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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

14 June 2019

Malcolm Guite considers the heart language of the old dial

I WAS idly turning the pages of my well-worn Everyman edition of Lamb’s Essays of Elia when I came upon his essay on “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple”: the retired lawyers and judges who had perambulated the Inns of Court, especially the Inner Temple, when Lamb was growing up there as a child.

Naturally, there are some wonderful pen-portraits of full-blown, late-18th-century eccentricity, force, and presence, as in the description of one Thomas Coventry, “whose person was a quadrate, his step massy and elephantine, his face square as the lion’s, his gait peremptory and path-keeping, indivertible from his way as a moving column, the scarecrow of his inferiors, the brow-beater of equals and superiors, who made a solitude of children wherever he came, for they fled his insufferable presence, as they would have shunned an Elisha bear”.

I’ve met a few dons like that.

It was not the description of the “benchers” themselves that caught my eye this time, but, early in the essay, a beautifully drawn contrast between the old sundials that adorned those courts and the mere mechanism of a clock. The sundials “take their revelation of time’s flight immediately from heaven, holding correspondence with the fountain of light!” And Lamb remembers watching the shadow of the dial as a child: “How would the dark lines steal imperceptibly on, watched by the eye of childhood, eager to detect its movement, never catched, nice as an evanescent cloud, or the first arrests of sleep!”

But, by contrast, he writes: “What a dead thing is a clock, with its ponderous embowelments of lead and brass, its pert or solemn dulness of communication, compared with a simple altar-like structure, and silent heart language of the old dial!”

I wonder what further contrasts Lamb would have made with our digital time-keeping. We had already stepped away from reality when mechanical clocks “quantised” time (as the scientists like to say) — that is to say, artificially divided it up into equally portioned minutes and seconds, doled out indifferently, without consideration either of the movements of the heavens or the movements of the heart. And now we all carry devices that count down milliseconds and intrude on our reveries with inhuman squawks and bleeps.

But sundials keep a truer time: instead of hurrying us on, they invite us to linger and read their inscriptions. There is gentle humour in the most famous one: Horas non numero nisi serenas (I count only the sunny hours). While the course of time is not suspended by the covering of a cloud, there is some wisdom in counting only the serene hours, instead of letting digital countdowns on smartphones take away our serenity.

Hilaire Belloc had a good line in sundial inscriptions, and, while he’s most remembered for such glorious put-downs as “I am a sundial, and I make a botch Of what is done far better by a watch,” he also had a sense that the sundial keeps soul-time. Perhaps he, too, was remembering Lamb’s essay, with its “correspondence with the fountain of light”, its “heart language”, and its “dark lines stealing imperceptibly”, when he wrote this inscription:

Here in a lonely glade, forgotten, I
Mark the tremendous process of the sky.
So does your inmost soul, forgotten, mark
The Dawn, the Noon, the coming of the Dark.

Perhaps a little time contemplating neglected sundials might also awaken a neglected soul.

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