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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 May 2019

Gazing out on Bardsey Island, Malcolm Guite becomes aware of the fragility of peace

YESTERDAY morning, as I write, I sat in the little garden of Ty Pren, a wooden hut, formerly a hermit’s cell, gazing out at the beautiful, enigmatic, but always enticing outline of Bardsey Island, Ynys Enlli: the Island of Saints. Bees hummed amid the daisies in the hermitage garden and beyond its low turf walls, which formed a small windbreak and haven, cloud-shadows raised across the grassy fields that slope down to low black cliffs, dropping into the cold sea that surges between the end of the Llyn Peninsula and the holy island.

Malcolm Guite at the end of the Llyn Peninsula

I was the guest of the present tenant of that little hut, Fraser Paterson, a gardener and artist, and was there to meet him and Claire Henderson Davis, the choreographer and theologian who had once set my Passion sonnets to dance and music (Features,13 March 2015).

Now, she was working on a new piece, All Creation Waits, set on the peninsula here and reimagining the story of the awakenings of Francis and Clare — not as they had happened in Assisi, but as though they were happening now, as though Francis and Clare were our contemporaries, young people awakening to the peril of climate change, joining the Extinction Rebellion, seeking not just to commune more intimately with nature, but also to hear her voice, and the voice of her Creator, and let it awaken and convert us now.

On that May morning, as we discussed how her project might unfold, and what kind of texts I might write for it, it would have been easy to stay in the haven, to luxuriate in that little turf-walled garden, to delight in a sense of unspoilt nature, to indulge in a little nostalgia for the Celtic saints.

But, even as we began to plan the project, our conversation was drowned by the thunder of a low-flying jet, roaring in from the Valley airbase in Anglesey. When the last echo was gone and peace seemed to be restored, I remembered at last the poem that had been haunting me, just below the verge of memory, as we had made the journey down the peninsula: a poem by the sometime Vicar of Aberdaron, in whose parish we were, and who thought of this peninsula as a delicate bough, a bough that might break:

I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea.

R. S. Thomas’s poem “Retirement” seemed more pertinent than ever; for he, too, had reflected on the fragility of our peace:

There is a rare peace here
though the aeroplanes buzz me,
reminders of that abyss,

deeper than sea or sky, civilisation
could fall into.

Later, guided by Fraser, we ourselves, quite literally, “crawled out at last” as far as we dared, down the last slopes of the peninsula, then dropping down a perilous descent on slippery steps cut roughly into the black rock, to edge our way on wave-washed stone to find Ffynnon Fair, St Mary’s Well, one of the most sacred places in Wales: the little triangular cleft in the rocks into which, miraculously, amid all the brackish tidal pools, sweet fresh water rises, a last refreshment for weary pilgrims before they come to “the Gate of Paradise” at Bardsey.

I had been looking for an emblem of the little freshet of hope we have, against the rising tide of so much catastrophe, and, as Fraser stooped to cup fresh water in his hands at St Mary’s Well, I thought that, perhaps, I had found it.

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