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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

14 August 2020

Malcolm Guite and his mother look out beyond the sunset from her home in Scotland

I LEFT the flat fens of East Anglia last week and travelled up to Wester Ross in Scotland, to be with my mother and sisters in their little cottage on the shores of Loch Broom. They moved up there so that my mother might have a view of mountains and the sea in the last years of her life; for she had always loved both.

From the window by mother’s old armchair, and latterly her sickbed, you could see the waters of the loch in all their changing beauty. The currents and counter-currents as sweet water entered from the little burn, and salt water mingled with it from the incoming tide, made wonderful swirls and patterns on the surface of the loch, as though painted by the flowing brush strokes of some master calligrapher. Then, the light of the westering sun, catching the top of the ben, or gleaming off the retreating tide, would illuminate the whole scene with extraordinary vivid colours, fringed with gold. You could watch it for hours, and that is exactly what my mother did.

The love of the sea went right back to her childhood. Her grandfather was a shipbuilder on the Clyde, and she would be taken as a little girl to watch the ships he designed and built being launched: Clyde Bank, Olive Bank, and, his 100th ship, a gift to Scottish missionaries: Dayspring.

For me, as for my mother, there is something about the reflection of light on water which is always a magical or divine beckoning. When I was a little boy and we watched the sun set out at sea on the passenger ships that took us back and forth each year between England and Africa, my mother would recite from memory those lines by Masefield:

Out beyond the sunset, could I but find the way,
Is a sleepy blue laguna which widens to a bay,
And there’s the Blessed City — so the sailors say —
The Golden City of St. Mary.

At first, I took it to be a purely magical poem about an impossible journey. I loved the thought of getting behind and beyond the sun, and delighted in Masefield’s invocation of the blessed city, as a sailor’s paradise:

Among the green palm-trees where the fire-flies shine,
Are the white tavern tables where the gallants dine,
Singing slow Spanish songs like old mulled wine,
In the Golden City of St. Mary.

It was only when my mother recited it to me again two years ago, in the year of her 100th birthday, and looked me firmly in the eye as she came to its last verse, that I realised that it is really about a possible, and a necessary, journey, out beyond all sunsets, to the golden city prepared for us.

On the last afternoon of her life, with her children beside her, my mother opened her eyes and saw once more the light on the loch water and the full tide starting to withdraw, then she closed them again and slipped her moorings in this world, sent on her way with prayers and blessings, and I recited once more for her that final verse she had recited for me:

Oh I’ll be shipping sunset-wards and westward-ho
Through the green toppling combers a-shattering into snow,
Till I come to quiet moorings and a watch below,
In the Golden City of St. Mary.

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