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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

18 October 2019

Malcolm Guite witnesses attentive wonder at autumn

I WAS walking George and Zara up the little path that leads from the church in Linton towards the “Lady” bridge over the Granta when I came across a lovely sight: a mother watching her little girl dart eagerly here and there on the side of the path to find the conkers that had fallen so plenteously from the bordering horse-chestnuts, shaken loose by the recent winds. The girl, of about five, I guess, flamboyantly dressed in a purple jacket, yellow dress, and sparkly gold wellington boots was picking up and opening one conker after another, as she called back joyously to her mother. “Look Mum! They’re everywhere!”

But for the child’s delight, neither her mother nor I might have noticed the conkers; but there they all were, bursting out of their spiky green jackets, all shiny and new. I thought of Coleridge’s remark that poetry is about

awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

He would certainly have recognised and applauded that child’s attentive wonder.

What also struck me was this little girl’s delight in the sheer abundance of nature (“They’re everywhere!”). And I remembered a poem of my own about the prodigality of autumn, and the response it evokes in us. I began that poem with a question:

And is it not enough that every year
A richly laden autumn should unfold
And shimmer into being leaf by leaf,
Its scattered ochres mirrored everywhere
In hints and glints of hidden red and gold
Threaded like memory through loss and grief?

Of course, in one way, it is enough and more than enough just to see and enjoy the season. But, just as that little girl wanted not only to open the new conkers, but also to call out to her mum and share her sense of discovery and abundance, just as her little shout of joy completed and crowned the pleasure of discovery, so we, too, even as adults, feel a deep need to share what we see, and simply to praise the praiseworthy.

In that earlier poem, I went on to remember how part of my pleasure in an autumn walk is the pleasure of remembering how the poets before me have responded to the same beauty:

When scents of woodsmoke summon, in some long
And melancholy undertone, the talk
Of those old poets from whose works I drank
The heady wine of an autumnal song.

And in the end I saw that, for me, too, as for that little girl, the pleasure is not complete until I make some effort, as she did, to pass it on. So, my poem concluded with an answer to its opening question, an answer that gestured from the leaves on the tree towards the reader who might, one day, find the poem, idly leafing through a book:

It is not yet enough. So I must try,
In my poor turn, to help you see it too,
As though these leaves could be as rich as those,
That red and gold might glimmer in your eye,
That autumn might unfold again in you,
Feeling with me what falling leaves disclose.

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