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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

25 January 2019

Malcolm Guite finds that St Paul and Robert Burns make strange conversations in his mind

THERE is something a little teasing, a little provoking, in the incongruous meeting, on 25 January, of St Paul and Robert Burns: the apostle and the poet constrained forever to share the same feast day!

I used to choose between them. One year, I’d be pious with St Paul and meditate on that astonishing conversion, and the next I’d forget that his feast had come up and find myself being bibulous instead with Burns. And Burns came first, in my life at least; for my Scottish mother would quote him often and aptly, and not just on Burns Night. She taught me “The Banks O’ Doon” when I was still quite a little boy. I loved to sing that final verse —

Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose,
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree!
And may fause Luver staw my rose,
But ah! She left the thorn wi’ me.

— though I had to wait until I was a lovelorn teenager to find out what those words meant.

And then, towards the end of that stormy youth, I encountered St Paul, and, as I wrestled with Romans, he opened up for me some of the biggest questions and deepest mysteries of life — both mine and the world’s.

Now, though, I read them together, and they make strange conversations in my mind. St Paul’s powerful thought about our place in the wider creation, about how our fall, our own ruins and failings, has somehow tangled nature herself and ensnared her in our shadow, subjected her to futility, seems all the more pressing in the midst of environmental depredation and climate change.

But that insight had already been sown in my imagination long before I read St Paul, when my mother recited from Burns’s poem “To A Mouse On Turning Her Up Her Nest With The Plough”:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

The apostle can tell me that the whole creation is groaning, but it is the poet who shows me that truth, in all its minute particularity, shows me the “sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie”, through whose nest we have run the ploughshare of our dominion.

Both the poet and the apostle make me feel my deep kinship with all our fellow creatures, make me know that we are all in this together. I feel very keenly the poet’s despair; indeed, our present political crisis makes us all too aware that:

Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

But if the poet speaks my grief, the apostle restores my hope.

So with “the fields laid bare an’ waste, An’ weary Winter comin’ fast”, I turn back to St Paul and remember that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” when the creation “will be set free from its bondage to decay”.

Tonight, I’ll keep the feast for them both, raise a warming glass to a meeting of the spiritual and the spirituous, and be glad that on my study table there is more than one commentary on Romans, but also more than one good dram.

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