*** DEBUG END ***

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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)