed break from all the Brexit furore, at least in the media, I fear that, by the time you read this, January will have returned us to the fray, with redoubled demonising, extra denigration, and a continuing impasse, begetting nothing but impotent fury from all sides. There are vital things at stake, of course, and there is a proper passion about them; but wandering past Aldeburgh’s Tudor Moot Hall, the scene, over centuries, of no doubt vigorous local debate, I prayed also for the Houses of Parliament, that there might be as much charity as passion in the moot points debated there.

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But, as I composed my poem on peace as prayer and prayer as peace, I found myself also looking inwards at everything in me that has not made for peace, and longing for peace not as another task, another goal we signally fail to achieve, but as sheer gift, release, and relief, something to be received just as thankfully alongside our opponents as among our friends.

So, the poem came out like this:

Peace

Not as the world gives, not the victor’s peace,
Not to be fought for, hard-won, or achieved,
Just grace and mercy, gratefully received:
An undeserved and unforeseen release,
As the cold chains of memory and wrath
Fall from our hearts before we are aware,
Their rusty locks all picked by patient prayer,
Till closed doors open, and we see a path
Descending from a source we cannot see;
A path that must be taken, hand in hand,
Only by those, forgiving and forgiven,
Who see their saviour in their enemy.
So reach for me, we’ll cross our broken land,
And make each other bridges back to Heaven.

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