Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 August 2019

Malcolm Guite reflects on the alphabet, and the dual meaning of ‘spell’

THERE is something magical about the act of writing itself: a summoning power inherent in the very letters of the alphabet and in the mysterious way that the words they spell can summon up images — images that bring with them whole worlds.

Every act of writing evokes the hidden correspondences between Word and World: a magic witnessed by the way a word such as “spell” means both to spell a word and to make magic, the way “chant” is embedded in “enchantment”, the way even the dry word “grammar” turns out to be cognate with “glamour” in its oldest magical sense.

There has been, for me, a further kind of magic. I have been reading my poetry this summer to audiences as far afield as Vancouver, between the mountains and the sea, and Ontario, among the lakes and rivers there; and now I am in the dry plains of Indiana. All these poems started as the invocation of a few words in my little writing hut at the bottom of our garden, and yet, in one sense, these words have had the power to lift me on silver wings and fly me halfway across the world, to show me new sights and make me new friends. I admit that certain trains, taxis, and planes were also involved in the process, but, without the invocation of the poetry, nothing would have happened.

But there is, as C. S. Lewis would say, a deeper magic still. If all language is a kind of spell, it is a “good spell” (or “gospel” as we later shortened that term). For our faith points to a single source, in the Word, the Logos of God, for both the mystery of language and the mystery of being itself. Christ is the Word within all words, the Word behind all worlds.

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Certainly many Christian writers have reflected on the parallels between the Genesis narrative in which God says “Let there be . . .” and each thing he summons springs into being; and the way in which the uttering of words, the combination and recombination of a finite set of letters, can call into being the imaginary worlds, the “sub-creations”, as Tolkien calls them, that God in his love has empowered us to create. It seems that being made as “makers” (the old word for poets) is one of the ways in which we are all made in God’s image.

Some years ago, a re-reading of Tolkien’s wonderful essay “On Fairy-Stories” prompted me to celebrate the God-given power and mystery of language, the magic of naming, and the summoning powers entrusted to us in the 26 letters of our alphabet, in a sonnet which I simply called “Spell”:
 

Summon the summoners, the twenty-six
Enchanters. Spelling silence into sound,
They bind and loose, they find and are not found.
Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,
Summon the summoners, the shaping shapes
The grounds of sound, the generative gramma
Signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana
Runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,

Leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,
Shining, re-combining in their dance
The genesis of every utterance,
Pattering the pattern of the tree.

Summon the summoners, and let them sing.
The summoners will summon Everything.

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