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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 February 2019

Malcolm Guite discovers how the landscape and weather affect internal feelings

IT IS extraordinary how often landscape and weather seem to form, between them, a series of perfect expressions for our own inner feelings and intuitions. Things that we could hardly put into words are being said for us in the lift of land as it folds into hill and down, in the way that cloud-shadows move across a field, the way that hills shade into blue in the distance. Is it that one’s mind goes out as one sees these things and mantles them with meaning? Or is it that to see them at all is to be furnished with a new spaciousness, a new range of possibility in the soul, an “inscape”, as Hopkins called it?

I certainly felt that sense of correspondence between the outer and the inner when I made a journey into Sussex with a friend, and saw the rise of the Downs and smelt the freshness and hint of the sea in the air.

We were returning to the scenes of his childhood, and with a great sense of poignancy and completion; for we had come to return his mother gently to God’s good earth, in a woodland burial ground close to his childhood home and to the church where he had worked the hand pump of the little organ (still in its place) while his mother sang in the choir.

At the committal, I had read aloud those words in which St Paul, too, saw the correspondences between outer and inner, between physical and spiritual, and saw in the growth of every seed a sign of hope: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Afterwards, we climbed up beyond the burial ground, up above the church, up on to Clayton Hill, crowned with “Jack and Jill”, its two old windmills, and looked down on the place we had been. And it was there that I suddenly felt the outer scene expressing for us an inner state for which we had no words. Something in the elevation, in the view, in the way in which we saw the grave at which we had stood from a new perspective, something in the springiness of the turf beneath our feet and the astonishing clarity with which the evening sun picked out the tiniest details at our feet, all expressed the otherwise inexpressible.

I found myself remembering the opening lines in Hilaire Belloc’s essay “The Slant off the Land”, and they returned to my mind like a thanksgiving, like a prayer:

We live a very little time. Before we have reached the middle of our time perhaps, but not long before, we discover the magnitude of our inheritance. Consider England. How many men, I should like to know, have discovered before thirty what treasures they may work in her air? She magnifies us inwards and outwards; her fields can lead the mind down towards the subtle beginning of things; the tiny iridescence of insects; the play of light upon the facets of a blade of grass. Her skies can lead the mind up infinitely into regions where it seems to expand and fill, no matter what immensities.

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