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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

21 June 2019

Malcolm Guite joins a pilgrimage, through the mist, on the banks of the Firth of Forth


NOT long ago, I found myself joining a little pilgrimage along the banks of the Firth of Forth, through the mist and mizzle — the haar, as the Scots call the sea-fret that so often covers the Firth — to the ancient Parish Church of St Cuthbert, Dalmeny, by South Queensferry, just near where the three great bridges cross the Firth. I had been in awe of our glimpses through that mist of the newest of those bridges as we descended towards the church, its single span held above the water by delicate strands of cable, fanned and tensed and taut, like the strings of a harp.

I had come to Edinburgh to speak to a group of Christians who were spending a few days building bridges of their own, between their faith and the art of poetry. I had spoken the day before, in the parish church at Newhaven, about Shakespeare, and, in particular, about his beautiful account of poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — that passage that speaks of the way in which poetry builds a bridge between invisible and the invisible, the way imagination “apprehends more than cool reason ever comprehends”, how it “glances from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven”, “bodies forth the form of things unknown”, and “gives to airy nothing, a local habitation and a name”.

We had reflected together on the way in which Shakespeare’s account of poetry so closely parallels St John’s account of the incarnation, in which the Word himself, the very heart and meaning of heaven, chooses to be bodied forth, to be made flesh in Christ, to have a local habitation, to take a name.

Now, we had ourselves come to a local habitation in Dalmeny, wonderfully shaped and sculpted in the 12th century, to provide a place of worship for the pilgrims who gathered to cross the Queens ferry on their way to the shrine at St Andrews. We were gathered to share the sacrament in that place, where the ferry, once provided by the saintly Queen Margaret of Scotland, had been replaced by that beautiful new bridge, recently opened by our own Queen Elizabeth.

There was an extraordinary moment when, just before she began the Eucharistic Prayer, the celebrant recited a poem that Jackie Kay, the current Makar (poet laureate) of Scotland, had recited on the day that the new bridge was opened. She, too, had compared the bridge to a harp, and then, in a wonderful simile, saw it

Like a great cormorant, perfectly still,
And lifting your wings out to dry,
In snell winds or high,
Come driving rain, come shine. . .

Her poem expressed just what we had seen ourselves on that misty rainy day: the great, strong, delicate structure

here one minute, gone another,
in the dreich mist, in the haar,
in the twilight. . .

I delighted in those piercing and expressive Scots weather-words “snell” and “dreich”, recited for us in the strong accent that suited them best, but was even more moved by an insight towards the end of the poem:

the urge to build bridges runs deeper
than the great rivers they ford.

The poem flowed seamlessly into the more familiar and all-changing words of the Eucharistic Prayer, as, once more, the great bridge-builder bridged the gap between heaven and earth, made the crossing for us, and was bodied forth again, here by the Firth of Forth, in bread and wine.

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