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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

29 November 2019

Malcolm Guite falls into a reverie on a winter’s morning

AFTER a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, Linton has felt, at last, the first hard frosts of winter. Yet these, too, have their own beauty: sharp, severe, but still scintillating. I walked this morning with George and Zara where the low winter sun, dazzling in the crisp dry air, lit up the last leaves still clinging to the trees, shining through them in translucent red and gold, and coruscating off of the frosted grass in the village green with an almost preternatural intensity. Other dog-walkers, approaching between me and the sun, seemed haloed and resplendent, and I had to shade my eyes to see them.

George and Zara, clad in their burgundy winter coats, were picking their way delicately and a little dubiously through the sharp blades of frozen grass, but I was enjoying the crunch of frost beneath my boots and the clouds of my frosted breath hanging in the air.

The Granta was still free-flowing, though; and, lingering by one of its little falls and rivulets, for the pleasure hearing the water, and for the lovely patterns it makes when it streams away beneath its fall, I realised that I was enjoying water simultaneously in all three of its forms: the bright ice-crystals frosting the trees, the liquid purling and falling in the stream, and the little clouds, the vapour of suspended droplets in the air that made my breath visible.

I remembered how Lao Tzu thought that the Tao, the true way as he understood it, was like water:

The highest good is like that of water. The goodness of water is that it benefits the ten thousand creatures; yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain. It is this that makes water so near the way.

I remembered that for St Francis, too, there was something in the very quality of water, seeking the lowest place, cleansing and purifying, that seemed to sing humility into the soul:

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious, and pure.

For me, too, contemplating in stream and frost and cloudy breath the three lovely forms of Sister Water, there was a sense that the outward was expressing the inward. I have always thought of language itself as a stream, flowing unbidden from a hidden source, flowing in and through us, making a network of channels between us, irrigating our minds with meaning.

Now, I wondered whether water’s other forms might also tell me a little more about language itself. The frost around me glittered like a scattering of diamonds, and I thought of how some words, or whole phrases, can suddenly crystallise a meaning for us, illuminate it, show it in all its facets.

I thought of how a haiku or a sonnet can take a moment in the flow of language, and hold it up in bright crystalline, perfectly structured form before it melts and flows away once more. And I thought, too, of how my frosted breath, flowing free from me, forming its own cloud-shapes, catching the light of the low sun, was like the flux of half-formed images, the “shaping fantasies”, as Shakespeare called them, that just precede speech itself: a free-floating cloud of imagination that has not yet precipitated into words.

My thoughts might have floated free a little longer, but there was a sharp tug at the leads, and George and Zara soon had me back on their track through the frost, back to a warm house, a strong coffee, and more serious work.

Special offer: After Prayer: New sonnets and other poems by Malcolm Guite (Canterbury Press) is available from Church House Bookshop for £9.89.

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