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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

07 June 2019

Gazing at a millpond brings other ripples to Malcolm Guite’s consciousness

A FAVOURITE pause on my early-morning walk with our two sagacious greyhounds, George and Zara, is on the little walkway over the ford at Linton. From there, I can gaze upstream across the ford at the wide millpond that once served the watermill here.

An elegant bough from a neighbouring tree hangs over it, almost perfectly reflected in the water. I say “almost” because the pond is never absolutely still: there is always a slight and beautifully varied ripple pattern sent out and widening through the pool from the two silver veils of water that spill over from the top of the old sluice gate at the far end, whose slight motion and murmuring sound make a nice balance with the general stillness and peace of the scene. On this particular morning, I found myself focusing more on the ripples than the reflection; for ripples had been recently on my mind.

As part of our 150th anniversary celebrations at Girton, we have been looking back at some of the heroic alumnae of our pioneering days. One of those was Hertha Ayrton, the brilliant mathematician, scientist, inventor, and suffragette, whose important discoveries were read out to the Royal Society. But, although she was proposed as a Fellow in 1902, she was barred by a decree of their council that married women were not eligible to be Fellows. Now, Girton has Fellowships named in her honour.

Her pioneering work on electric arcs and on ripples in sand and water is still vital to science in those fields now, and I had been reading some extracts that seemed to me to be as full of poetry as they were of science, especially this passage, written in 1904:a single ripple, existing alone, in otherwise smooth sand, initiates a ripple on either side of it . . . each of these ripples produces another on its farther side — these in turn originate on their farther sides, and so on, till the whole sand is ripple-marked.”

As the ripples ran out over Linton’s little millpond, I reflected on how the influence of pioneers such as Hertha, once made to feel so marginal, had rippled out so far; and, later that day, I wrote a poem for her, which was also inspired by a beautiful tapestry being made in her memory by the artist Yelena Popova. The tapestry will soon be unveiled in the community centre at Eddington: a beautiful pattern that combines arcs, waves, and ripples. The poem to go with it goes like this:


Ripple-Marked Radiance 

They tried to make her think she was alone,
A bright mind on the wrong side of the gap,
But she knew otherwise, and turned the flow
And current of her time to a new light.
Her energy was gathered at an edge;
Potential energy held back awhile,
By the dark gap that prejudice engendered.
Her radiant mind would not be held apart,
But arced across that gap, a sudden blaze
Of genius, invention, and ideas,
Whose ripples still run free in all of us.

Now Hertha Ayrton has herself become
That “single ripple which initiates
A ripple either side”. Those ripples still
Originate yet further ripples, till
The whole is ripple-marked and radiant.
And we, who gather here remembering her,
Are woven with her in one tapestry,
No longer lone or lonely, but renewed,
Enlarged, and centred in community.

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