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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

13 December 2019

On a visit to Whitby, Malcolm Guite finds that the memories of St Hilda are still strong

PERHAPS it’s my Scots and Yorkshire ancestry, but I am always exhilarated by travelling north, and feel a sense of vigour, of something brave and bracing, when I come into Yorkshire, especially when the road lifts me up over the moors and on towards the sea.

Such was the road that has brought me for a few days to Whitby, where I am giving a poetry retreat at St Hilda’s Priory, for the Sisters there, the Order of the Holy Paraclete. Their new convent buildings, in the grounds of their old castle-priory, overlook the curved bay and snug harbour of Whitby, and you gaze from their grounds over the town itself and out to the other headland, where the medieval abbey stands in all its ruined splendour.

So, the town is flanked and protected, as it were, by these two religious houses: the old abbey, with its memories of Hilda, the great saint of the past, and the new one, where Hilda’s faith is still practised and her name and wisdom still venerated. Of course, Hilda’s monastery, of Streoneshalh, as both the place and the abbey were then called, long predates the Benedictine abbey whose ruins still stand; but the figure of Abbess Hilda herself towers above these wrecks of time and seems more relevant and timely to us than ever.

Hilda is famous for having presided over the Synod of Whitby in 664, and for having striven to bring peace and a single Church out of the two strands of Roman and Celtic Christianity. But, to my mind, it’s another story that Bede tells of her that resonates even more strongly and makes me venerate this place even more deeply, and that is the story of Caedmon, the earliest English poet whose name we know — perhaps the first Christian poet in England, and thus the archetype of my own vocation.

According to Bede, Caedmon was a lay Brother who cared for the animals at the monastery here. When there was feasting and the harp was passed along for songs and poetry, Caedmon would slip out to the byre, on the pretext of tending to the animals; for he didn’t reckon himself a poet. But once, as he dozed there, an angel came to him in a dream and told him to sing “The beginning of created things”. Caedmon refused at first, then suddenly found that he could do it, and composed a poem praising the “fashioner of Heaven’s high fabric”.

Bede goes on to tell how the Abbess heard both the story and the poem, and fostered Caedmon’s talent, establishing at Whitby a school for poetry in the English tongue. Now, like Caedmon before me, I, too, have been summoned by the nuns of Whitby to read them my poems, and reflect on our faith together.

So, I happily recall a poem I once wrote honouring Hilda and Caedmon, and the space that this unique place has made for poetry:

Hilda of Whitby
Called to a conflict and a clash of cultures,
Where insults flew whilst synod was in session,
You had the gift to find the gift in others,
A woman’s wisdom, deftness and discretion.
You made a space and place for poetry
When outcast Caedmon, crouching in the byre,
Was called by grace into community
And local language joined the Latin choir. 

Abbess we need your help, we need your wisdom,
Your strong recourse to reconciliation,
Your power tempered by God’s hidden Kingdom,
Your exercise of true imagination.
Pray for our synods now, princess of peace,
That every fettered gift may find release.

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