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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 July 2019

Malcolm Guite steps into the light at Lee Abbey

I AM writing this from Lee Abbey, set in its little hidden valley on the north coast of Devon, where the wonderful, wild, and twisted oak woods slope down steep combes to the sea. This is my first visit to this astonishingly beautiful place, and Maggie and I had had a trying journey, ranging from gridlock on the M25 to wrong turns taken on to perilous single-track cliff-edge roads; so we were a little frazzled on the evening we arrived.

But what a transformation ensued! We stepped out from the house on to the terrace that first evening, just in time to see the sun going down in all its glory over the sea, and the sea itself throwing back a dazzling glitter that seemed almost brighter than the sun it reflected: a coruscating pattern in shimmering points of light, as though someone had casually spilled a tray of diamonds into a spotlight.

And then, as the sun found a bank of thin low-lying cloud, and brilliance was made bearable, everything turned to red and coppery gold and our eyes were drawn from the sea to the sky. By that time, the M25 was a world away.

I had come there to lead a series of reflections on the seven great “I AM” sayings in St John’s Gospel, drawing on the sonnet sequence that I wrote in response to those sayings; and, over the course of the next few days, I felt that one of those poems, in particular, was somehow being enacted, being transferred from the flat page to the air, the light, the landscape, and the people gathered there: it was my sonnet “I Am the Light of the World”, which opens:

I see your world in light that shines behind me,
Lit by a sun whose rays I cannot see,
The smallest gleam of light still seems to find me
Or find the child who’s hiding deep inside me.

The quality of the light in this part of the world is extraordinary, and it seemed as if the poem was simply unfolding before my tired eyes:

I see your light reflected in the water,
Or kindled suddenly in someone’s eyes,
It shimmers through translucent leaves in summer,
Or spills from silver veins in leaden skies

From that first glimpse of light reflected off the sea, to the light glinting on the rushing and tumbling waters of the Lynn as we followed it upstream, to the light of recognition and the light of discovery in people’s eyes as we read John’s Gospel together, to the light coming down through the canopy of leaves on our woodland walks, it was as though my list of glimpses was given back to me as a gift.

My poem continues:

It gathers in the candles at our vespers
It concentrates in tiny drops of dew,
At times it sings for joy, at times it whispers,
But all the time it calls me back to you.

And once again the images, one by one, came true: from the candles at compline to the dew on the early morning grass; and, in and through all these things, the sense of beckoning, yearning, calling, deepening still.

Climbing up from the cove, up beside the little stream of the Lee as it tumbles down to the sea, I recalled that poem’s concluding couplet with renewed conviction:

I follow you upstream through this dark night
My saviour, source, and spring, my life and light.

Watch a video of Malcolm Guite reading “I am the Light of the World” at leeabbeydevon.org.uk/malcolm-guite

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