Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 July 2019

Malcolm Guite joins a succession of poets at the Royal Oak in Keswick

I WAS sitting in the Royal Oak in Keswick the other day, enjoying a very fine pint of Thwaites Original, and reflecting on what a blessing these old inns are. A pack-horse inn in the days of Elizabeth I, and a coaching inn in the 18th century, this old place has been serving thirsty travellers continuously these past 400 years.

It’s easy to take such continuity for granted, but, in times of change and consternation, times of confusion and uncertainty such as our own, these unperturbed continuities come to mean something more: they become signs of survival and hope.

And not for the first time. As I sipped my pint, I recollected a passage from a book celebrating English inns, published in 1943, in the darkest days of the Second World War. The war, of course, is never mentioned, but the book was part of a series, Britain in Pictures, which quietly celebrated and cherished the distinctive things that we were defending and might once have taken for granted. The sentence I recollected was this: “The old inn is no antiquarian exhibit, no frozen relic of the past. It lives in one long continuous present.”

I love that idea of a “long continuous present”. There had been no attempt to antiquify (if I may be permitted that word) the interior of the Royal Oak, no artfully exposed beams, or battered pewter to give it a false patina of age. The furniture was comfortable and modern, the music contemporary, but that made it all the more authentically the thing it was.

For it wore no affected mustiness when Wordsworth and Coleridge came here house-hunting. And, when Shelley looked in, on his way to try and track down Coleridge, it was the same plain and unpretentious hostelry that it is now. Shelley found comfortable accommodation, and so did Walter Scott — indeed, he was comfortable enough to settle in for a bit and write a good portion of The Bridal of Triermain while he was here.

By the time Tennyson looked in for a pint, with a great deal of “Morte d’Arthur” in his mind, which he would write out at nearby Mirehouse, the inn was on an unofficial itinerary, a sort of poetic grapevine, which also drew Robert Louis Stevenson here — and explains, I suppose, why I, too, was nursing, my pint in this particular hostelry.

But that old book was right: this succession of poets who might all have once been sitting at my table, supping similar ale, were not “frozen relics”, but vigorously and fruitfully present to me. Their works are all in print and very much present in my mind, the stories of their lives still stir and inspire me, and each of these visitors saw the glory of the lakes and hills more distinctly because of the poetry of their predecessors, as I see and savour it all the more clearly now because of them.

But I’m glad I’ll still be here on Sunday. For if a 400-year-old inn “lives in one long continuous present”, what shall we say of a parish church? For there, an even longer “continuous present” is not merely a matter of memory and succession. There, the long continuity of unbroken worship, through the changes and chances of history, is lifted week by week into God’s transfiguring presence. There, the throng of those who worshipped in the past are no mere memory, but a living presence, singing the Sanctus with us in the communion of the saints.

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